10 Questions for Shelley Wong
- By Abby MacGregor
Set the dove free and try
to call it back within a year.
How do you love a bird so much
you cage it? If I were that bird
I’d sing all day. With the right song,
I’ll dance my bones down.
—from “My Therapist Asks If I would Be Happier If I Were Straight”, Winter 2018 (Vol. 59, Issue 4)
Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
In my junior year of college, I wrote a Frank O’Hara imitation after reading “The Day Lady Died.” It involved traveling by train en route to a beloved. I was thrilled by the line break “I couldn’t make out / the voices coming through the train.”
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
Fairy tales, Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz. Sylvia Plath and Emily Dickinson. My teachers and workshop peers over the years, in different ways. I’m grateful to live in the same era as so many Asian American poets, including Suji Kwock Kim, Brenda Shaughnessy, Li-Young Lee, Srikanth Reddy, Don Mee Choi, Brynn Saito, Sally Wen Mao, Lo Kwa Mei-En, Raena Shirali, Cathy Linh Che, Rajiv Mohabir, Khaty Xiong, Monica Sok, Paul Tran, Michelle Lin, Kazumi Chin, Chen Chen, Muriel Leung, Jennifer S. Cheng, Franny Choi, Fatimah Asghar, Kristin Chang, Ocean Vuong, and on and on.
What other professions have you worked in?
It’s been a ride—I’ve taught poetry, covered fashion as a New York City freelance writer, worked in development for a Chinese American museum, chased hot-air balloons in Ohio fields, and taken on various editorial roles in medical publishing and health sciences communications.
What inspired you to write this piece?
When my therapist asked this question, it seemed like an unanswerable question. I felt conflicted, because I would not want to be a different person, but I would like to have experienced less coming-of-age angst over my identity. I find that being a bisexual femme is similar to being fourth-generation Chinese American—there can be a sense of being “not enough” on either side, and a resulting disappointment or distance, which may be actual or imagined. So, there is a feeling of not wanting that distance or that lingering concern, but not wanting to compromise myself.
Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
I’m a fire sign, but my first memory is of water, and that continues to stay with me.
Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
I become obsessed with certain songs depending on the season and the setting. Sometimes I write or revise while listening to a chill playlist with Beach House, Jhene Aiko, Mitski, Japanese Breakfast, The xx, Jessie Ware, Sade, and Geographer. I’m not sure if it helps the writing or evades it, but dance breaks are part of my creative process. Dancing is instinctual, physical, gestural. It’s a little transformation to enter the sonic and lyric/narrative world of a song.
Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
I like doing longhand writing and rewriting with Muji gel ink pens. I have several computer files named “poem debris” for diving into for inspiration or rescuing.
If you could work in another art form what would it be?
Dancing. I’m curious about the intersection of poetry and movement. I love Pina Bausch’s work. Perhaps I’ll explore my interdisciplinary side one day.
What are you working on currently?
Re-entry into a communications job after taking some time off. Training (or pleading with) my cats to be kind to their new dog roommate, who is very sweet. I’m also revising and submitting my first full-length poetry manuscript.
What are you reading right now?
Tommy Orange’s There There, Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses play adaptation, The Kenyon Review. I have been slowly reading Jorie Graham’s The End of Beauty since March. It’s like trying to read a kaleidoscope. To start 2019, I’m very excited to read Sally Wen Mao’s Oculus, Sabrina Orah Mark’s Wild Milk, and Michelle Brittan Rosado’s Why Can’t It Be Tenderness.
SHELLEY WONG is the author of the chapbook Rare Birds. Her poems have appeared in Crazyhorse, Kenyon Review Online, Sycamore Review, and Verse Daily. She is the recipient of a 2017 Pushcart Prize and fellowships and support from Kundiman, MacDowell Colony, Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, Fine Arts Work Center, I-Park Foundation, Fire Island National Seashore, and SPACE (Portland, ME).