Devil’s Lake


Interview with Sally Wen Mao

Q: Your debut collection, Mad Honey Symposium (Alice James Books, 2014) was the winner of the 2012 Kinereth Gensler Award, and garnered numerous other accolades. Your second book, Oculus, is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in 2019. What was the transition period like between the two projects?

As I worked on Mad Honey Symposium, I had some poems that I knew didn’t belong in the collection for thematic reasons. The transition was quite natural for me—before Oculus came into formation I developed a vague idea of where I was heading with my newer poems, and just continued to write in that vein.

A central part of this is the continuity and purpose I found in writing a series, or a sequence. As I wrote the Anna May Wong time travel poem sequence, I began to see the poems as a larger, possibly book-length project. That point of recognition, between writing new poems and formulating a “project,” is a crucial one for many writers, and sometimes it is an accident, sometimes it develops over time and a lot of writing. I continued writing the poems in Oculus for four to five years, and I continue working on new pieces for it today. When I write toward particular themes, new poems mushroom out of old ones, and I must include them because they add to the conversation or central question behind the manuscript.

Q: The poems in Mad Honey Symposium are both feral and delicate, rhythmic yet diction-obsessed. How would you say the poems in Oculus differ from the poems in your first collection?

If in Mad Honey Symposium I try to explore the natural “other” in animal and plant life, then I’d say that Oculus attempts to interrogate a different kind of otherness: that of technology, image, cinema, and history. The “feral” wilderness transforms into a cityscape, and the social order changes, but the question of humanity still prevails.

Oculus examines political themes that I touch upon metaphorically in Mad Honey Symposium. The poems in Oculus examine the significance of the Asian body in film. You cannot remove the context of history from these themes. I try to revisit the impact and legacy of Yellow peril, yellowface, and anti-Asian Hollywood, the damage these narratives have done to the Asian American psyche.

Q: What do you believe is an artist’s responsibility in this turbulent and divisive political climate?

An artist’s responsibility varies from artist to artist, but I would say that for me, my role as an artist is to deconstruct, clarify, illuminate, and subvert the truth as I know it and the injustices that I see. As Nina Simone has said once in an interview, “An artist’s duty is to reflect the times … At this crucial time in our lives, when everything is so desperate, when every day is a matter of survival, I don’t think you can help but be involved.”

Writers, musicians, and artists have long been incredibly important voices of dissent in disturbing political climes, often at their own expense. The stakes are high and silence is complicity. Going forward with this new year, I sense that this will not change with this Trump era of constant onslaughts against liberty; of racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, ableism, classism, and xenophobia. In the “divisive” political climate, I think it’s important to privilege truth above falsehood, remember the shortcomings of history, and fight for our own humanity, and the humanity of others with less power than we have.

“… my role as an artist is to deconstruct, clarify, illuminate, and subvert the truth as I know it and the injustices that I see.”

Artists have a platform to move other humans, and that’s urgent, crucial, and necessary, especially when the state is so dangerous and potentially repressive. Art can offer faith and provide a meaningful human connection better than politics, and that’s why as a tool, it’s so necessary. If I cannot have hope in our nation and our political system, my hope lies with my fellow artists.

Q: You’re also an educator, specializing in the teaching of writing, poetry, and Asian American literature. What do you believe is the educator’s responsibility in the wake of institutions such as the "Professor Watchlist?"

When I visited the Cornell University campus as a prospective MFA student in 2010, I met the professor who ultimately influenced my decision to accept my spot in that program. He is one of the most insightful, kind, sharp, and generous professors I’ve met. In his nonfiction class, it was never just about craft – he inspired me to interrogate the purpose and drive behind writing my stories and essays on a deeper level. He told personal stories about literary heroes, including Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, and James Baldwin. He had amazing arsenals of readings for us and pushed our writing toward new limits. Moreover, he treated us like fellow humans—it was clear that we, his students, mattered to him, that our voices were important. When I saw him on the Professor Watchlist—for making a comment about the importance of having educators who believed in science—I was disgusted.

Make no mistake, the Professor Watchlist is disgusting. Teaching your students critical thinking is not indoctrination. To indoctrinate, if anything, is to teach a sort of blind adherence to the status quo. With critical thinking, one possesses the tools to deconstruct, analyze, and develop the ability to question the status quo. So actually, it’s the opposite of indoctrination. What these professors teach is pivotal to civic survival.

Q: Lastly, what are you working on now?

I’m working on new poems for Oculus, along with some fiction, at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center in the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. Every day I feel so lucky to be in these halls, in Office #7, between Akhil Sharma and Angela Flournoy, writers whose work I fiercely admire. In my new work, I’m trying to shapeshift, permeate the borders of genre, and research new topics. My most recent interests that have manifested in my writing include magic, foxes, celestial navigation, nineteenth century anti-Chinese sentiments in America, Angel Island, mermaids, chimeras, and my time in Singapore. And the larger, more implicit emotions that drive my work: sadness, heartbreak, yearning, wonder, grief, and rage. Sometimes this work is the only thing that fuels me each morning. I’m looking forward to where it takes me.

Poet Sally Wen Mao SALLY WEN MAO is the author of Mad Honey Symposium (Alice James Books, 2014), a Poets & Writers Top Ten Debut of 2014. Her next book, Oculus, is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in 2019. She is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize and fellowships from Kundiman, Bread Loaf Writers Conference, Hedgebrook, Vermont Studio Center, and National University of Singapore. Her work is published or forthcoming in Poetry, A Public Space, Tin House, Black Warrior Review, The Missouri Review, and Best American Poetry 2013, among others. She was the 2015–2016 Writer-in-Residence at the National University of Singapore and is the 2016–2017 fellow at Dorothy B. Cullman Center at the New York Public Library. More features >