For Dorothy Chan, the newest assistant professor of English at UW-Eau Claire, writing is a non-stop process; she writes as often as she can. Her reading from her recent collection of poetry, Revenge of the Asian Woman, will be a highlight of the Chippewa Valley Book Festival at 6PM at the L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library on Oct. 23.
In anticipation of her latest book, we thought we’d familiarize ourselves with her previous book, Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold. Described by poet David Kirby as “steam punk on steroids… plutonium-powered and neon-lit,” Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold explores themes like feminism, Asian culture, food, and sexuality in a fresh way.
I had the opportunity to chat with Chan about some of the themes she has explored in her writing since the very beginning.
Rebecca Mennecke: What inspires you to write a poem?
Dorothy Chan: Lots of things but mostly food, sex, fantasy, fetish popular culture, and Asian American identity. Oh, and power. I think it's important to surround yourself with interesting people. That way, you're always inspired. Sometimes, one of my close friends will say something funny, and the next thing you know, I'm typing up notes on my iPhone. At certain points of the year, I'll have over 200 notes on my phone just from things I overhear, fantasies I have, dreams from the night before, etc. It's the poet's job to always remain awake, alert, ready to take in new ideas.
RM: How on Earth do you title a poem (or a book) that explores so many different elements? Specifically, I’m super interested in your poem “Ode to Psychics, Hookers, Shark Bone, and Free Iced Tea.” How did you decide on the titles that appear in the final version of your book?
DC: This is what I tell my students: aim for titles that are five words or more. Excess. Create full titles that tell stories – that are full of dimension. Back in my MFA, my poetry uncle, Alberto Ríos taught me that "The best line of the poem is the one that I am reading. And that does not exclude the title."
RM: How do titles and the poems themselves work together to create meaning in your work?
DC: Titles should tell stories in themselves. When you open a book of poetry, I think it's important to first fall in love with the titles. Look down the page at the table of contents. Make observations. And then of course, once you read the poems themselves, more meaning is created and observed.
RM: Feminism. Asian culture. Food. Sexuality. How do you weave and intertwine each topic so seamlessly?
DC: I believe all these topics are naturally connected. Intersectional feminism is the way I live my life. It's the way I structure my classes and choose my reading lists. And intersectional feminism is of course linked to sex positivity, along with culture. Food is also this common language for the world. I'll leave this open-ended, but I think you can tell a lot about a person based on the food they eat, the food they prepare, the food they order, and the food they try.
RM: You write a lot about food! It makes me hungry just reading your work. What’s your go-to writing snack?
DC: And Rebecca, you win the award for best interview question of all time! I love Pocky, Koala's March, jalapeño chips, and salt and vinegar chips. If I had all the money in the world, I'd be eating Jean Philippe pastries and macarons while writing. I also love green tea and iced black coffee.
RM: In Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold, you explore some complex relationships with your parents and your family. How do you recommend writers explore complex relationships with people who are important to them through the writing process?
DC: I'm bad, but I'd say don't worry about it. I find that many times, young writers worry too much about writing about a family member, especially a parent. Again, don't worry about it. Your feelings are valid.
RM: You write a good number of sonnets in this book. How did you come to like this type of poem? Was there a specific poem or poet that inspired you to use this form?
DC: I could go on and on about the sonnet for days, but I believe the sonnet is the perfect form. Think about it: fourteen lines, ten syllables per line – it's really the amuse-bouche of poetry – it's that palate teaser that makes you want more and more, makes you go on and on. I fell in love with the sonnet during my undergraduate at Cornell. There, I worked closely with Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon. In Lyrae's classes, we not only wrote sonnets, but we also wrote sonnet crowns (7 sonnets in a row). Then, over the years, I experimented with this form, from my chapbook Chinatown Sonnets, to what I like to call my specialty – the triple sonnet.
RM: You also break up your poems in this book into three sections. How did you decide the different sections?
DC: A triptych is just so romantic. It reminds me of the years I studied art history. When writing a book of poems, I think about the overarching narrative, along with the speaker's development.
RM: In your poem, “My Mother the Writer,” you talk about how your mom is a writer too. You also dedicate this book to her! How did your mom help shape your writing?
DC: She's always been undyingly supportive of my career as a writer.
RM: What writers or writings have inspired you?
DC: A lot! I will first say my mentors, Norman Dubie, Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, Alice Fulton, and Alberto Ríos. I'm currently reviewing Rae Gouirand's The History of Art and Lee Ann Roripaugh'sTsunami vs the Fukushima 50 – these are two gorgeous collections. Of course, I'm currently reading my poetry sister, Taneum Bambrick's debut, Vantage, which won the APR/Honickman Prize. I love everything in the Spork Press catalog. I love Richard Siken's poetry. I've been recommending the novella, Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata to everyone I know, since the summer. And, I'm excited for E.J. Koh's forthcoming memoir, The Magical Language of Others, along with my Spring 2020 course reading lists, which include Vantage, along with Mess and Mess and by Douglas Kearney, Tender Data by Monica McClure, Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel, Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang, The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls by Mona Eltahawy, and Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls: A Memoir by T Kira Madden.
RM: You also have strong female and Asian representation in your poetry. What impact do you hope your perspective has on future writers?
DC: Always practice and preach intersectional feminism.
Be sure to hear Dorothy read from her latest work from 6pm-7pm on Wednesday, Oct. 23