August 5, 2019KR Conversations

Shelley Wong

Photo of Shelley WongShelley Wong is a Kundiman Fellow and the author of the chapbook Rare Birds (Diode Editions, 2017). Her poems have appeared in Crazyhorse, Gulf Coast, Massachusetts Review, and Sycamore Review, among others. She is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize and fellowships from MacDowell Colony, Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, I-Park Foundation, and Palm Beach Poetry Festival. Her poem “As She Appears” can be found here. It appears in the July/Aug 2019 issue of the Kenyon Review.

What was your original impetus for writing “As She Appears”?

This is the title poem for my first book manuscript. I came up with the title for the manuscript many months before I wrote the poem, so it was a challenge to write a poem that could be the torchbearer. Many of my manuscript poems focus on women looking outward and how they in turn are looked upon or looked past. I am interested in the tension between self-expression and perception as a queer woman of color, intertwined with the urgency to endure and thrive.

I don’t remember when I came up with the title, but I was drawn to the layered meanings of the phrase “as she appears.” It’s used to suggest that a woman is deceptive, so I wanted to push back on this context by affirming the multiple, complex identities that women hold, while also considering the exhaustion and strength of women. I sought to call in the invisible labor of women in their daily lives—the weight of their love, anger, and grief, their domestic labor, their caretaking and educating, their elemental concern for our world, and their tenuous ability to be in that world, especially alone. And to give them the space to be messy and free.

When I wrote the poem, I was in David Baker’s wonderful nature writing class at the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop. After a week of being out in the field, flirting with fireflies, wading in the river, and writing progressively structured poems, he set us free for the last assignment and told us to write the poem we came to Kenyon to write.

Can you tell us more about the setting of this piece, and the Indigenous history of the land that the subject considers?

While some lines reference domestic life, my mind was in a forest, no doubt because I was wandering around Gambier’s various nature preserves. I grew up in suburban coastal Southern California, where the hills are treeless, so I was always fascinated by the determined young women in fairy tales who wandered through forests and found magic there. In the poem, outside of the house, nature becomes a sanctuary and a place of subversive transformation, as women appear and find personal and collective power.

I am interested in the intersection of nature poetry/eco-poetics for women of color, and societal possibilities to de-colonize how we interact with each other and our environment. I reference acknowledging the indigenous land as a way to undo erasure. While this isn’t an explicitly eco-poem, my underlying thought was to call out America’s history of genocide in connection to our current state of environmental peril.

Perhaps this is too obvious to ask, but can you talk a little about working with the ampersands in this poem?

In a poem with so many leaps, the ampersand creates a binding loop. The ampersand has power as a knot and tie. It binds the women to one another as a community across generations. But it also conveys potential pain and fixed devotion as women so often take on multiple roles, and carry the weight of being caretakers, teachers, and emotional support for others.

Who are the caryatids that hold up your poems? Who are you reading, and who would you recommend to our readers?

My caryatids are the dear poets who have taught me who are also beautiful humans—they have been my workshop leaders, peer mentors, mentees, peers, friends—along with all of the Asian American writers before me and those who are with us today.

Right now, I am reading and highly recommend The Very Inside, the first lesbian Asian Pacific Islander American anthology, as well as Lima :: Limón by Natalie Scenters-Zapico, Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado, and The Autobiography of Death by Kim Hyesoon translated by Don Mee Choi. Additionally, I offer Aracelis Girmay, Sarah Gambito, Cathy Linh Che, Muriel Leung, Suji Kwock Kim, Lo Kwa Mei-En, Khaty Xiong, Raena Shirali, Natalie Diaz, and Safiya Sinclair as recommendations for readers.

What project(s) are you working on now, or next? 

I’m beginning my first year as an affiliate artist at Headlands Center for the Arts where I have my own writing studio to go to outside of my 8-5 job. The community is a beautiful spectrum of people from the Bay Area—visual and interdisciplinary artists, filmmakers, and other writers.  With the freedom to create and fail, I want to expand my artistic practice by collaborating and dancing around in whatever art form I need for my expression. I also want to write more deeply into the world through research and by reading the work of my queer and APIA poet elders and past generations.