Shelley Wong on Keeping it Real and Being Kind
An interview with Shelley Wong from The Write Stuff series:
Shelley Wong is the author of As She Appears (YesYes Books, 2022), winner of the 2019 Pamet River Prize, and the chapbook RARE BIRDS (Diode Editions). She is an affiliate artist at Headlands Center for the Arts and lives in San Francisco. Her poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, Gulf Coast, Kenyon Review, Poetry Northwest, and The New Republic and are forthcoming in Best American Poetry 2021 and They Rise Like A Wave: An Anthology of Asian American Women Poets (Blue Oak Press, winter 2020). She has received a Pushcart Prize and fellowships and residencies from Kundiman, MacDowell, Vermont Studio Center, Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, I-Park Foundation, Palm Beach Poetry Festival, Fire Island National Seashore, SPACE, RADAR/San Francisco Public Library (SFPL) James C. Hormel LGBTQIA Center, and SFPL Brown-Handler Residency.
When people ask what do you do, you tell them…?
I work in university communications and I’m a poet.
What’s your biggest struggle—work or otherwise?
Navigating people, institutions, and organizations that uphold white supremacy and create hostile environments for women, LGBTQ+ folks, and BIPOC. There is a much-needed reckoning happening in the art and literary worlds.
If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?
Read widely and slowly. Listen to poetry podcasts, attend readings, volunteer as a reader for a literary journal, and participate in local or online workshops (and find scholarships). Have faith in being a writer outside of academia. Let the work be the reward. Make friends and find trusted readers. Keep it real and be kind. It’s never too late to become a poet.
If you could give advice to your 15-year-old self, what would it be?
We’d have a thoughtful discussion about being queer, navigating academia, and how the Asian American literary community will dramatically expand after 2010.
Where do you go to find sanctuary?
My most frequent spots are Golden Gate Park and the Headlands. The latter is an eerie place, haunted by the presence of a decommissioned nuclear missile site and crumbling military lookout points and bunkers scattered across the hills. It’s surreal and uneasy to be there as a woman of color, in a place once only accessible only to soldiers, juxtaposed with the natural beauty of the land formations cutting into the water. Often, I am there alone, and feel safe as well as vulnerable, emotionally bare, but it is a kind of sanctuary.
What would you like to see happen in your lifetime?
A stable and protected climate.
What is art? Is it necessary? Why?
We’re currently seeing how necessary art is when we are forced to be alone and apart from gatherings. We need it for psychic relief and spiritual renewal. Artists synthesize forms and sources of knowledge combined with imagining to generate integrated knowledge and collective, expansive possibilities. Art provides connection to our buried past; it expresses what is difficult to say and dwells in the unknowing, in mystery and wonder, as a means to move us forward, to live and thrive, to deeply know ourselves and others.
What is the relationship between your identity and your desires?
As a queer woman of color, I am not limited in my identity, and similarly I don’t limit who I desire by identity categories.
What’s your relationship to clothes?
While I lived in New York City in the 2000s, I took a break from writing and pursued fashion design and fashion journalism, as such careers exist there. You could go to a corner bodega and find Women’s Wear Daily and see Fashion Week shows on local public television. I recognized that both poetry and fashion shared a similar appeal for me: re-envisioning women through transformation, taking inspiration from history and other arts, playing with construction, and using imagery and staging as a way into wonder. I have a series of seasonal forecast poems inspired by these overlaps in my first book. I am much less interested in clothes since leaving my 20s, but I was once very fond of going to thrift stores to find unexpected vintage treasures. These days, I want clothes that fit and don’t require dry cleaning.
What are you working on right now?
I’m finishing up my first book As She Appears; it’s been delayed a year and will come out in spring 2022 from YesYes Books. They say the order of a collection is the final poem; it’s been fun to explore the arrangement. I am curious as to how others will read the book, as I have lived with the poems for so long.
If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?
Affordable, livable housing for all on bedrock.
A night on the town: what does that mean to you?
A reading, a delicious dinner date in a tiny restaurant, leaving it all on the dancefloor, ending at a late-night diner (RIP It’s Tops).
What’s the most important life lesson you’ve learned?
Protect your joy.
What are some of your favorite smells?
Libraries, eucalyptus fog, dim sum restaurants, redwoods, cats when you snuggle them.
What are you unable to live without?
A dance playlist.
If you got an all-expenses-paid life experience of your choice, what would it be?
I would love to wander through Asia, take in some hot springs, and eat really well. And meeting up with Ploi Pirapokin on the yacht with BTS would be lit.
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