52: Sally Wen Mao - poet

photos by Luke Luokun Cheng

Sally Wen Mao is the author of Mad Honey Symposium (Alice James Books, 2014) and Oculus (Graywolf Press, 2019). Her work has appeared in Poetry magazine, Black Warrior ReviewGuernica, the Missouri Review, and Washington Square, and as well as in the anthology The Best American Poetry 2013. She earned an MFA from Cornell University and has received fellowships from Kundiman, Hedgebrook, and Saltonstall Foundation. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York, and teaches in the Asian American Studies department at Hunter College.

Luke Luokun Cheng explores how technological conditions ripple into personal poignancies and deformations of the social fabric. Using imagery, sculpture, digital media, and performance, he magnifies the significance of private experience. Online and offline, he works with community-building as a site of strength within systems of alienation. His experience designing social products in the tech industry inclines his work towards interactivity, whereas his background in large format analog photography informs a studied, ethnographic approach. Luke lives in Chinatown, New York City and was born in Jiangxi, China in 1991.

This interview was conducted via Zoom by Vivian Ludford on March 17, 2019. Luke Luokun Cheng photographed Sally.

VIVIAN: Tell me about your experience of girlhood.

SALLY: I grew up in Boston and moved to California when I was nine. My girlhood was full of trying to prove myself and failing. I started writing really early as a way to reckon with constant movement and social isolation. I think a lot of it was finding ways to survive—and escapism.

Since I’m at home right now, I can show you a few things. [Begins pulling out notebooks]

VIVIAN: Terrific.

SALLY: The first thing I did think about was this [holding up a journal], this Sailor Moon card collection that I had as a girl. I love the idea of magical girls exacting justice.

VIVIAN: It’s so nice you still have all these old notebooks.

SALLY: I actually lost many of them, but my mom kept a handful. I think I’ve always been creative, even as a kid. I loved writing and drawing.

VIVIAN: I remember [when I visited you during your residency in Shanghai in October 2018], you were doing all those angry drawings. I remember you defacing or over-writing that book on Orientalism…

SALLY: Yes, angry drawings. As a girl, I remember going to a lot of art classes, and art being my form of escapism. [Flipping through notebook]

Here’s a good one: I drew Michelle Kwan. I guess that was a big part of my girlhood—seeing the rivalry between Michelle Kwan and Tara Lipinski and wondering, “Why did Tara Lipinski win gold?” I call her Tara Li-pipsqueak in my drawings.

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SALLY: I also really liked anime—here’s my Sailor Moon card collection. I was obsessed with these. I collected them, and that was all I cared about for a good part of my preteen-hood.


VIVIAN: You said earlier you were trying to prove something—where did that come from?

SALLY: I don’t have any siblings, and it was just my parents and me. My parents got divorced when I was ten. We had just moved to California. So I felt really isolated and also we were moving around a lot, so I always had to make new friends.

Middle school was really rough. It was hard to socialize. I also moved around a couple times in high school, so I never felt very settled. Instead, I would do art and I would write. Those were the two things that were constants for me growing up.

What was I trying to prove? I was just trying to prove that I could belong somewhere. But I don’t think I ended up doing that. [laughs] I think I ended up proving that I was a kind of freak. And I found that that desire to belong also manifested in this paradoxical way. Because I also wanted to be unique. It was this double-edged desire. I wasn’t that afraid to be weird. As a kid, I would do things like re-write the lyrics of NSYNC songs and create these parodies and drive my mom crazy.

VIVIAN: How would you rewrite them?

SALLY: To make fun of them. There’s this song called “(God Must Have Spent) A Little More Time on You.” I rewrote the lyrics of that song to “God Must Have Totally Forgotten About You.”

[both laugh]

SALLY: You know how that whole song is compliments? I turned that whole song into insults. I still remember the lyrics. “Your love is like a feather plucked from a bird, your soul is stinky vapor from a burger.”

I recently found this scary Goosebumps story that I wrote in second grade, and I put it up on Twitter and it somehow went viral.

I wanted to create this whole Goosebumps series called the “Creep Zone” books. I just want to read you some of these [book titles] because they’re gems:

1. Welcome to the Ghost house: It’s alive. It’s creepy. And it’s coming after you!
2. Jingle bells...Santa kills: He’s going to get you....
3.  Clowns can be murderers: They’re after you….
9.  Nice doggie!
10. Why I’m afraid of spiders
11. Three strikes and you’re dead!
14. The witch that can turn into a bat
15. The surfing ghost
17. The girl is in for a scare! Who would belive her?

Instead of going to a boxing class, I’m just trying to box through the poems

VIVIAN: One of the things I’ve loved so much about Oculus and your work in general is your playfulness—there’s a kind of morbidity, you’re so playful with your anger, your violence, vengeance. It sounds like you’ve had this since you were a child. Can you talk about that impulse? How has that evolved over time?

SALLY: I think I’ve always had the impulse to write angry poems. But I actually think the anger is concealed underneath this—I like the way you put it—this playfulness, or dark humor.

An example of that would be the“Anna May Wong Makes Cameos” poem. In that poem, I was definitely trying to play and I had a lot of fun thinking up the films from my childhood that I would include in the Anna May Wong persona series. That was one example of a piece where I wasn’t thinking so much about craft, and more thinking about how to craft this joke. The repetition of oppression and marginalization becomes so farcical after a while, and at a certain point, you have to laugh. [laughs] That’s how I approached writing that poem. The ending of the poem is, “In the confusion, I perish, of course.” Because this relentless marginalization becomes so boring.

I also wanted to skewer some of these pop culture tropes that have never been questioned. Or if they’ve been questioned, it’s usually an Asian American writing an essay or a think piece about it. I think there’s something to be said about the medium of poetry and how you can really get away with anything. And that’s why I think I was able to create these fantasy scenarios where Anna May Wong is doing all this, reacting to all of this recent pop culture.

I sometimes don’t know what to do with my anger on a day-to-day basis as a person, as a woman. I’ve found that it’s really healthy sometimes to just channel it into art. I’m not sure I know any other healthy way to channel it, other than maybe beating a stuffed animal against a wall…

VIVIAN: Or going to a boxing class.

SALLY: Yeah. Going to a boxing class, doing karate. For me, instead of going to a boxing class, I’m just trying to box through the poems.


VIVIAN: Can you talk about how your use of anger changes throughout the writing and the editing process

SALLY: I like to retain that raw emotion. But I don’t consider Oculus to be focused on that; anger isn’t the main kernel of this collection. I think a lot of it is veiling the anger and attempting to reckon with it in a world that doesn’t really validate that anger. It was a process of going back and looking at all the moments that kind of echo each other throughout the book.

My poem, “Ghost in the Shell,” is one of the more directly angry poems, but I’m writing in a robot voice. There’s always some kind of veil that shrouds the anger, whether it’s humor or using a robot voice. I think sometimes when I look back and I edit, I cast the most critical eye to the language and the lyric in a way that maybe I wasn’t paying as much attention to in my first drafts.

Also, anger, for me, sprouts a lot of the time from experiencing some kind of injustice. A lot of that manifests into sadness and sorrow. And that sorrow—that helplessness—is something I’m also interested in. Somehow, I think language is more accommodating to this kind of mournfulness, this sorrow. That’s often easier for me to write than unbridled rage.

I think I’m still trying to interrogate that in my development as a writer. I find that for me, my anger always comes with some other emotion, or some other shroud.

VIVIAN: It also makes it more digestible, or palatable—

SALLY: I don’t have a desire to make it more palatable. That’s the issue. One of the poems—“The Toll of the Sea”—that poem, I feel like I wrote it out of anger, as well. What I ended up doing with that is going back and revising the original story that it’s based on, which is the Madame Butterfly story. For me, that process of revising is the most productive because it’s not just being angry at the way things are, but it’s going back and trying to change it.

VIVIAN: Several of your poems revisit and revise past narratives of Asian and Asian American women—perhaps most prominently, Afong Moy and Anna May Wong. You describe your reasoning for doing this really powerfully in your AAWW interview with Jennie Xie, where you talk how “representation always implies a kind of invisibility, muteness.”


“There are no first-person research materials on Afong Moy. Every record of Afong Moy is from the perspective of a white person looking at her. This dynamic interests me: when researching, I was keenly aware of a white male gaze that controls the image of these women, in essence subduing their voices and their stories. Anna May Wong enacted the Orientalist fantasies of many white male directors, and Afong Moy was an Oriental spectacle literally sold for consumption, hired by a pair of American merchant brothers. For so long, white people have been unapologetically misrepresenting and capitalizing on the lives and experiences of ‘others,’ and this authority is not questioned. In translating my research to the poems, I deliberately considered what it actually meant for these women to be token bodies placed on display for a rapt audience who at the same time actively discriminated against them.”


VIVIAN: Can you talk more about the impulse to write from these perspectives— to take on this flesh, almost, these voices, and let them live through you?

SALLY: With the Afong Moy poem, I did make a deliberate choice to write a persona poem. Anna May Wong had many opportunities to allow her voice to come through. In spite of all the noise, or all the stuff that’s written about her, Anna May Wong had a platform and a voice. With Afong Moy, it was the opposite. When I did research on her, every record that exists about her was from the perspective of a white person who was consuming her in one way or another. So a white person who paid to go see her exhibition, or a reporter, or just someone who just sees her as this kind of Oriental object essentially.

So with that poem, I really wanted to direct or question the perspective. By using the first person, I’m able to question that centeredness—the centeredness of this white male gaze as a default. Because they were all considering how much of a fairy she was. But they never really considered her perspective of them. They might have seen her as an object, but she could have been looking or gazing right back at them. That was really important for me to explore as an idea. I wanted to take on her voice and imagine how she saw it.

VIVIAN: That makes me think of the theme of surveillance and spectatorship that’s woven throughout your collection. The book itself is called Oculus—the themes of technology, the lens, a kind of voyeurism. What is your relationship to technology, to the internet and social media? What was your experience growing up on the internet as an Asian girl?

SALLY: I think the internet became widely available in the mid-90s, when I was 8 or 9 years old. I remember the first computer we had at home. I remember the first chat rooms. There was a time in my childhood where I didn’t have internet. As soon as I did have the internet, there was this idea of an avatar—an internet presence or being that represents you online. And that is really visceral. Growing up, when you’re in a chatroom, you can pretend to be anything. I remember pretending to be someone who I wasn’t.

I remember being addicted to this Korean RPG game that was set in ancient Korea. I told you how girlhood for me was all about escapism. The internet offered an escapism that was so unprecedented—like suddenly you could be talking to and making friends with people halfway across the world, and you could be escaping your regular middle school life to cast spells in ancient Korea. For me, I just wanted to cast spells in ancient Korea.

VIVIAN: Who would you pretend to be?

SALLY: In my Korean RPG game, there were different paths you could choose. One of the paths was Poet. I ended up picking Poet. [laughs] But the poet is also supposed to be a healer, and so I would like heal everybody when they’re fighting like mythical sheep or whatever. And there was also poetry contests within this game, so I would write poems when I was 12 or 13.

VIVIAN: It honestly sounds like a wholesome game.

SALLY: Yeah. It’s an awesome game. I was really addicted to it for a few years of my life. I probably failed algebra because I was so addicted to this game.

VIVIAN: What was it called?

SALLY: It was called [Nexus: The Kingdom of the Winds]. And I didn’t have money. It cost like $10 a month to play this game. I used to send an envelope with a ten dollar bill inside of it. I would spend all of my allowance money on this game. I actually wrote a lot of poems set in ancient Korea as a 12-year-old.

VIVIAN: What alternate reality or mode of existence do you think you were seeking?

SALLY: I think I just wanted a sense of power. With games, there’s a whole system of power: you level up, you work a certain amount, you gain experience, you gain clout. As a middle schooler, you just don’t feel like the world is yours to take on. If it’s hard to even survive middle school, what's the rest of the world, right? I was always in these escapist fantasies: if I wasn’t playing that game, I’d be watching anime, or drawing pictures, or making up other worlds. That characterized my experience growing up.


VIVIAN: I feel like so much of my own relationship to Chinese/Taiwanese cultural tokens like anime and Sailor Moon was deliberately performative. I still remember in first grade, my aunt sent me all these really fancy holographic pokemon cards from Taiwan, but because they were Japanese, I didn’t want them. It wasn’t high-school when I went to Taiwan for the first time that I started essentially performing this Chinese side of myself—I would watch all this anime at school, I got really into bubble tea and Kpop, but in a performative way. I was trying to consume Asian culture in a way to distance myself from my mostly white, rich, private school peers. I wonder if you had a similar impulse, or a different one.

SALLY: When I was growing up, I entered this new high school that was maybe 60% Asian in Silicon Valley. Even so, I didn’t feel like they were the kind of Asians who would enjoy art, or even watching anime—that kind of thing. I still very much felt like a weirdo within this school that was mostly Asian. But I did really want to claim my Asian-ness.

In high school, though, it felt like either you were the “super valedictorian Asian” or you were the “popular” Asian, and I was neither of those. I barely had friends, and I would imagine my friends were these anime characters. I had a childhood friend and she got me into this anime stuff. I guess it was a welcome respite from all the movies and TV shows that were about popular white kids. I grew up in that teen comedy or teen romance era of the 90s and 2000s. There was this constant stream of these narratives that say, you have to conform to this and that in order to be whatever. And I was like, Well I’m just going to watch these cartoons where people have blue hair and superpowers because…it’s escapism. It’s losing yourself in a fantasy or a persona. It’s envisioning yourself as someone more powerful, or more powerful than you can imagine. So in a way, I was really into that stuff from middle school, high school, and the early part of my college days too.

These days, I have an alter-ego that looks back on my experience being such an anime nerd. Her name is Anime Wong—she has blue and lavender hair, and she comes from the future. She doesn’t have the same limitations that I do as a human being. When I am heartbroken, she turns the heartbreak into a superpower that can heal other marginalized people. When I am hurt, she can transform that hurt into a beam of light that will exact justice on the world. She is a magical bitch.


VIVIAN: What’s your current relationship to the internet/social media?

SALLY: I like it and I hate it. I think that’s probably true of anybody. I have an Instagram account, a Twitter account, and a Facebook account. I’ve been weaning myself off of Facebook, because I find it to not be a very great platform anymore. But I remember how obsessed we all were with Facebook in college. Wall posts and relationship statuses and that kind of thing.

Right now, I’m kind of into Twitter. I like Twitter because I feel like people are very honest there about their shit, you know, in a way that Instagram isn’t. I don’t always like Twitter. But sometimes when I’m feeling shitty, I’ll go on Twitter and there are some viral posts that might talk about feeling shitty. There’s something very raw about it. That can also be a horrible thing, too. I know people get Twitter mobbed, and that is also not fun.

Instagram, I feel, everybody posts beautiful things about their beautiful lives. I’m also guilty of that. But it’s harder to be honest about your emotions there. It’s a very glossy platform. I find it really fascinating, too, how everybody performs for it. And for me, most of the time, I’m on all of these platforms as a poet, which is its own kind of performance. I don’t think that was always the case. I used to post things that were a little more personal, but now I find that I can’t really do it.

I really admire those friends of mine and those writers who are very honest and raw on these platforms. It also makes me hallucinate like that I’m closer to these people when I’m not. That’s another thing. You feel like you know someone because of the details they post online. But then you realize – oh, you’re just a part of their audience.

VIVIAN: I have so many relationships like that.

SALLY: Exactly. I’ve heard also from a lot of my younger women friends who are probably around five years younger than me—they meet a lot of their friends on Twitter.

VIVIAN: I’ve met some of my best friends on Instagram!

SALLY: I would like to learn how to do that. I would like to know how to make friends on the internet. I think that's also a powerful tool—that you can connect with people, can connect with readers. As a poet, I can connect with people who read my book, and I think that’s actually amazing.

VIVIAN: What are you working on now?

SALLY: I’m currently working on fiction and drafting new poems, too, but very rarely. I’m also working on a couple of lyric essays, so I’ve been dabbling in other genres. I know it’s a thing recently among poets—Ocean Vuong,  Morgan Parker are coming out with novels. I just saw Fatimah Asghar  announce that she’s coming out with a novel as well. I like that the boundaries between genres are becoming more elastic, hopefully. Because I feel like the MFA culture that we live in forces you to choose between different genres.

I’m working on stories about ghosts, ghost women and fox women.

VIVIAN: I remember reading a beautiful story of yours about the woman who becomes a fox.

SALLY: Yes. Thank you. I’ve been reading a lot of old Chinese folk tales by people like Pu Songling. He’s a famous Qing dynasty Chinese scholar-writer, and he compiled a lot of ghost stories. They’re called Liaozhai (聊斋志异). It’s funny because if I mention it to any of my Chinese family, they all know it very well. They’ll be like, Oh yeah of course.

The interesting thing about those folk tales is that there are a lot of ghost women and fox women that are supposed to suck away their husband’s energy. Usually he’s depleted, and then he dies. If you think about it, it’s such a great mythological trope, especially for female anger. But actually, a lot of the tales end up servicing the patriarchy. They’re all written by men.

When I’m reading these stories, there are a lot of vampire fox women, but there are also a lot of devoted fox wives, and in this case, the man can treat them badly, and yet these fox women or these ghost women, are still obsessed with taking care of them, or making them feel better about their masculinity. So I’m just like, Why? We should never let men write these stories. So I’m trying to rewrite some of these stories from a woman’s perspective.


VIVIAN: What do you believe that women in the world need or can do for each other presently?

SALLY: I think it’s really important to support each other. Just on a personal level and a professional level, I think it’s so important to support other women and take the time, and to privilege other women in your friendships, your relationships. I think for me, women pretty much are everything. My friends are mostly women and my family also mostly women.

I believe we owe each other at least a recognition that we can all dismantle the patriarchy together. And I think one thing that hinders that is competition, rivalry, you know, this narrative that women hate each other, or can be catty. I want to help other women and be kind and generous to other women. Especially women. Because, I mean, we’ve all been through so fucking much. I don’t know a single woman who has not been through a whole shit-ton of shit. You know?


SALLY: So, that recognition, and to me, to offer that grace, I think is really important. I’ve found that sisterhood is such a powerful force in my life. Another thing is, I always read women. I always consume women’s art and read women and promote women. In a conversation with my friend Jane, she said something about how women support each other when we are tired. That’s the realest to me.

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