A Conversation Between Amanda Moore and Shelley Wong
Amanda Moore’s debut collection of poems, Requeening (HarperCollins/Ecco, 2021), was chosen by Ocean Vuong for the National Poetry Series.
Shelley Wong’s debut collection, As She Appears (YesYes Books, 2022), won the Pamet River Prize and was longlisted for the National Book Award.
Both writers live and work in San Francisco.
Amanda Moore: Shelley, As She Appears is an exquisite, multi-faceted, and wide-ranging book that I’ve found continues to unfold and offer insight and beauty with each successive reading. In it, you traverse geographies, seasons, and poetic styles while exploring identity, art, human connection, love (for self, other, and the natural world), and womanhood. It is a debut book, but its scope feels more like a life’s work. I know you wrote the poems over many years. What was your path to putting together and publishing As She Appears?
Shelley Wong: Thank you for this generous praise, Amanda! The book evolved over a decade, beginning in the Ohio graduate school years when I was in my early thirties. I wrote variously, as we were workshopped every week. The seeds for what would end up being several poetic sequences emerged—writing Frida Kahlo persona poems, a fashion forecast series, an ekphrastic series where women appear in film, paintings, performance, and theater.
I started submitting my manuscript as early as 2014, in my final MFA year. In retrospect, this was premature; I felt the pressure of what my younger Millennial peers were doing. I needed time after graduate school to separate myself from the experience and develop my own practice. Honestly, it was a struggle to write post-MFA with a day job (and one that was at the same pre-MFA employer). During those years, attending summer conferences for a week or two was precious time to write and reconnect with a writing community. As an in-between step along my way to a book, I distilled my thesis down into a chapbook in 2017 along with some newer poems. This unlocked a new understanding of how seemingly disparate poems could be in conversation with each other and how a sequence can move.
Also in 2017, I began applying to residencies in earnest. The momentum and experience of what would end up being four residencies gave me greater faith in myself and my work and the discipline to prioritize my creative life. The heart of the book emerged when I was in residence at Fire Island National Seashore, writing about the aftermath of a relationship and the queer landscapes and spaces that are for and not for queer women of color.
The revised version of the book ended up winning the 2019 Pamet River Prize from YesYes Books. It had been a semi-finalist and finalist in their past contests. My submission strategy was refined to be very patient in submitting to presses that I was already supporting, who were publishing amazing queer poets of color and had fantastic book design. From 2014-2019, I submitted the book thirty-three times to twenty-two presses.
Your words resonate so much as I think about your multitudinous, expansive debut Requeening. It chronicles and weaves together many matriarchal life cycles, of women as mothers and daughters and girls and queen bees, across apartments, rooms, and terrains. Both of our books developed over many (many!) years and, as you so beautifully articulate, they are debut books whose scopes feel more like a life’s work as we are publishing them in our forties. I did my MFA in my thirties, but you did yours right after undergrad. How did Requeening come into being over the years—are there poems that didn’t make it into the collection, and what early influences and curiosities have endured?
AM: The seeds of Requeening certainly were planted during my long-ago MFA program, when I supplemented my coursework with classes across many departments at the university, including beekeeping, which I justified to my advisor as a way to more deeply investigate Plath’s bee poems. When I realized academia was not going to be my path, the push to publish a book diminished, and I went about building a life for myself outside that model, writing poetry pretty consistently over the years but only publishing in journals sporadically while I also started a career, got married, restored an old house, had a child, survived an illness, etc.
In 2019 I spent the summer at some workshops trying to figure out whether, after twenty years of writing, I had two books or none. I had started submitting various chapbook manuscripts and some short full-lengths that had made it to finalist rounds, but I was all over the place, convinced that the older bee poems and early motherhood work had no place beside the newer, darker grief and death work. I had a series of haibun that didn’t seem to relate to anything and, infuriatingly, I found myself writing about bees again. A wise teacher that summer suggested that the bees were actually the key, and the beehive itself a capacious structure to consider as I pulled together poems from disparate parts of my life. That vision helped me purge a ton of poems and fill in some holes to make the hive/book complete.
I have always been a reader, so I drew on the poems I loved over many years as I wrote and organized Requeening: Plath, of course, who was an early influence along with Anne Sexton; Sharon Olds’s and Lucille Clifton’s work, which encouraged me to draw poems from my lived experience as a woman and mother; Phillip Levine’s poems taught me about diction and helped me see my native Midwest in context; Rilke’s Duino Elegies, which I studied in another of my non-MFA classes at Cornell, urged me toward lyricism and obsession/repetition (his angels, my bees). More contemporarily, as I was drawn toward haibun, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Forrest Gander, and Kimiko Hahn were important. Being alive in this golden age of contemporary poetry, and getting to read all these poets who are inventing new forms and making a place for themselves within the traditional exclusionary canon is hugely influential.
I’m curious about your influences as well. One of the things I notice in your poems is the independence and assuredness of your speakers, who often appear and are contemplating in privacy and solitude. In one of my favorite poems, “Private Collection,” the speaker notes that “no women resembled” her, and in his blurb, Ocean Vuong highlights your lines, “As a girl, I never / saw a woman / who looked like me / …. I had to invent her. I’m inventing her.” What are your early influences and, perhaps even more importantly, what role has invention played in your reading, writing, and publishing? What has been necessary for you to invent for your work to flourish, and how have you gone about that invention?
SW: In graduate school, I was writing a lot of break-up poems, focusing on feelings and sharing some glimpses of a relationship, but without much context. To satiate the workshop’s curiosity, I began to write in persona as Frida Kahlo when she divorced Diego Rivera for having an affair with her sister. This led to thinking about how women create self-portraits, the simultaneity of vulnerability and strength, mixed feelings about a past partner, and Madonna, as she was a great Frida fan and I was an awestruck Madonna fan as a child. Fashion and transformation started showing up in my work.
I can trace many childhood obsessions in my poems as ways in which I was inventing my own way of visioning what an Asian American girl was and could become. I adored Shelley Duvall (my first example of a Shelley!) in Faerie Tale Theatre and how she would transform through costume and setting with each introduction to a new episode. I was hungry for that adventure, though a shy girl, and was fascinated with how Madonna changed and appealed to the viewer and listener. I saw that a woman could be multitudinous, contradictory, owning her power and living a sensual, sexual life without apology, shame, or marriage as end game. I sought to be that brave, conscious from an early age of how Asians did not appear in the world, were not represented in history, in music, on television, despite the fact that my family was four generations deep in America. And when Asians did appear, we were distorted, mocked, erased. I was aware from an early age of how social dynamics worked among young girls. It was the eighties so I prided myself on wearing cute bows, matching my jelly bracelets to my outfits, and wearing on-trend clothes. I felt stronger because of fashion. I could express myself without a word and create a kind of happy beauty that I hoped would protect me.
As an adult, I still have that omnivorous curiosity (and love for fashion!), which is why my book became so wide-ranging—it’s who I am, but I also want to show that Asian American / women / queer people are not any one thing. We are not a monolith or a single story. There is no one way or right way. We have complex hearts and joys! As a way out of a long-term relationship, I wrote to become more present in the world. I was writing a speaker into museums and nature, where women like her do not often appear, as in poetry. I was writing the poems I have lived and wanted to have as a younger person.
I needed time, space, and community to create and have been inspired by other writers whose vision offered new portals to imagining: Sylvia Plath, Lo Kwa Mei-En, Mary Szybist, Aracelis Girmay, Morgan Parker, Sally Wen Mao, Suji Kwock Kim. I also needed rest and care.
Speaking of poets across the generations…we both are debut poets in our forties! What has that been like for you?
AM: There were certainly times after my MFA, in my thirties particularly, that I lamented not having published a book, but the real luck of having had the time and space to choose another path and establish myself and my life outside of the poetry business machine is that, when the book happened, it was pure joy. I haven’t had a moment where I have felt anything less than grateful and thrilled to be in this position, incredibly lucky for every single reading and reader, every review, every nod. I’m not counting on poetry for my career or advancement, so I get to make it solely for its own sake, for art’s sake, and I don’t have to hustle to get it sold or read or in the hands of the “right” people in order to land a job, or raise my profile, or get tenure. It feels like a real privilege. Still, I really like and appreciate the validation of the book being well-received; I’m certainly not inured to the pleasures of being read and included, invited into the contemporary discussion.
I’m not sure how you feel, but with every year that passes in my forties, I’m also much more able to get past the bullshit in all aspects of my life, particularly in terms of what might have destroyed me as a poet with a book in my twenties or thirties. I have weathered so many huge ups and downs, and have been comforted by the grace and comfort of family and friends, that what a stranger writes on Goodreads, for example, or when a (younger) poet disses me at a reading or social event, it doesn’t wreck me. I have been made stronger and more flexible with time and perspective that I couldn’t possibly have had as a young poet . . . though I confess I sometimes miss how much I was sure of back then, how much I knew.
What about you? How has “debuting” in your forties felt? Did you know after committing to the residencies and moving past your post-MFA doubts that the manuscript was ready for all this?
SW: Debuting in my forties feels like a natural result since it took a lot of time to develop my patience and practice as a writer and navigate Poetry Land while prioritizing my self-care.
After the residencies, I still had doubts that my manuscript was ready. As a slow writer, I tend to keep my poems to myself, so I am grateful to Jacques Rancourt for asking to swap manuscripts. He was the only reader I had for the full manuscript, so I feel super lucky, and going forward I plan to be less shy about asking friends to swap manuscripts. Hearing his advice about seeding the various themes/threads of the manuscript in the first ten pages was key to feeling confident about the manuscript since it was all over the place in its multitudes! Ordering was a conundrum since I had written my way into four seasonal poems and therefore felt obligated to divide the book into four sections even though the narrative doesn’t take place over a year and the book took a decade to write. I ended up seeing spring and fall as seasons of transit and summer and winter as seasons of retreat. I wonder how readers experience time in a book that is about nonlinear time, association, repetition, and re-vision.
I’ve been thrilled to see us both have long book promo journeys. How has it been now that we are coming up on your book’s first birthday in October?
AM: Yes, I did get to take some time off work and travel to do some readings, and for the most part I got to visit the places and people who had helped me make myself into a person who could write the book. All my events in San Francisco were beyond my imagination, starting with the very first, when I got to read with you and Ben Gucciardi, poets I feel such kinship with on and off the page. I read in Iowa, where I was first an undergraduate writer, and where I met and fell in love with my husband; I read in Michigan, where I was first a high school teacher, and where I had my daughter and made some of my very best friends; I read in my hometown and in nearby Chicago, where people from various points of my life, from childhood to now, surprised me and showed up for me and held me in their regard. It was amazing, emotional, and really fulfilling to be able to stand in front of so many people in gratitude and say, “This book is what I’ve been working on all these years, and you have helped me do that in some way.”
Throughout all of this, of course, it was my hope to introduce myself to new readers and people, to build a larger community, and so I worked to make a cohort for myself, since I didn’t have one (maybe that’s the downside of this big life I made for myself outside of poetry). My first thought was to reach out to other poets who were debuting at this very strange time mid-pandemic, which was like forming a small mutual aid society, and I connected with recent National Poetry Series winners as well. It was great to read and visit with poets I might never have otherwise reached out to.
Your book events have such a celebratory feel to them: you are reading with teachers, and friends, and writing heroes, in bookstores and on panels, and you have been all over the country. How has it felt to you? Energizing, exhausting, both? Has it shifted your feelings about As She Appears at all?
SW: I feel fortunate to be able to have in-person events to connect and reunite with the poetry community, as there’s nothing virtual that can replicate sharing space with people and having in-person chats. I am thrilled to read with friends and poet heroes to make the tour truly a lovefest journey to emerge out of my pandemic isolation. It has been joyous and very precious, and I’m thankful to folks for showing up for me. I have been especially moved to receive support from older poets of color since I had no teachers of color in academia.
Yes, it has been energizing and exhausting with a full-time communications job and keeping track of all of the details with my small press and publicist. I was worried events would be canceled because of Covid, so I loaded up on Bay Area events just in case, but they all happened! It’s fantastic to see so many San Francisco organizers persevere with programming. I’m thankful to move from the stage of being the event planner to being invited to events.
At the beginning of graduate school, my poems were often seen as reticent, and it has taken some time to write about vulnerability. I was also attempting to write about a difficult relationship and its aftermath as a kind of recovery but didn’t want to explain the difficulty or ways in which it was complicated and traumatic. There were some poems I wrote just for myself and not to be published. But at the same time, I wrestled with not being fully “out” about the complexity and pain of a relationship, and I wanted to find balance in expressing queer women of color joy as well. I realize now that queer women of color are not obligated to talk about suffering, and they should not be shamed for being honest about suffering. We can have privacy and set boundaries. We are not our sadness or trauma. I didn’t want to talk about the relationship that inspired the relationship in the book, but now I find myself wanting to talk about it because it’s important for queer relationships between women of color to have vulnerable stories in the world, especially for young people.
As we begin to move forward from our debuts, I’m curious: what’s next for you? What are you working on?
AM: As always, I’m working in several directions at once, finding joy in the synthesis and divergence of moving between projects. I’m incredibly excited about a translation I’ve been doing of Costa Rican poet Ana Istarú’s stunning book Verbo madre, poems from which I’m just starting to submit to journals. After a residency last spring at MASS MoCA, I’m in a curiosity/discovery phase of a collection of poems I stumbled into working on while considering conceptual artist Sol Lewitt’s ideas about line and form. The project explores a few different modes of ekphrasis, using his instructions and images as a genesis. And then there are the poems I’m working on outside of any larger project, many of them tied to the ocean and my mornings in the surf. In constructing Requeening, I also abandoned at least another book length’s worth of poems, so at some point I’ll sift through those and determine if any want to be revisited and revived. The pace of writing my first book was so slow . . . until it wasn’t. Part of me wants to take my time, be playful, and wait until something naturally coalesces. But I also feel eager to build on this momentum and get more work out there to stay a part of the conversation of contemporary poetry.
In any event, after a year, I feel like things are wrapping up for the most active part of releasing Requeening. As She Appears is still making waves, including the recent exciting news that you’ve been longlisted for the National Book Award, which makes me and your other fans so happy. Are you working on something new while all this is still happening for the book? What is next in your poems, your projects, your life?
SW: Since As She Appears was accepted in 2019, I’ve been working on a second manuscript that is totally different. As a preview, I’ll say that I’ve been thinking about being fourth-generation Chinese American, learning about my ancestors, and meditating on California. It’s a lot to hold, so I’m taking my time with the poems and doing research. And book promo, touring, and happy surprises are putting writing on hold for now.
As for life: I’ve dedicated a decade to poem-making as a priority, so I’m ready to slowly re-enter society and be with dear friends now . . . and maybe date? Where is the dating paradise in the Bay Area? Ahaha. But again, taking my time.
Our last question, a great one that you brought up to discuss: Have we “emerged” yet?
AM: I guess “emerging” as a term has replaced what people might once have called “young” or “younger,” honoring that there are different divergent trajectories to becoming a published poet, so I shouldn’t hate on that term so much. But I feel like it discounts the years I have spent being a reader and writer and thinker, an invisible-but-fully-emerged participant in poetry. Just because I haven’t been on the publishing world’s radar, doesn’t mean I haven’t emerged into a full expression of myself as a poet, as a woman—they just hadn’t heard of me. As a publishing term I suppose I have to accept “emerging,” planting this first little flag of a first book in the soil as I begin to work toward my next one. In terms of my self-perception, though, here I am as I always have been: I have emerged.
SW: I love this so much! I feel irritated when people call artists and writers who debut over forty “late bloomers!” So often these folks are women or other marginalized genders who struggled to find time, money, access, support, mentorship, and community, who were/are caretakers and have a disability or healthcare needs. And it is all too often a painful journey for queer people of color to come into a creative field and experience harm and a lack of support. I was waiting for Poetry Land to catch up so I would not be alone. We have emerged, and I am so happy to be with you, Amanda.