2020 Diode intern and University of Minnesota MFA Chi Kyu Lee & 2020 Lambda Literary finalist Dorothy Chan discuss excess, queerness, & hunger in Chan's second full-length collection Revenge of the Asian Woman.
“Who doesn’t think kissing is the greatest thing / in the world other than eating?” Revenge of the Asian Woman comes to life on a sexed-up soap opera / B-movie platter where passion and food and fantasy reign supreme: excess in the form of full odes and triple sonnets with towers of macarons and carnival desserts and Hong Kong street food on a skewer—and make it a double. The East Asian girl boss takes her revenge on those who have fetishized her, looking great in gold booty shorts, while recounting her parents’ love story, the Chinese-American immigrant dream, her Chinese zodiac fate, and her own sexual awakening. She conquers all, moving through this universe of two-headed fantasies, aggressive foreheads, and magical girl transformation sequences, having her cake and eating it too—“Oh, cut that cake again.”
Chi Kyu Lee: I’m struck by your skill with titles, something that many poets struggle with. Can you describe your approach to titles?
Dorothy Chan: Thank you, Chi Kyu! Titles are my favorite. I honestly could teach a whole workshop just on titles. Back in my MFA, I was fortunate enough to be mentored by Alberto Ríos, and he gave me the best advice: “The best line of the poem is the line that I am reading; and that does not exclude the title.”
Titles should be dynamic. Just put it all out there—why be afraid to give it all away? For example, if you have a line in pentameter, why can’t you have a title in pentameter, that’s just as lively—that’s filled with rhythm? I know this is said a lot, but when writing’s good, it’s just like dancing.
Aim for a title that’s 4-5+ words. Thank me later.
CKL: I’m also struck by how you deconstruct decadence. In the “The Soap Opera of My Body (Two-Headed Version)” for example, you approach the body as a performative vehicle. In the poem, the speaker considers decadence as a consumer, promising “it’ll be fun, a two-for-the-price-of-one/ big-box-department-store-weekly-special.” Even with a full grocery cart, she considers a hypothetical purchase: “if Eve had three faces, I’ll definitely take two.” Growing an extra head is perhaps undesirable on one’s own body but she would “love to make love to the woman who dare grow those two heads.” How did decadence and consumption become so fascinating to you?
DC: I’m obsessed with excess. I’m always craving more poetry about fashion, runway, performance, soap operas, teen dramas, decadent food, etc. You know how when you really like something you don’t just want one, but maybe five, or fifty, or even twenty million?
That’s how I feel about macarons. Whenever I eat a macaron, I want another one right away. And then another one. And another, etc. Maybe I want a salted caramel macaron first. And then an orange blossom one. And then a green apple one. And then a rose one. And then a pistachio one.
That’s how I also feel about swimsuits and bodysuits. And liquid lipsticks. And French fries. And almost every kind of dessert imaginable. I want poetry to be my own personal playground. Three of my “f” words are food, fetish, and fantasy.
CKL: “The Soap Opera of My Body (Two-Headed Version)” looks at decadence through the lens of the classic familiar/alien dichotomy, a common theme used in science fiction. The poem comments on the pulpy sci-fi where (White) men are saviors and the woman, alien and exotic, are charged with assumed sexual submissiveness. The work reverses this trope in an intriguing way; instead of simply flipping the démodé savior-man/submissive-woman dichotomy, the speaker elevates the alien woman as deserving of decadence, “of Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling.” This has essentially queered the dichotomy, rendering the man irrelevant. Only then the speaker is willing to be decadent, saying “let’s get out of this world into a universe where I’m finally / ready to admit that yes, I am just a little bit romantic, lover, feed me, sprinkle me—scoop up that whipped cream.” Can you speak to this dichotomy and also share with us examples of queered narratives that have informed and inspired your work?
DC: Oh my goodness! Thank you so much for these astute observations. You get it! Haha. Of course the man ends up irrelevant. And of course we end up in this very sensual, serpentine scene of the “two ladies whose legs transform into / the lower halves of snakes, slithering / in the sex tornardo of your own Eden.”
I was inspired by a couple concepts. First off, I thought back to my background in art history and what serpentine means in that context. I was reminded of Ingres’ La Grand Odalisque (1814) and how the female subject in that painting has a very exaggerated figure. Serpentine in visual art depicts women’s bodies in exaggerated manners; thus, in La Grand Odalisque, her body is extremely elongated. And then I was reminded of my favorite Cirque du Soleil show, Zumanity, which is very queer. It’s hosted by a phenomenal drag queen named Edie, which is where the “Oh Edie, you beauty,” lines came from. There’s this gorgeous scene in the show where these two beautiful female performers kiss in a giant martini glass.
In my poems, I want the women to rise above—to choose each other—to conquer the world together.
CKL: From the section “On the Menu,” “Dream Meal Sonnet VII” asks a fascinating question: what is the difference between indulgence and decadence, so I ask you: what is the difference for you?
DC: That’s a great question. I think of decadence as the display and indulgence as the act of going overboard with excess. Decadence can also be the consequences or the show of it all. It’s like going to Liberace’s house and looking at his fake Sistine Ceiling and screaming, “This is decadence!”
CKL: In “Dream Meal Sonnet XI” there are two kinds of hunger: physiological and psychological. The hungry persona wonders after demanding: “give me excess or nothing at all— / how do food and love go hand in hand?” In the eleventh sonnet, she confesses both of her hungers, saying “you make me so hungry just by appearing, / and sure, a Happy Meal later sounds good too.” Yes, she wants to be in bed eating an unholy amount of desserts. And yes, she might be thrilled by the thought of being and getting caught—but underneath these superficial desires, she longs to be fed as she pleads in “Triple Sonnet for Asian Girls Eating Gelato”—“never stop feeding me, / baby, I’m hungry already, already, already.” Can you speak to the layered and complex way you approached hunger?
DC: I’m always hungry. I have a huge appetite. During the day I think about my dream menus. Right now I’m really craving a dozen raw oysters (hold the mignonette). But seriously, as a queer woman of color, I’ve always pushed myself to be hungry, meaning ambitious. I always want something more and I want this sentiment to come across in my poems. It’s like, Watch out, World.
CKL: Even decadence has an end. In “The Penis Couch in the Middle of Phoenix, AZ,” the poem considers Death Row criminals’ last meals, imagined by Henry Hargreaves. Does an impending end speak to one’s decadence? Does it reveal one’s definition of decadence, untainted by others’ expectations? Does one seek or avoid decadence? The work teaches how one’s own decadence can reveal so much of one’s beliefs and emotional complexities and, in the end, that whether one uses decadence as a distraction to be consoled (“Timothy McVeigh / and his two pints of mint chocolate chip ice cream”) or redefine it to be content (“Victor Feguer’s / request of a single olive with pit inside….a peace offering, if he was even trying to make a statement”) no one can “really let go of the ending—.” Revenge of the Asian Woman beseeches us to “eat what we want” so that we can feed ourselves and be finally full. What would your last meal be?
DC: I’m so happy you brought this poem up. I feel like it’s so underrated—it’s actually the favorite poem of a very dear friend. I was just so intrigued by Hargreaves’ project I had to write about it. Believe it or not, I actually started this poem during my MFA, but I never got it right until more recently.
My last meal would be a dim sum sampler complete with Chinese ravioli and shumai, a sesame-flavored boba tea, chirashi with the best in-season fish, onion rings with spicy ketchup, and then a shot of Wild Turkey bourbon. And then I’d finish off with a lot of desserts: a slice of grapefruit cake from the Brown Derby (I know, I know. That’s incredibly touristy of me, but have you tried it? It also speaks to my love of Old Hollywood); scoops of lychee, mango, lavender, and sesame ice cream; a sampling of macarons (of course, and be sure to have extra rose and lavender ones); and Chinese coconut jelly.
CKL: Revenge of the Asian Woman bursts with imagery. Given your latest title Chinese Girl Strikes Back (Spork Press, forthcoming), your work continues to build on this colossal style. Considering your three titles altogether, if Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold, Revenge of the Asian Woman, and Chinese Girl Strikes Back were a triptych painting, who would have painted it and when? What is the lasting image of Revenge of the Asian Woman in particular?
DC: Oh my goodness. I love this question too! You’re the best, Chi Kyu. I think a lot of pop art, honestly. I’m thinking my triptych artist is a badass Asian female pop artist who is thriving now. The lasting image would really be the final two lines of the book (from “Triple Sonnet for Liberace’s White Pianos and Dream Houses”): “and it’s perverted how the perverted things make me / feel nostalgic—the little girl who wanted a white piano.” Don’t give up on your dreams. Always keep going and be your eccentric, sexy, femme, badass self.
Dorothy Chan is the author of Chinese Girl Strikes Back (Spork Press, forthcoming), Revenge of the Asian Woman (Diode Editions, 2019), Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold (Spork Press, 2018), and the chapbook Chinatown Sonnets (New Delta Review, 2017). She is a 2020 finalist for a Lambda Literary Award in Bisexual Poetry for Revenge of the Asian Woman, a 2019 recipient of the Philip Freund Prize in Creative Writing from Cornell University, and a 2014 finalist for the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship. Her work has appeared in POETRY, The American Poetry Review, Academy of American Poets, and elsewhere. Chan is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and Poetry Editor of Hobart. Visit her website at dorothypoetry.com.
Chi Kyu Lee is a poet born and raised in Seoul. He recently graduated from Cornell University with a major in English and a minor in Arabic. He will be attending the MFA program at the University of Minnesota starting this fall. He is crazy about languages (make him practice Arabic or ASL!) and anything queer. He loves to read Asian-American, Arab-American, and Arabic literature.