Interview with Jane Wong on How to Not Be Afraid of Everything

Jane Wong’s latest book, How to Not Be Afraid of Everything is now available for pre-order at Alice James Books! In this edition of Sticky Fingers, Jane reads “MAD” from her collection and then talks with Editor in Chief Dorothy Chan about this remarkable poem and all things Eastern Zodiac.

Dorothy Chan: Jane, How to Not Be Afraid of Everything is one breathtaking beauty of a collection. I’m entranced—I’m emotional—and I’m in awe.

I want to start off with the symbolism of food in your collection. After all, it’s thoroughly impossible to talk about Chinese culture and history without talking about food. I admire the infinite ways food is used in your book. For instance, I keep lingering on these lines from “The Frontier,” early on: “I asked for too much. / That was the problem. / In a sky lit with smoke, / my mother peels shrimp and / I carry the shells into the yard / and bury them.” This is such a visceral and synesthetic image and act! I can picture and feel and smell the shrimp being peeled—I’ve done it many times myself—I can also picture my own mother and father doing this. 

Of course, these scenes also speak to food that’s popular in East Asian immigrant households, along with what household labors are performed, all in the backdrop of “The Frontier.”

I also greatly admire the infinite “food voltas” of “The Beet.” I love how the image of the beet is spilled out—we then get to “I thought of lava thick as a tongue, / of my father’s ruined jaw,” but then we get love—“I wanted love. / It would occur to me, later, / in the center slice, how the beet / reminded me of undressing in front of you.” 

Can you talk about the role of food in your collection? How did the symbolism of food evolve throughout as you were creating your poetic universes? 

Jane Wong: Oh my god, Dorothy. Thank you for pulling up these food moments. Food is by far my love language and the love language of my family. I wish I could feed you oranges while answering this question! I grew up in a Chinese American take-out restaurant on the Jersey shore, so I’m sure that has a huge impact on why I’m so obsessed with food. Peeling shrimp was one of my restaurant chores and I still can’t forget that smell, that texture of cleaning the “poop vein” on a paper towel while shelling. Food plays such an expansive role in the book— from gluttony to hunger to comfort to love. My grandparents and parents grew up during and after the Great Leap Forward, where an estimated 36 million people starved, mostly in the countryside. Many of my ancestors did not survive. It’s strange to say, but I’ve always felt there was something else tugging at the root of my gluttony since I was a baby. And it’s this history of hunger. The poems glisten with that hunger, but also what it means to eat with utter voraciousness a generation later. A lot of the poems also consider food and waste—growing up the way I did, we couldn’t afford to waste anything. I ate every single kernel of rice. I still have trouble throwing away rotting cilantro and feel deep shame in that. Food also is a symbol of love— that cut fruit on a plate. Food is intimate, but also communal. It’s there in the space of celebration and grief. I have so much to say about food, but I’ll pause there and let the steam of the basket fluff into the air. Dorothy, we need to peel some shrimp together someday!

DC: Jane, we really really do!

I love how early on we learn that the speaker was born in the Year of the Rat. I feel like the Eastern Zodiac permeates in so much of what we do. Could you talk about the influence of the Eastern Zodiac on your work as a poet? 

JW: I’m such a rat! The zodiac was always something my family spoke about—whenever my little brother would cry, they’d say “What a rabbit.” Or when my mother put on big sunglasses, “What a tiger.” I love that the zodiac tells the stories of animals. Once, back when Overpour came out, a student during a reading asked me “What’s with all the animals in your book?” and honestly, it never occurred to me that I have animals everywhere. I feel so ratty. A wood rat in particular. We’re survivors, witty/sneaky (depending on how you see it, haha), stubborn, loyal. There’s a toughness about rats. My mom is very much a tiger. Speaking of which, she demands that we celebrate both her birthdays—and you must pay attention to the lunar calendar to catch that one.

DC: I now want to talk about fists and anger. In “Dream of the Lopsided Crown,” there’s this great image of the speaker “shaking a fist in front of a statue / of a white general who did not go to jail for murder.” In our opening poem, “MAD,” we have Jane sleeping with “curled fists.” Every time I encountered the word “fists” in this book, I smiled a little harder. It was the resilience that got me. It was the anger—the not letting go that is so crucial. How does anger fuel your work? 

JW: RAGE! I have so much rage, haha. And I know your forthcoming book, BABE, also has a lot of rage and I love it. In thinking about these two lines, I think of two types of fists—the fist that is burning with injustice and the fist that is curled in sleep, uncontrollable due to trauma. And that is true—I have slept in fists ever since I met my abuser. Anger definitely fuels my poems. There’s a lot to be angry about. And as an Asian American woman, I’m not expected to be angry. That expectation of silence makes me even angrier. Anger also is healing, especially in community. There’s something so bright about shared fury, that resilience burning in our marrow. All of these poems seek to explore the different textures of anger. From the seething to the punch to the breath coming back. 

DC: One of the many reasons why How to Not Be Afraid of Everything is such an important and lovely book is because of its infinite voltas. I think of the “celestial turns” of “Dream of the Lopsided Crown.” I think about the volta at the very end of “I Put On My Fur Coat”: “Am I the only animal here?” I think of the turn into love in “What I Tell Myself After Waking Up With Fists”: “write a poem for love—before love can / even exist.” Oh gosh, Jane, your voltas are the best. 

Yes, let’s talk about voltas! 

JW: Haha, I love how you caught on to some of my favorite things—food, rage, voltas! Thank you for these sweet words. I love voltas. It’s one of my favorite craft elements. And I never prepare for voltas—I just allow myself to be porous, to that unexpected how-did-I-get-here moment. For me, voltas can happen in so many ways—to turn in content, in emotional weight, in form, in rhythm, in tone, etc. I want to feel bewildered in a poem. I want to go where the poem takes me. And, sometimes, when I feel too rigid when I write, I literally turn on an oven timer and volta when it dings. Voltas feel very akin to my life— I never know what’s about to happen, despite believing in (and so badly desiring) consistency. One moment we have a restaurant, and the next my father gambles it away. One moment my ex-boyfriend prepares to move in with me, and the next he ghosts me. 

DC: How does the word “animal” influence you? I love the brilliant variety of ways this word frames your collection. This might even take us back to the discussion of the Chinese Zodiac. 

JW: Totally—definitely tied to the zodiac question! Both my books have animals on the cover (via gorgeous art by Tessa Hulls for Overpour and Kimothy Wu for How to Not Be Afraid of Everything—two Asian American women)—coincidence? Probably not, haha! I grew up in an attic with squirrels running around me. I also hung out in the back of the restaurant with pigeons and ants. There are lots of deer, owls, and bunnies where I live now. My mom grew up in the countryside, with oxen. I have a deep reverence for raccoons. I don’t know why I’m attracted to the animal world. My brother and I would watch PBS’s Nature growing up. I guess I’m attracted to the strangeness of living things, including ourselves. 

DC: Jane, I can’t thank you enough for this beautiful conversation. We’re all such huge fans! Can you talk about what you’re currently working on + upcoming projects? 

JW: What! Thank you, Dorothy. I’m so grateful for your generosity and for your tenderness in reading these poems. And I adore Honey Literary! I’m always working/tinkering on something! I’m still working on my nonfiction essay collection, Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City. And on my third book of poems, which is speculative and imagines a utopia of sorts. And I’ll also be collaborating with my dear friend and poet Diana Khoi Nguyen on an installation project at the Woodberry Poetry Room next spring. I’m making hot pot. I’m making pottery. I’m painting my nails, which are orange and blue right now. I’m teaching, I’m hanging out with my ancestors, I’m sending seeds in the mail. 

About Jane Wong

Jane Wong is the author of How to Not Be Afraid of Everything (Alice James, 2021) and Overpour (Action Books, 2016). Her poems and essays can be found in places such as Best American Nonrequired Reading 2019, Best American Poetry 2015, American Poetry Review, POETRY, AGNI, Virginia Quarterly Review, McSweeney’s, and Ecotone. A Kundiman fellow, she is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize and fellowships and residencies from Harvard’s Woodberry Poetry Room, the U.S. Fulbright Program, Artist Trust, the Fine Arts Work Center, Bread Loaf, Hedgebrook, Willapa Bay, the Jentel Foundation, Mineral School, and others. Her first solo art show, “After Preparing the Altar, the Ghosts Feast Feverishly” was exhibited at the Frye Art Museum in 2019. She is an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Western Washington University.