The Transnational Poetics of Wong May

by Jane Wong

Image Credit: Michelle Jia. Photos via Flickr (1, 2, 3).

This past March, I attended the 2015 Thinking Its Presence: Race and Creative Writing Conference in Missoula, Montana. The title of the conference comes from Dorothy Wang’s book, Thinking Its Presence (2013), in which she makes a necessary argument: that aesthetic forms are inseparable from social, political, and historical contexts in terms of writing and reception. On a Friday panel entitled “Fracturations: Mediations on the Politics and Poetics of Intersectionality,” Ruth Ellen Kocher repeated one line said by the academy around her:

“It's not about race, it’s about aesthetics.”

“It's not about race, it’s about aesthetics.”

“It's not about race, it’s about aesthetics.”

In a room full of poets of color, everyone nodded; this line was not uncommon. Kocher’s repeated quotation insists on the omission of race in discussions of contemporary American poetry. Indeed, Cathy Park Hong’s Lana Turner article “Delusions of Whiteness in the Avant-Garde” addresses these oversights. She asserts in the essay’s opening: “To encounter the history of avant-garde poetry is to encounter a racist tradition.” And later, when discussing the omission of race: “But even in their best efforts in erasure, in complete transcription, in total paratactic scrambling, there is always a subject – and beyond that, the specter of the author’s visage – and that specter is never, no matter how vigorous the erasure, raceless” (Hong). What are the dangers of a “raceless” text? What are the dangers of stripping away one’s stakes, identity, nationhood, even life – real or performed?

Wong May, the focus of my conference talk, was born in Chongqing, China in 1944 and moved to Singapore with her mother in 1950. She also studied and worked in the United States (she was a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1968 and a MacDowell fellow in 1969) and currently lives in Ireland. In 2014, Octopus Books published Wong’s Picasso’s Tears, which collects her work since the 1970s. Prior to Picasso’s Tears (2014), she published three collections: A Bad Girl’s Book of Animals (1969), Reports (1972), and Superstitions (1978). These latter collections are currently out of print.

In numerous reviews of Picasso’s Tears, an exploration of Wong’s transnational identity appears to be absent or downplayed. For example, a review in Ploughshares focuses on her hard-to-pin-down interiority: “we learn nothing very specific about Wong May from [her poems], yet their interiority is so powerful…” Additionally, this review focuses primarily on Western influences: “[Wong’s poems] are aware of tradition (alluding to, for example, Milton, Blake, Keats, Pound, and Williams), but observe a logic of their own” (Scott). In 2013, prior to Picasso’s Tears, C.D. Wright introduces three poems of Wong’s on the PEN America’s website: “I include but a brief sample of this distinctive poet—quirky, in the best sense of the word… unaffectedly well-informed, capacious, and unpredictable in her concerns and procedures” (PEN America). Moreover, in 2004’s “Recovery Project” on Octopus, Zach Schomburg explicates a potential connection between Wong’s poetry and the haiku form, calling her work “an experiment perhaps in Haiku that has unraveled itself, has become completely undisciplined, but retains that core minimalism from when it was once tightly wound” (Recovery Project: Wong May”). Yet why not explore Wong’s transnationalism in terms of the form unraveling, as one unravels nationhood across multiple shores?

I argue that is it necessary to return to Dorothy Wang’s assertion about aesthetic forms being inseparable from sociopolitical contexts, including Wong’s transnational identity - often articulated through maternal lineage. Indeed, as she writes in her afterword to Picasso’s Tears:

& to    my       mother

For her permission

Once    More

In       Another     Tongue.

In this acknowledgement, which echoes her first book’s dedication of “DEAR MAMA,” Wong’s use of space breaks, line breaks, and indentation separates her “formal” acknowledgments to her publishers, friends, etc. from her mother.  This acknowledgement turned poem reaches out across time, space, and nations. Her mother, Wang Mei-Chuang, was a classical Chinese poet who taught history and Chinese literature. With “Once More/In Another Tongue,” Wong asks for this permission of language, embodying a voice through which her mother speaks, recalling Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s diseuse in DICTEE (1982) who says: Mother, I dream you just to able to see you” (Cha 49).

In this discussion, I hope to address that dangerous refrain “it’s not about race, it’s about aesthetics” and reconsider Wong’s work with a perspective that is mindful of her transnational poetics, challenging her positioning as a “quirky” forgotten poet, championed through experimental aesthetics. While Schomburg writes that “in 1978, she curled up into a tiny ball and disappeared” (“Recovery Project: Wong May”), Wong’s poems were not forgotten by Asian American studies; her work notably appeared in Juliana Chang’s anthology Quiet Fire: A Historical Anthology of Asian American Poetry, published by the Asian American Writers’ Workshop in 1996.

To begin exploring her transnational poetics, Picasso’s Tears includes a helpful epilogue where Wong discusses writing poetry after 1978. In particular, she addresses her mother as a main vein of influence. She writes: “My mother always held me in her mouth, like a fiercely maternal animal – but just so that she won’t, can’t swallow entire; not let go.” This ferocity and scene of ingestion/indigestion speaks to her transnational identity, as Wong discusses leaving thereafter. “What happened was that I did get away…” Here, she speaks of leaving Singapore, of going to Iowa, living in France for seven years, and moving to Dublin.  And in thinking through her influences, mostly Western, she speaks about the dearth of contemporary Chinese literature in the midst of the era of Mao Zedong: “But I began by writing in Chinese, writing short stories… At that time, a great deal of translation was being turned out in Beijing, when writers were too fearful to write.” The statement “too fearful to write” is key.  Where Schomburg writes about her form as a kind of “unraveled” and “undisciplined” haiku, I envision her “unraveled” form as risk-taking. Her work touches on the fear of writing, in which Chinese poets are under close watch by the government (including writers such as Ai Qing, Bei Dao, Liu Xiaobo, and Liu Xia[1]). As Wong later writes, as if confirming this risk: “Yes, what one writes does place one on the spot.” This pressure, this hot seat of language is transformative. She continues to echo this pressure and the risk of language: “If we were not ‘playful’ – we would all die out. I think PLAY makes one watchful.”

This playfulness in form – a kind of careful watchfulness as Wong suggests –exemplifies her movement from place to place. In a poem entitled “Surds” from Superstitions (1978), she writes: “like a tooth that sprouts/in another place//in another place” (Superstitions 50). A surd is an irrational root (i.e. the square root of three) and lacks sense. This “serial” poem itself jumps from section to section, refusing discrete sections, akin to a tooth “sprouting” where it should not. Indeed, her first book, A Bad Girl’s Book of Animals (1969), is covered with strange growth. Akin to teeth sprouting, she writes in “Rot”: “Already I see mushrooms/growing out of everywhere” (A Bad Girl’s book of Animals 35). To return to her epilogue in Picasso’s Tears, she writes of her awareness of exile and growing up or “sprouting” wherever she could: “On the balcony with mother it was so. We were foreigners exiled from the mainland (China) to an island (Singapore). It had seemed alright from the beginning. So it was.” With her mirrored, bookended use of “it was so” and “so it was,” Wong suggests a kind of “swinging” acceptance of movement: she must and will move. Notably, she stands on the balcony with her mother, looking down – the balcony a kind of floating nation.

Furthermore, in the poem “History” in her first book, she enacts the playfulness of history and impossibility of the archive, thus refusing fact. In Wong’s world, history is a liar. To locate the root of a “family tree” is useless. She writes:

It was. The lie then

I’ve got a mother

I’ve committed murder

I’ve recovered

I couldn’t have wakened


to a finer world (A Bad Girl’s Book of Animals 4).

The proximity of “mother” and “murder” is visually and sonically dangerous, killing that smothering and loving “mother tongue”. Rather than nation and lineage, she only holds the landscape she travels across. She ends the poem: “It is October 1967/everywhere this sun and water/we’re going steadilier//steadilier immortal” (4). Here, the sun and water suggests her existence anywhere: without nation, without the certainty of language (she delights in the strange use of “steadilier”). Throughout this book, Wong pushes back as a rebel and non-nationalist with poems such as “The Yellow Plague”: “For 5000 years we have had/you to you we come/before you we hang down our heads/History Mistress get off my back” (81).

Notably, Wong’s sharp and unexpected line breaks, as seen above, create a kind of “swerving.” She simultaneously declares and denies. In “A Letter,” she conjures her mother and writes: “After yours/or anybody’s funeral,/the world is not made/ugly for me, it is” (A Bad Girl’s Book of Animals 11). Here, she writes: the world is and is not. In “Dislocation,” Wong swerves again in imagination and negation:

Imagine you


could not imagine

the whole ground floor gone

and you are on the first floor

drifting distrustful


giddy like a bird

indoors outdoors (58).

In terms of content, this poem brings to light transnational concerns. The idea of dislocation –evident in the simultaneity of “indoors outdoors” and “the whole ground floor gone” (58) –echoes back to “everywhere this sun and water” (4). Yet, beyond the content, the poem swerves into surprising juxtapositions and line breaks, to words such as “giddy” after “distrustful.” Notably, this “giddiness” returns in Picasso’s Tears, in a poem about her mother: “O I’m giddy from her fall” (Picasso’s Tears 17). Wong’s continual “swerving” comes back to Wright’s point about Wong’s unpredictability; here, this unpredictability is located in the surprise of being between places and nations. In this way, Wong’s work is a prime example of texts fraught with multidirectional routes. This state of being “between” recalls James Clifford’s concept of routes vs. roots in Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century (1997). Unlike the fixed “roots” of home, Clifford identities “routes” as ever-moving “between” spaces which promote becoming over being (37). He writes: “Everyone [is] more or less permanently in transit… Not so much ‘Where are you from?’ as ‘Where are you between?’”(37). Wong’s answer to this latter question: “indoors outdoors” (A Bad Girl’s Book of Animals 58).

In this strange transnational space of the “between,” I hope my opening of Wong’s work sprouts a tooth in another place, engaging race and aesthetics in contemporary Asian American poetry. Indeed, I want to recall Lisa Lowe’s Immigrant Acts (1996) which argues for “hetereogeneity, hybridity, multiplicity” in Asian American texts – creating an identity that is continually made unstable through cultural productions (Lowe 67). Wong’s work complicates such spaces. We must look at Wong’s work through a transnational lens; indeed, how can one ignore lines such as: “I dream of saying goodbye to mother/In all the airports of the world” (Picasso’s Tears 16)?

Works Cited

Cha, Theresa Hak Kyung. DICTEE. Berkeley, CA: Third Woman Press, 1995. 

Clifford, James. Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997.

“Four Poems by Wong May.” PEN America. 24 April 2013.

Hong, Cathy Park. “Delusions of Whiteness in the Avant-Garde.” Lana Turner 7: (2014).

Lowe, Lisa. Immigrant Acts. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996.

“Recovery Project: Wong May.” Octopus Magazine. 2004.

Scott, Paul. “Review: Picasso’s Tears.” Ploughshares Blog. 3 Sept. 2014.

Wang, Dorothy. Thinking Its Presence: Form, Race, and Subjectivity in Contemporary Asian American Poetry. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013.

Wong, May. A Bad Girl’s Book of Animals. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1969.

Wong, May. Picasso’s Tears: Poems 1978-2013. Portland: Octopus Books, 2014.

Wong May. Superstitions. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Jovanovich, 1978.

[1] For more about Liu Xia’s house arrest: