Dorothy Chan is editor of The Southeast Review and just released her book, Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold (Spork Press, 2018), so it was a stroke of luck that she found time to sit down and chat about poetry. We covered a lot of ground—ranging from the long-standing tradition of bird poems to the strength of women and even Ava Gardner.
Black: What made you select this poem?
Chan: I couldn’t help myself. A poem with the opening lines, “What woman doesn’t want to be a goddess with wings / to fly over the world of men with their erections / of stone and steel, to go to war like Athena, / or become Aphrodite who could crumple men / with her eyes” is such a winner. I don’t think any lines can top these opening lines. I’m absolutely enthralled, and I think a cardinal rule of poetry is to always have your reader’s attention. I remember Alberto Ríos once saying in his Deep Revision class, “The line I’m reading should be the best line of the poem.” Every line of the poem needs to be the best line of the poem. Always. That’s what Barbara Hamby does.
Black: What is your sense of this newest collection of Hamby’s? Not that you need to write a review, but overall. What do you love about it?
Chan: I love that Hamby’s Bird Odyssey is all woman. I also love that it’s about travel and flight—women are goddesses, so let’s put our wings to use, let’s go on a mission, and let’s conquer the world! Speaking of missions, another big standout of the collection is “Elvis and Tolstoy Save the World,” which I had the pleasure of hearing Barbara read at this past AWP Tampa. I love its bold, matter-of-fact nature: “and if one more supernatural thing happens, my brain / might explode” and “And I think, Groupie? Black Sabbath has groupies, but Tolstoy? / And if I were going to be a groupie, I’d be following Chekhov / around, because he’s my idea of a guy I’d like to spend time with.” I also remember immediately falling in love with “Athena Ode” when I saw it in The New Yorker. In this poem, Hamby’s speaker calls Athena a “divine mixologist,” which I think is perfect. I like to compare the art of poetry to the art of mixology. Great poems are like very complex cocktails, the kind you order at a swanky Las Vegas bar, the kind that is literally set to fire—the kind that comes in a sexy glass that leads to a memorable night—and then of course you order a couple more rounds.
I’d also like to add that I’m also extremely attached to Hamby’s On the Street of Divine Love, particularly the poem, “Ode to Wasting Time and Drawing Donatello’s David.”
Black: Is there a connection to your own work either in this collection of Hamby’s or in some other way that her body of work might be influential to you?
Chan: Barbara is my mentor, and her work means so much to me. Again, I love how her poems are all woman. I admire her use of what she calls “word tango.” This “word tango” is extremely influential to me, and it also lends itself to longer lines as well as thoughtful associative leaps and language. Barbara has taught me so much about voice, and I appreciate her directness in asking students how they each define their own poetic voice. I think it’s important for every poet to define their voice succinctly.
More specifically, I’m thinking about the voice in “Fried Chicken Boiled Peanut Blues.” First of all, I love how Barbara works with food in her poetry—I mean, don’t we all wish there were more poems about food? Who doesn’t love food? And in this poem, Barbara’s speaker presents one of the best meals at Gus’s Fried Chicken in Memphis. The speaker is yearning for “every boiled peanut stand on Highway 319,” but then she makes an association that turns the poem into one about her family, in particular, her mother. Hamby’s leaping is always seamless.
Black: I’m seeing a lot of birds in poems and other works lately, are you? And if yes, what do you make of that?
Chan: Yes, I think birds continue to be popular in poetry. When contemporary poets write about birds, they are clearly also paying homage to an unofficial poetic tradition. It’s amazing how Poets.org has a whole section dedicated to bird poems. Anyway, I love how Barbara tackles the “bird tradition” head-on with the title, Bird Odyssey, and then with the section titles: I. Six Blackbirds on the Highway to Moscow, II. Three Vultures on the Blacktop to Memphis, and III. A Chickadee at Troy. Like anything, if you’re going to do it, be direct. That’s another aspect I enjoy about Barbara’s work.
Black: I love this line about the “glorious vagina mind”—Did you feel that personally, too?
Chan: Ah!! Such a great line! It’s so clever, isn’t it? Yes, I do feel that personally, too. Again, I think the best poetry is direct and confrontational, and if women are living in this society that men so want to continuously dominate, then let’s fight back with the very thing that those harmful men desire and turn it into a weapon. Every part of a woman’s body and mind and spirit makes her powerful. Women are strong as hell. They give birth to everyone’s fantasies and nightmares. I mean, Barbara’s speaker also mentions Ava Gardner. Think about Gardner on screen. She was once known as “The World’s Most Beautiful Animal,” and no one commanded a room quite like her.
Black: Tell me a little about your new book.
Chan: Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold (Spork Press, 2018) is led by a series of female speakers, mostly independent, bold, Chinese American women who want to reverse the male gaze, bringing attention to the female gaze and what’s sexy to a woman. The collection is a lot of fun.
Sometimes I joke that my poems can be summed up to “food and sex,” but if you think about it, those are such big topics, and food is inherently linked to both family and culture, and the discussion of sex evolves into a discussion of “traditional” vs. “nontraditional” Asian and Asian American perspectives. For instance, in my poem, “Ode to All My Flings Who Have Hated Dim Sum,” originally published in Hobart, my Chinese American female speaker is fed up with white boys calling her an “adventurous eater as I spit / out the bones from my chicken’s feet bathing in porridge, / though my grandmother orders the same dish / every morning in Kowloon.” Here, food and sex become tied yet again. The speaker is tired of explaining dim sum dishes to her flings because this pattern leads to the reduction of her culture. And in the end, she outright states, “I’m not your Asian cupcake, / your Chinese wet dream in a slit red slip and pink kimono. / I’m not your stuffed panda that dances when you poke / my button.”
Dorothy Chan is the author of Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold (Spork Press, 2018) and the chapbook Chinatown Sonnets (New Delta Review, 2017). She was a 2014 finalist for the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Academy of American Poets, The Common, Diode, Quarterly West, Blackbird, and elsewhere. Chan is the editor of The Southeast Review. Visit her website at dorothypoetry.com.
Barbara Hamby is the author of many works including her most recent poetry collection Bird Odyssey (Pitt Poetry Series, 2018). Hamby has been awarded a Guggenheim, an NEA grant, the Iowa short fiction prize, the Vassar-Miller Prize, and other notables. She is a Distinguished University Scholar at Florida State University.
The good stuff:
Anna Black received her MFA at Arizona State University and her BA at Western Washington University. She has served as the editor-in-chief of the magazines Hayden’s Ferry Review and Inkspeak, and is a twice awarded Virginia G. Piper global teaching and research fellow. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the anthologies We Will be Shelter and In Sight: An Ekphrastic Collaboration, as well as the journals 45th Parallel, Bacopa Review, Wordgathering, the American Journal of Poetry, and New Mobility among others. Black has taught composition, creative writing, and/or publishing at Arizona State University, Western Washington University, Perryville Women’s Prison, and the National University of Singapore.