Too Much of a Good Thing is Wonderful: An Interview with Dorothy Chan

Interview by Brian Clifton

Dorothy Chan is the author of Revenge of the Asian Woman (Diode Editions, Forthcoming March 2019), 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 Academy of American Poets, The Cincinnati Review, ​The Common, Diode Poetry Journal, Quarterly West, and elsewhere. Chan is the Editor of The Southeast Review and Poetry Editor of Hobart. Beginning in Fall 2019, she will be Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. Visit her website at dorothypoetry.com.

As Dorothy Chan’s bio implies, she’s quite busy. But splitting time between writing, editing, teaching, and all things poetic is something Chan sees as a dream life, a fantasy come true. This idea–the true life fantasy–is something that often surfaces in her poetry whether that is creating the perfect array of dishes for a meal or the fetishization of strangers and celebrities, whether it is Liberace wearing Victoria Secret or a grocery clerk clouded in Chanel. I was lucky enough to talk to Chan about her process, poetic form, and how love and immediacy are at the center of her poetry.

Brian Clifton: Even with your busy schedule, you’re still a prolific writer. Can you tell us a little bit about your writing process? Where do you get inspiration? How does a poem start?

Dorothy Chan: I love this question! I riff on things a lot, because I’m all about that hook. I love immediacy, and I love excess, and I love Liberace’s/Mae West’s quote, “Too much of a  good thing is wonderful.” I like to pile and pile and pile things on: cataloging descriptions of food. I think a lot about my dream menus. It’s like that scene from one of my favorite childhood books, The Phantom Tollbooth, when the characters are at a royal feast, and they create their own dinners by listing their favorite foods. If that’s a game, well, here’s my lineup right now: Lobster Wellington, a dozen raw oysters (no mignonette required), caviar, chef’s choice sushi and sashimi arranged in a nice pattern (let’s hope there’s extra uni), ahi tuna, some rare steak, garlic mashed potatoes, wash it down with a bellini, then some green apple macarons, throw in some lavender and rose macarons as well, sesame ice cream, pistachio gelato…I could go on and on. Oh, and I’d probably take a Bourbon neat to top it all off. And then a slice of grapefruit cake. See? Many times my writing process starts out with a listing of all of my favorite things. I like creating my own universe. And this cataloging doesn’t just apply to food — it might apply to celebrity crushes or underrated films or Japanese paintings or whatever’s walking down the runway this season.  It’s all about excess–let’s enjoy everything.

Sometimes I’ll get my ideas by listening to these two dreamboat British guys on Youtube (because as we know, everything sounds sexier and more articulate in a British accent). Sometimes I’ll be reading a magazine, like Vogue or Elle and I’ll pick out a line and think more about it. Sometimes I’ll just hear something interesting and write it down immediately on the Notes app on my iPhone. And I love how most of the time, I don’t know where I’ll end up. It’s all about feeling and instinct.

BC: What about the triple sonnets? How did you come to that form? It’s so constrained yet overflowing, sort of a middle ground between the single sonnet and the crown.

DC: So this goes back to the Liberace/Mae West quote, “Too much of a good thing is wonderful.” Why have one sonnet when you could have three? Three’s a nice magical number. Oh fun fact: the lucky number in Chinese culture is eight, unlike the seven of Western cultures. I think I landed on the triple sonnet because one just wasn’t enough and three felt right, and I like the sound of “triple.” For instance, “Triple Sonnet, Because You’ve Got That Thing Going On” or “Triple Sonnet for Good Boys, Grandma’s Cookies, and Girls with their Cream Cheese and Lox,” or “Triple Sonnet for Goldilocks and the Three Boys.”

I really love your observation about how the triple sonnet is “so constrained yet overflowing” and how it’s “sort of a middle ground between the single sonnet and the crown.” I think that describes it perfectly. Sometimes I’m in the mood for a crown, but my crowns are typically eight sonnets long, rather than seven (again, because eight’s the lucky number in Chinese culture). Eight is also infinite. I think a lot about what my mentor from Cornell and one of my favorite poets of all-time, Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon says about the sonnet: “It’s a box of tension and release.” I think about how the form restricts, yet when you’re only allowed ten syllables and fourteen lines, you really think about what’s important. You’re not going to waste space or words. And add three onto that. Three’s a magical number, like ten and especially like fourteen. I think of the triple sonnet as my own special delicacy.

BC: Your triple sonnets definitely strike a balance between oppositions–the infinite and the restricted. In a similar way, your work balances “the poetic” and kitsch–from teen dramas and soap operas, to b-movies and showgirls. How do you see your work connecting with kitsch or pop culture? And more generally, how do you see pop culture and poetry interrogating each other?

DC: Yes! Do you watch Riverdale? Riverdale’s great. That’s where I came up with the lines, “oh you, teen / hotties, what is with you and cramped spaces / and abs abs abs,” from “Triple Sonnet for Autoerotica,” which is a poem in Revenge of the Asian Woman.  I think kitsch and pop culture are everything.  I have this fondness for kitsch, especially because my parents live in Las Vegas, and one of my most pivotal trips in my childhood was a family one to Las Vegas (before my parents moved there). I remember going to Caesar’s Palace for the first time, and of course, at the time that was the “hot” hotel. Remember those Friends episodes when they go to Las Vegas and stay at Caesar’s Palace? And now when I visit my parents and drive past gentleman’s clubs and see statues of Greek (or Roman?) goddesses outside or even when I visit Caesar’s Palace now, I think a lot about the anachronism of it all. I mean, did Caesar even have a palace? And why is there this weird mix of replica Greek and Roman statues? And then there’s all these slot machines and Celine Dion and a great buffet. And it feels like Liberace land of yesteryear. Like, right in front of Nobu, there’s a replica of Michelangelo’s David  and I see all these tourists go crazy, taking photos with their selfie sticks. But I mean why wouldn’t you go crazy? David, even the “fake” one, is ripped.

The above really shows my thought process and associative patterns. I think pop culture and poetry work well together because they’re an unexpected match. It’s such an interesting juxtaposition. Like, to many people, poetry feels like this highly academic and elevated genre. But, poetry works best when you can grasp onto something from it, and then feel that sublime, orgasmic feeling. It’s like, have you ever had bacon-wrapped dates? They’re delicious! And you wouldn’t expect that combination. Or bacon-wrapped cherry tomato yakitori. Poetry interrogates popular culture because at times, popular culture feels like the opposite of “elegant” and “poetic.” So how do we make it poetic? How do we make it timeless? How do we make careful ekphrastic references that won’t feel out of place ten, even five years later? Well, it’s all about excess. Yes, making references is a risk, but we might as well go all in.

BC: The kitsch aspect is just one thing connecting your books. There’s also food, sexuality, culture, fetishization, etc. What do you see as the main thematic connections between Chinatown Sonnets, Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold, and Revenge of the Asian Woman?

DC: All of the above. And then there’s also fantasy, whether that fantasy’s a Spirited Away-esque food fantasy or a Victoria’s Secret catalog-type fantasy (oh, by the way, Savage x Fenty is much better for many, many political reasons; I’m just using “Victoria’s Secret catalog” as a Mary Ruefle-esque reference)  or a tender fantasy between lovers who are booking a love hotel in Japan and are ready for some craziness of “Under the Sea” themed rooms or bird cages or “In the Space Station” themed rooms. Fantasy is everything, especially when you aim to create your own poetic worlds.

BC: Oh, that’s interesting. Fantasy sort of ties together what you’ve been saying about process, form, as well as poetry and pop culture. It’s like the immediate version of the sublime, or a release from the temporary and mundane. Does this get at what you mean by “fantasy is everything” in terms of your poetry? Or how do you see the idea of fantasy in dialogue with your craft?

DC: Yes! I love that. Fantasy totally is the “immediate version of the sublime.” In my poetic worlds, everything is larger-than-life, so for example, you don’t just get one sonnet; you’ll get at least three. And you don’t just get one piece of dim sum; you get a whole feast.  And a centerfold will be fifty-feet tall.  And hotel rooms have endless caviar and stripper poles and round beds and Picassos on the wall and bowling alleys and pools that run on and on for miles.  It’s endless and infinite. Fantasy and craft work hand in hand: if we write poetry to release a feeling or an emotion, then for me, it’s important to release all these emotions into really really beautiful worlds. I don’t want to just release how I feel; I want to release how I feel and create a fantasy world at the same time.

The writing process is simply more fun that way. I think a lot about what my mentor and poetry mother, Barbara Hamby says about image. Image is everything and when poems end on an image, the reader has this lasting imprint.

BC: But you’re not just a writer. You’re also an editor. How has the experience behind Submittable changed your writing or submission practices? What do you look for in poems that come into The Southeast Review and Hobart?

DC: Submittable’s the best! I love everyone at Submittable and the service they provide to the literary community. Here’s a shout-out to the lovely Rachel Mindell! I remember when I started working on The Southeast Review  at the end of my first-year of the PhD. Alex Quinlan and I met up at a coffee shop and we discussed transitioning from the free submissions manager to Submittable, and then bam! All these great things starting happening!

I think Submittable motivates me. I like to check the number on the queue to make sure I’m submitting frequently enough.

When I read poems for The Southeast Review and Hobart, I look for works that express both a sense of urgency and immediacy and a sense of necessity.  It’s like “What’s really at stake here?” I ask this question to myself and then to my fellow editors. And also, “Am I in love with this poem?” Falling in love’s great. 

Brian Clifton is a PhD. student at the University of North Texas. His work can be found in: Pleiades, Guernica, Cincinnati Review, Salt Hill, Prairie Schooner, The Journal, Beloit Poetry Journal, and other magazines. He is an avid record collector and curator of curiosities.