THE BELIEVER: Your debut collection is now out in the world, but I want to begin by casting back a few years. I remember you used to share poems as Facebook updates. They were so good, and I always thought, Why don’t they have a book? I’m curious what that period of more informal circulation allowed.
Wo Chan: I haven’t thought about my Facebook obsession for a while. That was a different time in my life; I was a different person. I liked that Facebook and social media gave me immediate validation, which isn’t the deepest form of feedback, but it was what I needed at that moment. In that era, writers on Facebook were so supportive and you could have these wonderfully contained conversations. The format was also good for my attention span and specifically my capacity to hold pain, which is still pretty nonexistent, though I’m working on it.
THE BELIEVER: I have always admired your drag, and wonder how performing in drag has brought about today’s Wo Chan.
Wo Chan: I think my drag offers a similar comfort to writing online, actually. If you’re a drag queen, when you get onstage, there is an understanding among queer people that the audience will validate you. They support you for getting onstage and being brave. Even if you’re having a bad day performing.
THE BELIEVER: Your poetry and drag seem to have evolved and grown alongside each other. I’m especially interested in how you’ve used the screen in drag performances, projecting text behind you.
Wo Chan: Yes! This is kind of a joke, but I love being introduced as the progenitor of PowerPoint drag. You know how in poetry school people say that every line should be strong enough to be the title? I think about that when I set up slides: every slide should be strong enough that if someone takes a picture of it, it should have some kind of resonance. So it’s never just me standing in front of a PowerPoint that says the word and, right? That doesn’t really do anything. It has to be a phrase that interacts with my body. Combining poetry with drag has given me a way to express nuance beyond the limitations of my body. Some people are flexible; some people can do cartwheels; some people just have a wider range of physical expression. So I realized I could bring my poetic strengths to the drag scene, which is of course already so interdisciplinary.
THE BELIEVER: There’s a sequence of poems in the collection that are all in the second person. Could you talk about those?
Wo Chan: I wrote those second-person prose poems in 2014 and 2015. I remember I was reading Claudia Rankine’s books Citizen and Don’t Let Me Be Lonely—so they are deeply influenced by her work—but at the time I was also just really obsessed with watching Chopped. I had recently moved to New York, and I think it was comforting to watch people work in a kitchen, the environment in which I grew up. I’d also go to Chinatown for dinner and listen to the sound of stainless steel trays hitting stainless steel tables and people speaking in Fuzhou dialect. If I closed my eyes, suddenly I’d be eight years old again. In that kind of moment it feels like another voice is talking about me or at me through the atmosphere. That’s what the second person feels like to me.
THE BELIEVER: As an early reader of your work, I’ve noticed your enduring attraction to the disgusting and the repulsive. I wondered if you could talk more about how you are drawn to that material.
Wo Chan: Many of my earliest memories involve repulsive things—or maybe they’re just what I choose to remember. For example, my relationship to cockroaches: Growing up in a restaurant, I was trained that if I saw a roach, I would go into Terminator mode. As subtly as possible, I would walk up to it in front of a dining room full of patrons and step on it. Once, when I was still in China and living in this one-bedroom apartment with my brothers and my mom, I was playing in the kitchen and I pulled out a screw from underneath the table, and a cascade of roaches fell onto my face. It was terrifying. Ten years later, now in the United States, there was an era in our restaurant life when we were constantly fighting the roaches. One time we got shut down. That was the only vacation we ever took, when the health inspector shut us down. We splurged on a new type of roach killer, and for months there would be straggling roaches, bleeding out, dazed and confused. So there was a recurring vileness. But I think, as a queer person, I could accept this. Bodies are bodies and we have to accept them. Nature is nature and we have to be a part of it.
THE BELIEVER: I admire the urgency—and, is it anger?—in some of these poems. In the second-person prose poems, as you read down the lines, it’s like watching a fuse burn toward a bomb.
Wo Chan: Yes, there is anger. I think about how I can catalog and throw everything about my body at the state, and it does not matter, because to the state I will always be a number, an alien number. Still, there are memories that I protect. That I don’t write about. I always thought I was supposed to write about my deportation hearing, for instance, but I never could bring myself to do it. I actually don’t know if I want to share that moment of my life with the whole world.
BLVR: I remember you alluding to that on Facebook. In Togetherness, you do include some of the letters of support that you gathered during the deportation appeal. Why did you decide to include them?
WC: There are multiple purposes, one of which is to ground the reader in my real-world experience. But I’m also fascinated by the linguistic performance of the letters. There’s a certain algebra or calculation that goes into these kinds of letters of appeal. Each person writes toward a particular idea of what makes a good American citizen. My friend’s dad, the city manager, wrote, “The Chans always paid their taxes on time and they’re always the last ones to get home, to go home.” That’s why we should stay in America? It’s just wild.