Snapshot: Angela Veronica Wong

SK: Congrats on your first book, how to survive a hotel fire. How did this book come about? Did you have a variety of poems that you collected over the years or did you have this particular book already in mind and wrote poems towards it?

AVW: I wrote the majority of the manuscript in a whirlwind few months between February 2012 and June 2012 (the exception is the first poem of the book, which I had written in the fall of 2011), and I did not have this manuscript in mind at all before writing it. The first group of poems I wrote were the “HOTEL FIRE” poems, but I knew even as I was writing them that the HF poems could potentially be a chapbook, but not a full manuscript. I knew that the HF poems didn’t possess the dimensionality I wanted in a full-length book.

The other sections were all written as self-contained pieces, as in, once I started to write them, I knew they would be a series sharing certain formal qualities or themes. I didn’t know that they would all fit into one manuscript together, but I hope that if you read the book, you’ll feel like every poem is necessary to its section, and to the book, and every section is necessary to each of the other sections within the book.

I wanted a sense of continuity in the book that spans the separate sections, a feeling that the poems of the book belonged together, which is why images and languages are repeated, as if the sections are variations on a theme. I think having written most of the poems in a short amount of time allowed for this to be natural and unforced.

SK: Your book on one level seems to be very much about “surviving” yet the poems themselves offer no practical advice or assistance in this endeavor. Can you talk a little bit about this section of the book and also touch upon the importance of hotels or a “fixed place” for this book?

AVW: You mean the “HOW TO SURVIVE A HOTEL FIRE” section, right?

SK: Correct.

AVW: The idea of writing the “HOTEL FIRE” poems came out of something more like an exercise. It was just something to do – write poems entitled “HOW TO SURVIVE A HOTEL FIRE.” It certainly wasn’t an intellectual or particularly artistic project when I first thought to write them.

What they became was a means through which I could investigate the disconnect between human beings, an emotional emptiness and the way we construct and protect ourselves against disappointment. And how inevitably the construction and protection fails because for the most part, we want to connect. There was something about having a manual on “how to survive” that really caught inside me. The starkness of that reality is wonderful, if on a somewhat dark premise, the idea that if we follow certain steps, we will survive. Pre-emptive disaster manuals prepare us to act smartly in the face of disaster. But our hearts are kind-of a disaster, and no amount of 1980s and 1990s R&B hits (Whitney Houston’s “Where Do Broken Hearts Go,” anyone? I still maintain that “if somebody loves you/ won’t they always love you” is one of the darkest questions ever posed in a pop song) can prepare us for that. We do foolish things and make foolish decisions on our search to love someone. Which is in no way a caution against loving someone, but the HOTEL FIRE poems (though not whole book), are about that. As loud as they are, and as brash, and self-deprecating and maybe even amusing, are about vulnerability almost more than they are a fuck you for not loving/wanting/needing me. They’re about the bruising that leads to the bravado.

And yes, I think “hotel” as location is certainly interesting. I totally was going to call “hotel” a liminal space and then I wanted to shoot myself, so I’ll just say that I find “hotel” to be interesting in its ambiguity, how it exists in a space between “home” and “away,” “ours” and “not ours.” This shifting space allows for shifting selves, like who we are within the context of “hotel” is different than who we are within the context of “home.” And it’s interesting to think about what happens when our selves are fluid.

I’ve never actually thought of “fixed place” that much within my writing while I was writing until recently, only after people pointed out how much New York plays a role in them. And maybe as a result of that, the newer poems I’ve been writing actively engage with this crazy wonderful heartbreaking city. But I think it’s more that my poems are engage in place because I am informed greatly by where I am physically, and the sort of sensory stimulation that happens when you are part of the world. I was traveling quite a bit when I wrote hotel fire, so certainly all of those travel experiences are in the poems of the book, though they aren’t really named so I don’t know how obvious it is to others. And perhaps because I was feeling so transient, both physically and emotionally, while writing hotel fire, that feeling of transience, that feeling of uncertainty, is really how “place” intersects with the book.

SK: Both Coconut the journal and the press are beloved by many. After taking a hiatus, the press is back full force; it must be exhilarating to be a part of the next wave of Coconut authors. Many poets struggle to find a home for their first books; did you enter a contest? Or if not, how did you find a home with Coconut.

AVW: It’s definitely an honor to be part of Coconut! I was really fortunate—I met Bruce Covey, the editor of Coconut Books, at AWP in 2012. A couple of months later, he sent me an email saying that he had enjoyed my chapbooks (the ones on Cy Gist and Flying Guillotine) and asked if I’d be interested in sending him a manuscript. I sent him over a manuscript, and heard back in the summer that he was interested in publishing it.

Bruce is truly wonderful to work with, and I feel so lucky to have him as the editor of my first book.

SK: Since the unofficial and official release of the book, you’ve managed to do quite a few readings. Where have been so far? Any upcoming readings planned?

It’s been fun reading in support of hotel fire but also in support of our collaborative chapbook, Steven! Which has really been the focus of most of my readings this past spring, and has taken us both through D.C. (In Your Ear Reading Series) and Philadelphia (General Idea Reading Series) and NYC (Southern Writers Reading Series).

Upcoming readings are in NYC – including the New York Poetry Festival on Governor’s Island in July (I’m reading on Sunday), the Boog City Festival in August and a reading and panel in September. I’m scheduled to be in Atlanta in October with a group of awesome Coconut authors. Kate Schapira has kindly extended an invitation to me to read in Providence, which I believe will be happening in early December. I’m a Texas girl, born and raised, and I love a good road trip – if there are reading series looking to fill up spots, give a holler.*

SK: You have also recently had your chapbook Dear Johnny, In Your Last Letter published by Poetry Society of America. Looking at this chapbook, your full length, and having read some of your new “Elsa” poems, it seems like you are drawn to serial poems. Can you talk a bit about this?

AVW: It’s either that I have no self-control, and can’t stop myself at just one poem, or I have major control issues, and need to keep explaining, and keep explaining. Serial poems allow me to burrow into my dark, dark obsessions, to live in them, to consume and be consumed by them, to let the obsession manifest into an engorged monster and explode to the point of vomiting. Gross.

But each of the projects you mentioned, I think I was using the serial poem in a different way, though in all three to address a progression of emotion and all three being some sort of obsessive meditation on love, loving, loss, absence, and heartbreak. For the Dear Johnny poems, I was writing love letters, and I was interested in the form of the love letter, and the presentation and action of loving through the love letter, how to communicate the self through a letter, and how to learn about someone through correspondence. I think I also used the multiple poems as a way to create setting – the Dear Johnny poems are written toward a World War II soldier, so there is language and imagery that hopefully can evoke that setting.

The nature of the serial poems in hotel fire depend on the series (sidenote explanation: the collection consists of six parts, four of which are a series of poems, the opening and ending sections consisting only of one single piece), but I think fundamentally they are all about being a human being who is trying to connect with (an)other human being(s) and how beautiful and how scary that is, even if and when it is fracturing.

For the new Elsa poems, along with the emotionality and explicit rawness that is hopefully the present, driving force in the poems, I also want to use the serial nature of the poems to investigate narrative and character development, as well as the divide, or lack of a divide, between author, poetic persona, and character. Like the Dear Johnny poems, there is a historical inspiration to Elsa, so writing several poems allows for more “information” to be sprinkled throughout, and more “history” to support the poems.

SK: What’s next or what are you currently working on?

AVW: Mostly just Elsa right now. I have been working on what can only become a spectacular collaboration of poems with Amy Lawless. I’m psyched to be part of Niina Pollari and Judy Berman’s “It’s Complicated” anthology, in which feminist writers discuss loving problematic, potentially misogynistic art. http://itscomplicatedproject.tumblr.com/ I’m hoping to do more collaborations outside of poetry. Everything is open and everything is exciting!

*If you are interested in having Angela Veronica Wong read for your series or University please contact through her webpage- www.angelaveronicawong.com.

Read more another interview with Angela Veronica Wong at the Poet Hound.

Interview conducted by Steven Karl.