“Food is probably my favorite thing to write about because it reveals so much about a culture.”
Chinatown Sonnets (New Delta Review, 2017)
Could you share with us a poem (or excerpt) from your chapbook? Perhaps one that introduces the work of the chapbook, or that invites the reader into the world of the chapbook?
Here’s an excerpt from one of my favorites, “III. Chinatown Dogs Carnival”:
Chinatown dogs drool over cake and duck,
watching the dangling ducks from the windows:
the pig-heads hanging and coffee-brown bags
sucking duck fat the way club girls chug drinks
This is a sonnet that’s part of the first section, titled “Jack and Faye.” An earlier version of this poem can also be found in The Great American Poetry Show.
What obsessions led you to write your chapbook?
I love food. Food is probably my favorite thing to write about because it reveals so much about a culture, from early morning dim sum with grandparents (when my grandmother orders her porridge and we always order a sampler platter that consists of har gow, shumai, chrysanthemum jelly, char siu bao, a plain bao, and Chinese ravioli) to eight-course family dinner celebrations that include Hong Kong staples such as abalone, (faux) shark’s fin soup, roasted duck, Cantonese-style lobster, etc. We pay our respects through food. We also bond over food and learn about our heritage through it
In particular, “III. Chinatown Dogs Carnival” is about those childhood trips my parents and I took to both the Philadelphia and NYC Chinatowns. We’d go on a Saturday and once we arrived, our mission was grocery shopping: buying items we couldn’t get in Allentown, Pennsylvania. A huge part of that trip was also lunch: seriously, if you want authentic Chinese food in Chinatown, go to one of those shops with the dangling ducks in the window. Those places not only have a great selection of meats: duck, chicken, pork, etc., but also delicious noodle bowls you can chow down on while you wait for them to prepare your takeout duck.
Fashion and film are other obsessions of mine. I was a lonely kid growing up, so whenever I finished my homework I wouldn’t be hanging out with friends but turning on Turner Classic Movies or watching and reading about my favorite designer brands. To this day, Roman Polanski’s Chinatown is one of my favorite films, and part of the inspiration for my chapbook. I think it’s beautiful how art, film, fashion, and food can collide into family—it’s like you study your family and their heritage and start to appreciate all those cultural points more.
What’s your chapbook about?
Here’s the elevator pitch: Chinatown Sonnets is a guide on “How to Do East Asia the Hip Way,” presented in the most unlikely of new forms: the sonnet. Revolved around one sonnet per page, readers are guided through a millennial version of East Meets West, West imitates East, Paris in China, and numerous other Postmodern offerings. With the backdrop of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, readers are transported from Paris to China and from Hong Kong to Philadelphia. These poems are all about fast food, fast fashion, fast news, and fast culture. But above all, family comes first.
What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? Or can you name one poem that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?
The current first six poems are my oldest pieces. I don’t want to get too sentimental, but I really have fond memories of writing them. This was back in 2011 when I was an undergraduate at Cornell University. I was taking Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon’s poetry workshop and she challenged us to write a crown of sonnets. I just had so much fun with this challenge—that’s the thing about Lyrae: she’s so great at pushing her students toward even more ambition. Of course, this original crown has been rearranged and revised throughout the years (with the original sonnet 7 completely revamped), but that’s why the collection means so much to me: it’s years of discovering and rediscovering this collection of sonnets.
I distinctly remember drafting that first sonnet, “I. Chinatown From the Movies” because I had just watched Chinatown and I had also just visited Philadelphia’s Chinatown with my parents, and I was thinking about all the romanticizations of Asian culture in western media.
Which poem is the “misfit” in your collection and why?
Oh, the bad boy is definitely “XXI. A Boar Has Escaped the Hong Kong Zoo.” You can read it in the August 2016 issue of Hinchas de Poesia. The poem is just so bizarre. It always makes me laugh.
What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced you?
Lyrae and Elizabeth Alexander have this great chapbook from the Sleepy Hollow Chapbook Series, Slapering Hol Press called Poems in Conversation and a Conversation. This includes poems from both writers and then a conversation between Van Clief-Stefanon and Alexander. My favorite Lyrae poem, “The Buffet Dream,” is included in this.
Terrance Hayes’ Who Are The Tribes was the first chapbook I’ve ever read (in Lyrae’s poetry workshop). Read it.
Norman Dubie, who is a poetry dad to me, has this gorgeous chapbook called The Fallen Bird of the Fields.
My other favorites: Ruth Baumann’s Retribution Binary, SJ Sindu’s I Once Met You But You Were Dead, and Caylin Capra-Thomas’ Inside My Electric City. But really, I don’t want to limit this discussion—I’m discovering new chapbooks every day!
What has the editorial and production experience with your press been like? To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
Oh gosh, I could go on and on about how amazing the staff at New Delta Review is. They are so professional and innovative and kind, with a real passion for poetic craft. I love their journal. Phillip Spotswood, their editor, well, anything I say will be an understatement—he’s the most amazing editor. He has made this process so enjoyable! They’ve also got the best art director, Meghan Saas. Meghan’s vast knowledge of all things font and design is so impressive. Basically, with the cover image, I told her my vision of a neon maneki-neko with a city backdrop, and bam!, she makes it come to life. I really admire her creativity in designing the book layout. She’s so talented and patient.
What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?
Work hard. Work hard. Work hard. Also understand that writing is not the romanticized profession from the movies. You can spend all day talking about writing and claiming to “be a writer” and bring your typewriter to the café for show, or you can actually draft away, take critique, and continuously revise.
Respect your mentors. They know a lot. They’ve been doing this longer than you have, and you should take their every critique into consideration. Also, take a step back and realize that these legendary writers are dedicating time to you. If that’s not humbling, I don’t know what is. Right now, I am so grateful to have my poetry parents, Barbara Hamby and David Kirby, here at Florida State. Their mentorship and friendship mean the world to me.
If you could choose another artistic path (painting, music, dance, etc.) what would it be and why?
I’d love to work in fashion, but I can’t sew. Oh, the irony.
What question would you like to ask future writers featured at Speaking of Marvels?
How do you decorate your writing space?
Dorothy Chan’s chapbook, Chinatown Sonnets, is the winner of New Delta Review’s 2016-2017 Annual Chapbook Contest, selected by Douglas Kearney. She was a 2014 finalist for the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship and a 2017 finalist for the Lena-Miles Wever Todd Prize for Poetry from Pleiades Press. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Blackbird, Plume, The Journal, Spillway, Little Patuxent Review, The McNeese Review, and Salt Hill Journal. She is the Assistant Editor of The Southeast Review.