Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold (Spork Press, 2018)
What’s your book about?
Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold is all woman. It’s an ode to all your fantasies and nightmares and desires. It’s the idea of reversing the heteronormative male gaze and instead, focusing on the female gaze—in my collection, woman becomes the sex subject rather than the sex object.
More specifically, the speakers of my poems are mostly independent Chinese American women. They’re the alpha females who “refuse to be the only one with / feminine wiles” (“Ode to Nurses, Love Hotels, and Marilyns on the Covers of Playboy,” originally published in The Boiler). They’re the ones combating fetishization, particularly of minority women, while at the same time both refusing and honoring the Asian traditions they come from. My speakers may talk a lot about sex, but they’re also tracing back their family histories in conversation. For instance, in the opening poem, “My Father is the Son of a Concubine,” originally published in Duende, the speaker is first remarking on how “It’s crazy how much cleavage the concubines / on the hot, new Hong Kong soap are showing,” but then transitions into a familial tracing of her father’s past as the son of a concubine, which in this context means second wife.
On a practical level, the book is divided into three parts: I. Snake Daughter, II. My Chinatown (我 的 中國 城), a quadruple crown of sonnets, and III. Centerfolds, Histories, and Fantasies.
What obsessions led you to write your book?
Here’s a comprehensive-obsessions-list: food and sex, food and sex, food and sex, the Chinese Zodiac, B-movies, Old Hollywood Glamour, Hong Kong, my parents’ past, the abridged story of how my parents met, my celebrity crushes, intersectional feminism, the female gaze, popular culture, snakes and eels, the sonnet, the ode, Playboy, queer culture, Japanese love hotels, anime, kitsch and visual art, fashion (both haute couture and ready-to-wear), and Las Vegas.
What songs soundtrack your making of your book?
A lot of drag queen music, in particular The AAA Girls’ latest album, Access All Areas.
What’s the oldest piece in your book? Or can you name one poem that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the book? What do you remember about writing it?
To be honest, each of my three sections contains at least one poem that catalyzed the rest of the book. I’m going to name the highlights: in I. Snake Daughter, it’s “Ode to All My Flings Who Have Hated Dim Sum,” originally published in Hobart; in II. Chinatown (我 的 中國 城), a quadruple crown of sonnets, it’s I. Chinatown From the Movies,” originally published in The Great American Poetry Show; and in III. Centerfolds, Histories, and Fantasies, it’s the title poem, “Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold With the Killer Legs,” originally published in SELFISH.
“Ode to All My Flings Who Have Hated Dim Sum” really represents the vibe of my poetry: Chinese American female speaker is unsatisfied with the men around her, and this pattern brings to light bigger issues such as fetishization, “Yellow Fever,” and microaggressions. She narrates how, “I’m sure none of these guys get it—/ they’ve called me 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.” Food is inherently tied to both culture and family, and this speaker has had enough: she no longer wants to explain to her dates the difference between buns and dumplings. She can now enjoy all the food by herself. And she’s most certainly not taking any of these boys back to Kowloon to meet her grandparents.
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your book?
To me, the idea of three sections is just so beautiful because it pays homage to the triptych in art history. I love the idea of books in three sections. Three beautiful columns.
Regarding my title, I really have my mentor Barbara Hamby to thank—Barbara is a goddess. We were looking at my table of contents at Black Dog Café, this great place in Tallahassee. I remember my poem, “Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold With the Killer Legs” jumped out at Barbara, and she suggested shortening it to the title it is now, Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold. It’s an ideal number of syllables. Barbara’s selection inspired me to challenge my Poetic Technique students to create titles that are five words or longer. On a side note, regarding the title poem, I really have my mentor, David Kirby to thank for the capital “W” in “With the Killer Legs.” He told me to change it to a capital “W” to make my poem more like a Prince song. Brilliant.
How do you decorate your writing space?
Haha! I remember this was the question I suggested in my Chinatown Sonnets interview. Thank you, William. I decorate my space with a lot of knickknacks, Kidrobot Blind Box toys, Sanrio figurines, and little gifts from friends. I like a lot of color and animation. I hate the stereotype that artists and writers can only work when moody. You’ve got to be able to write regardless of mood.
Do you have a favorite revision strategy? What is it?
I like to do what I call a “test run.” I think it’s crucial for poets to be willing and able to revise over and over and over and over again. The “test run” doesn’t necessarily refer to a specific strategy or device, but what it means is having the poet keep the original copy of the poem, make a copy, and then experiment the craziest ideas on that new copy. And then repeat, repeat, repeat. It’s important not to get too attached to the work in its original form—that makes one unnecessarily defensive. Instead, it’s important to test out any and all new ideas. Innovate. Do a “test run” on a poem like you would a “test drive” on a brand new vehicle.
What question would you like to ask future writers featured at Speaking of Marvels?
What’s your beverage and/or snack of choice while writing?
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 Poetry Journal, Quarterly West, Blackbird, and elsewhere. Chan is the Editor of The Southeast Review.