Under Pressure: Dorothy Chan

Dorothy Chan, author of Revenge of the Asian Woman

Revenge of the Asian Woman, Dorothy Chan

Dorothy Chan is the author of Chinese Girl Strikes Back (Spork Press, forthcoming), Revenge of the Asian Woman (Diode Editions, March 2019), Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold (Spork Press, 2018), and the chapbook Chinatown Sonnets (New Delta Review, 2017). She is a 2019 recipient of the Philip Freund Prize in Creative Writing from Cornell University, a 2014 finalist for the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in POETRY, The American Poetry Review, Academy of American Poets, The Cincinnati Review, Quarterly West, The Offing, and elsewhere. Chan is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and Poetry Editor of Hobart.


Bina Ruchi Perino: We love the titles of your books and poems. Talk to us about your titles!

Dorothy Chan: Oh gosh, I love talking about titles. I could teach a whole semester’s workshop just on titles. My trick is to aim for titles that are four words or longer—don’t be afraid to give it all away—more is better. I always remember what my mentor Alberto Ríos said about lines: “The best line of the poem is the one that I am reading, and this does not exclude the title.” One time he told me that one of my poems shouldn’t be titled “Balloon Animals,” but instead, “Balloon Animals Set Free in Ibiza.” He was right.

Regarding my book titles, I like to joke that I have this hidden obsession with Star Wars (even though I know almost nothing about Star Wars), because my first three book titles are as follows: Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold (Spork Press, 2018), Revenge of the Asian Woman (Diode Editions, 2019), and Chinese Girl Strikes Back (Spork Press, forthcoming). So, Attack, Revenge, and Strikes Back. And yes, I know that Attack and Revenge are titles of the franchise’s prequels, but still, it’s fun to have this “trilogy” of first books. It’s a happy coincidence how the titles worked out.

Also, when you think about effective poem titles, think about timeliness movie titles, like Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) or Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (2000) or It Happened One Night (1934). And of course, The Empire Strikes Back (1980). And oh, fun fact: Who Framed Roger Rabbit doesn’t contain a question mark, because the creators thought it’d be bad luck to have a question mark in a title—it’d be like questioning the success of the film. I apply this same idea to my poetry. I rarely use question marks. Even questions end in periods. Clipped sentences. Always be sure of yourself.

BRP: How long did it take for your first book to gestate? From conception to publication.

DC: I have about the worst memory, but it started as far back as my undergraduate years at Cornell. At Cornell, I was lucky enough to be mentored by Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon. Lyrae is such a legend. And we’re still very close today. I remember writing two sonnet crowns in her workshop, and then one of them became the basis for my New Delta Review chapbook, Chinatown Sonnets, which is also a section in Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold (2018).

BRP: How do you feel about deadlines? Are they a good or bad pressure for you?

DC: I do. This past summer I was on a strict one-poem-a-day schedule. It’s like vitamins.

I’m weird. I actually love pressure.

BRP: Who are you crushing on arts-wise?

DC: Gucci. Seriously. Have you seen their new furniture and décor? I especially love their blue seashell-shaped chairs and jellyfish wall dividers and their fun throw pillows with teddy bears, and tigers, and the infamous Gucci logo. It’s all so gorgeous and luxurious. I want to live in a movie that features that furniture.

Well, that was my answer from the past summer. I’m just very much driven aesthetically. Right now, I’m re-crushing on a bunch of East Asian artists, like Ren Hang, Nguan, Yoshitomo Nara, Ai Yamaguchi, and Jang Koal.

Oh, I also love going on the Pantone app and looking up my favorite colors.

BRP: Besides writing, what other daily rituals do you participate in or feel are important to your writing?

DC: I’m not sure if this is good or bad, but I drink a lot of coffee and green tea.

I also watch Riverdale every Thursday. Riverdale is the greatest show on television. I’m kidding but I also 100% mean that. It contains film noir, melodrama, mystery, teen angst, a mix of high and low fashion, and many other things I love.

I also like taking a bath in the middle of the night. This helps clear my head and get into poetry mode.

BRP: What is a favorite piece of advice from a mentor of yours? How did it help you with your writing?

DC: Everything my poetry dad, Norman Dubie has ever told me. He is everything.

Here’s a piece of his advice that will help everyone (paraphrased): I remember the first day of Norman’s workshop, the first day of the MFA at Arizona State. He told us to stay healthy, to eat well, and to limit our drinking. He said it was important to stay healthy because staying healthy also ensures good poetry and longevity of career.

I always think about Norman’s advice. The poetry world can feel so competitive sometimes, but it’s also important to keep the big picture in mind, in more ways than one. So, it’s important to stay healthy. If you’re not healthy, you can’t write your best poems. You can’t organize full-length collections. You can’t keep a clear, calm, and steady mind.

BRP: Do you keep a journal, or do you prefer to write on anything you can find?

DC: Right now, there’s about twenty or so Post-its on my desk, all filled with notes for the next next book.

I also keep journals, of course. They’re especially handy while traveling. But I think I actually jot down ideas on my iPhone Notes app the most. At times, I’ll have 100+ notes, all with poem ideas and opening lines.

BRP: When it comes to writing/editing, would you consider yourself an editor or more of a curator?

Both. Always. I was telling my students this the other day: I love the part of the book process when you print out all your poems, lay them on the floor, and arrange and re-arrange their order. I love both the micro and macro aspects of revision. One technique I always reinforce in the classroom (regarding revision) is to do multiple “test runs” of the same poem, so make multiple copies of the same poem and don’t be afraid to really get in there and do major overhaul.

BRP: When and how does inspiration find you? For example, do you go outside to find it in nature, or does it suddenly come to you in the middle of the night?

DC: I’m not a nature person at all. More like inspiration from midnight to 4 AM, honestly. I also don’t necessarily believe in epiphanies. I believe in putting ideas to the page almost immediately.

BRP: If given the choice to spend 24 hours in a museum creating something, what medium would you prefer?

DC: I’m totally designing a whole fashion line. The problem is that I can’t sew. But I would get over that in order to make something very memorable. I wish I could have my own fashion line IRL. It’d be a mix of tomboy chic and Harajuku style, plus a little bit of early to mid-2000s celebutante. Oh, and also a little bit of Ivy League prep. Very eclectic yet practical. Street style at its finest. Very sexy too.  

BRP: Tell us about your new book and your new recipe form.

DC: The Triple Sonnet is my favorite form in Revenge of the Asian Woman. It’s basically three sonnets in a row, or to refer to my favorite quote by Liberace/Mae West: “Too much of a good thing is wonderful.” I think the sonnet is the perfect form, so why have only one when you could have three in a row?

Revenge is set up in a triptych structure: I. Chinese Soap Opera, II. On the Menu, and III. Hong Kong Babe in Vegas. It’s about excess, it’s about “it,” and it’s about awakening. Here’s my elevator pitch: “Who doesn’t think kissing is the greatest thing / in the world other than eating?” Revenge of the Asian Woman comes to life on a sexed-up soap opera / B-movie platter where passion and food and fantasy reign supreme: excess in the form of full odes and triple sonnets with towers of macarons and carnival desserts and Hong Kong street food on a skewer—and make it a double.

The Recipe is the new form I recently invented, and there’s a whole section of these recipe poems in my forthcoming collection, Chinese Girl Strikes Back. There’s literally a recipe in the middle of the poem—I mean, what’s better than food and poetry? I love this third book so much. It’s just so decadent.

Order Revenge of the Asian Woman here!