Welcome back to the second half of our interview with Angela Veronica Wong regarding her collection of poems titled “how to survive a hotel fire.” Please read on for more insight and links to learn more about Ms. Wong and how to obtain a copy for yourself:
8.) “In Which Our Heroine Prepares For A Climax” the poem makes me think of “trying to keep it together.” In other words, trying to hold in all the emotions, ideas of the world inside you. Can you tell us a little more about this poem? I especially love the second stanza where “she/ignores new things because/she can’t understand what they want.” I often feel like that myself, the world is full of changes I cannot understand and it is frustrating at times. Is that idea where this poem came from? (Poem below).
In Which Our Heroine Prepares For A Climax
These days she
ignores new things because
she can’t understand what they want.
Outside her window the city
is ripping something apart solely
for the sake of putting it back together again.
Inside her skin holds her body in place.
Inside orchids open, just like that.
Things are repeatedly lost.
Yes, definitely a nervousness about change in general, though in this poem I was thinking more directly about the beginning and ends of relationships. I was working, again, with this outside/inside theme (public/private, internal/external, feelings/actions) and ending on the word “crane,” I liked that it represents the crane, the machine, a symbol of (re)building and the crane, the bird, and of course all the symbolism of those strangely beautiful birds too.
9.) Your section titled “What We Learn About Trust” sounds more to me like learning to distrust. There are poems about bad dreams, broken things, of small, bad things happening such as blisters, broken blueberries when making muffins, crying, sleeping through things that are happening around you. How did this section of prose come about? What was the inspiration behind it? Below, a prose piece from the section about suffocating next to someone the narrator is sleeping next to which sounds like a Freudian version of feeling suffocated emotionally and/or mentally:
the same night and earlier i was falling asleep
and dying, hands like a wrench around my neck
and breathing no longer an option. i was lucid
dreaming, i knew i was being strangled. i knew i
was dying. i knew i was lying next to you.
I wrote this fourth section mostly during and after a trip took me to Morocco and Tokyo, and maybe also in a response to the “In Which” section before. It was a really strange time in the world; I went to Morocco about a week after the bombing in Casablanca, and a few days after Bin Laden, and there were still major aftershock earthquakes in Japan – the one-line poem about sleeping through an earthquake came from when apparently we had slept through a somewhat significant aftershock earthquake after a late night out. I think this series was a lot of me processing the trip, the preparation and the coming back as well as the huge and small unknowns surrounding things we took/take for granted.
Plus, trust is hard, it’s a dangerous, terrifying, tender, quiet thing. But its presence is essential for any relationship to work and you can’t half-ass trust. Trusting someone is letting go of that self-protecting, self-survival instinct to control and run away. And sometimes what happens is that the earth shakes, and tears itself apart. Sometimes blueberries burst while you are trying to make muffins. But once you get past the terror, maybe it’s electrifying to trust in someone else.
I said earlier that I was trying to negotiate the uncertainty of the personal in the physical world around us, but I guess maybe it can be turned around too. Some really amazing experiences and people came into my life by chance while I was writing these poems, and in a large part due to all of this uprooting of things we thought we knew. That is a major part of the collection.
10.) The following prose piece describes bed sheets and folding, uncurling, of sleeping alone. It reminds me of the way someone feeling down might stay in bed and limit their focus to their bedroom to avoid more painful subjects or feelings. Can you tell us the circumstances that brought this poem about?
i’d like to spend the remainder of my time
discussing: how a bedsheet gathers where there is
just one body: sleeping: alone :: that curve and
cutout over the mattress like the sweep of a door:
opening: the edges of fabric braiding into itself
and how making the bed requires: uncurling: like
a piece of parchment a declaration an admission
I think I wrote this after getting back from Tokyo, and was feeling that sort of silence – not always a bad silence, but a silence – that comes when you’re back to being alone after spending a lot of time with someone.
There are a lot of beds in this collection. You are totally right – the bed, the bedroom, is where we take solace when we are emotionally or physically debilitated; it can be a site of solitude and comfort. But it’s also the site of intimacy and connection. I believe the bed is the heart of the house. It is often the place life begins and ends. There’s something unbelievably powerful about the bed as site, as physical space.
11.) We come to a section titled “How To Survive A Hotel Fire” which is not only the title of the collection as a whole but the title of each poem and prose piece within. What was the inspiration behind these poems which encompass a variety of subjects and feelings such as love, potential disasters, sex, and growing up. It makes me think of a person wading through their past and trying to climb to the surface unscathed. How did this collection come about and why the same title for each piece?
Last year, at AWP 2011 in Washington D.C., in a drawer of the desk in the room, I found a pamphlet that was chapbook size entitled: How To Survive A Hotel Fire. I wrote the first few Hotel Fire poems on the bus ride back to NYC, and then most of the rest of the poems were written on a tear in the next two months. Every poem I wrote during that time seemed to be a Hotel Fire poem – there was some sort of an enormous urgency, a bravado and a bruising that I was exploring through them – that’s why they all share the same, or similar titles.
But now, also, I think the idea of hotel as place is so interesting – I think about Bachelard’s A Poetics of Space and the way he rather brilliantly unpacks the spaces of our homes—attics, basements, wardrobes—as it intersects as infused with our experiences and our lives. It’s interesting to think of a hotel within the context of public/private space, because it manages to be both public AND private, to be ours but not ours, and also the concept of a hotel room versus a hotel. Of how our own transience influences our understanding of space like a hotel room, and hotel beds, allowing for hotels to become “home” even know we know it is not home. And how knowing that allows us to explore alternate personalities than our “normal,” everyday versions of self.
12.) This poem about heartbreak is dramatic and funny because so many women can relate to the various scenes depicted in this poem and the intense emotions that well up from these scenes. I love the lines “which is to say i/need a boyfriend because carrying my own stuff/is boring.” I think most people can relate to the idea that they get tired of their own woes and would like to be burdened with someone else’s for a change or to unload them on an unsuspecting victim. How did this piece come to fruition?
How To Survive A Hotel Fire
first stop the fucking tears because it’s pathetic, really, all this crying like you
are a single woman at home on valentine’s day, watching a particularly relevant
romantic comedy. just because you are in the airport
doesn’t mean there is a home to return to. just because you were fucked
against a wall doesn’t mean it will happen again. in fact,
i’ve never been kicked out like that before. i can barely
bear anything anymore, which is to say i
need a boyfriend because carrying my own stuff
is boring. when i sneeze i think: this is how i will die: caught
somewhere between all those things that
weren’t and the ways we prepared. a secret is: i’ll love you
even if you can’t keep my hands warm while we make up animals
and place them in zoos. or: there is little to express when you wake up too late.
i can list the things i didn’t mean to do on two hands.
I think I wrote this at an airport, at Newark. I’m pretty sure I texted that boyfriend line to my friend Maggie and then promptly thought: that needs to go into a poem.
This was one of the first Hotel Fire poems, and I was thinking a lot about “steps” to follow in “how to” situations, which is why it starts out with “First … .” There are a couple of poems like that in the section, though even the ones that are not explicit about instructions are still fairly instructive and demanding on the reader. (I think of someone who saw these poems very early on and said, “Wow, I’ve never been told what to do so much by poems). I think too, this is another one of those poems where it’s loud and brash (and definitely starts out that way) but underneath it just wants a hug and wants to be allowed to love and be loved.
13.) Then there is this poem of the same title that is quite a bit more upbeat. There is hope and brighter disposition in the words of this poem about the little pleasures in life and I’d like to know why you stuck to the same title and how this came into the same grouping as the rest of the “hotel fire” poems?
How To Survive A Hotel Fire
in ways our lives are collections of pleasures: the first grocery trip on return from vacation to
stock an empty fridge, the smell of a new bar of soap, the bright pattern on the cover of a
notebook, flipping thin pages of a hotel Bible, peeling the rind of a clementine.
like a dancer being unwound by her partner we center and collect, each line rejoining at the
Okay, so this is the point where I say: I hope people don’t think that the whole collection is or all the poems are down and depressing! I actually would say that as much disappointment and heartbreak that probably can be seen in these poems, the collection is almost all about hope – the hope to love and be loved.
I think the Hotel Fire poems are more about that first part of the title—How To Survive—than the latter. So even though the tone of the poems may differ wildly, they are fundamentally about this same thing. They’re not about the disaster. They’re about the living. And while the living can sometimes be a disaster, the living is beautiful and wonderful! We all have different definitions for what makes living beautiful and wonderful. I love going grocery shopping and bar soap. Each day I wake up hoping I will find someone who will love those things with me.
14.) The final section titled “In the Kingdom We Are Now” has just one piece of the same title that is about a princess and the world she lives in. It reads like a flash fiction story about a girl whose life is so sheltered she does not even recognize her own feeling of remorse or that there are people who live a different life from her across the seas. Where did this story come from and why do you use it as the closing to your collection? It brings home the idea that the world we hope for is often not what turns out to be.
The epigraph of this poem is from Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Snow Queen” and really I just thought it was an incredible sentence. I knew I wanted to write something from it. I love fairytales—the way they stand as both morals and warnings, as hopeful romanticisms and secret ambitions, I love how dark they are, I love the way they reflect of our most intense good and bad desires.
I can see why you read it as a story of a girl who is sheltered, though I suppose I think of it more like a story of a girl who is exploring isolation and that feeling of loneliness without really knowing how to address it. I think I wanted her to experience these seemingly singular, simple emotions but also show that there is no such thing as a singular, simple emotion – we are all complicated human beings being complicated with other complicated human beings.
When I organize a manuscript of poems, I look to create a narrative arc through the collection—of course I want each poem to stand alone, but I also want there to be a conversation that the poems are having with each other. I am interested in how each poem is changed or affected by the other poems that are included in the book.
Ending the book with that line is not necessarily an indication that the world that we hope for is impossible to achieve, or not the way it is, but just saying that there are many versions of ourselves that are out there, many ways our lives could have turned out and didn’t. I don’t mean for it to be a judgment on whether this current version is good, or bad.
And also, if the “In Which” poems are my attempt at constructing a fairy tale, this last piece serves as fairytale. Maybe not the whole tale, but a part of it. I think that there probably are many ways to show how the princess got to where she is at the beginning of the piece, and many ways for her to carry on after the piece. But this last section is only a vignette of a life, and I do still believe that this whole collection is more about hope than about sadness, more about love than about heartbreak, more about the potential than about the failures.
(I should make a note here that originally, I had tried to include this poem in the Hotel Fire series, because I wrote it in the middle of writing all the HF poems. I sent about 15 of the Hotel Fire poems to Katherine Sullivan and YesYes Books when they generously asked me to be a part of their Poetry Shots, and she pulled it out and put it at the end, which immediately made sense to me and felt right. This is why good editors are so important.
Bruce, too, throughout the whole process of this book was so great. He challenged me to investigate the decisions I had made, and he listened to my crazy ideas and was so insightful in his responses. While I don’t think we made too many changes to the manuscript, but just having conversations about the manuscript, I feel the confidence I developed in my decisions made the manuscript stronger.)
Thank you, Ms. Wong, for allowing me to interview you. Please let us know what you are working on now and what we can look for in the future?
I have a chapbook that will come out on Dancing Girl Press in the fall. Also, my collaborative chapbook with Steven Karl has just come out on Lame House Press, and I really love the poems in that chapbook – I can say that because Steven is awesome. The inimitable Amy Lawless and I have been working on a collaboration, which I think will be an emotional slaughtering. And I’m also just doing readings to support how to survive a hotel fire. If anyone is looking to fill reading spots, give a holler!
If you enjoyed this interview and would like a copy of how to survive a hotel fire for yourself, you may purchase a copy from Coconut Books for $16.00 at:
To read the interview about Ms. Wong and her collection at Cold Front, go to:
To learn more about Angela Veronica Wong, find more of her published work and learn about her writing, please visit her website at:
Thanks always for reading, please stop by tomorrow for more Poems Found by Poet Hound…