Angela Veronica Wong’s collection of prose and poems titled how to survive a hotel fire is immense in the best possible way. Section by section I could not put it down and was eager for more. As a result this interview is a little longer than most in order to capture all of the sections in her collection, how to survive a hotel fire. Published by Coconut Books, this collection is humorous, imaginative, and enigmatic. Ms. Wong’s work has appeared in numerous places, her chapbook Dear Johnny, in Your Last Letter is available as a winner of Poetry Society of America New York Fellowship and she has had other chapbooks published by Lame House Press, Cy Gist Press and Flying Guillotine Press respectively. In other words, she is a busy lady whose writing is exciting and far-reaching and I am happy that she is allowing me to pick her brain on her first full-length collection.
1.) Your first full-length collection’s title is borrowed from the title of a collection of poems within this book. The cover features the various symbols for fire, fire extinguishers, phone, and elevator buttons, how did you decide to title your book this way and to feature your cover so that it looks more like a Quality Control Manual than a collection of poems?
The cover is something I felt pretty strongly and clear about from the beginning.
From the outset, I wanted a cover that was stark and minimalist, something that acknowledged its “designness.” And certainly, I wanted a cover that would entice someone to pick it up, and something that might not be a typical poetry cover, whatever that means.
I was fortunate enough to work with a smart and understanding and kind editor, Bruce Covey, who allowed me to take over a little (I was slightly more despotic about it than I am proud of—not just with the cover but with the whole manuscript). I should also mention that the cover was made by the Atlanta-based designer Abby Horowitz, and she was really great. She worked with my original idea, and then creating that wonderful back cover.
One of the interesting conversations that Bruce and I had about the cover came when he suggested using a photo of a real fire extinguisher (as opposed to a drawing/illustration of one). The suggestion prompted me to consider why I wanted to use icons on the cover. It was a move toward deliberate design that may in fact seem to be contrast with the emotional content of the poems in the book, but I believe is reflective of the deliberate construct within the poems and the collection itself.
My hope was that the relationship (both complementary and contradictory) between the aesthetic (exteriors) and the content (interiors) would support the construct of the book, which is that the poems and the contents of the book fundamentally hold a tension between presentation (often the bravado) of self versus interiority and self-reflection, seen in those moments of self-exposure in the poems. The book being constructed around a construct, but also a construct that is about construction.
In other words, if the whole collection is about discovering and managing that tension/struggle, a deliberately designed cover that is self-conscious of its design-ness seemed, to me, true to what the poems inside attempt to accomplish. I want the cover to be unexpected, but I also want it to be a little not-real (hence icons as opposed to actual things, though of course a photograph is not the actual thing, which is another level as well), which is simultaneously done as a slight nod to the commingling of fairy tales and the warning directive of “how to survive a hotel fire,” and to acknowledge that this book is doing a constructing of something (which I hope readers can find under the layers in the poems - like Honor Moore’s amazing blurb saying that this book is the one placed on the piano, referencing a line from the book).
Within this context, there's something interesting about using a sign or a symbol (a warning) of something as opposed to the actual thing itself that would be a tool of prevention more so than a warning. Those “icon” signs are there to warn, whereas the actual axe or fire extinguisher is there to be used. And something about “how to survive a hotel fire” (the title itself, though also the poems of that section, and the whole book) rings more true as a warning—it's a guide that you would read before, not during—and, looping back to constructing and the unrealism, it's something that is an imagined situation.
2.) The introduction includes a parable about a mandarin waiting for a courtesan for 100 days only to leave on the 99th. It is a story that gives the impression of “giving up.” Why this introduction to your collection of poems?
The epigraph is from Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, an exploration/treatise on love as presented through literature and philosophy. The language Barthes uses is often breathtaking, and he manages somehow to animate Love, the Lover and the Beloved, beyond cliché.
I think the parable is a little about “giving up,” but I wonder if it’s also about “moving on.” About how we move on. And how we (as the mandarin) are willing to do crazy things to connect or possess something or someone, and how we (as the courtesan) demand or manufacture space and distance that might be unnecessary or even damaging. In the story Barthes gives us, there is no reason why the courtesan asks the mandarin to wait 100 days. And there’s no reason why the mandarin goes away on the 99th day. The believer in me always wants the ending of this to be different—I always want the mandarin to be still waiting. (Also, random sidenote: there is this somewhat charming Hong Kong movie called Hot Summer Days in which a factory girl makes the boy who likes her stand100 days in the heat before she will date him.) But sometimes that’s the way it is. And sometimes even if there are completely rational, totally understandable reasons behind actions, the actions are still really hard to accept.
I think sometimes to love something, or at least a way to love something, is to accept the possibility of loss, to overcome the fear of losing.
I suppose that is somewhat depressing, but I think it’s also rather brilliantly hopeful, that it’s in spite of pain or heartbreak that we still search to connect, to love, to be with someone.
3.) Overall, your poems and the titles of the sections speak to the idea of lowered expectations and self-deprecating humor, such as your section title (which is also the title of one of your poems) “If You’re Hoping Something Interesting Comes From This I Would Hold Your Breath.” What is your thinking behind this overall feeling and how did you decide to mold it this way?
I recently read this quote from a woman writing on social mockery in mid-seventeenth century France: “To mock well, you must have a fiery intelligence, delicate judgment and a memory full of a thousand different things to use on different occasions." That is a succinct and apt description, right?
Who but yourself do you know the most embarrassing, idiotic things about? I find using self-deprecation as humor a surprisingly delicate task. It’s about balance—it works best when people believe you truly do hate yourself but that you also truly do believe you are better than everyone else. That paradox makes the humor.
I’m not sure if I set out to use self-deprecation as a trope through the collection. I was (and still am) interested in scrubbed-down, raw emotion that creates those kind lines that reflect an almost adolescent sort of melodramatics, and I wanted to see whether or not I could get away with them in the poems. Did I get away with them? I don’t know. But I wanted to play with vulnerability and bravado (as I am really interested in persona), which is probably why the poems are so self-aware. They need that self-deprecating sensibility (like lemon juice, adds acidity) to cut itself down.
4.) Your prose piece (featured below) makes me grin because I can picture anyone who is frustrated doing the same thing. I often feel like throwing my computer out the window when it acts up so how did this piece come about? (Prose piece below)
Every time I feel I’ve lost something I
throw plants over my balcony. I don’t
watch just listen as they hit the sidewalk
The apartment I was living in at the time had a balcony, and I am always desperately trying to cultivate plant life—grow vegetables, herbs, flowers. I really think I was just sitting on the balcony one day and thinking, I am angry and sad and lonely and I am missing someone and I want to be rid of everything I feel and what if I just got rid of everything here instead. It’s also possible that I was really annoyed by people who were making noise on the street.
5.) Your prose piece that starts “Outside children scream like death” caught my eye. In my apartment complex all the children are at the pool screaming the same way and I have stopped looking out my window. How did this piece come about? I especially like the ending line as though you feel guilty for not caring and feel “dirty.” Can you tell us more about this piece and how it came to be? (prose piece below)
Outside children scream like death and I
would worry except I am no mother plus
they are just playing games in the sun. In
the beginning it always feels like a good
idea: moving images onto a big screen and
staying up past nine. I don’t know what I
would say to you if I ever see you again.
The feeling of not caring for someone is
a revelation. The acknowledging of caring
for someone is a wave breaking. Hush we
finger empty notebooks and then feel dirty
That same apartment I was living in (with the balcony) was right next to a small park and playground. During the sunny afternoons, children from a local elementary school would be brought there to play. I would hear them screaming, having so much fun chasing each other around, but because I’m a little dark, I thought about how if I didn’t look out my window, those screams could have been for darker things.
This poem and section was written shortly after the 2011 earthquake in Japan. I was living in Taiwan, and being so close and also living on an island nation on the Pacific Ring of Fire, I think I felt the emotional and psychological impact of that huge earthquake and the worries afterwards in a way I didn’t expect. And then with our 24-hour news cycle, the whole thing was magnified eight million times over.
I have no idea if it plays out, but a lot of the uncertainty of personal relationships that exist in the book I have tried to fold and layer into or with this uncertainty of the physical world around us.
6.) You have a section titled “In Which Lessons Should Not Be Learned” that encompasses a series of poems that start with the words “In which.” How did these poems come to be? Many of the titles speak of a “Heroine” and the poems themselves describe myriad things that the heroine could learn from but the implication is that she should not. Can you explain this counter-intuitive structure and how this group of poems came to be?
Sometimes I call this the fairy tale section, because in a way, I was trying to build a fairy tale by exploring or creating a love story, from “beginning” to “end” (or non-end).
I think I was trying to understand truth and truthfulness, what would it sound like if we said the things we really wanted to say, or if we admitted what we were feeling. And of course, the poems still don’t really say anything forthright. Even when they do try to make bold statements, they build off of and explore through allusion and metaphor. Because everything we do is layered and nuanced, colored and affected by other parts of our lives in ways we probably will never fully unpack.
Fear of loss is a big part of this section—and the struggle to not be debilitated by that fear.
7.) Your poem “In Which A Leap Is Leapt” is beautiful to me. I love the imagery and the idea of the entire poem. Can you tell us a little more about it? The idea of a bed sheet being used as a letter to be sent in the mail is romantic and fascinating all at once. Once sent, the man who receives it hangs it as a backdrop for shadow puppets with no indication that the man ever bothered to read the letter. The poem is below:
In Which A Leap Is Leapt
she was writing in the dark an
mistook the bedsheet
for the page.
an entire letter this way and pressed
for time she
sent it along through the post.
hung the letter up and
used it as a backdrop
for shadow puppets.
Look how beautifully he conjures
a steed with
just his two hands.
What girl says no
This poem surprised me a little when I wrote it. Am I allowed to say that it is one of my favorites in the collection?
The first part of the poem came when I was writing furiously in my bed at night, mostly in the dark, and I realized the pace I was going, and a part of me didn’t want to stop to turn the page of the notebook, a part of me just keep writing the line onto the bed, onto the sheets, all the way until everything was written on and written out.
Because I love sending things in the mail to people, and because, at the time, I was sending a series of notes and letters through the mail to someone, I thought: how amazing would it be to send (or receive) something so unexpected but intimate—a letter written on sheets, a letter written on sheets because it was so urgent for the letter writer to write what needed to be written there wasn’t even time to find a piece of paper.
As for the second part, yes, I do think there is an uncertainty, a darker side in this poem, the unknowable part of someone else, the uncertainty that comes with just beginning. Perhaps it’s the other side of hope.
I enjoy the idea of the letter written on the sheets and would love to pause here and let our readers marinate on the book so far.
The book is available through SPD for $16.00 here: http://www.spdbooks.org/Producte/9781938055003/how-to-survive-a-hotel-fire.aspx
We’ll continue the second half of the interview next week as we dive deeper into your collection of poems. Readers, please stay tuned for next Tuesday and thanks always for reading.
Please also click in Friday for another Read A Good Book Review…