Poet Explores China’s Complex Relations with the West

Sally Wen Mao, who was born in Wuhan, China and now lives in Harlem, reflects on her latest book of poems in a chat in a Union Square coffee shop.

| 22 Sep 2023 | 03:45

As she shows in her new collection, Sally Wen Mao is a poet of fierce intellect and even fiercer imagination. Like the greats, she isn’t afraid to enter uncharted territory and, once there, returns with sublimely alive work.

The Kingdom of Surfaces (2023), which was released on August 1st by Graywolf Press, is a beautiful and searing interrogation of history, culture and beauty itself. Containing approximately 30 poems across 112 pages, the book explores Mao’s native China and its complex, often fractured relationship with the West. Mao, who was born in Wuhan and now lives in Harlem, is saying a lot here and isn’t afraid to challenge notions of spectacle and display, even as she writes from a personal perspective.

As she says one recent evening over coffee in Union Square, Mao gravitated towards poetry at an early age. “I’ve been reading poetry since I was a child,” she says. “I was writing poems in middle school, so it’s been with me for most of my life, over half of my life. As a child, when you feel a bit isolated and uprooted, there’s something comforting about reading poetry written by people who’ve lived centuries apart from you and to know that they felt this way.”

Proceeding to study poetry in high school and attain an M.F.A. from Cornell University, Mao cites Edna St. Vincent Millay as an early influence on her work. Like Millay, Mao writes fearlessly. Like contemporary poet Dorothea Lasky, Mao writes almost gutturally and essentially slabs her heart on the page.

Of her writing process, Mao explains, “I tend to be driven by my interests and my poetic obsessions. I tend to be driven conceptually.” Her previous poetry collection, Oculus (2019), for instance, explored celebrity and fame through the eyes of Chinese-American film star, Anna May Wong.

“Sally Wen Mao’s poems of brooded, subtle syntax build and accrue toward inevitable and stifling ferocity,” commented celebrated poet, Ocean Vuong, on Oculus. “I simply trust no other poet to confront and fracture notions of Empire more deftly—and with such elan—than Sally Wen Mao,” added writer, Aimee Nezhukumatathil.

Oculus, which followed Mao’s debut Mad Honey Symposium (2014), received several other positive reviews and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Mao herself has received several awards, including a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and another from the New York Public Library. Her success, which also includes a Pushcart prize, is partly due to her refreshing approach to poetry.

“I don’t think poetry has one singular role,” Mao says. “I believe poetry can convey information and knowledge but also feeling, and it tends to be more amorphous than other genres in terms of what people seek from it. But, in terms of an ars poetica or why I write poems, it has to do with turning something that I see into language. And transforming it through language.”

Mao continues that, “A lot of my writing comes from these experiences where I pursue something and I have a vague idea that I want to write about it. But often it doesn’t emerge until a long time after, so it takes some time for me to process the experience and the knowledge, or the gaps in knowledge, and then somehow end with a draft of a poem.”

With The Kingdom of Surfaces, Mao continues the interrogative work she started in Oculus. “Some of the threads and themes of Oculus kind of bled into this third book,” she says. “I let a lot of ideas, concepts and images just ferment a little bit.”

Early in the book, in the poem, “Loquats,” Mao writes, “At the herbal medicine store, the most expensive/item is cordyceps or wormgrass, dead caterpillars/whose brains become host to a fungus that rots/them from the inside out. Good for the lungs,/a panacea for all pain, the saleswoman pitches.” The price of good health, of, perhaps, beauty never sounded so heavy.

Yet Mao is less a critic here and more of a seer. She excavates traditional concepts of beauty and allure yet examines herself, too. “I am wormgrass, expensive but brain-dead,” the poem continues. “Comatose in my love, my refuse, futility fuels/me every waking hour. The tree inside me isn’t loquat/but strangler fig. A tree so pretty and snakelike/it renders you breathless, then worthless, all at once.”

As the collection continues, Mao emerges as a kind of tragedian of the everyday. Like the late C.K. Williams, she finds profundity in daily life. Like a fiction writer (which Mao also is), she utilizes details to convey larger truths.

In her poem, “On Porcelain,” she writes, “At twelve, I collected/porcelain dolls,/all with blank European/complexions / Melancholia in pure/velvet capes and gingham summer dresses.”

In her seven-page poem, “On Silk,” she writes of Chinese Empress Leizu, “...All she dreamt of was harvest,/a grove for the mulberry trees,/a loom for the threads to fuse, refuse,/a vat of dye for the white to soak in, a factory full of girls, as this was women’s work.”

From minutiae, from a doll’s complexion to the threads on a piece of silk, Mao unearths uneasy truths about exoticism, colonization and empire. “I try to transcribe that into language, into the lyric poem,” she says.

Mao’s efforts come to darkly beautiful fruition in the title poem of The Kingdom of Surfaces. A 21st Century Alice Through the Looking-Glass, the twenty-two-page poem casts Mao as Alice and sees her wander through the dark fantasia that was the real-life 2015 Met Gala, China: Through the Looking Glass.

Mao attended that year’s Met Gala and, while wowed by its opulence, found herself a bit disturbed by the exhibition. “It was arguing for a decontextualized, de-historic China that was only imagined through the eyes of the West, and that there’s something great about that Orientalism. I remember feeling very strange that I was so taken with its beauty, and so I wanted to explore that.”

In her poem, whose sections such as “Looking-Glass House” and “The Garden of Live Flowers” take the names from Carrol’s original book, Mao finds herself perturbed by the exoticized China she sees depicted, especially by the renowned Met, and turns some dark corners.

“...This surface is a mirror, a seam. I am in love with it/the way I am afraid to love another human,” she writes. “To love a pretty object that is not allowed/to be touched. To love a pretty object as time colludes with its disappearance. To/disappear into enchantment./Do these surfaces awe me? Yes. My own yes disturbs me.”

Later in the poem, Mao writes, “Where am I? I try to ask. Whose fantasy is this? What are the implications of living in/your fantasy? Nothing. No answers.”

Yet questions from the poem—and The Kingdom of Surfaces, as a whole—emerge. Whose story is this? Whose story are we allowed to tell? Is there something inherently problematic with beauty? With display? How do we convey our surroundings without exploiting them? How do we depict people without hurting them? How do we convey our own kingdom of surfaces?

Mao tackles these questions and many more in her book and, in doing so, has written a fierce yet pensive work.

“As a child, when you feel a bit isolated and uprooted, there’s something comforting about reading poetry written by people who’ve lived centuries apart from you and to know that they felt this way.” Sally Wen Mao