An Interview with Sally Wen Mao

Written by Emily Charleson
All photos taken from

Poet Sally Wen Mao graduated with a BA from Carnegie Mellon and an MFA from Cornell. As an accomplished CMU Alumna, she has won the Kinereth Gensler Award, and her book Mad Honey Symposium has been named a Poets & Writers Top Ten Debut of 2014 and a Publishers Weekly Top Ten Anticipated Pick of Fall 2014. Her second book, Oculus, is set to arrive in 2019.

Photo taken by Cathy Linh Che

EMILY: I’m so excited to interview you.

SALLY: Yea, thank you for reaching out.

EMILY: So I wanted to talk to you about your experience with Big Straw Magazine, because you said that you went to some of the meetings when you went to CMU.

SALLY: Yea. This was back in…I have to say 2006. I was a freshman and I was looking at the different Asian American organizations around CMU and I remember there was a flyer for Big Straw and like an Asian interest magazine. Being a writer, I was interested and I went to some of the meetings. I think at some point I contributed like a photo essay for Big Straw. So Tria Chang, she’s a friend of mine, who was at the meetings and I think she was an editor. She solicited a piece from me and I ended up submitting a photo essay. It was pictures that I took when I was in Guilin, China. I think I remember adding like little captions or like writing with each photo. But man, that was a long time ago. Now it’s all coming back to me.

EMILY: Are there other things that you want to share about your time at CMU that are maybe like traditions we would still do or anything that you think is really interesting to share?

SALLY: You mean like at Big Straw or…

EMILY: In general.

SALLY: Traditions, let’s see. So I was a creative writing major and I um, well I don’t know if you can call this a tradition, but I basically lived in the GLAD, like the GLAD creative writing center. It had really comfortable couches and I just remember I used to work there and I would, I mean there weren’t that many people, you know there wasn’t that much to do, so I would take a nap on the couch. And yea um, I don’t know. I felt like my life revolved around that space when I was at CMU. I have lots of memories there.

EMILY: So I remember when you came to CMU, you talked about Anna May Wong. Could you talk about that, you know maybe give a brief description for people who don’t know who she is and why she inspired you and how you incorporate her into your poems?

SALLY: Sure, um, Anna May Wong is an actress that I came across kind of accidentally. I was in a museum, the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA), in Chinatown, New York. There was a little exhibition about her and I was pretty intrigued, so I looked her up. She was an actress from the Golden Age of Hollywood. And she starred in a lot of films in the 1920s and 30s. She was born in L.A. to a Chinese family. Her father was a laundry man and she was born in 1905 and at that time the Chinese Exclusion Act was in full force, so there was a lot of anti-Chinese discrimination throughout her lifetime. And often the roles that she played were very you know, stereotypical, very, very racist. And she was a pretty strong advocate for films that portrayed Chinese people in a positive light, but this was later in her career when she had more power to say things.

But what struck me a lot about her was, you know she lived in an era where it was virtually impossible, you know to be seen as human as a Chinese person. She had this enormous I guess, weight of having to represent Chinese people, because she’s just one person. She’s just one actress, one face, but you know she’s the only one there. Just imagine if you were the only one in your entire field who is of your face and ethnicity and your gender. So she had to really rally against these racist, degrading depictions throughout her whole life. And she even made a joke about it, how she has died a thousands deaths, because in every movie she just dies tragically or horribly.

So yea, I was really intrigued by her story. I read a couple biographies and then I just started writing these poems that were persona poems, so I kind of took on her voice. And, you know, I didn’t want to just do persona poems where I’m trying to capture her, but I wanted to kind of also bring in the element of time travel and science fiction. It was kind of a thought experiment with this new poem project and that was what if Ana May Wong could go into the future and see what Hollywood was like, you know in like the fifty something years since she’s passed away?

EMILY: So do you often find that you get inspiration from your daily life, when you go on trips or stuff like that?

SALLY: Well that’s a great question. So last year I was a creative writing resident at the Singapore writing residency at the National University of Singapore (NUS). So it was great. They have a kind of support for this international writer to come and visit for six months. And so I taught workshops at NUS and, other than that, I curated some programs for the art house, the Singapore’s Arts House. But other than that I had a lot of time to write and explore and just see what it was like living in Singapore and South East Asia. I’ve never lived in Southeast Asia, you know, I’ve never actually lived in Asia. I got to travel a lot and see that part of the world and I loved it.

The thing about traveling is that sometimes it’s hard to write about it. I find that when I travel I retain experiences and memories and like living intensely, like having the memories of living intensely and being subjected to new sensations all the time. I found that it’s hard to write about it right after you’ve experienced it. I think it takes years to kind of ferment and turn that into writing poetry. So that’s what I find, like I’m still working out some poems from a trip I took in 2012. I definitely think that travel is a big source of inspiration, but I feel like it’s also kind of a complicated topic, given geopolitical forces. And also this kind of like cliché of being an American or foreigner in this country, like what new things do you bring to conversation? I don’t just like to write about travel, yea, I’m traveling, like there has to be something underneath.

EMILY: Something unique?

SALLY: Yea, yea, not even just unique, but something like that has stink.

EMILY: Can you talk about any new projects you’re working on? I saw that you are working on a new book that will come out in, I think it was, 2019.

SALLY: Oh yea. So this new book has both of those themes in it, like what we just talked about: Anna May Wong, my series of poems that are about Anna May Wong and time traveling. That will be in the new book, Oculus. And I have a section in the book about China, and kind of like my perception of new China and what that means. Like the really, really fast developments. Like the impact of technology and the impact of popular culture that is really emerging in China, since 2000. So that’s pretty recent in terms of the timeline of popular consumption and culture. So I have a section about that. Yea, so I’ve been working on the book for maybe four years now. And now it’s just contracted with Graywolf Press, which is just a marvelous press and I really love all the poems that they publish. So I really want to make my book up to that standard. I’m planning to edit and refine it in the hopes that it is the best book it can be by the time it comes out.

EMILY: How do you decide what pieces go together to make a book?

SALLY: Ok, yeah, that’s a great question. So with this book, it’s definitely a departure from my last book and my editor Jeff Shotts, he was telling me this. Like on the phone with me he was just saying this is so different from your first book. And I think in terms of poetry books, I think very thematically. My first book had a lot of natural imagery, very like plants, animals, like wild. There’s this wildness in it and my second book is much more geared towards technology and society. I guess to make that more specific it tackles discrimination, it tackles racism, it tackles these topics that I touched upon in my first book, but I never really explored fully in my first. So I’m really excited about switching gears so much with the second, because there are a lot of poems that I was writing at the same time I was writing the poems in Mad Honey Symposium, and I’m like you know this doesn’t really fit in with the themes of Mad Honey Symposium.

Mad Honey Symposium, it’s wild, it’s very fluid, you know there’s lots of natural images, lots of poison, lots of ingestion and bodily processes. And in contrast I feel like the questions that are posed in the second book, Oculus, are more, are less visceral. They’re more about representation rather than kind of that inwardness. Like there’s interiority, but it’s definitely more about like how do people see like a women, for example, like Anna May Wong? There are lots of poems with webcams actually. There is one poem with a girl who had an Instagram account and she was very prolific, like she had pictures every day, like really beautiful pictures of her and her boyfriend and then she killed herself and documented it on Instagram. And it’s like this idea, like the second book really tries to explore this idea: how much control over our own images do we have? How does that affect us, like psychologically? And that camera, how much agency do we have in front of the camera? So yea, a lot more questions about technology.

EMILY: So you mention that there is a lot about racism and I guess there is a little bit of an element of sexism; do you think that you were influenced by what’s going on right now in politics?

SALLY:  Yea, absolutely. The first book had a couple of poems that were talking about, you know, one of the poems is called Yellow Fever. It’s a poem that I wrote really early, I was actually probably still at CMU. I think I had actually just graduated from CMU and I was doing a summer program, The Bucknell Seminar for Younger Poets and I came up with that poem, Yellow Fever. It was one of the only poems that really took it head on in my first book. Going into graduate school, I became more kind of politically aware and I also learned more about Asian-American History, Chinese-American History. That’s something that wasn’t actually offered at CMU, there’s no Asian-American Studies Department and there weren’t that many classes that were focused on that. I got to take some of those classes when I went to Cornell. Cornell has an Asian-American Studies Department and also an Asian Studies Department.

I wouldn’t say it was all because of the classes I took, but I definitely had to self-educate a lot on the history of discrimination. And it wasn’t even the classes I took. The real trigger I guess was when I taught my class on Asian-American literature and realized that I can’t just teach Asian-American literature—I can’t just teach literature and how to write—by choosing to teach Asian-American literature, I also realized I had to have some degree of political awareness. And I had to impart that on my students too, because there is a very specific context for that word, Asian-American, and that context is based upon discrimination and also organizing around similar issues of discrimination and also solidarity with the civil rights movement. So there were a lot of things about that term, Asian-American, that I didn’t know until I taught this class. So naturally, because these were the things that I was obsessed about and that I thought about all the time, that naturally led me to writing more poems like that.

In terms of like the political things that are happening today, one thing that really struck me is that it is a strong conversation happening right now in 2016-2017 about Asian-American representation and these are poems that I’ve been writing since 2012. When Cloud Atlas came out, there were white men in yellow face, and now there are still things happening like Scarlett Johansson cast in Ghost in the Shell. Yea, definitely I felt I had to respond to those scenarios, so sometimes it would be the thing that happened that triggered a poem, or the poem is talking about things that are already happening right now. It’s like one or the other. So I did have to write a Ghost in the Shell poem and I did also write a poem about names and all the recent controversies in the poetry world. Michael Derek Hudson is one that comes up. Last year in 2015, he was a white writer who used a Chinese pseudonym and got into Best American Poetry and then kind of wrote this little bio that implied that this made up Chinese name gives him some kind of advantage, which you know is totally false. So there was a big outcry over that. There are still all these little examples of orientalism in the poetry world, which is supposedly this educated and informed world. So definitely, political events that are happening right now influence me as a poet.

EMILY: Are there any other times when teaching led you to realize maybe you don’t know as much about something and made you research it more and maybe that led to some poems?

SALLY: Oh yea. I find that that’s the case. Naturally, as a teacher you kind of have to recognize your own blind spots. The first semester I taught the Asian-American Literature course, I had been teaching literature, maybe like a year before that, but it was Great New Books. For that class I taught the books and we talked about kind of the important topics that arose in those books, but each book was a different book and there wasn’t this umbrella, this prescribed umbrella of Asian-American literature. So then, when I did teach Asian-American literature, I did really interrogate what that meant and that conversation about what is the right kind of balance between tokenism, being the only Asian in this very white field, and also retaining your identity or not having to write things that you’re expected to write? There are so many questions like that in the Asian-American literature community.

I ended up teaching another class the year after about fantasy worlds and I focused on different books, but I also did films. We watched Miyazaki films, so like animated films. We watched a lot of them in the class and so, in essence, I had to teach film study and how do you write an essay about a film as like a literary text—not a literary text, but like a text, like a cultural studies text. So I definitely also had to bring in cultural studies. And I don’t think I ever took a cultural studies class either as an undergrad, so I also had to learn how to write about that and it’s not that different from writing about literature. I found that my students could write really insightful essays about animated films. And I liked that there wasn’t that much scholarship out there about animated films, but there is a ripe cultural text and I really thought this is a good class for me to teach and I can also learn how to write about films.

EMILY: I think we are coming to a point where I have a lot of information from you. Thank you.

SALLY: Thank you.

To learn more about Sally Wen Mao and her work, visit

Read this article and more in our Fall 2016 Issue OUT NOW