Sally Wen Mao Shatters the Looking Glass With Her Poetry
"The Kingdom of Surfaces" subverts the white gaze and reclaims The Met’s China exhibit
Sally Wen Mao has built a powerfully intricate world in her third poetry collection, The Kingdom of Surfaces. An incisive examination into the Western gaze that others and exploits so much of Chinese culture, Mao’s poems invite the reader to enter into a lush garden of art, pop culture, fashion, and China’s artisanal crafts, to fall into the mirror and wake in a dream and nightmare. It is a truly brilliant collection which takes us on a deep, fantastic journey and awakens a profound yearning to not only learn more about the ancient crafts she interweaves throughout, but to question all you’ve ever internalized or learned about Chinese culture, especially in these current times when the pandemic fueled life into a frenzy of violent anti-Asian hate throughout the country.
The Kingdom of Surfaces is both a reckoning and a reclamation, whose poems are scalpels that carve themselves into you. To truly empathize, you first must bleed. It is only fitting as the blows to the AAPI community continue, with the Smithsonian’s abrupt cancellation of the Asian American Literature Festival and Mao’s own dismay at beloved NYC bookstore Yu and Me Books temporarily shutting down due to a fire. Mao had planned her launch event for The Kingdom of Surfaces and it was moved to Books Are Magic as a special partnered event. The Asian American literary community is a strong and vital force, one that has endured much but cannot, and will not, be kept down.
I met Mao at a literary event a few years ago in Washington, DC, and my first impression that she is a very funny, kind, and fun person has always born out every time we get a chance to catch up, so I was delighted to speak with her about about The Kingdom of Surfaces and her fascinating research.
Angela María Spring: How are you? I’m so sorry about your launch, but how are you feeling otherwise going into putting this book out into the world?
Sally Wen Mao: Currently, I’m feeling pretty grounded. I’m at the Millay [Arts] residency at the moment. It’s the residency on the former land of Edna St. Vincent Millay. She is a poet that I read a lot when I was in middle school, so I’m thinking a lot about my poetry journey here and how it’s returned to this. It’s returned to one of the first poets I read as, I want to say, a sixth grader. And I’m feeling her presence everywhere. It’s said that she pops in every now and then here at the residency. I am communing with her and my twelve-year-old poet self.
AMS: Speaking of spirits, I was wondering if you had a patron God or goddess or saint for the collection or that you tend to invoke when you’re writing.
SWM: Yeah, oh, absolutely. There are many of them. I worked on this collection side by side [with] my debut story collection, Nine Tales. So obviously I was thinking about nine-tailed fox spirits and some of them crept into this poetry collection, as well. I was thinking about Sekhmet, who is the Egyptian goddess of war, healing, a solar deity that is the goddess of wrath. She comes up in the collection because I visited the Temple of Dendur in The Met. She actually is in the book but back when I was living in Las Vegas during the height of the pandemic, I found out that there was a little goddess temple an hour away from Vegas and I just needed to visit, so I found someone to drive me an hour away to visit the Temple of Sekhmet. I do think of her as one of the patron goddesses of this collection.
AMS: Which poem in this book was the seed?
SWM: So, one of the early poems was the title poem, “The Kingdom of Surfaces”. That poem actually was shorn off of Oculus. It was a poem I wrote in December 2016 and I remembered asking my editor, Jeff Shotts, what he thought about adding this twelve-part epic poem as a last-minute addition to Oculus and basically it was, oh, Sally, you’re getting ahead of yourself, and it was ultimately left out. But years later, as I was working on whatever my next project was going to be, I kept returning to that poem. I felt that that poem led me to some of the new concerns that the The Kingdom of Surfaces is undergirded by, so all of these questions surfaced because I wrote that poem. So there are a lot of seeds that originated in Oculus, they bled into the The Kingdom of Surfaces.
AMS: I totally didn’t expect you to say that but it makes so much sense, especially if you’re familiar with Oculus. I’m just going to ask you my “Kingdom of Surfaces” question because it’s such a fascinating poem; I view it as your “Kubla Khan”. Of course it encompasses all the themes of your books: exploitation, consumption of Chinese people, their labor, their art, anti-Asian racism and the xenophobia, the ugliness of Orientalism and all the things that go with it, but in the poem, you turn the white gaze not only inside out as the looking glass, but turn it on itself. So how did you disappear into this poem and then come back?
SWM: The reason I wrote the poem was that I went to that Met exhibition “China: Through the Looking-Glass,” and wandering through that exhibition, I remembered thinking how beautiful everything was. It was just so sublimely beautiful. But then I would look at the descriptions or I would look at the walls of copy and it was really disturbing. I actually included some of [of that copy] in the book. This exhibition attempts to propose a less politicized and more positivistic examination of Orientalism as a site of infinite and unbridled creativity. That’s a literal quote from the wall and I remembered thinking but that examination, that examination itself is politicized. There’s no way to extract the politics. To fantasize about something is a political act, especially if it’s something that’s positioned as the “other” or something that’s positioned as, like, oh, it’s a looking glass. It’s this topsy-turvy world, which is I also grabbed from the copy. They called it a topsy-turvy world. So what I did was attempt to deconstruct that and decided to interpret it literally.
I took each chapter of Through The Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll and I applied each chapter title as like the poem heading. I imagine myself stepping into the shoes of Alice and entering this portal or this looking-glass that the Met provided. It was really fun to construct this poem because I reread Through the Looking-Glass and I assigned different roles to different people. For example, the role of the Red Queen, it has to be the mastermind of it, so Anna Wintour. I also watched a documentary about the planning of that particular Met Exhibition and the Met Gala. I remembered moments in the documentary where the Chinese collaborators were pushing back against some of the ideas and then there was a little bit of a conversation between the organizers of the Met Gala and these Chinese people and there was a little bit of disagreement. The research for this poem was really fun because it involved not just probing into other people’s imaginative processes, but it also allowed me to take liberties. I really wanted to take as many liberties as I wanted with this white imagination as the white imagination has taken all of these liberties to imagine this Chinese-ness that gets fetishized in these contexts.
AMS: I love not only how you tie together so many pieces of European and US colonized history, both past and present, focusing on the Asian experience of Western exploitation and dehumanization through porcelain and silk, but also how deeply you go. There’s a whole decolonized Chinese Art history course in this collection. Was there a piece or, maybe, one or two pieces of that research that you had to cut out that you want it to leave in?
SWM: Wow, I did cut out a few poems that later I kind of wish I left in. There was one poem that actually focused on the auction house, and I ended up publishing it in The Washington Post as an illustrated poem. I call that a The Kingdom of Surfaces B-side. It’s a poem that replicates the sound of an auction house. It consider[s] all of these different. journeys that these objects take in order to get to the auction house. I think one of the things I’m still trying to probe through this collection and through my work in general is the process of attributing value and how that can often feel so arbitrary. One of the big historical dissonances I wanted to point out is that pricing Chinese objects as high in value, like the Ming blue-and-white porcelain is an example. The Dutch really tried to replicate it with their Delftware, right? Like Delftware comes from how much they love that blue-and-white porcelain look from China and now that’s become a really big signifier for Holland and the Netherlands. I went and there were blue and white Delftware everywhere as a cultural sign of being Dutch.
So I wanted to look at all the ways in which Europe interacted with Asian aesthetics but then, at the same time, starting these Opium Wars and in America, all the laws that arose, [the Chinese Exclusion Act], that all of this was happening at the same time as this China mania, this obsession with the Chinese aesthetic and the appropriation of that aesthetic. So all of this was happening in the 19th century and I wanted to place them side by side, right in the porcelain poems.
AMS: Absolutely. And you contain it within the shape. It made me interested in the art of the Chinese art of making porcelain, so I wondered if you were researching that or looking at specific vases, because the poems front and back are different vases.
SWM: Over the years, I visited several different galleries that focused on Ming, blue and white porcelain. So I learned a little bit about the specific recipes for making that porcelain. And the cobalt, the kaolin processes and most of that is in contemporary times. The porcelain town in China is still extremely famous for its porcelain. It’s very much like everyone who works with porcelain wants to go visit that town, Jingdezhen, in China.
So Jingdezhen, this is a city in China that is pretty much the Porcelain City and it’s been the Porcelain City for thousands of years. It’s been the pottery city as early as the 6th century CE and by the 14th century, it became the largest center if Chinese porcelain production. It’s still to this day famous for its porcelain. Wing On Wo & Co, which is one of the oldest Chinatown businesses in New York City, they do a lot of these beautiful porcelain wear and they source from Jingdezhen. These crafts are so ancient. When it comes to the history of porcelain production and the richness of it, I only scratch the surface and I hope it did bring you to these new discoveries because there’s just such a long and illustrious history of Jingdezhen on porcelain.
AMS: So I want to talk about silk. I’m haunted by all I learned from you about silk because I love silk and then it broke my heart. I didn’t realize there are no silk worms left in the wild, but through the process of extraction, there’s also a continual genocide of the silk moth, as well.
SWM: So there’s this funny thing called primal astrology. It’s if you combine your Chinese or your lunar astrological sign with your Western astrological sign. So I’m a Pisces and a Rabbit. If I combine them together, my primal astrology sign is a silkworm. And when I found this out, I was like, oh, that’s a bummer. Because silkworms, they’re pretty much just work worms, right? They’re just spinning the cocoon to make the silk but then they cannot become entombed in the cocoons [to become silk moths]. They can never actually grow up, so that is really fascinating to me. And they feast on the mulberry leaves. I went to a silk museum in Suzho, which is one of the show capitals of China back in 2018 and I remembered seeing the little silkworms eating the leaves and seeing the silk looms. That is also another ancient industry in China. So I was thinking about all of these really ancient industries that produce beauty in one way or another. So there’s silk and then there’s also the porcelain. And then there’s also the pearls. So those were the trades that I was really interested in examining.
AMS: When your readers walk away from reading this book, what do you want them to take with them that changes not just their minds but also their behaviors?
SWM: I want them to come away from it the way that you came away from it, with a renewed sense of curiosity. I love that. I hope that it opens up these other worlds and other histories that people then become curious about and they’re free to seek it out for themselves. I did do some research in the book and I hope it causes people to seek out those histories, which I think is very important to preserve especially given all the censorship happening now in this country.