Poet Wo Chan on Undocupoets Petition Contest Discrimination
Author: Christopher Soto
January 31, 2015
Javier Zamora, Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, and I have been working with various Undocupoets from throughout the nation recently, on a petition against the unjust discrimination imposed by first book contests. In the poetry community, too many publishers ask for “proof of US citizenship or permanent residency” prior to publication. This small but strong statement serves to exclude 11.7 million undocumented people from fully participating in publishing opportunities.
Since beginning the Undocupoets campaign, my colleges and I have garnered 400+ signatures from various poets, publishers, critics, and friends who stand in solidarity with Undocupoets. We have published those signatures alongside an article in Apogee Journal, detailing the discrimination faced by Undocpoets (and proposing that immediate action be taken place, to cease this discrimination).
This interview with Wo Chan serves to extend the discussion about issues pertaining to poetry and documentation status. Wo Chan is a queer Fujianese immigrant poet living in Brooklyn (and a member of Brooklyn-based drag troupe, Switch n’ Play). Wo is the recipient of fellowships from Poets & Writers, Poets House, Kundiman, and Lambda Literary.
Can you tell us about your writing- form, subject matter, influences, etc.?
Some of the subjects I write poems about are gender, beauty, immigration, and of course, my Fujianese mother and father. Right now I am working on a chapbook length collection dedicated to the time I spent working as a makeup artist when I first moved to New York. The beauty industry is wild–it is dazzling and playful, of course, but also manipulative on a personal level. While it was my job to impose and transpose the value of exclusive, high-end cosmetics to consumers, I ended up intimately touching the faces of hundreds of working class people every day. These were just regular people coming in from their lunch breaks from the Au Bon Pain, mothers stopping in with their kids after picking them up from school–and I would go from introducing myself to sweeping their hair back and brushing on their lips and eyelids within seconds.
Can you talk a bit more about the duplicity of selling high-end makeup as an anti-consumerist (and how that appears in your writing)?
Let me share something with you: I am answering this on the train ride to work, and what’s happening around me is demonstrative of your question. I’ve been glancing at the woman next to me do her eye makeup every few paragraphs or so of my book (A Tale for the Time Being). The woman is my age, with a red coat and chipped red nail polish, rimless glasses. It’s a rude habit I’ve picked up from working in cosmetics, but with each item she lifts from her bag I glance over, mentally identifying the brand name and price value of each product, before she drops the item back in her tote. A man gets on the train carrying a huge blue IKEA bag and announces that he is collecting food and beverages for the homeless–he refuses money–and self-consciously I look over to the woman I’ve been spying on and see that she is rubbing rose-gold eyeshadow onto her eyelid with one finger, while balancing her reflection in the mirror of her $62.00 Five-Colour Dior Eyeshadow palette in her other hand.
This is where it all unravels for me. How does beauty present itself and what do actions of grace looks like in the external world? I am intrusive and rude not just for spying on my neighbor, but for prescribing to the fallacy that she owes anyone anything simply because she uses expensive makeup. In terms of “beauty and grace”, I think the beauty industry is the machine dedicated to the modern simulacrum of grace, down to its root, gratia—pleasing, thankful, and more relevantly gratuity. Beautiful people are gracious: they recognize their privileges and are endowed with a kindness that makes them eager to give. Though what’s dark is that there’s a mechanism built into the beauty industry devoted to making people feel unkind, psychically wounding them until they believe that they are over-aged, deplumped, and haggard with little or nothing to give but their expendable income. How alienating is that?
I believe that the writing of a poem is an act of generosity to the self, and when a person becomes a reader of that poem, that generosity is doubled. This is not simulacrum. Poetry is an avenue of generosity and experience whose tools of production are not sold to us. The writing of a poem is inherent; the industry of poetry is not. While it is effective to organize within poetry, we have to make sure the terms of our organizations never become alienating, and if they do, we have to speak out to ensure that the generous nature of poetry isn’t warped itself.
Is there a relationship between the beauty industry and poetic aesthetic for you?
I was asked this exact question when I interviewed for my job in cosmetics a year ago, and I answered in full beauty pageant mode. I said (and I remember this verbatim because of the emotional duress of interviewing): “Poetry’s relation to beauty is that in poems, the poet collects beautiful words–beautiful sounds!–and arranges them carefully on the page. With any luck, you emerge with beautiful meaning. Makeup is the same to me, except that the meaning is all in the person” Voila. The answer was slick enough to nab me a job in retail, but its integrity doesn’t hold in poetry, at least not the poetry I’m interested in writing.
To answer this question, you have to deglue the beauty industry from beauty itself. The former is a colossal that rakes in 50 billion dollars a year in United States alone. The latter is an attainment that is half vision, half feeling. It lies both inside and outside of the self. The feeling and seeing of beauty is something every poet has to navigate when they begin to actualize form and rhythms on the page. In this way, I am most interested in the sensation of beauty that arises in poetry, and how it always dual orbits an emotion–constantly falling away and into its subject. Melancholic beauty, ecstatic beauty, absurd beauty! Conversely, writing where beauty purposely escapes feeling becomes difficult for me.
Prior to this interview, we talked about MFA programs and issues pertaining to US citizenship. Are you still applying to MFA programs this year? How has immigration status affected this process?
Immigration has put my MFA process to a dead halt. I ran into too many problems–too many costly problems–to continue with my application process, which is expensive enough without the issue of citizenship. The fact that some MFA programs still require GRE scores baffles, upsets, and excludes me. In order to take the GRE’s you have to shell out the toll fee of $200 and provide a proper passport for your country of origin. Because I had my American citizenship stripped years ago, and because my Macau passport had long expired, I lost my $200 testing fee (which ETS thoroughly assured me there was no way I could get back). At one point in the process, I found myself trying to renew my Macau passport, taking my own fingerprints in my living room and emailing them to second cousins in Macau. I made such an ink-bespattered mess on everything, and the fingerprints didn’t even turn out usable. I found myself thinking, “What the hell am I doing sending my homemade forensics kit handprints into space so some distant relative can help me get into an MFA program? Why am I doing all this?” Poetry organizations need to accommodate that, for a lot of people, the issue of citizenship is dastardly complex and the issue of money is dimly simplistic, but that in both cases, if you don’t have it, you don’t have it. And you’re not gonna get it soon.
Are there any other ways that status has affected your involvement in the poetry community?
Absolutely. Many of the organizations named in the “Undocupoets Friendly” list on the petition, I adore. Losing my citizenship has pushed me to reexamine myself as a person of color living in New York, and I find I am well aligned with so many brilliant groups that aim to support one another. Kundiman is my bedrock as a poet and as an organizer. All the opportunities afforded to me (Poets House, Lambda Literary, Asian American Writers Workshop, Poets & Writers) have supported me with no questions about my citizenship.
Can you give us some background on your particular case?
Here is the Washington Post article involving the case. I grew up in the US since the age of 5 and from my young teens and upwards I lived and believed I was an American citizen–until that was taken away. Currently I am a Lawful Permanent Resident, so I do have some form of documentation, even if my rights under that status are restricted while I defend my right to remain in the United States. The whole ordeal continues to demonstrate how coincidingly arbitrary and uncompromising state power can be. Poetry demands a better a model.
Whenever I talk to editors about the Undocupoets campaign, money is always brought up. Larger journals will talk about awards and prestige, smaller journals will talk about growth and a limited budget. It seems like everyone always has an excuse for exclusion (of Undocupoets) or exploitation (via reading fees) of emerging poets. Are there any alternatives that you see?
I think there’s something misleading going on whenever a marginalized group is asked to provide the solutions to institutional problems that oppress them. As undocumented poets we are fighting for our right to stay in this country. We are hiring lawyers we can hardly afford. We are fighting to keep our families together. We are doing this and we are producing some of the best poetry in the English language. That is us fulfilling our responsibility to our communities and to our stories. The responsibility of poetry organizations is to find ways to promote and honor the voices of these poets–documented or not–if they are truly devoted to poetry, and not just poetry deemed worthy by a government policy.
Why do you think that journals have such discriminatory policies in place?
You have to ask yourself the question “What is citizenship?” in the first place to determine what factor is being discriminated against. When my citizenship was taken away from me, I researched and learned that you could do the most heinous things in the US and never have your citizenship touched. So what is really being enforced here isn’t a judgement on character or writing craft, but one of legitimacy imposed as a xenophobic apparatus of the American state.
Knowing this, there are many reasons why things don’t change, one being that privilege allows people to ignore what doesn’t affect them directly. It’s so easy to sit with the status quo, especially if you’re surrounded by those who enjoy the same privileges, but what’s happening now is that the voices of these 11.7 million undocumented people are speaking up. Where even a decade ago there were few people willing to put a face to this form of discrimination, now many of us united are foisting our identities into the sociopolitical stratosphere. And the image of us not being anonymous migrant farmers or food service workers, but rather students, activists, scholars, and poets is probably more than incongruous for some–it is startling. Therefore the policies that sit between us and all those poetry awards are convenient, but not accidental.
Is there any way that the poetry community can be in solidarity with you and other Undocupoets?
Eliminate proof of citizenship or permanent residency as a requirement to poets applying for any prize. Reduce, if not eliminate, the monetary costs of participating in poetry communities. There is absolute overlap in these issues, and poetry has an obligation to do everything it can to not reflect the exclusionary and exploitative policies of a state authority.
I’d like to discuss the intersections of queer liberation and citizenship status a bit. Would you care to elaborate?
Haha, the answer to this question is simultaneously a stretch and inherent… Shortly put, we must consider and advocate for those most vulnerable in the kyriarchy. It is not enough to write poetry. It is not enough to write for ourselves–to write for those who are visible–and ask the same audiences “Does poetry matter?” year after year, while hundreds others are systematically excluded from the conversation.
Last fall I went to an LGBTQ Gala in Virginia to see my boyfriend receive an award. I must be honest: I was uncomfortable all through the mingling to the point of resentful, as I was surrounded by white faces and sleek masculine suits all to my left and to my right. I felt myself stirring in what I tried to decipher the whole evening as possibly my own paranoia or sensitivity, or whether there was something truly off to be upset about, until the words of the closing speaker shook me violently as a stone hurled at a church bell. This white, cis-presenting woman rallied “We must speak for the trans people. We must speak for the working class. We must speak for people of color, for immigrant communities, and for the undocumented!” All my self doubt, all my insecurity boiled down to a single point: it was anger–the feeling was a fact–informing me of how no one that night introduced themselves to me on their own accord. No one bothered to see me–my thoughts, my interests, my physicality–as viably engaging in the space of a gala, but my political identity had long been fair game.
Any closing thoughts?
Thank you for doing this, and for finally giving me the chance to talk. This is the opposite feeling of the anecdote I just recounted; it is such a relief. The change-making work you are doing is difficult and invaluable, but it must be made inevitable.