Celebrating Contributor Successes: Q&A with Dorothy Chan

One thing we love at Little Patuxent Review is to celebrate the success of past contributors. Our latest opportunity comes from Dorothy Chan, whose poem, “Animal Discovers Fire, Orders Chinese Takeout with Fries,” we published in our Summer 2016 issue.

Earlier this summer, Spork Press published Dorothy’s first full-length collection, Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold (available for purchase at this link). Dorothy is a PhD candidate in poetry at Florida State University. She is the editor of The Southeast Review. We’re very grateful she’s willing to answer a few questions for us.

Q: The title of your collection, Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold, leads me to read with interest the poem with an almost-identical name, “Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold with the Killer Legs.” But quickly I realize that across your poems, this isn’t the only attack, the only fifty-foot woman, the only centerfold, or the only killer legs. The collection is filled with images and ideas besides these that cycle in and out of the poems in new ways. Here’s just one example, an excerpt from “Jungle Love”:

Our eyes lock for the first moment,
I throw that spear—domesticate him, domesticate you.
I’ll bring that meat home. You can cook it,
Or maybe you want to rescue me from lava,
play the hero as a swarm of killer hornets or killer gorillas
or killer 50-foot women come my way,
you hold me in your arms, fly away—
off into the sunset or into outer space
and I go all vampy Plan 9 on you,
until the director yells “Cut!”

Can you share a bit about how this collection came together? On a craft level, what was it like for you to edit the poems in this collection as a unified whole—after, I imagine, you originally wrote and edited many of the poems as separate pieces?

Thanks for your insightful reading of my poems, Andrew. This collection comes from my childhood. I’m really big on nostalgia. I grew up in the nineties, which was a very interesting decade. I remember Baywatch. I remember Pamela Anderson being everywhere. I remember having a crush on Tara Reid in American Pie—on a side note, her character Vicky goes to Cornell, which is where I ended up going for undergrad—I’m not 100% sure why that’s important, but it feeds into my nostalgia. I remember Hugh Hefner having eight girlfriends. I remember waiting for a table at Denny’s and begging my mom for fifty cents just so I could get the Playboy logo sticker—remember those sticker machines? Of course, my mom said no, and of course I didn’t know what the logo meant at the time. I just thought it was cute. And then I remember sitting at a Volvo dealership, glancing at the TV and seeing this preview of the Attack of the 60 Foot Centerfold: the centerfold character takes up a whole pool, and she’s talking to a man who looks so little in comparison. I thought it was fascinating.

I grew up in Allentown, Pennsylvania, which is no place for an Asian girl like me. I had to create my own worlds. But then on certain weekends my parents and I would drive to Chinatown (either in Philadelphia or NYC) to go grocery shopping. They’d always buy me a big Hello Kitty plush, as well. The images and scenes of my nostalgia are extremely varied. I do miss those Chinatown trips.

On a craft level, this collection comes from separate projects that eventually became one. “Section II. My Chinatown (我 的 中國 城),” a quadruple crown of sonnets, came from a larger manuscript of sonnet crowns. “Section III. Centerfolds, Histories, and Fantasies” came from a larger manuscript of persona poems in the voices of centerfolds. When I was in college, I was asked to pose for a silly calendar. I never did, so I always wonder what would’ve happened if I had. And then “Section I. Snake Daughter” came because I had to fill in the gaps. I think this is why the triptych works so well. Sure, I did individual poem edits, but the triptych structure made me think about the narrative as a whole. I had to inform my own exploration, whether it was an exploration of my family history or my sexuality (or even a combination of both, for instance, “My Father is the Son of a Concubine”).

Q: Diving a bit deeper, can you bring us into the process of writing “Jungle Love”? I do wonder what came first to your imagination—the “domestic” layer, so to speak, or the film layer—and how the creative gears turned in your mind.

Great question. I’m against domesticity, so of course I had to throw in, “domesticate him, domesticate you.” The film layer actually came first. Ed Wood is such a great film. I kept thinking back to the scenes when Johnny Depp’s Wood is filming Plan 9 from Outer Space. Or that scene when he first meets “Vampira.” I thought a lot about Vampira. I thought about Elvira. I thought about the 60 Foot Centerfold movie. I thought about all these B-movies, and then the gears started turning.

I can be really kitschy as well. I’ve spent hours looking at Halloween costumes on Trashy Lingerie’s website, and I think my love of those costumes mixed with my love of film is where “Jungle Love” came about. I used to wear the most ridiculous things. I remember this Leg Avenue cab driver costume I wore one Halloween during college. And this schoolgirl costume. And all those crop tops with anime characters and Care Bears on them. All these kitschy, sexy costumes represent fantasy. I used to have so much fun with that fashion ridiculousness, and the poetic page allows me to revisit those ideas. I also tend to riff on lines, so I must have heard a variation of “Feel me up, you tiger,” somewhere.

Q: Apparent interests of yours that arise in “Jungle Love” and through the collection are love, lust, and sex positivity. How do these factor into your work?

I like to joke that my work can be summed up in three words “food and sex.” But when you think about it, food and sex really make the world go ‘round and ‘round.

Love, lust, and sex positivity are in all of my work. I love being a woman. And I love living out all my fantasies, whether it’s in real life or on the page.

Q: I’ve stuck with the excerpt from “Jungle Love” for the sake of clarity in this blog post, but there are so many passages from the collection one could want to draw out. I can’t resist with this one, an excerpt from “At the Seafood Market”:

In this fish head soup sonnet, I help my mom
Pick out a fatty fish at the market:
Big-scary-fish-sleave-head purses his lips,
Giving me red eye glare—that bloody stare
Reminds me that I hate eye contact

I wish I had come up with the line about eye contact. It’s also interesting how the poem’s narrator begins self-consciously about this being a poem about fish head soup—or, maybe, a poem about preparing soup with a mother. But for you as the poet, on a craft level, how do you think the opening clause changes the poem?

Thank you so much. Yes, the opening clause definitely changes the poem. I think it’s like “breaking the fourth wall” on a sitcom. Haha. Only it’s poetry. It’s reminding the reader that yes, this is sonnet and furthermore, yes, this is a sonnet crown. It’s definitely a risk, and I just have to say that the sonnet is the greatest thing ever. It’s the amuse-bouche of poetry. It’s that little box of tension and release, as my mentor, Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon would say. It just keeps going and going and going. The opening line “In this fish head soup sonnet” also complicates the poem, in that the speaker is also reminding the reader that this soup making is happening in the universe of the poem. But is it happening, or did it happen in real life? Does it really matter? We’re simply focused on that one moment between mother and daughter.

Q: Could you pick out one line or passage from the collection that you just love, perhaps that you still repeat to yourself sometimes under your breath? I know it might be hard to choose!

Maybe the closing lines (from “Ode to Nurses, Love Hotels, and Marilyns on the Covers of Playboy”): “because I like you a little scared / riding that horse, wrapped in my arms.” Maybe I’m a little more tender than I let on in real life. Or maybe I just like to scare men haha. But I don’t like to show my emotions that openly. I hate being vulnerable, but I can be vulnerable on the page. My selection is probably a little too long, but I’m obsessed with this idea of “holding.”

Q: You refer to the entire second section, “My Chinatown (我 的 中國 城 ),” is a “quadruple crown of sonnets.” What is a quadruple crown of sonnets and why did you make that choice?

This is another instance where I really need to thank Lyrae. I took a couple poetry workshops with her during undergrad, and she introduced me to the sonnet and then the sonnet crown, which is seven sonnets in a row. In a sonnet crown, the last line of the first sonnet becomes the first line of the second sonnet, etc. “My Chinatown (我 的 中國 城 )” consists of four sonnet crowns in a row, which makes twenty-eight sonnets. I did mess with the form in multiple ways, though. For example, after a while, I stopped thinking in terms of seven, and instead, of twenty-eight, looking at it as a whole. And then in Chinese culture, it’s eight that’s the lucky number instead of the seven of Western culture.

I think there’s something elegant about the number four, so I’m happy to land on twenty-eight. I also like it when collections have a sequence in the middle. It’s a beautiful refrain that simultaneously keeps the collection going.

Q: You dedicate this collection “For all the women in my life, especially my mother.” Why?

I come from a fairly conservative, old school Hong Kong family. For example, my father wants me to marry a “nice Chinese boy,” and my cousin believes she must get married by age twenty-five. Of course, I don’t really share my writing with my family. But, my mother has always been supportive of all my artistic pursuits, and I really need to thank her. She’s wonderful. She’s really put up with a lot from me.

Women are also strong as hell, and I want to honor them. Let’s all be fifty-foot centerfolds.

Q: What’s next for your writing?

I’m working on a bunch of Liberace poems right now. I’m also getting a ton of inspiration from Hajime Sorayama’s sexy robot art.

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