Porcelain Poems: A Conversation with Sally Wen Mao
By Amy E. ElkinsNovember 1, 2023
The Kingdom of Surfaces by Sally Wen Mao
I have a thing for poems about broken pots. Lorna Goodison’s “In the Field of Broken Pots” and “But I May Be Reborn as Keke” capture the regeneration of being “broken down into small shards” and born again as the base of a new vessel. Potter-poet M. C. Richards puts it plainly: “Pots are for shards,” even as “[a]ll forms are language”—language that turns to fragments of sound in Arthur Sze’s “Kintsugi” when the potter, “assembling shards, […] starts to repair a gray bowl with gold lacquer.”
Sally Wen Mao’s The Kingdom of Surfaces (Graywolf Press, 2023), her third poetry collection, is a book that takes the pot and smashes it, repairs it, and smashes it again. The poems, sometimes in the shape of vessels curving down the page, take the history of art and make it strange, rendering new the craft of protest: “How porcelain never tires / Of burning.”
AMY E. ELKINS: Much of The Kingdom of Surfaces centers on critiques of how art objects have been stolen, reappropriated, and used to obscure deep legacies of violence, exploitation, and erasure. But you also dwell on the beauty and power of art, which culminates in a sort of gratitude gift economy. In the acknowledgments section at the end, you thank various friends, readers, and advisors with a series of objects: a porcelain vase, a loquat tree, a red bolt of silk, a string of pearls. A similar thing happens in your poem “Poppies and Jade,” where the speaker enters a thrift shop and becomes captivated by a “kelly-green Chinese armoire” carved with a poem—she is at once disturbed by the object for its associations with Orientalist cravings and also protective of it; she wants it for herself too. I’m curious about your relationship to the archives of objects that show up in the poems.
SALLY WEN MAO: As humans, none of us are immune to the allure, the beauty of objects. Objects haunt; objects carry meaning; objects carry value in a way I find both generative and disturbing. Objects can deliver messages, provide comfort or memories, bind families or friends together. Objects connect us to a broader tapestry, but the word “object” itself carries such negative connotations of passivity and implied human violence. Wars are fought, families destroyed, empires toppled—all over objects.
Anne Anlin Cheng recovers and examines this in her seminal book Ornamentalism (2018), where she questions the inherent degradation of “thingness.” It’s possible both to critique the beauty of an object (and uncover its sordid origins) and to marvel at it. The Chinese wedding armoire, without the context of it being in an Upper West Side thrift shop, isn’t inherently indicative of Orientalist cravings. One could argue that the poetry carved into its metal links the speaker in the poem to the practice of writing poetry that has endured for thousands of years in her ancestry. So, the objects themselves can be beautiful, but it’s the human practices surrounding them that may suggest exploitation as soon as you begin to unspool the history of that object.
I’m such a fan of Cheng’s work! And I was delighted to learn recently that she also paints. As a scholar who makes art, I feel like I can sometimes sense when someone’s theory on the page is informed by praxis. I felt this at certain points while reading The Kingdom of Surfaces. When a writer comes to craft with such vivid specificity, I’m always curious—do you make things? Or has art ever been a part of your practice?
Yes, I actually have drawn and illustrated most of my life. I wanted to attend art school for visual art, having grown up primarily desiring to become a visual artist—I had sketchbooks that I finished cover to cover, a portfolio of paintings and illustrations. All through elementary, middle, and high school, I was very serious about it even as I was discovering writing. Visual art was my first love, and I still try to incorporate it into my practice every chance I get.
That makes total sense, especially since these poems often read to me as being informed by not only love but also critique—like a speaker who’s invested in writing a new form of decolonial art history, a challenge to the ways in which craft objects in particular have been studied, circulated, and made into symbols of gendered labor or colonial propaganda. For example, in “On Silk” (and woven throughout the entire book), you explore the “weft / weave / reeling / warp / dye” of silk alongside the very real sacrifices made to the “gods of sericulture” in the process. What inspired you to write about silkworms and silk in this way?
Sericulture has been practiced in China since 2700 BCE. The first mention of silk is from the title poem, “The Kingdom of Surfaces.” When studying the process of silk-making, I found it fascinating that silkworms are bred specifically to spool threads that humans use—that they can never make it past their cocoon stage and become moths. It almost becomes a metaphor for the experience of womanhood—the perpetual limbo, the constant need to extend this cocoon of youth for some external and exhausting amount of time. Add to that the preponderance of women being the primary workers of silk factories and workshops dating to ancient times, and that beauty quite literally signifies labor by bodies of women. Silk itself as a textile is valued so highly and considered a symbol of Chinese luxury and beauty, so potent that it drew countless other empires, so potent that they named a road after it—not a literal road, but a “Silk Road” that many argue to be the birth of the earliest form of capitalism. I really wanted to draw these connections, so I continued to write about it after the title poem, culminating in a poem called “On Silk.”
That’s brilliant—the limbo of womanhood. The poems in the collection move between gendered paradoxes of shame and strength, of vulnerability and anger. You make that really concrete, as in concrete poetry, by writing poems in the shape of pots—porcelain poems. I found myself thinking of kintsugi as I followed the lines of vessel-shaped poetry, variously broken and joined down the page. The volume’s penultimate poem, “Haibun: Kintsugi,” is not shaped like a pot, but it describes the “[g]old in the cracks” and the beauty of repair, mending, emptiness; “don’t be afraid, let its fractures show,” you write. Haibun is a Japanese poetic form that blends haiku with prose. How did craft and poetic form come to inform each other as you worked on these poems?
I write a lot about various crafts and artisans’ work—making porcelain, spinning silk—so I am constantly informed by that. The process of poem-making is most definitely a craft as well, but the tactile, visual part of making could use expansion at times. Using the concrete-poem form, especially on the porcelain poems, feels important to me—the shapes of the poems turn the text/words ornamental, which naturally falls in line with the inquiries and questions the words raise. The way I was able to generate those shapes, too, was using the slashes between each phrase, a sort of middling between a line break and a comma. So, the porcelain poems become ornamental objects on the page. My friend Jia Sung, a brilliant visual artist, made risograph prints of “On Porcelain” in a little zine to hand out to different people for my tea party event, and thus she turned the poems themselves into an ornamental object one can display on a wall or a bookshelf—as one would an actual porcelain vase.
As for kintsugi, the form and process of this ceramic craft always felt so hopeful and uplifting, for the metaphorical implications of repair. That one can take a broken vase and build it back together, turn it into something better. The kintsugi poem began as a regular prose poem but somehow transmuted into a haibun, since there was another haibun in the collection. Bashō invented the form of haibun, and one of his most quoted ones goes: “When a country is defeated, there remain only mountains and rivers, and on a ruined castle in spring only grasses thrive.” In this haibun, regeneration comes after the empire or kingdom is toppled, has crumbled. There was trauma, and destruction, but ultimately repair is on the way. In that sense, the porcelain was all broken, but a kintsugi haibun feels more hopeful. And ultimately, The Kingdom of Surfaces is a book about toppling kingdoms and ruining castles, and what comes out of that regeneration.
The “kintsugi haibun” is a powerful metaphor for destruction and regeneration—wow! So much of your book dwells in spaces of protest—political protest, also the poetic work of activist associations, which draw out patterns of exploitation and oppression for the reader. In her book Complaint! (2021), Sara Ahmed writes that a “complaint is often necessary in order to address not only the failure of an environment to be open and inclusive but the hostility of that environment.” In the section that gives your book its name, “The Kingdom of Surfaces,” you enter the “make-believe world” Lewis Carroll creates for Alice in Through the Looking-Glass as an exploration of the 2015 exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (and Met Gala theme), China: Through the Looking Glass. The environment in the poetry sequence is at once hostile and wondrous, a brilliant sort of surrealist unraveling, an awakening and a grieving all at once. I was especially captivated by the “Humpty Dumpty” section, in which “aesthetic value” is weighed against arguments for historical decontextualization in the space of the museum. What is poetry’s capacity for complaint?
I love this question about poetry’s complaints—the etymology of the word “complaint” is a “lamentation, an expression of grief,” “grief, sorrow, anguish,” and “expression of dissatisfaction or disapproval; statement of grievances, formal accusation; a plaintive poem.” In law, a complaint is the first action or step toward a lawsuit. So, the word’s strongest associations stem from both law and poetry—bureaucracy and beauty. Perhaps a complaint, shaped inside a poem, is a return journey from the contemporary association with bureaucratic law into the word’s origins: a lamentation, a plaintive poem. An expression of grief and sorrow and anguish. A poem’s language carries an unusual kind of power, the power of elevating a complaint, allowing the complaint to live inside words arranged toward an aesthetic sensibility, toward art. The vessel of poetry allows complaints to move starkly toward a surface, and there’s something wonderful about that. The “Humpty Dumpty” section of “The Kingdom of Surfaces” mixes real history with surreal fantasy, and they are at odds with one another. The history that has transpired is confronting the fantasy that is fabricated, and that’s where the space for complaint becomes more unfamiliar and therefore more unnerving.
In the middle of reading The Kingdom of Surfaces, I placed a big order for my favorite brand of KF94 masks in preparation for the start of a new semester. Coming to “American Loneliness” just a few minutes later, I had my own through-the-looking-glass experience. It’s a poem that captures the disorientation of the last three and a half years—the sort of unimaginable hypocrisy, denial, and violence that emerged from the pandemic and that persists today. I’ve never read a poem that so viscerally captures the complexity of our current moment. Do you understand poetry as a journalistic impulse in some ways? Or a document of the present, which might speak to the future?
“American Loneliness” came to me in a fervor, a frenzied rush, in the early days of 2022, as a response to the series of very public attacks against various Asians in New York and California, while the pandemic still raged on. The documentation element of this poem was a whole new direction for me—it’s direct, almost journalistic, and it differs from the way I approached the writing in the title poem, “The Kingdom of Surfaces”—that is, discursively, symbolically. It’s the final long sequence in the collection, it emerges from anger and grief and a collective reckoning with the ways that our systems have failed us, and I realized that I wanted to leave the collection with a punch in the gut. Many kingdoms have been toppled throughout the collection, but not this one. This kingdom, this contemporary empire of American loneliness, is something to still contend with, grapple with.
Sally Wen Mao is the author of three poetry collections, Mad Honey Symposium(2014); Oculus (2019), a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize; and The Kingdom of Surfaces (2023). A former fellow at the New York Public Library Cullman Center, she lives in New York City.
Amy E. Elkins is a writer, scholar, and multimedia artist. She is an associate professor of English at Macalester College and the author of Crafting Feminism from Literary Modernism to the Multimedia Present (Oxford University Press, 2022). You can find her at amyelkins.net.
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