The following interview is part four of a seven-part series of conversations with BC poets which I released between January and April 2022. All eight interviews were originally posted at ReadLocalBC.ca. This was the third year of my collaboration with Read Local BC (you can read the 2019 interviews here, the 2020 interviews here, and the 2021 interviews here).
Ghazal for Heirloom Family Recipes - Isabella Wang
My grandmother taught me five different ways to deflesh a bitter gourd,
how to scrape off the residue left from seeds so it would taste less bitter.
Recipe for old-fashioned liquor: Replace the sugar cube with elderberries.
In an ice-filled mixing glass, stir bourbon, St. Germain and bitters.
The best coffee was served to me by a young woman at the Ethiopian café—
it was sweet on its own, and permeated all the necessary tinges of bitterness.
When you leave water in a cup for too long, it evaporates. Can’t say
the same about honey, but it’s beginning to clump. Tea leaves turn bitter.
My grandfather died while eating crab and red wine—heart attack.
This is a spell we are currently under, but I promise it won’t stay bitter.
Reprinted with permission from
(Nightwood Editions, 2021)
Near the end of Pebble Swing
, you write about “friendly grins / tugging on the tight fabric masks,” and note that it’s “A year of the same weekly / appointments, missed blood tests. // The doctor sends requisition after requisition…” The poem (“August”) speaks well to our current COVID moment, but also to your particular medical challenges in recent years (Pebble Swing
having been released prior to your cancer diagnosis and subsequent surgery). How has it felt to have these two health uncertainties — one collective, one personal — play out at once?
Isabella Wang: Oh boy, yeah… Both these events in my life have brought immense, as you put it, “uncertainties.” These past few years have just been surreal, in the sense of both being a witness to the world, and my community’s collective experiences of grief and crisis, while undergoing my own. It’s a strange feeling, at a time when we are all physically distanced, to see and hear about loss, illness, and other forms of pandemic-induced tumults every day and then realize I am part of this too. I feel this.
When the pandemic struck, it affected my housing — I moved four times just in the summer of the first wave — and like many poets, not being able to attend in-person events at a rhythm that used to provide us with so much nourishment and support was hard, on both my mind and my creativity. So, at the time when I wrote “August,” I was experiencing symptoms of major depression, housing instability, and severe exhaustion. At one point, that fall, I was waking up at 2 pm and sleeping again by 6 pm. I had a feeling that something was wrong, but you know what it’s like — at 21, generally healthy, my symptoms were easily dismissed for anemia and depression, and I guess I didn’t reach out to as many healthcare professionals as I would have because I knew that clinics and ERs were already understaffed.
Not knowing it was cancer, I didn’t want to take away from resources. But it was true: at the hospital where I had my surgery to remove the malignant tumour early this new year, there was an Omicron outbreak and me and other patients could tell how tired, overworked, and worried the nurses were. They took wonderful care of us, and even if it was to get more pain meds or help sitting up, we often didn’t ring for help when we should have because we didn’t want to disturb them too much. The empathy was mutual.
RT: I can imagine. That must have been incredibly difficult. How did it feel to finally have an answer to why you were feeling so unwell?
IW: Finding out about the diagnosis four days before Christmas was hard, when all the doctors’ clinics and a lot of resources were not accessible, and during another personal housing crisis. I think the hardest part was waiting for a surgery date. I knew that I had an aggressive tumour (they usually are aggressive in younger folks), and if it spread before the surgery my whole life would change. So, that was hard — the toll it took on my loved ones, and feeling helpless to do anything about what was going on in my body.
I think Dr. Linda Thyer at SFU health and counselling is the real hero in all of this, and I wish there was just a way to thank her, more than saying the many thank yous I have already expressed. She saved my life. I haven’t had a family doctor since I was 10, so she didn’t know me or have my long-term medical records. I came in as a walk-in for an unrelated symptom, and she sent me for a thorough scan that then accidentally discovered the tumour, literally just in time. After the diagnosis, she was also working overtime, calling me during after-hours to make sure I was okay. And then another miracle happened. I got a call early in January telling me there had been a cancellation. That I was scheduled for surgery in three days. It was a successful surgery. When my loved ones got the news, they all cried. I was relieved to see them breathe a sigh of relief.
RT: How does it feel to finally have some form of resolution, even if your full recovery is still a ways off?
IW: I think I’m doing good. I have been dealt a difficult hand of cards, but I know now that I have also been dealt a lot of fortunate things. I am grateful for my doctors and the support of my community at a time when I so needed them. I am grateful for miracles, to be recovering well, and after moving twenty times in the past three years, to have finally moved in to what I think will be a long-term home.
RT: In Pebble Swing you write “I’ve planted flowers / Phyllis, so they may appear in future hours, and surprise me.” In the months and years after their first book is published, most poets look back at what they’ve written — the flowers they’ve planted — and are surprised! You’re a few months post-book now, but in your case it’s been a very eventful few months. Looking back at the book, what are you surprised by?
IW: The one thing that surprises me the most is my audience, be it readers on the page, or listeners at a live or Zoom reading. As you say, a lot has happened. One of my professors once observed that Pebble Swing has many voices, and that is a reflection of my perspectives and experiences shifting a lot over these eventful years of my undergrad. A lot has continued to change, including my poetry voice and style, working with two new manuscript projects. So, even though I personally feel like I relate a lot more to my current poetry and recent events in my life — because, of course, that’s how we write and grow — it’s still really moving to encounter readers of Pebble Swing of different ages, and through different contexts, and be told that what I wrote during this phase of my life has resonated them, or comforted them. It’s the greatest gift I find myself receiving from pursuing this work.
Another surprise, since you bring up Phyllis Webb, was that even though I had never met her in person, she knew of me and the work I was doing responding to her ghazals. Pebble Swing was the last book she had read before she passed away last Remembrance Day. I still think about her, and often talk to her, every day.
RT: Oh yes, how frivolous all of the concerns of the book “business” appear next to a beloved writer loving your work. It’s everything, eh? I’m so glad you were able to have that relationship with Phyllis Webb, both on and off the page.
How has it felt to put a book out during COVID? All writers who’ve put a book out during this time have had to mix celebration and grief together in some way, but that feels especially true in your case.
Well, I guess I was lucky that my medical treatment didn’t get in the way of Pebble Swing
’s launch celebration so much, and equally lucky that I was able to have a joint in-person launch with my talented friend, Ellie Sawatzky and her collection, None of This Belongs to Me
, who I know you interviewed earlier in this series
. So many of my dearest, most beloved friends came to that launch, and my partner, Scout, was also able to attend before they headed for Waterloo. It is one of my favourite memories.
I remember, at the time of the launch, I had just been informed that a tumour had shown up on my ultrasound, unexpectedly. Given my age and other factors, my doctor was able to give me peace of mind that what I had was probably the most common benign tumour or cyst; even though the result turned up otherwise a month later, I am grateful to have had that extra month right around my book launch where I didn’t have to be too worried yet. I think if I had known beforehand, and my friends and loved ones had known, the diagnosis would have gotten in the way of a “normal” celebration that I, like many poets, had worked very hard for.
RT: I’m so glad you managed to create that momentary safe space for celebration. All poetry book launches feel like little miracles in one way or another, yours especially.
In one of your book’s most powerful poems, “I Remember,” you write about Li Bai’s “静夜思” (“Quiet Night Thought
"). It’s one of my very favourite poems, but as a poem about dreaming of one’s homeland, it must resonate differently for you than it does for me (translator Arthur Cooper stated in the ’70s that it must be the best known poem for Chinese people living overseas). You write, “I remember looking at the distance we’ve crossed / and the distance a poem / still has to voyage to make it in translation.” Could you talk about coming to that poem, and to Chinese poetry more generally, and how they helped you feel more connected to your personal and cultural history? What of each (the poems, the history) inevitably gets lost in translation?
IW: Aww, thanks Rob! I’m so glad this poem resonated with you, and I didn’t know the name of Li Bai’s poem translated to “Quiet Night Thought.” This poem started in Dr. Lindsey Freeman’s “Spaces of Memory” sociology class. For the first class, Dr. Freeman got us to read an excerpt from Joe Brainard’s I Remember — a book of poems that starts each line with the words “I Remember.” That still is one of my favourite books. For an exercise, we were instructed to list fifty lines the way Brainard had done, beginning with “I remember.” I got inspired to write my poem.
For years I had been struggling to find the right form and words to express the emotions I felt surrounding my family’s story and involvement in the Chinese Cultural Revolution, which took the life of my grandmother. Brainard gifted me with the form, and after that, the words just flowed. When I think about what I remember, those memories are inherently mixed with sentiments of forgetting; in the spaces of a few words of my mother tongue that I still possess, there are gaps of what I am no longer able to express in that language.
In the story of what I know about my family’s ancestral history, there are chasms of intergenerational narratives lost with my grandmother, lost in my forgetting of language, that I long to fill. I translate, but the untranslatable is ultimately what gives me the momentum for poetry — the trying; reaching toward a horizon that always ends up blurry, in metaphors with a double-edge.
RT: I’m so glad you are writing in and around those spaces. We all carry such gaps with us in one way or another, but it’s so valuable to stop and look at what was lost, and what still exists around them.
The pain of separation sits near the heart of Pebble Swing. Having written about so many types of separation (from culture, from language, from family, from community…), I’m curious if you have thoughts on what poetry can do about them. Can poetry only acknowledge the pain of separation, or can it in some way help soothe the pain, or bridge the gulf?
I’ve been using caesuras a lot. My caesuras signify breath, rhythm. In poems such as “Synapses and Grass,” caesuras also compose visual fragmentation and the loss of memory — perhaps, separation, as you say. Recently, however, while caesuras are still very prevalent in my poems, they also serve as different forms of bridges: not so much closing any gaps as much as offering a way to cross them, to learn through wading across the lessons that separations offer us. I talk about them in this poem
, as part of a new manuscript I’m working on called Choreography of Forgetting
. That manuscript traces the choreography of strokes of Chinese characters to tell a story. It’s my way of reclaiming my mother tongue in the only way that I know how, through poetry, the form of expression where I feel most at home. A way of bridging the gulf that emerged in my entire family, not just an immigrant like I, when the Chinese Cultural Revolution took away my paternal grandmother.
RT: We’ve already talked a bit about one real-life way poets bridge the gaps between one another: book launches, readings and other social gatherings. The old truism is that poets don’t make money, but they have the best parties!
Many writers only slowly come to understand the importance of community in their (otherwise often very isolated) writing lives, but you seemed to “get it” right away. You’ve volunteered and worked at magazines, reading series, university programs, you name it. And if you’re not hosting or organizing, you’re an enthusiastic presence in the audience. Could you talk about diving into the poetry community, and how that’s influenced the trajectory of both your writing and your life?
Well Rob, you are at the heart of how that story began. I was sixteen, in my last year of high school, when I sought out the weekend poetry workshop
that you and Evelyn Lau were teaching with SFU Continuing Studies. It was under your mentorships that I learned not only about the craft of writing and editing my own work, but about the work that was out there in the community by other local poets whom I didn’t know anything about at the time, as well as how to get involved through literary readings and volunteering. At first, when I didn’t know a lot of people, I would just go to your events as you shared them on Twitter. While there, however, I would meet lots of new poets who would invite me to other events, and that’s how I learned to get out there in the community.
I remember going to your book launch for Oh Not So Great
, probably my second time attending a literary event ever, and I was so excited about it that I had arrived on scene like an hour early. You had me helping out, setting up the refreshments and greeting folks at the door. That was probably my first time “volunteering” in this community that I grew to really love, and so, more occasions followed.
In reading the work of other poets in I’ve connected with at events, I’ve learned a lot about craft and what it means to read words that move you. The people in the community, my friends and loved ones, have also offered me many generous lessons on caring, listening, reciprocating, and what it means to hold one another. They’ve taught me how to take turns being a woven basket with others. I’ve grown so much as a person over these years, and I mean, money gets you certain necessities in life, but these human experiences with other writers have been equally, if not more, enriching.
I love that image of the woven basket. You mentioned your partner, Scout, earlier, and your interweaving closes the book: Pebble Swing
’s last poem is a love poem. The poem is directed both to Scout and to sunflowers, of which you note “Only young flowers move; only young flowers have to.” Sunflowers seem to have become your motif, as seen in your author photo and the cover of a recent chapbook of poems dedicated to you, Calling to the Sun: Poems for Isabella Wang
. What attracts you to sunflowers? What can they teach us about love?
IW: Sunflowers are Scout’s favourite flowers, for one thing. They don’t demand for a lot, but always try to offer more than they take in: you can plant sunflower seeds almost anywhere. But when they grow up, they are tall, sturdy, and magnificently beautiful. Their petals make people happy. Their seeds can also be roasted and consumed. I’m also thinking about this absolutely profound story that I think will resonate in people’s hearts for a long time, about the Ukrainian woman offering Russian soldiers a handful of sunflower seeds for their pockets, telling them that when they die, at least sunflowers will grow over the land that they’ve invaded and devastated, making her home beautiful again.
is the author of the chapbook On Forgetting a Language
(Baseline Press, 2019). She has been shortlisted for The Malahat Review
’s Far Horizons Award for Poetry and Minola Review
’s Poetry Contest, and was the youngest writer to be shortlisted twice for The New Quarterly
’s Edna Staebler Personal Essay Contest. She studies English and world literature at Simon Fraser University and is an editor at Room magazine. Pebble Swing
is her debut full-length poetry collection. She lives in New Westminster, BC.