Isabella Wang has been shortlisted for The Malahat Review’s Far Horizons Award for Poetry, Minola Review’s Poetry Contest, and was the youngest writer to be shortlisted twice for The New Quarterly’s Edna Staebler Personal Essay Contest. Wang’s poetry and prose have appeared in over thirty literary journals and three anthologies. 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.
Pebble Swing earns its title from the image of stones skipping their way across a body of water, or, in the author’s case, syllables and traces of her mother tongue bouncing back at her from the water’s reflective surface. This collection is about language and family histories. It is the author’s attempt to piece together the resonant aftermath of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, which stole the life of her paternal grandmother. As an immigrant whose grasp of Mandarin is fading, Wang explores absences in her caesuras and fragmentation—that which is unspoken, but endures.
Interviewed by Jennifer Mann
Jennifer Mann (JM): How do you prepare for your creative journey? Do you have a structure, a muse, a theme before you start?
Isabella Wang (IW): My process has shifted a lot over the years with every new project and creative genre that I’m working on, and Pebble Swing is probably an amalgamation of many different creative journeys. Some of the earliest poems in the collection were written when I was in high school. I was discovering my poetic voice for the first time, learning to edit my own work, and honing my vocabulary / imagery / metaphor use. I was also learning about how to locate the stories I had contained within me, how to be patient with myself and know when I was ready or not ready to write about a particular subject. I read a lot of poetry at the time, and I still do. When inspiration struck, I’d try writing a rough draft–anything that came out—and edit over a period of weeks or months. Writing has gotten slower these days, but I think that is a good thing. I’m learning that it’s important to take care of myself, as much as the work. If a line of poetry, or an idea comes, it spends more time in my head. Most of the time now, a poem begins once one line or a few lines are formed, and that’s when I initiate a relationship to the work on paper. Language, personal, cultural, and ancestral memory, and environmental politics are all timely subjects on my mind. I often write along those themes. In a second manuscript I am working on, entitled Choreography of Forgetting, I am also using prompts to begin a poem, looking to the stories contained in the strokes and spaces of Chinese characters to house and contain my own poetic thoughts, while reclaiming parts of a mother tongue I have largely lost.
JM: In Burned out – ‘I spent the day in my closet’, struck me in the solar plexus. I thought there may be a connection between the dark of a closet and the dark of winter – were you going for that image?
IW: In high school, I turned my bedroom closet into a little reading nook that I could go snuggle and hide in. For me, it does not evoke darkness but comfort, in the cold and often sad or dark passages of winter months. I felt safe there.
JM: In elegy for winter – ‘where fingers and bones are rummaging for explanation’ is a fantastic metaphor. Amazing metaphors pepper your work. How do these ideas come to you?
IW: Oh gosh, I spent two years on this poem. One of the most difficult in this collection, process wise, to be honest. I wrote the first poem as a response to a class on biopolitics and the environmental crisis. I was in my second year of university at the time, learning about the injustices and situations in the world, while at the same time, trying to come to terms with what I had learned. It was a hard time to write, and I think earlier versions of the poem expressed the brokenness I felt. I will share it here:
Elegy for the Dead Poem in Winter
(dream upon dream, still the sun warms my ink
and the flies buzzing to life in my window)
— John Thompson, Stilt Jack
All the days go by. And now its winter.
The morning that wakes me,
bears witness to the demands
of this reel-to-reel life without validation.
So much goes unsaid in the deadbeat lyric
where once, I tried to inscribe
with the pulse of what makes me.
Only no one hears anymore,
this poem that’s died in its passing.
What gets preserved in this life?
A season later, I’ve watched more poems
commit suicide than flies.
Sometimes, I open the world to a music in poetry,
sludge turning margins into rain.
Not a drop of water goes without carrying
some disease of the city.
The hard shells contract by the course wave
of wind meshed in sand
like bodies do—upon hearing news
of the harsh journey
we grieve, and our muscles turn stupefied.
Once, I measured a thousand steps
and invented as many religions
without faith. These words don’t know
where they are going.
While outside reigns the forest
of dead bodies and lakes,
wildfires broadcasting sparks
into the night sky
like stars, the closed eyelids of my dreams.
I see this part of the world
burn even in winter, while under the wind turbine,
the owl gets sheered into sheep.
I’ve tried so hard to find
in the body of a sweet aesthetic
its rhyme, some small thing to reclaim,
but nothing palliates the situation like before.
The scent of English lavender
grows stale by the warm glows of a candle
without flame. Just this poem for you,
for the season that stands
between the tree and its bare branches
will soon pass,
and we’ll celebrate
among the lights of this city where friends meet.
Our words will never be enough,
are all we’ve got.
I wasn’t happy with the poem, however, and for a time I thought about cutting this poem from the collection altogether. I came back to it a year later. The words in this new version are completely different, but it still reflects the sadness I felt. But this new version, emerging out of the pandemic, speaks to a collective sadness, this need to search for meaning and “explanations” that I identified in myself, but also my kin and communities alike. In realizing that, I tried to steer my poem in a way so that it would also offer a small palmful of comfort. Say that “I know there’s a lot of hurting in the world right now/I know it’s difficult to hear another poem about grieving,” but we are still searching for comfort and beauty. And that search, that need, is at once beautiful and enough.
JM: Loved ‘Ghazal for heirloom family recipes, and the use of the idea of bitter. My understanding is that ghazal is usually used for themes of love. Perhaps bitter is another side of the love ‘coin’?
IW: Yes, the ghazal is known traditionally for its widely interpretable themes of love, and my poems certainly come from that place. At the same time, there are many contemporary ghazal writers who are exploring other thematic possibilities contained in the expansive verses of the ghazal, myself included.
JM: ‘I remember construction workers pairing cement down our extinguished fictions’ is such a strong image. I can read this over and over and the impact doesn’t fade.
IW: Thank you!
JM: Your metaphors are surprising, delightful and impactful. ‘I arrive as a frisson of vomit rising to rust her throat’. Do you have a favourite metaphor from ‘Pebble Swing’?
IW: I also like this metaphor in “I Remember”.
I remember land
as the body and hug. and whisper and mother of my father
and grandmother I never knew
Therefore I remember land
as a body of poems I carved into the ground
with a stick
and turned to mud with the tears of my father
JM: ‘I went on a fishing trip to that part of yourself where no one goes’. The human journey remains essentially alone and lonely at times, and writing is one way to let people in I suppose?
IW: I feel so!
JM: ‘I arrived at the city by bus. At first I was the student and rain was the conductor’, a fantastic metaphor that we on the west coast know so well!
IW: Thank you! I am grateful for the West Coast rain, that’s for sure!
JM: ‘Lost an outdoor cat’ – which leads to the sentence ‘there’s only so many combinations of metaphors’. So honest. I suppose writers make writing ‘look easy’, but it’s hard. Perhaps hard like the title of your work ‘Pebble Swing’. How do you deal with the difficulties, the ups and downs?
IW: Learning to recognize the difference between lack of motivation and burnout, and if the latter, letting myself go for a walk or watch a movie, anything I need to relax from a deadline so I can later go back to the task and give it the proper attention and care it deserves. This summer, I reached a bit of a breaking point knowing I had grad school in the near horizon, and a ton of other creative projects to complete, while feeling that there just wasn’t enough time to do the reading and research I needed and still process things. As time went on, I came to the realization that what I really needed was more time, another year or two not only to work on these commitments, but also give myself a break. That’s what I’ve decided to do. It sounds obvious now, but it did take me a while to allow myself to do that, and it took some real “downs” for me to get to this point. That said, though there have been really hard times, I’m grateful to have the support of many loved ones, friends, and mentors who reach out to me, and believe in me when I have trouble believing in myself.
JM: As a poet, how much time do you spend reading versus writing?
IW: These days, I think I spend a lot more time reading than strictly, creative writing. I do a lot of different kinds of writing, academic and professional wise, as those obligations come up. I’m healing from a year of difficulties and burn out, however, and while I have a few creative projects on the go, I’m also just allowing myself to be open to the solace of other peoples’ work whether poetry, creative nonfiction, literary journals, or theory I love.
JM: Is there anything else you’d like to share Isabella?
IW: This is my cat.