Friday, September 4, 2015

A Visit with Janet Wong & A SUITCASE OF SEAWEED

Hello and Happy Poetry Friday! Be sure to visit lovely Linda at TeacherDance for Roundup.

I'm delighted today to welcome poet and publisher Janet Wong to share some poems from her book A SUITCASE OF SEAWEED: And Other Poems (McElderry Books, 1996). Buy the paperback edition here.

I happened upon this book at a book store on St. Simon Island (GA) earlier this year, and was enchanted by the poems that reflect Janet's Korean, Chinese, and American heritage. You'll find Janet's comments below in blue.  I particularly love Janet's last comment about identity - who we are vs. who we want to be. See below! Thank you, Janet, for sharing with us today!

JW: My mother was paralyzed from polio as a child. Her cure: acupuncture, hundreds of needles daily for a year. This was in rural Korea in the late 1940s. If you were to visit an acupuncturist in the U.S. today, you’d probably receive only a dozen needles in a session. But the way she described it to me as a child, poking her finger all over me, I imagined them turning her into a porcupine.

Acupuncture
by Janet Wong

"Chook! Chook! Chook!"
Mother says each time
she digs her finger
into my skin
to show me where
the doctor stuck
hundred of needles
in her swollen, still,
fever-filled body,
when she was twelve.

I have a picture 
in my mind
of how she looked -- Chook!
My mother, once
a porcupine.

JW: I got my first acupuncture treatment after a severe ankle sprain, when I was a teen. Acupuncture, as it’s practiced here, is not supposed to hurt, but my mother believes that it’s only working if it hurts. My mother kept telling the acupuncturist, “More needles! More deeper!” I ended up with double the amount he originally had inserted. The pain was quite intense when he twisted the needles halfway through the session. I did my best for the next few days to hide my hobbling from my mom so that I wouldn’t need to return. 
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Sisters
by Janet Wong

She calls me tofu
because I am so soft,
easily falling apart.

I wish I were tough
and full of fire, like ginger--
like her.


JW: This is just one example of why I am “tofu” and my mother is “ginger." Tofu is not just soft; it weeps. (Put a piece on a plate in the refrigerator and the next day you’ll see what I mean.) I wrote a poem about this difference between my mother and me, but chose to call it “Sisters” since I don’t have a sister and could then tell my mother that it was totally made up. 
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JW: About identity: Race matters, of course, but I worry when we overemphasize race and ignore other things that make up who we are; I’ve written many poems about the complex issue of identity. Now, at the beginning of the school year, the question for many kids (especially teens) isn’t “Who am I?” but rather “Who do I want to be?"

Which?
by Janet Wong

Two dresses hang
side by side
on the sale rack,
the tag of one so worn
it seems the price
was not believed,
but looked at, at least twice,
by many who might buy.

It is real: this
black velvet gown
overgrown with
lush, bright flowers
is cheap, dirt cheap,
even cheaper than
the simple chambray dress
some careless hand
has pressed up against its back,
the white plastic hanger
crushing one velvet flower.

Which one is you?
Wear this plain blue frock
twice a week and feel safe,
no one will talk;
but wear the other,
with its strange power
that makes you think
that boys will swoon,

and a second time
a season 
is too soon.

34 comments:

  1. I loved the poems, but I also especially loved the comments by Janet.

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    1. Thank you, Donna! We have Irene to thank for her idea to include my comments for the poems!

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  2. Thanks so much Janet and Irene. Love this book. So uncanny as I'm tofu and my mother was ginger. :)

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  3. I love this book. The complex view of identity is exactly why I love it.

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    1. Thank you, Liz! Yes, we all contain so many different aspects . . .

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  4. Thank you for this, Irene and Janet! I am excited to read this book--I love the depth of the poetry and the sense of time and place Janet evokes. It is beautiful!

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    1. Thank you, Becky! For me, the "time" that this book evokes was the first year of my son's life. I wrote the first draft almost entirely between the hours of 9pm (his bedtime) and 2am, from when he was 2 months old until a year old. Later, when I heard Deborah Hopkinson say that writers need to want to write "more than sleep," I knew exactly what she meant!

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  5. Appreciations to Janet Wong for reflecting upon uncomfortable moments from child days years, to produce these vivid poems that make me feel as if I were back there with her. The title, A SUITCASE OF SEAWEED is unique & appealing & your reading of these selections add to this worthy journey.

    Happy Labor Day weekend to everyone,
    Jan

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    1. Thank you, Jan, for such a lovely comment!

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  6. IRENE: Thank you for citing Janet's ...SEAWEED. It is such an important book to tout.

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    1. Dear Lee: Your praise means SO MUCH. Thank you!

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  7. Loved reading this book last year for the first time when Janet Wong visited our middle school as part of our month with The Poetry Box. We loved the experience of writing poetry under Janet's tutelage. She's delightful!

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    1. Ramona: You did such a great job of getting kids excited about poetry with Kevin Cordi's Poetry Box! It was easy to get them motivated to write their own poems because of your preparation and the wide variety of mentor texts in that box.

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  8. I know I might find it elsewhere, but have requested it from my library too, Janet and Irene. Because I taught early adolescents, the poem "Which?" touched me because I saw this every year when my students returned (I often had students for a 2nd or 3rd year). They might show up with a new kind of hair, colored, cut, perhaps a new style, or maybe, the same hoodie, still clinging to what felt safe. Brief words share much. Can't wait to read all the poems. Thanks for sharing, Irene, and for the telling responses, Janet.

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    1. Linda: Your former students would be honored if they were told today how much you remember about them. I'll bet you could write some great poems about those memories!

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  9. I checked the catalog and my library doesn't own A suitcase of Seaweed. Is it still in print, Janet? If so I'll place a purchase request. It looks like a good fit for our town.

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    1. Yes--it's available at Amazon: http://amzn.to/1OjedQ3. When the rights reverted to me a few years ago, I created a paperback reprint edition. Thank you for asking, Diane!

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    2. Adding this link to the post, Janet! xo

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  10. A Suitcase of Seaweed is a gem--and it's terrific to read Janet's comments about the poems (I would never have guessed that the ginger in Sisters was really your mom, Janet. But I bet you have a little ginger too.) Thanks for the wonderful interview, Irene.

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    1. I think I might have a little artificial ginger flavoring--but not the FIRE!

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  11. Irene, thanks for bringing this collection to light again! Loved the commentary.

    Janet, reading your poems always makes me feel like I'm sitting across from you at a kitchen table, and you're telling the story just to me. A wonderful quality and an amazing talent. As someone who happens to love contemporary-style acupuncture, your Mom's "More needles! More deeper!" made me laugh.

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    1. Yes, I love acupuncture (now) too, and am amazed by the wide range of benefits. According to my mother, my favorite acupuncturist is "no good--TOO SMALL needles"!

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  12. Thank you, Irene, for the poems. Thank you, Janet, for letting us get to know you a little better! Not ginger...I beg to differ!!

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    1. I almost never read those poems aloud during assemblies or conferences--so I'm happy that Irene gave me a good excuse to revisit them. The "black velvet w/lush flowers" image takes me back to 7th grade when my grandmother let me buy a crazy wild black velvet jacket with huge bright red, orange, and pink flowers on it . . .

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  13. Thank you Irene for sharing these poems and Janet's thoughts. Fascinating to read the backstory of each poem - especially the Sisters poem. Love that the title was to throw off Mom's suspicion it might be about her. =)

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    1. I'm happy you enjoyed reading the backstories, Bridget! And I hope that you share some Band-Aid backstories to go with your lovely "Band-Aid Cure" poem later this month on Band-Aid Day!

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  14. Irene and Janet, this is a delightful combination: poems and commentaries. The poem that hits a chord with me is acupuncture because I was a recipient for several years but I did not have issues with the needle puncture just the little hit of electricity sending out quick little jolts.

    So many students today need to understand their own identity so reading texts from diverse perspectives and cultures is a way for them to connect.

    Thank you for this post and for the ILA15 sessions.

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    1. Thank YOU, Carol, for stopping by to comment here and for taking time to chat at ILA! And yes, I do love those waves of energy that come during an acupuncture session. One thing about the acupuncture poem is that a teacher or librarian might learn something about a child's family in a discussion of it. You never know who will have had experience with acupuncture personally or in their family--it might not necessarily be an Asian kid!

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  15. Oh how I adore Janet's writing. Her descriptions are so specific, direct, and honest. Thank you for highlighting this champion of children's poetry. WONG POWER!

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    1. Thank you, Charles! And I love the way your poems have enriched The Poetry Friday Anthology series!

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  16. Oh how I adore Janet's writing. Her descriptions are so specific, direct, and honest. Thank you for highlighting this champion of children's poetry. WONG POWER!

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