Poems on Food, Race, and Identity

Poems on Food, Race, and Identity

Adrienne Su, Professor of Creative Writing and Poet-in-Residence at Dickinson College, Pennsylvania, is the author of the newly released collection Peach State (University of Pittsburgh Press). Her previous books include Living Quarters, Having None of It, Sanctuary, and Middle Kingdom. In addition to appearing in five volumes of Best American Poetry, her work has been widely published in magazines and journals including The New Yorker, Poetry, Massachusetts Review, New England Review, Prairie Schooner, and Cincinnati Review. Her honors include a Pushcart Prize, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. Mark Jarman has described Adrienne Su as “one of our best and most readable poets.” And of Peach State, Paisley Rekdal has written, “It’s a beautiful and thought-provoking meditation on food, race, and identity.”

Interview with Adrienne Su

By Sara London, WTP Poetry Editor

London: Reading your new book, Peach State, made me hungry for authentic Chinese cuisine! Your intimate knowledge of and reverence for the dishes of your forebears (and your contemporaries) is wonderfully recorded in these poems. I love the curiosity and humor with which you chronicle American adulterations of ingredients and names. There’s a funny and revealing piece called “The End of Meat,” and one of the book’s five cookbook-style sections is called “Never Mind, Let’s Go Out.” Did you initially set out to write a book of poems about food?

Su: I did, although I wasn’t sure what shape it would take. When I started writing Peach State in 2015, I was aware that the development of Chinese food in Atlanta paralleled my parents’ lives there (over approximately 70 years) and that restaurants and food markets over that period had become a powerful symbol of the city’s transformation. I also wanted the early era, even with its more limited food culture, to be remembered. Meanwhile, I’ve long been interested in food anyway; in a bookstore, I usually go straight to the poetry or cookbook section. Your observations about the poems are gratifying, as I’ve long hoped to bring together these two passions but was never sure how to do so. Maybe it has finally happened.

London: It’s happened! In “Peaches,” you refer to your native Georgia, where, when you were growing up, people asked “But where are you from originally?” Your Chinese family were “strangers / and natives on a lonely, beautiful street,” and “food came in stackable containers.” The poem ends with the image of “typical immigrants’ children, / taller than their parents and unaware of hunger / except when asked the odd, perplexing question.” Can you talk about the intersection of identity, displacement, and poetry in your life?

Su: I grew up in a white suburb, its gleaming supermarkets juxtaposed with my father’s accounts of being sent outside, as a teenager, to slaughter a chicken. Eventually I realized that I was perceived as having lived my parents’ experiences, even though I was born in Atlanta long after both of them had left China. Much later, I connected this conflation to the absence of the term “Asian-American”: the closest word we had was “Oriental.” Mostly, the term was “Chinese” or “Korean” or whatever one’s ancestry was, which naturally leads a child to think she is Chinese or Korean. I loved writing creatively and had little difficulty expressing myself in words. But when it came to describing my own family and the small, scattered Chinese-American community I knew, the vocabulary was missing. In high school, my fictional characters were white, my poems’ speakers racially unspecific—neither of which is categorically wrong, but it was unexamined. In retrospect, that was a form of displacement, though emigration (along with poor U.S.-China relations) was the more obvious displacement. Luckily I was headed toward poetry anyway, the art of attempting to name what eludes naming.

London: Sometimes, even for the poet, language itself can be elusive. In addition to mentioning linguistic elements like “muddled” nomenclature (referenced comically in “That Almond Dessert”), you allude, in some poems, to your own sense of inadequacy with the Chinese language. As an English-language writer, are there ways you’ve felt restrained linguistically? Has your knowledge of Chinese given you any notable insights about English?

Su: I love studying languages and took courses in so many (Latin, French, Italian, Chinese, Japanese) that I am master of none. I invested the most in Chinese and was briefly at ease in it conversationally, though with limited reading skill and no ability to discuss special topics (except maybe food!). But having encountered so many languages’ music and grammar, I do at times feel the limitations of English. Its tenses eliminate ambiguities of time that are possible in Chinese, which conveys time through context rather than conjugation. I seldom write in syllabics because I’m aware that syllable counts work better in Japanese. And a colleague told me about a classical Chinese form that one-ups the English palindrome poem by being readable forward and backward, character by character, rather than line by line. I wish I were equipped to even translate such a poem! And then, more obviously, the visual dimension of Chinese isn’t available in English. That said, some Chinese-American poets are using characters in English-language poems. Although I haven’t done it myself, I’m interested in the possibilities it opens up.

London: A number of your poems utilize fixed forms—villanelles, sonnets, sestinas, ghazals. One of the poems in WTP is written in a Spanish form called glosa. How consciously, and why, do you decide to use repetition and/or rhyme in a given poem? Did the formal poems in the book begin, in their earliest drafts, with strict form?

Su: Few began with form. Most of my poems begin as amorphous freewrites that I later sift through in search of the seed of something less messy. Usually, words or lines emerge that have the potential to provide structure; preoccupations show up and gesture toward certain forms. At that point I consciously consider what form can support what the poem seems to want to do. Exceptions: “The Chow-Mein Years in Atlanta” announced itself right away as a villanelle, but it may be an outlier because I was responding to a nearly overnight call for submissions from the Asian American Writers Workshop. The post–Peach State glosa arose in response to a form-specific prompt from Kelli Russell Agodon and Martha Silano’s The Daily Poet, a book that helped end a silence that had accompanied the first six months or so of the pandemic. Regardless of when in the process they appear, forms help me know when a poem is finished; they provide reasons to choose one of two or more words that in free verse might work equally well.

London: Who are some of the writers who have informed your sensibility along the way?

Su: The poems of Eavan Boland legitimized the domestic, as did Sharon Olds and Sylvia Plath, in different ways. I’ve long been a fan of Molly Peacock and Maxine Kumin’s deployment of meter and rhyme alongside natural diction and a sense of play. Bishop’s sestinas and villanelles opened those forms to me. I spent much of high school trying to translate The Aeneid, which means I got my first lessons in meter from Virgil (and a patient Latin teacher). I’ve also been fortunate to have had fantastic poets as teachers. Charles Wright taught me the whole formal framework; his course was legendary at The University of Virginia. Rita Dove was and is a living example of how to write back to a tradition you couldn’t always see yourself in. Lucie Brock-Broido urged me to relinquish control while also teaching me how to exert it, when the time was right.

London:  And since we’re still in the midst of a protracted pandemic, how have your passions for poetry and food served you during these past many months?

Su: I’ve been immensely grateful to have cooking skills and to have subscribed to CSAs [community supported agriculture] for so long, which trained me to let the ingredients determine the meal, even if you saw a lot of the same vegetable week after week. (It took years to reverse the suburban habit of picking dishes I wanted to cook, generating a shopping list from the recipes, and filling a cart with little regard for season.) Last spring, when no one was sure how risky it was to go to the grocery store and local farms were not yet producing, I was able to buy storage vegetables from the Dickinson College Farm and enjoy, say, five cabbages in a row. In late summer, I canned a lot of tomatoes. As I mentioned earlier, poetry writing was not available to me early in the pandemic, but designing online courses in poetry kept me nourished, and now writing is possible again. As a poet, I’ve always had spells of silence, during which I’m simply observing. The pandemic may have coincided with the natural silence that sometimes follows the completion of a book. It’s hard to tell.

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