Michelle Wing has a B.A. in English from Montana State University, and an M.A. in Japanese Studies from the University of Washington. After graduate school, she received a fellowship from the Ministry of Education in Japan to study abroad, living in Osaka and Kyoto for three years.
Her poetry and creative nonfiction have appeared in Sinister Wisdom, The Gay & Lesbian Review, and several anthologies. In October 2012, two of her poems were shown in Sacramento in an exhibit at the California Museum, Creating Freedom: Art & Poetry of Domestic Violence Survivors, with the poem “Dreamwork” taking first place honors. From 2002-2013, she worked as the senior staff writer for a community newspaper in the Napa Valley, the Calistoga Tribune. Currently, Michelle writes a monthly literary column for a small chain of newspapers in Sonoma County, California.
Interview by Erika Rothberg
TCJWW: Body on the Wall is divided into four sections—one for each of the elements (wind, fire, earth, and water), accompanied by a quote. How did you decide to arrange your collection/order your poems? How did your choice of quotes transpire?
Wing: Even though I write primarily in free verse, structure is very important to me. I knew the book needed a framework. I searched through the poems in the collection, looking for one that could provide an anchor, and “The Elements” jumped out at me. That was not its original title; it was first called “In Search of Self.” But as I re-read it, I saw that the four elements existed in the piece – wind (sky), fire (fire, phoenix), earth (wolf, pine boughs, bloom), water (water, pool, cascade). So I renamed that poem, put it at the front of the book, and ordered the collection in the same way as the stanzas appear in “The Elements.”
I also wanted to incorporate the use of the Japanese characters, or kanji. The basic elements are all represented with single characters, and so have strong, simple graphic images. I speak Japanese, lived in Japan for three years – so this was a part of myself I wanted to include, the way that words can have a pictorial existence.
Choosing the quotes for each helped me solidify what each section would focus on. For “Wind,” I chose the Hélène Cixous quote, which in part says, “…who I was does not interest me. Who I am in the process of becoming is strange and breathtaking to me.” It gave me a place to celebrate coming into myself, as a lesbian, as a poet.
In “Fire,” I selected a line of poetry from Meena Alexander’s Aftermath: “A mountain soars, a torrent of sentences/ Syllables of flame stitch the rubble.” When I first read and selected the line, I didn’t know what the poem was about, as it was excerpted; later I learned it was about 9/11. This has a very personal double meaning for me, because I remember distinctly the rage and fear that was being expressed by those around me in San Francisco, especially men, when 9/11 happened. At the time, I had a huge disconnect, because I thought, “Did all of these people feel safe before this happened?” Because I never had. So “Fire” became the section for my poems about being a survivor of assault, molestation and domestic violence.
For “Earth,” it is perhaps a less direct connection. The quote is from Albert Camus, and says in part, “We all carry within us the place of our exile…But our task is not to unleash them on the world; it is to fight them in ourselves and others.” I’ll talk more about this later, but eventually, this became the section where I spoke of family and childhood, the roots.
Finally, there is “Water,” and the wonderful quote from Denis Johnson: “I knew every raindrop by its name.” Ironically, this is from a short story where the character is high on drugs. But when I read it, I also understood it at another level, that moment of intense awareness of everything around you. So here it was perfect, the place for me to incorporate the healing parts, my Zen practice, my marriage, that which nourishes…water.
TCJWW: Were these poems always intended to be part of a collection or were they written over a longer period and compiled later? Did they form together organically or was it a conscious process?
Wing: When Ruth Thompson of Saddle Road Press first approached me about publishing a book of my poetry, the idea was to produce a collection from my current body of work. I believed I would simply be putting things in order, and doing revisions. So some of the poems in the collection date back as far as 15 years, in their original renditions. Using the four elements as a structure, I was able to put everything into a form I felt fairly happy with, and I sent my first draft of the manuscript off to Ruth. She told me the first and second sections were strong, and the fourth had some great poems, but the third section was weak, “But that’s OK, sometimes a book has a weaker section.” That wasn’t something I liked hearing. She also gave me the feedback that there appeared to be something missing – I never spoke of my childhood.
Sometimes as writers, there are topics we know we must write about but are afraid to touch. When Ruth spoke of my childhood, it was as if the floodgates opened. Over the next six weeks, I wrote twelve new poems, completely changing the “Earth” section. At first, it had been composed of more political poems. Now, it truly was my own “earth” – where I came from. Interestingly, the quote still worked, because it became about living through those childhood traumas and not unleashing them on the world as an adult.
I also added a few other poems in the “Water” section, and changed some of the ordering. The process of allowing the poems to find their place in the book was sometimes conscious, and sometimes simply intuitive – they seemed to know where to go.
TCJWW: In prior interviews, and in the collection acknowledgements, you assert that community is extremely important for a writer, even though writing is a solitary act. How did your experience with A Room Of Her Own retreats, public readings, and writers clubs affect your work?
Wing: Oh, thank goodness for community, especially other women writers! It is so easy to get lost with this fragile writer’s ego – rejection letters, or simply not hearing anything, or writer’s block, or any of those myriad stumbling points I face. And when it’s time to celebrate, no one understands more than another writer what a truly big deal it is to have a poem accepted, or to be launching your first book.
In 2009, for my birthday, my wife Sabrina gave me the gift of a writers’ retreat. She actually found the A Room of Her Own (AROHO) retreat online; I applied and was accepted. It is a weeklong retreat held every other year in the New Mexico desert where Georgia O’Keeffe used to paint, at Ghost Ranch. I have now attended three times, and hope never to miss it. It is an incredible boost, a time with 100 women, hearing their writing, networking, learning about their projects – simply fantastic. And a smaller group of us who met there (we call ourselves the Flamingos) meet for mini-retreats; I will spend a week with them in June at Sea Ranch, for beach walks, shared dinners, writing prompts, heaven.
Between my AROHO friends and my Flamingos, scattered across the country, and my local writing groups, where I go to regular readings and open mics, I have constant contact with other writers. I have a place to try out new poems in front of an audience (I love to read) and to be exposed to new work by others, giving me fresh inspirations. I have a medical disability, and cannot drive, so I often spend days at a time at home, since our house is several miles out in the country. It’s great for my writing, but could feel very isolating. But, thanks to these wonderful networks, I have writing friends popping into my inbox all day long, offering encouragement, advice, feedback. It makes all the difference.
TCJWW: Your program, Changing Hurt to Hope: Writers Speak Out Against Domestic Violence, is incredible. Would you mind telling our readers a little about this project?
Wing: Changing Hurt to Hope (H2H) is a domestic violence awareness campaign that we started in 2010 at the YWCA Sonoma County. I had done domestic violence prevention work before at other agencies, and had just joined as a new volunteer at the YWCA, and we were brainstorming. I thought, “Instead of doing frontline work like I usually do, on the crisis line or going to court, why don’t I do what I’m really good at? I’m a writer!” So, having no idea what would happen, we put out a call to the community at large, asking for people to send in poetry, flash fiction or memoir on the topic of domestic violence. It worked! People from every town and city in the county sent in pieces, and that October, during Domestic Violence Awareness Month, we held readings in three cities on different nights, where the writers came and read their work.
There were some surprises. I anticipated entries from survivors, and perhaps also from writers, who would simply see it as a writing prompt. But what I did not expect was the broad range of responses we received. We heard from a man whose sister was killed by her batterer; a mother who had adopted a child removed from a home that had domestic violence; adults remembering the sound of a clicking gun being held to their mother’s head in the next bedroom when they were small; a man responding to a newspaper article that caused him such grief, he had to write a poem; and on, and on. The writers were women and men; gay and straight; Anglo, Latino, African-American, Arab-American; ages 13 to 85.
Another unexpected result was that I initially thought of the pieces only as being awareness for the audience. I forgot how therapeutic the writing would be, and then the step of reading aloud – for many of the writers, it was their first time to share the story. And on top of that, because domestic violence can be so isolating, they met each other, heard each other’s stories, so there was this instant community which formed – yet another magical moment.
Currently, we hold the event in four cities, and over the past years we have had a number of the readers return, so I have watched their healing progress, as they use H2H and writing to further their own recovery.
I am in the process of editing an anthology of “the best of the best” of the H2H writings with two other women, Ann Hutchinson and Kate Farrell. We hope to have it ready for launch by October, in time for our fifth year anniversary. The working title is Cry of the Nightbird.
I emcee the events, but always participate, too – I write a couple of poems or a prose piece each year. It has been so humbling and inspiring to be part of this program. I have met some amazing people, and it has been an honor to be take part in their journeys.
TCJWW: Many of your poems speak about trauma. In your interview with off the margins, you said, “writing literally saved” you. Do you have any words of advice for poets who may be struggling to work through their own traumas via poetry?
Wing: Ah, tough question. I tend to shy away from giving advice! I can say what was true for me. I used to journal a lot. Therapists are always telling you to journal. But my journals seemed to simply repeat themselves. I could go back a year, and find I was writing about the exact same problems, in the same whiny voice. I wasn’t getting anywhere.
When I first started writing poetry, coming from that place of pain, it was pure schlock. Full of morbid self pity, hyperbole, clichés. But there were little kernels of truth there. I was starting to find my words, and my voice. And each time I wrote about a particular incident in my life, I came closer to containing it.
I realized eventually that those first poems weren’t meant for anyone but me. They were the purge poems. They had to happen, but they weren’t designed for general consumption. Because I had written them, I began to have a smidgen of emotional distance from some of the traumas in my past. That distance allowed me to re-enter, to pen new work. These poems were more fresh; they had a more true voice, closer to the bone.
I am still writing poems about things that happened many years ago. This is not because I dwell in the past, or because I spend sleepless nights worrying about these things. It is because when I can pull up one more memory out of the vault, turn it over in the light, find both its ugliness and its beauty, and then limn its shape in the form of a poem…I can put that one demon to rest, at last.