Thursday, November 11, 2010

Student Inquiries on Rita Wong's Forage

Rita Wong has generously and graciously offered to respond to some of our questions after we read Forage in our Intro to Lit class, and we are grateful for this opportunity. The following are the questions you posed directly as well as some that I formulated based on inquiries you raised during our class discussion.


So in the poem "Fluorine," the wording is somewhat confusing. It seems like the sentences in the poem are missing punctuation and the poem just doesn't seem grammatically correct. The poem was a little bit hard to understand at first but i was able to make out what it was trying to say in general. But what is the reason for this structure and how does it add to the meaning of the poem? How do you structure your poems in general?
By B.C.

In “nervous organism,” what is the meaning of using back-slash to
separate the phrases and sentences?
By H.L.

In your poem “Susurrus,” you used repetition as well as metaphors and similes to describe the passing of days. You started with the idea of “fear and uncertainty,” and I understood that line, but as the poem progressed, the descriptions got more confusing and metaphorical. How did you come up with them all, and how do they all work together? Basically, I’m curious to know how you really felt the “days passing”? Was it quickly? Or slowly? Or something totally different?
By E.S.


Why do you include Chinese letters on many of your poems and do not give a definition or tell us what they mean?
By B.K.

For those who do not understand Chinese, how should the Chinese characters that surround several of the poems be interpreted?
By C.C.

Social Issues/Science:

I know Rita Wong always tries to address social issues through her poems but isn't it really hard to actually show the impact of the issue to readers in this way rather then writing a full novel on various social issues. Poems such as "reverb" when you first glance at it looks like we are reading upside down but actually it’s intended in that way so my question is why all the poems structure in Forage are like that or does structure just follow the meaning of the poem.
By M.D.

'Why does your poetry, or at least "Forage," ignore or downplay the positive aspects of science, one of event of which would be the Green Revolution.'
By M.P.

I recently tried analyzing your unique poem recognition and identification. What was your reasoning behind comparing plants to major corporations?
By B.S.

1. What inspired you to write "Chinese School dropout" and what do the symbols along the side of the poem mean?
2. Since you researched for the book in 2007, have you gone back and looked at how the reasearch has changed?
By K.A.

for Lee Kyung Hae Korean Farmer Marytred in Cancun (1947-2005)
Does the term "socialism's red fist unclench" mean socialism without the downfalls of human corruption?
23 Pairs of Shoes
IS 23 pair of shoes a critique on unchecked capitalism, the rise of corporate power, and the consequences of technological progress in the 21st century?
By K.N.

Poetry and Education:
As a poet, how do you think poetry can be a motivation of self-expression amongst students in primary and secondary education schools?
By A.F.

From Class Discussion:
During our class discussion of "the girl who ate rice almost every day" my students formulated some interesting questions:
I had students discuss their order of reading in terms of the left and right columns, whether they read all of both columns, read the full narrative first or whether they alternated columns by strophe, and we went on to discuss what different readings might reveal about how literary and scientific discourses interact and how we make them interact, how we can privilege one over another, etc. They then wanted to know about your writing process. Specifically, they asked if you wrote one column fully first or whether it was a back and forth composing process? They also wondered if you had drafted the poem but then later did a final Googling before off to press to get the most updated returns/results. And, they were also quite curious about what you envisioned for readers' responses to this poem.


  1. Wow! These are great questions. Thanks for putting so much thought and effort into your readings of forage. You've caught me while I'm on retreat in New York (, and I'm trying to keep email/internet down to a minimum over the next three days. I'll respond in more detail to specific questions by Monday or Tuesday (Nov 15/16), but in the meantime, here are some thoughts in response to the class discussion questions:

    The narrative in the left column came to me first, quite quickly, and I felt that I needed more context for it, as to why we were in the mess that we're in. Out of curiosity, I'd also been doing searches on the patent database that horrified me (in terms of both the impenetrable language the patents were couched in as well as the implications they have legally and ethically), and it struck me that juxtaposing the story with some samples of my patent searches made sense. So I gave it a try and liked the effects that it produced.

    I often say that what's happening today in terms of scientific experiments is crazier than anything I could make up with my own imagination (transgenic pigs?! sterile canola?!), and what the database documents bears me out on this. I did update the search results between the time I wrote the first draft and the version that eventually got published, and I hoped that readers would think about what unintended side-effects might arise from patenting life forms that humans have not invented, but have arrogantly interfered with. I also hoped that readers would go check out the database for themselves, and draw their own conclusions about the debates regarding the genetic modification of life, as well as the patenting of it.

    Some more background: I'd been watching films like Future of Food (which I highly recommend for its description of how genetic modification occurs) and reading books like Vandana Shiva's Biopiracy. I'd also been upset by how Monsanto sued the farmer Percy Schmeiser and intimidated countless small farmers in North America as well as India (where there's a high rate of farmer suicide in places where people have been forced to rely on corporations for seeds and inputs, turning small sustainable systems into debt-ridden ones). I'm hopeful to finally see a recent decision overturn the last two decades of patenting and privatizing life:

    Thanks for your patience,

  2. Hello everyone,

    Here are my longer responses to your many questions! Because this post is so long, I've had to split it up into a few entries. Thanks again for reading forage!

    Best wishes,

    Re Poetics/Structure/Form:

    to BC: yes, the syntax of "fluorine" may be a bit confusing, but it is possible to decipher it. this reflects how i experience the presence of so many unidentified but embedded chemicals and substances in my daily life - it takes a bit of work to figure out what's there. i hope the reading process mimics or approximates the process of paying attention to what is not immediately obvious but nonetheless present and comprehensible in our daily lives.

    to HL: you can read the slashes in “nervous organism” as pauses (short hand for line breaks), so that you get the sound cues of where to take a breath, but i wanted the blockiness of a prose poem to convey how smushed in and messed up together everything is, physically, at the same time.

    to ES:
    the question of where ideas come from isn't easy to answer - sometimes they come from observation of what's around me (literally hearing a mosquito or sitting on the toilet feeling stuck & waiting for something that doesn't want to happen), and sometimes they come as a creative insight, a gift from the world, i would hazard. in terms of creative process, i think it's important to both work hard (be disciplined and rigorous in one's efforts) but also to make time to relax, to play, to be receptive to whatever's around you. so yes, sometimes the days pass very quickly, sometimes very slowly - what interests me is that there's a flow that constantly shifts, inviting us to be attentive to our environments.

  3. Re Languages:

    to BK:
    The Chinese characters correspond to Chinese words that have been romanized into English sounds in the poems they accompany. For instance, the two characters on p. 47 are the characters for Guiyu (the village mentioned on p. 46), and the three characters on p. 12 correspond to zhi ma wu (black sesame soup/pudding), which is mentioned in the poem on p. 12. The two characters on page 57 correspond to the name of the poet Ping Hsin, mentioned in the title of the poem on p. 57. and so on... People who read the Chinese can figure this out very easily - it helps to clarify what the romanized Chinese might mean. It's meant as a friendly gesture to these readers. I don't translate the characters for a number of reasons: it feels heavy handed and didactic, English readers can still get a lot from the poem even if they don't know the characters, and it also gives those readers a sense of what it feels like, briefly, to be in a space or a society where language can be a challenge. There's also a sense of mingling and interaction between languages that keep moving, refusing to remain still.

    As a child of immigrant parents, I observed how people would sometimes look down upon my parents because they had strong accents, or their English wasn't good enough for difficult conversations; I felt then, as I do now, that people forget to respect how learning another language is a big skill and accomplishment. I want to encourage readers to be humble, patient, and respectful as we approach different languages, and people navigating different languages.

    to CC:
    If you don't read Chinese, the Chinese characters might be left alone as a mystery to return to someday, or not, or they could be an opportunity to talk with someone who does read Chinese, who might be able to tell you what the characters mean and how they match up with words that are already in the poem. I would like the characters to be an opportunity for readers to talk to someone they might not otherwise approach. But I also know that readers are busy people, and might not go that far; I'm ok with that too. You might also look at the characters and speculate what the ideograms signify. For instance, on page 66, the three characters on the left at the bottom of the page, si mei ren, translate roughly as "thinking (of a) beautiful/fair person". The bottom character (two strokes) looks like a person, a stick figure without the arms, and indeed, the etymology of that word is that it was a drawing of a person, which is what the character means.

  4. Re Social Issues/Science:

    to MD:
    Um, I don't _always_ try to address social issues; they often come up because they're embedded in the world around me. It's a question of how you look, how you see... Poetry functions in a lot of ways - when I started writing poems, it was mainly to express feelings or work through something that was puzzling or disturbing me, and over time, it's also become a way to investigate or explore the world through language, sound and image. I don't write novels because they take a long time, and my mind doesn't work like a novelist's. I think poetry is a great form for exploring moments in a way that is very condensed, attentive to how language shapes/influences perception, and wide open to possibilities coming from any direction.

    I like when a poem's structure speaks back to its content. In the case of "reverb," for instance, the lines are bouncing off the right margin instead of the usual left margin, questioning conventions that often glue us to the left margin as though there were nowhere else to go. Why not try something else and see what it does to your relationship to the page and to the line? Also, not all languages move from left to right; Chinese, for instance, moves from right to left, and top to bottom. The handwritten marginalia also encourages readers to move around on the page, and to look for poetry in unexpected places (texts that we might call "non-fiction" such as Rachel Carson's Silent Spring may also have poetic moments in them).

    to MP:
    I feel like corporations and industry (who have millions of dollars to buy certain kinds of science, while neglecting others, and lots of money to spend on advertising budgets) get their message out there, no problem, and I don't need to repeat their very positive spin on science (btw I think science is fascinating, not only positive or negative, but both - the question is what people use it to do). I'm interested in exploring the contradictions and complications of common people's everyday experiences, and the long term consequences of science and technology, not just their short term gains. While something like the Green Revolution did increase food production, it also reduced biodiversity, reduced soil health, and increased dependency on pesticides (which benefits the corporations that manufacture them, but not everyone else, who ingests them and has to deal with the resulting health problems). See David Suzuki and Holly Dressel's book, Good News for a Change, on some of the unintended effects of the Green Revolution, or Vandana Shiva on it - Don't get me wrong, I benefit from science, like you, I'm sure--but one needs to also ask, who benefits, who doesn't? Whether we like it or not, we are part of one great big science experiment as all sorts of technologies get released, and we're just learning over time what their impacts will be, in combination with other factors. Science labs are controlled spaces; they may teach us certain limited and predictable things, but what happens out in the world is not so easy to predict. The increase of cancers and illnesses caused by body burden (the term for hundreds of chemicals--flame retardants, endocrine disrupters, PCBs, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, etc--found in most people and animals around the world today) reminds us that slowing down, living more simply, and observing more carefully might be in our best interests in the long term.

  5. to BS:

    When I wrote "recognition/identification test", I was thinking about a study which found that children could recognize dozens of corporate logos right away (ie. Golden Arches, Nike Swoosh etc), and it was disturbing to learn that they couldn't even name very basic plants in their ecosystem. What kinds of literacy are we encouraging today? Are these the kinds of literacies we need for a sustainable future? When I read that poem out loud to people (often with someone else to read one column while I read the other column), I ask them to test themselves - which column is easier to visualize and imagine? Can we draw all the plants, or do the corporate logos come more easily? I'm hoping that people ask themselves what vocabularies and literacies they have in their lives, and if these are the ones that matter. After writing that poem, I've found myself making more of an effort to learn plant names.

    to KA:
    1. The three Chinese characters on the left of "chinese school dropout" mean "tall," "yellow," and "tree." The square/rectangular middle part of the character for yellow is also the character for field. I wrote that poem for people who are suspended between languages (in this case English and Chinese).

    2. Yes, I keep reading on issues around body burden, the environment, and genetically modified foods, for instance. I get weekly updates from the Organic Consumers Association, and have read books like Slow Death by Rubber Duck and Nena Baker's The Body Toxic quite recently.

    to KN:
    1. yes, you've identified one possible meaning for "socialism's red fist unclench."

    2. yes, 23 pairs is a critique of the things you've identified. thanks for picking up on this!

    re Poetry and Education:

    to AF:
    I think poetry is very accessible - it's short, and you can write it in between other demands (work, family, etc). As Audre Lorde pointed out, you don't need to be rich to write poems - it's a form that's available to anyone, including the poor. It can be a great space for freedom, exploration, honesty, and non-judgemental self-expression. After 911 happened, many people wrote poems and posted them online at sites like - it's a form well suited for marking a moment in time. people might not have time to write novels but they did write poems to express sorrow, memory, hope, and much more. I'd like to see more students in schools encouraged to write their own poems and to be reminded that there are MANY ways to read a poem, not only one. The question is what you base your interpretation on, what you decide to emphasize, or downplay in your reading of a poem. There's room for creativity in both the writing and the reading of poems.