Voices of Bettering American Poetry Volume 3 — Dorothy Chan

How does performance fit into your writing?

I’m not a “theatrical” performer when it comes to my poetry readings, but my readings do have a large performance aspect to them. It’s about intonation and emphasis and not being afraid of repetition—be a little provocative, a little campy and fun. I like to wear something low-cut and put on lots of body glitter and a bold lip. Bodysuits are great, depending on the venue. I’m obsessed with fashion, and I like to wear what makes me feel confident—presentation’s a big part of the performance aspect. One of my secrets is this: I watch a lot of drag queen videos to prepare—always think big, and you can command a room.

And, performance and writing are inherently linked. When I write a poem and format lines into stanzas and decide on line length, etc., I think about how what it’d be like reading the piece aloud to an audience.

Does gender or gender performance affect your writing?

Absolutely. All my poetry is about women and being a woman, especially being a queer woman of color. I personally have a lot of trouble feeling feminine, despite all the girly things I like. But maybe that’s performance. Maybe I like to talk in an assertive voice and be in charge, wearing a short skirt and Hello Kitty accessories—maybe I want to show how women can be strong regardless of what they are wearing or how they present. Being a woman is so multi-dimensional, and I want to honor that in my poetry.

What needs to change in the educational/academic world, with regard to poetry and writing? What can literary educators do to affect this change? What can students do?

It’s important for teachers to be responsible when creating syllabi and giving instruction and reading recommendations. It’s important that course syllabi include a diverse variety of writers, especially writers of color, LBGTQ writers, women writers, and disabled writers—intersectionality. It’s also important to not tokenize: as educators we need to constantly read and discover new, emerging voices (and not just young emerging voices). What we curate for our students really sets the tone of their education.

I love it when instructors teach translated works. I think it’s so important to both discuss and debate the art of translation.

I encourage all students to ask their instructors for additional reading recommendations. Speaking from experience, there’s only so many poems and collections that can fit on a syllabus. Ask us for more! We’ve got a lot to say!

What’s the earliest experience, or a stand-out experience, you can remember that made you realize that you can be yourself, write as yourself, and write about issues that matter to you? Has this been difficult for you?

When I first started writing poetry seriously during my undergrad years at Cornell, I remember always being worried my work didn’t sound “wise” or “impactful.” One of my mentors, Joanie Mackowski told me the smartest thing: “Don’t worry about sounding wise. Write from your own experience.” And from that moment on, I became more secure that what I was writing about was important. As I mentioned earlier, being a woman encompasses everything I write, but I also have to emphasize that being a child of Chinese immigrants from Hong Kong also holds a lot of significance for me. Immigrant parents really are the best. My parents taught me about hard work and integrity from a young age.

Is there anything in your work that people frequently misunderstand?

Yes. I write a lot about my experiences with my family in Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, I’m an observer. Chinese families don’t show affection in the same way that many American families do—for instance, we don’t really hug. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t any love there. When I write about my family, for example, my sonnets, I think many people misread them as unemotional, but I’d argue that the way every poet and speaker show emotions is different, and sometimes we need to dig a little deeper.

I’m a Chinese woman, and I’m super proud of it.


A woman standing in front of a brick wall, wearing a blue button up shirt. DOROTHY CHAN is the author of Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold (Spork Press, 2018) and the chapbook Chinatown Sonnets (New Delta Review, 2017). She was a 2014 finalist for the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Academy of American Poets, The Cincinnati Review, ?The Common, Diode, Quarterly West, and elsewhere. Chan is the Editor of The Southeast Review. Visit her website at dorothypoetry.com.


This interview series is conducted with authors from the anthology, Bettering American Poetry Volume 3. As Bettering’s editors wrote in their call for nominations, “Our efforts will intentionally shift favor so that the literary landscape within this anthology reflects a ranging plurality of voices in American poetry and illuminates the possibilities of sharing space … This anthology represents just one concerted effort to better American poetry, but it is one that we hope will resonate.”

Bettering has sought to delve deeper with the poets selected for this anthologies. These questions are composed collectively by the editors, with the belief that the literary community needs a polyphony not only of poems but of poets’ voices.