John Wall Barger interviews poet Adrienne Su

Raised in Atlanta, Georgia, Adrienne Su earned a BA from Radcliffe College of Harvard University and an MFA from the University of Virginia. She’s the author of the poetry collections Peach State (2021) (Finalist for 2022 Patterson Poetry Prize), Living Quarters (2015), Having None of It (2009), Sanctuary (2006), and Middle Kingdom (1997). Her poems appear in many anthologies, including five volumes of The Best American Poetry. Among her awards are an NEA fellowship and residencies at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Yaddo, and The Frost Place. An Atlanta native, she now lives in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where she is professor of creative writing at Dickinson College. Her first collection of essays, Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet, is forthcoming from Paul Dry Books in 2024.

An Adrienne Su poem, to me, is both warm and haunting. Mark Doty commented on her ability to articulate the “slippery, hard-to-read territory between languages, cultures, identities.” Su has said, regarding the subject matter of her work, that she prefers “the daily to the exotic.” Yet—with lines taut as cello strings, and restless experiments in form—her poems always seem to probe below “the daily”; her latest book, Peach State, focused on cooking, invites us to see maple syrup (“It was not my first encounter / with paring down to an essence”) and yoghurt (“What horrors did the worker who filled this container survive?”) in novel ways. Su’s voice disarms us, leaving us vulnerable to moments that leave us breathless: “Everywhere I go I meet anxious women / with money and beautiful faces, and men / with ashes on their brows. I’m lonely as hell.”

We conversed over Zoom in June 2023, me from my living room in Vermont, and her in her living room in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Our conversation ranged from White Rabbit candies to the guilt of abundance, Chinese restaurants, how to answer the impossible question “Where are you from?” and the “chow mein years” of Atlanta.

JWB: Can you talk about how cooking came about as a topic of your book, Peach State?

Adrienne Su

AS: It’s been a huge interest for me my whole adult life. It crept up. I always thought of writing about food as something that I do in prose, or that I teach in a creative nonfiction class. I didn’t think of myself as a food poet. But it started to make its way into the poems. It happened organically, no pun intended. And during the time that my father was dying and I was going to Atlanta all the time, my daughters, my mother, and I spent much of our time in Chinese restaurants, often with extended family, many of whom grew up in China. Chinese restaurants are an extension of the home, I think, for Chinese American families. So the significance of food for me was self-evident. It was a way of writing about family and migration, memory, loss. There’s a comma between memory and loss, but I’m also thinking about memory loss because my father had dementia. There’s this end-of-life stage where people may end up in nursing homes eating what is served there, which means the end of Chinese food for my elders. On the other hand, my parents both arrived in Georgia as very young people, so Southern food is not alien to them.

JWB: In Peach State you seem to position yourself as being between Chinese culture and white folks born in the States: folks like me, I guess. [laughs] I love how, with such a humble voice, you embrace the misunderstandings—which are funny, kind of tragic, and deep—implicit in that between place.

AS: My point of reference, thinking about your question, is my brother. We grew up in the same household. And I’d say that we were both not taught to speak the language. There wasn’t a whole lot of access to Chinese food, the way it’s available now in Atlanta. So, for me, Chinese food and culture was something I actively explored. I went to college and took Chinese, whereas my brother went to college and took German. And I got really into cooking. My brother’s not really into cooking. It’s important to me to know how to order these Chinese meals. In these big family dinners, kids are usually passive: parents order everything, elders order everything. Because everybody eats everything. It’s not like individual people order their own dish. So you wait. All these things arrive; you take a little of each one. If you don’t like something, you skip it.

JWB: There’s a “Lazy Susan” poem in your book.

AS: Exactly. So I went out and sought these things, because I felt that the Chinese restaurants might be doomed. I didn’t realize that Atlanta was going to change so much. Turns out they’re not doomed. My fear was that the elders were all going to be gone. And these things, these foods, knowledge of these foods, was going to be lost, at least in the family. I think I also just wanted to eat the food. So once I moved away I thought, “Well, what is that specific food? I have no idea what it was called. How did we get it?” [laughs] I started reading cookbooks and going to Asian supermarkets, investigating. My brother and I laugh about this, because I now live in a place where those ingredients are still a little bit inconvenient to get. He lives in the Boston area, with access to it all. And he doesn’t really care to go after it. So I could have been like my brother. There’s something in me that sought out this Chinese stuff. And I think it was maybe the poet in me that feared death. The death of the elders who had the knowledge.

JWB: You frequently mention the forebears, the ancestors.

AS: Right. I never got to meet one of my grandmothers. There was no US-China relationship for thirty years. We weren’t able to travel back and forth.

JWB: Your poem “Ancestors” refers to your excitement about Chinese restaurants: “It means the journey / isn’t over. Someone, though outside my family, // whose mother and father still eat from the soil / in which most of my ancestors dwell // (themselves become fruit and flowers), is trying this place, which feels like nowhere, // which is how the creation myth always begins, / with emptiness waiting to be broken.”

AS: I don’t know if it’s clear from the poem, but I’ve never even been to that restaurant. I could tell from the menu that the food was going to be exactly the same as the food at other places. I had no interest in eating the food. I just wanted to affirm the hope of somebody starting their American dream. So maybe the doubleness of Peach State is that the Atlanta that’s dying is the one I grew up in. In which being Asian was weird, and you couldn’t get a lot of the foods that are super available now. There’s a part of me that says, “Oh, let that Atlanta die.” [laughs] But that was my life. So I miss it.

John Wall Barger

JWB: In your book there is, as you say, this doubleness to peaches. First, Georgia—where you grew up—is the Peach State. And peaches also lead to questions of difference between you and your ancestors. This is from “My Life in Peaches”: “Their lives were labor, they kept this from the kids, // who grew up to confuse work with pleasure, / to become typical immigrants’ children, / taller than their parents and unaware of hunger / except when asked the odd, perplexing question.”

AS: When people asked my parents—who were immigrants—“Where are you from?” they had an answer because they did come from somewhere. [laughs] When people asked us kids “Where are you from,” the kids were perplexed. “From here. Why are you asking?” This has become a cliché of immigrant writing, so it’s hard to deal with in a poem. What can I do that neither dismisses it nor repeats something that’s been done too much? It’s a reminder that you look foreign. You forget that when you’re just living your daily life, especially in a place where the way to conduct life is to never mention race. Maybe that was an American thing in general, but it was very much a Southern thing, at that time. It was so fraught, it was not talked about. When somebody would say, “What’s your nationality?” That one always drove me crazy. My nationality is USA. [laughs] But you’d be going through life forgetting that you don’t look like the people around you. And then somebody would ask you something that reminds you and you think, “Oh, right. I don’t blend in.” I started writing “My Life in Peaches” because I was looking at a crate of Pennsylvania peaches. I had no plan going into all that. The funny thing, of course, is that the peach is the emblem of Georgia. But it’s indigenous to China.

JWB: In “When I Said I Grew Up Speaking No Chinese, I Was Forgetting These Words,” you describe the fried food “Tee-doy”: “one of my father’s home dialects, Fuzhou or Gutian, I don’t know which, understanding / neither. Deep-fried spherical pastries made of glutinous rice flour …” I love the humor and your humility, saying “I can’t pronounce these words myself.” It’s so disarming.

AS: I don’t know if this is evident, but I feel the book is a kind of elegy, because I wrote it during the time my father was declining. I knew that this was the end, so I was reaching back for connections, like these pastries in the toaster oven, in the poem. I mean, usually we reheat things in the microwave, but these Tee-doy, which are deep fried and crispy, are horrible out of the microwave; you have to put them in the oven. They’re super heavy, really greasy. You can’t eat that many of them. During this time I learned that my father had two home dialects. As his cognition was failing, he talked about his mother’s home dialect, Gutian, which is, I think, pretty obscure. Everybody knows Mandarin, Cantonese, maybe Shanghainese. Fuzhou dialect is getting less obscure here because a lot of immigrants are now from Fuzhou. Restaurants are run by people who speak Fuzhou: the dialect of my father’s father’s family. The town my father grew up in is not Fuzhou, but downriver. I don’t think it had its own dialect. But what do I know? [laughs] Gutian was not super far away. And yet, it’s such an old country. I think travel was difficult for thousands of years. So the language would be different only fifty miles away. In his illness, my dad talked about this dialect of his mother, as he really hadn’t before. I guess he’d had no reason to talk about it. When people have dementia, they start remembering the early things. So I’m always going to these immigrant grocery stores and my brother is saying, “Why are you going to another grocery store? Do you need groceries already?” “I’m looking for the past,” I tell him. Or “I’m looking for our ancestors.” Maybe he doesn’t care because I’m doing it. That is, somebody’s taking care of that.

JWB: I’m haunted by the great-great-grandmother in “Home Economics”: “When I curse myself, again, for failing / to use each lettuce leaf, the last tomato, / before decay set in, the phantom shaking // her head is a great-great-grandmother / appalled by her distant offspring….”

AS: Most of us never meet our great-great-grandmothers. But I never even met my grandmother, my father’s mother. Maybe because everything happened on the other side of the world, I feel like it’s all cut off. I have to imagine everything. I know my father’s family was very frugal with food; they didn’t waste anything. Of course, I’m an American, I’m always wasting. [laughs]

JWB: “Home Economics” continues: “an American who never watched a river // rise above its banks like a cold volcano, / who burns the stew while also forgetting / the sprouting onions and potatoes.” Beautiful, but pointing to you as somebody who doesn’t know the deep stories. Who’s locked out of the old culture.

AS: Yeah, and who never lived through a famine. Much as I feel guilty, and I think we all feel guilty when we waste food, this sense of abundance comes from growing up here in America. I think that becomes part of us. We don’t worry about waste too much. If it doesn’t cost that much, then, “Okay, we might not use it all. That’s all right.” But then I tried to revise the grandmother: I think maybe she’s a figure up in the sky who’s watching everything, and that she actually does have the context. And maybe she’s not so harsh.

JWB: Your poem “White Rabbit” touches on this sense of rarity and plenty. Is White Rabbit an example of candy that was plentiful when you were a kid, but you knew it wouldn’t have been plentiful in China?

AS: White Rabbit was plentiful in China, scarce in Atlanta. There were certain foods you couldn’t get often, so they seem special. There were moments when there’d be a lot of them because it was a holiday, and everybody had made an effort to get them. White Rabbit wasn’t impossible to get. But it wasn’t something you could just pick up at the grocery store, like M&Ms. You had to make a special trip. There is a retro candy store in Carlisle. When I go into it, I feel weirdly erased. I mean, it’s fun. It’s meant to be a fun place to think about past eras and whatever sort of nostalgic snacks there were. The key to that nostalgia is the complete absence of White Rabbit.

JWB: So when White Rabbit is plentiful, it’s the opposite of the actual memory.

AS: Yeah. It was only plentiful at, say, a Chinese New Year gathering, when somebody has made a trip to some special store and gotten a bunch of White Rabbits and told the kids take as many as you like, and it felt amazing, because normally you’d get one bag and have to make it last. Also, as I talk about in the poem, there are Chinese characters on the label of White Rabbit, meaning “big,” “white,” and “rabbit.” [laughs] There’s no mystery to it. But part of traveling back to the 50s in our imagination is also to fear communism, as they did in America. So—someone fearful and suspicious might ask—this candy coming out of China with these unreadable characters on it, what if that’s some sort of Communist propaganda? My poem responds, “It says BIG—WHITE—RABBIT.” Again, it’s complicated. It’s the feeling of being a kid and eating this candy on those rare days when there’s tons of it. But it’s sparked by being an adult who goes into the retro candy store and thinks, “Well, I know why there aren’t White Rabbits in the store.” Right? That wouldn’t really be representative of the 50s decade. But there were other reasons to keep White Rabbit out at the time. The Cold War. China and the Soviet Union on their side with their candy. [laughs] Then over here, Bazooka gum. The White Rabbit becomes an enemy, or representative of an enemy, in that nostalgia.

JWB: The “abundance” of America, this feeling that we have so many choices—as compared with the sparsity and famine that your ancestors suffered—is one way of looking at it. But underneath all of this abundance in the US is also a kind of dearth.

AS: Anywhere there is abundance in a society, it’s going to be of the things that people are accustomed to. Having an ongoing awareness that there is this other supply of things that aren’t showing up creates a kind of emotional dearth. I’m glad you used that word “dearth.” Because it’s not that there was nothing to eat; it’s that there were certain things that you might crave that you couldn’t get if your background had made you appreciate and care about those things.

JWB: One of your poems responds to Calvin Trillin’s 2016 poem, “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?” He says, “So we sometimes do miss, I confess, / Simple days of chow mein but no stress, / When we never were faced with the threat / Of more provinces we hadn’t met. / Is there one tucked away near Tibet? / Have they run out of provinces yet?” Clearly this comes from an “us” and “them” attitude: “us” being white folks, and “them” being Asian folks. It sounds dismissive, and possibly much worse. Your poem “The Chow-Mein Years in Atlanta” provides the other side, in a really human way: “My father, repairing the attic or cellar, // was working more than he made it appear / so that some in Fujian might escape state control.”

AS: I think the reason that uproar surrounding Trillin’s poem hit me so hard was that I had been writing poems about Chinese food in America, and I had been a reader of Trillin for a long time because I followed food writing. So I knew that he had expertise in Chinese food and appreciation of it. This is why I couldn’t just say, “He’s awful.” That would not be an interesting poem. I felt a little hurt. Like, “Wait a minute, you know about the food, right? You appreciate it? I know you’re making a joke, but something’s off here with the usage.” My response wasn’t to denounce him, because I don’t find a poem in that. I didn’t feel like denouncing him, because I had some idea of where he was coming from. He just kind of forgot. Maybe. [laughs]

JWB: I mean, that’s generous. To me, his poem dehumanizes. And your poem humanizes.

AS: Yeah. I think I was trying to recreate the “them” and turn it into “us.” It was bugging me. I couldn’t not respond, but I wanted to write something that I’d be able to stand by, that didn’t just say something angry. And I think it interacted with my grief. I was thinking about my parents aging and one day being gone, and what Trillin calls the “days of chow mein.” Everybody has those days early in their life: early family memories in the context of an era. I asked myself, “Oh, what were those chow mein days?” There was a time when the chow mein genre was the only Chinese food we could get in Atlanta. Trillin was in New York, so he had better selection. We, in Atlanta, went to those restaurants with the same old menu geared toward a mainstream American customer. But we loved it. My parents didn’t say “This is fake. That’s not how it supposed to be.” We just ate it. And we enjoyed it. So it was also a day of non-food snobbery. That was Chinese food, for us. And I’m really glad my parents didn’t ruin it for us. Trillin’s poem reminds me, I remember a textbook from maybe third grade, that said there are three human races: Caucasoid, Negroid, and Mongoloid. Can you believe that! Thinking back on this—what was the context of those years? I remember the drawings in the textbook, these three heads of people. And of course, I didn’t know to be upset then. I think I was upset because it seemed … repellent. But I couldn’t articulate why.

JWB: Would you comment on Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet, your book of essays which is due at Paul Dry’s doorstep very soon?

AS: It should be submitted sometime today. Like Peach State, it goes back and forth between poetry and food a lot. I like to think of it as “How I became a poet.” So much of how I became a poet is related to food, it seems. There are a number of interviews in the book. There’s also an anecdote from when I was studying abroad in China. Not all of my mother’s family was able to leave China when the Communists took over. My maternal grandfather’s brother didn’t leave. He had come from a bourgeois background, so he was sent to a remote outpost to work in a fur factory. This is one of the worst things that could have happened to him because he loved animals and opera, and because he was exiled from Shanghai to the southwest of China, far from his community and the urban arts. You’re basically being punished for having been who you were. I was in Shanghai, and had never met him. He took a three-day train across the country to meet me. And he’d made me a gift. It was a coat made of dog fur. It was so hard for me to know how to feel about that. You could say, “Oh my God, no.” But you can’t, since his whole life had been condemned. He didn’t have the luck to leave. So the essay steps into my conflicting feelings and asks, “What do I do? How do I feel?”



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