Alana Dao + meg willing : “…a possible practice is also an exercise of continued existence, a tool to inhabit more fully our prismatic, contradictory, and complicated selves.”

Alana in green.

meg in blue.

How did you decide on this season’s theme, Kristin Chang’s poem “Etymology of Butch”? When you think of this poem, what elements strike you most?

Last season was the final year of CSArt Maine before we transitioned into A CLEARING. Throughout our CSArt Maine days, we’d experimented with loose themes like “cultivate” or general ideas tying art to agriculture. As we prepared for the last season of CSArt Maine, Alana pitched a phrase from Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts—make the brutal tender—for our theme. These four simple words encapsulated what we were dealing with personally, creatively, societally. And the work produced by our artists that season was soul-level surprising.

From that foundation, we knew we wanted the first theme for A CLEARING to be based in a work of literature. We we went back and forth for MONTHS emailing quotes, poems, articles, book recommendations, photos… Hieu Minh Nguyen’s poem “Still, Somehow” (still taped to my door) was almost our theme because grief can taste of sugar if you run /  your tongue along the right edge. What. [Crying.] Then Alana sent me a link to Kristin Chang’s “Etymology of Butch.” We stopped dead in our tracks. The visceral investigation of defining / re-defining / un-definining, the tension between fluidity and form. Food, race, othering, living and live queerness, sheer expansiveness. We knew it was a huge ask to put out there as a theme—but, fuck, we fell in love and there was no other way to move forward once we’d read it.

Thinking about etymology, how do you each define yourself / your work? How have these definitions changed over time?

Etymology, to me, can be both dangerous and possibly freeing. To define oneself but then to be defined and oppressed by those definitions is a significant amount of power. I think a lot about the how I am defined by others and then how that, in turn, affects the ways in which I define myself. My work is often so interdisciplinary that it blurs lines and I find it hard to define. And with myself, I think I’m only recently coming to terms with ways to define myself. Mother, Asian American, Writer…all these things that I never really defined clearly for myself and to give these labels meanings, I do now. How do I define these labels within myself so that it can be something new and push boundaries of these definitions with weighty, stereotyped, and antiquated etymologies that we can change?

Part of etymology, to me, is the act of naming as an attempt to know. I’d like to think that assigning definitions to myself or my work would not only offer the scaffolding for others to understand it, but in some way also help me understand it better myself. I agree with what you say, Alana, about the act of defining something as an exertion of power. Can we define something for ourselves and trust that others will want to go beyond that definition? womxn writer collagist privileged passing mentally ill designer editor third culture kid hybrid poem queer spring cold rain wet bloom young root

What does this season look like from your side of things? What goes into making A POSSIBLE PRACTICE possible? What have you done so far and what’s in the works?

We’ve already hosted a month-long popup in Farmington, which was essentially a public living room with workshops and creative happenings. It was a huge feat to pull off in the dead of winter. (I pulled a bookcase on a sled through the snowy woods to furnish the space!) We announced an open call for artists to create work in conversation with our theme and selected seven artists to feature. We’ve interviewed each artist and are working closely with them as they’re creating. We curate a weekly reading list on our website / Instagram with essays and poems that are feeding this project and our own practices. The next couple of months will be dedicated to planning and executing a public event in Portland that will bring together poetry, food, food criticism, and our featured artists’ work around our theme. It’s a lot of conceptualizing, reaching out to community members, venue searching, dream lists, cold-call/fangirling emails, etc. This fall we’ll be designing and publishing an artists book that compiles the year’s visual art, writing, and ephemera into catalog, a visual poem of our time together. We’re constantly collecting, writing, and creating for that. And Alana and I have also started pen palling as part of this project. Alana, am I missing anything?

Things are busy! To make this all possible, we also have a semi-set schedule, a practice of sorts. We meet online weekly to go over an agenda, assign tasks, and just sort of check-in with one another. When I scroll down this agenda or our weekly reading list documents, I am sort of floored by what we have done. So much thought and discussion has gone into our programming and while it may feel like we’ve done so much, it sometimes feels like we’ve done “nothing”—which is silly and also my personal conflict with what my time and work is worth to myself.

I admire and strive for a lateral and open ways to collaborate. In thinking about what A POSSIBLE PRACTICE is and can be, I think of it as a way to expand creativity and change the way we work. When I’m having a hard time or something comes up, I try to be open about it with meg so that we are aware and able to work around the things in life that pop up. I believe that work, and our possible practices, should not have such punitive boundaries. To be flexible and adapt is hugely important in the way we communicate. We try to relay that in the way A POSSIBLE PRACTICE functions.

I believe that work, and our possible practices, should not have such punitive boundaries. To be flexible and adapt is hugely important in the way we communicate.

What are you listening to / reading / looking at right now?

I’ve been reading Insurrecto by Gina Apostol, Soft Science by Franny Choi (thanks, meg!), and looking at a bunch of feminist food zines I just picked up in Boston. I rarely get a chance to listen to things with the kiddies around. It’s hard, I always try to put on a news podcast (The Daily, mostly) or catch up on things (Call Your Girlfriend with Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow is a favorite) but it rarely happens. My daughter loves Beyoncé so there’s some of that and I’ve been wanting to revisit some Rilo Kiley. It reminds me of my senior finals week at Smith which totally dates me (I’m old!) but makes me feel nostalgic. I think I miss my friends from college who are scattered around the world and away from me right now, each of us with our own lives.

Franny Choi book club! Soft Science, as well as When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities by Chen Chen, DiVida by Monica A. Hand, Playing Monster :: Seiche by Diana Arterian, The Natashas by Yelena Moskovich. I listen to VS podcast religiously. Three songs I’ve been obsessed with lately: “Bleeder” by Alkaline Trio, “Oh, Eva” by The Tiny Tornadoes, and “Corridor of Dreams” by The Cleaners from Venus.

Who is one of the most influential people in your (biological and/or chosen) family lineage? How do you feel their influence in your work?

I think the most influential people in my work, based on biological family lineage, would be my mother and both sets of grandparents. Which is funny because my dad was the one who was the more full-time parent and always scoffs when I write about my maternal side’s history here in the United States. He is right, in many ways, though. His side of the family has a much more interesting story, his father (my paternal grandfather) fled war and built half of Hong Kong. I worry about all the stories lost because of our language barriers, the distance, the history. And so while this completely and totally fascinates me, my mother is often who I write for.

Not her, as in my mother the individual, but for a person like her. She doesn’t enjoy writing, she hates reading—she was held back in the first grade because of her struggles and she mostly listens to books on tape. Or financial management podcasts. But I often think of another Asian American writer, a New Yorker contributor Hua Hsu, who tells this anecdote about how his father arrived in New York and bought as subscription to the New Yorker only to quickly cancel it because it was too difficult to read. So when I write, I think a lot about accessibility and how engaging it is. Who do I write for? Who will understand? A person I went to graduate school with once noted “I always try to make a souffle but it always ends up coming out heavy like lead.” And to this day when I send her my writing, she will often respond by mentioning how smart it sounds that she can barely understand it. So maybe I still have a ways to go before I get to souffle.

What wise words do you carry with you into your practice?

I read this tweet once from Kima Jones of Jack Jones Literary Arts, I believe, I can’t remember exactly (Twitter and infinite scroll is…not great) and she or somebody said they believe in the importance of unplugging their laptop and when the battery goes low, they put it back, and are done. Because the computer and the body both need to recharge. I found that really helpful. We cannot be expected to function and work without having a recharge!

Joan Didion: “here’s the thing” on the top of a document and say what you want to say. I do this every so often because I find it helps me encapsulate exactly what I mean.

“You don’t have to be an expert at anything other than what you already are. There is already mercy in you, to be given, to find. The thing is not to become something else, it is to bring what you are into greater service to this resistance.” —Melissa Febos

Describe your workspace. What essential tools do you need before you begin your work?

I don’t have a workspace! I’ve tried and we even have a closet that we pulled the doors off of which houses a desk, files, a cart, and sometimes, my computer. But I have trouble focusing at home with two little ones. As I write this, I am sitting on a stool at work, in the corner of the prep kitchen. I have learned to work whenever, wherever, in the snippets of time where I am free from the tender trap of parenting. I guess I need a pen and paper (lists, always and forever!), my laptop and charger (it is so old, it almost always has to be plugged in), and right now, a glass of chilled red.

I’m incredibly grateful to have a dedicated home office / studio space in my apartment. I have a big work table with my laptop / external monitor / keyboard, books everywhere (for reading, reference, design guidance, collage), bills, greeting cards, stamps, a disposable camera, a desk calendar I’ve taped to the wall, Marie Howe’s poem “Magdalene—The Seven Devils,” an altar, a few typewriters, a deck of tarot cards, lists… To work most happily, I like to have reliable internet, spell check, a small and clear flat surface, PG Tips with oat milk, and a can of chilled original flavor Polar seltzer.

What are your latest obsessions?

Goma the poodle.

What other forms of work do you do?

AN INCOMPLETE LIST OF THINGS I DO THAT MAY BE CONSIDERED WORK+

writing*, editing**, waiting tables***, designing books**, making art*, managing a household*, managing social media accounts*/**, caring for family (as I define family)*, community organizing*, community fundraising*, performing*, submitting work (as defined below) for publication****

+ When “work” is defined as an activity that a person engages in regularly to earn a livelihood OR a specific task, duty, function, or assignment often being a part or phase of some larger activity OR sustained physical or mental effort to overcome obstacles and achieve an objective or result OR something produced or accomplished by effort, exertion, or exercise of skill

When “pay” is valued at USD (currency), the following qualifiers apply
* unpaid  / ** underpaid / *** variable pay / **** I pay

Other forms of work I perform include: parenting, partnering, serving, cooking, writing. But really, all of these fall under the umbrella term of mother. To quote Gloria Steinem on her Instagram a while ago (see what I mean about a fraught social media relationship?!) “…we are all able to mother, whatever our sex, our age, our abilities. To mother is to care about the welfare of another person as much as one’s own. To mother depends on empathy and thoughtfulness, noticing and caring.” So all the above “work” that I “do” is a form of mothering in that these forms of labor that have often been traditionally assigned to women, particularly women of color. Which is to also say: low paying.

Which is why I do have multiple jobs, some paying, some not. When we had our second child, I was in a really toxic work environment and it became clear it wasn’t worth the child care expenses for me to work full time. I think this is often the case in this country, unfortunately, and something we need to talk about. So, I quit and re-entered the restaurant/service industry. I tell this story every chance I get because it reflects our culture at large that doesn’t care for the mother, those who mother. We are trapped, in ways, in the same jobs that require skilled empathy and emotional labor that do not have price tags that reflect this.

So short answer would be: I cook and wait tables, I feed and clean my children, I provide them care and comfort and hold them when they cry. And when the kids are asleep, I am a freelance food/culture writer for publications such as The Huffington Post.

What types of ghosts haunt your work? What kind of relationship do you have / want to have with these ghosts?

For the past year and a half, I’ve been working on a piece that deals with ghosts, spirits, haunting as rebellion. It also delves into a new interest in intergenerational trauma, genetics, and Chinese mythology. The idea that these superstitions and beliefs that have been both consciously and subconsciously passed down through the generations are now in my blood. As a haunting that happens for protection, almost. The relationship is…fraught? One of reciprocity? In my head, these ghosts that manifest in cultural beliefs and what I believe to lead me and protect me also need to be fed and nourished. In this way, the way I live my life, my successes are owed to them and by them as are my failures.

For the past few years, I have been working on a poetry manuscript that is haunted by traumatic memory. “The Memory” is a ghost, a character that takes the shape of everything, yet is tangibly nothing. It is omnipresent, shapeshifting, imposing its own repetitive will. The act of writing towards this ghost—of finding its form and its purpose, of naming it in an effort to understand it—has been both an act of catharsis and re-wounding. Some days I avoid its gaze, pretend I don’t feel its weighted stare. Some days I hope it will lean in close, will whisper its secrets into my sleeping ear.

What has surprised you most so far about A POSSIBLE PRACTICE?

I have so many ways I can answer this question. What has surprised me is my own perspective on creative practice, the possibility of my own potential as well as our collective potential working with meg, and the ways it has connected us to other people it wouldn’t have otherwise. Mutual acquaintances I barely know have asked about it and wondering how it was progressing, artists who have reached out to apply, the reach that we had in Farmington in our pop-up space have all really surprised me. It makes me feel uncomfortable sometimes to be “recognized” and this has been a push for me. To accept help and kind words, to understand the power in reaching out and being vulnerable… Also, meg and I have stayed mostly on task (mostly thanks to meg!). Our organization and communication has really been something I need to take a step back from and recognize. We have dedicated a good amount of work and time to this and that is one of the most surprising things. That it’s happening! It’s possible!

Yes, so much of what you said! And, this process has also pushed me to recognize that I tend to overthink projects out of existence, to take something so far and then abandon it because it’s not perfect or exactly what I’d originally imagined. A POSSIBLE PRACTICE is teaching me to stay curious about the unknowns and the variables, to respect that space as room to grow, to surrender to the shapeshifting nature of deep collaboration. I keep circling back to this idea of being possible, too—that a possible practice is also an exercise of continued existence, a tool to inhabit more fully our prismatic, contradictory, and complicated selves. And the sharing of ourselves with each other.

Alana Dao and meg willing are co-founders / co-directors of A CLEARING. Alana Dao is a freelance food/culture writer, mother, and artist. Born in Texas and raised in Asia and the US, her writing and artistic practice navigates the complicated relationships between food and contemporary culture related to race, gender, and socio-economic class. She is a graduate of Smith College and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her work has been featured in The ChartVICE, and the Huffington Post, among other publications. She lives in Portland, Maine. meg willing is a poet, editor, visual artist, and book designer. Born in Oregon and raised in South America, Asia, and Maine, her creative work explores trauma, loss, and fragmented memory through the integration of text and image. She is a graduate of Hampshire College. Her work has appeared in DIAGRAMHayden’s Ferry ReviewThe Adirondack ReviewThe Collagist, Able Baker Contemporary Gallery, and elsewhere. She lives in Farmington, Maine. Alana and meg have been working collaboratively on community-building art initiatives for over six years, forging lasting artistic relationships and creating meaningful work. They met in the food service industry in Portland, Maine. 

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