Stealing Moments for Poetry

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Stolen Moments is Nellie Wong’s newest book of poetry. Published by Chicory Blue Press, it is the tenth in the series called Crimson Edged Chapbooks by women over sixty.

            Nellie Wong is an extraordinary poet. Two of her poems are carved in bronze and granite at bus stops in the San Francisco Bay Area where she lives. Workers travelling to and from their job read Wong’s words. Some will remember them as they sit at keyboards or machines, selling their labour and their precious time for a meagre wage.

            Nellie Wong is a citizen of the world. An off-hand comment by her boss, a skin irritation, a homeless person on the street, the smell of food cooking or tanks in Tiananmen Square . . . all these scenes from working class life are her inspirations. Her work is complex, evocative and rich with imagery.

            Nellie Wong is a working woman, Chinese American, feminist and revolutionary organiser, who identifies strongly with her Chinese heritage. She grapples daily with racism, sexism and class oppression. So an angry thought about the economic blockade of Iraq is as tangible as the rain on the window.

            Launching 62 is a poem about her birthday. It moves seamlessly and unself-consciously between the personal and political, interacting with a kaleidoscope of people and places.

            Food, wine, theory, anger, Kurds, poverty, laughter, charity, Black, Latino, Clinton, jazz, Iraq, homelessness, Chinese mushrooms, resistance . . . they are all there. Each time I read this poem I discover something new. In a few words, Wong stimulates the reader to think about the inherent contradictions of late capitalism . . .

            “… as I try to undream the vision of millions of children standing in bread lines your children and mine of every hue and background because welfare is being ended ‘as we know it’ and immigrants, legal or undocumented, their skin itches, raises a crescendo of shame to the Democratic President who, with a stroke of a pen, imbeds in our consciousness our real lives that states can collect block grants dole out crumbs embellished in the name of democracy as we know it ‘cause money shrinks ‘cause capital shrinks ‘cause the economy dilapidates, shrivels, shred the hopes of the poor, single mothers on welfare, youth battling on the streets wondering what America has become …

            This slim volume of poetry undoes every Hollywood stereotype about the United States. We see beyond the sanitised and the superficial. The people are real. The issues are the familiar ones which challenge working people everywhere in the ‘90s. The super-exploitation of recent Asian immigrants trapped in sex work, is captured in When You Think of A Spa. People wonder if they will be next to be retrenched. At an office party to farewell an administrative assistant who is leaving, “emptiness pervades the words of farewell”.

            Wong is enormously observant and perceptive. But she is not a spectator. In an afterword to the collection, Wong talks about her development as a poet: “My activist life is intertwined with my writing life. My poems feed my activism and my activism feeds my poetry”.

            She writes about the importance of her work as organiser for the San Francisco branch of the Freedom Socialist Party. In Journal Entry she lets us in on the struggle involved in preparing a critically important speech that she “didn’t want to be rhetorical”. And the joy when it all worked: “it was a beauty of dialogue and analysis, a fusion of many brains at work, the heart of a feminist party”.

            Wong’s optimism jumps from the pages. She is intoxicated with desire …

            “… for democracy in a socialist China intoxicated for a woman’s right to choose intoxicated  with the strength of woman warriors intoxicated for the right to speak a native language in the workplace intoxicated for freedom, roofs over the heads of the homeless…

            I too am intoxicated with desire for the freedom Wong is fighting for. Her poetry makes me angry, sad, thoughtful, inspired and determined.

            Wong loves the moments when she gets to write a poem. Some of these moments are found after a demonstration or before a union meeting. But others are the Stolen Moments of the title poem. Wong calls herself an “ambidextrous time thief”.

            The intensity of exploitation is on the rise as employers try to squeeze more productivity from workers. But they cannot stop workers from thinking their own thoughts or from stealing a moment.

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