Poetry Friday: An Interview with Janet Wong

Today, Dani at Doing the Work That Matters is bringing us all things poetry at the round up.

And here at Check It Out, I am thrilled to be interviewing Janet Wong about A SUITCASE OF SEAWEED AND MORE. I have had such great success using this book as a mentor text during my recent time in classrooms. Food and family are such inspiring topics. Kids can relate to food and have strong emotions around food. It was such a delight to see them write their poems.

JRM: How did it come to be that you were able to re-issue an updated edition of A SUITCASE OF SEAWEED AND MORE?

JW: A SUITCASE OF SEAWEED was published originally by McElderry Books (part of Simon & Schuster) in 1996. When it went out of print in 2006, the rights reverted to me. Right away I made a simple paperback reprint of the original book through BookSurge/CreateSpace, but last year I decided that I really wanted to tell the stories behind the poems and expand the scope of the book to make it more useful in a classroom. Sylvia Vardell and I create books through Pomelo Books (PomeloBooks.com), but our Poetry Friday books are somewhat different in flavor from this book, so I published this book through my YUZU imprint.

JRM: I love the backstory from the poem, “A Suitcase of Seaweed”.  I can just picture the anticipation of presents from grandmother and then the disappointed to find food instead.  What prompted you to write the backstory of many of these poems?

JW: I speak to children at many school visits each year, and I find that putting a poem in a “sandwich” of backstory and questions is a fun and effective technique. It’s not something I’d ever done in writing before this book, but I think it worked really well to give the established text a whole new twist.

JRM: Were there notes to look back on in order to write the new material, the back story?

JW: I think I might have notes and multiple drafts somewhere in a box in my garage, but I relied on memory for the backstories here.

JRM: I’m really questioning how it is that I have never tried kimchi.  I love cabbage, chili peppers, and garlic. What do you eat kimchi with or is it eaten alone?

JW: If you are a traditional Korean person, you eat kimchi with everything—and alone, too! Kimchi and several other little dishes of mung bean sprouts, boiled spinach, soy-soaked chili peppers, little fish, shredded squid, black beans, potato salad, etc.—“banchan” or “panchan”—will appear at every dinner (and often at lunch and breakfast), along with rice.

JRM: Were you at all tempted to revise the poems besides adding the new text boxes?  Were there poems that didn’t make the book?

JW: Yes, I was tempted to revise—but decided that it was best to leave the poems alone. All of the poems made the book.

JRM: In the poem, “Sisters”, you explain that the poem is really about your mother.  Did you ever let your mom know about the poem?

JW: No, I never told my mom that she was my sister in one of my books. She used to love it, though, when people would mistake us for sisters, especially after I turned fifty and my hair started turning gray. One stranger even told her that I looked like her OLDER sister! She really loved hearing that.

JRM: What do you hope readers will take away from A SUITCASE OF SEAWEED AND MORE?

JW: I hope that readers will feel inspired to write about their own family memories—and snippets of memories. Poems are perfect for capturing little memories—an image, a taste, a funny saying.

JRM: Your “Advice for Writers” is spot on.  Especially the starting small and making the time to write. I have been thinking a lot about organizing poems.  Do you categorize your poems as you write so they’re easy to locate? What tips might you have?

JW: I wish I were organized enough to categorize my poems as I write! But one thing that I feel—and I think it’s a healthy thing—is that it’s OK to write something and do nothing with it. It’s OK if it gets lost. It’s OK if no one ever sees it. But if a person wants to share, and have other people read and talk about her work, then she shouldn’t just wait for a traditional publisher to say yes. Go ahead and use KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) or another company (Ingram Spark, Lulu, Blurb, etc.) to get it out in the world. Work like crazy on a book, get it done, and spread the word!

JRM: Yes, I agree! I’ve used KPD and Blurb for a couple of photo and poetry books. What is one food that all readers who read A SUITCASE OF SEAWEED AND MORE should run out and try?

JW: Seaweed, of course! It’s funny that my grandmother needed to bring seaweed in her suitcase so that my mother could have it, and yet now you can buy it even at Walmart and Costco.

JRM: How does one choose a good restaurant for Asian food?

JW: Word-of-mouth and Yelp! Readers: if you need a recommendation for an Asian restaurant, just email me with your city name. I’m pretty fanatic about food (especially Chinese, Korean, and Japanese food) very good at sifting through Yelp reviews, and I also have tried a lot of restaurants (particularly in Seattle, Los Angeles, New York, Central Jersey, and Philadelphia). And if you HAVE a recommendation for an Asian restaurant that you love, let me know! (janet@janetwong.com)

Students wanted to know: What is your favorite food?

JW: Japanese: sushi (sweet shrimp, albacore), ramen (fresh extra firm noodles and broth cooked at least 24 hours); Chinese: dim sum (ha gow – shrimp dumplings), wonton noodle soup (shrimp and pork wontons with Hong Kong style thin but chewy egg noodles), soup dumplings, ma la (spicy tingling) beef tendon; Korean: soon dae (blood sausage); Mexican: cochinita pibil tacos (very soft stewed pork tacos with small corn tortillas), empanadas with potato; Italian: gnocchi (potato dumplings); Swedish: potato pancakes; Danish: potato chips (I had the BEST potato chips ever in Iceland, a Danish brand called Kim) . . . I think the better question is: what foods don’t I like? (Answer: I’m trying to stay away from processed foods that contain ingredients I can’t pronounce.)


I love this book SO much that I have an extra copy to give away this week. Please leave a comment and I will let the winner know next Friday.


What to see some very fun food poems? Visit these posts:


Friday, May 17, 2019

Monday, May 20, 2019

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Thursday, May 23, 2019


14 thoughts on “Poetry Friday: An Interview with Janet Wong

  1. Thank you for this wonderful interview. I know the original book but clearly I need to read the new edition as well!

    • YES, Liz: You DO need to read the new one! Only because I know that the new prose pieces and writing prompts will inspire you to write many more poems of your own. I’m so excited that I’m going to receive my pre-ordered copy of your debut book SOCCERVERSE soon–can’t wait! (And I am already looking forward to your next book, WHATEVER it is!!!)

  2. Thanks so much, Janet and Jone. Enjoyed reading more about this book. Of course I loved reading the list of Janet’s favorite foods — some I’ve never tried: beef tendon, blood sausage. What, no mochi under Japanese food? And yes, kimchi can be eaten with everything. Try laying a couple strips of wonbok kimchi in a tuna sandwich. 🙂

    (no need to enter me in the giveaway, I already have a copy)

  3. I always enjoy interviews with Janet because it seems there’s always more to learn! (I’m not sure my palate is as adventurous as hers is, though.) No need to enter me in the giveaway, Jone. I just wanted to thank you and Janet for this satisfying interview.

    • Michelle: SADLY, few of my friends enjoy eating the things I really love to eat. I don’t know how I ended up with so many vegan friends, for instance. (Well, I do: it’s because most of the kindest people I know are vegans.) But, as much as I try to be kind and respectful of the earth, I do love grilled intestines. Eating things like offal at least makes good use of all parts of a butchered animal and is sustainable and reverent in an odd way. READERS: if you are ever in NYC, and you like eating intestines, let’s meet at Gopchang Story!!! https://www.gopchangbbq.com/

  4. Wonderful interview, Jone and Janet–thank you. I have the original edition of Suitcase–would love to read the updated one. And now I’m hungry for sushi…and potato pancakes?

    • Yes, yes, and YES, Buffy: Potato pancakes! Reading these COMMENTS is making me hungry!!!

  5. Thanks Janet and Jone for this delicious interview, I felt like I was in the room with you! I’m looking forward to spending time with this new version filled with all your stories. Loved hearing your suggestion to just get our work out and not wait on a traditional publisher and your favorite foods.

  6. I loved reading this post, Kay and Janet. My third grade poets are doing food poems right now. They communicate so much about culture and family traditions. What a sweet origin story for the title of this book!

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