1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
The first book changed my life in lots of little ways. The two best: because Jean Valentine picked my book to be published, I got the chance to meet her. Woohoo!
Another good one: Having the book gave me the chance to teach at a university—there’s nothing I like more than picking books of poetry I love, then getting students to read these books and talk about them with me.
My most recent work feels exactly opposite from my previous work, but it’s not. I can’t escape my head, my head which is continually banging against the same issues of language in different ways. My first book tried to find language to match what happened to my thinking when I was a foreigner. My new manuscript, Loan Words, starts some place different—with facts and theories and quotes about language from the field linguistics, and tries to take those ideas and bring them out into the realm of the lyric.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
My parents were very into this parenting method that proposed it was the parents’ role to reflect their children’s feelings back to them in language. “It seems like you are feeling sad.” “I get that sense that you are very frustrated right now.” “Wow, I can tell you feel proud of what you did today.”
I can’t tell you how annoying I found this practice as a child. My experiences did coincide with the words that my parents put onto them, and yet, the words seemed hollow in comparison, narrower, drained of heat and multi-valence and how a feeling can be itself and its opposite.
The first time I read poetry, in high school, I finally felt like language had the capacity for the complexity of thoughts that are feelings that are nameless. So I guess, thanks mom & dad.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
Awayward came out of notes from when I first lived in China, in Beijing. I wanted to try to see this new place without pinning it down into my relationship to it. Then I worked with those notes for years. The linguistics poems, in Loan Words, came fast, I think because I’d been thinking about them for so long before I gave myself permission to write them, to approach my obsession directly, to have facts in poems that are also essays.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I feel, when I start a new project, like I don’t even know what a poem is, what a book is, how anyone ever understands anything anyone writes or says. Writing usually begins in feeling a kind of driven lost-ness that is mostly unpleasant.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I like readings, whether I’m reading or not, mainly because I like having space and time that’s set aside for poetry and socializing, together. And drinking! Damn, I miss a good poetry reading.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
Always: How does the language you speak shape the way you think? What falls into the distance between what you think and what you say? I wonder how we are and are not the language we use, the way language uses us.
Recently, I’ve been trying to write about kung fu, which I’ve practiced on and off for a decade. I don’t understand how I can love its violence so much. It’s a question I’m finally writing about.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
Now that I’m living in China again, I can’t see this question without thinking about how it might be answered differently in different countries. I’d like to learn how to be an American poet from many of the Chinese poets here and close by in Hong Kong.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
With an editor, you get someone who has to care about your work and treat it with care. That’s essentially all I want, in general.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
When I was in college, I went to hear Lyn Hejinian read at another university, and after asked her to sign my book. She invited everyone who talked to her out for drinks. At the bar, at one point, she said, “If you’re going to write a poem, then write a poem.” Mind blown. I think about what she said often and how if the stress in that sentence is placed on a different word, it changes the meaning entirely. I try to remember what it meant to me then, and compare it to what it means to me now.
I will also say that I will blindly follow any advice Mary Jo Bang gives me, and I’m always glad I did.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to translation)? What do you see as the appeal?
I’m grateful that I’ve had the chance to translate the Yiddish poet Celia Dropkin, and work with my co-translators Faith Jones and Samuel Solomon. Dropkin was an iconoclastic, sexual, secular poet writing sometimes grotesque and often brutal poems, taking love to its disturbing limits. In Yiddish. As an immigrant in America. I don’t write like her, and yet, I’ve learned so much from her. That is one of the many appeals of translation—it allows you to apprentice with the dead as you collaborate with the living.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
This is the first time in my life when I have time set aside just for writing, four hours, four times a week. It’s also the first time in about fifteen years I’m not working. (I’m not really allowed to work in China this go around.) I’m nagged by my inner worker bee with the worry that at the end of this time, I might have nothing to show for it, meaning I won’t have money to show for it, so I’m trying to think of different currencies with which to value my time.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I’m learning to just ride those periods out and not push it. Not look for inspiration and wait until I have something to say or something I want to figure out. Or maybe I’m too lazy to look.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
My kids’ hair.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Is it totally embarrassing to say that I am often inspired by NPR?
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I’ll stick to living poets who are important to my life and work: Mary Jo Bang, Elaine Bleakney, Jennifer Chang, Stefania Heim, Brett Fletcher Lauer, Idra Novey, Carl Phillips, and Jeffrey Yang.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done yet?
Learn to sail. Have a long conversation in Mandarin in which I make a joke that actually gets a native speaker to laugh. Learn the knife form in the style of kung fu that I do.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
Speech therapist. Women’s self-defense instructor.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Who says I don’t do something else? Or do you mean other arts. I am the worst at other arts. I can’t draw a stick figure, carry a tune, etc. etc. I am interested in words, only, as a vehicle for everything humans are and care about.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I admit to having awful taste in movies. I can’t call them films. I will only watch action adventures. Yup, I’m not going to mention names.
I just started a book I can’t believe I haven’t read before. My friend Greg Purcell recommended it to me. I think I’m going to love it, because I already do and I’m on the 20th page: Samuel R. Delany’s Babel 17.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I just finished the first draft of a kung fu, sci-fi, mystery novel. I wish I were joking.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;