Thursday, September 15, 2022

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Nanci Lee

Nanci Lee (she/her) is a Chinese-Syrian poet and facilitator. When not writing or playing outdoors, Nanci works for Tatamagouche Centre, a spiritual and justice-oriented learning and retreat centre. Nanci’s work has appeared in Contemporary Verse 2, The Malahat Review, Matrix Magazine, The Antigonish Review, The Literary Review of Canada, The Fiddlehead, Rattle MagazineThis Magazine, and various anthologies. Hsin is her first trade-length book (Brick Books, April 2022). Chapbooks Preparation (Free Fall, 2016) (short-listed for the bpNichol Chapbook Award) and Hsin (Thee Hellbox Press, 2016) are contained in this book. A racialized settler, Nanci is based in Mi’kmaki (Nova Scotia), unceded, unsurrendered Mi’kmaw territory.

1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

My first chapbook that changed my life was Hsin, a letterpress book published and beautifully produced by the late lovely Hugh Barclay and Thee Hellbox Press. I had no idea what went into letterpress until he invited me to work on it from laying the letter tiles.

The close attention, the commitment of effort!

Found it to be such a beautiful antidote to the fast-paced capitalist, colonial thrust we’re usually steeped in.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction? 

My grade 3 teacher Mrs. Root introduced me to poetry and encouraged me. She published my first poem “The Bluejay” in a library newsletter. After my mom died (11 yrs), she wrote me a letter and in it said that she hoped I was writing poetry to help ease my sadness. Amazing what that kind of encouragement can do. I was fortunately able to meet her years later at a wedding and thank her.

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?

I am a very slow writer. I answered this in an interview with Annick MacAskill. I’m slow to process and write, even slower to share. It used to make me anxious seeing so many people publish so proliferously but as I get older I’m getting better at honouring who I am and my pace.

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?

Anything that moves me really. If it grabs my heart or makes me think, I like to write a poem or at least write through it. Come closer.

Again, have said this but it’s the way I metabolize the world. It’s also where I fantasize so it can begin somewhere my mind wants to go.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I’d say readings are more connecting with friends and community. I enjoy them but public speaking doesn’t come easy so I have to ground and work my way into it. Readings connect to my creative process in the reading aloud or by memory. I do this on my own with garage band.

But there is something qualitatively different about reading with others, especially in a room. You can really hear where words fall flat or something isn’t working.

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?

There are three questions that underpin my book. I’d say they are pretty central questions for me generally. Who are you? What do you obey?

How will you prepare for your death? I’m interested in consciousness but not as a solo transcendence project but how we collide and what kinds of growth and harm comes from these thresholds. Hsin is an ancient Confucian philosophy (later influenced by Taoism & Buddhism) that explores this territory.

It took me awhile to land on the second question but I realized boundaries and punishment

connect with appetite and will for me in important ways that I’m exploring. Even self-policing. 

I’m interested in how identity, desire and loss reinforce and are in tension with one another.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Do they even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

I think writers simply help us to connect. With our bodies, our appetites, insight and each other through the resonance in corners of our stories.

Something wider.

The kind of poet I love to read helps me connect to something beyond my mind, beyond the trite binaries we seem so caught in in day to day life.

This is spiritual territory for me.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?  I find it, sometimes, difficult and essential.

John Barton, my editor for Hsin, had a different emphasis than me which I found really helpful. I felt that he appreciated my style, the heart of the poems but gave me new eyes for them.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

Read widely. What you love. What you hate. Try to be very specific about what does and doesn’t resonate with you and why. For me, this goes for poetry and beyond. I appreciate this advice because I think it helped hone my curiosity.

10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

When I didn’t work full time I liked to start the day with poetry before task brain took me captive. I really believe in ritual.

These past years, I haven’t written a lot. It’s been a hard time.

I feel that I’m better noticing. But whether I take the time, happen to have a little notebook with me. 

It’s when you have the space to put it down.

11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

I used to love Sachiko Murikami Project Rebuild. Something about it was just so loose and free. It was great for getting me unstuck.

Turning to other art helps me a lot. Going to a gallery. Watching an arty film.

12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Sesame oil. I grew up in a Chinese family restaurant.

13 - 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?

Other things that influence my work: psychoanalysis, silence, other art forms including music definitely.

One of the things I do, to your earlier question when I’m stuck is think about the poems relation to music. Is this more Radiohead, or the Hives or Avro Part.

14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

These writers were early influencers and inspired me to write:

Gwendolyn MacEwen, Eduardo Galeano, Adrienne Rich, Kay Ryan, Hunter S. Thompson

In my other work- Silvia Federici, Audre Lorde, Karl Polanyi, Paulo Freire, Henry Giroux, Adrienne Maree Brown.

15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

Speak Arabic and Mandarin. See James Rhodes in concert. Go on a motorcycle trip through the desert.

Build a tiny home. Make gnocchi well. J

16 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

I’m not sure. I tend to be in my head a lot. Left on my own with free time, I won’t garden or change a lightbulb.

I’ll read so I imagine writing came from that & some of the writers I mentioned who inspired me.

17 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

Dog Woman by Chris Abani.    Film….In Deep Water

18 - What are you currently working on?

A verse novel about desire and rupture.  How we get along together and, well, don’t.

It’s called “We contain what appals us” a line from my current book.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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