Thursday, August 10, 2023

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Eugenia Leigh

Eugenia Leigh is a Korean American poet and the author of two poetry collections, Bianca (Four Way Books, 2023) and Blood, Sparrows and Sparrows (Four Way Books, 2014), winner of the Late-Night Library's Debut-litzer Prize in Poetry selected by Arisa White, as well as a finalist for both the National Poetry Series and the Yale Series of Younger Poets. Poems from Bianca received Poetry magazine’s Bess Hokin Prize and have appeared in numerous publications including The Atlantic, The Nation, Ploughshares, and the Best of the Net anthology. Her essays have appeared in TIME, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Eugenia received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and serves as a Poetry Editor at The Adroit Journal and as the Valentines Editor at Honey Literary.

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

My first book, Blood, Sparrows and Sparrows, and my recent collection, Bianca, were published nine years apart, and like any siblings, they are both similar and vastly different from each other. They share the narrative of childhood abuse, domestic violence, and parental incarceration, but my first book engages the subject from the perspective of a young adult child who processes that world with more surreal language, more imagination, more experimentation on the page.

Bianca was written after I became a mother and after I was diagnosed with both CPTSD and bipolar II disorder—experiences that gave me access to a much-delayed rage and much-needed vocabulary that led to shattering clarity about my past. One goal for this book was to convey that clarity through my poems.

If Blood, Sparrows and Sparrows changed my life, it was maybe because that book gave me permission to identify myself as a poet. I felt I’d earned that label, which my father continued to reject. It was also the book that taught me to prioritize myself, as its launch came with a difficult decision to estrange myself from my father and his side of the family.

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

I dabbled in all genres as a child and as a teenage writer, but I took several poetry workshops in college at UCLA, where I was fortunate enough to work with Harryette Mullen, Joy Harjo, and Stephen Yenser. I only applied to poetry workshops because the creative writing concentration was my only way out of taking difficult literature classes I wanted to avoid as an English major. In addition to working almost full-time while in school, I was also dealing with a lot of real-time trauma involving my father who had just left years of prison via deportation, and writing poems sounded more manageable than writing multi-page papers about Chaucer or Milton.

Two years after college, when I decided to shoot for an MFA, I initially planned to study fiction because I was enamored with Salvador Plascencia’s The People of Paper. If I’m being honest, I was probably also acutely aware that poets didn’t make money (and had a misguided understanding of what novelists made — ha!). Having grown up in poverty for much of my childhood, and then in the working class, I couldn’t imagine taking out graduate school loans to follow a passion with no real hope of an income down the road.

But one of my former literature professors, Karen E. Rowe, hesitated to write a letter of recommendation for fiction and reminded me that I was a poet, that my best work was in poetry, and that I should follow that path. I trusted her—and I also found that working on a poetry manuscript came much easier to me than a fiction manuscript—so I listened to that advice, and here I am. I do write and have published essays, and one of those essays appears at the center of Bianca, but time will tell whether I have an entire book of prose in me.

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?

My first drafts often look nothing like my final drafts. It takes me forever to write a poem draft, and then I revise maniacally before I feel comfortable sending a poem out for publication. I also often abandon poem drafts for months before returning to them with fresh eyes. I simply don’t trust my early drafts and must create distance before I can revise them. To give you an idea: one of my poems in Bianca began when I was single and child-free, and the final draft contains an anecdote about my husband and son.

Essays come a bit faster, but I do take notes for months before I begin writing a draft. I usually come to the blank page with pages of notes and then figure out how to puzzle the pieces together. Essays are like collages to me. I approach poems with more faith and wait for revelations.

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 have yet to write toward a book project idea, though working on a “project” sounds like a fun dream that I’d love to try. Both of my books began with individual, disparate poems that, at some point, began to speak to each other until it occurred to me that I had a book. This usually happens at the point when I have about 60-75% of the poems required for a book, and then I’ll write the remaining poems with that book in mind. It’s usually the poems I write toward the end with the book in mind that wind up being my favorite, most “impressive” pieces. Maybe that’s my sign to attempt a book project after all.

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

Oh, I absolutely love giving readings. I write poems to connect with people, to give voice to the ugly experiences we don’t typically advertise. I write to silence shame, and I think there’s incredible power in speaking out these kinds of poems, especially in community. When I first started writing poems, I also became an avid fan of spoken word poetry thanks to my former poet roommate, so that’s also part of the literary history I’ve long studied and admired. And of course, before printed books existed, the earliest poets were rooted in the oral tradition.

There’s an art to bringing a poem to life onstage. To ensure every word is heard, every emotion is felt. I practice my sets in front of the mirror, record them over and over, the whole nine yards, but I still get nervous sometimes maybe because I put so much weight on what a reading can achieve. A public reading is a unique chance to create authentic emotional intimacy with complete strangers (or friends) face-to-face for 10 to 30 minutes with minimal distractions. In today’s Internet culture, that kind of interaction is pure gold.

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?

I want everything I write to take a risk. Whether in content or in its artistry. The question I am writing toward is one Laure-Anne Bosselaar taught me to ask: why did this poem have to be written? Why couldn’t the poet remain silent? I’m also constantly conscious of how for many of us, myself included, “poetry is not a luxury,” as Audre Lorde famously wrote. How do I make that clear on the page? After a book is written, I ask myself, what risks can I take next that I haven’t yet dared to take?

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?

“The role of the artist is to make the revolution irresistible.” — Toni Cade Bambara

“Perhaps poetry is another of science’s deepest roots: the capacity to see beyond the visible.” — Carlo Rovelli

“I’m not asking you to describe the rain falling the night the archangel arrived; I’m demanding that you get me wet. Make up your mind, Mr. Writer, and for once in your life be the flower that smells rather than the chronicler of the aroma.” — Eduardo Galeano

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

Essential! Painful to the ego maybe, but essential. A good editor can see what you’re trying to accomplish and help you get there more efficiently. They can also call out your weaknesses that are hard to spot when you’ve looked at your manuscript a thousand times. One of my absolute favorite things about Four Way Books is the way they graciously and meticulously provide edits for our books. Two editors went through my manuscript to offer detailed feedback that I was free to accept or reject. The first note I got for Bianca was that I used the word “rage” way too many times throughout the manuscript. It deadened the effect and sometimes didn’t leave room for actual rage to simply exist without having to announce itself. I took out a bunch of rages and left a select few where necessary, but I absolutely loved that they caught this. Like I said earlier, I don’t trust my own writing, so I’m generally eager for feedback from editors I trust.

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

Marie Howe told a graduate workshop I took to “write as if everyone you love is dead.” Don’t think about other people’s reactions to your work. Just get it all down. Kimiko Hahn said the same to me years later at a Kundiman retreat. Don’t bring your fears to the table when you write. Write everything that comes to you. Then later, once it’s written, you can evaluate each piece and ask whether you’re comfortable with publishing it. Writing and publishing are two separate beasts. Don’t let the idea of publishing limit your writing.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to essays)? What do you see as the appeal?

I began writing poems during the heyday of Xanga and Blogger, where I was simultaneously writing blogs that read as very casual essays. So both energies have always existed in my writing. When I took a nonfiction workshop with Luis Alberto Urrea during my one year I attempted a PhD program, I thought I would learn to write essays, but I came out realizing that I already knew how—at least in one way. Of course, there are a myriad other ways I still have yet to learn. But it’s only now that I’m learning some editors will actually publish my essays, too.

At the risk of making a gross generalization, I’d say prose is better able than poetry to cushion saccharine emotion or cliché—the kinds of events that make us believe in angels or happy endings. It’s harder to take a spoonful of sugar straight versus drinking a spoonful of sugar stirred into a glass of water. You can sneak sweetness into prose or maybe also into a longer narrative poem because there is more space to contain a wide range of human experience to justify belief in something so cloyingly romantic. I say this as a cynic. Some people write happy poems all the time and manage to convince us of them. But I need space to break a heart before I can mend it. And poetry can do that to an extent, but prose can really hit you in the gut with it because you’re forced to stay with it longer and go on a longer rollercoaster ride with the characters.

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?

I don’t have a solid writing routine, which I hate. So I recently reached out to three writer friends I admire who work their asses off and asked them to keep me accountable to writing at least one line every day before I turn 40 next year. I started out trying to write a “real” poem draft each day and burned myself out after two days, and thanks to some advice from one of those friends, I now write a few lines in my notes app on days when I can’t get to a desk.

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

Science articles. Novels. Poetry books that do something I have not yet done or maybe want to do. Instagram memes. Old journals. Old text messages. Anything within reach really.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Musk reminds me of being trapped in an unairconditioned car in the Chicago heat on the way to church with my parents as a child. To this day, I get nauseated when I get a whiff of a perfume or cologne that contains musk. I can’t stand it.

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?

Alright, I’ll be very honest and admit emo song lyrics heavily influenced my first book, which I wrote in my twenties. I’ve also stolen bits of revelation from past sermons. After my first book, during a spell when I was clinically depressed for a couple of years, I was hardly writing and hardly reading, so I subscribed to The Scientific American, which later inspired two poems in Bianca. I think it’s safe to say my therapy appointments have also heavily influenced this recent book. Also, a very accessible book called The Order of Time by Italian theoretical physicist, Carlo Rovelli.

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

The books I turned to over and over as I wrote Bianca were Hybrida by Tina Chang, The Undertaker’s Daughter by Toi Derricotte, and Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl by Diane Seuss, all of Marie Howe’s books, among many others.

There are a number of writers whose voices I hear lately—whose conversations I remember—when my internal critic gets loud, and I need to remember who I am. These are the writers whose genuine encouragement and support for Bianca have truly buoyed me during this past year: Hanif Abdurraqib, Mahogany L. Browne, Jennifer S. Cheng, Su Cho, Victoria Cho, Noah Arhm Choi, Jessica Cuello, Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach, Danielle DeTiberus, Linda Harris Dolan, Tarfia Faizullah, Joan Kwon Glass, Sarah Kain Gutowski, K. Iver, Keetje Kuipers, Jason Koo, Iris Law, Hannah Matheson, Rita Mookerjee, Cassie Mannes Murray, Patrick Rosal, Brenda Shaughnessy, R.A. Villanueva, and Keith S. Wilson. I also feel way less alone in my neuroses and in all things poetry when I talk to poets Janine Joseph, Sophie Klahr, and Brenna Womer because they have the best sense of dark humor.

16 – What would you like to do that you haven’t yet done?

I’d like to see the Northern Lights.

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?

There are multiple alternate versions of me I’ve thought through in a lot of detail. I loved fashion as a teenager and used to make some of my own clothes and purses partly because my mom made a lot of our clothes when my sisters and I were very small. Some of my happiest memories involve the fabric store. I designed my own prom dress when I was a high school junior, which my mom sewed for me. So in one reality, I am probably a fashion designer.

In another universe, I probably became an extreme version of my corporate self. For several years after my MFA, I worked as an executive assistant to c-level executives in NYC finance firms. At the last of those jobs, at a fintech start-up attached to a large hedge fund, I had to hire four people to replace me. I got a big kick out of being able to be efficient, smart, and necessary in these big money-churning machines. Most days, I consider myself an anticapitalist, but sometimes I think I could have become the most annoying spokesperson for capitalism if things had turned out a different way.

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

A large part of it was that I had many creative interests as a child, but my parents had no money to pay for dance lessons or voice lessons or art classes or even basic materials. All I wanted as a kid was one of those 96-crayon Crayola boxes with the built-in sharpener and every shade of red with their delicious names. I turned to writing because I didn’t need lessons or materials other than a piece of paper, a pencil, and my imagination to make a story.

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

Book: Vievee Francis’s The Shared World. Film: Kill Boksoon on Netflix.

20 – What are you currently working on?

Hahahahahahahahahah *ignores this question & shares a meme on Instagram*

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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