The last year and a half has submerged me in personal matters, so here are a few long overdue updates:
I won an NEA fellowship! It was my first time applying! I am learning to ask for things.
MOON: Letters, Maps, Poems was named a “Best Book of 2018” by Publishers Weekly! Still can’t quite believe this one. The book received a starred review: “In this exhilarating exploration, Cheng fashions an alt-epic for the 21st century, upending received ideas about poetic form and constructing from the debris a hybrid guide for an age of diaspora and displacement.”
An astonishing and miraculous review in The Rumpus that includes a letter, a map, and a poem: “Reading Moon was a hypnotic experience… simultaneously immersive and elusive. I’d surface from the pages having lost track of time, sensing the world around me had shifted, subtly, but unable to pinpoint how. How, after all, do you describe the force field of a particular literary project?”
Upcoming readings in Portland (at AWP and offsite) and Iowa City (at Prairie Lights and the Mission Creek Festival)! That is, I shall finally be returning to the town of my first MFA program ten years after I left, and I am extremely anxious.
I think it’s hilarious that I’m posting a reflection about my first book after the publication of my second book. My enneagram is Type 4, and one of the descriptions tells me that I tend to linger in “preparing” mode because I never feel ready. Anyway, as I was planning for the release of my book MOON: Letters, Maps, Poems earlier this summer, I spent time reflecting back on HOUSE A. I tend to get lost in various anxieties, so I want to carve out at a space to appreciate the brighter moments.
I was uncertain about putting together readings, but I ended up visiting six cities, because others reached out, because my own efforts. At my book launch, I read while projections of the ocean and geometric images shifted behind me. Other memorable events included Poets House in NYC with Omnidawn poets, Open Books in Seattle with Kaveh Ackbar and Paige Lewis, and California Institute for Integral Studies (I enjoyed discussing my book with the moderator for the “in conversation” portion of this event). Most of all I loved visiting classes, skyping with classes, wandering together with students into the mysterious terrain of poetry and writing. The students were particularly thoughtful, curious readers, wrestling with the same questions I do.
An accumulation of book reviews for House A: Publishers Weekly, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, PEN HK, DIAGRAM and others… So many of these are in themselves beautiful essays that are pleasurable to read, but even beyond that, I did not anticipate what a gift it would be to feel so seen by strangers. I did not know what it would feel like to have a person read my words with such care and thought, making their own connections and bringing their experiences and methods of navigating into its light.
The reviews describe and analyze my book: in light of the impossibility, infinity, and intimacy of lyric address (LARB); as a triptych of lyric essays comprising smaller lyric essays, an immigrant’s decentering of boundaries in both home and literary form (DIAGRAM); in terms of my own critical work into refractive poetics (Massachusetts Review); with the words “trembling” and “oscillating” and “tidal tongue” (Columbia Poetry Review). And it was particularly special to be featured in the May/June 2017 issue of the Brown Alumni Magazine.
I loved engaging in interviews, being in conversation, mulling over questions and my own writing process. I spent the most time on this one in The Conversant. This one in the Rumpus felt vulnerable, discussing the current political context and its implications for poetry. And this one with Vi Khi Nao in the Los Angeles Review of Books blog was adventurous because it was conducted textually in real time in a Google doc.
2018 & belated updates
I spent this winter thinking back on the troubling year–the constant hum of anxiety and my unhealthy defense mechanisms. I want this next year to be a turn: I want to reclaim my daily rhythms and textures, my experiments, my internal and external motionings. To that end, I’m concocting various intentions and plans, small things such as take more walks or learn to embroider, and bigger ones, too. I am intending to be a tiny bit more confident with book matters this time around. I am intending to give more space to my triumphs (rather than to give all the space to my shortcomings). I am intending to seek/build meaningful community by being less afraid. I am intending to resist paralysis/inertia/staying silent/dehumanizing infrastructures. I will probably largely fall short at all this, but I also trust that I will make tiny steps. So much of 2017 was spent in murky, chaotic anxieties (my panic attacks resurged), but I hope this year I can attempt to gather the threads of my inner life once again.
In writing news, I still managed to publish work in 2017 from my forthcoming book. Chen Chen reached out to me for the National Poetry Month issue of Iron Horse Literary Review, where he also interviewed me on the negative space between things and using untranslated language. The editor of Tupelo Quarterly, where I’ve published before, also reached out. A couple poems made it into the Asian American publication Hyphen.
It’s my wild child manuscript, strange writings I started seven years ago during my Fulbright in Hong Kong—a fitful period of reentering the world after years of being shut—and that I continued writing whenever I needed Chang ‘E 嫦娥’s voice to say the things I could not say except into the darkest corner of the room. The book draws loosely on the folktale of the Lady in the Moon, along with other Chinese mythologies centering around women.
You can view one of the poems here. I wrote a craft essay on it for Black Warrior Review. And an in-progress excerpt from another section of the book appears in The Offing.
Unrelated: I’ve been reading very slowly and in circular motions The Gift, thinking about the deep desire to be free of ego-driven, exchange-structured interactions…how the ritual of freely giving/receiving “gifts” binds and bonds a community together, how this require a transcendent space beyond that is mysterious, into which and from which all “gifts” move. There’s something compelling to me in the necessity of a “sense of imbalance, of shifting weight.”
The book is ultimately about artistic practice, but I’ve also been thinking lately about community and how to navigate relationships poetically, about how I tend to keep smaller circles because I’m wary of transactionally driven interactions, seeking instead relationships built on vulnerability, bewilderment, non-conditional generosity. I suppose I’m protective of myself, which limits me, but I’m also in search of something rather specific. Anyway, some passages:
“A market exchange has an equilibrium or stasis: you pay to balance the scale. But when you give a gift there is momentum, and the weight shifts from body to body.”
“For we are only alive to the degree that we can let ourselves be moved.”
This one is specifically about artmaking and speaks to that space beyond: “If, when we work, we can look once a day upon the face of mystery, then our labor satisfies. We are lightened when our gifts rise from pools we cannot fathom. Then we know they are not a solitary egotism and they are inexhaustible.”
There are few things that stir me so deeply, and I have few words for it. I have written about her work before in Jacket2: “Francesca Capone: Text(ure), Refracting Language.” Something about translation moves me, the refraction that occurs in translating between mediums. Something about textile as a socially female domain. Something about hiding words and documents inside something else we make with our bodies.
post-election poem + the offing + pushcart prize nominations
The only thing I could write in these last weeks is up at Tarpaulin Sky: “Inside Our Killing.” It is an attempt to give myself relief by giving something language. Thank you to TS for opening up this space. Read more post-election texts (“to survive, to speak”) here.
Happy to have new hybrid (fiction? poetry? essay?) writing in The Offing. “Moon; Iterations” is based on the tale of Chang ‘E (the whole piece is 34 sections), related to my other poems about the lady in the moon. Thank you to The Offing for inviting me to send these.
More moon news: One of those poems “From the Voice of the Lady in the Moon” received a Pushcart Prize nomination from Black Warrior Review, one of my most favorite journals to read. You can view a poem and my craft essay a couple posts below. I am also very honored that Cherry Tree nominated one of the “Letters to Mao” in my book.
pub day + interview + book party!
It’s the official publication day for my book, HOUSE A, selected by Claudia Rankine ♥ ︎as winner of the Omnidawn Poetry Book Prize!
Here is an interview in the Conversant, in which I discuss: how and why I began writing letters to Mao; a course I once took called Archaeology of Anthropology; the politics of “reading” wall textures and diagrams of plant dissections as if they were blueprints; my kinship with the lyric essay as a poet; shadows; jellyfish.
Two more “Letters to Mao” from my forthcoming book are online in The Margins (Asian American Writers’ Workshop)! It’s especially meaningful to me for these poems to have a home with a journal and organization so close to my heart.
And thank you to The Volta and Joshua Marie Wilkinson for nominating my poem “Velella” for the Best of the Net anthology! The Volta continues to be one of my favorites to read, always beautiful.