2018 Contest: Interview with Flash Judge Jennifer S. Cheng
Jennifer S. Cheng’s work includes poetry, lyric essay, and image-text forms. Her debut book, HOUSE A (2016), was selected by Claudia Rankine as winner of the Omnidawn Poetry Book Prize, and her forthcoming hybrid collection, MOON: Letters, Maps, Poems (May 2018), was selected by Bhanu Kapil for the Tarpaulin Sky Book Award. She is also the author of Invocation: an Essay (2011), an image-text chapbook published by New Michigan Press, and has received fellowships and awards from Brown University, the University of Iowa, San Francisco State University, the U.S. Fulbright program, Bread Loaf, Kundiman, and the Academy of American Poets. Having grown up in Texas and Hong Kong, she lives in San Francisco. www.jenniferscheng.
Interview by CAT INGRID LEECHES
Black Warrior Review: In preparation for this interview, I am re-reading your book House A. I imagine that you are exploring, deconstructing, and re-imagining “house” and “home” until the words become an ocean in your hands. I am so curious, who are the writers, artists, and thinkers that represent a “home” to you?
Jennifer S. Cheng: Rather than a litany of names, maybe I’ll recollect specific works that are like corners or nooks or hiding places in my home. On poetics (reading these was like discovering my inner landscape on a page): Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space, Tanizaki Junichiro’s In Praise of Shadows, Fanny Howe’s “Bewilderment.” Also: Roland Barthes’ writing on photography and fragments, Paul Ricoeur’s theory of metaphor, Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Audre Lorde’s “Uses of the Erotic,” Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. All literature/writing teachers should adopt Matthew Zapruder’s Why Poetry into their curriculum. I love everything by Anne Carson. I love Marilynne Robinson, Jenny Boully, Bhanu Kapil. A favorite is Post Subject: A Fable by Oliver de la Paz. James Agee’s In Praise of Famous Men was transformative, as was Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s entire body of work and Citizen by Claudia Rankine. I am moved by the artwork of Christine Sun Kim, who blurs the boundaries of silence/sound; Leslie Hewitt, who overlays photographs on documents; Zheng Chongbin’s abstract ink paintings, Ruth Asawa’s oscillating woven sculptures; Yamamoto Masao’s lyrical photography, and my friend Maude Tanswai’s intricate forest of pen + ink work. Finally, this may not be what you mean, but I cannot think ‘writers’ and ‘home’ without thinking of Kundiman and The Ruby.
BWR: Our flash contest is multi-genre. And your work spans across several categories: poetry, lyric essay, fiction, image + text (I am probably forgetting some!) Do you have a different relationship with each genre? Do they allow for different types of explorations? Has your idea of “genre” changed throughout your life as a reader and writer?
JSC: Genre boundaries, as with all boundaries, seem to be elusive little things, like a sock I am always losing or a sly insect scurrying away. I started out in nonfiction, and a deep kernel inside me will always believe that everything I write (or do) is in some underlying way a kind of essaying; maybe this says something about my approach to writing and to navigating the world in general, as a question or inquiry into the unknown.
I have always had trouble with genre boundaries because, while they are useful for framing and dialoguing and can add to meaning-making, ultimately they are blurry and slippery. Where exactly does one draw the lines? I write what I need to write, and then afterward I never know what to call it. Many things I love reading reside in a margin of space that is difficult to pinpoint or call by one name.
All that said, in my language practice sometimes I gravitate toward looser edges, other times toward harder edges, sometimes I hunger for mythological proportions, sometimes text alone is insufficient. Mostly the project instructs its needs for language and form, but sometimes it’s like how my mouth grows tired when it’s been in one language for too long.
BWR: What excites you about flash? About brevity?
JSC: Fragments are the unit by which I move through the world and make sense of it; I gather and accumulate in fits and starts. It makes sense to me that a short utterance is surrounded by uncertainty or mystery or silence. Maybe it’s the deep-rooted introvert in me? Something about attention, about lingering, about waiting to say something and then not having anything to say after it. Something about what one chooses to withhold. I think about how sometimes the greater the constraint, the more, conversely, abounding and teeming is the articulation. There is a particular potency in flash for bringing the reader into that infinite, ineffable space beyond the text; for opening instead of narrowing; for evoking or invoking; for the strange, alienated, stranded, uncanny, liminal; for building tiny universes out of debris; for accumulating language or voice or atmosphere; for ritual; for incantation; for obsession.
BWR: In the third part of your book House A (Omnidawn, 2016) and in your chapbook Invocation: An Essay (New Michigan Press, 2010) you use images and text. How do you see them working together? Are there things images can do for you that text can’t and vice versa?
JSC: In both those projects, image contributes as much as text to the meaning and experience. Invocation was written during a period in my life when I was struggling with muteness and loss of voice. In attempt to understand and articulate this loss, I wrote so many loose fragments of text, but they felt insufficient and floundering—I couldn’t say what I wanted to say. Given my subject matter, it makes sense that weaving in non-linguistic elements—photographs, found images, blank space—immediately made the project feel more whole, as if it had found its missing self. This feeling of relief is how I know, in my writing process, when I am on my way toward finding the right form.
Images carry their own ineffable atmospheres, moods, textures. I’ve described in previous interviews Roland Barthes’ concept of punctum and how I use images in my writing process. I think of both image and text as meaning-making fragments, which, when juxtaposed, conjure an associative leap—the fragments rub against each other, shape each other, influence one another toward larger meaning.
BWR: Are there writing “rules” that you love to break?
JSC: I have all sorts of responses here!
1) I think a lot about how rules of craft and aesthetic preference in the workshop and institution are shaped and regulated by cultural modes and traditions to which I do not necessarily relate as a woman, a child of immigrants, a person of color who lived for a time overseas. I think a lot about what Matthew Salesses calls “craft as colonization” in this series and this one.
2) In many areas of my life I am nourished by a balance, a certain tension, between structure and breaking structure.
3) Laura van den Berg recently wrote about the darlings she doesn’t kill; this resonated with me because so often I wish to rescue my darlings, and sometimes I do feed and nurture them, rearranging worlds to allow them to exist.
4) Some writers say that one should not read before writing because it compromises the authenticity of one’s voice, but sometimes reading from various favorite texts helps me to locate my inner sound, especially amidst all the code switching one must adopt in daily life.
5) Something I have been ruminating over lately is how to survive capitalism as it infiltrates the literary industry, which is to say, how to break its rules (if anyone has figured this out, please let me know).
BWR: There are so many lines in House A that are gorgeous, especially when read aloud. For example:
“So I want you to know that if sleep is an ocean, then it is because we are migrants inwardly sighing along to its many oscillations, unintimidated, by factual distances but awash in the knowledge of three: body, bodying, embodied.”
I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about your relationship to rhythm and sound in your work?
JSC: I have heard poets say that poetry is an act of manifesting one’s private interior language, and this seems exactly right to me: rhythm/sound as something primal that embodies my feeling of being in this world. It took me a while after I first started writing to consciously recognize that one of the key ways my writing happens is by following an internal cadence, a kind of syntactical or rhetorical music. It’s as if I hear the ghost of a sound—its shape and sequence—before I am able to fill it or reach it; a precision of sound comes before a precision of vocabulary, like a foreshadowing oracle. I’m reminded of something Jenny Johnson mentioned, how sometimes we approach the unsayable through sound itself.
A beloved teacher and mentor, Barbara Tomash, recently sent me a note that said “You and V.W. are in the sea together,” and appended was this quote from Virginia Woolf: Style is a very simple matter, it is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words… This is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far deeper than words. A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it; and in writing… one has to recapture this (i.e., the rhythm of the wave), and set this working (which has nothing apparently to do with words) and then, as it breaks and tumbles in the mind, it makes words to fit in…
BWR: A silly/very serious question: If you could have a conversation with any body of water, which one, and how might that conversation go?
JSC: For some reason this makes me think of all my child hours spent in a vehicle during wet weather, enamored with the rain droplets on the window. I would watch individual droplets like tiny creatures on a frantic journey: they would gather weight and then make their way across the glass, absorbing other droplets along the way. They felt like my companions.
BWR: I’ve noticed that in other interviews, you have refused to impede on a reader’s interpretation/reading of your book. What type of intimacies exist between a writer and a reader?
JSC: It can be such a sacred intimacy! The meaning-making of a text is inherently a collaboration between writer and reader, which can be especially terrifying for a writer who comes from a marginalized location (where being seen/understood carries a different stake). For the most part, I try to think of the relationship between writer and reader as an act of faith that is required in any relationship of intimacy. I fear being misunderstood or misrepresented, which is ultimately a fear of being unseen. But faith is wrapped up in relinquishing to a kind of mystery beyond my reach: a writer sends something of herself—something that is the most herself—into the tumultuous world, in hopes that a reader will cross some kind of distance, hold her words, and let it become a part of themselves. In that moment, the work no longer belongs only to the writer but to that blurry space between writer/reader. Something about all this feels very existential and basic to any communication of language. Also: sometimes a reader is actually more acute at observing how my work is functioning than I am, just as a loved one can see things in you that you do not see.
BWR: Your writing is so unique, and it feels distinctly you, can you tell us a little about your writing and revision process?
JSC: I keep a side journal of random jottings, but when I’m working on a particular piece, a lot of writing happens in my head first. It can take me a painfully long time to put down a word on the page, and once I do, it feels rather permanent. (I just had this moment of realization that my writing slowness is my slowness at life in general—everything stays abstract, hypothetical, until I am absolutely, positively prepared for its manifestation in the visible world.)
So I write incrementally, with lots of silence in between. Yet, often surprising words spill out—the slowness is more a summoning. I revise in terms of tweaking language over and over, either toward a certain precision or in exploration, and I also experiment with the ordering of text and sometimes the form. Writing is the only place in my life where I am able to surrender authority to my body, trusting through darkness my intuition and unconscious. Sometimes I struggle with letting go of original drafts; it takes distance and time (large gaps of silence) for me to do this.
Edmond Jabès writes about the act of reading as finding a new and unexpected way into a house, and I think this can apply to writing and revision. An exercise I have required from my students is exploring at least one wild transformation of a poem—a different form, a new constraint, a cut-up—just to see what unexpected things happen when you sever the attachment to a first draft. It’s an exercise in not knowing.
BWR: Who are some “emerging” writers you are reading now, or would like to encourage our readers to explore?
JSC: I recently discovered the spellbinding work of Kristin Chang, whom everyone needs to know, and I cannot wait to see what else comes from this young writer. Favorites I continue to love, who are both beautiful friends and beautiful writers (I cannot wait for them to have books one day!): April Freely, Christina Tran, Heidi Van Horn, Gabrielle Bates, Carina del Valle Schorske, Shamala Gallagher.