Small-press publishers have the lucky opportunity to talk candidly with authors about the downturns and updrafts of the creative process which brought them to the moment of completion that we call a book. As Omnidawn’s co-publisher and senior poetry editor, I’ve had that great good fortune. It finally occurred to me that the readers and reviewers of these books might enjoy hearing some of this talk, too. Of course, a book of poetry needs no introduction or liner notes. But I’m always interested in any stories about how and where authors’ intentions and the actual creative work tangle together. So I started asking each of our authors a few questions in writing, and then enclosing these “interviews” with our advance/review copies. When the book is published, I post the interview on the book’s web page. The Conversant’s editors have asked if they might select some of those interviews to publish. It is my pleasure to say yes! This conversation focuses on Jennifer S Cheng’s book, HOUSE A. –Rusty Morrison
Rusty Morrison: It is such a great pleasure for all of the poetry editors at Omnidawn that Claudia Rankine selected HOUSE A as the winner of our 1st/2nd Book Prize. As one of the blind readers who screens work for this and for all of our poetry contests, I recall my delight to see this manuscript in the blind submissions. I immediately recognized that this work had come to us before, in shorter form, through our chapbook contest. It had not won, yet I knew it to be an amazing work in chapbook form. Then reading it for this contest, I was stunned by the power of HOUSE A, and all that is included now in this text as a full book. Would you speak to the ways that the sections cohere, and how you made decisions to bring the text together in this form?
Jennifer S Cheng: Inside the book, there are: migratory birds, (un)tethered boats, water, sleep, the body in dislocation, shadows, mappings, weather systems, echolocation, nests, moons. Which is to say that all of our work as writers and artists are like maps of our obsessions, our preoccupations, our hauntings. I started writing “Letters to Mao” in summer months, and most of the prose poems in that series came quickly (which rarely happens for me; I am usually slow like a snail). I work mostly by intuition, and it made sense to me that other poems I subsequently wrote—those in the sequence “House A; Geometry B” and the series “How to Build an American Home”—were of a similar attunement and investigation. Maybe I can call it the poetics of an immigrant home: how the body is inscribed with a cosmology of home and vice versa. How, for example, are the subtleties of history, displacement, and migration woven into the shelter my parents made for me and my siblings? In all three sections, I am writing into a critical and personal silence, and I hope that by evoking the shadows and subterranean, I complicate the immigrant landscape, conjure the small layers it can carry.
Although the three sections all circle the same center, the first part operates by way of water and sleep, whereas the other two carry more angles and earth; there is tension, which I like. I like the idea of the three parts being sewn together. Each stands alone, but in stitching them under the same roof, in choosing to lay down those boundaries, I am constructing another little dwelling with multiple rooms; a knitted constellation; a map with limbs. Or I might think of them as various transparencies I am overlaying on one another, different textu(r)al representations of the same space. Barthes has a theory of fragments that captions all of my work as a writer (I quote it everywhere), and it relates to this book of poems as well: the fragments are then so many stones on the perimeter of a circle.
RM: I want to focus this question on the first section, its power, lyric strengths, its complexity. I would be grateful if you could speak to the ‘character’ of Mao in this work, and to the child as speaking agent who creates an epistolary relationship with him. I’m impressed by how masterfully the character of Mao stands for so much that is ineffable, so much that permeates the child’s life without her conscious understanding. Yet, too, the figure stands for very real cultural norms. For me, he becomes both cipher and barometer of the weather of the child’s experience. Please talk about this section in whatever ways you’d like, but I would be grateful to hear what brought you to envision this? What was most challenging in this enactment?
JSC: Ineffable is the right word! In my addresses to Mao, I am trying to get at something I will never be able to articulate outright—it has to do with the ineffability of childhood, and of History in an immigrant household; the ineffability of Mao as a figure, both objectively and personally to me; the ineffability of home and longing for home. Sometimes the pronoun he/him is startling because, growing up, my conception of Mao was never quite as a man or person. Maybe that’s why it felt subversive to write letters to him. He was a specter, a tenor that drifted in and out, vague but formidable background sounds to my childhood, like white noise. My parents would only ever speak his name in conjunction with evil, and I accumulated splinters of memories and images: bodies floating in the river, meals of porridge to stretch out hunger, decades apart from a parent or spouse or siblings. Our household is not one of personal stories or explicit communication, so it was all behind a veil; yet I cannot remember a time when I didn’t know who he was, his name so entangled with my family’s history, the trajectory of where my parents came from and how I came to exist as a child in America. It’s strange and complicating for a name/face/symbol so abhorrent and expansive to feel simultaneously intimate.
What does it mean for Mao and Home to be intertwined in such complex and ambiguous ways—for him to be part of the atmosphere, as much as the sounds of an airplane in the sky or sun on a curtain? How do I explain how History is like water in my house, permeating yet impossible to parse or boundary: simultaneously intimate and distant, known and unknown, bulky and infinitesimal? It touches everything yet is slippery and unreliable. There is an odd impulse to look Mao in the face and justify, explain, defy, incriminate, complicate… Maybe it is a need to summon rather than unravel this elusive and powerful ghost; maybe it is a need to announce my sense of identity/home—always partially adrift—to someone who is partly responsible for it and will never actually hear me.
There is a way in which second-generation children are constantly reconciling outside/inside spheres, like the Mao in U.S. consciousness and the Mao in my house. While writing these poems, I was thinking about this tension and how the body unconsciously absorbs the years of war, famine, fear, and separation in inexplicable ways. Where in the house is it located—in the lamplight, the placement of objects, movements of bodies? I am interested in the interactions of histories in a household: personal history, family history, and History. Intersection implies a point, but this is more like ocean waves meeting, a convergence of tenderness, loss, protection, vigilance, rootedness and unrootedness. The ocean emerges as a metaphor and guiding rhythm: “And if water is a metaphor, then it is because water fills up a room, slow-moving, blurry, immersive but obscured.”
RM: I’m fascinated by this text’s use of the child’s experience as fulcrum to explore our very human need to understand our relationship to place, to the spaces we occupy, and to the materials within them and their myriad meanings. I’m excited by the ways that this text demonstrates formally—ie, in many of your formal strategies—the subtleties of our relations to space, the ways we design and determine the spaces we occupy. I’m interested in your discussing your process of bringing images into direct relation with language to heighten their impact and hone their suggestive force, your use of the alphabet, and by all the ways that you reflect and refract meanings of “house” and “home.” I’d like to ask you to speak of place and how this text is a meditation on the personalizing and socializing of space, as reflected in both form and content. To do so, you might focus on particular poems or segments that were especially challenging to you, or especially provocative for you, as you attempted to bring your intuitions to the page.
JSC: While writing this book, I kept returning to the question: How does our inhabitation and navigation of space become a map that we internalize from childhood? In graduate school I audited a class called ‘Archaeology of Anthropology’ and learned about ancient caves that were composed by people to reflect their cosmology. It made me think how in a way all our homes are like this. After the class was over, I read anthropology papers on the relationship between body and space and how this connects to one’s sense of home and self. I collected textures and images of houses and geometries.
There is something beautiful and truthful about the (im)precision of charting something that is by nature intangible and murky. You can only approach it poetically.
“House A; Geometry B” undertakes this by entering a language of “dream geometry,” which comes from Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space, a miraculous book that is simultaneously poetic phenomenology and architecture theory. I can say about this section: It is like a framework, a grid shoring up the topography of the book. The shape of the text is long and rectangular, but also important is the spread of space so that angles are perforated with air. The alphabet as a way of accretion reflects the structures of indices or schematics and also the incantation of childhood learning. Inside are weather systems suspended in hallways, vectors embroidered onto walls, and these early lines: “we build a house to locate ourselves; a / body lay in the house, a body lay slant in / the house” and “if we were to say, the father is a convex / polyhedra. or, he lay out the living room / in tetrahedron composed.” All of the refractions and reflections create a prism-like experience that is geometric and echolocaic. We sense how we are constructing through ritual a personal language in order “to map, to constellate, to excavate. a / blueprint for this mythos.”
In the closing series, “How to Build an American Home,” each poem consists of a visual artifact and text. My intention is to play on the notion of instruction and blueprint: to refract it, disrupt it, wrinkle it. I have always loved old diagrams, surveyor photographs, maps—objects that document and delineate—but I am also interested in them as atmosphere or texture, that is, something to experience viscerally, metaphorically, abstractly. Each of the images I include carries a certain wound (Barthes’ punctum) for me in this manner, which informs how the image frames the text and vice versa. I “read” the images as if a wall texture or plant dissection can be instructive; there is something political to me in asserting what is otherwise hidden, peripheral, illegible as legitimized modes of navigation. I didn’t realize this until now, but in all parts of the book I am trying to transform shadows and stains into maps, and here I approach it literally. Indeed, on a larger level, my intent is to redefine the blueprint for what an “American Home” means, to blur its boundaries and measurements.
(These poems first appeared in DIAGRAM, 15.6.)
RM: Are there authors, photographers, artists, musicians, or workers in any field of creative endeavor, with whom you have felt and still feel most kinship? Whose works have stayed most relevant to you as a poet and thinker? Are there any whose work is especially relevant to this text? I very much appreciated the quotes that begin this text, from J. Tanizaki
In making for ourselves a place to live,
we first spread a parasol to throw a shadow on the earth,
and in the pale light of the shadow we put together a house.
And, not surprisingly, G. Bachelard, whose work wonderfully ghosts your text:
Our house is our corner of the world…
It is our first universe, a real cosmos.
Please feel free to answer whatever aspects of this question your intuitions bring to mind.
JSC: In the middle of this project, I started reading Poetics of Space purely by chance for a class with poet-artist Truong Tran, and I felt an immediate and intense recognition; it was electrifying, overwhelming, and like coming home. So many phrases and sentences were exactly what I was doing! My copy of the book is ridiculous—it has fifty-two page markers sticking out and looks like a centipede.
Similarly In Praise of Shadows has always been important to my writing and being. I feel such closeness with shadows, and it represents many things to me that layer into the book: it is an aesthetics of murkiness and imperfection; it is protection and safety; it is hiddenness and periphery; it is ephemeral, elusive, something half-evaporated and faraway. I am currently reading a book in which Rebecca Solnit describes longing as an experience in itself, and she says this is why sadness is sometimes beautiful—something is always still far away. I think this is why I am drawn to shadows. Something is literally lost or obscured, but in its place is a tone and texture of fullness unto its own. What does it mean to build a house here? Interestingly, Tanizaki speculates there is a distinctive relationship between Asian cultures and shadows—we accepted the darkness we found ourselves in and so immersed ourselves in it.
Outside the literary, I like installation art that construct experiential spaces for the body, like Cybele Lyle’s, whom I recently discovered at an open studio and then later realized describes her work with: “explore the unknown by building multiple architectures and rooms within rooms.” She also had black-and-white photography prints that she was painting over in thick streaks of color, loosely, so ocean and terrain peeked out in places. At the Guggenheim, I loved the side exhibit Photo-Poetics with Leslie Hewitt, who layers photographs over documents. I am obsessed with the work of Christine Sun Kim, an artist who is deaf and translates sound in miraculous ways, redefining the concept in her own terms.
I always hold these writers in the shade of my heart: Marilynne Robinson, Anne Carson, Fanny Howe (especially “Bewilderment”), James Agee, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Jenny Boully, Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, and of course Claudia Rankine (for my first book to be selected by a hero sent me over the moon). Books/essays/poems that are currently my night sky: Post Subject: A Fable by Oliver de la Paz, Silent Anatomies by Monica Ong, Night Sky with Exit Wound by Ocean Vuong, Spit by Esther Lee, Look by Solmaz Sharif, April Freely’s mini-essay on the Voyager Golden Record, “Mooncalf” by Shamala Gallagher, “And the Place was Matter” by Jane Wong, “Life of a Drowning” by Muriel Leung, Sueyeun Juliette Lee’s videopoems. This is leaving out many.
RM: Would you tell me a bit about yourself? Anything you are willing to share that might not be in your short bio that is published in the book? Anything that might have interesting, tangential relation to the book? Or anything that doesn’t!
JSC: 1) When I first began writing, it was because my undergraduate teacher Catherine Imbriglio introduced the lyric essay to me, and it was like finding a language I didn’t know existed, yet for which I had been searching my entire life. I still think of my poems as tiny essays: there are little arguments toward truth being made inside. There are also silences, holes, moments of opacity, which I think are just as truthful. I recently wrote “Dear Blank Space: A Literacy Narrative” for Entropy on the poetics and politics of silence, unknowability, wilderness, the margins, and broken things. My kinship with the lyric essay: how I am compelled toward both precision and wilderness, how the need to be known is matched by a need to be alone (the latter concept comes from an essay on Virginia Woolf by Joshua Rothman).
2) My family moved around growing up, so I was always losing things: little toys made of paper, drawings, prized pencils. Also: my sense of belonging, the feeling of familiarity. Maybe that’s why I have trouble throwing things away and why I always feel like things are slipping between my fingers, about to be lost.
3) The creature I feel most akin to is the jellyfish because of its slow and muted rhythms. It moves mostly by the sea’s currents. It casts a net of nerves.
RM: You selected the art for the cover design for this book. Would you describe your relationship to the photograph you selected, and what you envisioned as cover design for this text?
JSC: Occasionally my partner and I go to a local darkroom to process and print black-and-white film. I love the quietness and ritual of it, all those bodies moving in the dark. He kept mentioning the work of a fellow member, and when I finally took notice, they were astonishing enlarged prints of half-disintegrated leaves: the veins were map-like, fragile, and stark. In a moment of courage, I emailed the artist, who turned out to be a very kind older man named Mitsu Yoshikawa. He told me his process: he finds leaves that have been eaten through by insects and weather, washes them gently with water, and places them against a heavy cloth.
Jennifer S. Cheng’s HOUSE A was selected by Claudia Rankine as winner of the Omnidawn 1st/2nd Poetry Book Prize, forthcoming in October 2016. She writes poetry and essay, often at their intersections, and received her MFA in Nonfiction from the University of Iowa, MFA in Poetry from San Francisco State University, and BA from Brown University. She is the author of an image-text chapbook, Invocation: An Essay (New Michigan Press), and her writing appears in Tin House, Tarpaulin Sky, Web Conjunctions, AGNI, Mid-American Review, Black Warrior Review, and elsewhere. A US Fulbright scholar and Kundiman fellow, she is the recipient of the Academy of American Poets Harold Taylor Award, the Ann Fields Poetry Award, and Pushcart Prize nominations from The Volta and The Normal School. Having grown up in Texas, Hong Kong, and Connecticut, she currently lives in San Francisco.