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.