Jenny Qi is a poet, writer, and scientist whose essays and poems have been published in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Tin House, Rattle, ZYZZYVA, and the San Francisco Chronicle, among other places. Her debut poetry collection, Focal Point, won the 2020 Steel Toe Books Poetry Award and launched in October 2021.
Preeti Vangani: Congratulations on publishing your debut book! Focal Point is such a moving, beautiful and deeply personal collection of poems. You’ve mentioned that you’ve been working on this book for ten years. How does it feel to finally see your work in this form? And what has been your experience bringing it to readers while we’re still in a pandemic?
Jenny Q: Thank you so much, Preeti. And I’m grateful to you for your feedback on an earlier version of this book. I feel like I need to set the record straight, because I have indeed been telling people it was about 10 years since I wrote the earliest poems in this book, and I recently learned that I completely misremembered and it’s actually closer to 12! Some of the earliest poems in this book I wrote during college, without ever thinking they would be published in a book, and I learned from my professor that I actually took his class two years earlier than I thought. What is time? I spent most of those years having no intention of writing a book of poems. I just wrote them because I needed to, and I think because I felt so deeply alone in my grief and wanted someone to understand me, at least a little.
It’s great to see this work out in the world, to be sure, and a particularly meaningful aspect is that the cover was designed by my oldest friend, Hilary Steinberg, who is one of very few people in my life who actually knew my mother. But it’s also terrifying—the week before my book came out, I panicked that people who know me in real life, who are not poets, might read this book. And they might ask me about experiences that I don’t want to talk about because it’s assumed that they are 100% true and by writing about them, I’ve put them into the public domain. Something I have really appreciated is when reviewers emphasize that the speaker is distinct from the author, because while I make no secret of the fact that certain elements of this book are autobiographical, poetry is ultimately not nonfiction. That’s always so tricky with poetry, particularly when writing in the first person. I know you also write deeply personal work that might be categorized as confessional, so I’m curious how you navigate that.
PV: Thank you for asking! When I started writing about familial strife in particular, all the really messy areas, I found myself self-censoring a lot. I kept asking myself, what are you scared of? Nobody you write about even reads poetry! And if they do, they must love you despite the contradictions in our shared history. I remember asking Danez Smith when he visited our class, how to navigate the oppressor’s point of view. And he said very simply, “Fuck the oppressor.” That really freed me. And the poem “Satan Says” by Sharon Olds, I always keep it close to me. It showed me how the darkest autobiographical can become a poem—embedding grace of language to clarity of thought.
You started writing some of these poems while your mother was still with you and several after she passed. Can you talk about how your relationship to grief changed over the course of writing this book?
JQ: I wrote most of these poems after my mother’s death, and honestly most of the poems that were written before, I didn’t initially think to include in the book because I was such a different person then. I was grieving because my mother was sick, and I was so young, and I felt suspended in this limbo of not knowing what would happen, but it was a whole different kind of grief after she was gone irreversibly. “Wintering” is kind of about that. And of course, the intensity, the timbre of that grief has changed over the subsequent decade. I’ve spent over a third of my life without my mother now.
PV: Which poets and writers did you keep returning to as you processed your own grief, and wrote into it?
JQ: I once made a list of all the poems, essays, novels, and writers making up my library of grief, and it’s way too long to include here. I included many of the poets who influenced me in the book’s acknowledgements page. To name just a few here, some early influences for me included Emily Dickinson, Marie Howe, Robert Hass, Jack Gilbert, Ada Limón, Natalie Diaz, Danez Smith, Li-Young Lee, Nellie Wong, and Victoria Chang. It was so valuable for me to start discovering and reading poets of color and poets who were also (children of) immigrants, because there are so many parallel griefs that come from those experiences. Outside of poetry, Cheryl Strayed was really influential for me because most things I’d read about grief up to that point had been written by older people, and when I read her books, it was the first time I saw representation of that kind of earth-shattering, guilt-ridden early grief.
PV: Several poems in the book are at the intersection of your work as a scientist and your experience of grief. The first poem “Points At Which Parallel Waves Converge & From Which Diverge” for instance,
sitting too still, turning a knob just so to focus/on the right field of cells; the eight hundred mice/I’ve sacrificed this year, injecting cancer
Grief, the way it unfurls, is almost opposite to a lab experiment. An experiment seeks answers, and grief to me eludes them. And your poems cleave these negotiations between what lives and what is dead with such an earnest curiosity. Biology Lesson 4 for instance
Fed the right factors/cells can become anything—/molecular inspiration
I am curious about your thoughts on mortality. And spirituality too. How has your poet+scientist life impacted these ideas?
JQ: I like what you’ve said about the way grief is the opposite of a lab experiment, and I’d add that unlike an experiment, there’s nothing controlled about grief. Or mortality, for that matter, other than that both are inevitable. (I suppose inevitability is also the opposite of control.) I’ve often felt like I am straddling seemingly disparate worlds with science and creative writing, but I think mortality is one of the things at the heart of both of these—fear of, curiosity about, obsession over mortality. Particularly in the field I was in, cancer biology—cancer is in most cases a disease of aging, and every person in the world would get cancer if we live long enough and don’t die from other causes, so to study cancer biology is to study the mechanism of (and sometimes attempt to delay) our inevitable human demise. I think poetry does that too, probing for meaning. So I guess the short answer is that being a poet and scientist has meant that I am doubly obsessed with mortality.
PV: How did you build a writing practice in addition to working as a scientist? Could you talk about your process? More broadly, especially for poets who have non-writing jobs and for whom an MFA (for example) might not be a viable option, could you talk about the things you did to keep nourishing your writing life?
JQ: Preeti, I always want to ask everyone with non-writing jobs this question because it feels so hard. I feel like it was easier to balance my writing and science lives as a graduate student than it is now that I’ve left the lab. Now that I’ve said this aloud, I think it’s probably a combination of viewing the past through rose-colored glasses and simply investing much more time and energy into my writing life than I used to. As you alluded to, I never did get an MFA. I took a lot of creative writing and lit classes in college and was an editor for school journals, and I always read a lot, though more fiction than poetry. During grad school, I dabbled a lot in various kinds of science communication—journalism, podcasting, cartoons, etc. Concurrently, I found a community of creative writers, led by Dr. David Watts, and I attended an informal weekly workshop he hosted in his office at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF). Both of these pursuits gave me some structure. I attended my very first writing conference during this time, and although I wouldn’t attend another one until after graduating from my PhD program, that was a very formative experience. During grad school, I also attended a lot of readings in the city and eventually started to read at some of them myself and submit my work, and in this way I started to meet other writers in the community, like Jason Bayani, who has supported me as an artist from the beginning through Kearny Street Workshop. On my own, I also continued to read a lot, and I really thrive on 30-day challenges. Every April, for National Poetry Month, I did a daily syllabic challenge, where I gave myself an arbitrary number of syllables per line or an arbitrary syllabic form each day and wrote a poem. Most were short and not that great, but occasionally they turned into something worth expanding on, and more importantly, they brought me to the page each day.
In the three years since I graduated, I became much more active in the literary community, applying to and attending more conferences, workshops, and fellowships, submitting my work more, joining organizations like the Writers Grotto, reading for journals, etc. It’s really in these few years that I started to allow myself to be serious about writing. Of course, I’m really lucky to have been in the Bay Area, where there is a vibrant literary scene. I do think one silver lining of the pandemic is that it’s forced organizations to make things more accessible virtually. Last year, I was able to attend AWP and the Dodge Poetry Festival and the Massachusetts Poetry Festival, all virtually, and in an ordinary year there’s no way I could have gotten the time off for all of those or managed all that travel around my work schedule.
PV: While the grief of losing your mother is at the center of Focal Point, it isn’t the only grief the book explores. There are the griefs of strained familial and personal relationships, racial identity trauma, climate crisis. I am curious about how you arrived at what the scope of the book would be. And how in your experience do personal and communal grief talk to each other?
JQ: I started actually putting this book together in 2016, at the end of grad school, after five years of intense, seemingly single-minded grief for my mother. And all of a sudden, I reached a point where that personal grief no longer felt all-encompassing. Maybe it was prompted by the end of a kind of age of innocence in this country. Maybe it was just time. In any case, I wanted the book to paint a full picture of that kind of intense early grief, but I realized I hadn’t spent all those years grieving in a vacuum, even though it sometimes felt like it. I grew up, learned new things, fell in and out of love, lost other loved ones, watched other people lose loved ones, watched the country and planet change and go through crisis after crisis. I felt those communal griefs, and they were always intertwined with that personal grief. When terrible things happen in the world, I mourn, and then I think of my mother and wonder what she would have thought and wish she were here to comfort me and am glad she isn’t here to see what is happening, all at once. In one of the last poems of Victoria Chang’s Obit, she writes about the Parkland school shooting victims, and the poem begins, “America—died on February 14, 2018, / and my dead mother doesn’t know.” I think of that line all the time, and I think that’s such a good encapsulation of how these personal and communal griefs knit together.
PV: I really admire the breadth of places and worlds these poems take us to. There are poems that are rooted in Greek mythology, desert life, sunsets in San Francisco, and science labs. Your modes of invention run so wide and so deep. So, I am wondering: how does a poem begin to take shape for you? Can you speak a little about your composition process?
JQ: Thank you so much for this kind comment. It really varies, but I feel like more often than not my poems come fairly quickly, mostly formed. I hate to say that because it’s so unhelpful. I think that’s only true, however, because they often come after I’ve been ruminating on an idea or phrase or argument or image for weeks or months. And if I think of a potentially great line, I try to jot that down right away, by hand or in a note on my phone, and often the process of jotting it down will prompt more of the poem. Sometimes, it’s the first line, sometimes it becomes the last line, and other times I end up cutting the line entirely by the end of the poem. Sometimes I wake from a dream and have to write down a poem from the dream, though usually I wake later to find that they’re mostly rubbish. Most years, I do a daily poem challenge in April, for National Poetry Month, and I’ll maybe get one or two poems out of that each time. For those more disciplined sessions where I sit down with nothing and try to write, I’ll give myself a topic or focus on things that happened during the day or things around me. What about you? How does a poem usually start for you?
PV: Often in a memory from childhood, or an image I can’t shake off. Often I don’t know what the poem will become or is trying to tell me, so in early drafts I just make a verbal map: a litany, really of everything surrounding that memory, and then I start picking at the parts where the heat is. I was curious if the pandemic altered your relationship to art and writing?
JQ: In the beginning, it was kind of nice as an introvert to cancel all my plans and use that time to read and write and make things. It was a distraction from the existential dread, sure, but still nice. I picked up watercolors again after not doing so since I was a child. I went down a lot of Wikipedia rabbit holes about literary subgenres and the plot of every Fast and the Furious movie despite never having watched any of them (hilarious, highly recommend). In that early period of uncertainty, I felt permission to not have to be super productive all the time. And of course, I want to acknowledge that this is largely because I was in the privileged position of being able to work remotely, and I don’t have children. I’ve read a lot about how the pandemic has altered people’s relationships to (office) work more broadly, because people haven’t had to commute and have had more time for the things they care about, and they’ve realized that they don’t want to go back to giving those things up.
PV: I know you love immersing yourself in the act of making: watercolors, knitting, clay figure making! You do so much! How do these pursuits impact your creativity, standalone and/or in relation to writing?
JQ: Okay, here’s a confession, but not really because I say this to my partner all the time and even wrote a whole essay about it recently for the New York Times Magazine—as a kid, I always wanted to be a palace artisan, and I guess I still kind of do. Like sure, you’re forced to carve intricate nonsense until you go blind, but I really have always loved making things, even (sometimes especially) with constraints. Visual arts and crafts are very meditative for me, especially since there is absolutely no pressure for any of it to be good or productive. Bonnie Tsui wrote a great piece in the New York Times a while back about fallow time and how it can be so easy to feel guilty about not actively writing, when in fact, everything for a writer is writing. Taking a walk, reading a book, thinking or not thinking—these are all necessary precursors to the actual output of writing. I definitely feel that guilt and have a lot of anxiety around productivity, resulting from a combination of scientific/academic and broadly capitalist cultures. I’m like a shark—I cannot be still. For me, the act of making things is one of the only times when I feel at peace. Certain repetitive activities, like knitting or working with clay, allow me to multitask and not feel guilty about taking a mental break from actively working and producing output. They keep my hands busy while freeing my mind to listen to a podcast or audiobook or meditate on some ideas that will be in an essay a month or a year later. Other activities, like writing itself, when I can get myself to the page, are meditative in a different way, absorbing and transporting me completely so I return to this world slightly different.