“I like intimacy. I’m not afraid of it. I welcome closeness, interiority, quietude, kindness, wonder. I like listening & listeners.”
Not so dear Jenny (Bateau Press, 2017)
Could you share with us a representative or pivotal poem (or excerpt) from your chapbook? Perhaps something that introduces the work of the chapbook, or that invites the reader into the world of the chapbook?
Not so dear Jenny:
We sew a knot
To hold the thing
That’s dear to us.
Ropes that lashed
Your trunk to the mast,
Cord that fastened
Your briefcase to the bicycle,
Thread at the end of the seam
Down the back of my dress.
Eleven letters to confess
Your love. Three more
To negate it.
Not so, dear Jenny,
Is its undoing.
Why did you choose this poem (or excerpt)?
The title poem introduces the work. It immediately complicates the title, invokes the letter writing context & invites the reader to read closely, to listen for multiple meanings. It also announces the ever present possibility of misunderstanding.
What are some of your favorite chapbooks?
A few of my favorite chapbooks are Kathy Garlick’s The Listening World (Momotombo Press, 2002), Ari Banias’s What’s Personal is Being Here With All of You (Portable Press @ Yo-Yo Labs, 2012), E.J. Garcia’s Your Bright Hand (The Poetry Society of America, 2012), & Fanny Howe’s For Erato: The Meaning of Life (Tuumba Press, 1984). I also can’t help but mention a chapbook I’m looking forward to & that’s Shelley Wong’s Rare Birds. Diode Editions will release Rare Birds at AWP about the same time Bateau Press brings out Not so dear Jenny.
What might these favorite or influential chapbooks suggest about you and your writing?
I like intimacy. I’m not afraid of it. I welcome closeness, interiority, quietude, kindness, wonder. I like listening & listeners.
Does the chapbook form have an impact on the politics of the poems that appear inside it?
I think that depends. One example of what feels to me like a very subversive chapbook is the aforementioned What’s Personal Is Being Here With All of You by Ari Banias. It’s very simply made in black & white, I don’t think it even has a price on it. Ari gave me a copy when we were riding a bus together. The poems, so fittingly, address the question of whether or not “in all this there can still be—tarnished,/problematic, and certainly uneven—a we.” I love thinking of Ari giving this out to people. In contrast, his new book Anybody, which contains many, if not all, of the chapbook poems, is a very fancy cloth bound edition, quite beautiful & priced at $25.95. Although I love this book too, I was not a part of the we who could afford to buy a new copy of it. There’s a way in which Ari’s meaning in the new book isn’t met in the same way by the new format as it was in the black & white chapbook. Part of what can be political about a chapbook is that it exists to serve purposes other than profit-making. Ari’s chapbook enacted its own meaning & I think that’s a very beautiful & political thing. Many small presses, like Bateau for instance, print only a small number (Bateau will print 250 of Jenny) so there is no pressure to sell thousands of copies, there is less pressure to sell, period. The object may even become more precious, priceless really, because unlike books the trade houses are publishing, a chapbook is fleeting; it will not be made over & over again.
That said, I feel compelled to mention two fabulous chapbook archives where readers can read out-of-print chapbooks. The Tuumba Press index (which includes Fanny Howe’s aforementioned For Erato: The Meaning of Life) & Ugly Duckling Presse’s out-of-print archive.
What obsessions led you to write your chapbook?
Love. Death. Time. My father. Language. Letter-writing.
What’s your chapbook about?
Not so dear Jenny is about living with a dead person. It is a book of conversations, arguments, confessions, dreams, warnings; it is a record of time spent with a person, a dead person who never dies.
What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook?
I’m not sure which piece is the oldest. Most of the poems were written during the span of a year or so. One of the earliest poems is “Please ask your mother one more time to drop the warrant for my arrest.” What do you remember about writing it? I remember crying when I wrote it & whenever I reread it. Strangely, when I read the title at a public reading, the audience laughed. It was my closing poem so I suppose by that time my descriptions of my father’s demands had begun to seem absurd. Of course then I laughed too.
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook?
In some of the poems, my father feels alive. Others feel post-mortem. I wanted an arc or a circle even. I wanted to slowly bring him to life & not let him die until the end, if at all. In short, I want(ed) him to live forever. This was my guiding principle.
Which poem in your chapbook has the most meaningful back story to you? What’s the back story?
Now that you ask & I’m looking them over, I realize most of my poems are the meaningful back story. I bring what’s most meaningful to me into the poem so there’s very little back story lurking around. That said, there is one poem whose back story illustrates my process (though I don’t know how meaningful it is). The line There is no short cut. in my father’s letter has nothing to do with physical short-cuts but when placed at the top of the page, it immediately sent me back to a field near our house. Instead of walking all the way around the neighborhood you could cross through a field from my friend Dede’s house to my friend Ruthie’s house. There were a couple of horses there we would stop to pet & feed along the way. I don’t think my father ever saw the field. He didn’t turn up that street much, if ever, but as soon as I thought of the field, it became our field; we became two friends walking together or towards each other. His line, originally about hard work & ambition, led me to a field with horses in it, to friendship & to everlasting love.
Which poem is the “misfit” in your collection and why?
“If all hinges upon oneself.” This poem allows for the possibility of my father’s death more so than the others do. It fights death too but its sense of time is a fatherless future; it faces this possibility head-on like none of the others do. One of my readers suggested I cut it & I considered cutting it, it stuck out to me a little too. But I thought I would keep it in for the sake of fear & bravery.
Describe your writing practice or process for your chapbook. Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it?
I wrote these particular poems by typing a line from one of my father’s letters at the top of the page & then waiting. The line almost always led me somewhere. If it didn’t, I would discard it & choose another.
What has the editorial and production experience with the press who picked up your chapbook been like? To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
Working with Bateau Press has been bliss. Editor Dan Mahoney is very direct, responsive, effervescent, hard-working & full of love for the work he does. As for the cover image & design, I began by sending book designer Amy Borezo some images of my father’s letters & envelopes just to see if they might spark something. She came back with a couple of gorgeous cover options for us & we chose the one we wanted. I wasn’t involved in designing the interior.
What are you working on now?
I am putting the finishing touches on the full length version of Not so dear Jenny. As well, next month I’ll begin editing with Kathleen Rooney & Abby Beckel, The Passion of Woo & Isolde & Other Stories, winner of Rose Metal Press’s Annual Short Short Chapbook Contest. The chapbook will be published in August with an introduction by judge Amelia Gray.
If you could choose another artistic path (painting, music, dance, etc.) what would it be and why?
This is a tantalizing & difficult question for me because I find all three of the paths you mention deeply appealing. As a child I was a classically-trained pianist. What I experience when I write a poem is probably most similar to what I experienced when I played the piano. Listening. Repetition. Obsessions. Rhythms. Themes. Variations. Silences. Harmonies. Translations. Transitions. Perhaps because of that, I find painting & dance slightly more alluring. I’m very drawn to painters – I tend to like them as people & I love being in a painter’s studio surrounded by light & color. What I love about dance as an art form – especially as a writer who spends so much time sitting still – is the movement inherent in it & its lack of trappings. (Then again, I’ve also always wanted to be a weaver.) All you need is your own body. But that’s also what’s frightening about dance; the body doesn’t last!
What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?
If you don’t really love it, do something else. If you do choose to write, listen, be receptive, persist.
What question would you like to ask future writers featured at Speaking of Marvels?
Is there a forthcoming chapbook you’re looking forward to reading? Tell us about it.
Jennifer Tseng’s chapbook Not so dear Jenny (Bateau Press 2017) won the Bateau Press Boom Chapbook Contest & her forthcoming chapbook The Passion of Woo & Isolde & Other Stories won Rose Metal Press’s Annual Short Short Chapbook Contest, judged by Amelia Gray. She is also the author of a novel, Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness (Europa Editions 2015) and two books of poems, The Man With My Face & Red Flower, White Flower, the latter featuring Chinese translations by Mengying Han & Aaron Crippen. Tseng teaches poetry and fiction for 24PearlSt, the Fine Arts Work Center’s online writing program.
“Dearest Jenny: Reading my Chinese Father’s English Letters” (essay):
“I never read one word Toni Morrison wrote.” (poem):
“The Riddle of Morro Rock” (poem):