Thursday, February 3, 2022 7:00 p.m. – 8:30 p.m. CST
Jenny Qi is the author of the debut poetry collection Focal Point, winner of the 2020 Steel Toe Books Poetry Award. Her essays and poems have been published widely in newspapers and literary journals, including The New York Times, The Atlantic, and the San Francisco Chronicle, and she has received fellowships from Tin House, Omnidawn, Kearny Street Workshop, and the San Francisco Writers Grotto. Born in Pennsylvania to Chinese immigrants, she grew up mostly in Las Vegas and Nashville and now resides in San Francisco, where she completed her Ph.D. in Cancer Biology and currently works in oncology consulting. At the end of graduate school, she co-founded and produced the science storytelling podcast Bone Lab Radio, where she wrote and talked a lot about death. She is working on more essays and poems and translating her late mother’s memoirs of the Chinese Cultural Revolution and immigration to the U.S.
CH: What is your first memory of poetry? What first drew you to it as a means of expression?
JQ: My very first exposure to poetry came early—my mother and grandmother taught me to recite Tang poems when I was a toddler, a practice supposedly common among Chinese school children. (I never went to school in China, so I can’t verify this.) A few years later, probably on the tail end of elementary school, I became introduced to English poetry by way of a YA novel that included William Blake’s “The Tyger” as an epigraph, and I was delighted by the sonic qualities and vivid imagery. And I enjoyed rap music, which can be a sort of poetry too. It was around that time that I was inspired to start writing and engaging in the kind of wordplay that I wasn’t seeing in prose, and through poetry I could start to connect and express ideas that I couldn’t fully articulate as a child on the cusp of adolescence.
CH: When did you begin to direct your energy toward writing? How would you describe yourself as a writer?
JQ: Hmm, there are many ways I could answer this question. In some ways, I’ve been directing energy towards writing of all genres since childhood, initially mostly as a hobby. As the only child of immigrants, I never really imagined that I could have a creative career because that seemed so risky and impractical. Only in the last few years, towards the end of and after graduating from my PhD program in Cancer Biology, have I allowed myself to place more weight on writing. (I wrote more about this for the New York Times here.) Although I’ve left the lab, I still work in STEM, and I don’t have an MFA, so sometimes I still feel like writing is my secret. So I don’t know, I guess I’m a writer teetering on the edge of many parallel lives. We all contain multitudes.
CH: Congratulations on the publication of Focal Point. In the book’s acknowledgments section, you say the project “has been a decade or more in the making.” Please tell us a little about the journey that led to your creating and publishing the manuscript.
JQ: Thank you. I didn’t set out to create a manuscript, to be honest, and maybe that made it easier to create. I wrote a few of these poems in college, never dreaming I’d publish them in a collection. My mom passed in my last year of college, when I was only 19, and I stopped writing, and then a few months later I started my PhD program. A year into grad school, I started writing poems again and started attending a casual weekly workshop run by Dr. David Watts out of his office, and I guess I think of that point as another beginning of this project, the processing of grief and learning how to be a person in the wake of that loss. It wasn’t until a few years ago, after I’d written probably hundreds of poems and started to publish poems individually, that it even occurred to me to compile them into a manuscript. I walked into workshop one day, and David asked me, “So, where’s your book?” And then I started to think about it more seriously.
CH: It was a pleasure for me to encounter the variety of poems in Focal Point, both in terms of subject matter and in form. How did you approach knitting these poems together as a manuscript?
JQ: Thanks so much. When I started putting this book together, I knew nothing about how to put a book together. In my first attempt, I put poems together by category, which meant all the heavy grief poems were in one section. It wasn’t a good book, but I think it was actually a helpful exercise to see what themes recurred in this body of work. Based on feedback I received from friends and mentors, I started to put poems (which I physically printed out) next to each other based on these recurring themes and images, and often others saw connections that I didn’t. After I graduated and had some time away from the lab, I was also able to gain a different perspective. It was only then that I revisited the older “Biology Lesson” series of poems and some of the short “how-to” poems and thought about how those might serve as a manual for navigating loss and growth in tandem.
CH: I find in the poems of Focal Point a deeply engaged speaker, and I love that the gaze of the poems moves across many kinds of relationship, in love and grief and anger. How did the writing of these poems change you?
JQ: I love this question so much, because the writing of a poem absolutely does change you, in many ways. I think one of those ways is by teaching a kind of radical acceptance of the subject, the speaker of your poem, and even yourself. The speakers of these poems are often flawed, expressing “ugly” human emotions such as anger and resentment and envy, and in the writing of the poem, sometimes I learn about where that comes from. I’m thinking of the persona poems about Circe and Penelope, two figures from Greek mythology that I never particularly understood or liked as a recalcitrant youth because I felt they were compromising too much. The writing of those poems in their voices at that particular time in my life helped me arrive at a new understanding of these characters and the complex calculus of adulthood and specifically womanhood.
CH: In “Call and Response,” you’ve translated a poem by Su Shi (1037 – 1101) from the Chinese and written a companion poem in response. What inspired you to write in the voice of the departed?
JQ: This poem is one of my oldest in the collection and came out of a translation assignment in college. When I was choosing a poem to translate, I realized I’d learned all these old Chinese poems as a kid, and they were always written by men. So I wanted to write in that voice because I wanted to give voice to the woman in the poem, who’d likely had no voice even while she was alive. In retrospect, I guess a lot of my early poems were persona poems in the voice of women who had been written by men or otherwise muted. I think I was starting to grapple with my paradoxical upbringing—I’d grown up with a strong, ambitious female figure in my mother, but we came from a culture with deeply ingrained misogyny.
CH: I understand that after graduate school, you became co-founder, co-host, and producer of the science storytelling podcast Bone Lab Radio. Tell us a little about the podcast and how you became involved in that project.
JQ: Actually, that was a project I did during grad school! Outside of my lab responsibilities, I did a lot of science communication and journalism work as a grad student, and Bone Lab Radio was the last of those before and immediately after I graduated. There were four of us who co-founded the podcast: three bone researchers and me. BLR was really my friend Kate’s baby—I reached out to Kate Woronowicz, who was in my year in a different grad program, because I’d just left the school newspaper and was looking for a new scicomm project. I’d never done audio before and wanted to learn something new and see if that might be or lead to a career option after graduating. I think what I brought to that project was my writing, editing, and interviewing experience and my obsession with death and the less technical aspects of bones. It actually helped that I wasn’t a bone researcher so I could tell them if things were getting too jargon-y. The rest of the team has remained in academic research, and I guess I’m still the weird one, ha!
CH: You hold a Ph.D. in Cancer Biology, and work as an oncology consultant. How have you made space for your creative life amid the demands of your professional life?
JQ: It’s honestly really challenging. And there’s a difference, I think, between making space for the act of creating and making space for the tasks around putting that creation into the world. To actually create something, I need more mental space than I often have in daily life, and it’s been so valuable to attend workshops and conferences where I’ve set aside time (and gone to a different physical location) for that sort of creative thought. It’s been tougher during the pandemic, but it’s helped to be a part of various writing groups that meet regularly via Zoom. I think building community has been the single most important thing for my creative life, especially since I don’t have an MFA and am not necessarily trained as a writer. Beyond that, I use a bullet journal and heavily rely on Google Calendar to organize my time. That has been so important during my book tour, particularly since I haven’t been able to take time off of work for it.
CH: As a writer, what are you working on now?
JQ: Well, I’ve been spending a lot of time on book promo. But in terms of actual writing, I’ve been working more on prose, and that’s really exciting for me. I’ve been writing more personal essays, and I’m going to be doing a lot more translation work—translating some of my late grandfather’s poems and my late mother’s memoir—and writing essays in response to that work. In poetry (and prose), I’ve been exploring the reverberations of my parents’ experience of the Cultural Revolution, as well as the consequences of technological and climate instability.
CH: What do you read for pleasure?
JQ: Of course, I love and read a lot of poetry, but I probably read more prose, honestly. I love a good historical fiction novel, and I find novels set in 1600s France to be weirdly comforting because of my childhood obsession with Alexandre Dumas. I generally enjoy fiction, historical or not, and I like outrageous business dramas (Bad Blood comes to mind as an example), the occasional memoir, and short story and essay collections.