By: Mary K. Cantrell
Most people woke up this morning, rubbed the sleep out of their eyes and hit the door with a skip in their step that can only come from knowing it's the end of the week. Poet, Nancy Huang, awoke on the morning of Sept. 15 eagerly anticipating the book release party that would be held in her honor later that day at Malvern Books.
“I am really excited, a lot of people said they were coming on Facebook. I know how unreliable Facebook event posts can be because a lot of people say they’re going but they actually don’t,” Huang says. “I’m just very nervous, I don't want too little people but I don't want like everyone I know in the world to be there.”
Her debut poetry book, titled “Favorite Daughter”– a nod to an inside joke with her family– comes out Sept. 15 under independent, Austin-based publishing house, Write Bloody Publishing. The recent UT journalism school grad will read from her novel and sign copies at 7 p.m. at Malvern, 613 West 29th St., Austin.
Smear rang Nancy in Michigan, her home state, to discuss the release of her first-ever poetry book, her hopes of longevity in the poetry bizz and coming into her own just in time for a book tour around the country.
Smear: So tell me a little bit about the book launch, how did this come about?
Huang: I entered a poetry manuscript contest and I ended up getting a slot in the finalist category. I have been working on this manuscript for like two years so I’m really excited for it to come out. I actually love Malvern Books, I don’t know if you’ve ever been, but it’s a really good venue. When I got the date that my book was coming out I was like ‘Hey would you guys be interested in holding a party for my book?’ and they were really accommodating to all my requests.
S: What is the structure of the book?
Huang: My book is divided into four parts. I just did that because it made more sense to me to have it divided that way. Each part has about 10 poems in it. In total, what my editors told me, is that it had to be 40 to 50 poems long. That’s what I tried to adhere to but during the composition of this I had a lot of trouble sorting out and organizing which poems went where, and what to cut and [there were] a lot of thematic issues I was dealing with. Those were the brunt of the issues I was dealing with when I first started. After I figured out the four main themes of the poetry book, I just decided to make them section heads and divide the entire thing into four parts. I figured it’ll be more digestible that way, so I am really happy about the format now.
S: So what are the four themes, if I might ask?
Huang: So the four themes I had for this book are immigration, Shanghai, America and assimilation. I just thought a lot of the stuff I deal with, especially because I am a kid of professional immigrants. That’s just been a lot of things I have been tackling. They are very personal to me, and that's what poetry books are supposed to be about. Those are the four things I found commonly reoccured in every poem I saw.
S: So you mentioned you worked on this project for two years; can you discuss why these topics are more relevant in your life right now and what led to those themes dominating your work?
Huang: When I was first writing these poems separately from each other I had no notion I would ever put them into a manuscript together. For me it was just a way of trying to let out a lot of stuff I felt hadn’t been let out before, for whatever reason. It’s not that it was all secretive stuff, it was just all very personal stuff. Which, sometimes [it] bleeds over into the secretive, which is interesting to me. So I was thinking, well all this stuff I am working with, like immigration and being Chinese in America, that’s stuff that I really hadn’t read before in any mainstream outlet, or rarely in poetry even. So I decided to try and write that for myself, because I didn’t really see that being reflected anywhere else.
Now that I’m more entrenched in reading poetry, I know a lot more people. I know there are a lot of people who write about the stuff I am writing about too, which is really, really great because I hadn’t known about them before. I was completely ignorant because I was new to it. But it’s been really great knowing I’m not alone anymore. But it took that first step, writing down things that I thought were secretive, that I thought were isolated, to get me here.
S: I know you moved back to Michigan from Texas, so what’s up with you now?
Huang: Yeah I grew up here so I am very comfortable. Right now I am recuperating from college and taking the requisite three months that I feel I need, because I don’t know what to do next. Which I think is healthy. I think it’s good to have a little uncertainty any time you’re going forward. At least that’s what I’m telling myself [laughs].
Right now I am planning my tour, which is probably going to occur this winter or early next year; I am still getting the dates straight. It's just a really chaotic process but I’m really fortunate and I’m really excited.
S: What kind of venues will you be visiting on the tour?
Huang: I really want to do a lot of bookstores. Maybe a few friends living rooms. I would like at least one university to host me because I feel like that’d be a really cool experience, if I could teach a workshop there. Majority is probably going to be indie bookstores, maybe a few slam venues, a few living rooms.
S: That seems like a good mix. So, I was thinking about the way people get labeled in industries and what it means to be a quote-on-quote “young poet.” What does it mean to you to be labeled ‘a young poet’ ?
Huang: I did a writing workshop once and I had a teacher tell me I was too obsessed with being young and like staying young and getting everything done when I’m young, and that really resonated with me because she was completely right of course. I know it used to worry me that I would run out of time to do everything I wanted. I was just really scared there was going to be a threshold—like once I crossed it, I wouldn't be able to do everything. It’s a ridiculous fear but also a legitimate one in some respects. Right now, though, I know if I wanted to measure success by age there’s so many younger people out there who are doing way better than me. I am friends with some of them and it is incredible and really, really humbling to see them do this kind of work and not have as many years as me. I am trying to take into consideration when my teacher told me that there is no threshold for this. At least for poetry or art, there is no threshold. You don't grow out of it, ever. It's not something that goes away with old age and that’s something I am trying to implement in my current mindset because I just graduated. I am always in the mindset of ‘Oh I have to get a job.’ There’s these boxes you have to check off by a certain age and there's a timeline for your entire life, but that’s something I am trying to work out of right now.
S: Along the vein of what inspired you to write this book, what do you find makes for a resounding poem?
Huang: I am always very, very impressed by poems that aren't afraid to take up space. I think that is a really admirable quality because that’s something I struggle with. When I am going through the editing process, for example, my immediate process when I start editing is to look for things to cut and I know poets who are the exact opposite; they’re looking for things to add, which I think is really interesting too. I really admire poems like that because I feel like especially for marginalized people, when they are writing or producing art, they’re always told to be smaller in the first place, so when they’re going through the editing process they start cutting but when I don’t see that from a marginalized poet I admire then I’m really, really impressed. I really like poems– I’m not talking like super, super long– when they are read on a page or performed in a venue at slam they’re not afraid to be loud or not afraid to have a presence.
S: What do you want people to take from your poems?
Nancy: I don’t know [laughs]. I feel like I wrote the book I’ve already given so much space to ... if anyone buys my book they’ll basically have my entire life condensed into four sections in one book. I don’t really think I can tell them any further what they should take from it or how they should think of it. I know a lot of people think the reader can’t really have the same perspective as whoever came up with the poem originally, which I can’t really agree with. Once you read something it belongs to you. Once you read something it’s just yours, do what you want. What I would like people to take away from the book, if I had to condense everything into one sentence it would be, ‘Hey these were written when I was in a really small place, but they made me feel bigger.’
S: So I’m going to mix it up with a lighter question. Where do you normally write—Do you have a routine or certain place you like? Do you use your phone?
Huang: I wish I was regimented enough to have a routine. It’s actually really bad not to have one. You should establish a routine because that means you do it frequently, and uhm, I don’t. I think a common thing I do before I write is I have to be sitting or lying down. I definitely have to have writing utensils in front of me. Not necessarily a computer, actual utensil and paper. Sometimes I use my phone.
I don’t really have an established routine beyond those two things, mainly because a lot of poems I’ve written straight on my laptop sound good, but then I write a poem on a napkin … that sounds even better. So I’m still trying to figure out the ideal way to do this and I know there’s no right answer.
S: Open-floor, how would you describe your style? How do you self-identify?
Huang: I am still hard to pin-down right now because I am doing some stuff that feels totally unfamiliar and some stuff that I am really comfortable with. I don’t want to use the word eclectic, but it’s hard to pin down, inconsistent, a mess. Three topics I typically write about are like family, boundaries and the third one….probably sex [laughs].
S: The pillars of life, baby! What are your favorite types of literary devices to use like symbols ? Metaphors?
Huang: I think about sex a lot. I think because I am wondering things about human connection and since I am thinking about it a lot, it manifests in a lot of metaphors. I am not even intentionally doing it. I use a lot of imagery because … I went to a class once and my teacher said, ‘The image reflects the heart of the poem back at it,’ and I just really, really like that. So now I am using a lot of visual imagery and metaphors. Which sounds really rudimentary but I feel like it’s essential sometimes.
S: I read you go to a lot of workshops, and you really seem like a student of poetry. What has been one of your stand out educational experiences? Something formative either a teacher or moment.
Huang: Oh my god I have so many. I will narrow it down to like two or three. First of all, I don’t think anyone’s ever done being a student. There’s always going to be new poems out there; there’s always going to be new people writing poems, and you're going to be out there trying to keep up with the times. One of the most formative experiences I have had was my first foray into slam poetry with UT Spitshine. They do competitive slam poetry. My coach and my teammates were just really amazing about letting me join the team late, and being open with me and letting me be open, sharing my vulnerabilities. It was a really touching experience. Another thing I really enjoyed was Voices of Our Nation Art Foundation or “VONA.” It’s a writing workshop for people of color and my teacher there, Danez Smith, they’re a really well-known poet. They are the one who told me the image quote, and they were one of the best teachers I have ever had because they were so open. I am so glad I had all these experiences and all these friends. I am very lucky. I love those experiences and I am so grateful to everyone who was there for them.
S: What are some of your favorite contemporary poets?
Huang: Yaaas! My favorite part of the interview. Jasmine Bell, she’s one of my best friends, she was on spitshine with me. Franny Choi is incredible, I love her. A poet I go back to over and over and read all the time is Patricia Smith.
S: Do you feel like there’s power in being regimented in the time of poetry you consume; do you try to consume women of color poets or like genderqueer and gender non conforming poets?
Huang: Yeah, of course. I feel like it’s really good to specifically seek out people who are marginalized, especially in poetry, and especially right now. I do consume a lot of women of color and a lot of gender non conforming poets just because everything is chronically male and pale. That’s the world. There’s always been this community, there’s always been poets of every single creed, but they’ve never been in the spotlight, they have never been highlighted enough for them to become mainstream and I am glad that I am living in this era where they are more accessible than ever before. I am really excited about reading all these different people with all these different voices that I didn’t get when I was younger. T.S. Elliot and Lord Byron are always going to be there; all these white guys are still here; there are still entire academic departments devoted to studying their lives and their history, so no one's going anywhere. There’s enough space for everyone so just explore a little.
S: What are some of your favorite words?
Huang: Wow oh my god. Synecdoche. I love that word. I have literally never used it in a poem. It is a very obscure literary concept. I just like it ‘cause it sounds really nice. I need to use it in a poem. Keep your eyes peeled for Synecdoche a three part saga [laughs].
Nancy Huang will be at Malvern books Sept. 15 at 7 p.m. to read from her book and sign copies.
You can buy her book here.