Nancy Chen Long On Work, Writing, & Poetry
2019 Diode Editions Book Contest winner Nancy Chen Long discusses the journey behind her latest collection Wider than the Sky.
In her second book Wider than the Sky, Nancy Chen Long grapples with the porous and slippery nature of memory and mind. Through form and content, the poems in the book mimic memory, its recursive and sometimes surreal qualities—how recalling one memory resurrects a different memory, which then jumps to another memory, and then another, each memory connected by the thinnest of wisps—as well as memory’s mutability—conflicting memories among family members, changes in the collective memory of a society, a buried memory that is resurrected when one catches the scent of a forgotten perfume. Wider than the Sky explores the role of memory in identity, how the physical aspects of the brain impact who we are, and how who we are—both individually and as a society—is, in one sense, a narrative. These poems delve into the mind’s need for narrative in order to make sense of the world and how a society uses stories and myth to help its members remember a lesson, a preferred behavior, or their position in the social scale.
Up until about 10 years ago, my life’s work, that is, what I spent most of my time doing, was about making money, providing for my family, which I did through a career in technology. But I didn’t start out with that in mind. When I was a child, I loved books, writing, and poetry. My father, who began his career as a translator in the military, shared his propensity for books, language, and poetry with me early on. As a teenager, when considering college and career options, creative writing was my first choice. I was strongly counseled, though, to go into something like science instead. I heeded that advice and stopped writing creatively, eventually ending up in engineering and technology. All the while, I continued to read poetry and to write in a private journal, including scribbling down small poems. I didn’t seriously write poetry again until later in life, when a series of chance events revived my love of creative writing and led me to understand that my life’s work is not what I do to make money. Rather, it is what I do that helps me feel alive and connected to others, even if I spend more time doing something else like a ‘day’ job. I came to understand my life’s work is writing and poetry.
My return to creative writing is a study in synchronicity for me. I returned at a time when I was under a great deal of stress in both my career and family life. An acquaintance at the time suggested that I attend a writing circle. When she mentioned it, she had no idea of my connection to language, of what writing and poetry meant to me. While I didn’t intend it to be the case, what I wrote started coming out as poems. I was in the middle of pursuing an M. Div. on a part-time basis at a Quaker seminary. Shortly after I attended the writing circle, the seminary offered a poetry class as part of their Writing-as-Ministry emphasis, which I took. The professor was supportive of everyone’s work, including mine. Because of her support and encouragement, I started to take my writing seriously. After completing that poetry class, I dropped out of seminary so that I could take a few MFA classes in the evening at Indiana University. It was during one of those classes that I decided to pursue an MFA. I couldn’t enroll in a traditional MFA program because I had to work full-time. The professors at IU suggested a low-residency MFA, which would allow me to continue to work. I applied to a couple of programs and got accepted. Not long after that, some of the poems I’d written were published. All of this surprise and synchronicity happened fairly quickly—within a couple of years. Each event reminded me that anything can happen, that little in life is truly locked in. It gave me a sense of hope and possibility.
There are three primary reasons why I consider poetry and writing to be my life’s work. The first reason is that they are my methods of exploring those nooks and crannies at the intersections of science, art, and religion. As a biracial, multiethnic woman, I feel most at-home dwelling in the intersectional space of things, occasionally falling through the cracks when I can’t find a foothold. Writing my first book Light into Bodies laid bare one of my obsessions: I found myself returning to science, religion, and art. Wider than the Sky continues that obsession.
A second reason why I consider poetry and writing to be my life’s work is that they both help me to better know what I think and feel. Jane Hirshfield has said “Poetry is a release of something previously unknown into the visible. You write to invite that, to make of yourself a gathering of the unexpected and, with luck, of the unexpectable.” As commonly happens with those who write poetry, I usually begin believing I am writing about one thing and then, when deep into it—surprise!—I find the real subject. So, through the surprise and synchronicity that attend poetry, I am again reminded that anything can happen, that little in life is truly locked in. Poetry and writing are themselves an adventure in hope and possibility. Through writing my first book, I grew to understand myself a bit better. That book grapples with issues of identity, which is central to how I see myself and my place in the world; it’s key to a deeper understanding of what I truly value versus what I might think I value. Also, on a more personal level, I can say that, in part, its importance stems from my history of being a biracial child of parents who, themselves, wrestled mightily with identity. My second book Wider than the Sky is a continuation of my interrogation of identity. I found connections and insights through the excavation of personal memories, as well as of familial and societal, collective memories.
A third reason why I consider poetry and writing to be my life’s work is for connection and to co-create. Writing has at its center the hope of community embedded within it. In the words of Francisco X. Alarcón:
Inherent in the use of language is a presumed audience. When we create with words, we are presuming that we are not alone–that the possibility of communion with an audience exists. In creating with words, we both assume and create community. By existing, the poem creates an audience-shaped space. The audience enters that space, and a community is born.
The tools of poetry—metaphor, juxtaposition, lineation, image, etc.—empower us to communicate with others beyond denotative language. They allow us to subvert power structures, convey emotions more clearly and powerfully, and point to something beyond ourselves. The sense of community that I enjoyed with Light into Bodies included one that most writers enjoy, one that results from writing the poems themselves, e.g., getting together with other writers on writing retreats and writing sessions, poem-a-day challenges, sharing poems with first readers, online writing communities. This grace of community continued after publication through readings including a DIY reading tour that I did across several states, discussions and workshops with classes that were assigned the book, and interviews and reviews of the book. The community that had formed while writing my first book continued while writing Wider than the Sky. For post-publication of the book, I hope to continue building, and contributing to, community.
As an extension of this communal aspect, the art of poetry is given to co-creation. When I write, I am saying not only I am here with you, but let’s make something together. A contemporary of German-American sculptor Eva Hesse said that Hesse believed art was in the making and what was leftover was the artifact. I subscribe to that. I also subscribe to the phenomena of “beholder’s share”—that art is in some sense a collaborative process. Ernst Kris and Ernst Gombrich, two psychoanalysts and art historians, asserted that a work of art is inherently ambiguous, and therefore each person who sees it has a different interpretation. That is to say, perception—experiencing what the artist made—is itself a creative process. If “an artifact is an object made or shaped by human hand while art is (uncountable) the conscious production or arrangement of sounds, colors, forms, movements, or other elements in a manner that affects the sense of beauty,” then art is indeed in the making—the making done by the original maker, as well as the making done by those who experience what was first made.
It is this co-creation that most excites me about writing. I am amazed by what can be created when another person reads a poem. Things are totally out of my hands at that point, which means that creation is unfettered and has a life of its own. For me, that is the miracle of art. Of course, in order for such co-creation to happen, the book needs to get out, which means that I have a responsibility to attend to the business side, i.e., readings, promotion, etc.
Since the publication of my first book, I was surprised with a National Endowment of the Arts fellowship, as well as a Poetry Society Association Robert H. Winner Award for poems that are in Wider than the Sky. Both of these are an amazing gift of affirmation that makes me more confident as a writer with respect to my seat at the table in the literary conversation. The selection of my second manuscript as a winner of the Diode Editions Book Award is another gift of affirmation. I am honored by these affirmations and strive to live up to the faith placed in my work, to dig even deeper into the creative process, to give back to the literary arts and writing community as I am able, and to make a difference and help other writers where I can.
Nancy Chen Long is the author of Light into Bodies (University of Tampa Press, 2017), winner of the Tampa Review Prize for Poetry, as well as the chapbook Clouds as Inkblots for the War Prone (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2013). She is the recipient of a National Endowment of the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship. Her work was selected as the winner of the 2019 Poetry Society of America Robert H. Winner Award and featured in Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, and Indiana Humanities. She works at Indiana University in the Research Technologies division. nancychenlong.com
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