A Poem & Five Questions with

Poetry / Jennifer Tseng

Please ask your mother one more time to drop the warrant for my arrest.

I’m fifteen.
In a year
Someone will climb through my window & kiss
Every soft part of me.
Nights, I’ll lie in the dark listening.
Jays will sing in the white star jasmine, sparrows will sing in the Valencia tree & I’ll wait
Awake for the knock on the glass
That will change everything.
But on the day I receive your letter,
I’m fifteen.
I like to run.
I like to speak French.
I like to lie on the sand in the sun.
These are things I’d rather do.
You are living alone
In a strange place
Writing to me.
You have no one else.
You say please, something you never say in real life,
Something you never say
Outside your letters.
I’m inside your letters.
The sentence is a plea
& a command. Although
You are desperate,
You are still my father.
You say one more time as if
I’ve already tried & have failed.
I’ve forgotten what I did or didn’t do.
I can’t remember fifteen.
I remember sixteen.
Those kisses arrest every moment of my experience
In a body that eats & cries out & has memories & warrants your attention.
Does it matter now, if I asked her?
It’s over. I’m asking you
One more time, to drop it.
I promise you won’t go to jail.
You can visit any time
Of the year. 请进, 请坐.
Come in, sit down.
Have some peanuts.
Have some tea. Look,
Your letters are on the table,
Your photos, in the album
For us to admire.
See? We’re talking.
Say anything you want.
There’s nothing to fear.
No one will know
You’re here.

Five Questions with

Could you talk a little about the creative path you’ve taken—were you always interested in the arts?

Growing up in a not-so-harmonious bilingual (English & Mandarin) household, in a predominantly white, English-speaking town, I became highly attuned to language at an early age. I learned very quickly about words and their power to wound, to misrepresent, to please, to shame, to valorize, to cut down. I witnessed firsthand how often words, like arrows, come close, but not close enough, to their marks. As a child, I was also a classically-trained pianist. From about age seven on, I wrote songs. From there, it wasn’t a far leap to poetry. For me, poetry was another branch of the same tree.

Are there any books or writers that have particularly influenced your writing?

I find it difficult to name, with certainty, books or writers that have particularly influenced my writing. But I can tell you about books/writers that have influenced my thinking. (Though that’s difficult too in a different way—there are so many!) The Lover by Marguerite Duras was a pivotal book for me. Not only is it beautifully written—ravishing really—as a young person I was helplessly drawn to it because it was the first time I’d ever encountered a pair of lovers who remotely resembled my parents. The complexity of the power relations between my parents, it’s all there in The Lover. Another important book for me was Sigrid Nunez’s A Feather on the Breath of God. It too is both beautiful and represents with such depth & cunning, the life of a multiracial family, if not one like mine, then one more like mine than any I’d ever read about. Thankfully, as readers, we don’t require exact mirrors. That would be awfully dull anyway, if it were possible.

Could you tell us what a typical day looks like for you? Do you have any particular routines or practices?

The one practice I rely on regardless of my often unpredictable work schedule, is getting up early, before everyone else. That is, everyone except our cat Didi who is, in his way, an essential part of my practice & who gets up as soon as I do. We climb into the window seat, he climbs into my lap & goes back to sleep while I read & write. If I have this time (every once in a while, I fail to rise or am intercepted & it’s not pretty), then I feel ready to face almost anything. A sick child, a sudden deadline, a stressful call—if I’ve had my dose of early morning time, I’m good.

Would you mind telling us about what you’re working on at the moment?

I just finished a full-length poetry manuscript called Not so dear Jenny. I made the poems with my Chinese father’s English letters which he wrote to me over a period of twenty-some years. Although the manuscript is finished now, I’m still inside it. My glasses are still fogged by its breath.

Are you creatively satisfied or are there things you’d still like to work towards?

Creative satisfaction is paradoxical. What’s most satisfying to me creatively is the sense of constantly working towards something new, something else, something I can’t yet imagine.

Jennifer Tseng is the author of two award-winning poetry books and a novel. Her chapbook, Not so dear Jenny, featuring poems made in collaboration with her Chinese father’s English letters, won the Bateau Press Boom Chapbook Contest and is forthcoming in 2017. She currently teaches for the Fine Arts Work Center’s summer program, FAWC’s online writing program 24PearlSt, and for the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing.