Five Questions with Jennifer Tseng
Could you talk a little about the creative path you’ve taken—were you always interested in the arts?Tseng
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?Tseng
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?Tseng
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?Tseng
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?Tseng
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.
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