Colorado Poets Center E-Words Issue #12

Sediment: An Interview with Sandy Tseng

Bob King: Many of your poems here deal with leaving a city or country or arrive at another or being midway between the two. This seems to be the subject of the whole book and surely this is your personal experience. How has your life affected your poetic theme or practice?

Sandy Tseng: I grew up as a third culture kid.  My parents were immigrants from Taiwan who settled in the US and then later moved to Hong Kong for a few years before coming back. We traveled from one country to another more often than some people traveled from state to state, and I had the opportunity to live in different cultures.  All of these experiences have influenced my writing.  I kept a lot of journals, but it wasn’t until years later that some of these memories inspired poems. 

BK: In changing countries, you encounter changing languages. “For each new word, we lose one,” you write in one poem. Poetry, of course, depends upon language so how have your own experiences or poetic practice been affected by your particular experience of language/languages?

ST: I’m bilingual, and I know fragments of a third and fourth language, but I can only write in one of those languages.  When you live in another country and hear its language day after day, you begin to think in that language.  At one point I studied abroad in Beijing for an entire semester, and there were times I had to think really hard for a word I knew existed in English, but I couldn’t for the life of me recall.  Other times there were no accurate translations to an expression I had been using.  There was a pantoum I had written about a Chinese painting of some mountains in Xi’an, and I just couldn’t do the poem justice writing it in English (even though I didn’t know how to write it in Mandarin either).  It had been under revision for several years, and I couldn’t bear to throw it out.  It stayed in the manuscript until the very last minute before I turned in the final edits to my editor, and finally I threw it out, along with a few other poems that were also having issues.

BK: Of this book, Lynn Emanuel says “Only what is necessary survives in these poems,” and that reminded me of an element of your poems I don’t quite know how to describe. Although they involve personal experiences (your own journeys, a flood, your husband working a nightshift at a hospital or maybe as a paramedic, that kind of thing. You don’t specify particular locations or relationships so the autobiographical elements seem to be almost buried beneath the poem. Or, rather, the poem rides a level above autobiographical fact. Does this make sense? Do you know what I’m trying to say and can you comment on it?

TS: I can’t claim that any of my poems are completely and truthfully autobiographical.  While poems may be inspired by life experiences, there is always an element of imagination and creativity.  In poetry, I’m not as concerned with presenting a story accurately as I am presenting something compelling to the reader, something that resonates and causes someone to return to a poem again and again.  I also want to create poetry that other people can relate to, that can be read in more than one way.  When I visited a poetry workshop at the University of Pittsburgh, for instance, the students in the worship discussed their readings of “Songs of Barnacles” and who the “we” referred to.  One possibility offered a more metaphorical reading of the collective “we”.  I’m always delighted when my writing can move beyond the autobiographical experience into something larger than myself—I feel that although writing is often inspired by personal experiences, the ultimate challenge is to turn it into something larger.  Few people’s lives are so interesting that a reader desires to be immersed in it from cover to cover.

BK: About three-fourths of the poems here utilize stanzas (couplets, tercets, quatrains and some alternatives of your own, such as a one-line stanzas followed by a couplet with that form repeating itself). In others, the stanzas seem to be paragraph-like, my phrase for an end-stopped stanza that completes its idea. Can you say something about your sense of stanzas, how you use them, what you see as the poetic advantages?

ST: I played flute and piccolo for many years and still continue to listen to classical music occasionally.  Some of my methodology in stanza usage may be attributed to this influence from music.  Sometimes I do use stanzas to complete an idea and I see them as a movement—similar to the way movements are separated in a symphony.  One way to emphasize something is to create a pause.  I see stanzas and line breaks as alternate ways to pace the poem and create emphasis. 

After teaching freshman composition, I’ve lost some respect for punctuation and its ability to function as I want it to rather than the way a set of rules dictates.  I try to keep punctuation sparse in a poem while utilizing other methods controlling the pace and movement.  I create one line stanzas for emphasis on a particular line.  In the same way that the last word of a line is emphasized, a stanza with only one line is emphasized because of the space around it. 

BK: Do you have a ‘set process’ or generally habitual experience in your writing of poetry, from notes or inspiration to final product?

ST: I write regularly in a poetry journal—keep track of words, phrases, or lines I read or hear that have inspired me throughout the day.  When I get a larger chunk of time (4 hours or more), I sit down to write an initial draft of a poem.  Typically my first draft will sit for a week or more before I return to it.  The more I have revised a piece of work, the longer it has to sit between revisions in order for me to view it with fresh eyes.  “Night Shift” was originally a series of five sonnets that I revised over a period of five years.  “Sediment” was originally four separate poems written after four different events that came together last minute as my editor and I were brainstorming for a title for the book. 

BK: You acknowledge Lynn Emanuel for offering wisdom and guidance as your teacher and mentor. Can you identify some of that “wisdom and guidance” for us?
ST: Lynn Emanuel has always been and continues to be interested in my work and the decisions I make as a writer.  Her wisdom and guidance has been more on a personal level for specific circumstances than it has been general wisdom I could offer to a wide audience.  However there are two important lessons I learned as a graduate student in the MFA program.  I realized the impact of reading widely and excessively.  When there are only a set number of free hours a week, it may be tempting to spend that time writing, but I’ve found that making the time to read work by other poets has strengthened my own work.  When we combine reading with writing, it is also like entering a conversation with these other poets.  Secondly, I realized that I don’t have to be confined to writing poetry.  One of my largest breakthroughs in writing poetry came during the semester I took a creative nonfiction writing course.  We are all drawn to writing because we want to express something.  In poetry, sometimes that desire to express gets in the way because what I want to express isn’t particularly good for the poem or what the poem wants to express.  I found that nonfiction was a great genre to express what I wanted, and then I could go back and work on perfecting the craft in my poetry. 

BK: And what are you working on now?

ST: Well, speaking of nonfiction, in recent months, I started a book of nonfiction about the Denver medical team’s trip to Haiti five days after the earthquake.  It’s a very different kind of project than poetry or even an autobiographical piece.  I’ve gotten myself a digital recorder to conduct interviews.  A lot of the writing is interrupted by fact checking, so it’s slow going.  Maybe I don’t quite have the process down yet. 

And then, of course, I’m also working on my second collection of poems.  I wish I could be one of those poets with a project in mind, but unfortunately I’m one of those who writes aimlessly before discovering the direction of the book.