As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I knew from the age of six that I wanted to be a writer. At that point, I thought being a writer meant writing fiction. I wrote stories and illustrated them, first on paper, later on my father’s manual typewriter. I think I was seven when I started attempting poetry, then kept writing both, only giving up fiction in my mid-twenties. By early adulthood, I knew that poetry came more naturally, that my focus was more on language than on character or plot, but I fought the notion that I might be “just” a poet. I wanted to write in a genre that was widely read and might earn money. But while fiction writers sell more books than poets, most don’t live on their writing, either. It’s just as well I went with my strengths.
What was the most transformative course from your undergraduate education?
There were so many, I’m tempted to call it a five-way tie among various language courses, poetry workshops, and religion courses, but if I had to name one, it might be “The Sacred Geography of Traditional China,” which brought all of those strands together. It contained several of the elements that informed my development as a poet: interaction between languages, imagining China, and a focus on tangible things, such as mountains, flora, and fauna, in the service of understanding the ineffable. I wouldn’t have been able to explain it at the time, but having spent my formative years imagining China – this place I had never seen, this place that had made my parents – I was fascinated to discover that the discipline of East Asian Studies existed: people made careers out of something that had been the backdrop to my whole life. Of course, they were doing research while I was doing something vague and ill-defined, but when I sat at a table in the reading room in the Harvard-Yenching Library and opened a writing notebook, I felt an affinity with the others in that room.
What role has your liberal arts education played in the development of your career as a poet? Why do you think Phi Beta Kappa and a well-rounded arts and sciences education are important in today’s society?
I was fortunate to have gone to college already knowing knowing that I wanted to write. Since there’s no set course of study for becoming a creative writer, the liberal arts education allowed me to study whatever would help me identify and articulate what my writing might be for – to find my subject, as the expression goes, even though poetry is seldom “about” a particular thing. Now that I advise undergraduate students, I know that liberal arts students are there to learn how to learn: how to evaluate sources, how to think critically and creatively, how to reconcile contradictory ideas, and how to write well – which means being able to imagine what is going on in the mind of the reader. Phi Beta Kappa recognizes students whose record embodies these principles, which are different from simply being smart or mastering a body of knowledge. There are not many other places where this form of recognition occurs. I graduated from college without completing my major, East Asian Languages and Civilizations, which I loved but for a variety of reasons didn’t see through to the last requirement. Phi Beta Kappa didn’t hold that against me.
Your latest poetry collection, Peach State, was published this past year. What does the day-to-day of work being a poet entail? What do you enjoy most about your career?
Although the poetry world has a few superstars, it’s extremely rare for a poet to make a living from books or speaking engagements; almost all poets do something else. For me and many others, teaching is a meaningful way to support writing. Although I often have to put writing aside for teaching, advising, and administrative tasks, writing poems is in my job description. There are sabbaticals; there is support for writing-related travel; I get to choose all the books I assign. I thrive in a college setting, with its libraries, intellectual conversations, guest lecturers, people from all over the world, and undergraduate students who ask broad questions faculty might forget to ask ourselves if we lived fully inside our disciplines. What I enjoy most about being a poet is connecting with other poets and their poems – seeing our solitary labor turn into human connection. Those connections often outlive the poet. I’ve been to many tributes to late poets and am always amazed by how fully one person’s work – even when it attracted less critical attention than it deserved – touched other lives and helped beget other creative work.
What was the best advice you were ever given and who gave it to you?
Like the courses, this is hard to narrow down, but the advice that comes immediately to mind was given by one of my graduate-school mentors at the University of Virginia, Gregory Orr, who said, “Poems aren’t made of ideas; they’re made of words.” The remark didn’t unleash a torrent of poems; rather, it stuck with me permanently. I think of it when I fall into the trap of believing that I need an idea – a concept, a topic, a principle – to start writing creatively. Often, a writer’s notion of what a piece of writing is going to say is static, which makes the writing unexciting. If you pay close enough attention to the words you’re choosing, or simply follow a word that’s haunting you, rather than holding fast to the idea you think you need to communicate, you may surprise yourself. Formal constraints such as rhyme can also head off well-intended but predictable statements. Having to write a line that ends in something that rhymes with “California” sends your mind to new places.
Phi Beta Kappa’s motto is “the love of learning is the guide of life,” and we are dedicated to life-long learning. What do you want to learn next?
Now that so much of what we do has gone online, my wrists are complaining, so I’m learning to navigate my computer by voice. The experience has heightened my empathy for those who must rely on accessibility tools all the time; although speech recognition is sometimes miraculous, it can be immensely frustrating. I’ve also gained greater understanding of the writing process: for me, thinking on the page is a physical process involving the hands. I can’t dictate a good sentence, though maybe one day I will get there. The thought-process difference between pen and keyboard is substantial, as is the difference between cursive and print writing. I’m sorry so many schools have stopped teaching cursive.
What book(s) are you reading right now? Are you listening to any podcasts or watching any shows? Anything you'd recommend?
Among others, I’m reading Louise Glück’s newest collection of poems, Winter Recipes from the Collective,
which refuses conventional narrative while offering particulars that suggest a lived life. It feels as worldly as it does otherworldly. And it does invoke “recipes,” another passion of mine. As many cookbooks as poetry books are piled around me; most recently, I picked up Mister Jiu’s in Chinatown
by Brandon Jew. While most of the recipes are labor-intensive enough that I’m unlikely to make them, I’m fascinated by the mixing and remixing the dishes demonstrate, breaking down popular notions of Chinese food and constructing something new that’s nonetheless shaped by Chinese culinary aesthetics.
Horrified by the war in Ukraine, I’ve recently listened to more news and political analysis than usual, especially the BBC’s "Global News" Podcast, The New Yorker’s "Politics and More," and "The Argument" from the New York Times. The language is not poetic, but part of a poet’s job is to observe. The poet’s response may be indirect and, in a journalistic sense, untimely, but because war will unfortunately always be with us, the search for language that makes something comprehensible out of the incomprehensible remains essential.
I’ve also been listening to the Poetry Foundation’s “Audio Poem of the Day”; recent picks that resonated were Philip Levine’s “During the War,” Mark Halliday’s “Poetry Failure,” and Paisley Rekdal’s “Happiness.”
April is National Poetry Month. Who are other poets that inspire you and your work?
This is always a hard question because I know I will leave so many out, but here are a few from over the years: I treasure Lucie Brock-Broido’s blending of the morbid and the hilarious; Stanley Kunitz’s rigorous honesty; my late friend Claire Kageyama-Ramakrishnan’s imagery and formal mastery; Gerald Stern’s exuberance and affirmations. Thanks to Zoom, several excellent poets made virtual visits to my classes in the last two years: Rick Barot, Rita Dove, Denise Duhamel, Shara McCallum, Mark Halliday, Martha Silano, Mark Wunderlich. Classes are back in person now, but we are still beaming in poets from afar; coming up are virtual visits by Faith Shearin and Natasha Trethewey, plus an in-person visit by Jan Wagner, the current Max Kade Writer-in-Residence at Dickinson College. Sharing the company of poets I admire with my students occupies its own category of meaningful connection. It brings back my own early excitement upon meeting poets and realizing that literature – a term generally associated with dead, superhuman personalities – is made by living, breathing, and perfectly human human beings.