This fall’s WOMAN WARRIOR is poet Jenna Le author of Six Rivers (NYQ Books, 2011) which was a Small Press Distribution Poetry Bestseller, and A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora (Anchor & Plume Press, 2016), which won 2nd Place in the 2017 Elgin Awards. Her poetry, fiction, essays, criticism, translations, and visual art have appeared in many places including AGNI Online, Bellevue Literary Review, The Best of the Raintown Review, Denver Quarterly, The Los Angeles Review, and Massachusetts Review. A daughter of Vietnamese refugees, she has a B.A. in mathematics and an M.D. and lives and works as a physician in New Hampshire.
1. Describe a challenge you face and how you address this.
Making time, and mental space, for a writing life is tricky, especially if you also have “full-time” school or professional commitments. What works for me is structure—setting regular, achievable, measurable writing goals: e.g., “This week, I will write at least 20 usable lines of poetry.” Rags of time lie all around for the taking, if one isn’t above snatching them from the muck of gutters: the noon hour, the morning and afternoon commutes. I’ve written poems in fierce 30-minute spurts during lunchtime; once, I wrote a poem using my thumbs and the “Memos” app on my cell phone while zigzagging, rabbit-like, down the sidewalk leading from my workplace to my home after dusk. Another time, I composed a sonnet in my head while showering.
And having other writers in my life helps me stay accountable. Every year, I participate in National Poetry Writing Month with a group of other writers because its outrageousness gives me life; its routine, paradoxically, fuels my passion. I’m not beneath using prompts as stepping stones to keep from going under. Sometimes the wispy germinal idea for a poem needs to be combined with a completely orthogonal prompt—perhaps a formal prompt, such as a received form or rhyme scheme—before it begins to seem like a three-dimensional entity into which life can be breathed. The rabbit poem I mentioned above was born when I forcibly combined two disparate elements: a character I’d been turning over and over in my mind for months, and a completely unrelated prompt involving a painting. Such unnatural pairings, juxtapositions, hybridizations are among my favorite writing tools: they take me places I never expected to go.
2. Can you share thoughts about your latest work?
A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora is a poetry collection exploring the experiences of immigrant families through the lenses of whale imagery and bird imagery. The book recently won 2nd Place in the Elgin Awards from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association, an honor that initially surprised me because the book’s reception had previously focused largely on its more autobiographical and ethnographical aspects. I’m thrilled, though, that the book’s melding of science and fantastical fictions, its nods at sources ranging from the Bible to Greek mythology to Longfellow’s Hiawatha to folklore from Russia and Japan to original new myths, are also being seen and recognized.
3. What advice do you have for a struggling writer?
People struggle as writers for various reasons—the universal reasons having to do with the search for truth and the most beautiful words to express it in, but also reasons having to do with differences in economic and educational background, gender, race, disability, and more. The writing field is unfortunately subject to all the same power imbalances as other fields. I’ve been in countless literary spaces where I was the only writer of color, repeatedly mistaken for other writers whose skin tone was somewhat similar to mine, not listened to, disbelieved, or else excluded from other rooms because I was not the kind of writer of color that people wanted: not extroverted or performative enough, or what-have-you. It can be hard, availing yourself of opportunities without letting yourself be tokenized or used in a way that degrades you, shepherding your finite inner resources and making them available to only those people who really value you. But there are moments when I feel optimistic that we are living at an inflection point, that before our eyes the literary landscape is finally starting to expand access to its opportunities, and I am excited.
4. Finances: Any advice for women who write?
It’s easy to get lowballed if you don’t know how much money others in your field are being offered, and the only way to find out is to get down in the dirt and talk. We all should support the creation and maintenance of networks wherein women—including women of color and other often-marginalized groups of women—feel safe talking openly and sharing this kind of information with one another. We should support initiatives that do the difficult legwork, collecting and disseminating data on where the financial disparities, and other disparities, lie.
5. Comments on mental, physical, or emotional health?
Devoting time and resources to your own well-being is not a weakness. When it comes to this, it does not pay to compare yourself with others. Perhaps a man you know will brag, “I never needed to step back and focus on my emotional or mental well-being….” That is he. You are you. You have your own journey. As needed, dissociate from the competition churning discordantly around you. The phrase rat race has a grubby sound to it. Blue whales do not race in search of krill: filter-feeders, they simply open their mouths and eat. Find a system that works for you, be it medical or non-medical, spiritual or non-spiritual, so long as it is a system that serves and honors you and not merely the other way around; then open your mouth and eat.