Prior to moving to New York City in 2015, I never considered myself an avid fan of poetry. I enjoyed the couplet-writing part of my schoolwork in elementary school, and I marveled at the Jaberwock in Lewis Carroll’s splendid bit of nonsense in ‘The Jaberwocky,’ but beyond that I didn’t really consider myself a true student of it. However, in the Autumn of 2016, I read E f g, a collective work of short stories and poetry by Valerie Hsiung, a Brooklyn poetess, whose stunning reworking of prose and syntax captivated me. I devoured her book, fascinated and puzzled by the text. I knew I needed to get more insight, so I am happy that I was able to conduct an interview with them for Black Nerd Problems. Please enjoy!
Black Nerd Problems: Let’s scope out your inner nerd. If you could brunch with one fictional character (Bloody Marys, eggs, the works), who would it be and why?
Valerie Hsiung: This one was hard for me because I had several solid picks, and my immediate inclination was to go with the most “badass fictional character” I could think of (a la Olivia Benson, Offred, Arya Stark, Mae Millay, Black Widow, Carrie, Storm), but then I realized I wouldn’t want to get BRUNCH with the most badass fictional character. I want to get BRUNCH with the most easy-to-be-around/hilarious character. And that would be Ilana Wexler.
BNP: Please tell us a little bit about yourself! Where are you from, what have you been doing, what do you study, etc.
Hsiung: I was born and raised in Cincinnati but other cities that have tremendously shaped me include Providence, Paris, Nice (and its surrounding mountainous villages), Los Angeles, and of course, the birthplace of my parents, Taipei and Hsinchu; as well as the homeland of my parents, the provinces of southern China. But in the past several years, I’ve come to call Brooklyn home. So that’s “where I’m from.” But I just came back from extensive traveling–a getaway to New Zealand and Australia with my mother and my sister, and before that, I was touring almost full-time for E f g so I was just bouncing from city to city, and the tour was consuming everything in my life for a while. Now I’m back in Brooklyn as I write these answers, and getting back into the swing of regular life. Doctors appointments, day job (as a matchmaker), emails, reading, writing. You could also say that I’m a student of yoga, so I’ll be getting back into the regular sweat routine soon as well.
BNP: What are some of your favorites on your bookshelf right now? What are you currently reading?
Hsiung: A combination of my current favorites and currently (re-)reading: Literally Dead by Sophia La Fraga (Spork press), HOUSES by Nikki Wallschlaeger (Horse Less Press), What My Hair Says About You by Laura Theobald (Metatron), Images for Radical Politics by Vanessa Jimenez Gabb (Rescue Press), Bestiary by Donika Kelly (Graywolf), As Long as Trees Last by Hoa Nguyen (Wave), Night Badly Written by Victor Rodriguez Nunez (Action Books)
BNP: For me personally, your newly published booked, E f g challenged my perception of conventional storytelling. How was your experience writing it, and why did you choose these specific ways to express yourself?
Hsiung: Thank you. E f g was written and edited over the course of almost half a decade and over a range of geographical and psychological states. And because it’s all over the map, physically and emotionally, I decided to arrange it as a three-part trilogy, to lend a sense of harmony and balance and structure. But, I chose to divide the contents into three sections titled I, III, I, to lend a sense of circulation between the future and the past, and to also invoke what’s missing.
With some of these poems, I kind of felt like I wasn’t in control of what the poem wanted me to write. In an exhilarating way. Like it really was the pen giving me an out-of-body experience, and so it felt beyond my control in a way. Of course with other poems, I feel like they are pieces of my flesh, they are not extensions, but compressions, of some essential element at the very core of my own self. So, in that way, you could say I choose the way to express myself in such and such poem. But I’m unsure how much is methodical and how much is gut instinct. That’s part of the mystery to which I keep going back for more.
BNP: Do you include any political or social commentary within your work? Do you find that you weave it in subtly, or do you make brash statements that are intentionally hard to miss?
Hsiung: I tend to mix both–subtle weavings and brash statements–together. And it’s probably my favorite when the both can exist together in a poem. But yes, since my first two books, and I think especially after E f g, the idea of not writing politically, of not writing with social commentary, has become an impossibility. The more I write, whatever I write, as long as I keep writing, the more I am and will be influenced by the songs and silences of revolution.
BNP: Any goals/plans for the future?
Hsiung: SO many! But mostly: Be a better activist/environmentalist/poet/sister/partner/yogi/friend. Hah! But really.