Poet Spotlight: Jenna Le on Whales, Womanhood, and the Writing Life

Jenna LeJenna Le lives and works a as a physician in New York and writes poetry, fiction, essays, criticism, and translations, which have been published in numerous periodicals, both in print and online. She is the author of two full-length collection of poems, Six Rivers (NYQ Books, 2011) and A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora (Anchor & Plume Press, 2016). She has been a winner and finalist of multiple awards, including the Minnetonka Review Editor’s Prize, the Pharos Poetry Competition, and the William Carlos Williams Poetry Competition, among others.

Her poetry has been described as visually precise, culturally aware, poignant, sensual, intriguing. In this interview, she speaks about her most recent collection, her writing process, and about the inherently political ways human beings relate to the natural world.

Your most recent book of poetry is A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora. Tell us a bit about this project and how it came about.

Well, my first book of poetry, Six Rivers, came out in 2011. In the years that followed, I wrote a poem here, a poem there, without any conscious thought of putting a second collection together. As this stack of poems grew, I became increasingly interested by the puzzle of how to tie them all together. I had many, many false starts: I initially thought about using superheroes as the unifying theme for this book (I’m crazy about superhero stories!). Another idea I considered was to organize the collection around the idea of diseases that are transmitted from mother to child, both literal and figurative.

But the obsession with whales snuck up on me, unexpectedly liberating me from the mother-child dyad that had structured my way of looking at the world for so long. I found myself writing more and more poems about the shadowy idea of the whale and what it meant to me. There was something deliciously anarchic about it; it let me rewrite stories that had grown old to me through familiarity in a fresh way. Eventually the sheer preponderance of whale poems in the collection left me with no choice but to make that the central conceit of the book.

A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora-JennaLeThe collection incorporated sea-based mythology. What was it about the images and stories of wales and sea life inspired you to exploration themes of immigration and the female body? Or was the inspiration reversed, the themes drawing up images of sea life?

I think that because I’m a woman and a daughter of immigrants, the themes of womanhood and immigrant life were always there for me, shaping the way I see things, including the whales and other marine paraphernalia that populate my book. I was having a conversation the other day with a fellow poet on the subject of dogs, and I was explaining to him that my view of dogs has been colored by many things: my past personal experiences with dogs, yes, but also the economic circumstances in which my parents brought me up, the condition of being a racial minority in America, malicious stereotypes depicting Asians as dog-eaters, etc. And someone who heard us having this conversation chimed in with a remark to the effect of “I can’t believe anyone would politicize dogs in such a way!” But the way I see it, there was no politicization going on. The politics were already there. The connections were already there. The connections that link us humans — social creatures living under political systems within history — to the things of the world, those connections exist, and the ability to not see those connections is a luxury not available to everyone in equal measure. When I talk about whales in my poems, I can’t help but also talk about other things I’ve seen and known, things that have shaped my perspective on the world.

Your poetry incorporates rhyme and rhythm, playing with more formal structure in new ways. How do you determine what form is best for a poem? Does it come naturally through the first draft or do you figure out the form while editing?

It’s often a subconscious or intuitive determination, rather than a conscious decision. Often, the first line of a poem will “magically” take form in my brain in the absence of any conscious volition on my part, and an appropriate form for the poem will just sort of suggest itself at that point. For example, if that “magically” conceived first line happens to be in iambic pentameter, and if I can hazily picture the poem in my head as a short lyrical argument, the poem will end up taking the form of a sonnet. I find myself writing a lot of sonnets without intending to, because the sonnet form is so versatile and so fitting for so many different kinds of thoughts: there have been several occasions when I’ve shot off a short email to a friend or posted a Facebook comment on somebody’s wall, only to think to myself immediately afterward, “Man, this would make a great sonnet!” And all I have to do is add line breaks here and there, and poof! I’ve got myself a sonnet.

I rarely change the form of a poem in any drastic way after the first draft is done. The one major exception is when I’ve written a free verse poem or a prose poem that strikes me as being too verbose, too baggy or blobby or flabby; in such cases, I’ll often challenge myself to rewrite the poem as a sonnet, in order to force myself to be more concise and more thoughtful about my word choices. This trick often works wonders, and I recommend that everyone try it at least once!

Having published two collections of poetry, what advice can you give to other poets about putting together a collection?

Even though I’ve published two books and read and critiqued many friends’ manuscripts-in-progress, I still feel like I know next to nothing about the process! I would recommend being very severe on oneself. Write a lot of poems, write as frequently as you can, but only green-light a poem for inclusion in your manuscript if it feels essential. Make sure the first and last poems are among your very strongest. Dividing the book into three or more sections is often a good idea because the average reader doesn’t have enough stamina to read a whole book in one go. If you do divide your book into sections, make sure the first and last poems of every section are strong. Finally, show your manuscript to others: an extra pair of eyes can help immeasurably. Throughout the many years I worked on putting my latest manuscript together, the input of fellow poets Austin Allen, Katharine Jager, Jimmy Pappas, Danny Earl Simmons, and Anton Yakovlev has been invaluable.

What is the favorite thing you’ve written or published so far? Why?

I’m proud of the poems that comprise A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora. Some poems in that collection to which I’m especially partial are “Mitsu,” “My Imaginary Life as a Narcoleptic,” “Baba Yaga,” and “Psych.” The latter three, especially, have a sort of magical, sort of mythic dimension that I like. I like “Mitsu” because race is such a complex topic. I’m frustrated by many of the poems about race that I read because so many of them strike me as sanitized, with a tendency to gloss over the narrator’s complicity. I like to think that in “Mitsu” I depict a facet of race relations that gets ignored in many other race poems: namely, the ways that a culture of racism affects how people of color interact with other people of color.

One of my favorite of my own poems, one that I didn’t include in A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora because it didn’t fit in thematically, is “I, Casimir Zorawski, a Mathematician of Poland,” which was published in the online journal Waccamaw. I like how that poem mingles mathematics and eros, personal growth and regret. I like poems that integrate and connect across seemingly unrelated domains of thought and feeling.

What are you currently reading?

I am currently reading Ocean Vuong’s just-released debut collection Night Sky With Exit Wounds. Even though there is some overlap in the subject matter that he and I write about (we are both Vietnamese-Americans born in the 1980s), there are vast differences in our approaches, and I love seeing how he approaches subjects like war refugeeism, bilingualism, and tortured family dynamics. There is so much love and daring, so much risk-taking and unabashed romanticism, in his work. Before that, I read two unputdownable novels, Alexander Chee’s The Queen of the Night and Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You.

Do you feel community is important as a writer? How do you stay connected?

You know, I began writing poetry when I was 13 or so, and for the first eight years of my writing life, I wrote in complete solitude. I didn’t show my writing to a single other soul, not counting four or five occasions when I submitted poems for publication — and was rejected. And you know, I learned a lot from that period of isolation. It was a critical part of my development as a writer. It instilled courage in me, the courage to allow myself to be strange and intense and honest about my deepest concerns without fear of external judgment. But even during those years when I was writing in solitude, I was still immersing myself in the wider community of writers through reading the poetry of other poets.

I think solitude is important, but community is also important. Being an active participant in a living community of writers can teach you important skills, like how to be kind, how to verbalize one’s reactions to other people’s poetry without being an asshole, and how to shush one’s inner goody-goody — you know, the part of your brain that wants to be the best and smartest person in the room, the part that waves its hand in the air like Hermione Granger on amphetamines, saying, “This or that poem is no good at all, and I’m going to enumerate the reasons why, because I’m so much cleverer than you.” When I was a brash young college kid, my inner goody-goody held the reins. I like to think a humbler, more compassionate part of my brain holds the reins now, and for this I give thanks to my community for guiding me toward a more mature selfhood.

To stay connected, I’ve wholeheartedly embraced social media: I’m very active on Goodreads, for instance. When I love a poetry book I’ve read, I use Goodreads and every other means in my power to spread the word to everyone I know. Occasionally, I write professional book reviews, too. I also like email. And Facebook! Some of the best people I know are people I met on the internet.

Name one poet no one knows but should.

I’m fascinated by the late Bulgarian poet Blaga Dimitrova. I have a poem about her in my new book, actually. I’m intrigued by how she brought poetry and politics together in her life.

What can the world expect from you in the future?

I would love to write more prose. I wrote a personal essay that appears in the current issue of Specs Journal, and writing it was such a roller-coaster ride for me. I’d like to do more of that. Hopefully in the future you’ll see more personal essays from me, and more prose fiction as well.