On Publishing My Chapbook with Frontier— an Interview with Xiao Yue Shan
Winner of the 2018 Frontier Chapbook Contest, Xiao Yue Shan chats with us about the process of getting her work out into the most possible hands (digital and otherwise). Shan’s chapbook, How Often I Have Chosen Love, won $2000 and publication of a free-to-download digital chapbook. Already, we’ve seen thousands of readers reading her work on Frontier, and we can’t wait to find out what she does next. Submit to the 2019 contest here, closes May 15, judged by Jericho Brown.
What’s the origin story of your chapbook, How Often I Have Chosen Love? How did it begin and when did you know it was a chapbook?
Xiao Yue Shan: The poems included in the chapbook were written between the years of 2015 and 2017, a large portion being born out of my last semesters at university. I had never intended to insert any sort of chronology within it, but it naturally came about as a result of geography– I wanted to create a cartography of language through the places I had travelled & lived in my lifetime, and as a result compiled this collection of poems which (I hope) both individually pay tribute to and coalesce those places into one cohesive body of work. My poems are very much informed by physicality, so I wanted to both start and end with a distinct consideration of how it is to be fully aware of a space. So it is that we begin in Tiananmen Square with one of my first memories, and we settle in the brief in-between quietudes of Tokyo, where I am now. It wasn’t a chapbook, really, until I had that almost subconscious impulse.
What was the journey like between completion and acceptance? Was it out there for a while before you showed it to us?
Some of these poems were floating around in various literature journals and compilations, but never in its totality until I passed it to you. Everytime I arrange a series of poems it comes out differently, because each poem has various facets that speak louder or softer depending on the moment of reading. Once How Often was finished I set it aside and continued working– my writing process includes very little revision. I rarely return to the poem, and most of them are written in one sitting.
What was the most exciting part of the publication process, and the most difficult?
I’m an impatient person. When I first learned of the chapbook’s acceptance I said that because poetry is the best gift I have been given, it was such a pleasure for me to be able to give it in return. So waiting for release was difficult. The most thrilling aspect was definitely working with the people at Frontier Poetry who really believed in the collection, and really wanted to give it an impactful release, and were so generous with their time and efforts.
A lot of poets struggle to take on criticisms of their work—how have you come to feel about revising your work with an editor?
It was actually a relief for me to get criticism, as I worry about the communicative aspect of my work sometimes. For poems that are of a more political nature (as quite a few of the poems in this chapbook are), I’m wary of ornate language or intricate metaphors interfering with the content. I tend to take myself too seriously when I’m shaping a line, in that I’ll change single words around to play with pitch or rhythm or complexity, and I forget about the line, because I love the verbiage, I love seeing colours. In the first poem, “when I was four years old my parents took me to tiananmen square”, there is a line that goes; “with noonshine sounding copper / on my wrists”, and I remember when someone first read this poem, they asked me what this line means. To me, it was very obvious that it meant the sun drawing the metal tang of blood to the surface of the skin, but I also realized how oblique that reference is. Of course, not everything in a poem has to be understood, and obviously, I didn’t change that line, but feedback between a writer and a good editor is a conversation that results in the essence of the poem being given body. Everything else is ego.
What’s been the best experience born of the published chapbook that you’ve had so far?
I live inside this chapbook. It is a record of my living. Displaying that in a publication is the antithesis of voicelessness and facelessness; it’s an evidence of presence, a material presence I have always worked to instill. I’m immensely proud to have released this, and of the amazing reception it has received. Poetry has a limited audience, and a chapbook usually casts a narrow net, but Frontier’s platform is so extensive and so various. Getting praise from Mai Der Vang and Victoria Chang was surreal. I’ve received messages from fellow poets and tremendous encouragement. A woman in Singapore even reached out to ask if she could teach “the nation of aphasia” in her class, which is incredible.
What advice do you have for writers who are putting together their work for a submission?
From an editorial standpoint, variations in POV have been something that I’ve somewhat insisted on in the past. Unless the collection is united under a single concept, the perspective of single point of view can begin to feel claustrophobic. Widening the lens or subverting it can instill a sense of the written world. Also, I think everyone probably gives this piece of advice, because it’s the only one that’s universally applicable, but: read the work aloud from beginning to end after compiling it. The music naturally arises with the voice. A line that lies beautifully flat on the page can fall equally flat on the ear, and that’s a bad line.
Read Shan’s winning chapbook here!