Poet in the Mirror: Jennifer Huang
We’re so proud to share some insight into the lives and hearts of today’s poets with our Poet In The Mirror series. This week, Jennifer Huang— author of Return Flight (available now from Milkweed Editions)— shares insight into writing about publishing a first book, writing toward the body, and the intimacies of the writing process.
On Submissions and Rejections
Congratulations on this beautiful book winning this wonderful prize! Do you mind sharing for our readers: What was Return Flight’s relationship to rejection? How long and what did it take to find a home?
I started submitting Return Flight in Fall 2020, and it took about 10 months for it to find a home. I submitted it to 10 places. It was a finalist for one prize but was rejected from the rest. By the time I received the call from Milkweed that my manuscript won the Ballard Spahr prize, my mind was already in big-haul editing mode—I saw the
previous rejections as feedback that my manuscript was perhaps not fully ready yet. As a poet/writer/artist, I am always prepared for rejection, but it was still hard to digest because the book is so personal to me. All in all, Return Flight found a home quicker than I thought it would, and I feel quite lucky.
On the Decision to Write
When did you decide to pursue poetry as a professional endeavor, and try to publish this book? What do you wish you knew between your book’s first and final drafts?
I decided to pursue poetry as a profession (which, to me, was the decision to apply to and go to an M.F.A. program) because the poems needed to be written. When I got an office job, I tried to “move on” from writing, but words kept coming to me. I knew that if I just had more time to write, something might come of it.
Silly as it may sound, I didn’t want to publish my book until I finally found the perfect title for it! The title was the last thing to fall into place before I felt fully confident in the project.
Between the first and final drafts, I wish I would have known how fast time would fly! And to remind myself to enjoy the writing process and the feeling of being so immersed and excited by a project.
On the Body
There are a few poems in this collection that I like to think about in my head as a little series: “I fear the baby,” written for Tai Shen, Goddess and Spirit Protector of the Unborn Child; “poem for giving birth;” “Ode to Menstruation;” and “Pleasure Practice.”
What advice would you give to emerging poets who might be grappling about writing the body and its gender(ed) identity?
I love that you saw those poems as being a part of a family! My advice would be to listen to what the body has to say. Like, really listen. I say this because for me, it can be easy to mistake the body’s voice for other voices—like those from family, societal conditioning, culture, others’ expectations, etc. Those voices are important to a
conversation at large, but they are not the body itself. So, have a conversation with the body. Experience sensation. Give the body what it wants (food, touch, love, sleep, heat). Write from there.
On Rest and Relief
In reading your “Notes” section (I love a hefty Notes section!), I was struck specifically by the moment of acknowledgement toward your mother for translating Taiwanese ghost and spirit stories for your poems. There is such tenderness in that action, such love and legacy. I can imagine that because of that familial connection, parts of this book were probably very difficult to write! How do you write through that? What do you do to re-
energize yourself during those moments?
I love this question! It got me thinking a lot about writing and publication. What kept me writing through difficult moments was, ironically, writing. Writing gives me relief. It helps me shift my perspective. The process of writing a poem—revisiting something over and over and crafting the lines, stanzas, sounds, narrative towards
artistic satisfaction—has allowed me to see some of my experiences through different eyes. At the end of the day, I write because of this kind of inner transformation I experience. It’s one way I process life—probably one of my favorite ways. So, it’s been a surprise to learn that publishing my poems and publicly sharing my work has
been even more difficult than the act of writing itself. I’m still trying to figure out how to re-energize through this part of the process. I do know that rest, turning off notifications, moving my body, talking to loved ones, and eating delicious foods helps.
Jennifer Huang is the author of Return Flight, which was awarded the 2021 Ballard Spahr Prize for Poetry from Milkweed Editions. Their poems have appeared in POETRY, The Rumpus, and Narrative Magazine, among other places. In 2020, Jennifer earned their M.F.A. in Poetry at the University of Michigan Helen Zell Writers’ Program. Born in Maryland to Taiwanese immigrants, they have since called many places home.
Saba Keramati is a Chinese-Iranian writer from the San Francisco Bay Area. A graduate of University of Michigan and UC Davis, her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and appears or is forthcoming in Michigan Quarterly Review, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Vagabond City Lit, and other publications. You can follow her on Twitter @sabzi_k.