Poet in the Mirror: Eugenia Leigh
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 month, Eugenia Leigh—author of Bianca (available now from Four Way Books)—shares insight into process, writing as an act of care, and the experience of her book’s reception, among other things.
On the In-Between
Huge congrats on Bianca! I’ve been reading your poetry online for a while now and it’s so exciting to be holding this book in my hands! I know this is your second book, and I’m curious: what was the in-between books period like for you? Do you have advice for writers trying to begin new projects?
Thank you for the congrats! The publication dates of my first and second books are about nine years apart, and the person I became at the end of those nine years is completely different from the person I was at the start. This means I had to find my voice all over again.
Also, in the middle of that time span, I entered a fallow period of about three years during which I did a lot of living and tending to myself but hardly wrote, hardly read, and completely cut myself off from my writing communities. Some writers come up with projects and then work toward that vision. I wish I could do this, but that hasn’t been my process yet. I tend to write first and then let the writing reveal to me what the “project” is, what the writing wants to become. I do more listening than plotting. So if I have to dispense advice, my very unsatisfying answer is to trust your own process and what works for you. Figure out what kind of writing practice or book-making practice gives you life and what kind drains you. Don’t pressure yourself into following someone else’s work rhythms.
Could you tell us a little bit about the assembly of this book? I was particularly curious about the prose poem/narrative that makes up the second section and the zuihitsu that kicks off the third section, in which we are introduced to the book’s framing persona, Bianca.
A few years after Blood, Sparrows and Sparrows was published, when I had about twenty percent of the poems that would make it into Bianca, I could sense a second book existed, but I thought the book I was writing was an entirely different one. Something more theoretical, more about the general human condition or about humanity’s relationship to the spiritual realm. Most of the poems during that season did not make it into the final book.
It wasn’t until the pandemic hit that I figured out the pulse of my next book. Mid-2020, I took an online workshop on “The Body Electric” with Traci Brimhall, and during the week that she focused on “pain” and the “pain scale,” one of our generative prompt options was to take a medical text and weave it into a poem. The poem I wrote became the first draft of “The Commitment to Living Contract,” which borrows language from a safety plan that my therapist made me fill out when my suicidal ideations became a real concern. Writing this poem put into focus the emotional impulse behind my favorite poems from my unmoored pile of work: I thought maybe I wanted my book to be about living and dying. How to live when you want to die. How to live when you’ve been almost killed. How to live when the life you’re living is not the one you imagined, et cetera.
Once I could make out this rough shape, I remembered my essay, “The Part of Stories One Never Quite Believes,” which hit this narrative directly. I’d actually written this essay only about a year after my first book was published. It was a stand-alone piece I wrote for a nonfiction workshop I took with Luis Alberto Urrea during my brief attempt at a PhD program. I never intended to include it in a book of poetry, but I was reading a lot of hybrid collections during the pandemic—The Undertaker’s Daughter by Toi Derricotte, Hybrida by Tina Chang—poetry collections that included prose. Those books gave me permission to put this essay into my manuscript. And once I did that, I remembered Bianca, who is unnamed in the essay but whose story that essay tells. So I set out to tell the story specifically of Bianca, of my experiences with naming my bipolar disorder when I didn’t have access to her “real,” “medical” name, which led to the zuihitsu. Then the zuihitsu gave me the light bulb moment: the book title was Bianca, I realized, which set the rest into motion. I could suddenly see the book, which made it easier to know which poems needed to be cut entirely and which others needed to be written.
Bianca contains a lot of narrative poems I would consider very emotionally brave/risk-filled for the speaker. How do you make sure you’re caring for yourself while writing poems like this?
I’m constantly surprised when I receive this question because for me, writing began as that act of care. The narratives in these poems exist in my life, in my body, in my brain. Whether or not I write them down, I’m forced to confront them and grapple with them. Writing poems that contain the “unspeakable” parts of our lives helps these memories become unstuck in our brains and in our bodies. They get digested, dispersed. And the final draft people get to see is almost never as detailed or as involved or as intimate as the original draft that was just me doing that work of processing on the page. Between the first and last draft is months, sometimes years, of revision. And for me, revising gives me a sense of control over my narrative. I get to decide what gets cut, what gets changed, what gets to stay. That taking back of power is a way of caring for myself.
On Energy and Creativity
What do you do to re-energize your creativity?
I wish I had a fancy answer, but the truth is when I am being fulfilled by music or art or film or books, I don’t usually feel the pull to write or to be creative myself. I feel inspired, but inspiration doesn’t translate easily into action for me. I often think, “Well this artist created this incredible, beautiful piece. So why should I bother making something when I can sit with and enjoy their creation, which feels enough for me in this moment.” This is probably some kind of heinous trauma response, but I actually feel the urgency to write or create most when I feel oppressed or suffocated or trapped in some part of my brain or in some part of my life. And in that dark hole, writing becomes the rope with which I pull myself out. I create when creation feels necessary. I feel Audre Lorde’s words deep in my gut—that “poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence.”
What was the most surprising thing—either a joyful one or a challenging one—about ushering this collection into the world?
I am surprised by the generous reception Bianca has received and that people are reading the book. I think disappearing for a few years from the writing world made me realize that we’re all replaceable and forgettable, and I feared I would make this new book, and no one would notice. In fact, I mentalized this fear so much that it became a weird reality for a while. For months before my publication date, when people asked if I was getting excited about my book launch, my reply was that I kept forgetting the launch was in the future and not in the past. I kept thinking the book was already out, but that not a single person had read it. My brain was overdoing its preparation for disappointment.
What is a popular craft advice that you don’t practice yourself? (Or, what is a craft advice you absolutely stand by?)
I believe the idea of “universal” or “popular” craft advice is more harmful than useful. We should study all manner of craft, yes, but I’m a firm believer that each poem dictates its own rules of craft depending on that poem’s goals. It’s far too limiting to subscribe to an idea of what “good craft” is and then try to apply that to every poem. The most irritating and unhelpful workshop discussions happen when we operate out of these self-imposed limitations.
I was talking to a poet friend the other day who is working on visual poetry. And I won’t name him, but even at a workshop for one of his prestigious fellowships, peers would fixate on where to start reading his visual piece as if they wanted to articulate some kind of chronology or narrative arc because they were mistakenly reading the piece the way they might read a poem made completely of text when they should have been looking at it like a portrait. Like a painting. Let the poem tell you what craft elements and tools are being used. And then evaluate whether the poem has achieved its own goals or can be revised to get there. No two poems abide by the same craft rules.
Eugenia Leigh is a Korean American poet and the author of two poetry collections, Bianca (Four Way Books, 2023) and Blood, Sparrows and Sparrows (Four Way Books, 2014). Poems from Bianca received Poetry magazine’s Bess Hokin Prize and have appeared in numerous publications including The Atlantic, The Nation, Ploughshares, and the Best of the Net anthology. Her essays have appeared in TIME, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Eugenia received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and serves as a Poetry Editor at The Adroit Journal and as the Valentines Editor at Honey Literary.