Felicia Zamora is the author of three books of poetry and two chapbooks, but more than that, she is an incredible supporter and champion of the works of other writers in a way that makes her an astonishing ally and a valued friend. On poetry she is well-read and searingly intelligent. So of course, I asked her to read for us here at LE and I was excited to see who she would choose to share.
Zamora chose Jennifer S. Cheng’s book House A (Omnidawn) and read three poems for us from this gorgeous book, evidencing her incredible generosity.
Black: What a great choice. What made you choose Jennifer S. Cheng to share with us?
Zamora: Cheng writes, “children experience memories as image and sound, which is to say they experience them as poetry.” Here is a book that builds poetry, history, memory, and home—inside each page, each utterance of longing.
House A is one of those books I ordered because I am a fan of Omnidawn Publishing and appreciate the new voices they bring to the conversation from new and emerging poets. Reading other women poets of color is important to my own writing as I am fueled by the experiences and worlds being created by these poets. These are necessary voices. Voices we all must hear. I was only a few poems into Cheng’s epistolary “Dear Mao” sequence and I was thinking, “Wow, I wish I had written this” which is my telltale sign that I love a book.
Cheng weaves intricate images that make a reader fall into these letters of searching. In “Letters to Mao” she writes, “Lost: the dark / spot inside my mother’s throat. Lost: house inside my seams.” Home is in the flesh. Home is in the history of family and culture. Home is in “the dark silhouette of my mother’s hair” and how her father taught her “to listen to the inside of a seashell.”
Black: Is the entire book in epistolary form?
Zamora: The book comprises of three sections with only the first section comprising of epistolary poems. In the middle and third sections, Cheng explores how one studies and organizes memory and place. She asks the reader to consider how one creates a home from scratch. She never loses sight of the act of building home in all its bodily and worldly means.
In the second section, “House A; Geometry B”, she writes:
“…the body of articulation occurs through
let us iterate it until it is its own
baseline. dislocation a house. longing as
This is transcendent work that Cheng accomplishes throughout these pages. She requires readers to rethink how we conceive of “home.” We enter into the journey of searching, not just by language, but by the universal language of mathematics, or ‘geometry’, and through the construction of voice and images, that keeps swimming back to how one makes sense of rootedness and a lack of rootedness.
Again in “House A; Geometry B” she writes:
“the body of a house:
Black: Claudia Rankine said of the book, “Not since Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family and Calvino’s invisible Cities have I encountered such attention to the construction of love and love’s capacity to transform unimagined locations.” And I’m intrigued by the locations she talks of. Can you speak a little bit to the idea of place in Cheng’s work?
Zamora: It is through loss that the voice finds home in the everyday moments, finds place as something she can stow away into memory and carry with her. These are hard and beautiful poems born of necessity. Poems of a life in question of place. How do place and life come together? How does place etch inside us, leaving its mark? Cheng demonstrates how a body in longing plucks what it must, creates out from love new definitions of place.
“…home is a narrative we are both familiar/with…
So that ours was always a story of leaving and never an/
anchoring of place.”
As a reader, Cheng builds micro worlds in each poem in which readers are allowed to swim in and contemplate space and place. She creates a fluidity in both her ideas and her language. This book acts as history, like the water in our bodies, it stays with a person into memory.
In “Letters to Mao” she writes:
I hope you understand that what I am doing is trying to give you a history
of water, which, like memory and sleep, is fluid and wafting in refracted
light. History as water, so that I am giving you something that spreads.”
In many ways, these prose blocks transport and mimic the theme of the book: how home becomes that which we carry inside. How, “Such residue, the way a ghost becomes a blueprint.” There are historical vestiges of place inside those who long.
Cheng explores how displacement transforms a person, beyond a diasporic hunger of place, and the how the mind creates the necessary places for survival and love, in a world within us. However, even in the creation of, the voice is still haunted by history and absence; these ghosts in linger.
She says to Mao:
“…You were dust in my house. A
shadow underneath the floorboards.”
Black: What do you want to be certain a reader notices in this work?
Zamora: This is complex work: to unravel time and place in search of meaning in the journey of diasporic history, to speak of “the watery life of home” that goes beyond what Cheng says, “the ambiguity of homeland” that one does not possess in their own memory, for those memories belong to someone else. Connectivity to geography is that of spinning globes, tidewater, and ceramic horses.
“…For homeland is something embalmed
in someone else’s memory, or it is a symbol, both close the heart
and a stranger you reach for in the middle of the night.”
Black: Do you see connections between either the poet and yourself or her work and your own?
Zamora: In House A, Cheng uses the form of prose poetry in the first section of the book to explore an intricate weaving of thoughts in compiled letters to Mao. The language in these poems combine narrative and lyric in electrifying and transformative ways, as well as the necessity of the experience being written for the reader to share. She writes, “If I could take a shadow and sew it to another until it formed a roof above my head.” This building of images, I mean, wow; this is world-building.
I’ve been drawn to the prose and prose-ish poem in my own poetry, because of the work the form requires of a writer: intimate attention to both the line and the sentence in simultaneity, and the poet must consider the role of each of these elements and how they function cohesively in the poem.
I also connect with Cheng’s work because she attends to the missing, the absent, the hole so authentically and with such necessity. She weaves the intricate fibers of language in these poems, and strums. My history was also shaped in absence and a different kind of displacement, so Cheng’s poems idea of home speaks to me and how home resides more inside my body than outside.
Felicia Zamora’s books include Of Form & Gather, winner of the 2016 Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize (University of Notre Dame 2017), & in Open, Marvel (Parlor Press 2017), and Instrument of Gaps(Slope Editions 2018). She won the 2015Tomaž Šalamun Prize (Verse), authored two chapbooks, and was the 2017 Poet Laureate of Fort Collins, CO. Her poetry is found in Alaska Quarterly Review,Crazyhorse,Indiana Review, jubilat, Meridian, Prairie Schooner, The Georgia Review, West Branch, and others. She is an associate poetry editor for the Colorado Reviewand is the Education Programs Coordinator for the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing.
Jennifer S. Cheng received her BA from Brown University, MFA in Nonfiction Writing from the University of Iowa, and MFA in Poetry from San Francisco State University. She is the author of MOON: Letters, Maps, Poems, selected by Bhanu Kapil as winner of the Tarpaulin Sky Book Prize (May 2018), HOUSE A, selected by Claudia Rankine as winner of the Omnidawn Poetry Book Prize, and Invocation: An Essay (New Michigan Press), a chapbook in which fragments of text, photographs, found images, and white space influence one another to create meaning. A U.S. Fulbright scholar, Kundiman fellow, and Bread Loaf work-study scholar, she is the recipient of the Academy of American Poets Harold Taylor Award, the Ann Fields Poetry Award, the Mid-American Review Fineline Prize, and multiple Pushcart Prize nominations. Her poetry and lyric essays appear in Tin House, AGNI, Conjunctions, Black Warrior Review, The Normal School, DIAGRAM, The Volta, The Offing, Sonora Review, Seneca Review, Hong Kong 20/20 (a PEN HK anthology), and elsewhere. Having grown up in Texas, Hong Kong, and Connecticut, she currently lives in rapture of the coastal prairies of northern California. (Bio is from JSC’s website.)
Links to some good stuff:
Anna Lys Black is the editor-in-chief for Hayden’s Ferry Review at Arizona State University where she is a Virginia G. Piper global fellow, a graduate excellence awardee, and mere weeks from completion of her MFA. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the anthologies We Will be Shelter and In Sight: An Ekphrastic Collaboration, as well as the journals 45th Parallel, Bacopa Review, Wordgathering, The American Journal of Poetry, and New Mobility among others.