Interview by–Natalie Solmer
The first time I heard Nancy Chen Long read her work, her first book, Light Into Bodies, winner of The Tampa Review Prize for Poetry, had just been published. She was reading in a beloved little bookstore in Indianapolis along with one of my friends. Ever since then, I have been following her work and waiting for the right time to interview her! I felt this was a great time since she just recently published her second book, Wider Than The Sky, which was selected for the Diode Editions Book Award.
Nancy is a fascinating writer with wide range of talents, as evidenced by her bio on her webpage: As a volunteer with the local Writers Guild, Nancy coordinates a reading series and works with others to offer free poetry workshops to the public. To give back to the writing community at-large, she reviews poetry books and interviews poets at the blog Poetry Matters, as well as on her blog nancychenlong.blogspot.com. She has a bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering Technology and an MBA, worked as an electrical engineer, software consultant, and project manager, and more recently earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Spalding University. She works at Indiana University in the Research Technologies division.
Nancy and I corresponded via email this summer.
NS: Thanks so much for agreeing to do this interview. I have to start by asking you about your journey in writing poetry. I am really fascinated by your biography–you have a bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering Technology and an MBA, and you currently work at Indiana University in the Research Technologies division. Your biographical note also states that you “more recently” earned your MFA at Spalding University. This interests me because I also went back for my MFA at a later time (I had majored in horticulture and worked in that field for many years before focusing on writing and teaching). I know that many poets do not take the ‘traditional’ path of majoring in English, getting an MFA and teaching. I would love to hear more about what your path has been like.
NCL: First, thank you for interviewing me for the Indianapolis Review! Yes, I’ve discovered there are a number of us who have taken a wonderfully scenic route to poetry and/or to an MFA. As for me, I got my love of poetry and books from my father who shared his love for books, language, and poetry with me quite early on. When I was a senior in high school, I even wanted to major in creative writing in college, maybe pursue a career in journalism. I was advised, though, to go into something like science instead. So after high school, I stopped writing creatively. All the while, I continued to read poetry and to journal, which included scribbling down small poems that would periodically pop into my head.
My return to creative writing came later in life and is an interesting study in synchronicity for me. It was at a time when I was under a great deal of stress in both my career and family life. My massage therapist suggested that I try a writing session at Women Writing for a Change-Bloomington. During that time, I was also in the middle of pursuing an M. Div. on a part-time basis at Earlham School of Religion, a Quaker seminary, taking classes online and over the summer. As luck would have it, Earlham offered a poetry class as part of their Writing-as-Ministry emphasis. The professor’s support and encouragement were crucial and resulted in a change in attitude: I started to take my writing seriously. I dropped out of seminary so that I could take a few MFA classes in the evening at IU. It was during one of those classes that I decided to pursue an MFA in creative writing, like I had wanted to do as a teenager. I couldn’t enroll in a traditional program because I had to work fulltime. So I enrolled in a low-residency program. With low residency, students attend the university (or other specified location) during residencies that last anywhere from one to two weeks. Students then complete the semester through distance education, working with a professor using phone, email, snail mail and online methods,depending on the school and mentor preferences.
NS: Congratulations on the publication of your second book, Wider Than The Sky! I took it with me on my recent trip to Tennessee, and I really enjoyed it–it is so rich and layered in places, memories, and landscapes. This book comes three years after the release of your first book, Light Into Bodies. I was wondering about your process in writing these two books–how long was your writing process for each book, when did you realize you were writing a new book, etc. Writers sometimes have trouble between the first and second book, but you have traversed that gap very gracefully.
NCL: Thank you so much for the kind words about Wider than the Sky. Well, my first book Light into Bodies grew out of my MFA creative thesis. I worked on it an additional year after I graduated before I felt comfortable sending it out. I submitted the manuscript via the contest route for three years. Up until it was selected for the Tampa Review Prize in 2016, I significantly revised the manuscript each year and did periodic tweaks throughout the year. So all told, I actively worked on the manuscript for about five years.
With respect to how long it took to write the second book, I’m not so sure I traversed the gap so gracefully 🙂 It took about four years to complete, which is not much different from the first manuscript. My main issue with this second book was arriving at the primary subject. I was not patient enough to let the overall subject of the book reveal itself, and instead tried to force a subject on the manuscript. One of the subjects was the body: A friend suggested that I write about the body, since I am always in my head. So I did a deep-dive into research about anatomy and physiology. I read body-based poems. Heck, I even had an outline for the manuscript. But I failed to write any relevant poems worth keeping. Another subject was naming—how naming impacts our identities, how we see ourselves and others, etc. However, while I enthusiastically researched the concept of naming, I again found I could *not* write any poems about it. I was beating myself up pretty badly about not “being productive” and felt disappointed that I was writing poems irrelevant to the second manuscript. One day, after a couple of years of trying to write to specific topics, I took stock of what poems I had. I wanted to see how far off course I was. Surprise! I found that I had a collection of poems that comprised about three-fourths of a manuscript, although the manuscript had little to do with naming or the body. Most of the poems I had written centered around memory and the brain and identity, stories and the brain, stories and myth and collective identity, etc.
While there isn’t much of a difference between the two manuscripts with respect to how long it took to write each of them, there is a big difference with respect to publication: After I started sending out the first manuscript Light into Bodies, it took three years before it was accepted for publication. The publication process was costly and stressful. However, the route to publication for the second manuscript Wider than the Sky was much different: I was hopeful that I might not have to go through years and years of submissions like I had with the first book, because the publisher of my first book had requested the first right of refusal for the second manuscript. So, when I felt that the second manuscript was ready, I sent it to that publisher. However, four months later, they got back to me with apologies. They were busy converting their whole catalog to a new format and wouldn’t be able to give me a definite answer until the following year (2020). They offered to released me from my contract if I wanted to send the manuscript elsewhere. I was not really paying much attention when I received their email about the delay—my father was in hospice. I was spending most of my time at the nursing home and taking care of end-of-life things. However, I felt compelled to accept their offer to go elsewhere. I submitted the manuscript to a couple of places. Shortly thereafter, the editor of Diode Editions contacted me to say the manuscript had been selected for their Book Award. So it took about four weeks for the second manuscript to be accepted for publication after I started sending it out to contests, much different than the three years it took for the first book. Two weeks after I was notified of the acceptance, my father passed.
NS: One of your main themes in Wider Than The Sky is memory and how it shapes our identities and the stories we tell ourselves about who we are. I love your poem, “Interstice,” which exemplifies this perfectly. You show how, when trying to remember the name of a childhood friend, it brings up other memories, such as the one about “Brad from fourth grade” who uses the word “Woman” as an insult when making fun of you. Your lines “one minute someone is telling us who we are / and what to remember. The next, even our memories / are stored as stories. There are gaps / in our memory. Connections are missing” shows how our memory leaps from one story to the next, forming a foundation of who we think we are. Can you explain how you began writing in this vein and any discoveries that you made while writing the book?
NCL: In my family, we have numbers of names for each other. During a time when I thought the manuscript was about naming, I started discussing with them why we are name-prolific, which got us into discussing family memories and stories. It struck me how differently we remembered things. One family member in particular remembered doing things that the rest of us remembered someone else doing. There were even cases in which most of us remembered something major happening and another family member insisting it never happened. These conversations made me question the veracity of my own memories. The more I thought about it, the more I wondered how one can really be sure if anything one remembers actually happened in the way remembered. My research interest turned toward memory, as did the poems that I started to write.
Regarding discoveries that I made while writing the book: I thankfully discovered the primary subject of the book, despite my confidence that it was something else. I also became aware of how impatient I can be with the creative process, which led me to become more fully aware that my writing process is more like a compulsion, something divined, rather than a conscious pursuit or selection. I also discovered that, for me anyway, my more conscious, logical mental process is detrimental during earlier phases of creativity—such that I was blind to obvious connections—and that it shouldn’t be brought out until later in the creative process.
NS: Wider Than The Sky is made up of three sections, and each section opens with a poem titled, “Your Brain Doesn’t Contain Memories–It is Memories.” In the second of such poems, you have a line that I love so much, “Origin is unimportant–avoidance is / the thing recorded. My ancestor’s mountains are mine as well.” I happen to be writing about ancestors and literal mountains (ha) and so I actually quoted this line in a poem that I am currently working on! I was wondering if you could talk about these three sections and poems a little bit and explain how the book came to be divided up this way?
NCL: I love that you quote a line from “‘Your Brain Doesn’t Contain Memories—It is Memories’” in your own poem!
I stole the title “‘Your Brain Doesn’t Contain Memories—It is Memories’” from a wonderful online article in Wired.
As for the three different poems titled “‘Your Brain Doesn’t Contain Memories—It is Memories’,” those actually form one longer poem, a poetic sequence that is a meditation on memory, touching on the familial, generational, and epigenetic aspects of it. The poetic sequence also a golden-shovel of Emily Dickinson’s poem “The Brain—is wider than the Sky—.” Golden-shovel poems use word(s) from another poem as the last word in each of their lines. So if you read the last word of each line in “‘Your Brain Doesn’t Contain Memories…” across all three sections, you get Emily Dickinson’s brain poem. For example, in the first poem titled “‘Your Brain Doesn’t Contain Memories—It is Memories’,” the last word in each line is “the brain is wider than the sky for put them side by side the one the other will contain with ease and you beside,” which happens to be the entire first stanza of Dickinson’s poem. Since Dickinson’s poem has three stanzas, there are three sections to the poetic sequence. Dickinson’s brain poem not only inspired the book’s title and content, it establishes the backbone of the book as well.
As for why I broke the longer poem into its three constituent parts and placed each part into the three different sections of the book: Originally, I leaned toward having five sections, with the first section comprised of poems that involved seeing—how the brain sees and its relation to memory—but I couldn’t make it work in the manuscript. One day, after struggling with organizing the manuscript, it suddenly dawned on me to 1) eliminate the first section on seeing, as well as some other sight-related poems, 2) retitle the manuscript to “Wider than the Sky” from the Dickinson poem, 3) divide the manuscript into three sections, and 4) break the Dickinson-inspired poem “‘Your Brain Doesn’t Contain Memories…” into three separate parts and make each one the introductory poem of each section of the manuscript.
NS: My last question is one that I ask all our featured poets. Because I think that Indiana writers are underrepresented, and people often misunderstand what it is really like in Indiana, can you share a little bit about what you enjoy about living here and the literary scene that you are a part of? For example, I know you run a reading series in Bloomington, which is home to many fantastic poets. In addition, from your writing, I know that you have lived many places around the country and the world. What are some positive things about Indiana that have surprised you?
NCL: One of the things I love about Indiana are the ample opportunities to be in nature. We have so many wonderful state parks. Closer to home, two of my favorite places are Brown County State Park—especially Hesitation Point and Ogle Lake—and the T.C. Steele State Historic Site (http://www.tcsteele.org/), which is the 211-acre homestead of Hoosier artist T. C. Steele that is now an art gallery and nature sanctuary.
Another thing I love about Indiana is the town of Bloomington, especially its vibrant literary scene. We are blessed with a number of wonderful poets and writers here. In addition, there are frequent readings and literary events. A number of events are hosted by IU’s MFA program and students. In addition, Bloomington has some fantastic literary nonprofits. One wonderful group that is vital to the community is Women Writing for a Change – Bloomington. They many offerings, including classes and retreats, as well as programs for girls and young women. You can get more info on their website (https://www.womenwritingbloomington.org/). You can also find them on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/womenwritingbloomington/) and Instagram (@womenwritingbtown). And of course there is the Writers Guild at Bloomington, where I volunteer. The Guild offers readings and workshops, and they do an amazing job promoting Guild members and local events and activities. Due to the pandemic, some Guild programs are on hiatus, such as the reading series that I’m involved with, Last Sundays Poetry Readings. However, some events have continued online. For example, the Spoken Word Series, an event that combines spoken word and music, has moved to Zoom and Facebook Live. For more info about the Guild, checkout their website: https://writersguildbloomington.com/. They are also on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/WritersGuildBloomington/), Instagram (@writersguild_bl), and twitter (@writersguild_bl).