This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Emily Lee Luan, whose debut poetry collection, 回 / Return, is out now from Nightboat Books. In this formally-daring collection, which won a 2022 Nightboat Poetry Prize, Luan takes inspiration from a form of Chinese poetry that is “reversible,” able to be read forward and backward. Similarly Luan’s reversible poems, which mingle English with Chinese characters, can be read from the top of the page to the bottom, or vice versa, with one reading informing the other. This recursiveness speaks to the collection’s larger questions about time, geography, and memory: What happens when one attempts “return” to a place or way of being in the world? The poems are dualistic, simultaneously embodying and critiquing nostalgia, mourning and welcoming loss: “That feeling when the sink begins to drain—I love it.” They also consider Asian American identity, using bleak humor to toy with stereotypes while seriously interrogating the “Double Pressure” of diaspora. Cathy Park Hong calls Luan’s poems “stunning reflections on sorrow.... 回 / Return heralds a potent new voice in poetry.” A former Margins Fellow of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, Emily Lee Luan is the author of the chapbook I Watch the Boughs, selected by Gabrielle Calvocoressi for a Poetry Society of America Chapbook Fellowship. She lives in New York City.
1. How long did it take you to write 回 / Return?
The oldest poem in the collection was written in 2015, but the others were written between 2017 and 2021—that is, during the two years of my MFA program at Rutgers University in Newark and the first few years after I graduated.
2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
I searched for a while to find a conceptual thread that could run through the book. I kept writing poems in series—one series all titled with lines from Petrarch’s Rime Sparse, a series after a single poem by the Hong Kong poet XiXi, plus all of these poems in which I ruthlessly included the phrase “my sadness.”
Then I found the reversible poem, a classical Chinese poetic form that can be read forward and then in reverse. In concept, it provided the perfect scaffolding for the manuscript—its reenactment of looking back, of searching without end. In practice, emulating this form felt near-impossible at times. The first reversible poems I wrote were plodding, repetitive, absolutely devoid of the magic of the Chinese form. It took a lot of experimentation—I “reversed,” in all types of ways, many, many poems—to get to a few that I felt truly translated the form.
Trying to emulate the reversible poem made me consider why I was so wedded to creating rules in my process. Was I just completing tasks so that I could turn away from the harder emotional or thematic concerns of the collection? I still love writing in form; it’s a question I continue to ask myself.
3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I like to keep my writing desk near a window, with my dog sleeping nearby. I also love to write in transit—in noisy cafes, on the train, even with just the windows open and the sound of the bus going by outside. Always early in the morning, or after the sun goes down—I’m notably and consistently lethargic in the afternoon. There are times I’ve written every single day for weeks on end; as of today, I haven’t written in months.
4. What are you reading right now?
I’ve been interested in the book-length poem as well as travelogue—I just finished C.D. Wright’s One With Others and Jessica Au’s new novel, Cold Enough for Snow. I’m also slowly making my way through Taipei: City of Displacements by Joseph R. Allen, which is a fascinating look at the colonial history of Taipei through the concept of public space, city planning, architecture, film, and other media. In translation, I loved Chloe Garcia Roberts’s work with the poetry of Li Shangyin, the late-Tang-era Chinese writer.
5. What was your strategy for organizing the poems in this collection?
Because I was dealing with multiple recurring images, emotional narratives, and familial chronologies—and because my poems can look quite disparate, visually, from one another and there are some poems (like the reversible poem) that work in series or groupings—I color-coded. I gave some poems multiple sticky-note “tags”—poems written in a specific form with two recurring images and one narrative through-line, for example. I laid out the poems I knew belonged in the beginning, middle, and end. Then I placed poems within that basic structure so that poems of like “colors” didn’t appear too close to one another—almost like tiling a floor. Of course I listened for pacing and looked for “mirror” poems that would speak to one another over a longer expanse. The most startling part of the process was just how many sections I ended up with—four main sections with three longer poem interludes. But it seemed like the house the poems wanted to build.
6. How did you arrive at the title 回 / Return for this collection?
The reversible poem is associated with the image of geese returning to their nesting grounds each year, their unending migration. Similarly, a reversible poem never ends—when you get to the last line, you turn around and read back up to the top of the poem. What does it mean to return? Can one return to an inherited land, to memory?
I love that the character 回 visually captures this cloistered cyclicality of homesickness and melancholy (Freud’s definition here)—that anyone can look at the character and feel this circling. It’s a circle within a circle, a hole within a hole, a mouth within a mouth. There are many openings and voids in my book.
The dual title is meant to invoke the generative space between languages and the movement between the visual and the concrete, though the title was originally meant to be just the Chinese character, left untranslated. I hope that a reader will engage with 回 first, trusting what the picture tells them, or makes them feel.
7. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of 回 / Return?
When I was muddling through the middle, generative stages of the book, the possibilities of the book’s order, argument, and thematic emphases felt infinite. My assumption was that you could always revise or morph a manuscript into a different version of itself. This still feels true to me on a certain level. But when I came to the final form of the collection, I began to see that, even if I moved poems around or added and subtracted a few, the manuscript had a stability to it—it wouldn’t stray too far from the linguistic, imagistic, and argumentative worlds it had created. That’s exciting to me—that each project or manuscript tends toward a certain shape, and that you can write towards that stability.
8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started 回 / Return, what would you say?
At that time, it felt like all of my ideas were the best ideas I’d ever had, that each new poem was the best poem I’d ever write. Whenever I’d exhaust a particular poetic obsession, I’d feel a sense of fear and loss—like a good idea for a poem would never come to me again. I later learned, and wish I’d known then, that the process of making is cumulative, a long chain of learnings. You will always write another poem; you write one poem precisely so that you can write the next.
9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
This book wouldn’t exist in this form had I not relearned how to read and write Chinese in undergrad. It reoriented my relationship to white space, the page, image, grammar, and repopulated the sounds of childhood, when I’d last been fluent. It also allowed me an access point into the study and process of translation—to study, character by character, the mechanics of a classical poem. I’m incredibly grateful (spoiled!) to have two poetic worlds to draw from.
10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
Mónica de la Torre once told me: Sometimes you have to write a form until it breaks. I carry this possibility of rupture every time I turn to the page.