“What role does the imagination play in survival?”
The Other House (Blue Lyra Press, 2016)
Could you share with us a representative or pivotal poem (or excerpt) from your chapbook? Perhaps something that introduces the work of the chapbook, or that invites the reader into the world of the chapbook?
Hello, Heaven. You are a tunnel lined with yellow lights.
-from “Yayo” by Lana Del Rey
I’m wading through the grass again,
trying to remember how I got here
and why I’m shivering.
It’s raining. My mother is inside
hanging laundry over the bathtub.
The heavy stalks, burdened with new mud,
sink and fold toward each other
over soil involuting
from how my mother’s feet struck
the ground as she ran,
our clothes kept dry.
Some time ago, I decided
that this was not
the way to heaven,
though there are yellow lights here too:
rusted gutters blinking white
the neighbor’s two-door clunker
screaming in alarm.
Everything oversaturated. No use
for subtle dreams.
The house: a peacock green.
The atmosphere: extraterrestrial.
In this yard where every object
is turning into something alien,
I am being beamed
into a spaceship and I am glad,
think, This is a good thing.
How we can make anything a heaven
by naming it:
Hello, tunnel lined with municipal light.
Hello, house with snakes
in the crawlspace.
And the thought:
had it not been for my father’s hand
pulling me back that day
from the hissing coils,
I would still carry the puncture wounds
from a dead animal’s teeth.
I’d say I often dream about this house
but that’s a lie: there are some things
we resurrect by force.
The lifespan of a house
is the sum of the lifespans
of all its inhabitants.
The aliens, with their technologies,
understand: they know what it takes
to keep from dying.
After a time, we approach
their planet of ice.
The ship starts a mechanical beeping.
Some distant god lifts it dark head
out of the snow.
How close we are all to heaven.
(“Alien” first appeared in Ghost Ocean Magazine)
Why did you choose this poem (or excerpt)?
The narrator in this poem has a strange vision or memory or dream of a childhood house, gets abducted by aliens, and afterwards comes to a realization about the house that involves some measure of forgiveness. For me, “What role does the imagination play in survival?” is the most important question in the collection, and it’s a question that all of the poems in The Other House ask to some extent, but I think “Alien” asks it most directly.
What obsessions led you to write your chapbook?
One obsession is the idea of the “other.” When I was an undergrad at Princeton, I had also titled my senior thesis for the creative writing department The Other House. I was a molecular biology major who was minoring in poetry. Revising poems and dissecting fruit fly ovaries were two skills I worked on side-by-side, and since my actual major was biology, poetry became “the other house” I inhabited outside of the lab. At the same time, I was becoming obsessed with memories of a house I grew up in in Mobile, Alabama, and so “the other house” took on a literal, physical form as well.
The chapbook is divided into halves. The first half, “The Other House,” is set in Mobile, Alabama, and the second half, “How to Survive the Winter,” is set in Michigan, where I have lived for the past four years. The first half addresses the literal house, while the second half addresses the metaphorical one. In both, though, is my obsession with myths, because I’ve learned through putting together this collection that I view poetry as the ultimate survival tool against what could harm you, whether it is a series of memories about a particular place, or the humidity, or snow.
What is your chapbook about?
The Other House is an attempt to understand my relationship with my parents through my memories of a house we lived in in Mobile, Alabama. It’s an exploration of memory and myth, about the role imagination plays in shaping the self-narrative. It’s also about extreme weather conditions in Alabama and Michigan.
Can you name one poem that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?
The title poem, “The Other House,” started out in my undergraduate senior thesis about six years ago. At its heart was the idea of transformation. At its core was a fire, which I made more prominent in the later version. The idea of thinking about the house years later while driving home to a different house, of imagining the vegetation in the yard as smoke evaporating and leaving the scene of a fire, was there before I revised it. I just needed to realize that this was the central idea of the poem. When I did, the other images in the poem fell into place around it.
Since The Other House refers to an actual house in Mobile, Alabama, do you consider this collection to be a collection about a particular place? Some of the poems in the second half also refer to a specific city.
The house in Mobile, Alabama is a physical house, but over the years it has taken on its own mythology. It’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s imagined. It’s exciting to approach an exploration of place with memories that are as vivid as they are unreliable, but of course it’s also dangerous. This focus of the memories on a particular house is also probably too specific for the collection to be about the town of Mobile itself. But the poems do draw heavily on imagery that, while not unique to Mobile, are common in the south during summer, especially the insects and the miles of burnt grass.
I could say the same about the snow and ice when talking about the second half of the chapbook, which is set in Michigan.
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook?
When I started to put together a collection, I realized that I had many poems that were strange narratives that dealt with myths. Either they referred to a myth or story, questioned the validity of a memory, or told myths themselves. A recurring theme was the power of the imagination to transform memories into narratives that could heal. I thought about the title All the Beautiful Myths, but The Other House began to make sense as a title after I wrote more poems that specifically addressed memories of the house in Mobile.
I realized that the other poems that were not about the house also had recurring imagery, specifically of the forest. After stumbling upon a dead bird in my laundry room one cold day and writing the poem “How to Survive the Winter,” I felt that I had a section that was a good companion to the poems about the house. They formed a group of poems that explores how imagination could be “another house” in which to reside, maybe one that was warmer than reality. I titled this other section “How to Survive the Winter.”
Which poem in your chapbook has the most meaningful back story to you? What’s the back story?
I had been trying to revise a seven-page-long poem called “Narcissa” from my undergraduate thesis for months. The first four stanzas were the only ones I liked, but they couldn’t stand alone as a poem. Walking home one day, I saw red berries clustered on the bare tips of a tree. They reminded me of petechiae, tiny bruises that are usually signs of some aggressive underlying illness. I jotted down a line about “red berries erupting from nailbeds.” While I was revising “Narcissa,” I tried the line on at the end, and the result was the poem “A Natural History,” the first poem in the chapbook.
What was the final poem you wrote or significantly revised for the chapbook, and how did that affect your sense that the chapbook was complete?
“How to Survive the Winter” was the final poem I wrote for the chapbook. I wrote it in March last year, in the dead of winter in Michigan. A tree had fallen into the stream by my apartment under the weight of snow, and its trailing branches in the water looked like the fingers of someone panning for gold. The idea of looking within the winter landscape for sustenance stuck with me. After my encounter with the dead bird in the laundry room, I figured out a way to make the poem work. The poem ended up being about the rituals we perform to sustain ourselves. It felt like a good metaphor for writing itself.
Describe your writing practice. Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it?
I jot down thoughts or phrases into a journal throughout the day. When writing a new poem, I handwrite in that same journal. Often, a poem gets stuck for weeks or months as a series of inane, hardly legible phrases. I work on several poems at once. As I gather more images and lines in the journal, I try them out on the poems. When I get stuck, I like flipping through the journal for interesting things I’ve jotted down. This is one way I make leaps in a poem.
When I feel that a poem is taking shape, I would type it out for the first time to see how long the lines look on the page. Often I would start typing before knowing all the lines in the poem. If I get stuck again, I would go back to handwriting the stanzas.
If a poem ends up falling short after much revision, I don’t hesitate to dismantle it for parts.
You wrote The Other House in medical school. Coming from a non-traditional writing background, what was it like putting together a chapbook?
As an undergrad, I was a creative writing minor at Princeton, which meant that I had access to everything that the Lewis Center for the Arts had to offer, including weekly individual sessions as a senior with my thesis advisors Meghan O’Rourke and Michael Dickman. That’s some serious training! I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunities I received at the Lewis Center.
After graduating college, I taught middle school for two years, and for the past four years, I have been in medical school at Michigan. As someone who’s not in a graduate writing program, I have to reach out to other poets. I emailed the MFA program at Michigan, attended the Ann Arbor Poetry Slam, applied to writing workshops. It was surprisingly difficult to find a writing group. I eventually found one after attending the Bear River Writers Conference, which I was only able to attend after receiving a scholarship and after composing a three-page email to my clerkship director explaining why attending the workshop was helpful to my development as a writer and physician.
I’m very happy with the poetry communities that have accepted and embraced me. However, I think it should be easier for someone in a non-literary field to get access to mentorship, feedback, and community. I hope that workshops and residencies will recognize this and provide more opportunities to non-traditional writers in the future.
What has the editorial and production experience with the press who picked up your chapbook been like?
The Delphi Series at Blue Lyra Press publishes three separate chapbooks by three different poets as a single perfect-bound volume. It was risky letting someone else decide which two other collections my chapbook was going to join, but it was a risk I was personally willing to take. The Other House, Claire Zoghb’s Boundaries, and Erin Redfern’s Spellbreaking and Other Life Skills complement each other. At the same time, each chapbook is its own separate collection.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a collection of poems based on my interactions with patients with dementia. I’m also working on a collection of poems about amusement parks, among other things.
What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?
Read a lot. Keep a journal and pen with you at all times. Find a good writing group so you can get a more objective view of your work. Go to readings if you can. Don’t get discouraged, but don’t beat yourself up if you do. It’s normal. Your voice is important. Just write.
Ting Gou is an M.D. candidate at the University of Michigan Medical School, interested in psychiatry and the relationship between memory and identity. Her poems can be found in Arcturus (Chicago Review of Books), Bellevue Literary Review, Best of the Net, decomP, Ghost Ocean Magazine, Midwestern Gothic, r.kv.r.y., Superstition Review, Word Riot, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of an artist’s grant and work-exchange award from the Vermont Studio Center. The Other House is her first chapbook.