An Interview with Jenny Qi: A look at grief, memory and science in her debut book Focal Point
By Amarantha da Cruz
Cover design: Hilary Steinberg
Jenny Qi, PH.D., is a San Francisco-based writer, poet and scientist, whose debut book Focal Point, winner of the 2020 Steel Toe Books Poetry Award, is a reflection on grief, family, racism, young adulthood, Jimi Hendrix, illness, death, climate change and COVID-19, among the many other themes. In this first-time poetry collection, we witness Qi interweaving science, memory and emotions, while exploring the depths of grief and language. This full-length collection will hit hard for those (such as myself) who have lost a mother. Over the span of a decade, she navigates the grief over the loss of her mother, lover, her complicated relationship with her father and other traumas. Although many of the themes are somber, Qi balances things with wry humor amidst the haunting heartbreaks found in Focal Point.
Focal Point, published by Steel Toe Books, is out now.
The following questions were via email.
When did you decide to start working on this book? Was it during your mother’s illness or after her passing?
There are poems in this book that I wrote in college, when my mom was still alive, but most I wrote after her death. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I even thought about putting these poems together into a book. So, depending on how you look at it, I’ve been working on this book for only a few years or I’ve been working on it most of my adolescent and adult life.
When did you decide to transform your trauma into art?
I didn’t consciously decide anything, to be honest. I wrote because I had to, because there were times I felt so awful that I wanted to peel myself out of my skin, and writing was a way to focus that energy, almost like a form of meditation.
I was exposed to poetry from a young age. My mom was an avid reader and wrote two books at the end of her life. She taught me to recite Tang poems in Chinese when I was a toddler, probably 4 or 5 years old. The Chinese language can be very poetic just in general. Later in childhood, I read “The Tyger” by William Blake in the beginning of a YA novel and loved the rhythm and imagery, and from there I learned about Edgar Allen Poe and Emily Dickinson. Around the same age, I became friends with people who introduced me to rap and hip hop, and that was a kind of poetry too.
Thank you, and the short answer here is yes. I wanted my book to be a true representation of grief in some way, and the reality is that there are so many things happening around the central grief. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to really enjoy watching stand-up comedy, and so much of comedy is finding the absurdity and humor in sad, traumatic situations.
What advice would you give to emerging poets, at any stage and age in life, who are trying to get their chapbooks out into the world?
Keep reading, keep submitting, and aim high. But at the same time, understand that there are so many factors out of your control, so don’t take rejection personally. One of my best friends once told me, when I called her feeling despair over something, I think not even related to writing, not to compare my insides to other people’s outsides, and I think of that if I start falling into the trap of comparing myself to other people with very different lives and careers from my own. W.J. Herbert, author of Dear Specimen, has a great interview in P&W in which she says something very similar: everyone is on a different journey, and “only you can see how dark the water, how luminous the light.” Try to focus on the other rewards of that journey, such as the joys of creating and learning and the beauty of building relationships with other people who love what you love.