Smoke Signals to the Dead: A Conversation with Jenny Qi

By

Jenny Qi is a poet, writer, and scientist whose essays and poems have been published in the New York TimesThe Atlantic, Tin House, Rattle, ZYZZYVA, and the San Francisco Chronicle, among other places. Her debut poetry collection, Focal Point, won the 2020 Steel Toe Books Poetry Award and launched in October 2021. Matthew Zapruder calls her “a singular, exciting new voice in American poetry,” and Victoria Chang calls Focal Point “a beautiful and reflective book that inhabits the necessary liminal space of betweenness.”

In Focal Point, Qi allows the grief from her mother’s early passing to seep between each poem, to recede and return. The sacred mother-daughter love, displaced upon death, seeks other kinds of relationships. The pain felt in the initial moment of loss connects to other kinds of death, sometimes violent, national tragedies. The way the collection moves through time and theme captures the enduring nature of grief, and how it can expand to include whole communities, or contract to a single, intimate moment.

I first encountered Qi’s work when I took her class on how to hold grief in poetry at Rooted & Written. The week of her book launch, I had a chance to talk with her on the phone about beliefs necessary to both grieving and writing, relationships between Chinese American daughters and our mothers, and writing as a way to keep our dead alive.

***

The Rumpus: You’ve mentioned that this book was ten years in the making. What was the first poem in it that you penned, and what was the most recent? How do they differ from each other and reflect your grief process?

Jenny Qi: A couple of these poems I actually wrote in college, in class with Mark Jarman. I think the earliest poem is “Call & Response” or “Decision-Making.” The most recent would probably be the very last poem, “Contingencies.”

With the earliest poems, my mother was still alive when I wrote those, actually. I forgot about this until now, but I remember showing her these poems when I wrote them, because she was also a writer. So, I was just, I guess, really proud, and hoping that she would also be proud that I was engaging with Chinese texts and stories.

Thinking back on that time, my mother was already sick. I didn’t write anything about her illness in that class though. I think I’m very slow to emotionally process things, even low-key avoidant. So there was a certain emotional distance in my early poems.

After my mother passed, for the first year I didn’t write anything. I couldn’t write. And after that it just started to pour out, and I lost that emotional distance. I couldn’t maintain it anymore. I needed to write about it.

Rumpus: In your most recent poem, “Contingencies,” we wake up to the smell of smoke, evoking the burning cranes in “Letters to My Mother.” Smoke and burning recur elsewhere in the collection, too. What does smoke symbolize or evoke for you?

Qi: That’s such a good observation. I actually hadn’t made that connection before. Early on, I thought of the image of burning things as a sort of signal, a smoke signal to the dead. This was just one of the many beliefs I concocted for myself after she passed, as a way to survive it. So, that was what it meant early on in the grieving process.

When we get to “Contingencies,” by then I had reckoned with my grief long enough that it was no longer all-consuming. I was now also grappling with communal griefs that face us all, and when I wrote this, California was on fire. That was what the smoke meant then.

Rumpus: Looping back from the last to the first poem in the book, can you talk about how the opening poem, “Point at Which Parallel Waves Converge & From Which Diverge,” serves as a key for the entire collection?

Qi: I very intentionally placed it in this position, where it’s not in any of the sections and comes first. In a science manuscript, it would be the abstract, which gives you a hint of everything that is to come in one paragraph. The title of this poem being the definition of a focal point in optics is meant to emphasize how central this poem is to the collection.

Rumpus: You utilize definitions so effectively. How, if you had to try, would you define poetry?

Qi: I looked this up recently because I wanted to know what the official definition was, and it really wasn’t satisfying. It just related to the form and rhythm or something. I think poetry is so expansive as a genre, the existing definition isn’t enough. I’m sure entire books have been written about how poetry is not so easy to define. But I’m remembering something C. S. Giscombe said about how you know a poem is working. I would borrow it to define poetry in general: it’s a place where you press up against the divine.

Rumpus: That makes me think of these lines in “Letters to my Mother”: “If I turn off the lights, / stare at the soft incense glow / until my vision blurs, / I can imagine myself borne back to her / in ashes of paper wings.” Can you tell me about this ritual of writing and burning letters for her for one hundred days after her death?

Qi: It was another of those beliefs I decided to have. I decided to believe that if I burned things, they would reach her. I would write these little notes on Post-its, and I would try to write them in Chinese to make it easier for her. My Chinese is really not that good. I didn’t know what the rituals were supposed to be, and I hadn’t realized that, until after my mom was no longer here.

Sometimes I can’t tell how much of what I experienced is the broader culture and how much of it is my family specifically, but we didn’t really talk about it. I didn’t have the same kind of closeness to anyone else that I did with my mother, so I didn’t know how to ask. I just made things up and told myself they would be fine.

My mom’s parents passed away when I was young, so she must have told me about burning paper money. I extrapolated that to everything else. I thought well, if you can burn money, and that will reach the dead, then if you burn other things, they will reach them, too. There’s this weird child logic that I applied.

Rumpus: That sense of belief and ritual seems so necessary to help us in hard times, and also in the writing life, maybe because the writing life is hard. What other beliefs or rituals have helped you on your path?

Qi: I used to do this thing as a kid, where I would envision the best-case scenario, and I would never tell anyone because I didn’t want to jinx myself. So, if I was about to take a big exam, then I imagined what it would be like to get it back and see “100” at the top of it.

Some people these days might refer to this practice as “manifesting” something. I never really thought about it in those terms, but it’s something I continue to do sometimes. Inherent in this practice is a hope that something good will happen, and sometimes even a bit of delusion. I think to continue in this writing life, that’s kind of necessary. You have to have so much hope that good things will happen. You have to have an irrational amount of hope, because otherwise it can be too discouraging.

Rumpus: Irrational hope! I love that. We think of scientists as so rational, but you are also a poet. As a scientist and as a poet, do you believe in an afterlife?

Qi: I think about this a lot. The answer is still that I’m not sure. I definitely want to believe in something. I don’t not believe in an afterlife.

What I find so interesting is that there are a number of scientists famous in popular culture, especially theoretical physicists it seems, like Richard Feynman, who believe in some kind of spirituality. Something that’s essential to science is learning how much we don’t know. So I don’t think that spirituality and science are at odds with each other, even though it might feel like it. What is inherent in being a scientist is having a sense of skepticism and therefore not blindly believing in things without questioning. But once you get to a certain end of knowledge, you realize there’s still so much you don’t know.

I want to say that Carl Sagan has written about this. As I’m sitting in my little nook talking to you, I have some quotes up that I really liked when I was in grad school, written on index cards. At the very top, I have one from Carl Sagan: “You’re an interesting species. You’re capable of such beautiful dreams, and such horrible nightmares. You feel so lost, so cut off, so alone, only you’re not. See, in all our searching, the only thing we’ve found that makes the emptiness bearable, is each other.”

Rumpus: That’s poetry.

Qi: Carl Sagan was very poetic, and I think, deeply spiritual.

Rumpus: What are your thoughts on writing as resurrection, as reincarnation, as a way to keep our relationships with our dead alive?

Qi: It’s honestly something I think about all the time, and it’s a large part of why I feel compelled to write. I think I started writing about my mother because I had nowhere else to place or share these memories. Maybe that’s why when she was still alive, I didn’t really write about her. I didn’t need to.

I don’t know if this has been your experience, but perhaps culturally, my family shied away from difficult topics. And—I don’t know how to say this in a way that doesn’t sound terrible—early on, I would sometimes meet other people who had lost their parents, and would almost envy the way they grieved, because they could be so open with their families. I didn’t have a relationship with anyone who knew her where we could share memories like that, so I wrote.

Rumpus: That doesn’t sound terrible, honestly. Grief can make us feel things that we might otherwise think monstrous. In the first poem, you mention resenting your mom’s roommate for outliving her, and I think that feeling of envy is a big part of grief. The way grief keeps returning is also so evident in this book. I’m curious how you decided where to place the poems that came back to the focal point of your mother, and of that grief?

Qi: I really wanted this book to feel true not only to my own grief, but generally to the endurance of grief. I wanted this to not just be a story about my personal grief. I wanted it to be more than that. Each time I came back to this book, I was recreating the story of my grief.

I was given the advice of putting poems together based on thematic parallels. I think this is actually really true to life and grief because there were times, there are still times, when something seemingly random will trigger a sudden paralysis. I remember one time in lab, in my very first year of grad school, I saw a Chinese woman in the other lab bring in her little daughter. I had to run into the bathroom and cry over this. Even now there are times when I see something, or something big happens in my life, and I suddenly feel acutely the absence of my mother.

There’s a sequence in this book that illustrates how these things go back and forth. After the poem “Dear Steve,” which is a fairly happy poem—happy by my standards—that’s about the optimism of love and such, I immediately follow that with “Habits,” about the habit of memory, specifically remembering sad things. And that triggers a sequence of grief poems.

Rumpus: Your story of seeing a Chinese woman with her daughter and needing to cry—I’ve experienced moments like that too, and as a Chinese American writer looking to you and authors like Victoria Chang and Kat Chow writing about mother loss, I wonder about this urgency to write about our mothers. No one can ever speak for an entire population, but I’m curious if you think there’s anything in your particular mother-daughter relationship that might have its roots in Chinese culture.

Qi: I’ve definitely noticed that, too, and I think this is such a good question. As you mentioned, I can’t speak for the entire culture, so I’ll just speak for my relationship with my own mother. We had an unusually close relationship. Perhaps especially unusual given our cultural background, because I often read about other Chinese Americans having really difficult relationships with their mothers, and I will say that was not necessarily the case for me.

I think part of that closeness came from being isolated in a foreign place. I know my mother did not have much in the way of a Chinese community, and I mostly grew up without knowing other Chinese Americans. So, I think we were both culturally isolated in that way. I wonder if that’s one of the factors.

I think another source of isolation perhaps was being women in a culture where women are not valued. My mother was actually adopted. She knew her biological parents because they gave her away, not wanting another girl.

Rumpus: It’s layered, and I wonder if the kind of loss we feel is specific to Chinese culture, or if it’s broader. In Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner, she spoke of her mother’s death as severing some of her connection to Korea, or as making her question her belonging in Korean culture. I think it’s a complex thing being American and having a mother who is of America, but also of another culture, and then losing her.

You and your mother also had the strong connection of both being writers. How does it feel for you to be continuing the kind of work she did?

Qi: I think I feel compelled to do it in a way. I almost always wanted to be a writer. It was actually my mom who didn’t want me to. She didn’t want me to study English in college. She wanted me to be a doctor because that would be stable, which totally makes sense because she had gone through the Cultural Revolution, the Great Leap Forward, all of that trauma.

Specifically, she felt if I could be a doctor, even if I became one of the enemies of the state, they couldn’t kill all the doctors, they’d still need me. I think that was her logic.

Rumpus: You’re translating her memoir from the Cultural Revolution, right?

Qi: Yes, she has a memoir of the Cultural Revolution and of her parents. My mother similarly grieved deeply for her parents after they passed, and that memoir was published in China before she died. I regret that we didn’t make a bigger deal out of it when it happened, but I’m glad that she got to see that.

We’d started translating the first few chapters when she was alive, but I’m not sure where they are. I’m trying to continue it, but I would still count this as very early in the process because for all of grad school, it was too painful to go back to it. And as I mentioned, my Chinese isn’t that great.

What you said about Michelle Zauner really resonated. I know it’s a bit different because for her it’s also specifically being half-Korean, but my mom was definitely the person who kept me more closely tied to Chinese culture. She had such pride in it. When I was in school, she would talk to my teachers and have me teach my classmates little bits of Chinese to make sure that I could be proud of it, and to make sure that I was doing something around it.

I would talk to her almost exclusively in Chinese, even though her English was pretty good. I’d translate things to her from school, and she’d correct me, or if I stumbled and didn’t know a word, she would teach me. That’s something else that I’ve lost. It’s even kind of painful sometimes to engage with Chinese culture now, because it’s so enmeshed with her.

Rumpus: How do you think about your work engaging with legacy, either your mom’s, or the work of the writers whose names and words you include in Focal Point?

Qi: To be honest, I never did think of it in terms of carrying on the legacy of these other poets when I was in poetic conversation with them. Of course, it is, now that you lay it out this way. If I had thought of it in those terms then, I might have been too intimidated to write those poems, but I definitely do think about my writing now as continuing a legacy.

I’ve thought about it most as continuing my mother’s legacy, and also that of my ancestors, and all the other people in my family who haven’t had a voice. And I just can’t bear to think about the world forgetting about them.

***

Photograph of Jenny Qi by Yizhen Dong.


Tria's writing has been published or is forthcoming in the Washington Post, SELF, Narratively, and Slant'd, among other places. VONA and Tin House alumna, she has won a Charles C. Dawe Innovation in Publishing Award, CAC Emerging Artist Fellowship, and SCWC BIPOC Writer Fellowship. She is a co-founding editor of the Black Allyship column at Mochi Magazine, co-creator of Make America Dinner Again, and has spoken on NPR, BBC, and at SXSW about her work. You can find her on Instagram at @triawenwriting. More from this author →