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10 Questions for Lisa Low

A few years ago, I placed my younger self into a poem dreaming of a potato-
chip-flavored kiss. All-American kisses occured in lives where candy bars and
sleeping with your hair wet were also permitted, where the attention of American
mothers cast soft glowe through the house and clicked off at night.
—from "Ars Poetica," Volume 63, Issue 1 (Spring 2022)

Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
One of the first pieces I wrote is a poem that I’ll quote in its entirety here:

You’re my best friend.
Let’s not let friendship end.
I like you
Because you’re so true.

I used to write this on index cards to have on hand to give to best friends in elementary school, but I definitely wasn’t intentional about it at all in terms of the tradition of poetry love letters. I love the idea of the poem as a physical object to send between two people, as something that moves in the world—I’d love to incorporate more aspects of this in my writing in either the process or end product.

What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
Too many to name, but here are some in no particular order: Sharon Olds’s odes, Bhanu Kapil Rider’s The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers, Tarfia Faizullah’s Seam, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Layli Long Soldier, Cathy Park Hong, Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals, Toni Morrison, Ali Wong’s first special Baby Cobra, Nam Le’s short story “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice,” and Sianne Ngai’s Our Aesthetic Categories.

What other professions have you worked in?
Right after college, I was an elementary school teacher for a few years in Chicago before starting my MFA. Ultimately I was so happy not to have to worry about classroom management anymore though there were many things I loved about it. Very different, but I’m hopeful that teaching gave me a little practice for becoming a future parent.

What did you want to be when you were young?
One of the many things I wanted to be as a kid was an ice skater. Like many people, I was obsessed with Michelle Kwan and took lessons for a few years. I ended up quitting just as I was about to learn how to jump, and now passing by an ice rink always reminds me I should sign up for an adult class.

What inspired you to write this piece?
I love ars poeticas. I’ve been really interested in thinking about a poem as a three-dimensional space—following the line of thinking that a stanza is a room—and how the speaker, who can be both subject and object in the poem, is seen depending on the angle, audience, etc. I was also thinking about what the processes of writing and reading reveal or obscure about the speaker, especially when writing/reading are rooted in dominant white norms. One of my favorite poems that isn’t explicitly an ars poetica, but is one I think of as an ars poetica, is part three of Layli Long Soldier’s “Ȟe Sápa”; if you read clockwise, the four-line concrete poem shaped in a square begins, “This is how you see me the space in which to place me” and ends, “This is how to place you in the space in which to see.” I love how this poem formally signals a reorientation of the writer-reader relationship, and I love that the white space in the middle of the square encourages us to think about how we look into mirrors and place both ourselves and others. I want my ars poeticas to carry on this practice of expecting the reader to read differently.

Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
This is not so unique, but my childhood house is definitely a recurrent landscape in my poems, and even just in the background during my writing process. I lived in the same house in the suburbs of Maryland from when I was a few months old through middle school, where I spent a lot of time being alone, playing outside, and observing my mom, who had her own ghosts to contend with. Even when I’m not writing about childhood, my childhood house and backyard are places that continue to feel filled with some kind of poetic potential, that I return to as a starting point even if they’re edited out later or don’t even make it into the poem in the first place.  

Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
Not really anything specific for writing, but for getting started on work in general, tea helps (jasmine right now), and so does some light decluttering of my apartment on the way to my desk. Neatening book stacks and the coffee table, throwing away random scraps of accumulated things, making the bed (sometimes), etc., mindless tasks that start to make me feel organized and productive. Besides that, the main thing is moving from the couch to the desk. I wish I could work on my couch, but as I get older, the bad posture I inevitably get stuck in starts not to feel good for my body and my writing brain.

If you could work in another art form what would it be?
There are so many I wish I could do! Definitely a visual art. I took a beginner embroidery class one summer and did one project and keep meaning to do more. I’d also love to be able to sew my own clothes. Instagram definitely knows that about me, so I see a lot of amazing handsewn clothes on my feed that make me feel sad after realizing they can’t be bought.  

What are you working on currently?
I’m working very slowly on essays! I have a poetry manuscript that’s nearing its more finished version but I’ve only started writing nonfiction seriously in the past two years. Essays continue to fascinate and intimidate me—I love the capaciousness of the sentence (the paragraph!) but at the same time can feel overwhelmed by all the possible space. I’m currently working on an essay about envy and jealousy and their racial and gender implications. I’m also really interested in how essays, differently from poetry, can help me explore cross-racial dynamics in intimate relationships, in the media, on social media, etc.

What are you reading right now?
I have a baby on the way and am in the middle of Cribsheet by Emily Oster, which has been calming my anxieties about parenthood, and I also loved Like a Mother by Angela Garbes (who also has a new book out that I’m excited about, Essential Labor: Mothering as Social Change). Two of my good friends just had debut poetry collections out in April, Anni Liu’s Border Vista and Danni Quintos’s Two Brown Dots. It’s been amazing reading work that I’ve read over the years reenvisioned into their published book forms. I also just read and admired Chet’la Sebree’s poetry collection Field Study, which really powerfully explores taboo topics in interracial relationships and feels hybrid in the best way possible.

LISA LOW’s poems appear or are forthcoming in Copper Nickel, Ecotone, The Iowa Review, Poetry, The Southern Review, and elsewhere, and her nonfiction won the 2020 Gulf Coast Nonfiction Prize. She is the associate editor of The Cincinnati Review and a PhD student at the University of Cincinnati. Her debut chapbook, Crown for the Girl Inside, won the 2020 Vinyl 45 Chapbook Contest and is forthcoming from YesYes Books.


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