Jenny Qi: We’ve been friends for a looong time, since stumbling upon the same community workshop in San Francisco when I was in science grad school at UCSF and you were working in journalism and communications. I always admired the devastating elegance of your poems and was thrilled when you won the Ploughshares Emerging Writer’s Contest. Beyond that, I’ve admired your dedication to and patience with the writing life. Can you tell us about what drives your work and how you’ve navigated that life?
Mariya Zilberman: The admiration is mutual! All these years later, I still remember when you brought “Angles” to workshop, pretty soon after I started coming, and I was like “Who is this? How can I be her friend?” I’m so pumped to now have that poem in my hands again in your book. To your question: I’ve had to learn patience because, by some standards, I’m a slow writer. I don’t write every day; I don’t even write every month. But, I’m always paying attention, and I think attention to the world is an essential creative practice. When I do come to the page, I have to flush out the cobwebs of my mind before I get to something I want to linger with. If I have any “intentions” when I go into writing, such as “Today I want to write a poem about the time I took a trip to ABC place,” then I get dead ended. I won’t write anything I want to look at again, and it often takes me a while to reach the point of no longer feeling self-aware as I write. This is really just a long way of saying that at some point I realized I had two choices: be patient with myself or write poems I’m not satisfied with. I chose patience. In terms of what drives my work, what keeps me writing: I think it goes back to paying attention. Sometimes that’s attention to the external world, sometimes attention to the historical record/lack thereof, and sometimes attention to my own inner life. I’m not telling you anything new here, but: life is baffling—in good ways and bad ones. If I didn’t write, I guess I’d just be baffled without an outlet, which feels like a pretty bad plan. What about you? How do you sustain your commitment and drive?
JQ: I really love what you said about paying attention to the world as an essential creative practice. I’m reading How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell, and what you said is essentially the thesis of her book. I am trying to figure out how to emulate you (and her) as I navigate the next steps of my (writing) life, because I am distinctly not patient. And my impatience means I’m doing a lot of things all the time, and probably not paying enough attention to the right things. When I started the poems that would become Focal Point, I did not have a smartphone, the world felt more stable even though my personal life did not, and I knew that whatever I did, I would be in grad school for the next five-plus years. That stability, which sometimes felt like stagnancy, is something I’ve come to value in hindsight. But to your question: I really relate to what you’ve said about writing being an outlet for your bafflement. My first book in particular was mostly written after my mother died, when I was rather young, and it was the only way I could process my bewildering grief in a way that would not destroy me. Beyond that, the only thing I know with any certainty is that writing is my life’s work, and there is work to complete before I die. Part of what propels me forward, through times when I feel disillusioned by the industry or literary politics or national politics or burned out from juggling a book tour with a full-time job, is the fear that I won’t finish that work before I die, and who knows how soon that might be, and who then would remember the people I have loved and lost? While this anxiety was perhaps a good motivator for getting my book published, it is not good for writing worthwhile work. I’m trying to be guided by excitement instead of anxiety. I’m trying to pay more attention to joy, to the bright green of new leaves unfurling.
Related to this meditation on anxiety, something that’s been on my mind, and which we’ve discussed a lot, is the practical considerations of being a working writer. How do we find the right balance to sustain ourselves as humans and as writers? How do we find employment that feels meaningful and adds to our writing rather than subtracting from it? And how do we do both things and still have a personal life? You worked for many years prior to your MFA and are again a working writer post-MFA. Can you share some wisdom on what that balance can look like and how your non-writing work contributes positively to your writing?
MZ: My best thought about balance is that life comes in seasons: it is OK if there are some seasons where you (me) are not writing much, or at all. I was talking to someone once about how I wasn’t writing much lately, and she just shrugged and said “you’re composting.” I’ve held on to that for almost 10 years; it’s become a kind of mantra. I just finished my first year of teaching and I did not write a single thing during that time. I was learning a new job, I’d moved to a new city, and a whole laundry list of things that might sound like excuses, but to me, were permission to not beat myself up or wring myself out. What I did do during the school year, however, was read (shout out to the public libraries, first loves of my life), and my job was helping students learn how to communicate complex arguments clearly. So, those things kept me engaged with language. I think that’s one way of approaching balance: even if your life demands are such that you aren’t writing at this time, what other ways can you stay engaged with language? Because then when you do go back to the page, your ear is still tuned. Teaching is a job that suits my temperament and energy in a way that nothing I’ve done before did, but it took many years of less-suited work, a graduate degree, and a heap of luck to find my way here, and I don’t know if I’ll be able to stay in teaching long-term. When I was working M-F, 9-5, and I found that I hadn’t written in a while and I wanted, needed, to get back to the page — I would tell friends and family that I had to work that weekend, and I would hole up and write. Especially in the hustle culture of San Francisco/the 21st century, I found that no one questioned “working” on the weekend, and I was working… they just thought I was doing one kind of work, and I was doing mine instead.
I want to jump to something I think gives you a unique sensibility as a writer: You have a PhD in biomedical sciences, and even though you’re not working in a lab, you are still very much in the world of biological sciences. Some of my favorite moments in your poems are when your deep scientific knowledge glides into more colloquial language. I’d love to hear you talk about language: about all of your languages. You speak English, Chinese, and what I’m going to call “the language of science.” How does your polyvocality guide how you understand and write about the world?
JQ: That’s something we have in common too—for you, Russian instead of Chinese. I appreciate this question and reminder of the good that comes from inhabiting multiple worlds. Since my book came out, I’ve been asked a few times about how science impacts my writing and vice versa, and I’ve never been able to verbalize my answer in a satisfying way, other than to say that they give me additional lenses with which to see the world. I usually view science as a discipline, rather than a language, so I’ll try again from that perspective: Each language system comes with its own pattern and way of thinking. To inhabit multiple systems is to constantly compare and contrast and seek to connect them. I’m reminded of a NYT piece I read about Jhumpa Lahiri writing in Italian, and how she described writing in a foreign language as a kind of liberation from the patterns she inherited. I studied Spanish for a long time, and learning a foreign language as a young adult forced me to be aware of the building blocks of the system and how the way a language is structured can influence the way we understand the world (i.e. verb temporality, masculine vs. feminine nouns). Similarly, I learned science as a foreign language and found myself reevaluating the world through that lens of conscious objectivity and through biological patterns. So perhaps what polyvocality does is make me a perpetual outsider to the systems I thought I knew, in ways that can be creatively productive. I’m not sure if I’m fully satisfied with this answer either, but it’s the one that feels truest so far.
Mariya Zilberman is a writer whose poems have recently appeared in Ploughshares, Kenyon Review, Columbia Journal, and Guesthouse. She won the 2020 Ploughshares Emerging Writer’s Award in Poetry, and has also received support from organizations such as the Vermont Studio Center, the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, and the New Jewish Culture Fellowship. Mariya was born in Minsk, Belarus and now lives in Detroit, Michigan. She earned an MFA from the University of Michigan, where she currently teaches. She is at work on her first poetry collection.
Photo Credit: Kristen Brunelli
Jenny Qi is the author of Focal Point, selected by Dustin Pearson for the 2020 Steel Toe Books Poetry Prize. Her essays and poems have been published in The New York Times, The Atlantic, and elsewhere. A 2022-23 Brown Handler Resident Writer, she has also received support from organizations such as Tin House, Omnidawn, Kearny Street Workshop, and the SF Writers Grotto. Born in Pennsylvania to Chinese immigrants, she grew up mostly in Las Vegas and now lives in San Francisco, where she completed her Ph.D. in Cancer Biology. She has been translating her late mother’s memoirs of the Cultural Revolution and immigration to the U.S. and is working on more essays and poems in conversation with this work.
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Photo credit: Marc Olivier Le Blanc