An interview with Jenny Qi from The Write Stuff series:
Jenny Qi is the author of the debut poetry collection Focal Point, winner of the 2020 Steel Toe Books Poetry Award. Her essays and poems have been published widely in newspapers and literary journals, including The New York Times, The Atlantic, and the San Francisco Chronicle, and she has received fellowships from Tin House, Omnidawn, Kearny Street Workshop, and the San Francisco Writers Grotto. Born in Pennsylvania to Chinese immigrants, she grew up mostly in Las Vegas and Nashville and now resides in San Francisco, where she completed her Ph.D. in Cancer Biology and currently works in oncology consulting. At the end of graduate school, she co-founded and produced the science storytelling podcast Bone Lab Radio, where she wrote and talked a lot about death. She is working on more essays and poems and translating her late mother’s memoirs of the Chinese Cultural Revolution and immigration to the U.S.
When people ask what do you do, you tell them…?
It depends on who I’m talking to and the context of our interaction. Since I’ve only been out of my PhD program for a few years and still work in science, by default, I usually tell people I used to be a scientist and am still oncology-adjacent. If they’re in a similar field, I might specify that I do oncology consulting and/or competitive intelligence. If it’s going to be a long enough conversation, and I feel up to answering the nebulous question of what I write about, I might add that I’m a writer outside of that. If I’m talking to other writers, I might say that I write poetry and nonfiction, but my dayjob is in science. All of the things I do seem to require too much explanation, so I try to avoid it!
What’s your biggest struggle—work or otherwise?
Time. I think most writers, regardless of their background, are always juggling their art with a full-time job, not to mention family obligations, maintaining the health of one’s physical body, and all the parts of writing that aren’t actually writing. Not to mention doing our part to defend democracy, battling existential dread, and some leisure is nice too…
If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?
Be open to all opportunities, but don’t burn yourself out. And as my friend tells me, don’t compare your insides to other people’s outsides.
What’s been most important to your writing: education, or the real world? Why?
I suppose since I don’t have much of what might be considered formal education in writing (i.e. an MFA), I’d have to choose the latter, but I don’t think they’re necessarily separate.
If you could give advice to your 15 year old self, what would it be?
Try not to care so much what other people think, prioritize who and what you love, and be kind. It gets harder, but it gets easier too.
Do you consider yourself successful? Why?
On some level, sure, I’m doing well in life by certain conventional measures. But honestly, I find it hard to ever consider myself successful or celebrate my accomplishments because as soon as I do one thing, I’m moving onto the next, and maybe that means I’m not successful yet because I haven’t figured out how to be content.
Why do you get up every morning?
There’s so much to do! Plus, my body has become accustomed to waking up at 7ish and just staying awake after that.
Do you have a favorite ancestor? What is his/her/their story?
My mom is probably the obvious answer, given that I wrote my first book for her. But instead, I’ll try to tell you a little about my paternal grandfather Qi Longwei (in Chinese, the last name comes first), who was a prominent historian in China and a scholar through and through. I learned only recently that he wrote poems for each of his grandchildren, of which I was the youngest, and his great grandchildren. He loved green tea, and he drank his tea really bitter. He was a dog in the Chinese zodiac. He was a gentle sort, kind to people regardless of their background. His students remained in his life until the end.
What’s wrong with society today?
Twitter. I’m kind of kidding, but I do think there’s too much frenetic energy and outrage floating around and not enough thoughtfulness. But I’m sure people thought that twenty or forty years ago too.
Where do you go to find sanctuary?
Somewhere in nature, near trees and water.
What is your fondest memory?
As a child in Las Vegas, I wanted to be a visual artist, and one of my weekend pastimes was going to galleries on the Strip with my mom. She would sometimes tell the gallery owners about my interest, and a few times, they told me about the equipment they used. So I suppose this is more like a cluster of memories, but I remember that time fondly because it was a time when my mother was my best friend and the only friend I needed, I was too young and unsophisticated to be snobbish, and the future was so far away that anything seemed possible.
What would you like to see happen in your lifetime?
Climate stability. Everything else seems secondary to this enormous existential threat.
What is the relationship between your identity and your desires? Perhaps related, perhaps not: why is sex (un)important to you?
I was mired in grief for so much of my late adolescence and young adulthood, the period of life in which people are typically constructing and exploring their identities, that I just didn’t think about it. So I feel like many parts of my identity beyond being a grieving daughter are still kind of new to me, even though of course they impacted how my grief manifested.
What is art? Is it necessary? Why?
One of my favorite quotes in high school came from Dead Poets Society: “Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.” And that’s what I think of in response to this question and what I always thought of in defense of my own creative endeavors. Art is not at the base of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and is not necessary in the same way that air or water are necessary for pure physical survival. But at the same time it is, because it can be what drives someone to survive.
What’s your relationship to clothes? Or: describe the shoes you’re currently wearing.
Most days, I would say no shoes because I’m inside my apartment, but today, I’m actually wearing blue platform sandals to break them in before wearing them outside, and I have thoroughly enjoyed being 4 inches taller than usual.
What are you working on right now? Or: what kind of work would you like to do?
Mostly, as far as writing goes, I’m preparing for the launch of my debut poetry collection Focal Point. I’m also working on essays again, and my larger project, which I’m not actively working on because it requires longer periods of focus than I can dedicate right now, is translating my late mother’s memoirs.
If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?
I’ve seen a lot of people weigh in on housing, and I’ll just add that I think allowing developers to build more housing and taller residential buildings would help with the limited supply. A single unhappy homeowner who doesn’t want an obstructed view or construction noise can block the development of a whole building, and that seems absurd.
A night on the town: what does that mean to you?
I’m answering this after almost 2 years of pandemic, and I truly don’t know anymore. Being in public in any way? In the before times, I enjoyed seeing plays at ACT (American Conservatory Theater) and going to museums and readings and such.
Have you ever seen a ghost? Or: what’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen?
I have a poem that’s sort of about this. I’m not really supposed to believe in ghosts as a scientist, but on the night of my mother’s cremation, the alarm for an old clock that was in a kitchen drawer started going off. I’d never used the alarm function on it, and the batteries had been dead for at least a year.
What’s the most important life lesson you’ve learned? Or: what was your last moment of awe?
Act from a place of kindness and consideration. You never know what might happen.
What can you do with 50 words? 50 dollars?
Write a poem.
What are some of your favorite smells?
Gardenia, jasmine, and sandalwood are nostalgic scents for me.
What are you unable to live without?
If you got an all-expenses-paid life experience of your choice, what would it be?
A round-the-world trip, with a lot of time for both exploration and writing and spontaneous friendships with fellow travelers.
If you could live in your ideal society, what would your average day be like?
I once read that Margaret Atwood sits down to write at 10am and ends her writing/work day around 3 or 4pm, and now that’s more or less my ideal schedule, with plenty of time before to exercise and mentally prepare for the day ahead and plenty of time after to engage with the world outside and wind down.