GILLIAN SZE is the author of multiple poetry collections. She has also written books for children, including The Night Is Deep and Wide, which was listed as one of the Best Books for Kids in 2021 by the New York Public Library. Her work has attained starred reviews from Quill & Quire, Publishers Weekly, and Kirkus Reviews and has been translated into Slovenian, French, Italian, Turkish, Hebrew, and Greek. Her latest collection of poems and essays, Quiet Night Think, explores the early shaping of a writer, the creative process, and motherhood.
This interview was conducted via e-mail by Interview Editor Veronica Gonzales. Of the process, she said, “Quiet Night Think is an emotional and touching story that explores new motherhood and one’s own personal origin. It’s one whose lyrical prose and vulnerable moments of family I found myself completely mesmerized by. It was such a pleasure to interview Gillian Sze and to learn more about Chinese history and culture through her collection of essays and poems.” In this interview, Gillian Sze talks about traveling into the past, Chinese postpartum care, and neighborhood cats.
Superstition Review: Quiet Night Think is a collection of both poetry and essays, with the poems focusing on specific memories and the essays focusing on broader time periods and cultural context. Can you discuss your process for determining if your pieces should be written as a poem or as an essay? Are there certain moments and topics that can only be written in one form?
Gillian Sze: I let my words find their own forms. I typically turn to smaller shapes: a poem, a prose poem, a crown of sonnets. The longer form in Quiet Night Think—the essay—was better able to accommodate the research, the narratives, the explorations, and threads of time, so it felt right to turn to the sentence. I just roamed with the prose. Admittedly, I first thought Quiet Night Think would be a collection of essays, but poetry always seeps through one way or another.
SR: You mention that the first collection of poems you owned introduced you to the works of Sylvia Plath, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, W.B. Yeats, and W.H. Auden, and throughout this collection, you reference Elizabeth Bishop, Maggie Nelson, and Rainer Maria Rilke. Can you discuss how these poets influenced you? Do you have different inspirations when it comes to writing essays?
GS: I think my first desire to write was to create—recreate—the feeling I got when reading. That complex, intangible realization of connection, clarity, intrigue, learning, and pleasure. It’s magic. My own desire to express and explore moves me to write, but so does my admiration. Reading can leave me in awe, so I wonder, “Maybe I can try that, too,” or, “How did they do that?”
SR: Your essays are filled with Chinese history and culture, which I found incredibly enlightening. Can you describe how learning about and understanding other cultures through poetry and reflective writing is different from having general history lessons?
GS: The most memorable and fascinating aspects of Chinese culture and history about which I have learned come from talking to my parents and family. It’s a gift to be able to converse with them. Through them, I access the intimate textures of language, cuisine, art, customs, and stories. I latch onto an experience, or a sensual detail, and travel into the past from there.
SR: Most of your poems feature the theme of nature. For example, “Current” uses the imagery of trees and leaves and “All I Have To Say” spotlights a black and white woodpecker. What inspired this recurrence of nature in your poetry?
GS: During the writing of this book, I’ve spent a lot of time looking out my back window as a result of long Canadian winters, Chinese postpartum care, being at home with small children, and—especially this last while—the pandemic. All that and reading a lot of Mary Oliver had an impact, I suppose!
SR: In the essay, “To Draw Water,” you introduce the traditional Chinese practice of naming through a generation poem, where each character is associated with a specific generation and is used to create a family member’s name. However, you mention that your name strays away from that tradition. How has this generation poem and your disconnect from it influenced you as a poet, and how has writing your own poetry then allowed you to find your identity?
GS: The generation poem is a way to organize a family; each generation is assigned a character in the poem. I was writing well before learning about this practice, and certainly felt like I had already strayed in terms of the expectations of my family. So to realize later that my name also strayed from the generation poem seemed fitting. I can see how it sets up a felicitous analogy. Perhaps one could say I moved away from the pre-written poem to compose my own poems.
SR: In the essay, “Sitting Inside the Moon,” you write about the aftermath of the birth of your first child, specifically coming back as a new person and not recognizing who you are. I found this essay enriching for its explanation of the Chinese practice where new mothers stay home for a month to recover from birth. The essay is also incredibly touching because of your vulnerability and honesty about the sense of loss of your past self. Can you describe how writing this collection is similar to that Chinese practice for mothers and how it has helped you reconcile those versions of yourself?
GS: My son was born ten days after I defended my PhD. I moved abruptly from being a full-time student to being a full-time mother, and suddenly everything changed: time, needs, demands, priorities, energy. All parents move through this period in their own ways with varying levels of comfort and success as they adjust to their new roles as caregivers, but mine involved a distinct one-month period where my world of slow time (leisurely reading and writing, long periods of quiet) had to disappear. Chinese postpartum care is focused on supporting and caring for the new mother and, subsequently, ensuring that she can care for the baby. The mother withdraws from the world and everyday life, such as going outside, cooking, washing her hair, and reading, so she can focus on recovery and new life. Where do the words go when one does not have the energy to think of or use words? Where do words hide when one is spending all their time with a wordless creature? Putting this book together was not just a return to writing, but finding a new way back to words, out of the moon, and with a different mind and body.
SR: In the essay, “The Hesitant Gaze,” you quote John Berger, who says, “We never look at just one thing; we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves.” This quote felt very spot on for me. Can you discuss how writing about the relation between yourself and your memories helped you better understand the world and life in general?
GS: There is a time for urgency. There is also a time for patience. Both modes are artistically useful and yield various results.
SR: You’ve written three children’s books, in which you use poetry as a medium. For example, The Night is Deep and Wide is written as a villanelle. How is writing poetry for a children’s book different from writing poetry for adults?
GS: I initially wrote The Night Is Deep and Wide for my son, who was about two-and-a-half at the time. He was my first audience, and I hadn’t written for anybody that young before. For this poem, I paid attention to my choice of imagery. I wanted to include things that he had encountered before, like the birds, neighbourhood cats, squirrels, and groundhog that visit our backyard. I was also attentive to vocabulary. I wanted to use language that was accessible to both the infant listener (quite literally, those who cannot speak) and euphonious for the older reader.
SR: In an interview with Soliloquies Anthology, you mentioned how the more you write, the more it feels as if you’re “only writing different versions of the same poem. Or maybe different parts to one larger poem.” WIll you talk more about the evolution of topics in poems that come out of a long and dedicated writing practice?
GS: In a creative writing workshop, a classmate once said, “You write a lot about the moon and your mother.” I believe there are some subjects of which writers just never reach the other side.
SR: With your experience writing ten poetry collections and three children’s books, what does your next project look like?