An Interview with Sophia Terazawa

Dear Readers,

In the week leading up to the publication of our MIDTERM chapbook, we’ve selected a few poets to interview regarding their work both in this issue and more broadly. Please enjoy the following conversation with Sophia Terazawa and follow the link below for details of the MIDTERM 4 release reading on December 19th

MIDTERM 4 Release Reading

1. This is a very taxing time. I’m sorry to ask such a blunt question, but how has the pandemic affected your writing and writing process?

Oof. My brain feels like a sealed Tupperware of days-old bone stew, all coagulated and a little jiggly at the top. In May 2020, I received my MFA from the U of Arizona and then scrambled across the country to find work (but really… to escape memories of heartache, a pin stuck into a heart against the saguaro), so my writing has taken a bit of the proverbial sidestep as mama hustles to bring in cash.

Currently, I’m balancing my time as a teacher, livestreamer, and fortune teller. In this way, my daily headspace has been split into three different modes of being. Each job requires a separate social affect and “spoken performance” in front of the camera, on-screen. I’m not sure yet how my poems will be shaped by this when I’m able to sustain a period of writing again. [Note: My writing process tends to come in intensive, durational bursts. Since the pandemic and graduation, however, I haven’t had much time to “turn off” my online/video personna to make space for these “bursts.” I suppose this is a part of the process, and the three voices will eventually learn to make an asynchronous braid.]

But… I also have some Big Writing News coming out very, very soon. A formal announcement will be made somewhere on the Internet, so please stay tuned. Yay!

What I can say for now is a gentle instruction. Imagine: Scene. Katniss from District 12 twirls onstage in The Hunger Games. She’s wearing a designer dress, which then catches on fire. The audience watches in admiration. Behind her eyes, Katniss hides her agony. Cut. String instrumentals and the image of snow. Cut. Image of a closed fist slamming into the ground. Cut. Image of the poet looking directly into the camera. She is holding two books. One book begins to combust, followed quickly by the other. The poet does not move.

2. In these four poems, I was fascinated by your mentions and depictions of the gibbon. What drew you to gibbons in particular? Have you spent a lot of time around them?

The gibbon is my second favorite animal (after the octopus). I was first drawn to her image many years ago in Texas upon seeing “Two Gibbons Reaching for the Moon” by the mid-Edo Japanese painter Itō Jakuchū at an exhibit, and I remember feeling a deep pull to the blank areas of the canvas, suggesting an illusory moon off-frame, painted on the imaginary surface of water.

I had forgotten about this painting until the middle of my summer residency last year in Ljubljana, Slovenia. A local writer and I had just met for the first time, and we’d decided to take a long night walk along the river. It was a full moon, and we were in a winding conversation about diaspora, intergenerational trauma, and nostalgia–themes that we both seemed to share and struggle against/with in our writing. There was an intense hunger to get to know each other, a kind of kinship that felt at once so rare and instantaneous; and I suddenly remembered the gibbons.

When I told my new friend about the painting, everything seemed to “click” for us. It was an image we could both relate to, and our writing processes that summer seemed to evolve from meditating on this image of a gibbon holding onto the arm of another gibbon, both reaching for the dream of a moon (and not the moon itself).

For the remainder of my stay in Ljubljana, I had visions of these tiny apes everywhere. They swung from rooftop to rooftop over the city. In the mornings, I woke up to the imagined sounds of their screeching calls through my open windows. In the castle uphill, I heard the rustling of their bodies against stone. They were following me everywhere, activated across time and space and desire, and I had to make sure there was enough space for all of us in the poem.

One day I would like to visit the gibbon sanctuary in Vietnam’s Cát Tiên Park. As my daughter’s mother, I feel a pull to her home country though it will never truly be “in reach,” no matter how many times I’ve gone back. In this way, I’m also dangling toward a space off-canvas, at the ruins of ecocide and devastation without the exact language to describe the monstrosity of it all. The gibbons, I’ve learned, are mostly endangered, and I’ve also been connecting this with the unspeakability of human-made disaster, both in public and in private.

3. Anon has a very striking visual structure and we spent a lengthy time discussing its final page and its form. How meticulous are you in the visual presentation (ex. spacing, fonts, sectioning, italics, symbols) of your poems?

Oh, thank you so much for the kind and generous reading. The last page of my poem “Anon” takes the shape of Vietnam’s coastline, which I lightly “traced” within the limits of line breaks in a word processor. After doing this, the image took the shape of a pregnant belly, and this made me think of Mother Mekong, a transnational river west of Vietnam, which eventually frays into a lush delta system in the south. Here, I’m reminded again of the gibbons in their jungle sanctuary.

The swinging motion of their tiny, playful bodies inspired the visual spacing and sectioning of my writing. Each symbol and font shape takes the shape of such movements. The little “o” of surprise at the center of the ape’s round face. The em dash “—” of a curious, long limb reaching for the blank space. I write everything by hand, so on the page, the pen darts across like a paintbrush. I have to be intentional with my movements, but I don’t want to overthink it. Jump first. Land safely. Ask questions later.

4. In our meetings, we’ve discussed that many of these pieces have strong senses of love and spiritual connection, but also of loss, injustice, and lost connection. For members of the diaspora of areas in which the West, the United States, has instituted imperialist brutality, how can writing/talking restore those severed connections? What is the emotional toll/potential of writing pieces that touch pain and loss so close to home, yet simultaneously physically and temporally distant?

This is an important series of questions. Thank you for asking and sitting with the weight of it in company. For me, the poems of Anon were, and still are, a welcome break from a larger manuscript (wink wink) which had taken most of my energy over the three MFA years in Tucson. Yes, I had to pay a toll for that larger manuscript of loss, and the toll was my heart. Writing, therefore, became an act of making the pyre. I needed to watch everything burn with language.

With Anon, on the other hand, I felt optimistic around a sense of restorative justice in the language early on. Here, I used the adverb meaning “soon” or “at once.” This allowed me to close that linguistic distance between a heartbreak, both collective and personal, and the future possibilities of healing. Perhaps, too, I was ready to be in love again.

Writing, for me, also comes directly out of intimate conversations with a beloved. I’m so thankful for Anon, both adverb and friend, for his steady and urgent conversations, even if the topics were centered on those “severed connections.” I like that we started there, in the subject of exile, as though the poems held onto my tail, and said, “It’s okay. You can go. I love you.”

5. In your interview with the Offing Mag you said that you’re Western and your mother is Vietnamese, and that you can’t be both. This really resonated with me. How do you bridge that gap within yourself, between you and others? How do you cope with this feeling of a lack of belonging anywhere?

I feel simultaneously a great overlap and separation with others. I belong to love, and home is where someone loves me. It’s so simple in my mind. Anon helped to make this bridge more clear during my time in Ljubljana.

This also reminds me of a musician who stands on that bridge. He wanders from town to town and sometimes sleeps in the public park. The musician and Anon are good friends. I’m so happy to watch their conversations, even if I don’t understand the language in which they speak, here in Slovenia. There’s something delightfully rooted about seeing two people greet each other in the margins. I feel like a witness to this, tethered and quiet.

6. What’s an underrated food you’ve been liking a lot these days?

Poppy seed muffins.

7. After looking at your website, I was wondering hehe if you could drop a Twigs or Bjork song that you and/or Panda have been listening to a lot lately. Thank you for your time.

Panda is so delighted to help answer this! Thank you for including him. 🙂

We’ve been listening to Björk’s “Jóga” on repeat and like to belt out these lines: “EeeMOTIONALLL landscapes, they puzzle me… This staaate oooooof emERRRgencyyyy, how beauuutiful 2 B.”

All of this fits the theme of Anon quite nicely in Panda’s opinion.

Outside of this, in preparing for another work to be launched into the world (wink wink), we’ve been listening and dancing and shaking to the fire that is “holy terrain” by FKA Twigs. I welcome you at the temple doors.

SOPHIA TERAZAWA is the author of two chapbooks, I AM NOT A WAR (Essay Press) and Correspondent Medley (Factory Hollow Press), winner of the 2018 Tomaž Šalamun Prize. Her work appears in The Offing, Puerto del Sol, Poor Claudia, and elsewhere. She received an MFA in Poetry at the University of Arizona, where she also served as poetry editor for Sonora Review.