Jennifer Tseng doesn’t live here anymore.
The celebrated West Tisbury poet and novelist, and a mainstay in the circulation department of the West Tisbury library for seven years, lives now in Brookline, teaching prose and poetry writing, and, of course, writing, writing, writing.
Ms. Tseng will be back on the Island on March 25 for a reading of her latest work at the West Tisbury library at 6 pm. That book of poetry, “Not so dear Jenny,” was inspired by rereading letters written to her by her father. Poem titles are taken from lines of those letters.
Ms. Tseng expanded her range and reputation with publication of her first novel, “Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness” in 2015. That story of a 40something librarian’s love affair with a teenage library patron was critically acclaimed nationally and internationally.
The Times interviewed Ms. Tseng by email this week about her new life and work.
What’s your life like today; where do you live?
I have a new life. It’s so different from my Island life. Brookline is a lovely place, but compared with the Vineyard, it’s noisy and dirty and chock full of people. When we walk down Beacon Street, no one knows who we are! The train rumbles by our third-floor apartment at all hours; my writing studio is no longer an attic but a window seat — with the curtains closed, it’s like a little room in the air.
My daughter Xing and I miss our old life! We miss the West Tisbury library and our Island friends, and the woods and our old house. We miss knowing people and being known. We miss the stone walls and the sheep and the sea. But we still have our Island cat Didi, shared memories, and a lot of new pen pals. And I still have my writing. I spend much of my time in that window seat reading, writing, looking down at the street, out at the world.
Today I teach writing for the Fine Arts Work Center’s online writing program, 24PearlStreet, so I even teach in that window seat. This summer, I’ll be teaching poetry at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and fiction for the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing.
There’s a sense of “buckle up” for me with your latest volume — that you are going to reveal feelings that only fearless writers can do. Is that true? Are you fearless, and how come?
Ooh, I like that idea though, of course, I’m not fearless. Writing is a way of calming oneself. It’s easier to be fearless on the page than in a world that lives and breathes and argues and explodes, a world that screams back. That said, I do hope to scare myself a little more each time.
Is there more fiction to come?
Yes. Tin House in Portland, Ore., will publish my first “real” story (i.e. a story that isn’t a novel excerpt) this spring, and I have a collection of very short stories, “The Passion of Woo & Isolde & Other Stories” [Rose Metal Press], coming out in August. I also haven’t given up on my first novel, “Woo,” the imagined story of my father’s life. I’m about to go back to working on that.
You’ve won a sack of competitive awards in the past decade or so. What’re the hurdles in the submission process?
One of the perils of the submission process is that it can be very time-consuming; it could, if you let it, take over your writing life. Most writers know all too well how difficult it is to procure time to write, so it’s a strange tradeoff to give up writing time in order to do something practical in service of that same writing. Not only can it be time-consuming, it’s rather exhausting, so I try to submit in moderation if at all. Certainly I go through phases where I don’t send anything out, in order to salvage my concentration and/or momentum on a particular project.
Has “Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness” changed your writing, changed how you are viewed popularly and among writing colleagues?
I trust that “Mayumi” changed my writing — I think every writing project changes me — though I can’t say with certainty exactly how. It taught me how to write a novel in a way that reading a novel never could. It also reminded me that I’m capable of finishing a long project, something I began to wonder about after working on my first novel for so long without an end in sight. As for how I was or am viewed by readers and writers, I honestly don’t know. What I can say is the book made known the fact that I’m both a fiction writer and a poet. For years I’d been writing both forms in tandem, but prior to “Mayumi,” I’d never published a book of fiction; my previous books were both poetry collections. Though I’d published a couple of novel excerpts, most readers knew me as a poet. “Mayumi” helped me come out as a fiction writer.
What have you been working on?
For the past year or so, I’ve been working on “Not so dear Jenny,” a collection of poems made with my Chinese father’s English letters. My late father wrote letters to me over a period of 30 years. For years, I carried his letters with me, for years I wanted to write poems with them, but I was afraid to open the box. When we moved to Brookline, I finally opened it. What an intensely rewarding experience it’s been to work with my father’s words. He said some beautiful things without meaning to (and some not so beautiful things on purpose too). There are times, after working on the book for several hours, when I feel I’ve spent the day with him. And in a way I have. The very wonderful Bateau Press published a chapbook version earlier this month, and I’ll be reading from the full-length version of “Not so dear Jenny” on March 25 at 6 pm at the West Tisbury library.