Listening to the Struggle: A question with Jennifer Cheng and Sara Wallace
Jennifer Cheng’s essay “Hikikomori: Salt Constellations” and Sara Wallace’s poem “Ritalin” appear in AGNI 81.
AGNI: Issue 81 features work from both of you centered on internal/mental states and internal/mental struggles. What I think I liked best about the two pieces is the way you not only wrote about these internal experiences but managed to also convey those experiences to the reader. What did you try to do in terms of form—structure, order, movement in time and space—to make the experience palpable to the reader?
Cheng: I wrote my essay slowly, leaving and returning to it again, and each time I came back I entered the writing by listening to that internal state and struggle—its rhythm and logic. In poetry, sometimes you can hear the echo of the line before you fill in the words, like a ghost, and writing my essays is a similar experience, but the chunks and spaces to fill are larger. In this essay there is a continual movement between small details and large statements, personal narrative and facts/research, inward and outward. There is a sense of chronology, but it also travels back and forth between childhood, a couple years past, and myriad present-day moments, and throughout are pauses and suspensions, shallow and deep, all of which invoke, as you say, movements in time and space. Some of the facts/research are even words, phrases, or fragments that merely float; they are almost interruptions, but they felt natural to me because this is how we process upheaval (or at least I do), in unanchored shards and splinters. The constant folding/opening inward and outward (do they converge at times?) is perhaps the rhythm of anguish—its largeness and smallness, quiet yet teeming, a slow mulling and also a desperate intensity, a held breath and a hidden exhale. Repetition and return is an important feature here, functioning as a kind of urgency and insistence.
Wallace: Even though my poem is in present tense, I wanted it to have a “flashback” feeling. Although I hadn’t fully thought out why “flashbacks” as I was writing that first draft, the poem evolved to mimic, in its imagery and music, how traumatic memories might be recalled—like a “slide show.” The poem opens with a series of discrete photograph-like images (the doctor stopped mid-gesture, a snippet from an educational TV show on DNA). I also wanted the “slide show” to kind of glow around the edges (even if it’s a toxic glow)—much like how slides glow when projected onto a wall. So, as I was writing, I found myself exaggerating the color of the images, making the colors sharper and brighter than they would be in real life. I used simple, not subtle, version of colors—“green” not “sage,” “red” not “oxblood.”
Musically, I knew before I began writing the poem that I was interested in playing with a series of sentence fragments embedded into lines. The punctuation between each fragment underscores the discreteness of each image—almost like the “click” one hears between slides when manning the carousel of an antique slide projector. I wanted to create a feeling of eerie reminiscence, like a demented version of a Kodak vacation slide show, an anti-Wonder Years kind of sentiment. I also interspersed the “slide show” with a sarcastic voice-over (lines like “it’s hard to get comfortable with 107 electrodes implanted in your scalp”) so the speaker can guide the reader ( and herself) through the mendacity of adult “comfort” (the unseen nurse advising the speaker to get comfortable, the brave new world of the metric system).
Then, with the last stanza, I continued using the “slide show with voice-over,” perhaps to suggest that Ritalin made little difference in the face of the speaker’s bewildering experience of childhood helplessness, where adult motives are confusing and adult power is a given.