Listening to the Struggle: A question with Jennifer Cheng and Sara Wallace

AGNI: Issue 81 of AGNI featured work from both of you—the essay “Hikikomori: Salt Constellations” by Jennifer and the poem “Ritalin” by Sara—centered around 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?

Jennifer 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.

Sara 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.

Issue 81 contains these two pieces and many more.

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JSCheng_PhotobJennifer S. Cheng holds an MFA in Nonfiction from the University of Iowa and an MFA in Poetry from San Francisco State University. She is the author of a chapbook, Invocation: An Essay (New Michigan Press), and her lyric essays and poems appear in Tin House, Web Conjunctions, Tarpaulin Sky Magazine, Sonora Review, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere. The recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship, a Kundiman Fellowship, and an Academy of American Poets Award, she lives in San Francisco, where she is a founding editor of Drop Leaf Press. She recently completed her first poetry manuscript, House A. Read more at

WallaceSara Wallace is the author of The Rival, winner of the Agha Shahid Ali Poetry Prize (The University of Utah Press, 2015) and the chapbook Edge, winner of The 2014 Center for Book Arts Poetry Chapbook Competition. She lives in Brooklyn.


6 thoughts on “Listening to the Struggle: A question with Jennifer Cheng and Sara Wallace

  1. Dear Sara Wallace:

    I read your poem, “Ritalin” with much attention, I found your use of color intriguing and new, the use of the “slide show technique” of image presentation was effective though I wouldn’t have thought of it hadn’t you mentioned it in the interview conversation.

    I liked the flashback blending of imagery, the means of blurring the divide between reader & writer, between reader & subject, and between us & them. Congratulations.


    1. Dear Jennifer Cheng:

      I read your essay “Hikikomori: Salt Constellations” with interest. I can see your strengths as a poet in the prose. The use of short sentences, like images in a poem, interspersed with longer paragraphs of emotion is memorable.

      The approach of the use of “I” suggests almost a fictional quality, a story more than an essay, if I only knew what an essay is! I liked it both ways. Thank you.


      1. I love the suggestion of ghosts of writing, the idea that one might see vague or ephemeral outlines of a line of poetry within an essay. The connection between poetry and essay was never far apart in the writings of Henry David Thoreau, so we may learn from the past.


    2. As a Bipolar disorder patient I am always interested in poetry that deals with the mind. Your poetry is akin to a lemon or a peel, the skin of a frog and the mix of voices that echo in our heads, a flash-dance of subtle nuances and suggested possibilities.


  2. Dear AGNI:

    The question you ask, “What did you try to do in terms of form… …to make the experience palpable to the reader?” is valuable and important. I think Jennifer mentioned the idea of “returning,” and Sara offered this kind of thinking when she mentioned the slide-show analogy, where it doesn’t matter who was the photographer, we all can be one. The suggestion of returning can create a similar path the writer takes to the imagination of the event, and allows us as readers to be like a ghost-writer, a ghost of a reader, to participate in the spirit of the imagination. In other words, we too, a writers of prose and poetry, ought to be aware of the experience of the reader, as well as these two writers have.


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