This is the first of a series of interviews. This month, the interview focuses on one of the founders of the HZWA Intl.: Hannah Lund!
Interviewer: Tich Sagonda
Can you give us a brief self introduction?
Of course! I’m a graduate student in Comparative Literature and World Literature at Zhejiang University. If you’re not sure what that means, you wouldn’t be alone. I’ve been in China on and off for five years now, first as a university teacher, now as a student. I’ve been obsessed with China for a long time. I mean, all of my journals in middle school and on were China-themed, which is pretty wild. I went back home one year and found one, only to see that I could actually read the characters on the cover. Luckily it said “Imagination” and not “Fried rice” or something like that. I also do a ton of travel, and have made it to every Chinese province in my time here.
When did you start writing and what do you think attracted you to poetry?
Well, as a kid I was always creating something, even if it was a stupid song about imaginary witches. I think I really started to consider writing seriously once I got to college and met others who liked to write. Ever since then, I’ve made a point to write pretty regularly, even now as I’m working on my thesis. I got into poetry because of a poetry slam I joined while in college. I loved the economy of language, but also how in such a short space, the writer could still pack a punch. I also liked how spoken word involves the audience more and creates a sort of communal work of art, even though it’s typically just one person speaking. Poetry for me can be many things, but in the end it’s how it draws people together that makes it special, while also manipulating language in a way that longer works often can’t.
Moving to China: How did that impact your life as a poet?
In some ways it’s hard to say that because I’m still in China, but I noticed that as a student learning in a Chinese-speaking environment, I would often have such a back-log of things I wanted to say but just didn’t know how to express. You know how lots of pressure will either make dust or a diamond? That’s sort of what happened I think in terms of my creativity. With the pressure to express myself in a limited context, it made me ravenous for English writing and for chances to fully express myself. Rather than getting discouraged, I leaned into it and just tried harder and harder to say it better each time. Of course, it also goes without saying that being in China is to be surrounded by inspiration all over, especially when it comes to travel. I find people most inspiring, though, and so as my Chinese has improved, I’ve been able to meet a wide variety of locals and expats alike.
Hangzhou Writers International, what was the inspiration behind it?
The seed of the idea really began after I’d gone to a poetry night through Zhejiang University. The whole situation made me really nostalgic for poetry nights back in America, especially in terms of how laid-back and welcoming they were. I mean, the event I’d joined in Hangzhou wasn’t bad, it was just very different from how I thought poetry ought to be enjoyed. I remember walking back to my dorm room, calling Katie and talking about how much I wanted a more open and relaxed space for poetry, and she just said “We could start that.” And here we are.
How do you think you’ve evolved as a writer over the years?
In leaps and bounds. I mean, I’m far from considering myself to be a great writer, but I’ve definitely made progress, which has come from sheer persistence. Just making it a habit takes away a lot of the anxiety or fear that comes from creation, and after a while a blank page looks more like a playground, less like a yawning abyss of failure. It’s hard for me to gauge specifically what’s gotten better, but sometimes when I look back on old writing, I can tell that something’s changed.
What do you think good poetry ought to do?
Well, poetry can come in all forms, but I think one thing that all good poetry ought to do is move and be able to move others. For me, good poetry is the stuff that subverts your expectations, offers surprises, and basically takes you on a journey that you didn’t even know you wanted or needed to take.
What’s the best experience you’ve gained through your writing?
Probably some of the best writing experiences I’ve had are the ones when I’ve been able to connect with other writers. This includes our own poetry functions, but also book readings by authors, poetry-related parties (yes they exist) and more. Once you find out that someone else writes, it’s like you’ve joined a secret club. One of the coolest things that has happened to me was when I made my first poetry translation attempt for the Shanghai Literary Review last spring, and it got accepted and by sheer domino-effect of connections, I ended up in an amazing weekend-long writing retreat on Chongming Island. Just goes to show that it never hurts to try, and that it can lead you to very unexpected places.
Do you have a set routine (place, process) when you write?
It’s funny because I think there’s this myth of writers lounging in dark attics, writing only when inspiration comes, but I can honestly write just about anywhere. I tend to do it in my room, but if I want the extra pressure of people around me, I might go to a library or a coffee shop (or in more extreme cases, places without Wifi to distract me). I definitely prefer writing with pen on paper first, because my thoughts tend to flow better and be more concise. After that, I’ll transfer it to my computer and then edit. I also try to write in the morning, because in the evening I’m usually worn out, or have a lot of scattered, hectic thoughts from the day.
Writers block. How do you deal with it?
I actually have the opposite problem: too many ideas vying for my attention. But, when I feel myself getting stuck with how I want to proceed, I’ll try writing something unrelated for a bit, and usually that change of perspective is all I need to keep going. That, and going for longish walks also helps clear the mind. And coffee. Too much coffee.
Where do you see yourself as a poet in the near future?
I definitely see myself in a poetry community, hopefully still involved in readings and slams and the like. Hopefully at some point in the future, I’ll have submitted some of my stuff to magazines and published more, but I’ll take it one step at a time.
One poet that more people should know: Who is it?
I’ll bet a decent number of people already know him, but I really do love Wendell Berry. He writes mostly about nature, but he does it in such a wonderful way, and I find it to be both poignant and a nice escape from frustrating things happening in the world, though he of course still points out those things, too.
What are you reading at the moment?
Right now, I’m reading the English version of “The Three Body Problem.” I just finished reading the original Chinese and was able to understand about 80% of it, and so wanted to check out the English version for that other 20%. Turns out that since the book is chock-full of scientific jargon, I’m still not quite at 100%, but I’m enjoying it nonetheless. That being said, I’m antsy to dive into the next books on my list: “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” by Jonathan Safran Foer, “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho, and “The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead.
What words of advice would you give aspiring poets?
It’s like Ms. Frizzle says in The Magic School Bus: “Take chances, make mistakes, and get messy!” Write your heart out, and when the time comes, share it!