Grace Q. Song’s poems, “Analysis of Light,” “Self-Portrait as a Studio Ghibli Soundtrack,” and “Duplex: Leftover Man” were published in Issue I.
What’s been inspiring you recently? Any images or themes you’ve felt particularly drawn to as of late?
Hmm. I don’t know if there’s anything specific that’s been inspiring me lately, but something really weird and cool is that I’ve been writing a ton of short poems lately, around ten to fourteen lines. The lines are also either ten syllables or around ten syllables, and many are iambic pentameter-esque. I’m tempted to call them my sonnets, haha.
They say the best writers are the best readers. I have to shout out that you have a WONDERFUL blog outlining resources for emerging writers (I turn to it so often it’s landed on my bookmarks bar). If there’s one piece of literature you could assign as “required reading” to all emerging writers, what would it be and why?
I’m so glad you find the resources helpful! And I’m also so honored that it’s in your bookmarks bar. I try to update the page whenever I find a craft article that’s super eye-opening.
Augh, choosing one piece of “required reading” is so difficult. For me, I feel like it’s a tie between Ottavia Butler’s essay, “Furor Scribendi” (here), and a chapter titled “Publishing & the Pinocchio Syndrome” in Kim Addonizio’s writing handbook, Ordinary Genius (here).
I really love Butler’s essay because she emphasizes the fundamentals (reading, writing, revising), but also the importance of discipline over inspiration and talent: “As habit is more dependable than inspiration, continued learning is more dependable than talent.” This deeply resonated with me when I first read it, and it’s something I keep in the back of my mind whenever I write.
I love the excerpt from Kim Addonizio because it’s really relatable and realistic, and Addonizio reveals her own struggles with publication and success. Rejections are everywhere, even if you are a “good” writer. It’s important to persist. Additionally, I think the chapter speaks to a lot of young writers who’ve experienced the pressure to send out work and get published in magazine x/y/z by the age of 15. “You think you’re ready. But most of the time, you’re wrong. This is what the rejection slips are telling you,” writes Addonizio. Obviously, I’m not saying you shouldn’t send out your work if you are a young writer (I did that, although there have been quite a few pieces—especially my earlier poems—I regret publishing). But “be patient.” And remember that your work is more important than any publication.
Let’s dive into the work! “Analysis of Light” was so gorgeous in its ability to use light as not only a running symbol, but a means of developing the setting itself. How did the image of light develop throughout the various iterations of the poem?
To answer your question, I actually went through my old notebook and found the first draft of the poem! I think the idea of light began with the fact that when baby sea turtles are born, they use the moonlight to guide them towards the ocean, where they’ll be safe. However, in recent years, the amount of light pollution near nesting sites have caused confusion for baby sea turtles, luring them towards the cities, where they are easily killed by cars. I wanted to illustrate the duality of light: how it can lead to life but also death.
In 2020, I had the honor of reading a draft of “Self-Portrait as a Studio Ghibli Soundtrack” during a workshop for Incandescent Review’s Summer Studio, and I am still struck by it’s grace and vulnerability! How do you go about seeking inspiration for poetry in the greater world?
I remember showing you the draft during the peer-editing session! Great memories.
I think that inspiration is everywhere, if you allow it. That means eavesdropping on conversations on the train or paying attention to what the signs say on the road. It’s important to notice the “fine print” in life, to flip over the paper and read the other side. That’s how “Self-Portrait as a Studio Ghibli Soundtrack” began—when I was watching Princess Mononoke, I noticed how beautiful the soundtrack was, searched it up on Spotify, and wrote the poem while listening to the theme song.
“Duplex: Leftover Man” was so compelling in its ability to craft such vivid characters within only fourteen short lines. What’s your process for finding language that balances the poem’s need for both brevity and complexity?
This is such a great question, and I feel like it’s definitely something I’ve been struggling with lately, considering all the short poems I’ve been writing. For one, I think that repetition—particularly, repetition in which the lines contradict—can be a great way to create complexity and add layers. Also, when a poem is short, it’s important to let it breathe—don’t overwhelm the poem (and subsequently the reader) by packing in too many ideas or images; instead, really focus on one or two so that they can anchor the poem. Finally, the economy of language becomes even more important when writing short poems. You can use simple language, but the difficulty lies in how each word, each line, and each image needs to strike the reader.
There was a wonderful intertextuality between the poems in this collection; the references to hunger, to musicality, to moons and the natural world, it allowed the poems to speak in conversation with each other. As a poet, do you write with this intertextuality in mind, or do the poems simply reflect the images and themes that compel you?
I definitely do not write with intertextuality in mind—I just write whatever comes to mind (aka, I just write whatever I want, haha), but I’m not surprised by the intertextuality because, like all writers, there are just certain themes that I’m drawn to and thus repeat throughout my work.
Another fascinating throughline within the collection was the varied forms, couplets and duplexes and prose poetry. How do you go about deciding on a poem’s ideal form?
I love forms! It’s so cool to play around with them in my work and figure out which form suits the poem best. When it comes to deciding on a poem’s ideal form, I think it really depends on the poem. Something I keep in mind is: what the poem wants to say, and how does the poem want to say it? A single poem block will look and feel different from a poem that takes advantage of the space on a page. Even couplets look and feel different from tercets. So, for instance, if I have a poem that’s quite serious and tight, I’ll look towards a single block. If I want to lengthen it out on a page and slow down the reading experience, I’ll consider couplets. If the poem has a lot of jumps (ex: in terms of images) and experiments with rhythm, I might insert more white spaces.
Beyond this collection, you’ve been an advocate for other high schoolers to approach the writing world with a healthy mindset. If you could change the landscape of the “teen writing world,” what changes would you make and why?
Yeah, I think it’s really important to have a healthy mindset as a writer, first and foremost, and even more so as a young writer.
Something I think should be changed is the pressure that organizations and competitions put on writers of color to talk about their culture or heritage, or to even expose a particular group’s shared trauma, considering the type of pieces they award and then hold up as the “standard.” Of course, if you want to write diaspora/heritage poems, write them! But writing those types of poems shouldn’t be expected from a writer of color.
Another thing I wish more young writers would do is to stop caring about what other young writers are doing. This is your writing journey and yours solely. So go at your own pace. Don’t feel pressured to do x/y/z simply because everyone else is doing it. A mentor once told me that you will meet plenty of talented people in college who haven’t published anything. Another poet said he wished he hadn’t started submitting until he was twenty.
You’re still young—younger than most writers who begin to publish their work. So enjoy the ride :).
Anything else you would like to add? Anything we missed?
Thank you so much for interviewing me, Christian!! These were such lovely, insightful questions. It’s been an honor.
Christian Butterfield is an 18-year-old poet/essayist/totebag-enthusiast from Bowling Green, Kentucky. In 2019, he served as the National Student Poet of the Southeast, and his work has since been published/recognized by Best Teen Writing, the YoungArts Foundation and The Adroit Journal. He reads for EX/POST Magazine and was a 2020 Adroit Mentee in Creative Nonfiction.