A Conversation with Nicole Tong
Sarah Marcus-Donnelly: Your gorgeous new book, How to Prove a Theory, was the 2017 Jean Feldman Poetry Prize Winner. It is a meditation on grief and memory and human resilience. I have had the pleasure of listening to you read some of these poems, which made them even more tender and devastating for me. Can you tell us about the process of writing about grief? How long did it take you to write the collection? Can you share some background for this book?
Nicole Tong: Sarah, thank you. That reading was a dream, and I am lucky to have shared it with you and your wonderful work.
First, like many debut collections, when I began this one over a decade ago, I was wrestling with memory. I grew up in a house where silence was our shared language. My dad was a career Marine with PTSD. He repeated the following like a mantra: “What goes on in this house, stays in this house.” With the necessity of silence came the byproducts of shame and anxiety. I did very well in school, so there no one ever pulled me aside to ask, “Is everything okay?”
Second, life happened. I didn’t aim to write a book of full of elegies. In 2011, my spouse John and I became caretakers for his brother who was diagnosed with congestive heart failure in North Carolina. He didn’t qualify for further medical interventions, and his doctor expected him to live for six months. Instead, he suffered tremendous pain for two years. Then one quiet Wednesday in October, he entered hospice care and died a day later with John at his side.
The next day, I learned my dear friend of twenty years had complications following the birth of her daughter. Our friend Hannah drove us to Anna’s hospital, which was a few hours from Paul’s house, and there we said goodbye to her in the presence of her five year old son and five day old daughter.
Soon after, Kirsten Clodfelter, a talented prose writer and friend, encouraged me to write something for Anna’s children, so the writing I did thereafter was nonfiction. I interviewed twenty-something people who knew Anna best from her mother, sister and husband to her second-grade teacher. It was wonderful and heartbreaking to relearn why everyone loved her.
It took much more time, and more losses still, to wrestle with grief in a poem. In the most difficult year, I wrote only a single sentence that ends a poem called “Theory for the Living”: “I can’t name one good reason / for which things stay.”
Later, I was awarded a sabbatical from my full-time teaching job. I wrote about half the book last fall. Mining silences that are the product of disenfranchised grief (adverse childhood experiences, sexual assault, and infertility, for example) became central to my mission with this collection. Some poems are so new, they are still difficult to read aloud, especially in the presence of those I love the most who lived those experiences alongside me.
SM: I know that you are a runner, and I wonder how that act might tie into your writing? Do you think the kind of athletic commitment impacts into your identity as a poet or teacher? Does running allow for and encourage the kind of self-examination and reflection that is required to compose such raw and stunning poems?
NT: My students are actually the reason I’m a runner. Every semester, we set a series of goals related to the class and beyond. About eight years ago, and my first running-related goal was to run a mile in under fifteen minutes. I had terrible asthma growing up, and I dreaded running, but eventually, I ran a 5K in under thirty minutes. I am not a fast runner, so I tried on endurance races and have run a number of marathons and ultramarathons, as well.
I run to write. I run to sort out what I want to say before I say it, and then I voice record lines using an app on my phone. For this reason, my line lengths vary a great deal. One could open the book and find poems I wrote while running and others I composed in MS Word.
Running makes me a better teacher because it has helped me understand and demonstrate my own vulnerabilities and failures. I’m a terribly slow runner, but it doesn’t matter. If I am persistent and lucky (if variables like weather and health work in my favor), success is possible. I also open my Submittable page and show them my rejections. I will “track” a piece to show them how long I had to stick with revisions and submissions and what the final product looked like.
SM: Is the act of telling what allows us to heal? Do you believe that we can ever truly heal? Is there such thing as moving forward, and in the process of doing so, are we giving something up?
NT: I do believe healing is an active process; I do believe in moving forward. I think to tell one’s truth is as important a mission as there is, but I also recognize that in doing so, there is the possibility of hurting people with whom I have shared difficult experiences. We may remember things differently. This has been the hardest part of sharing the book. To end silence is an act of disruption.
I think about that quote by Muriel Rukeyser: “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?” and the answer, “The world would split open.” In How to Prove a Theory, I am presenting these gaps, silences, and fissures not just to relive them but to breathe through them (rather than to lay blame). I run for the same reason. When people I loved most were sick, I set intentions each time I ran, and I carried those with me as one may do in prayer. The book is the longest prayer I’ve ever written; thus, it has been one of my biggest acts of faith.
It is also a record of the self I once was-- one I want to remember. I think of the times I was the most vulnerable; they were also the times I showed capacity. There were weeks and months at the end of 2013 when I don’t know how I did anything. It hurt to dress myself, yet I could still stand to teach a five-hour class. I can’t explain that, but I am thankful for my students who gave me a hundred and thirteen reasons to keep trying.
SM: Who inspires you? What writers do you admire? Is there someone of something that you can’t stop coming back to?
NT: Last year, my favorite books included Nicole Sealey’s Ordinary Beast, Molly McCully Brown’s The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, Kaveh Akbar’s Calling a Wolf a Wolf, Adrian Matejka’s Map to the Stars, and Jenny Johnson’s In Full Velvet. While I was working on my collection, I turned to books by Mary Jo Bang, Kevin Young, Marilyn Chin, Sally Keith, James Kimbrell, and Jean Valentine frequently.
The book I keep returning to is Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude. I’ve turned to it many times since this day (Jan. 20th) last year, and it never ceases to light my way.
SM: I know you care deeply about social consciousness in the classroom. As a teacher, what place does inclusive feminism have in pedagogy?
NT: My mother-in-law is a feminist scholar who, as a single mother, raised the feminist human with whom I most closely share my experiences of the world. Both feminism and social consciousness are part of the ethos I cultivate each new semester as a professor. This year, a single class of students speaks more languages than there are people in the room. I have the privilege of learning with them in this time on Earth when loving yourself in the skin, gender, sexuality, and body you’re in is a radical act.
I teach developmental English alongside literature classes. My professional career has centered around literacy and access issues especially for first-generation college-students. I want to be part of classrooms where we consider power, assumptions, and discourse alongside lived experiences and where everyone in the room is responsible for teaching, learning, and acting. Our models are many and (mostly) living.
Since September, I keep returning to “Generosity as a Social Justice Reading Practice,” an essay by Emilia Phillips, and since, I have been looking for opportunities to encourage my students to be “generous.” As a result, they engage with literature and writers long before they are anthologized in textbooks.
I want students to see the ways in which their voices are valuable today (not only that they will be valuable in the future), so I ask big things of them-- to act as an editor to an anthology project missing from their local library or bookstore shelf, to write a persona poem from a perspective missing from a recent news article, or to submit their poetry or narratives a literary journal. Several have won national prizes from the Community College Humanities Association as a result. Most have met a living writer visiting DC for a reading or conference (AWP and Split This Rock, for example). Several continue to correspond with writers who have made an impression. I am most grateful when a student’s education takes place outside of our classroom and when they return to share those experiences with us.
SM: What can we look forward to next? What are you working on now?
NT: I am training for a race I do every April that I had to skip last year because I took a spill in a wet doorway. To run a 50K (or slowly slog through a 100K if I am an overachiever this year), I will train nearly a thousand miles until then. I’ll spend an entire day each weekend until then preparing in addition to shorter runs throughout the week. Which is to say, I hope training season offers me some direction because I haven’t a clue.
Nicole Tong is the recipient of fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and George Mason University where she received her MFA. In 2016, she served as an inaugural Writer-in-Residence at Pope-Leighey House, a Frank Lloyd Wright property in Alexandria, Virginia. She is a recipient of the President’s Sabbatical from Northern Virginia Community College where she is a Professor of English. Her writing has appeared in American Book Review, CALYX, Cortland Review, Yalobusha Review, among others. How to Prove a Theory, her first full-length collection, received the 2017 Jean Feldman Poetry Prize from Washington Writers' Publishing House.
How to Prove a Theory is currently available at Politics and Prose, Scrawl Books, and on Indiebound.