A fairy tale in the English department

Photograph courtesy of UC Communications

Emily Shue

emshue@ursinus.edu

     Summer 2017 has been busy for Ursinus’ visiting creative writer, Anna Maria Hong. In July, her first book of poetry, “The Glass Age: Sonnets,” won Cleveland State University Poetry Center’s First Book Poetry Competition. Just a few days before, she received the 2017 Berkshire Prize for a First or Second book of Poetry for her second book of poems, “Fablesque.”

     “The Glass Age” began on somewhat of a personal whim. “I had been moving a lot and I felt…. This sort of emotional upheaval,” said Hong. Setting limits for herself as a writer was comforting, and a steady, reliable form like the sonnet was perfect. Her goal was to write 100 sonnets. However, it became something much more.

     “I couldn’t stop, of course. I ended up writing over seven years like, way over 300, close to 400 sonnets. And then I just kind of had to stop myself.” She laughed and paused. “It’s what I would call serial form. Just kind of doing the same thing over and over again but inevitably, because you get bored or maybe you just find new ways to challenge yourself, you end up breaking the form, like, doing all these variations on the thing, over and over again.”

     Using serial form seems to be a theme in Hong’s writing process. And clearly, it works: “Fablesque” was also written within specific boundaries. Her second collection is less subtle than repetition of form, though—instead, an overarching theme connects each poem.

     “It’s Animal Tales,” Hong laughed, referring to a creative writing course she taught last spring. “The course really came out of my interest in my writings and my interest in animal tales.”

     Before and during her writing process, Hong focuses a large amount of her energy on reading other works that are inspirational to her current work. All of her reading at that point was animal themed. One book that inspired Hong was “Animals in Translation” by Temple Grandin and co-written by Catherine Johnson. In the book, Grandin, a scientist who has campaigned for more ethical housing and transportation for animals, uses her own experiences with animals and her own journey with autism to explore animal behavior.

     Said Hong, “I was also very consciously seeking out poetry collections that evoked animals . . . and then, um, essays—” Here, she stopped to laugh as the primary animal in her life, her dog Brodie, performed a short set of acrobatics in the corner. “The thing that I’ve probably read the most has been non-fiction writings about animals. So…. articles about human-animal interactions.”

     Although a large part of all of her writing style is inspired by her interest in fairy tales and myths, scientific and non-fiction writing seemed to be a larger part of her process for “Fablesque.”

     “It made sense for me to teach Animal Tales,” Hong smiled, “and definitely teaching always helps with writing.”

     “Fablesque” also takes a more personal turn. “It’s more consciously about race, and the Korean-American heritage, family stories…. things like that.”

     Something present in both books, however, is her interest in fables. In 2014, Hong was awarded the Clarissa Dalloway “everything but poetry” Book Prize, an inaugural award from A Room of Her Own, a nonprofit organization that honors “artistic excellence” in women. Hong was awarded for her novella, “H & G,” which Hong describes as “hybrid fiction.”

     The novella is a series of different versions of the classic “Hansel and Gretel.”

     Said Hong, “Some of [the versions] read like short stories, and some of them read like poems, so—and they’re really, really short, but some of them are longer and read like regular fiction.”

     The variety of work that Hong produces shows that her writing is diverse in both form and concept. Her skills have grown by cultivating her writing process over a long period of time. Much like “The Glass Age,” she finds that creativity blossoms when she sets limits.

     Said Hong, “It’s similar to “The Glass Age” in terms of use of constraint but it’s different in… in its energy.” In “H & G,” serial writing urged Hong to “push the boundaries of how to tell the story and how to tell a story.”

     All three works are set to be published within the next few years: “H & G” will be available in early 2018. “The Glass Age” is also set to be published in the spring of 2018, and will hopefully tide her audience over until “Fablesque” comes out in 2019.

     Hong’s work has also been published in numerous anthologies and magazines, including The Best American Poetry 2013, Boston Review, Best New Poets, Quarterly West, and Verse Daily.  It would be a disservice to speak with an experienced writer like Hong without asking her for some advice for younger writers. Her answer was simple: read and revise. And keep writing.

     “At this point I think your job is really also just to try everything. To be hungry, you know, and to try different styles and to not get too locked into a particular thing that you already do really well… Try other stuff, read everything, and try to emulate writers that you like. Take yourself in different directions.” She paused. “I mean, I actually think that’s good advice for old writers, too.”