Tsering Wangmo Dhompa
by Hollie Hardy, former Poetry Editor
Hollie Hardy, poetry editor of Fourteen Hills: The SFSU Review, sat down with Tsering Wangmo Dhompa in her home in San Francisco. Her poem, "from Catabolism," appears in the Summer 2009 issue, volume 15.2.
14H: Did you ever see that movie, Amelie? As the film opens, we are introduced to the main characters in terms of their likes and dislikes. The mother, for example, likes to dump everything out of her purse, clean it, and put everything back in. The mother dislikes pruney fingers from staying too long in the bathtub. Amelie likes skipping stones and the smooth texture of a handful of dried beans. When I first meet someone new, I like to ask them to tell me three small things that they like and three things that they dislike?
Tsering Wangmo Dhompa: If I just think of the first things that come to mind they seem to be related to food. I like tea, very much. And I like tulips. And I like mountains. I do not like tea bags. When people give me tea-bag-tea, I try to be gracious, but I’m not too happy. I like good tea. I don’t like dishonesty; I do not like lies. And I don’t like Chihuahuas. [laughs]
14H: I read somewhere that you don’t have a lot of friends that read poetry. So I wonder, without peer feedback, writing in a void, how do you know when a poem you’ve written is “good”?
TWD: Well, maybe the same way as you learn to read and know what you like about what you read. I think that has something to do with how you read your own work. I’ve never had people who read poetry, from the time I was little. It’s always been something that I did on my own in isolation and I didn’t have anyone to share it with. Because there were no Tibetan poets really when I was growing up. And of course I didn’t know any Indian poets or Nepali poets. Everyone thought of poetry as a hobby and so it was not something that was given much seriousness. So I had to just write on my own, read on my own. So I don’t know if I’m a good judge of whether my poem is a good poem or not.
14H: According to Paul Hoover (from Reality and Its Antecedents: Fifty Statements on Life and Art) “The sign of a good writer is how variously he expresses his one idea.” Assuming this is true, what would you identify as the “one idea” your various work is expressing?
TWD: I would think there are many questions. Many preoccupations. I think definitely certain Buddhist ideas are there. The notion of impermanence and that relation of impermanence then to writing, to life. I think that sort of stays with me. Even in my new book. The notion of the mind being a structure that is illusory. So, if the mind is illusory and we understand through the mind, then what are we seeing? And what is the true nature of what we are seeing?
14H: In an interview with Caffeine Magazine, when asked how you became a writer you said, “I was twelve years old when I felt I needed more than just the word love to let my mother know how much she meant to me.” In an interview with Rob McLennan, you called your mother “a wise woman.” Your first book, Rules of the House, was dedicated to “Tsering Choden Dhompa, beloved mother,” and much of that book seems to be about her. Would you talk a little bit about your mother and how that relationship has fueled your writing and/or how your writing has processed that relationship?
TWD: You know a lot of people think that I am writing about my mother, when I say “mother” or when I say “M”. Actually there are very few poems when I am thinking about my mother. A lot of times it’s this sort of fictional person that has some qualities that I think of my mother, but a lot of them not really. But maybe the identification of a mother has so much meaning to me that “M” appears like my mother, you know, because of the closeness? But “M” is not my mother. [laughs] I’ve had people even write in their books, one book that was just out on Tibet by an anthropologist, and she mentioned my book and she said that Tsering Wangmo’s book had autobiographical references to her mother, and I was thinking, huh, she could have asked me [laughs]. But it’s fine. I think that it’s there anyway, the aspect of her. I was very close to my mother. It was just the two of us. And she was just . . . as I get older, I realize more and more . . . how wonderful she was as a human being. When I was younger, I loved her because she was my mother and she was a good mother. But I realize now how extraordinary she was as a human being. She was really good human being. And she died quite young. I was only twenty-four. And she was fifty. I think that loss is always going to be part of me. And when I lost her I had to look at life in terms of what would she have thought of this. And I made my decisions sort of thinking that way. Like if I was scared, I would say, what would my mother say? So in that way, I think her presence was so great, and is still very much so. And the way I think about life is influenced by her. So I think naturally it will be brought in my poetry. The world view that comes through is part of her worldview.
14H: What would she have thought of your poetry? Did she get to read your poems?
TWD: She read the ones I used to write for her. And her English was good. I don’t think she would have… well she would have stayed open as a reader. She would have labored to figure out what I was doing if it seemed complicated to her. She did read a few that I had written for her. She would have just been happy, I think. She was happy about everything that I did.
14H: I’m fascinated by the idea that this “M” character wasn’t your mother; it’s so interesting to me to get to find out the truth because I spent a lot of time with your poems, endeavoring to decode them. I thought that there was a mother, “M,” and a father, “F,” and maybe “S” was a brother!
TWD: [laughing] You know it’s interesting because I only had a mother. I didn’t have a father; I didn’t have a brother; I didn’t have a sister; I didn’t have grandma.
14H: So where is the rest of the family? How did it just get to be you and mother?
TWD: My mother’s family was left behind in Tibet. So she was the only one who escaped with my father in 1959. Right before I was born she decided to separate from my dad. She was very unusual in that way because in those days Tibetan women did not leave their husbands, especially so soon, ten years in exile. That’s a lot to deal with. A new land, to be alone with your child. But she did. And she never remarried so it was just the two of us. And the rest of our family, her family, is still in Tibet. I did have a lot of relatives in India, cousins, family friends and I was very close to them. I am still very close to them. And they functioned as family. As close as immediate family can be.
14H: How did you end up here, in San Francisco? You came in 1996?
TWD: Yeah, I came in 1996. My mom died in 1994, I went to Tibet after that and met her family for the first time and then I got into UMass. So I went to UMass. I did a masters in professional writing there. And while I was there, there was somebody working in the office [John Landry] who was also a poet and he said, “Oh you must go to San Francisco State, they have a great writing program and you must apply!” So at that point, you know I didn’t really have a plan. But I got into the program so I just came. [laughs]
14H: What kept you here? Do you just love San Francisco?
TWD: [laughs] You know I never planned on staying. I finished [school] and then I was an international student, so they give you a year’s visa to stay after you finish. And I thought, well, I’ll stay for a year and then I’ll go back. Because I never really felt that this was my life here. I think in some ways I still don’t feel I’m completely integrated into American life or sensibilities. So I always assumed I’d go back. But then you know, one year went by, two years went by and now I’m still here. It’s been eleven years. I’ve gone back. Every two three years I’ve gone for seven eight months, thinking okay, this time I’ll go back. But then I always come back here again.
14H: I’m interested in people’s definitions of “home.” When you think of home, and your definition of home, where does it put you? Here or in Tibet or Nepal? Is home an idea that evolves over time and distance?
TWD: Yeah, you know, I’ve been thinking a lot about that. And I think that the notion of home has always been sort of this place that is imminent. It’s forming; it’s coming. Because when I was little, our home was in Tibet. When we were living in India, we would call that home. And when we were in Nepal we would call that home. But… the real home was always over there, you know, behind the mountains. And when I came here, of course, then home was Nepal because that was where I’d lived before I came here. And even now I find myself saying, Oh, when I’m at home, and I’m talking about Nepal or India. But when I’m there, I sometimes refer to San Francisco as home. So I think it’s sort of, it’s not a defined place, defined by geography. It seems still a place that is sort of everywhere in some sense, but also not really in one place. Maybe that is how it is for people in exile. For people who’ve had to live in exile. I inherited that notion of home from my mother. So it’s very much like poetry, this process of something that is imminent, it’s forming, it’s going to be there at some point. So I’ve been sort of reconciled to that notion that it is through poetry that I can define home because I can bring all the different elements together of displacement or being in place. It’s sort of that place where you can fit it all on one page or in one pot.
14H: A friend of mine, Ami Sheth, wrote an essay about your book, In the Absent Everyday, in which she identified a lot of conflict between eastern and western ideologies in your poetry. For example, the western desire-driven society verses the Buddhist concept of desire as the cause of suffering and attachment, and how happiness fits in with those. What do you think about those ideas?
TWD: I think she is absolutely right. I don’t struggle with the two opposing ideas of east and west, but I think about it almost every day. I am informed by the Buddhist philosophy because I grew up in that and I feel drawn to that. The notions of ambition. I’ve tried to live my life according to principals and values of the Buddha. And a lot of them are very much in conflict with western notions of success, and time. Here, you know, western life is really predicated on fear. The fear of death. The fear of success. The fear of everything. It is hard, because, you know, I quit my job last year. And so since then I haven’t been working. When I went home, a lot of my relatives who are practicing Buddhists, or lamas, they’re initial response was, Oh! Very good! That’s fantastic. But over here, everyone says, Oh! You aren’t working?! Really? [laughs] So then I think to myself, Oh. You know? I immediately start thinking I have to fear. That something is going to happen, you know? So it’s interesting. They build on different philosophies. Success is different here. Death is different. Life is different if you are really thinking and practicing. I don’t mean to say I’m a thinking and practicing Buddhist, you know, I’m aware and I read a little bit. And I have family members who live it. I’m just not able to do everything that I feel I want to.
14H: As a practicing Buddhist, you’d be doing more rituals, or more prayers or…?
TWD: That is part of it, but the larger parts are more to do with everyday awareness and the practice of real life, you know, how you live your life. If you can live your life without attachment to things, without attachment to material success. There are a lot of different aspects to understanding really what impermanence means… I think it’s a very practical philosophy. It helps me a lot with writing too. Looking at language as something that is not to be taken so seriously. Language is also a construction. And then looking at idea as something that is also a construction. And so not to get so attached to them and think that there is truth. Who can say that this is true and that is not true? So I think it’s helpful, just practically, to take it seriously enough, but not too seriously.
14H: This idea of non-attachment, of not taking it too seriously, of success, how does that affect your own ideas of what it means to be a successful poet? Or maybe that’s not important to you? For some people, success is defined by Oh, I sold a million copies, though as poets we’re generally more realistic than that [laughs]. But maybe success as a poet is not defined by money or by how many other people read you? Perhaps it’s a private success? What is success for you as a poet?
TWD: I haven’t thought of my writing in terms of success. I’m just grateful I can write. I’m very pleased when a book comes out. I feel happy. I don’t necessarily feel happy about the poems, very often I look back and think, Oh that line could have gone, or I could have read this more carefully. But at the same time I’m also okay. I don’t trouble myself with it too much. Just having the poems out makes me happy. I don’t think I’m going to sell a million copies, I mean, I don’t even desire it really. I don’t know what that would mean. I don’t know. [laughs] I’m used to people not reading! Last time I went home and my cousin says to me—because I don’t even bother to tell them that I write; half the people don’t know I write; even the Tibetan community here, most of them don’t know I write. So when I went this year [to Nepal] I gave a copy to one of my cousin brothers. I gave him Rules of the House because I thought maybe it would be easier for him to read because they are more like stories. I met him a few days later and he says to me, “Tsering, you know, sorry, I read your book, I tried really hard, I just don’t understand it.” So I said, “Well, did you like any lines or did any lines sort of make sense?” And he said, “No no no, just in general I don’t get it,” he says, “Anyway, I think your English is incorrect. [laughs] I think you had some grammatical mistakes around, you know; your use of English is a little bit wrong. Did you do that deliberately?” [laughs again] I was laughing, I said, “Oh I don’t think my English is incorrect, but you know, maybe I should go back and read it.”
14H: Your English is not incorrect, and you have used some of my favorite words that I never see in print, like: avuncular and deliquesce. These are good words! They are used correctly.
TWD: [laughing] But my brother says not so. But you know, I find it fascinating. I love it that people can just say that and I just crack up. It’s not like he reads a lot of English books. [laughs again] So therefore, you know, success is a different thing for me.
14H: Do you speak other languages?
TWD: Yeah, I speak Tibetan. And I speak my dialect, which is a different Tibetan dialect. And I speak Hindi and Nepali. Everybody has to learn. You know, over there it doesn’t have to do with education. You have to go out of your house and you have to speak with the shopkeepers so you learn a different language out in the street in your day-to-day life. You would know a lot of languages too if you were living there.
14H: A passage from an untitled poem included in your book, In the Absent Every Day (pg. 74) reads:
. . . Once a week we question whether our
country will be free. We are not warriors. We know
a working bowel is proof of a healthy life. We know
people who do not speak our dialect are sitting
at a table. With pen and paper they will map our future.
Would you consider this a political poem?
TWD: Perhaps more so than how the others would be viewed. Because the words I use like country, you know, a very particular kind of language and description. But I also see all these poems in some way as being political. Because they are talking about the community. Very often Tibetans, younger Tibetans who are part of political groups will say that I don’t write political poetry in the sense that I’m writing about whether we should free Tibet or whether the Chinese are doing this, this, this to us. But I feel like there is a place for that and there are plenty of people who are doing that well. I write about our people in the sort of day-to-day habits, and I think that is political in that the very fact that they are living out of Tibet. The fact that I am writing in English, you know? I think our existence is political in that way.
14H: Is it okay to ask about your feelings about what’s going on in Tibet now? When I decided to come and talk to you, I really didn’t know anything about Tibet, so I’ve been researching. I watched a horrifying documentary by a young man who escaped from Tibet over the Himalayas and then went back for three months, undercover, with a hidden camera. [The film is online: Dispatches: Undercover in Tibet: Regime of Terror. It exposes the extreme oppression of native Tibetans under Chinese rule, forcible resettlement into concrete ghettos, forced sterilizations, imprisonment and torture.] I felt like the Olympics spotlighted this cause for a little while and then it went away before anybody really knew… there are some buzz words that are there, (Free Tibet!) but the politics is vague if you don’t look for it. Is there something that you’d want people to know, or that you’d want to highlight? What do you think Americans should be doing about this situation?
TWD: I think it’s important just to keep remembering. I see that that is my role, to keep remembering, myself, as I live here, you know it’s easy to forget. I get all caught up in my own, you know, poetry and running around living my life. It’s easy to forget that there are people in Tibet, living very different lives. And as a Tibetan I forget, so of course Americans as people who have problems and inclinations of their own, they are not going to even perhaps know about Tibet. So just to know that the situation exists and that there is suffering every day and that people are not free, is the first step. It’s important. It’s too much to ask for other people to fight for us. It’s hard to find our own way of fighting for ourselves. But I think slowly, slowly the people can remember more than a few times a year, more than once a year, twice a year. Then I think that that awareness grows. It is not going to be resolved, I think, immediately anyway. I think China is too big a force. And governments are not going to fight for Tibet. I think most Tibetans know that. But there is always that hope. Without hope then what do we have, you know? [laughs] So, thank you for asking that question. It is sad. I feel quite helpless myself when I think about this. And it makes me very sad because my family is still there.
14H: I understand you wrote a non-fiction book about your travels in Tibet?
TWD: I finished it. It’s being read by publishers. Being rejected! [laughs]. It’s called Imagined Country. It’s very hard to explain because it’s not a usual memoir really, you know it’s not my memoir. It’s more of a memoir of my mother. It’s sort of like talking about Tibet, through my mother because that is the connection I have to it since I grew up with stories about it. And then I went when I was twenty-four. So it traces my mother’s journey out, and my journey in, and the nomads themselves, the culture of the nomads. So then there’s that ethnographic sort of detail of the culture of the way they think, how they see the land, and really also discussions of politics in terms of identity as seen by a nomad, as seen by me. So all those discussions happen within the book. What does land do to a person? How is one’s relationship to identity informed by the land and the beliefs of the land? The nomad believes the land is almost human in a way and determined by deities that are in place. So he is very much in place whereas our identity is sort of with the land but it’s from a distance you know, so we’re more like spectral figures. So all of that I discuss. And then sort of going out of the country and following my mother’s way out. When I first wrote it, they wanted it to be about me. When I showed it first to one agent she said, Oh it’s a beautiful book, but we want to see you, we want to know more about you as somebody in America going to Tibet and discovering blah, blah and I was telling her no. I’m not discovering this place, it’s always been there for, you know, more than two three hundred years. And my family has been there in this place for that long. So I’m not discovering it. I’m not discovering myself either. Not that book. I can write that book, but no, this is not that book! So I had to fight for a long time and find a way to write it so that people could identify, but it wouldn’t be my story. I don’t really have anything much that I’ve done, so I found my mother’s story to be a good arc. And people could go with her. And I could just be there also but not really.
14H: After ten years working with the nonprofit, American Himalayan Foundation you quit your job so you could finish your book. How is your day structured now that you aren’t working?
TWD: I realized that the only way I could finish the book was if I just devoted my full attention to it all day long [laughs]. So I applied for residencies at MacDowell and Hedgebrook. It all fell into place. I quit in March and I went two months in MacDowell and two months in Hedgebrook. I’d never done this before, you know, never had months to look at my own work. I enjoyed it. The chance to sit with one thought for however long you want is just magical. You just sit there and think on one thing and if you wander here and there you can still come back to it after an hour and you can still think on it and not feel like you are wasting time. So that was the reason that I quit, to work on the book and then I went to India and Nepal, because I can afford to do that there. Over here it is harder. And then coming back, I wasn’t sure if I was going to work when I got here. But the book is with publishers. I don’t know what is happening so I’ve continued to stay in the same situation. Now I treat my writing as a full time job. I keep to the same hours which I started when I was at MacDowell. I would start at 9AM and then take a break at 12PM and then start at like 1PM or 2PM and then take a break at 4 or 5, go for a run or something. Doesn’t always work out. I’m not always able to work consistently. When I’m home it’s easy to get sucked into other things. But I try to treat it like a job. Now I’m working on short stories because I got a grant from the San Francisco Arts Commission to write short stories. But they are like horrible little short stories! [laughs] But it is so much fun! I work on poetry too. I do first poetry when I get up. The rest of the day I do short stories. I can’t work more on the nonfiction because it is already out. But once I hear back whether it is going to be published or not then I can spend more time on that. I am very excited. Thankfully I don’t have a very anxiety-driven personality so I don’t worry too much about being unemployed. For the first time I have no health insurance. When you are working you are in this comfortable place. I don’t have that. But I feel so happy! [laughs]
14H: Can you talk a little bit about your poem “From Catabolism” published in Fourteen Hills, Vol. 15.2 (Spring 2009)? I looked up “catabolism” in the Merriam-Webster online dictionary and it is defined as: “the part of metabolism involving the break down of complex molecules.” The poem in Fourteen Hills begins, “A body is not always everything we are taught to expect…” How does this title illuminate the themes of that particular set of poems?
TWD: It is part of a larger set of poems. Initially I was going to title the book “Catabolism” because it was sort of this break down of certain ideas. What is perception? What is truth? That was my intention. But then I just realized that it was too confining of a title and also it makes me think too much. And then I was getting confused about the meaning and its relation with the poems. So then I made it a title of a smaller group of poems. The poems in this group have to do with the process of thinking. Stemming from a particular verse in a Buddhist text that talks about how we see. The epigram is: “But if the mirage is the mind itself, what then is perceived by what?” The guardian of the word himself had said that mind cannot be seen by mind. So in Catabolism, I sort of weave around the idea of how we say things, how we come to say what we say. They are sort of definitions but then they are reiterated. So we say it many times. Also the notion that learning to say correctly is no longer necessary. The notion of perfection, does that exist? All these different thoughts. How do you instruct the mind?
14H: What is your revision process like?
TWD: I’ve become a little better about revision. I think I’m learning to be more patient. It seems like you need to read [a poem] so many times in order to really see each word. So I have a few pages stuck on my wall and I’ll read them when I’m just walking around. Because when I’m reading on the computer, I’m reading with the intent to find something. But when it’s on the wall I’m sort of on the way into my closet and I’m just brushing my teeth. And then I’ll take them to the bathroom. I have two in the bathroom now. When I’m in the bathroom I’m just vacantly looking at them. So there are different levels of concentration, perhaps, different methods of reading. And when I feel that, okay fine, I don’t think I should change anymore because then the whole meaning changes, you know, if you do too much, then I don’t know what the poem is about. So then I sort of consider it done for now.
14H: Do you ever get stuck with writer’s block? And if so, how do you unstick yourself?
TWD: Oh I get writer’s block quite often, but I don’t think of it as writer’s block really. I just expect it. How can you just sit down and expect to just write away? So, if I cannot write, I don’t. I don’t sit and force myself. I just read. Or I do something else. I’ll go for a walk. Or I’ll think about certain things. Very often I’ll just read. Somehow all of it influences. Every day I try to write something in the morning. Whatever it might be. The way I have been doing it for the past year is I read somebody or I listen. I go on podcast and I listen to poetry.
14H: What book needs to always be on your bookshelf?
TWD: That’s hard. But if I had to had to had to, In the Skin of the Lion, by Michael Ondaatje. I love that book. It’s just poetry to me.
Tsering Wangmo Dhompa was raised in India and Nepal. She received her MA from University of Massachusetts and her MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. Her first book of poems, Rules of the House, published by Apogee Press in 2002 was a finalist for the Asian American Literary Awards in 2003. Other publications include In the Absent Everyday (Apogee Press 2005), two chapbooks, In Writing the Names (A.bacus, Potes & Poets Press) and Recurring Gestures (Tangram Press). Tsering lives in San Francisco.