Interview with Nicole Tong

Passenger is all about working writers, and not just those who write for a living. We are interested in learning how others balance their professional and creative lives, how they find the time to write, and how their writing is affected by their work. To explore these issues, we have partnered with good folks over at the the Inner Loop. Each month we will interview their Writer of the Month on the topic of work and writing, so check back here for more peeks into the lives of fellow writers.

August’s Writer of the Month, Nicole Foreman Tong, read her poem “Chinook Theory” to the crowd at the Colony Club in Washington, D.C.

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Passenger – What do you do for a living?

Nicole Tong – I am an English Professor at Northern Virginia Community College where I have worked since finishing graduate school in 2007.

P – What challenges does your professional life present to your writing?

NT – It’s hard to find the energy to write after a seven-hour teaching day. Each semester, I have over 100 students. I want to help each of them feel more confident in their writing; as a result, completing my own writing projects is a challenge; it’s hard to find time and energy. However, their success is also a motivator. I see evidence every day that good writing takes practice.

P – How do you balance your professional life with your creative life?

NT – A few ways: I am one of the first people to get to campus in the morning, and when I arrive, I work on my own poems first. When I can’t sleep, I see the cleaning team leaving my building as I arrive. My office neighbor and I call ourselves First Watch because the rest of the campus is silent but for our small corner; we are busily working by 7 am each workday.

I build in time for my own reading and research everyday so that even on days I can’t or don’t write, I’m incubating new ideas and building a vocabulary how to say something new.

Finally, I’m a part of a few workshops—where writers exchange their creative work—both online and in real life. For example, I meet with a group of women writers regularly, for three hours at a time each month.

Last year I received an award called the President’s Sabbatical, which is time off from teaching to complete a specific project. My project was to complete a book of poems called How to Prove a Theory. I participated in the Inner Loop’s Woodlawn & Pope-Leighey House Writing Residency, and I went to the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts for a month to finish writing, organizing, and editing the collection. I finished the project in mid-to-late November, and began sending it to publishers. By the spring, it won a prize and publication from Washington Writers’ Publishing House, a unique cooperative in which the yearly prize is judged by a collaborative of poets, and the poets who win the prize commit three years in service to the press. Next year, I’ll be the lead editor/adviser on the press’ poetry selection.

P – How does your professional life influence or inform your writing?

NT – Most directly, I teach introduction to poetry classes each semester. The students come on the first day and start the class by doing a bit of research about living poets. Prior to the class, students have too little experience with contemporary writers, poets in particular. After sharing with them Poets.org and websites for the Poetry Foundation and Button Poetry, I start by asking what they like and respond to, and I build a syllabus from there. That way, the class is never the same. I never get bored, and the range of poets they select helps me think about things in ways that are so different from my own perspectives. It helps me get outside of my aesthetics and tendencies as a poet, which is important if one is to respond honestly and empathetically.

Less directly, I write about teaching often. I give talks and write conference papers about pedagogy and how/ why I teach the way I do.

Also, the book I wrote took ten years to write in part because I teach around 20 credits a semester but also because I didn’t know what the book was until I had the opportunity to step back from it for more than a year. That year was one of great of loss. My brother-in-law died after a long illness. The following day, my dear friend died unexpectedly. That winter, my husband and I lost many of our possessions in a catastrophic flood. I didn’t put the added pressure on myself to write though I voice recorded fragments and thoughts while running long distances.

In addition to being a book of elegies, poems written for and in response to people who have died, I hope it is a book that mines the silences that are the consequence of trauma. Growing up, my father had PTSD (though it wasn’t called that then). So his experiences, my experiences of loving and living with him, and experience of other veterans including one former student are also in the book. In writing the book, I tried to recall times I felt silenced but also events that have caused a silencing like a decades-long water contamination event in the place where I was born: Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. In writing these poems, I conducted research and used the same resources I teach students to use as they are developing voices for scholarship.

P – How has your writing influenced your professional life?

NT – Writing makes me a better teacher. Even when the book is out, the work is never done. I am always setting another goal, thinking long-term, and working against rejection and the feeling of failure. I’ve just now gotten to the point of my career where more poems are accepted than they are rejected but not by much! As a writer and teacher, I am always learning. That’s why I love my job. I love serving the students I do.

Earlier this month as a result of a Twitter discussion with other teachers, professors, and poets, I said I was in the business of second chances. When my students write their first papers in the freshman composition class, they sometimes write about their own failures—not getting into the school they wanted, or not having resources enough to go to the schools of their choice though they had earned admission. Perhaps they have small children and they are trying to make it to my 8 am class after the bus pickup, or they are taking care of a parent who is dying. They don’t need me to tell them what the “real world” will be like when they’re done; they are living that reality. They need someone in their corner now promising them their hard work matters now.

Because of them and their unabashed grit, I take more risks. I say yes to more things even when that voice in my head questions every word I write as I’m writing it. Doing what I do– writing and teaching– is a daily privilege.

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Nicole Tong is the recipient of fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Sundress Academy at Firefly Farms, and George Mason University where she received her MFA. In 2016, she served as an inaugural Writer-in-Residence for the Inner Loop 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 ReviewCALYX, Cortland Review, Yalobusha Review, and Still: the Journal, among others. Washington Writers’ Publishing House named her debut collection How to Prove a Theory as the 2017 Jean Feldman Poetry Prize Winner.

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