Alex Custodio in Conversation with Tess Liem
Alex Custodio: Your poem, “Étude,” published in Soliloquies Anthology 19.2, packs a lot of emotion and musical wordplay into eight short lines. Where did this poem come from and what was your process writing it?
Tess Liem: This poem was an attempt to write a restrained tribute to my piano teacher. He was my mentor and a stabilizing force in my life for a few years, but I didn’t want to write about him. It would be too sentimental, too personal. But, we—my workshop—were given an exercise that is usually referred to as "five easy pieces," like the movie, except nothing to do with the movie. All I could think about was the scene with Jack Nicholson playing an upright piano on a pick-up truck weaving a busy highway. Before “Étude,” I wrote a bunch of shitty five sentence poems about exes, relatives, fictional characters, etc. This poem was a kind of giving in and writing about something that was harder to share than any of those.
AC: What led you to pursue an MA in English and Creative Writing? Any advice for young poets wondering if graduate school is right for them?
TL: An equal mix of good and bad decisions led me to this MA: writing the LSAT, being scared of law school, encouragement from a writing professor, a full time job in which I read the dictionary for forty hours a week, other full time jobs as administrative and executive assistants, etc. I felt like I was spending a lot of time cultivating skills for careers I didn’t want, and I’m not sure any of these experiences qualify me to give advice about graduate school. My advice is to ask everyone for advice and trust that you’ll recognize the right advice when it finds you.
AC: What role has the creative writing program played in the development of your creative process? Is there a strong link between what you’ve learned in the classroom and what you put down on the page?
TL: After one semester, it might be too soon to tell. Can you ask me again in eighteen months? Thinking about process always makes me self-conscious about process, and there’s nothing magical about it. Deadlines help me and workshops make me feel like I will be held accountable for whatever ideas make it on to the page. With or without these things, I vacillate between self-doubt and absolute confidence, both of which always feel dangerous to succumb to.
AC: This year, you’re also the Assistant to the Director of Writers Read, Concordia’s literary reading series. Can you tell us a little about your work with the series and whether this work has had an impact on you as a writer?
TL: There are two sides to this job. On the one hand, I meet writers I admire and sometimes even get a little one-on-one time. Walking and talking with Mary Ruefle while she chain-smoked slim menthols was a silly thrill. And the past few years of Writers Read have reminded me that I like sitting in a room and listening to someone read, hear a piece of text in its voice. On the other hand, this work reminds me over and over again that, to be a writer, you also have to be an event planner, a promoter, a socialite, a teacher, and so many other things. Sometimes I get exhausted just thinking about it.
AC: With coursework and Writers Read, where do you find time to write? Is there a time of day you feel most productive, or do you just sit down to write when inspiration hits?
TL: Lately, I text myself when I think I have an idea and these ideas usually only make sense to the Tess who sent them. When I read them three weeks later, I am usually confused. I also spend a lot of time coming up with things that seem more important than writing, like cleaning my fridge. When I have a deadline, I write until I have to print something out or send it off and that’s new for me. I used to give something days before I shared it with anyone and all my writing used to happen in the morning. It used to be a first coffee, first light kind of thing.
Tess Liem's writing has been published in Petal Journal, on the Metatron ÖMËGÄ BLÖG, The Malahat Review, and Soliloquies Anthology. She writes, reads, eats and sleeps in Montreal and sometimes tweets @eastmiles & @CUwritersread.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
For more content from Soliloquies Anthology, visit soliloquies.ca.