Poetry as Medicine: The Healing Capacities of Writing

An Interview With Poet T.W. Sia

by Jonah Meyer, Poetry Editor

 “To me, poems became the most concentrated reflections of our most prickly stories—the kind that we beg someone will be generous enough to listen to, but also the kind that makes us fear our own vulnerability.”

–T.W. Sia


Thank you, T.W., for taking the time to speak with me. To begin, could you please share with us some of the personal background story regarding you and your family, having immigrated from Myanmar to the United States?

Sure! My immediate family, including myself, was born in Yangon, Myanmar. Over time, we each immigrated to the United States: first some distant relatives, then me and my mother, then my father and sisters, then some more distant relatives, until we became a multigenerational household here in California.

Though I didn’t grow up in Myanmar, I held a deep relationship to Burmese culture from that cramped apartment we lived in for over 15 years. More than just the food I grew up on, the language I spoke, or the fact that we spent almost every weekend at a pagoda—my parents raised me like they were raised in Myanmar. I picked up so many intangibles (that I think often get viciously homogenized and oversimplified by words like “values” or “principles” or “idiosyncrasies”), some of which I seek to illustrate in my poems published here. I think many immigrants to America, whether from Southeast Asia or not, can identify with this sentiment and story.

But, a key piece of my own immigration experience was leaving home, just as my parents had. After growing up and spending 15 years of my life in the same 30-mile radius, I spent about 5 years bouncing around different parts of the East Coast. To me, though I didn’t leave a country behind, I left a home.

My own “immigration,” or the process of lifting my roots and trying to lay new ones down, became a rather large formative experience for my poetry. I began questioning how heavy (or light) roots were. Imagining and re-imagining my self and future-self. Letting my queerness be explored. Most importantly, I began to question, “What makes a home, or a family, or a self?”

How and when did you begin writing poetry? What is it about the particular literary genre which appeals to you?

I don’t think I liked poetry very much growing up. Without blaming my high school teachers, I can say I only understood poetry in two extremes: obscure riddles or sappy clichés. Neither resonated with me.

Actually, around this time, one of the first boys who gave me romantic attention wrote me a love poem. (He is now a brilliant poet whose poems are so tender and shaking.) Though I really appreciated his gesture, I remember feeling lost on how to receive the poem. Part of me knew it was a kind and special thing he had done, but the greater part of me was also aware that I couldn’t grasp the gesture in its full. To this day, I am waiting until I am a poet who is enough to return a poem thanking him for his.

Fast forward to my first semester at Swarthmore College, I found myself in Modern American Poetry with Peter Schmidt (who would later be one of the first to hear my first poem, which is now lost to some hard drive shoved in a suitcase underneath my bed). Somewhere in the process of my mid-semester paper, something special clicked with me. In poetry, I found a unique expression of intimacy that I had never seen before. That summer, I bought my very first poetry book (“Night Sky With Exit Wounds,” by Ocean Vuong). I was a low-income student at the time, so this purchase was nontrivial to me.

Over time, I became more involved with poetry groups in my community, many of which were predominantly queer people of color (shout out to Swarthmore OASIS). To me, poems became the most concentrated reflections of our most prickly stories—the kind that we beg someone will be generous enough to listen to, but also the kind that makes us fear our own vulnerability.

At this point of my life, I was really reckoning with some internal instabilities, which was really the catalyst. From leaving home, to beginning to unravel and understand my queerness, that is when I began to really write poetry.

Can you tell me a little about the differences—and similarities—between poetry in Southeast Asia and that of the United States? How is poetry regarded in Myanmar? The role of the poet? The role of poetry in society?

As a part of the Myanmar’s tumultuous, long (and current) history of political violence and war, poetry has evolved to be a language of resistance and resilience. I’ve read a lot of poems centered on political critique and the grieving of a country. Even in the face of the censorship, imprisonment, and execution of poets, poetry in Myanmar has persisted (in part thanks to the internet) as a voice of dissent and an expression of pain.

I want to be clear, my own engagement with poetry was a fairly late bloom, long after I left Myanmar. Therefore, I cannot, in good conscience, say how poetry is viewed in Myanmar today. However, what I can say is that the story of poetry in Myanmar is an important one.

Secondly, I simply cannot do justice in naming the atrocities that have been committed in Myanmar. (If I go in depth on some of the atrocities that have been committed, I will fail to be complete in my account of all the groups that have been harmed. If I try to be encyclopedic, I will fail to convey even half of the weight that I need to. Therefore, I beg you to find a source more capable than me.)

If you enjoy my poetry, please read and remember my seniors. To name a few: ko ko thett, Maung Saung Kha, K Za Win, Zeyar Lynn, Khet Thi, Aung Cheimt, Maung Yu Py, and others. Many of these poets were killed/detained for their work. Keep their words alive longer. Never let them die.

Who are some poets and other writers who’ve had an influence on you and your own writing? What do you suppose it is about their creative work which speaks to you?

After moving around for several years, many poets have persisted on my book shelf: Danez Smith, Franny Choi, Chen Chen, CAConrad, Ocean Vuong, and others. I think what all of them share is a brutal vulnerability that bites at me.

I remember that my introduction to most of these poets was right around when I left home. One thing I didn’t mention earlier is that part of me left home to better explore my queerness in the safety of a foreign environment. So when I saw these poets write about their own experience with queerness in such a raw and earnest way, I began to feel something like a “parental bond.” I say that half-jokingly. As I began to unpack my queerness over time, I realized that in my move away from home to become closer to my queer self, I had inherited a second family history, a queer one, with a long list of ancestors to whom I had to pay respects.

What are you currently reading? What are you currently writing? Have you seen any films worth noting recently?

My most recent read is “Limbic,” by Peter Scalpello. The hot pink and decidedly homosexual cover art tickled me enough to pick it up. What I found inside was a striking collection of poems about some of the nastiest and softest parts of queerness. For me, it is important, dangerous, and intensely intimate.

Currently, I’d like to say I’m putting together a collection focused on what I found from my time on the east coast away from my family, focusing on my questions surrounding family-ship. The answers I’ve found are horribly messy and entangle my identities of being Burmese-American and queer. I think my poems published here give you a pretty good clue about where I’m headed.

Films: Recently re-watched Andree Ljutica’s “How to Say I Love You at Night.” I keep coming back to it. The blurriness and explosiveness of intimacy in the film is stunning. One of my favorite qualities of the story is the ephemerality of this queer relationship, and the ambiguity of its consequences on both lives. Absolutely haunting.

Please tell us a bit about your writing process. Do you tend to have a particular routine? Do you work through many revisions? Is there a certain place, and/or time of day you tend to write?

My writing process is an inconvenient one. The best poetry I’ve ever written comes to me in fragments when I am (over)thinking about something that I’ve experienced. For some reason, this always seems to happens at inappropriate times—whether at a friend’s birthday brunch, in the shower, or while watching a movie with family—just anything not about me or my poetry. Sometimes, I jot the lines down, but most of the time, I wait until I’ve carved out the time to sit down and write. I tell myself, “If the lines don’t stick, they probably weren’t that good or that important to me.” That’s always a good comfort when I feel like I’ve lost a poem to entropy.

I’ll give you a picture of what it’s like when I sit down to write: By the time I sit down to write, it’s probably a little later than I’d like to admit. I’ll be on my laptop, surrounded by a motley of torn-out paper scraps with vague, carelessly jotted words. I’ll probably write the poem entirely out of its inevitable order. And once I hit that feeling where my poem feels right, I’ll head to bed, and maybe I’ll wake up to find that my past-self has left me a gift.

I actually struggle with revisions because I always feel the need to write over my past-self. For several years, I refused to publish poetry because I was afraid that once I expressed an emotion in a poem, I would never be able to revise it. I still hold this fear today, but at what (I think) is a healthier level for my writing.

I understand you are currently a student at Stanford. What are you studying? What is it you hope to do after graduating?

Yes! I’m currently a medical student at Stanford. As much as I believe in healing through poetry, I also hope to practice the art of American/Western medicine in the future. After graduating, I hope to pursue the traditional American medical path through residency/fellowship, and then practice as a physician. But I hope to be a writer always.

What do you hope to accomplish through your poetry? Why do you write?

I deeply believe in the medicinal properties of poetry. When I say something like that, I get a lot of skepticism from folks in health care. But to me, it can be put as simple as: a lot of people write to heal their own wounds, and others write with the hopes to reach and heal others.

I think folks are becoming more open to an expansive idea of “healing,” or a more holistic approach to medicine. But if we broaden our definition of a “patient” just a little, from an individual to a community, I think the question of what medicine looks like changes, and the understanding of what poetry can do becomes more complex.

To take some poetic liberties, if we look at Myanmar, can we not understand resistance poetry as a scalpel meant to surgically excise political facades? Aren’t elegies and witness poetry just antibodies against the erasure of a nation or the concealment of a genocide?

And if we look outside of Myanmar and turn toward the queer community: in “AIDS and Its Metaphors,” Susan Sontag writes about how we have problematized illness through metaphor, specifically how narratives can reinforce queerphobia. If word has been a weapon against the queer community, isn’t word the mechanistic therapeutic for us?

All this to say, I write poetry to heal. In particular, these poems have been focused on reviving relationships I once believed to be dead. In the future, I hope to discover more therapeutic properties in my practice of word.

Imagine you are sitting down to a lovely, extended, casual meal with a significant person in literature – living or dead. Who would it be? Why? What specifically would you like to ask them?

Ross Gay. I’ve been gifted his books so many times, each time by different people. At one point, I think I even had two copies of his “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude.”

In my reading, his work seems to characterize and study joy, often through what feels like flânerie. I have always enjoyed his poetry, and I find myself wishing I could employ his practice of joy in my life, experience his lens with my own retina. Even in his poems about grief, there is a shockingly strong note of celebration.

To me, happiness is something which can be so incredibly evasive. I’d probably ask him if his poetry is an accurate reflection of how he navigates life. If not, how often does it deviate? Or if so, was it a natural or learned trait?

Suppose a book – either biography or autobiography – about you and your life (thus far) were to be written. What would the title be? And subtitle? Have fun with it!

Hmm … I’d imagine my biography to have a ridiculous, overly-worked title with a billion entendres, like “The Journey of a Quarter: A Re-collection.”

I think the word “quarter” would play on the idea that I’m on the cusp of my regularly scheduled quarter-life crisis (I’m 24 right now). In addition, I’m one of four siblings, and thus, a quarter of a generation. I am ethnically Bamar-Tayoke, and the number four carries unluckiness in Chinese superstition. I think there’s just something so bold, defiant, and argumentative about having one-fourths being part of the title. Also, the imagery of a quarter journeying by exchange from hand to hand is gorgeous.

On the idea of a “re-collection,” the obvious one is recollection, which is apt for a biography written retrospectively. And the other obvious one is a collection in the publishing world’s sense. But perhaps a little more obscurely, collections in the financial sense—like when someone comes to chase down a debt. If I am the quarter being passed from fist to fist, there is something so interesting about something demanding to have me, a debt, returned or repaid. To me, it mirrors what I’ve been mentioning about my journey away from home, and the question of what pulls me back/away.

By Jonah Meyer

Jonah Meyer is poetry editor of Mud Season Review. A poet, writer, and editor in North Carolina, he holds a Bachelors in Cultural Anthropology, Masters in Library & Information Systems, and has backgrounds in print journalism and public librarianship. Jonah’s creative work has appeared or is forthcoming in O.Henry Magazine, Ampersand Literary Journal, Carolina Peacemaker, The Writing Disorder, Bluebird Word, Boats Against the Current, American Crises, JAB Fiction and Poetry, Bohemian Review, Found Spaces, The Mountaineer, Sledgehammer Lit, Oddball Magazine, Cold Lake Anthology, Beaver Magazine, Press Pause, Digging Press, Raise the Voices, Within and Without Magazine, and elsewhere. Jonah plays guitar, banjo, and piano, shoots street photography, and studies neuroscience and Buddhist philosophy. He serves as Poetry Editor for Twin Bird Review, Assistant Poetry Editor for Random Sample Review, Staff Writer with The US Review of Books, Copy Editor with Under the Gum Tree, Poetry Book Reviewer for Heavy Feather, and Poetry Reader for Okay Donkey. Jonah firmly believes everyone has a story worth telling.