36 Finalists Blog: Su Hwang

Each day leading up to the 32nd annual Minnesota Book Awards Ceremony, we’ll be featuring an exclusive interview with one of our 36 finalists. Learn more about these incredible local writers and gear up to see the winners announced live in person April 28.

Interview with Su Hwang, author of Bodega, part of the Poetry category, sponsored by Wellington Management, Inc.

How does it feel to be a Minnesota Book Award finalist?

To be perfectly frank––it feels totally surreal. I was in my late-thirties when I transplanted to the Midwest in the fall of 2013 to attend the MFA program at the University of Minnesota. Never in a million years could I have dared to aspire to something like this. Every year I’d watch from afar and marvel at all the finalists’ work and think, “Wow, look at those amazing literary heroes, good for them!” As a child of immigrants, woman of color, and a late bloomer to poetry, none of this ever seemed within reach, so to be here now seems absolutely absurd yet incredibly affirming because I did the work and put in the time. As many can attest, writing a book is a labor of love and at times, trial by torment. I’m grateful and honored to be a finalist, and the fact I get to share it with good poet friends makes this even sweeter.

Tell us something about your finalist book that you want readers to know?

I had the immense privilege to work with the supremely talented and brilliant Mary Austin Speaker at Milkweed Editions on the design of Bodega, and she created the book of my dreams, inside and out. For the cover, I wanted to draw inspiration from the blue and white Anthora coffee cup that was ubiquitous in NYC bodegas when I was growing up. She had me put together a Pinterest inspiration board and we had several conversations about what I was looking for. Instead of obsessing about wedding dresses, I joked I was a bookzilla, and Mary was patient and attentive with every last detail. I’m so thankful for Mary and everyone at Milkweed Editions who contributed to making my manuscript come alive into this little blue book with glittering gold stars. I couldn’t have asked for a better first book experience.

Share something about your writing process and preferences. For instance, where is your favorite place to write?

I wish I could say I write poems every day, but that’s simply not the case. Maybe it’s wishful thinking or part delusion, but I believe that observing, thinking, reading, pacing, and revising—or osmotic writing as I like to call it—are integral parts of the process. And as a poet, thankfully, it’s more about quality than quantity of words produced. I usually wait for the poem to come to me, and luckily, Bodega was a combination of being required to write poems for my MFA thesis and having a very productive writing year following grad school. I also think being in my forties meant I had a lot of pent-up things I needed to get off my chest and onto the page. There are a few poems I wrote in one sitting and others that I revised for over five years. Although I’d like to say I wrote the book in some idyllic cottage in the woods, the truth is most of the writing was done on my dining table (de facto desk) in my pajamas or in bed.

Minnesota has a reputation as a state that values literature and reading. In your experience, what is it about our state that makes it such a welcoming place for writers and book creators?

There are so many stunning aspects of being a writer/artist in Minnesota. Growing up in New York and transplanting here from the SF Bay Area, I was a bi-coastal snob when I first arrived. I used to say I’d leave the Midwest as soon as I finished my MFA, mostly because of the long winters, but now I can’t imagine living anywhere else. I’ve been really lucky receiving very generous financial support from the Loft, Minnesota Arts Board, and the Jerome Foundation so I can live to write instead of write to live, but I’ve also grown attached to the vibrant literary ecosystem that just doesn’t exist anywhere else. From the amazing organizations to independent presses to libraries to bookstores––the individuals who make up these communities embody the power and love of creativity, expression, and equal exchange of ideas in an authentic, passionate way that’s simply contagious. My work alongside the incredible souls with the MN Prison Writing Workshop as well as my Poetry Asylum partnership with writer/educator/healer Sun Yung Shin (MNBA ’17) inspires me every single day to be a better writer and human.

What is something you are good at that few people know about?

I’m not sure if I can qualify as being good at this, but I have been getting deep into astrology, reading tarot and oracle cards, meditation, and other spiritual and healing modalities. I guess you can say I’m a witch-in-training.

What do you love about libraries?

I love so many things about libraries but at the top of my list is that it’s inherently an egalitarian space meant to promote knowledge and love of reading to anyone who steps inside their doors. It’s one of the rare spaces where capitalism doesn’t come into play. And as a latchkey kid who spent countless hours at my hometown library after school, it’s also a deeply nostalgic place. Now libraries are way more advanced than they were during my childhood, but I miss the feeling of going through the drawers of index cards to search for a book in the stacks like a treasure hunt.

Su Hwang is recipient of the inaugural Jerome Hill Fellowship in Literature and the Academy of American Poets James Wright Prize. She teaches creative writing with the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop and is the co-founder of Poetry Asylum.

See the winners announced live at the Minnesota Book Awards Ceremony! Presented by Education Minnesota; media sponsor: Star Tribune.