An Interview with Tsering Wangmo Dhompa

Kore Biters
A monthly interview series that highlights the writing and literary activism of
women writers who are transgressive and transformative.

by Arisa White and Rosebud Ben-Oni

Dressed in Sibilant Stentences & Rhymes


1. What was your last bite?

A cup of chai, a buttery croissant with scrambled eggs. I am happy.

2. Tell us how poetry entered your life. Share something visual/aural to complement the telling.

I began writing out of homesickness when I was about twelve years old. I missed my mother (I was away at school). I wrote to her and about her to help me through the intense emotions. The poems were dressed in sibilant sentences and rhymes. “My love for you stretches slowly to the sea/ Your sweet voice calls out to me.

3. Provide us with a 300-word lecture that is titled, “Wrangling the Voices, Writing the Many Sounds.”  

(Un)Wrangling the Voices, Writing the Many Sounds

A relative asked me a few years ago why my poems were so difficult. He felt they were not the kind of poems he had been taught to read in school. My poems didn’t make sense to him. He was using “sense” to indicate the meaning or signification in the work; he was also looking for a sustained series of ideas and for substance.

It’s 8:30 on a Saturday morning as I write to you. Here is a catalogue of sounds reaching me: the slight droning of the refrigerator to the left of me, a muffled horn from the train (Caltrains) crossing the intersection four blocks down from me, the swishing hum of cars gliding down and up highway 280, (I hear their speed), my neighbor starts the blender, the person above me just moved quickly, perhaps to avert or avoid something because her pace is heavier (she, otherwise, has a softer tread), my spouse just asked me a question.

It is 8:31am now. The sense of the simultaneity of everything that has passed in this minute is ordered into the sense of a sentence. There is a sequence to the sounds. There is order. But that is not how I experience these sounds and sensations. I am aware of this incommensurability everyday. The language I use has a structure that indicates or builds on the independence of things whereas everything is interlocked and interdependent.

A wrangling implies a quarrel, a tussle where one thing battles with the other. I want to suggest instead, that we think of ways of listening, of opening wider and wider so that there’s always room for something else to exist, or to co-exist.

I have lived without my mother for twenty years. But every day, I take some time to close my eyes. I recall her face, I hear her voice. I bring her voice, and her image to the forefront for just a few minutes. It’s a way of listening.

4. What did you learn about yourself as a prose writer, having written poetry?

I learned that I love novels and that I cannot think in plots and dialogues. My characters have no sense of time but they’re very concerned with place. They think about how they see place, how to be in place, and how they are not in place.

5. Show us a line from something you’ve recently written, and reveal to us the secrets of crafting that line, the work it’s doing, and what you appreciate about it.

“Most nights I place my ear to his chest, I memorize its

unspoken code. I wait for it to melt for me.”

I am pleased with these two lines because it feels intensely personal and it’s got a larger political commentary it wants to make. I make an analogy of an indifferent heart (that has a valve in it), to the rail system built by the Chinese in Tibet that cuts through nomadic land. The greatest threat to this railway track is the weak permafrost, and so the lines are cooled with heat exchangers. (In contrast, the heart will not melt). I was trying to work with the notion of what threatens us, what unravels us and what we do to resist or avoid this unraveling. Not sure the analogy works without the rest of the poem but these lines help make the link.

6. What are the books you are reading and/or writers you admire, teaching you?

I’m reading John Donne and George Herbert for a class taught by a wonderful professor, so I’m thinking a lot about these poets at the moment. I’m learning to read carefully and to see the intention in form. I’m learning to linger on meter, caesura and rhyme longer than is my habit. To see how sound and sense are working in a poem. I forget about the formal aspects of a poem when I’m writing, I know I’m thinking of them in some intuitive or organic way, but I am finding it helpful to deliberate on them actively as I write.

7. What does a fearless poem do?

I imagine it teaches you to be vulnerable and open.

8. How do you coax the writing out of you?

A cup of my chai in the morning helps. Sometimes I have to carry a thought, an image or a feeling around for a few days. I return to this image or idea over and over, to figure out what it is. Sometimes it moves me so deeply, but I am not able to find a language for it. Sometimes, I find a way to writing by entering someone else’s work.

9. Kore Biters Womanifesto: Please add two-three tenets for transgressive and transformative behavior that you believe every woman writer should abide by or incorporate into their lives or writing practice.

I’m wary of tenets but maybe there are exceptions.
1) Practice Kindness;
2) Remember. Tell your stories, and speak them louder when someone tells you your story doesn’t have a place.

10. Come up with a writing prompt based on what is left of you.

I have a stack of novels next to me so let’s see if this works:

  • Select a novel;
  • Choose a character;
  • Pick a place/space the character visits;

And write a poem that allows place (environment) to have its presence in the poem. Write it in the first-person voice. Insert a question in the poem.

Contributed by Tsering Wangmo Dhompa