Cathy Linh Che: Your book A Nuclear Family came out this spring. Congratulations! Could you talk a little about the book's title?
April Naoko Heck: Thanks!
The title A Nuclear Family works on several levels: My Japanese great-grandmother was a survivor of Hiroshima, and on the day the bomb fell, my mother was in the womb about twenty miles away in Hiroshima prefecture. My mother later went on to marry my white, American father––who, ironically, worked for a nuclear power plant through the 1980s. During that time––during most of my childhood in Ohio––my little sister, our parents, and I made up a "nuclear family," in that utterly romantic sense of the term.
It occurs to me how new the word “nuclear” is––I just checked the etymology for “nucleus,” which I will share for my fellow word nerds: “1704, "kernel of a nut," 1708, "head of a comet," from Latin nucleus "kernel," from nucula "little nut," . . . . Modern atomic meaning is 1912.”
Yes, “A Nutty Family”––that’s accurate too.
Cathy: We attended all three Kundiman retreats together and graduated together. Why did you apply, and what have you found there as a fellow?
April: In the months leading up to the retreat, I felt lost and demoralized as a writer in New York City. My manuscript was getting rejected from a million places. At the same time, I was working with literary stars, in proximity to, but not part of the glitterati. (Of course, that term is smoke and mirrors; I only had to talk to my non-writer friend to realize how distorted my perspective was, because he hadn’t even heard of writers I envied!)
At my first retreat, I cried as much as I laughed, often in the same breath. The retreat’s workshops were the first time I’d ever studied writing with Asian American faculty. And even though all of us poets came from different places, the common patterns in our histories and struggles to assimilate made for richer conversations and deeper sense of belonging than I’d ever experienced in an academic setting. Kundiman was super vitamin to my creative spirit. It was reinvigorated courage and motivation. It was detox, adrenaline, recovery. It was, and is, my poetry home.
Cathy: What advice would you give to a poet who wants to publish a first book?
Take your time, be patient, and aim high. Everyone should send poems to The New Yorker. Everyone should send their manuscript to the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize. Over time your best poems will find the right homes, and your manuscript will find the right press. Don’t compare yourself to others. Just do your work with as much joy as you can muster, trust in the process, and, maybe above all, help your friends. The rewards of the latter continue to surprise and delight me.
April Naoko Heck was born in Tokyo and moved to the U.S. with her family when she was seven. A Kundiman Fellow, she has been awarded residencies from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and Vermont Studio Center. A Nuclear Family, her first collection of poems, was released by UpSet Press in spring 2014 and is available on Amazon. Photo by Rachel Eliza Griffiths; book cover by Bianca Stone.