NEA Literature Fellowships

Nancy Chen Long

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(2017 - Poetry)

"Lessons"

Every afternoon
                         the woman my father hired
                                                                    would push
                    the eraser-end of a yellow pencil
                         into the mouth
of my mother

                    to teach my mother
how to make a proper
                                  English sound.
     I would stand at the screen door
                                                   of the Quonset hut,
                                        Okinawan-summer sapphire above me,
                      twist the neck
                                            of the tiny green brontosaurus
                     clutched in my hand,
and I would watch:

Blonde bouffant, cotton-candy hair piled high
                                      against my mother’s straight black braid.
            Candy-apple lips, frosted eye lids
                                                               next to a plain, topaz face.

No, no, no!                  
                   and yet another press
     against the tongue,
                                   my mother, gagging,
         a stick in her mouth,
still mute long after my father’s return.

(originally appeared in Cold Mountain Review)

Nancy Chen Long is the author of Light into Bodies (University of Tampa Press, 2017), which won the 2016 Tampa Review Prize for Poetry, and Clouds as Inkblots for the War Prone (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2013). You’ll find her recent and forthcoming work in Ninth Letter, Zone 3, The Briar Cliff Review, Crab Orchard Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Pleiades, Bat City Review, and elsewhere. She received a BS in Electrical Engineering Technology and an MBA, worked as an electrical engineer, software consultant, and project manager, and more recently earned an MFA from Spalding University. She lives in south-central Indiana and works at Indiana University in the Research Technologies division. Look for her online at www.nancychenlong.com and @NancyChenLong.

Photo courtesy of Nancy Chen Long

Author's Statement

On the day I received notice that I was a recipient of an NEA fellowship, my cell phone kept ringing. It was a caller from Washington, DC. Not recognizing the number, I didn’t answer. It never entered my mind that the calls could be from the NEA. Then I received an email that the NEA was trying to contact me—please answer your phone. When I heard that I had won, I was at first speechless with disbelief. I think my initial attempts to speak were some kind of babbling. The person from the NEA who delivered the good news was kind as I tried to get my bearings. I imagine he gets that reaction all the time from award recipients.

The timing of the award is perfect. I’d received news a few months earlier that my first manuscript had been accepted for publication. I could now fully let go of it to concentrate more on a second one. My current work is turning into an obsession with the intersections of art, science, and religion, the language we create to name and map those ideas and interactions, and how language mediates, bridges, and serves as connective tissue. This obsession requires much in the way of research. The NEA fellowship makes it possible for me to explore those intersections and the language around them more deeply by giving me the much-needed combination of time and resources.

I am deeply grateful to the NEA for their belief in my work and honored to be named among such wonderful poets. It’s an affirmation that challenges me to dig even deeper into the creative process, to do my part in helping other writers as I am able, and to make a difference where I can.