diaCRITICS reviewer Melina Kritikopoulos chats with poet Sydney Do about her first collection of poems, Here Lies My Heart. They discuss the difficulties of writing personal poetry, self-publishing, and the role poetry plays as therapy in Do’s life as a Southeast Asian poet writing in the diaspora.
Melina Kritikopoulos: You mention in your author bio that you said you’ve been writing since you were 13. Is there some kind of catalyzing moment that happened when you were 13?
Sydney Do: I think one of my first poems was for my English class in middle school. We had to write poetry which inspired me to write about the experiences in my life. I had my first little crush and it didn’t go well so I wrote about that. And then my grandma had passed away shortly after so I just continued on with writing as a form of therapy.
MK: You mention “writing as therapy.” Could you talk a bit more about your relationship to poetry?
SD: Honestly poetry is just my outlet. It’s something I’ve always kind of resorted to when I’m stressed, when I’m sad, when I’m feeling things that I can’t really say but it’s easier for me to put it onto paper. I write when I reach milestones in my life or I go through periods of being really happy and blessed. I know a lot of this first book highlights trauma, pain,and heartbreak but I promise I write about happy things too.
MK: Can you talk a bit about your Southeast Asian identity and if that factors into your poetry?
SD: It’s funny. I actually took an Asian American Studies class my senior year, this past year at UC Irvine. It was a social activism and politics class. My teacher had asked me the same thing: “how does poetry relate to you or relate to your identity in the Southeast Asian community?” And honestly, when I write, I feel like I’m speaking for people that have endured similar traumas to me; for people who might’ve endured the same things I did as a young girl with immigrant parents who didn’t heal so much from the traumatic events they faced during the Vietnam War. A lot of my writing reflects off of my parents. Honor is a huge thing in the Asian community and when I write, a big sense of my writing, my success, everything I do, ties into representing my parents. They’re a huge part of my identity because without them, I wouldn’t be me.
MK: I notice there are drawings scattered throughout the book. For some poets, illustrations and imagery is not just an addition to their poetry, but part of the poetry itself. Can you talk more about these illustrations–who did them? Why did you choose to include them? What are their relationships to the poems?
SD: The drawings themselves kind of complete the poetry. My goal for people reading my poetry is to have them envision their own images and to resonate and relate with me in whatever way they can. But for some specific poems–I think I have about 27 or 28 drawings in there–it was specifically tied to that poem for people to envision what I wanted them to see. The person that illustrated my poetry is my older sister Tiffany. She has been an artist her whole life. She’s so talented, she’s so creative and very artistically inclined. I’m good with words but I cannot draw for my life so I was sending her designs and doodling on my phone with my finger and writing out descriptions. She literally created everything I wanted. Especially my front cover. That’s one of my favorite pieces that she’s drawn. She’s made magic with everything that I’ve given her.
MK: Seeing poetry in rhyme in a contemporary poetry scene that’s so saturated with free verse was interesting. Was there anything in particular that went into the choice to strictly follow a rhyme scheme in a lot of your poems?
SD: Honestly when I write, when I’m really inspired, I just start writing it out on paper. I think I unintentionally rhyme. There’s some poems where I feel like this has to go with this. Or if I’m gonna say “sing” I have to keep everything rhyming with “sing.” Half of the time I don’t intentionally try to rhyme. I just kind of write. Whatever comes to my mind, if it makes sense, if that’s how I’m feeling, if that’s what happens, I’ll put it on paper and then it just flows.
MK: So would you say you do much editing with your poems or does it kind of just come out as a finished piece?
SD: Honestly, it comes out as a finished piece. I did have an editor go through my book. I had about 155 poems and I only published I think 120 or so. So I didn’t include everything in my first book. But even on the shared document, there were just a few punctual errors or just adding notes like “maybe you can put this word instead of this word” or “maybe you can add another sentence here.” She didn’t have to do much editing for my poetry. So I would say it just comes out as a finished piece. I personally like to leave my work untouched. I know I need to have someone peer review but what I write–the theme and the message and what I’m trying to convey to my readers–I like to keep that in this frame.
MK: So this is your first book. Can you talk about the process of publication and how you went about doing that as a self-published author? Why did you go through self-publishing as opposed to a traditional company?
SD: If I’m being honest, if I had more money than what I started out with to save up for my book–because I also had a book signing party–I would have gone through a publisher. But I made a goal for myself last year, 2022. I said before the year ends I want to self publish my book before my birthday as a gift to myself.
Rupi Kaur is one of my favorite poets, one of my favorite authors. She’s someone my work kind of mirrors, but with obviously our own unique experiences. I was just so inspired by her. She had published her first book, Milk and Honey when she was 21, self-published. She did all her artwork by herself, bestseller; and now she’s onto her fourth book. She’s 28 or 29 and I just want to be like her one day, but like Sydney Do. So I think that was my huge motivation. If she can do it, I can do it. That’s why I continued on my journey of writing and sharing my poetry with the world.
Self-publishing is not easy. I cannot say how many times I’ve had breakdowns. I was so stressed, feeling like I don’t want to do this. But my parents didn’t raise me to quit. Sometimes it was just really rough. Because being a new author, I didn’t really know the process, and my editor could only give me so much guidance.
It was not an easy process, I think the outcome is much more rewarding. But if you have the money and the funds and the resources I would recommend going through a publisher.
MK: A lot of young poets feel that publication can act as a goal of poetry. So as a poet who has very recently been published and has been writing for over a decade, what did publication do for you as a poet, and as for feeling like a poet?
SD: It was a really liberating feeling and it just acknowledged all the hard work that I’ve done; because this book was 5 years in the making. I’m still learning the process of promoting and marketing my book and everything and I’m not a marketing major or anything so I don’t know anything about it. But I think, again, the finished product was so rewarding because instead of writing in my little brown leather book and then inputting it on the laptop and being hesitant and reluctant to share my poetry to the public–with the world that doesn’t know all these intimate details about me and my life–to actually have a hard copy and hold it in my hands and be like, this is my heart and soul on paper and this is what I created. Something that I did for myself and creating a name for myself. Nothing is more rewarding than that.
MK: You mention in that answer how intimate this collection is. If you’re willing to talk about it, what inspired the events and stories retold in this book?
SD: All my poetry is nonfiction. Everything in here is real. It’s all my experiences. All my writing is based on not just my feelings, but people that have inspired me or impacted me. Not every single poem is about me; I’ve written about other people, and my relationship to them or what they mean to me. Again, when I am feeling really emotionally charged I turn to writing as therapy. If I don’t have my physical book on me I’ll go to my phone and write it in my notes or I’ll do a voice recording so I can jot it down later.
When I was going through some pretty traumatic events and painful things that I didn’t, at the time, have the strength to get myself out of, I would write. The painful poems and traumatic things you’re reading about are inspired by me being so overwhelmed and engulfed with my emotions I just have to get it out on paper.
MK: Did the extreme intimacy of the collection make it difficult for you to publish it?
SD: That’s why I said I was having so many breakdowns. I was really reluctant to share what was so intimate to me and my life with the world. People that I had past relations with and people that I used to be friends with and people that no longer serve a purpose in my life… it would be accessible to anybody. I wasn’t really comfortable with the idea at first, with people getting to know me on such a deep level without really knowing me. Why am I giving you so much access to me if you just don’t know me like that? A big part of me was like, another girl or another person that’s going through these things would need this book, or they’d need a place to feel they are heard and seen, where they feel safe and they can relate to somebody else. So that was really what was pushing me to just be like, bite the bullet and publish the thing. If you get criticism you get criticism, if you get good reviews you get good reviews. It’s your work and it’s not always for everyone. But just do it and hopefully you can just help someone else out along the way.
Here Lies My Heart
by Sydney Do
Independently published, $19.99
Sydney Do is a first time self-published author. With a passion for writing poetry at the early age of 13, creating art with her words, and pouring her heart out onto paper, has always been a therapeutic remedy to her pain. Sydney longs for making a difference in the world. She hopes her debut poetry book finds you well and helps get you through the darkest of days. Instagram: @ms.sydneydo
Melina Kritikopoulos is a mixed-race writer and journalist of Greek and Vietnamese descent. She is an undergraduate student at the University of California, Berkeley where she works for The Daily Californian. She produces and hosts the podcast Poetic Pontification, highlighting poets of the East Bay Area.