Illuminating verses: A conversation with poet Monica Sok
September 11, 2023
While the simple act of lighting a candle marks the beginning of Monica Sok’s writing process, her verses radiate with the luminosity of her Cambodian lineage, the shadows of familial trauma, and the fervent desire to safeguard cultural narratives.
On Oct. 11, the poet and author of “A Nail the Evening Hangs On” will present her work at Virginia Tech. These events, free and open to all, will begin with a craft talk at 3:30 p.m. in 370/380 Shanks Hall, followed by a reading at 7:30 p.m. in the Creative Innovation Districts Performance Hall.
About the poet
Sok’s accolades include the 2018 Discovery Poetry Prize from 92Y and a 2017 National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry. An alumna of New York University's MFA program in creative writing, she was a Jones Lecturer at Stanford University and at the Center for Empowering Refugees and Immigrants in Oakland, California. Her works have graced the pages of publications such as the American Poetry Review, Paris Review, and Kenyon Review.
Virginia Tech MFA in creative writing students selected Sok as the Soniat Reader for 2023-2024. The Soniat Reading series, named in honor of former professor Katherine “Bonnie” Soniat, alternates annually between fiction writers and poets.
Sok recently shared about her work and her journey as a poet.
How did you begin your journey as a writer?
Honestly, I began with rhyming. I was 19 years old, and I guess rhyming was a baby step toward the poetry that I would read and write later on. Growing up, I loved reading, but I am not one of those writers who wrote poems as a kid and can look back on them now as an adult. I wish I was, so that I could see a sliver of how my imagination began to take root.
I’m from a small town, and in Washington, D.C., where I studied international studies, I was exposed to open mics for the first time. It was exciting to hear regular people talk about their lives with strangers in such intimate ways. Their words activated in me a willingness to share my story but to first ask which stories I was even interested in telling. I wrote bad poems and treated everything I had to say with urgency.
From there I wrote and wrote, took creative writing workshops, and tried to find other poets who were also writing so I could learn from them. Then I found myself as a prospective student at New York University, sitting in on Yusef Komunyakaa’s class, and again, I was moved by people who were committed to taking the time to write and discuss poems. New York City is where I truly began to emerge, and I still consider the city my home as a poet.
Are there any books or authors that have significantly influenced your writing style or themes?
I’ve been turning to prose lately. I read “The God of Small Things” by Arundhati Roy, whose heavy use of rich similes and sensory language really excited me as a poet. The book was in my pile to read for a long time.
The late writer Y-Dang Troeung wrote a scholarly book called “Refugee Lifeworlds” and a memoir called “Landbridge” that is forthcoming. I’ve been thinking about the language that she left behind that affirms my writing; before I did not have the words and now I do because of her. Like Alice Munro, she is from Goderich, a small town in Ontario. Troeung loves Munro. Without knowing that, I was also reading “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, and Marriage” while I was reading “Landbridge.” I love the way Munro writes contradictory characters. Her short stories encourage me to look at the small, exciting details of ordinary life.
Do you have any rituals or habits that help you get into the writing zone?
My habit is that I write one new poem and work on one revision in the same sitting. I’m working on becoming more disciplined in my practice. Lighting a candle switches on my writing too. The flame signals that it’s time to write.
What challenges did you face when trying to get your first book published?
Because “A Nail the Evening Hangs On” explored my relationship to intergenerational trauma and the Khmer Rouge regime that my family survived, I was wary of how my book might be publicized. My press was sensitive to that as well and allowed me to share my own concerns. Given that trauma is a part of my family history, I wanted to change that narrative on my own terms, so that I could honor my loved ones and myself. Apart from learning about publishing in general, the main challenge was navigating the inevitable conversations about trauma and establishing my parameters.
How do you handle criticism and reviews, both positive and negative?
I received a very positive, very thorough review once, and I was stunned by how much time the reviewer spent with my book. I’ve gotten petty quips from men on social media, to whom I paid no mind. Should a negative review come my way, I would hope that it would be constructive and not solely mean, so that I would be able to take that criticism and open up new doors to my craft.
What advice would you give to students in Virginia Tech's creative writing program?
Play, play, play. Nurture your inner child. Go buy stickers and put them on your rough drafts. Go to the dollar store and buy blowing bubbles.
Try not to take yourself too seriously or get stuck in intellectual chatter, which might crush the intuition and wonderment that you need for your writing.
I highly suggest cultivating a beginner’s mind by learning another art form. I’m learning how to play poker, which is not about the cards you’re dealt. It’s a game of patience, which you also need for your creative process.
What do you wish you knew when you were starting out as a writer?
I wish I would have explored other pathways outside of academia to support my writing. I don’t regret taking the opportunities that gave me resources and time to write, but instead of hopping around from one university to the next, I would have tried to cultivate a strong home base where I could rest and relax into my life as a writer. I want writing to be a significant part of my life, but I also know that I am not just a writer but a friend, a sister, a daughter, a neighbor, a lover, an adventurer, and so on. These different facets of my experience make up so many of my poems, and I need to nurture them all.
How do you handle the balance between personal privacy and sharing through your writing?
When I feel absolutely ready, I’ll share a poem that may feel too vulnerable. If I’m not ready, then I won’t let anyone read it unless they’re a reader that I trust with my poems in their early stages. I respect my privacy and also my process. Writing is about taking risks, and sharing the work is another kind of risk taking. Often, I listen for the timing of the poems and when they tell me that they’re ready too.
What’s the most rewarding aspect of being an author for you?
I love learning how readers interpret my work. I get a chance to learn something about my writing that I didn’t know before. It’s a real privilege to read my poems for audiences too, knowing that they are taking the time to listen to poems in their busy schedules. The writing itself is also the reward, the intimacy that I get to experience through the act of writing.
Are there any upcoming projects or books you’re currently working on that you can share with us?
I’m working on a second book of poems. I notice a pattern of time, since many of the poems take place at night or play with the theme of darkness. These poems feel more personal to me than the ones in “A Nail the Evening Hangs On,” in the sense that I am writing about myself. I’m not relying on persona poems anymore to distance myself from a painful history. I’m in the recent past or present, relying on my own voice, full of flaws, imperfections, and uncertainty. Because I’m paying more attention to sharp feelings like resentment or shame, music and tone show up differently in this book. I’m in my favorite part of the process, revision, which to me, is the same as finding ways to surprise myself.
By Leslie King