An Interview with Lisa Zou

Lisa Zou cover photo

Lisa Zou has been recognized by The Poetry Society of UK, National YoungArts Foundation, Johns Hopkins University, and the Poetry Society of Virginia, among others. Her work recently won The Lindenwood Review Lyric Essay Contest and Honorable Mention for The Atlantis Award. A native of Arizona, Lisa currently studies at the University of Pennsylvania, and her poem “Prodigy” appeared in Penn Review’s Issue 49.2. 


Q: When did you start writing and why? What role does writing currently play in your life, and how has it changed over time?

I was introduced to poetry at a young age and memorized many Chinese poetry pieces. My writing was first published back in my city newspaper in elementary school; the poem was about happiness and probably the most cringe-inducing piece of work I have ever written or read. The newspaper awarded me a gift card, and I was hooked; from there, I started winning writing competitions in middle school, but they were all pretty local.

I spent some time in boarding school in China and had to take English Second Language classes when I moved to California. My English was awful and I was actually teased for my accent. Because I did not have the ability to vocalize my thoughts, I wrote everything down instead.

I don’t have a language barrier issue anymore, but I still write as a form of activism. Most recently, I won an award from The Woman Inc. for my poetry on women’s rights. Over time, I have focused on making my writing more diverse. I don’t want to be categorized as someone who purely writes about culture or women or education.


Q: What does your poem “Prodigy” mean to you?

It was inspired by someone I knew who was incredibly smart (definitely genius-level) but still unsatisfied with himself. Previously, I had thought that if I had his skills, everything academic and career wise would be “set” for me. The reality, however, is that every genius calls someone else a genius. The greatest thinkers struggle, often even more than others. It’s the dark side of being a prodigy.


Q: Would you consider yourself to be a part of a writing community? How has the writing community changed (high school to now)?

Definitely. I’m in close contact with a writer from India because she contacted me initially. Having high school writers reach out to me and ask for advice is also always rewarding.

The writing community in high school was very much focused on winning awards, something that was somewhat toxic in my opinion. Even so, I currently mentor students in writing and have found it super rewarding, especially since some of my mentees have won awards I was not even able to win myself in high school. The college writing community is much less competitive, though not as well connected because people have more priorities and obligations now.


Q: Best English class you’ve taken at Penn?

I really enjoyed ENGL 106: Law and Literature with Nancy Bentley. She was a phenomenal lecturer. It was interesting to investigate the parallels between law and literature, and I still reference a lot of the documents we used. As part of an assignment, I read the entirety of Obergefell v. Hodges (the case on gay marriage), and I remember crying while reading it because some of the language used by Justice Kennedy describing marriage reminded me “this is why words were invented.” Poets, much like lawyers, can be spokesmen for the disadvantaged.


Q: Do you have an ideal job?

I’m not sure yet, but I’m interested in anything that involves problem solving and people. I enjoy interacting with people and believe that you can really be friends with almost anyone if you get to know them well enough. I like solving problems and helping people—there’s a relatively wide range of jobs that fit that description. I also want a job where a lot of learning is happening.

I think it’s really important to find something that I enjoy doing above all else. There’s definitely a lot of privilege that comes with that statement, and that’s not a privilege I have always felt I had. I have a lot of interests and tend to find more things worth discovering than not.


Q: What is the most important piece of writing you have written?

The most important piece of writing I have ever written is called “Serving in Ben Hai.”

I have worked on that piece for over four years, and every year, new additions appear (there are several versions online and in print). It addresses cultural histories, but also how we deal with privilege. In it, a grandmother serves soup to the same men who stole from her and destroyed her village.

Forgiveness and revenge are two of the most interesting topics to explore in literary history. Can forgiveness or revenge be inherited in the same way privilege is?


Q: What is the most important piece of writing you have read?

In terms of defining literature, I always come back to Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman for the relatability of characters. It’s incredible how much depth can be relayed through pure dialogue. Each time I read Death of a Salesman, I interpret something differently. The best novels are books where each reading not only brings something new but changes how you thought of the book before. Previously, I would relate to Linda, but now I relate to Buff. And some days I feel like Willy. I have tried to write my own plays and believe that playwriting needs more attention—it’s not all poetry and prose!


Q: Do you consider yourself an artist? Why or why not?

Going to arts programs like YoungArts has exposed me to the wide range of art. I was formally trained in piano and flute, and even took art lessons for years. In another life, I would have wanted to be a ballerina. I almost exclusively write poetry now, so I consider myself an artist in that sense.

However, I didn’t consider my work art for the longest time. Lots of my pieces that are published are public trash. There are a lot of flaws, grammatical mistakes; I often look back and laugh at my pieces. And that’s okay! I think artists and audiences nowadays are too focused on perfection. It takes some humility to showcase the mess that got you to where you are. There are maybe three pieces of mine out of 300 that I am actually proud of, but I am not going to hide the rest. I am as much an artist as I am anything else.


Q: Just for fun: what are your thoughts on art and sadness?

There’s that quote that all happy families are happy but all sad families are sad in their own special way. Sadness makes writing interesting if the writer is able to channel that in a unique way. I think sad people tend to gravitate towards art because art is a way to release that sadness. Personally, I write the best when I am not in a happy mood—so it’s good that I don’t write full time. I think art (whether music or writing) is a good therapist because it just listens to you. Without poetry, I really don’t know where I would be today.

P.S. Read Jenny Zhang’s “How It Feels” if you want a good piece on sadness, rawness, and writing.