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OCTOBER 13, 2021

Winner of the 2020 Steel Toe Books Poetry Award, Focal Point is a scientist’s unofficial dissertation, a daughter’s faithful correspondence, and a coming-of-age story. Written largely while Jenny Qi was a young Ph.D. student conducting cancer research after her beloved mother’s death from cancer, the collection turns to “all the rituals of all the faiths,” invoking Western and Eastern mythology and history, metaphors from cell biology, and even Jimi Hendrix, as Qi searches for a container to hold grief. The opening poem of this debut collection primes us to consider all definitions of the titular “focal point,” as the speaker evaluates this moment of early loss beneath a literal and metaphoric microscope. Here, the past and future converge, but from here, what does divergence look like? What can a scientific mind do except interrogate and attempt to measure the unknown and immeasurable? These poems, at once tender and suffused with wry humor, diverse in form and scope, go on to navigate illness, early relationships, racism, climate change, mass shootings, and the COVID-19 pandemic, unflinching in the face of death and the darker side of human nature. At its core, Focal Point is an uncompromising interrogation of how to be alive in the world, always loving something that has been or is in the process of being lost.

Cover design: Hilary Steinberg

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Praise for FOCAL POINT

Reflecting on a bedside scene in the catalogue of her mother’s terminal illness, the speaker notes I was never a better daughter, as if to suggest the dying of a mother is an occasion we rise to, and in some frame, flourish under, but when that occasion lapses, as it does early on in Focal Point, the speaker ventures into asking how, then, do we exhaust ourselves? What animation, frame, or point of view keeps us from wilting with what has wilted after the vastness of the distance between those seemingly adjacent states of being has been witnessed intimately? Steeped in metaphors enabled by a speaker with a close proximity to science and art, Focal Point is a nuanced and heartfelt inquiry, a wonderful book.

Dustin Pearson, 2020 Steel Toe Books Poetry Award judge and author of Millennial Roost and A Family is a House

Focal Point by Jenny Qi is a book of crossings. Here, a mother crosses over from the living to the dead, the daughter crosses over to having a mother and then no longer having a mother, all the while studying science, an organized system of knowledge. There is nothing organized or clear about dying, but the end. “I never believed in anything. / Now I believe in everything, / all the rituals of all the faiths,” writes the speaker. Qi grapples with disorder and order at once, endings and beginnings, mapping out a place where both co-exist because they have to. Focal Point is a beautiful and reflective book that inhabits the necessary liminal space of betweenness. 

Victoria Chang, author of Obit

Focal Point is a book of losses: loss of innocence and loss of illusion, the loss of friends and lovers, but most of all the loss of a mother. Qi’s poems examine this loss not just through a daughter’s eyes but through a budding doctor’s, knowing the science of what will happen to her mother but not how to save her and, in conjunction, her own sense of the future. Most books about a parent’s death are written by medical outsiders. But Qi’s poems take us deep inside both her own grief and the limits of scientific knowledge to produce poems that, though plain-spoken, plumb a multitude of complex, unsettling emotions:  helplessness and guilt, rage, love, and even envy. These are poems that express the profound paradox of slowly healing from wounds you know you’ll never truly heal. As Qi writes, “[here are] all these places I have traveled without you / so I can forget how without you I am.”

Paisley Rekdal, author of Nightingale

In these moving, beautiful poems, central concerns of mortality, racial identity, personal relationships, and generational trauma and hope, are articulated in new and productively strange ways. Where else could we read a love poem about something called “telomeres,” which “guard the ends of chromosomes / and wane with every breath we take, / leaving fragments of ourselves behind.” These poems confidently, curiously, sorrowfully, optimistically, reveal a singular, exciting new voice in American poetry. 

Matthew Zapruder, author of Why Poetry and Father’s Day

The poems in Jenny Qi’s haunting debut collection, Focal Point, are delicate the way a scalpel is delicate. A fine instrument is needed to carve into a reader the precise shape of loss, and Qi accomplishes this feat again and again in elegies for a cherished mother, for girlhood, for belonging, for lovers, and for the earth itself. This book chronicles “the heroic collision” of many types of love and the harrowing, indelible echo of grief even as its speakers choose the sometimes bitter, sometimes sweet pill of living. Jenny Qi’s poems tenderly, gorgeously grapple with what it is to be human, to be “magnificent things / flailing in the whistling / April wind.”

Francesca Bell, author of Bright Stain

It’s not often a poet arrives on the scene with her “voice” not just already intact, but richly developed. From the moment I first read a poem of hers I recognized a secure handling of language, a clear process of thought, and a clever use of poetic craft that together provided a fresh and uniquely authentic point of view. Arresting moments, frank observations of the self, and touching descriptions of the poet’s family and the relationships that prevailed. . . it is almost as if watching origami suspended in a jar. Qi is a talented poet with a warm heart and a strong desire to paint wonderful poems. Congratulations on her accomplishments thus far, and I am excited for her future. I highly recommend this book. Focal Point is a blossom opening.

David Watts, author of Having and Keeping