Highly prized: The third-year MFA student at USF won a top national prize for student poets from the Association of Writers & Writing Programs for his poem “A Guide to Mutton Busting,” and first place in the USF Humanities Institute’s first poetry contest for his poem, “Unlock the Door and Let the Moon Come In.”
“Mutton busting” is really a thing. While he has never personally busted mutton (“It’s where children ride on a sheep and hang on as long as they can”), Cheng is familiar with the county fair milieu where it takes place from growing up in Wisconsin.
Culture clashes: From Wisconsin, Cheng’s family (both his parents are physicians) moved to northern California, and he did his undergrad at the University of San Francisco. A campus visit by USF poetry professor Jay Hopler helped convince him to make the move to Florida, which he found “kind of shocking at first” — the slower pace, the flat landscape, the summer rain — but he’s slowly getting into its rhythms.
Music and moonlight: He used to play violin and piano, and when he’s asked to describe his poetry, he talks at first about “the sound and rhythm of the line.” But in a follow-up email he adds this: “I think I would describe my poetry as the light and shadows in your bedroom; it feels familiar, but depending on how the light filters into the room and where shadows slink off, can drastically change the mood of the room. Shifting lights and shadows can bathe a room in a muted blue or shine white. I aim to create the same natural, yet potentially rapid shifts in my poetry.”
Identity: Cheng’s father has lived in the U.S. since he was 2, and his mother was born here, so Chinese culture was not a “huge part” of the writer’s life growing up “except in the things we cooked and how the house was decorated.” But in recent years, culture and upbringing have played more of a part in his writing — as in a recent issue of the literary e-mag Sweet in which he explores the question of being an Asian-American writer in a heartfelt letter to Vietnamese graphic novelist GB Tran.
Where next: “The ideal thing would be to have my thesis published — a book of poems — and probably continue working in academia as a means of support and to remain in the community of writers.”