Rising senior Calista Ogburn wasn’t planning on publishing a book at all this year, but when the pandemic struck, so too did inspiration. As anti-Asian sentiments flooded the world and Ogburn herself faced hateful glares, she knew she needed to pour her frustrations into her poetry. A few months later, her poetry book “this is it” was born.
Around late March, when the University of Maryland, Baltimore County sent students home, Ogburn had writer’s block. Her last poetry book, “a splash of yellow” came out in July of 2019, and she hadn’t written much since. “I thought last year’s book was it. I even contemplated whether I was a poet anymore. It was to that point,” she said. But poetry has always been Ogburn’s best friend. In high school, she wrote four other books, all “angsty,” she said, laughing, containing between 30 and 40 poems.
When she moved to Korea from Vietnam her sophomore year of high school, she joined the speech and debate club and began to do tournaments for poetry. After reading other poets’ work, she wondered if she too could write poetry.
Five years later during the COVID-19 pandemic, Ogburn thought about her experiences with anti-Asian rhetoric during the pandemic and realised that she needed to write another book. And after she posted about starting it, she got a lot of feedback. “I had a lot of Asian people reach out to me saying ‘this is amazing, I feel like I need this in my life,’” she said.
The poetry book is meant to be for everyone, Ogburn explained. Even though the book begins with talking about the hate crimes against Asian Americans during the pandemic, there are also universal themes of loneliness and anxiety. “Everyone’s going through this global pandemic and a lot of my poems in there are Asian-identity based, but a lot of them are [about] loneliness and anxiety and ‘what am I doing with my life?,’ and I’m pretty sure a lot of people are having [those feelings] right now,’” Ogburn said.
The hardest poems for her to write were about her personal experiences with microaggressions. “Experiencing [those events] again, it’s therapeutic but it’s also really frustrating,” she explained.
One of the poems, called “Strawberry,” is about when she went to visit her ex-boyfriend. “I was taking off my boots and putting them on the shoe rack and his mother got upset, like ‘this isn’t an Asian household. What are you doing?’” she recounts. Ogburn expertly translates that anger and fear into the poem.
But with the racist violence against Black people and the Black Lives Matter protests happening, she wanted to ensure that she wasn’t taking away from the conversation by publishing her book.
“I wanted to draw attention to what’s going on right now [with anti-Asian sentiments], because I feel like it’s not really talked about anymore, but I recognize there are other things going on right now. I was afraid to put out my book last week, because I didn’t want to distract from [the Black Lives Matter movement]. I was really worried about selective activism, but I really want to say that this book is literally for everyone. Anyone can relate to this kind of pain and rage,” she said.
While writing the book, for about a month and a half, Ogburn was sitting down with a mug of coffee and her laptop, writing four poems a week. “That was a huge change from writing none for six months. This book was fun to make, and also super rewarding, but also the most stressful thing ever.”
She worked closely with her editor, Morgan Mullings, who had also edited Ogburn’s last book, and for “this is it,” the two would spend six hours a week going through every poem. “The editor is literally the best writer I’ve ever met. They deserve so much recognition. Morgan and I have a very tight relationship ,” she said. Ogburn also worked closely with her illustrator, Hannah Lee, who is in Hong Kong. “We had to deal with a lot of time differences but I thought it was important to include another voice that was outside the United States,” Ogburn said.
After working on the book, she published it without telling anyone, but since she doesn’t have Amazon Prime, it wouldn’t be arriving until mid-July. “It still isn’t here, I only have the proof copy, so I was really distraught and stressed out,” she said.
But in early July, her boyfriend came over to have dinner with her family, and he came holding a bouquet. “I was like ‘Why do you have flowers’ and he was like ‘Guess what I got in the mail?’ And behind the flowers, he held up the book,” she said.
She did a photo-shoot with the book, which has a striking brick-red cover featuring an Edward Hopper-inspired figure, staring wistfully out the window.
The illustrations in the book are in black and white. “Hannah and I really wanted to keep it with a grainy look. I wanted to make sure not every poem had an illustration. Sometimes you need to focus on the poem itself,” she explained.
The last poem features an illustration with two people on the couch. One, Ogburn says, is a depiction of herself, but the other person is there for the reader. “Each illustration tells a story and the last illustration, I wanted it to be you and me on this couch together, where you just read this really intense book. The last poem is very hopeful and I don’t want you to leave reading this book very sad. I want you to leave reading this book being happy, like I was here with you this whole time.”
“this is it” is available on Amazon here.