From Yangon to Sewanee: Mandy Tu’s journey of becoming a poet

Photo courtesy of Mandy Tu (C’21).

By Anna Püsök
Executive Staff

Mandy Tu (C’21) was first exposed to poetry because of her grandfather. “He was very into romantic poets especially, and he made me and my brother go to his place and read him poetry out loud.” Since then, Tu has written and published many poems, co-founded the Yangon Literary Magazine, and moved to the United States, where she’s getting her degree in English,  with minors in women’s and gender studies and psychology and a certificate in creative writing.

After her grandfather’s prompting to get involved with poetry, Tu started her authorship with journaling, and then moved to writing stories. “I loved Lord of the Rings and a lot of my hopes early on was to create a work that was emulative of the Lord of the Rings, which is technically impossible,” she laughed and then continued, “Poetry just sort of happened when I was around fourteen. I had a poetry teacher in high school, and part of her exam was to compose a poem on the spot.” She wanted to write good poems for the exam and her passion evolved partly from there.

After attending high school in her home country, Burma, she participated in a foundation program in Australia, where she took different classes, including English, Australian culture studies, and psychology. Tu also received a diploma in mass communications, which included filming and journalism. While studying in Australia, she actively wrote for an online magazine, which she remembers as giving her, “the experience I needed to find my own way back home.” She continued, “It’s interesting to look back on how things build on one another.”

Australia is where Tu got into spoken word poetry. She remembers that, “they had poetry clubs that met at a cafe, so we went there every Saturday and I met poets and started to read my own work in public.”

After her return to Burma from Australia, she found a blog of a friend who was also Burmese. They decided to create a platform for Burmese writers with another friend. “We started a magazine, and then made a website, and it started to grow from there,” she said.  “Then we started to do open mics, got more and more submissions. The magazine is currently on pause since Tu moved to the U.S. and the other co-founder moved to Australia. 

Living in different countries had an impact on Tu’s work. She said, “My writing definitely changed and I was more conscious of where I was coming from. I wrote a lot about Burma and my relationship to it, but that continued to evolve.”

She continued, “I learnt English in an English school in Burma, and my Burmese is terrible. English became my first language,”

 “That’s part of the tension that shows up in my poems,” Tu said. “They’re mostly in English, but they talk about Burma. On the other hand, I can’t speak Burmese and what does that mean, as a person who’s not even in the country, but that country is always going to be home.”

Tu also likes to write about nature. “I’m a floral writer. Flowers tend to feature a lot in my poetry because I love the nature of them. They bloom and then die – I just love it,” she explained.

“Other times, I just like sitting in the cemetery, staring at two stones, listening to the birds and writing about what I see and hear. It’s really observational and emotional, and I find a way to combine the two. Inspiration comes from even the smallest things.”

Tu’s poems have been published by many different small and medium-sized publishers. Her pieces can be read at Tint Journal, Santa Ana River Review, Mountain Goat Journal, among others. About these submissions, she remarked, “They are always subjective of what they take, and why they take it.” She continued, “I got so many more rejections than acceptances.”

When asked how she copes with rejections, Tu said, “I read a tweet recently about rejection. The tweet said to look at rejections and acceptances like this: your poem is rejected because it didn’t fit into this particular arrangement. I really like this thought because it’s not like your poem is trash, that’s why it’s rejected. It says that it just didn’t fit into what they’re looking for.”

She further explains, “Just remember that even the most successful writers have had so many more rejections than they’ve had acceptance.” She continued, “I know if I get a rejection it’s sad but you have to keep submitting because it’s a statistics game, and creative writing is really subjective.”

As a senior, Tu  started to think of the following steps in order to reach her goals: “I’m hoping to get into a Master’s in Fine Arts program in creative writing, specifically poetry, so I’m looking at a bunch of universities in the U.S.,” she said. 

In ten years, Tu wants to be publishing, “I want at least a book or two out that I’m proud of. Besides, eventually, I do want to go back to Burma and set up a center for creative arts, where people could teach the youth about poetry and creative writing because they don’t value art that much, and the fact that I got into this far is miraculous.”

She continued, “If I stayed, that would have squashed that part out of me. Australia and now the U.S. helped me discover what I want to do with that.”

We ended our conversation with Tu’s advice for people interested in creative writing. “Read poetry, find a poet you like, and then imitate. Take what you like from that work and then try to work with that on your own. A lot of poetry, especially when you’re at the beginning starts with imitation. Along the way you find what form you want to work with and what you want to write and then you develop your own voice and style. That takes time, but it’s worth it.”