blackbirdonline journalSpring 2019  Vol. 18 No. 1
 print preview
 download audio

A Conversation with Jenny Xie
captured October 15, 2019

Gregory Donovan: We are so glad to have Jenny Xie visiting here as the winner of the 2019 Levis Reading Prize for her collection, Eye Level. That collection has received a number of prestigious recognitions, having been awarded the Walt Whitman Award by the Academy of American Poets, as well as the Holmes National Poetry Prize from Princeton University, and was named a finalist for both the PEN Open Book Award and the National Book Award. I’d say that’s a pretty good beginning. She’s also published her writing widely in journals such as Poetry, The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, and Tin House, among many others, and she has received numerous fellowships and grants in further recognition of her talent. She was born in China and raised in New Jersey, and she has widely traveled, as is clearly evident in the poems in her book. She now lives in New York City and teaches at NYU.

So I’ll go ahead and start the first question just to get the ball rolling, and then all of you are free to ask any question you might like to ask Jenny, and I hope you will. I want to say that in both poetry and fiction classes, I’ve often suggested to students that they might want to take advantage of the fact that everything describing the surroundings of a character also accrues to a portrayal of that character’s inner life. And that actually is reflected in your book, as well, where you navigate external landscapes as a way of portraying internal landscapes. And I wondered if you would talk a little bit about that approach, and how you came about deciding to use that, and if there were any influences on it, or whatever—there don’t have to be, but just however you’d like to take that question.

Jenny Xie: Sure, thank you, Greg, for that introduction and the question. So I just want to quickly say thank you to everyone, that it’s really such a thorough honor to be here, and I’ve been moved by all the ways in which you all showed such generous attention and care to get me here. Yes, to go to your question, I very much in this book wanted to explore a kind of permeability of self, and so you put it—this idea that what is external to us is, of course, bound up in and leaks into and flows into the internal as well. In fact that boundary between the external and internal as we see it is often not just permeable but illusory, that it can dissolve depending on context and your, sort of, perceptual awareness. So some of the poems are about travel and thinking about what it means to be dislocated, what it means to be ripped out of one context and thrown into another, and how, of course, that kind of journeying—whether it’s geographic or mental—that that, of course, forces you to also turn inward.
And to see the ways in which your identity or your sense of who you are is provisional and dependent on the context that you’re in, so that there is this kind of, not straight mirroring but certainly, yeah, this level of porousness and cross-pollination between the internal and the external.

And these poems are also in many ways thinking about the entanglement of the seer and the seen. Of what it means to fix a person, a thing, in our sight, and sort of give them a form in that way, and also in return, to be decentered when you feel another set of eyes on you, to know that you’re being taken in, being drawn up, configured in some way, and that sometimes the only way you know yourself, is through the eyes of the “other.” So that your insides are in some ways shaped by how you present outwardly and how others perceive you as presenting or reflect back to you in your presentation. So I think some of the poems, especially the ones about travel, I was really interested in thinking about the line between inwardness and facing outward, facing the world, and how travel causes or activates this kind of heightened attention. And one way in which I was approaching the poems was I really wanted the reader to have a kind of cinematic experience at times, of direct observation. Of course, there’s no such thing as direct observation, and the book, I hope, is playing with these concerns of whether or not we can see without any kind of mediation. So, but in an essence, and especially in the poems in the first section of the book I was interested in how to present scenes, discrete scenes, and vignettes to the reader without too much interference of an editorial voice, too much explanation trying to give a kind of sensory experience back to the reader as a way to get them closer to some emotional state, some intellectual state that I wanted to convey. And you asked about influences, I think, some of the influences I was going for there were in some ways ancient Chinese poets. Who put a lot of stock in raw perception and clarity—if I can make a larger generalization about work like that—in presenting things, quote unquote, “as they are,” and what that would mean.

GD: That’s wonderful.

JX: Thank you, Greg.

Caitlin Wilson: I had a comment on something you said that you said there was no such thing as direct observation. I was wondering if you could expand on what typically interferes with our observation, and how that played into the way you were writing your poems. You said you focused on sort of sensory input, but I feel in the later part of the book it was less sensory experience and more about the self being involved, as I read it. But I was wondering if you could expand on that?

JX: Absolutely, yeah. So part of the book is taking up as its concern the fact that when we observe, it’s never this clean, direct, one-on-one input of what we see entering into our minds, or what we perceive through the senses entering through us undiluted, in some sense, or unmediated, that the part of the act of perceiving and of seeing is the not-seeing, that you are, of course, ordering experience, that if we were to approach experience raw, there’s no way our minds could handle all of the sensory input—all of the incoherence, the mess—that to actually function as human beings on a day-to-day level, you have to kind of trim reality down to size. And how do we do that? Well, each person does it differently. So, to use an analogy, when we’re born and we begin to pick up language, you’re born into a tradition of language that preceded you and will go on after you, and I think that happens with the ways in which we see the world, as well. You learn to adopt certain ways of taking in the world, certain ways of ordering visually, or through the senses dependent on culture, dependent on family background, dependent on your upbringing, and much else. So there is a sense that I both want to present something raw, in the sense of not interfering or perhaps spoon-feeding the reader with what exactly I want them to get—if it can even be captured in language—but on the other hand, of course, I understand that everything I put in front of the reader is very heavily edited and selected, just like through a camera lens, and there’s a lot of thought, I hope, put into how I decide to arrange that camera lens and the speed at which it picks things up and how it selects what’s out in the world and puts it back on the page for the viewer. And the second half of the book—so the first half of the book, which is more heavily centered around travel, I think, has that as its kind of immediate concern. Later on in the book, there is much more play with abstraction, with this idea of selfhood as a fiction, as an illusion of sorts, as bending it and sort of trying to turn the gaze back onto the self. So thank you.

CW: Yeah, thank you.

GD: I had a special experience of the falsehood of the self because I—when I was around thirteen or fourteen I discovered that I was adopted, which I hadn’t known up until that point, so everything in my life up to that point had been a lie, in a manner of speaking. I think that that’s always made me sympathetic to people who want to investigate that question, so I found that really inspiring in your book, that you engage with that question and that’s something that’s important to me. I’m always trying to prove to my students that actually their memories are false.

JX: Absolutely.

GD: That they—especially the things we feel most intensely about the phrase “it’s seared into my memory,” that’s almost a sign that whatever comes right after “this is seared into my memory” is going to be something that we’ve altered over time, because I’ve experienced it myself, profoundly. And I wondered if you could just chat a little bit more about that.

JX: Yeah, absolutely—I mean that’s a fascinating—

GD: Because you’ve experienced an eruption in your life from your origin in coming here to this crazy place. [both laugh]

JX: Yes, yes, immigration for sure, and to go back to your own experience—I mean that’s fascinating to have a foundation for a kind of self, and have that foundation be completely sort of cracked open based on one major revelation about your origins. And yes, I’m absolutely just fascinated with how the self gets constructed and how the self controls so much of how we navigate the world. But also just how flimsy and permeable and false it can be, and that the ways in which we think of ourselves based on memory is oftentimes fabricated. Fictions that we choose to cling to in some ways to make our life easier, that each time we remember we’re reorganizing the memory, and it becomes—people who are better at science than me in this room probably have a better way of explaining the ways in which we mark memory in our minds and how it kind of deteriorates each time we actually revisit the memory, we re-narrate it in some ways. So I’m very, very much interested in that. I like what you said about rupture—so I think the book and my poems are interested in states of rupture, whether it comes from travel, moving, being uprooted from—so I was born in China, and I immigrated to the US at a young age, that was a very sort of dramatic severance. I think some of these questions around selfhood, and how provisional identity can be, can be traced back to some of our early interests in Buddhist philosophy and thinking. So when I was in high school, I actually bought, without any knowledge of Buddhism, I bought this very slim book on the tenets of Buddhism from a yard sale. And for some reasons, which I can’t really figure out why, I decided to pick it up and decided to read it, and something about the way it was written, and of course the sentiments delivered so clearly, it kind of—some veneer of how I was viewing the world ruptured, and maybe that sounds cheesy, but I think it completely sort of shook my foundations in how I saw the world and how I saw what felt for a long time like a solid sense of self, which led to so much struggle and suffering. And I think ever since that moment that I haven’t always been a very good practicing Buddhist, whatever that means, but since that moment I think that’s kind of remained in—those ideas of Buddhism have kind of remained in my orbit and kind of shaped who I am, and I hope how I live as well. Yeah, I guess that’s a long-winded way—and I don’t know even if I understood or answered your question.

GD: No, that was great.

David Wojahn: Jenny, how do these issues of the self, and the porousness of the self, impact the choices you make formally in the poems? We were talking about in class, and there was a lot of discussion about your use of white space and also the relative lack of enjambment in the poems. Lots of end-stopped lines; a lot of people mentioned that. So how are the ideas you’ve been talking about connected with formal choices you made in the book?

JX:That’s great. I think I was very much driven by fragmentation in a lot of the work, which is why there is so much white space. And part of my interest in fragmentation is the associative principal, and I was kind of talking to Kathy about this in her work before, too, but this sense of letting the reader—but also the mind—enter into a question, a thought, an emotion, a state through all these various angles that charging things by putting these discrete fragment scenes next to one another is a way of bringing the reader close to some experience that feels incommensurate with language that is non-language, pre-verbal in some ways, and how do we approach that? How do we approach the messiness and the fragmentation of the self? The fact that we are always so fluid in who we are, that we are full—just a river full of contradictions and all of these, sort of, interfering ideas and states of being, and yet, to the world, we present as a solid body. And how do you render that kind of incoherent experience onto the page, not in a way that loses the reader, but that gets the reader pressed up really close against what it can be, to be in a mind, a mind that is multiple and not singular. And, for me, fragmentation was a big part of that. Breaking it open, coming in with different modes, letting one mode of writing be interfered by thought, then description, then something philosophical, and how all of that together maybe gets closer to approximating some of what it means like to be a very incoherent being that goes out in the world and is called upon as someone who is singular and solid.

As for end-stopped lines versus enjambment, I honestly don’t know that I was conscious of this, which is what is so lovely about having readers and meeting them, is that they totally pick up on parts of your work, dimensions of your work, that you really were not alert to. So I guess I have maybe a tendency sometimes toward aphorism, toward a kind of clipped statement, toward sparseness and tautness, and maybe that lends itself to a kind of neatness on the page, which I don’t know is something that I want to stick with or is necessarily commendable. I know taken to one extreme it can lead to a kind of too packaged, or perhaps too closed-off statement, as well. So maybe in future work I’ll have to work toward more of that enjambment, more of that acceleration and spillage and excess.

Kathy Graber: You could talk about the prose poems then. It seems like a natural progression because they sort of disrupt a lot of the white space and the appearance of the poems that come before them, and then all of a sudden there’s this little cluster of paragraphs.

JX: [Laughs] Yeah, there is a little cluster of paragraphs. So the strange thing about talking about a book after you’ve published it is it can often seem like you did things deliberately, and with a pre-determined project, so that was not the case. It just so happened that I think a lot of the prose poems had their start when I was actually in my MFA program many, many years ago, and I think at the time I was just trying to write into self-surprise, to not go into my usual stanza patterns, my usual rhythms on the page, and one way to do that is to change lineation, or to not heed certain rules of lineation, and I really enjoyed it. I also just really enjoyed the work of Anne Carson’s Short Talks, or European surrealists who wrote these kind of fable-like little boxes of prose poems, and I was just, I think, trying to attempt something similar to see where it would get me, and when I was compiling a manuscript, I thought I saw them kind of constellating, or they had a kind of energy together, but there was not a sense of deliberate choice in writing toward those in the book for some sort of reason. But certainly, I always tell my students this, too, when you feel kind of stagnant in your work, when you feel that you can’t but hear yourself, which sometimes is the worst thing when you’re trying to write, is being sort of blocked in your own voice, try re-lineating, try different containers, try—I mean, obviously it seems simple, but the length of the line controls the acceleration, controls the breath, controls how you hear the cadences of a poem, and something like removing all line breaks and creating this prose block really made me enter a poem very differently. It made me, I guess, have permission to be a little bit more unexpected maybe in my associations and what I was reaching for. I think because I just wasn’t thinking the mode of “oh, this will turn into a poem,” you know? It was just kind of freeing to relax into some form that I wasn’t trying to will into something polished, in that state.

Kathy Graber: They work that way in the book. Just as you were saying, they change things up. And so, they sort of for the reader have the same effect of, you know, the book has cast a sort of kind of spell, and it sort of resets itself, and the reader gets a little recalibrating.

JX: I’m glad you feel that way.

AJ White: I guess speaking both about the process of— the strange process of putting a book together and also going back to your very first answer in which you reference cinema, I’ve read previous interviews of yours where you’ve talked a little bit about your influences, and most of them didn’t come as a surprise to me, that it’s very clear a lot of them are clear lineage of ideas and literary techniques. I was really surprised to see some of the filmmakers that you referenced in your influences you’ve referenced Chris Marker and especially Andrei Tarkovsky, you also talked about one of your processes of writing and escaping writer’s block is being like watching slow films, and like—so I see a really clear filmic influence. I think especially on the first half of the book, but I was really curious—the second half of the book is much more difficult for me to characterize for anyone, anyway. I was wondering if you could talk to if you see a clear filmic influence on the way that the poems in the second half of the book, especially, develop.

JX: That’s a great question, and thank you for that close reading. Yes, I think the idea of collage and montage and also of thinking very visually are maybe, perhaps, most pronounced in the first section with the travel poems, especially the long “Phnom Penh” section. Later on in the book, I think certain ideas of camera lens and what gets restricted when we think about a frame is very much, I think, embedded in the form of some of the later poems. I also think about, let’s see—with “Visual Orders,” which came later, and that one’s a little more essayistic, I still think I was thinking about cinematic techniques, if not necessarily visual in the sense of concrete, but this idea of the jump-cut, of cutting away then sort of placing the viewer, the audience, the spectator, the reader back in this same sort of orbiting concern but from a very different camera angle. So that was part of the work, as well. I think sometimes it might not make its way in, sort of, easily traceable ways into the work, but one thing I do do when I feel stuck is reach for other mediums. And I love cinema, and I always have. I love films, even as a kid, and it was not a kind of snobby, highbrow. I just watched anything that I could get my hands on that wasn’t necessarily available at the local theater at a certain age. I think I just liked watching, and I just liked what an image can do, how an image can really ring, and get us into a state; image, of course, coupled with music, coupled with other kinds of voice over and technique. But it could get me, when done exquisitely well, so close to a kind of spiritual state and intimacy of understanding that I wanted to figure out how that could be done, of course, with language and on the page, which happens all the time with authors. But I think in some ways I was thinking about that translation of technique to the page, as well, and maybe that goes back to Greg’s first question, in which I was referencing this idea of direct perception. What would it look like if a poet made a film? Or that poetry collections were films, in some ways? How would we still get some of the sense, and essence, coming out of the poems even though the vessel of delivery were a little bit different?

Student: You mentioned the “Phnom Penh” diptychs just now, and there was something I noticed throughout the book, but particularly in those poems, this connection between sensory overload and oversaturation and post-colonial thought, seeing the world through a post-colonial lens, and particularly that city. So I was wondering what are your thoughts on how those two things are connected because that’s definitely something that I couldn’t reach on my own, that this idea that being in an urban setting and experiencing sensory overload has that sort of connection to living in a post-colonial world, so I was wondering what your thoughts are.

JX: Wow, that’s very astute and much smarter than maybe the answer I can deliver. I don’t know that I consciously made that decision to link oversaturation or sensory intake with post-colonial thought. I mean, those poems in some ways were coming out of the years I spent living abroad, so I lived in Hong Kong and after that I lived in Cambodia for a few years, and being abroad—like I said before—it really makes you sort of tune into a different kind of attention. When you’re in your usual space, you can often be on a kind of autopilot to make your experience manageable, but when you’re in a place where you have no personal history and you have no set rituals and rhythms, you have to constantly be remapping a place. And you’re also decentered, so you are alert to—one would hope—to different centers of gravity. And where you stand and where your locus of power is, is it at the center, is it at the periphery, how does it compare relative to where you were before. And other places and nations in which you’ve lived, and so, of course, living abroad made me think about the ways in which I was both closer to a center but also felt very much unmoored, estranged. So that insider-outsider split. And the countries I lived in, it was also a kind of peculiar phenomenon because I am Chinese-American, so I could in Hong Kong and Cambodia fluidly pass, for some, the Chinese diasporic populations in those countries. But at the same time I didn’t speak Cantonese and I didn’t speak Khmer; I spoke Mandarin. And in certain spaces I could use my Mandarin with shopkeepers, restaurant owners, but I would often—my group of friends would mostly be maybe American, British, a lot of ex-pat populations that I was connected to through my work, through also mutual friends, and so in some situations sort of fluidly, or not fluidly, seeing myself cast in these different roles where I was part of some in-group, but then immediately could see my privilege and also my mobility, that compared to people who lived their whole lives in Hong Kong or Cambodia, I had the option of moving whenever I would like. I had the option of leaving for travel, and that, of course, made me think a lot, again, about my position in these countries, what I was doing there, how I was taking my own biased view of where I was, and perhaps that is—to circle back—bound up in this sense of oversaturation because, once again, I think being in a really unfamiliar context opens you in some ways that you have to sort through new kinds of sensory experience and phenomena very differently. And maybe that kind of sorting and questioning and feeling through also makes one, once again, more alert to what subject positions you’re taking, and where you are in a place, and how you relate to others, and what hierarchies—invisible or not—are there.

Student: Yeah, because I think that’s especially in “The Wet Season” diptych, there’s a part where you’re talking about writing ad copy for Coca-Cola, and then the next stanza is about these face-whitening products, and then that’s super apparent the idea of not like—obviously understanding that relationship but not fully understanding it until you’re directly confronted with it, so I feel like that particularly connects to what you just said.

JX: Yeah, thank you. And the poem kind of makes references, but when I was writing ad copy for these face washes, some of my colleagues in the advertising company were telling me that in America you can’t get away with saying this is a whitening face product. You can say, look on the shelves, look on, you know, like sites, products for Aveeno, or Neutrogena, and a lot of them say “This will brighten your skin,” it will make it less dull. And when we were in Cambodia and also in Thailand and in other countries you could be very explicit about the fact that the reason why people are gravitating toward this product and why you wanted to seduce them into buying the product is because they wanted to have a lighter skin tone. And all of the heavy connotations of that.

Student: Thank you.

JX: You’re welcome.

AJW: We talked about several of your poems in my undergraduate creative writing class. We talked specifically about—we compared “Metamorphosis” and “Naturalization,” which are right next to each other. We compared “Ongoing” and “Long Nights,” the last two poems, and something that amazingly we really realized in class that I hadn’t thought about is how many of these poems are what I would call “process pieces.” They’re about the process of not becoming a self so much, and not discovering the self, but kind of, as you discussed, situating the self in the world or mapping the self onto the world and the world. I wonder if you could talk about—you’ve talked about kind of incidentally how a collection comes together, I’m wondering how consciously you crafted so many of the poems in this collection to be about the process of becoming or forming or discovering.

JX: Yeah, that’s an excellent question. So a lot of these poems were written over the course of a few years. Some had an early start in my years as an MFA student, and then were radically recast later on, and then some were written after the MFA program. And at the time that I was writing, I really, really was not aiming for certain themes or a project of any kind. In fact I remember when I was nearing the sort of requisite number of—minimum number of pages that you often need for a book contest, I was a little bit anxious that there was no coherence to any of the work, that a lot of what I was trying in graduate school was just, again, trying to write into self-surprise, trying not to sound like myself, and when you make that your priority, of course, suddenly the fear creeps in that you could just have a completely scattered collection of poems that call or heed the call to very, very different impulses and are trying to sound like very, very different people. So once I did have about, you know, I think it was forty-five poems. And it was really—it felt like squeezing, squeezing, squeezing out droplets at the very end. I printed them all out. I was looking at them and seeing what kind of resonances or through-lines, what the kind of fabric was. And another part of having to, sort of, consider this more as a large canvas was coming up with a title for the entire collection. I really, really—I struggle with poem titles, so having to title an entire collection felt incredibly daunting, and I guess I was—one way that I go about titling is I might skim through lines and look for charged phrases or idioms, turns of phrase, and see what’s there, and something that I kind of kept going back to was “at eye level.” At first it was At Eye Level, and I realized somewhere down the line of organizing the manuscript that I really, really was—and have always been, because it is quite broad—interested in this idea of perceiving, of observing, and in return of being called up through other people’s ocular organs and how strange that is and how we move through the world, and so much of what determines what decisions we make come out of this very shaky sense of self that is formed from all of these accumulated experiences of seeing ourselves reflected back through others. So that kind of took root, in a way, and also at the time that I was editing and putting the sort of—trying to think of sections and putting together a table of contents to submit the book out to these contests, I think those were also really my preoccupations at the time. I can be a private person in some respect, but intimacy can also come very easily to me. But I was also living in an age where it felt increasingly more difficult to assert a kind of unknowability. And this is nothing new, I mean everybody talks about it all the time, but the fact that I did exist online, that I spent most of my day oftentimes having my reality sort of mediated through these screens, so I was thinking a lot about what it meant to be an incoherent self, but then have to self-present all the time and perform all the time as someone who is consistent. Or consistent in the right way. And just how much I struggled with that, with being a visible person. And I think that, of course, when something takes grip, you—everything you see in the poems and when you’re editing it sort of seeps its way in. So the maybe more interesting answer to your question is that when I was revising that book, and I took about a few months, I actually had to ask for an extension, much to my embarrassment, but I was maybe tweaking poems every single day during those months. And I think in the process of doing that, and I don’t know that I can recommend that now, my obsessions in the moment—all about seeing and being seen and the moral entanglements of perceiving—I think were making their way as I was re-editing older work, so that it was somehow filtered through this lens.

KG: So we were talking at lunch a little bit about the expectations for a poet as a public person. What you were just saying about being in public brought this back into my mind, and so most of the students in the room are in the MFA program, not all of them, and so I thought maybe you would talk a little bit about your transition from graduating from the MFA program to having a book come out and your sense of your obligation to be promoting the book and things like that.

JX: Yeah, so after I graduated I felt that I was definitely one of the slower writers in my program, so I had classmates who had manuscripts ready before graduation, were sending them out. Some of them were published immediately after graduation, and I knew that I wasn’t—the poems I was writing, I could not stand by them, that it was not ready yet, and that it would just, it would take time, and I started a new teaching job which used up a lot of reserves of energy, so that in my free time I didn’t necessarily want to be in front of a screen or to be working with text again because I was so, sort of, submerged in it through work. So it took a lot of fighting for the time and trying to claim it for myself and asking myself whether or not I really did want to have or work toward a collection. It’s never a guarantee that you just have them because you want it badly enough, but it took a bit of time to sort of establish a kind of rhythm and get working on the poems again, and that was not easy. There were periods of silences, of a lot of sticking with the self-doubt and understanding that it was part of the process, and also trying not to measure my progress against what I was seeing. And I live in New York City, so it’s very easy to be confronted by all that everybody is doing, whether it’s giving readings, publishing, being on panels, and that’s of course lovely and energizing, but I think at a certain point I had to retreat a bit and figure out for myself what is it that I’m doing it for. Is it to, once again, be seen in a certain way? Is it to have certain markers that I am quote-unquote “professionally a poet”? Or is it that I’m trying to get to what usually brings me to the page, which is some much vaster experience that is not at all on good days linked to the sort of external sort of accompaniments of the writing life. And then when I was lucky to be sending out work, that I had a manuscript ready, and luckier still to have one accepted, that was when you kind of are put in a position to think of your book as a product. And I loved working with my press, Graywolf Press, and they never pressured me to think of sales or anything like that, but on a practical level there’s a whole team of people who are there putting in their labor to make this book one that will reach readers. And you have to think about how the book will reach readers and find readers, and that means sometimes taking a kind of step back and trying to describe back what your book is about, who might be associated with it, the kinds of audiences that it will reach. So it does yank you out of this—however illusory—just sort of enclosed private space, so that you have to think about audience. And you have to think about reception a bit, and that is something that I still find difficult in some ways because it is—it cuts against, again, I think that deep, deep solitude that I experience when I’m in, I think, the most pleasurable moments of writing, and nowadays there’s much more of an apparatus about how you can publicize yourself as a writer and also how you can reach your readers as a writer. So it’s not that I feel that having platforms and spaces in which you can talk about your work is a toxic or sort of bad thing because in some ways it’s—new technologies are enabling people to find the readerships they normally would not, or in past years, would not have found unless they went through the very well-kept gates. And that only a select few were allowed audiences, permitted audiences, and otherwise it was very, very hard to disseminate your work, and now there is. Now, if you really wanted, you could write something, and then snap a photo of it, and it could reach hundreds of thousands of people, if that’s what you want. I think what becomes a problem is when we take a measure of what other people are doing and convince ourselves that that’s what we ourselves want, when it’s not temperamentally or dispositionally all of us. So it takes a lot more work for me to be an online presence, to be a public presence, I think, because I spent a lot of time alone as a child, that it’s made me for better or for worse a very inward person at times, to have to switch out of that mode into a more public mode is one that just—it takes work. And it gets easier for me, but all that to say I’ve had to sort of sometimes take stock of what the writing life can look like, and what it is for me, and also sort of set boundaries of what I can and cannot do. And whether or not I’m comfortable with all that I’m doing. And at the end of the day, again, not to mix up the reception of the work and the publication side of the work, of the writing life, and also the book parties, and such, that can once again be very fun and invigorating, not to mix that up with the work itself, and it can be very, very easy to, I think, sort of see that line disappear.

Student: I have a question, kind of following up on what you were saying about the solitude versus the external, and just how maybe in your writing process that it’s more inward and that you work better in solitude, but do you also find that having a writing community or cohort was part of your process for this book, or was it very much more inward, I guess?

JX: No, it was absolutely part of the process. I can’t tell you how many eyes have seen the poems in workshop or in various kinds of writing exchanges, various drafts in the book that have become stronger because I was listening to the feedback of close readers, people, readers I trusted, and feeling part of a community is also why I’m sure many of us are drawn to literature and to writing in the first place. That, at least for me, I felt very alone in some senses, as a child and as a teenager, and later in life when I had more opportunities to be among writers, emerging and otherwise, that it was such a relief to share a room with people who had the same kind of raw enthusiasm that I did about words, about stringing words together, about poetry, about visiting bookstores, that part of that sense of community and bridging these kinds of solitudes is absolutely what keeps me here, in some sense, but, again, that might look different when I’m actually trying to produce. I’ve also been part of really, really wonderful communities for writers of color, so I’ve participated in Kundiman, which is an Asian American writers retreat and fellowship, and also Cave Canem holds workshops for writers of color, and those were also spaces in which, once again, I felt like my sense of my work, my sense of my readership, my sense of my communities were shifting because I was maybe in a room of readers and writers who came from similar cultural backgrounds or very different cultural backgrounds but maybe had similar experiences with being read in a certain way. And those kinds of conversations about the poetry life, about the writing life, about navigating the world as a certain kind or a certain category of poet as it is sort of projected onto you have also really lit the way for me and made me feel less alone and more—I’m on better, steadier footing, that I was committing myself to a life with other people that I genuinely admired.

DW: Jenny, you mentioned classical Chinese poetry and Anne Carson. I wonder if you could talk about some of the other writers who you go back to, writers who sustain you. Who are your influences?

JX: That’s great. I always struggle with this because as soon as I answer it, I feel that I’ve actually given a completely incomplete or dishonest answer. Yes, I read—since maybe graduate school, I’ve gravitated a lot toward international poetry, actually, and I think in some ways that appetite for translation was developed because I didn’t want to be overly steered by what I was reading. I was reading, of course, reading and admiring and learning just voraciously from contemporary poetry, but I also wanted to listen in on other kinds of voices, syntax, dictions. So I was reading a lot of poetry in translation, which is something that I still love to do. I always skim lists of “best translated books” and look for authors there. Recently I was—I spent a month in China, and I was reading a lot of contemporary Chinese poets, a lot of them published through Zephyr Press, out of Brookline, Massachusetts. They’re wonderful. They publish all kinds of works in translation, but they have a really robust collection of contemporary Chinese poets, people like Lan Lan, Duo Duo—two authors I was reading recently—Wang Xiaoni, and just terrific, terrific work. So a lot of poetry in translation, and I think I also really love international voices because sometimes they make me alert to how wild or extravagant thinking can be. Not that just because you’re writing in a different language or from a different cultural context that that automatically makes your thinking wild, but sometimes I think when you are sort of lodged in a certain tradition, you forget how thought can sound differently and what you are permitted to do on the page. So I love reading a Russian modernist poem and seeing these kinds of wild signatures on the page and tons of exclamation marks that in workshop people might tell you to tone down, but there can be just a lot of these different modes that you’re not necessarily allowing yourself to enter, that you might feel invited to enter when you are reading in translation. I also read a lot of nonfiction just because I, again, I was in China recently. I was reading a lot of Peter Hessler—Oracle Bones and Country Driving, these two deeply, deeply reported books on modern day China—and Evan Osnos. I recently was reading Rachel Cusk, her books which sort of toe the line between fiction and nonfiction as many, many books do these days. And, yeah, I guess my influences can be pretty wide. But, okay, so to go back, some other formative influences in college, Jack Gilbert and Linda Gregg were huge for me, their use of compression, again, of unadorned admission of deep, deep wisdom. Those matter a lot to me. Yusef Komunyakaa and Tracy K. Smith and James Richardson, some of my teachers who I was incredibly privileged to study with, I read a lot of their work, and they really shaped in many ways who I am on the page. And then later on I was drawn to a lot of women poets, people like you said, Anne Carson, Suzanne Buffam, I really love. I love how she works with what can seem like something very small and even trivial and really, sort of, through her work, blast it open and give you a total new perceptual shift on something like a pillow, or a shopping list, or something like that, or a cloud. And yeah, I love Li Shangyin, which is another ancient Chinese poet who’s been translated recently and put out by New York Review of Books. Hai Zi, who is a Chinese poet who is actually from my hometown in China and is this very revered poet who committed suicide at age twenty-five, I think. This was in the 1980s in China, so he had a very short career, but it kind of—his life story kind of also launched his career, sort of, in the stratosphere. Yeah, so many, many different influences.

Student: I had a question.

JX: Yes.

Student: So you talked earlier about the idea of being, like, seeing and being seen, one of the lines in your poems, it started with a “z,” but I can’t pronounce it.

JX: “Zuihitsu”

Student: Yeah, the idea of the pleasure of watching without being watched. Since your book is so personal, and you draw so much from personal experience and observation, can you talk a little bit about the balance about inserting—between inserting yourself into your poems and being seen, and then versus giving the reader the raw experience and allowing them to process the environment themselves?

JX: Yeah, that’s a really great question. So I think sometimes when I was drafting the poems I really resisted the “I” and putting too much of myself on the page. And, of course, that was probably—that voice was probably in many ways shaped by what I was hearing in workshop, what I was sort of hearing in literary discussions, and, of course, fearing that the work would become solipsistic, narcissistic, that it was too navel-gazing, that it wasn’t looking outward enough. But at the same time, a writer I really like and another big influence of mine, Sarah Manguso, at the end of her book Two Kinds of Decay, she says people who—I’m going to paraphrase her badly; she puts it much more elegant—people who decide not to write about the self or resist writing about the self underestimate the contours and the vastness of a self, of what a self can hold. And I sometimes had to remind myself of that, that the personal and experience and the “I” on the page could be a mode; it didn’t have to be constrained to just biography. And that, in fact, some of the writers I love the most I love especially or precisely because you get to be tucked in their mind for however many pages that you’re there with them.And the rhythms of their thinking and how they warp thought, how they perceive, how they experience, that you’re so pressed so close in their mind that that was the quality I loved. So in some ways I wanted my poems to have that as well. I didn’t want them to feel completely distant or completely, sort of, disembodied, removed from any sense of an “I” with a history, with limbs out in the world and all that allows a human being to shape a sense of themselves. So that I think later on allowed me more thinking about all of this, allowed me more permission to enter on the page, and at the same time I think I was trying to write in different registers. So description I love for what the image can do, what it can—all the kind of arguments and inquiries and contradictions an image can contain that you can’t maybe, sort of, bring out together in a more expository way. But at the same time too much description, and maybe me and the reader both would tire of what it could do, and it might feel a little bit thin, a little bit limited in its reach, so that’s where I might enter with a direct “I” statement, with something, or with an “I” pondering something in a more, sort of, philosophical mode. So there are reasons why sometimes this “I” comes on the page is also to cut into and interfere with not hitting one note too much.

Student: Thanks.

Student: I have a question, too, that kind of bounces off of that, like, the “I” and then also distance. You say also “make no mistake, one cannot cover distance with more distance,” and I was kind of wondering—this might be a little bit personal, but how you know when to cover that distance, or when not to—if I’m making any sense at all.

JX: Oh, wait, I love what you’re—nobody’s ever really brought up that line before. Can you repeat that last part again?

Student: About the question?

JX: Yes, please.

Student: Yeah, so I guess I’m wondering when you’re writing when you want to have a distance, or when you think that’s valuable, and then you don’t, if that makes any sense at all.

JX: It does—did you mean distance from kind of emotional content or an experience?

Student: Yeah, that and also maybe the use of the “I,” as well.

JX: Yeah, it really, really varies. Oftentimes I try not to write during a state of emotional intensity, precisely because I think it might lead me astray on the page or overpower the craft decisions because you just want to get it down, or you just want to preserve exactly what you’re feeling in the moment. So sometimes work, I think, is more successful on the page when it’s cooled a bit, when the experience or the state that you’re trying to write into is cooled a bit, and you can handle it more with tongs, to use a metaphor. But sometimes that’s also not the case, sometimes you might more easily re-enter into something or have access to certain kinds of associations and leaps and memories when you are close to the experience at hand, and you kind of have to test it out, which means endless drafts and trying things out in very—trying different designs on a poem. As for whether or not what kind of perspective to use, the close-first person versus the close-second, the intimate second person, versus the third person, that was also something that I was constantly experimenting with, so there are a lot of poems in the book that took years because they were written from a perspective, and it was not giving me the vantage point I needed, and it didn’t allow me to be honest with myself in the ways, or take the risks that I needed, because the perspective was all wrong. I wasn’t close enough, or I was too close that I couldn’t see anything; there were blind spots. And something that felt as simple as just recasting a poem into this second person immediately changed the rhythm, the cadences, and, yeah, the kinds of space in which I allowed myself to move in, the kind of movement I allowed myself on the page, and that felt revelatory, too. But there’s no, yeah—there’s no hard and fast way for determining, but it—I found sometimes that it did feel as simple as “Wow, I was writing in the wrong perspective the whole time with the wrong tense the whole time,” and that’s why I couldn’t get it down.

Student: Thank you.

GD: I think we can let our guest rest. [audience laughs]

JX: Thank you so much!

GD: Thank you. Thank you, thank you so very much for those wonderful answers, some really stimulating.

JX: Thank you for the close reading!


return to top