“Poetry validates the emotional realness of the imaginary.”
Interviewed By: Kaveh Akbar
Things went well at the DMV?
Yes, though I feel like I always have really low expectations for government processing situations. But sometimes you’re just surprised. My last two times at the DMV were really efficient, very rewarding.
Probably a lot of that is you going in with low expectations. “The pessimist is never disappointed” is a useful mindset when dealing with bureaucracies of any sort.
Right, optimism kills. That’s important to remember.
Hah. Right. I wanted to begin by talking about the new chapbook, Naturalism, and maybe a good way into that would be for you to tell me how old the oldest poems in it are?
The oldest poems in there, and they’re all from around the same time, but I think they are from my last year of graduate school, so that would’ve been—
But that was only 2014, actually. So I’m maybe more freshly out than people know. I guess now they know. Some of those poems appear in Phrasis too, which will come out with Fence in 2017, but I think of those Naturalism poems as a little unit from that time. In early 2014 I was making preparations to move back to New York, but I was also trying to enjoy this time I had left in Northampton, Massachusetts, which is a really weird and amazing place if you’ve ever had the pleasure of being there. They feel really inbetween, split up between two places—ideas, states of being—that I love.
I like the idea of a poem cohering in inbetweeness—this sense of being inbetween—and the way it corresponds with the beginning of the collection, the epigraph from John Wieners: “but that two parallels do cross.”
There can be concurrent realities that do have permeable membranes, you know?
Definitely. And I love that Weiners line, how it speaks of possible impossibility. Concurrent possibles.
Totally. In the first poem, “Recovery,” you strip away some of the syntactical scaffolding that usually holds a sentence together, which creates a sense of inhabiting a new ecosystem, or inhabiting a new plane that has its own kind of vernacular.
I like the word “ecosystem” to describe the world of a poem, or maybe the world of the language of a poet in general. The stripping away of a conventional syntactical infrastructure is something that I think about a lot, very purposefully. A lot of it is because I live between these two languages and I only compose in English, but sometimes it’s funny, when I’m writing I reach for a phrase from Chinese. It’s like there are two bags of words in my head. Usually I’m able to retrieve the word or phrase I’m looking for in English, but sometimes it comes to me first in Chinese and I feel frustrated that maybe English doesn’t have an equivalent, or if there is one, I’m just not able to grasp at it at the moment.
So the syntactical American English structure they taught me in school has always felt pretty oppressive. It’s freeing and interesting and liberating to just decide that I don’t have to adhere to those rules. I don’t have to construct sentences in those ways. If it lends a kind of strangeness, or maybe, for me, a language utopianness to the space of the poem, then that’s an affect that I’m excited about.
I love that—“an affect that I’m excited about.” I mean, your first book was dedicated to your family, and this chapbook is dedicated to immigrant parents.
Yes, the chapbook is for immigrant parents. And my first book is obviously for my mom and my dad. Actually, I wondered if after it came out it was evident to people, maybe I’ll just say it now and put it into the record—Cindy, the other part of the dedication, is my little sister. It’s just me and her and my parents here in the states.
That’s very sweet. I like so much thinking about your two bags of language, you reaching into one or the other as a poem needs. But it’s interesting, too—the books don’t seem to be you sort of cataloguing literal narratives of your experience that correspond directly to reality, right?
But I do think there’s a sense of—and I don’t want to try to put words in your mouth either—but I do think there’s a sense of straddling multiple realities, straddling multiple worlds, and, especially in the newer chapbook, an interest in the physics of movement between planes, windows, those sorts of images. I was wondering if you could speak to the way that corresponds to the literal actual world of cars and taxes.
Cars and taxes—now I know the exact world you’re talking about. And I certainly think about that world. Like, what is the deal with cars, jobs, taxes, subways schedules, etc. It’s heartening and helpful for me to hear from a reader that the poems don’t necessarily seem, as you say, invested in "the world of taxes.” That they aspire to move beyond, “I went to this place at this time, then I have lunch and walk home.” For me, poetry is able to validate the emotional realness of the imaginary as equally important and complementary to the capital “R” Real world as we experience it. And I feel like that’s a power of poetry which transcends styles, syntaxes, schools, languages, forms. I don’t locate that power exclusively in any specific “kind” of poetry.
Naturalism in particular is also informed by the wonderful tradition or heritage that exists in western Massachusetts, especially the Program for Poets & Writers that I went to, of surrealism. And I don’t mean surrealism as a limiting definition, or aesthetic—during my three years in the program, the flexibility of my imagination was encouraged more than anything else. Certainly more than a fixation on output, publication, accolades and winning prizes, all those things. I was encouraged to spend three years imagining as much as I could—to imagine strangely, subversively, freely—and all those influences are still working upon me and my poems now.
Yes, and Peter Gizzi.
Right, these are champions of imaginary realms, and so it’s cool to hear you talk about how that corresponded directly to what you’re actually writing, and how it corresponded to their teaching and what they emphasized. I think that’s really neat.
It was great.
You’ve said, “I’m attracted to the hypothetical world where things are plainly just less awful than in the immediate one. I want poetry to propose something better.” And I love that. In You Are Not Dead, each poem is like part of an ecosystem that you're creating this sort of logic for. You're creating the physics of it, and the vernacular for it, and it very much does feel like what you describe as a hypothetical world. I also like the idea that one of the superpowers of the poet is to offer an alternative to reality that is superior in some way.
Absolutely. I remember the interview that you’re referring to. The poetics of the hypothetical remain very important to me and, in the time that’s passed since I said that, I’ve been able to think more about the second part of that quote, the idea that each poem is a theory, or an argument, or a proposal of efficacy.
It’s something I tell my students too, and every once in a while I think, “Oh, maybe that’s a hard sell to say that every poem has an argument, and a perspective, and that there’s no such thing as a neutral poem.” It’s an interesting path of logic to go down—if we say that a poem is a proposal or theory of an alternate world, then perhaps it is, or should be, something we can test like we’re scientists. If somebody proposed a new theory to you, whether you agreed or disagreed, you would maybe march back to the lab and see if you could put some pressure on the argument you’ve just encountered. You’d want to see how it holds up, how it “plays out.”
And how do you test a poem? I’m not sure. Maybe the lab is each reader’s world of interpersonal relationships. The poem tries to offer a kinder reality, and the reader has the good fortune of testing that reality out for themselves. Living out various proposals for empathy.
That makes total sense. Poems as little science experiments. I think the way you amended the original quote points to the direction that your poems have moved from You Are Not Dead to Naturalism, which contains the poem "Phrasis." And that poem seems like an exploration of language and desire the way that a scientists explores an experiments with the scientific method. There’s second person you being spoken to, but it’s sort of this catalog of actions or observations.
I guess I’m still trying to figure out how the capital Y "You" is evolving in my life and in my poetry. So whenever people have comments or thoughts, I’m always particularly interested in that. One of the pleasures when I read poems is to guess at what kind of You is going on. Does the You exist narratively? It is posited or hypothetical? Does it sound like an “assembled by desire” You?
Ah, that’s so good, “assembled by desire.”
In Naturalism, I’m aware that I know who or what the “you” is a little less often, which is scary and also generative for me. Less often than in You Are Not Dead.
One thing that does tether the two is an obsession with negative construction—the title of the first book, You Are Not Dead. And then all throughout Naturalism, “In morning asking others / how not to die and bury—”, “from Sunday I set out early and bright wanting nothing you get nothing nobody can judge you nobody shall.” There are tons more in both books, but I thought maybe you could talk a little about that obsession in negation.
Negation is one of these ideas that I hope to be obsessed with forever. It’s good that it comes through, that I remain very excited by it. It’s compelling for a fairly simple, or even obvious, reason—to say that something is, or for something to be, is fixed and determined. To not be leaves space open for everything that is still possible. Rhetorically, it’s a wider construction—it leaves more space available for play and negotiation. That’s not to say that I don’t love metaphor and all the possibilities you can imply with one thing being another. You could also revise metaphor infinitely with a subsequent metaphor, and things get interesting fast. You build momentum.
I just love this idea of not being because, frankly, isn’t it wonderful all the things you can still be if you’re not yet?
Aw, that’s lovely. Straddling multiple worlds, multiple states of change. Not being something allows you to be everything else, right?
Yeah. And states of change is a nice way to put it—poetry as a document of a state of change. You’re making me think about how being, or is-ing—now I’m very committed to this word that I’ve just made up.
Haha, it’s a great word!
—that being, or saying that something is, is a version of naming, and naming can be very fraught, I’m sure for lots of people for lots of reasons, but speaking for myself, naming is the way in which the government has been trying to identify me, or assimilate me, or erase me and document me in different ways my whole life. Naming is a very difficult yet generative concept for me as a person—I’m not even speaking as a poet at the moment. I have a birth name that doesn’t exist in this country, and in fact has been formally and bureaucratically renounced, so that I can have access to these benefits of citizenship and assimilation as supposedly they afford me. And even my last name is an Anglofication of how you pronounce Xu in Mandarin. Naming is a consistent collision for me of life-self and poetry-self, navigating similar concerns in different ways.
I totally get it. I mean, I don’t have an identical experience, but I have a name that doesn’t translate directly in English. Any sort of native-English speaker pronunciation of my first name will be wrong. And then, my parents gave me a very white American middle name so I’d have the option of fully assimilating. I’ve never used it, but it’s there.
Yeah, and even though I’ve never used it, it’s still there and looming on every legal document. I think this sort of anxiety of naming is a very omnipresent one, especially for young people in the 21st century as we continue to reject rigid taxonomies. We’re becoming more and more aware of the fluidity of every element of identity. There are still these sort of rigid strictures in place that want us to check boxes and be very clear in ourself and our auto-taxonomization, and I think that’s a source of anxiety for a lot of people.
Right, definitely. And what a strange experience, if you’re a writer for example, to be driven, as I often am, to produce work to untangle your own anxieties. And those being inexplicably tied to my status as an immigrant, a POC. To be driven to produce work by your own oppression and thus to wonder “To what extent am I supposed to feel grateful to my own experience for providing me with what depressingly feels like content?”
That’s a great way to say that.
It’s very strange.
I think that whether you’re a writer or not, one of your charges in life is to figure out who you are. We do it in poems because we’re poets and that’s where we do the work of meaning-making. But I think what we’re talking about doing in poems mirrors the reality of what millions upon billions of people are fraught with figuring out every day.
That’s a very generous way of putting it. Something that’s important to me, and also difficult, is staying mindful of exactly what you’re pointing to—the ways I’ve chosen to discover myself in public. Or at least to make public select aspects or documents of my investigation of myself. Perhaps moreso for poets and writers of color, or of transnationality, there is a subsequent issue of, when are we speaking for ourselves and when do we feel the burden of speaking for others?
And that’s so vexed because every time there’s another scandal, like the Best American Poetry thing, every member of the group that’s been hurt is suddenly asked to speak for their community at large, to become an avatar for their race.
Yeah, absolutely. I sort of hate talking about it more, though I’m not saying you shouldn’t have brought it up, but I think that feeling is challenged also by my wanting to run around and yell about it forever. An avatar is a good way to think about it. I believe many of us, and I won’t try to speak definitively for other Asian, or Asian-American, or Chinese-American writers, but my assumption is that many of them might’ve felt as I did, that suddenly there was a spotlight put on us, on our voices and on our experience, and then the deep despair, at least for me, occurred when I started to worry about how long that spotlight would last, right?
So what should I do or say, or what should I call attention to? How should I exist in the undoubtedly short window of time that I will have this spotlight on me and on issues that are important to me? I think that’s how many of us feel when suddenly a national consciousness is raised about an issue that is important to one of us, or to a group of us. Wouldn’t it be a beautiful alternate world if we didn’t feel like that spotlight was going to turn off soon? The panic of, “I’ve got to do my song and dance now.”
I think you articulate that really really well. And I think that’s an instance of something that exclusively affects people of color. In Morgan Parker's essay you talk about how if a writer of color wins an award, then the next year there’s the anxiety that they won’t pick people from the same sort of racial or ethnic group. You know, if they pick a Chinese-American writer one year, then certainly they won’t pick one the next year. That’s not an anxiety that white Americans have to deal with. So there is that sense that while you have the mic, you have to use it. You have to say everything at once for everything.
Yeah, yeah. In regards to that very relevant situation that you are referring to, I want to make a note here that that conversation was opened up by Christine Hou, and then a more formal discussion about it was opened up by Morgan Parker. I weighed in and Roberto Montes weighed in. Christine, in opening up that kind of dialogue, articulated something a lot of us have felt. But there’s the insidiousness of something like white supremacy—you risk a lot professionally and personally to speak up about it. I’m grateful to Christine, Morgan, and Roberto for the very open conversation. These experiences are very unfortunately familiar to a lot of us.
When it comes to gatekeepers, and so many people have already said this so many times, but it needs to continue to be said, the problem persists due to gatekeepers who feel that once they—to continue the metaphor— open up the gates for one or two writers of color, their job is finished, you know? They turn off the conversation. And like, where are the gatekeepers of color? The problem persists. And nobody is saying that Asian-American writers never get published, or never win prizes, or “get things,” but what we’re saying is that certainly we don’t get it enough. And that’s where the conversation gets derailed so often, and Morgan articulated this in her essay—you can always point to someone. You can always point to an example of POC excellence and triumph, someone winning something, getting something, and you can weaponize POC successes against other POC.
And that’s the problem.
Absolutely, I agree. And there’s the very deliberate and transparent way that people, "weaponize" is a good word, use one POC’s success to stuff wax in their ears to the complaints of the community at large. I feel like we could keep talking about this for another three hours, but we’re already running out of time, and I still want to ask you about Phrasis, your upcoming collection.
So Phrasis, I’ll admit, is not a word. It’s a root for a word and it’s in the word “ekphrasis,” and I do mean it like that half of the word “ekphrasis.”
Duly noted, and I’ll remember that so when the book starts blowing up, I’ll be able to very arrogantly correct peoples' conversations. I’ll be like, “Well actually, Wendy told me…” Which will be fun for me. So that’s coming out in 2017, but I was going to ask if you’ve already started working on another manuscript, or if you have anything in the pipes besides that?
Yeah, thanks for asking. In the last year I’ve been writing prose, which is new and some days it's very frustrating and difficult. And other days it’s very pleasurable, since we speak in prose, right? I’m working on this one pretty discrete project almost entirely in my writing life now. It’s a book length work of poetry and immigrant memory, dealing with the chasms between different generations of Chinese-American immigrants, multilingualism, the troubles and pleasures of speaking.
Oh, that’s awesome.
Yes it’s also exhausting! It’s tentatively called “Notes For An Opening.” I’ve been lucky enough to have a few early excerpts from it come out, and I’m happy that those are available. One is at Boston Review and one is at LitHub. I’m grateful to have this problem to solve in regards to long work, which is, what do you do with it? How do you share moments of it with other people while letting it be itself? I’m just kind of typing away at it with no end in sight, which is thrilling and terrifying.
Interview Posted: May 2, 2016
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