Wendy Xu is the author of You Are Not Dead, a full-length poetry collection forthcoming from Cleveland State University
Poetry Center in 2013, as well as two chapbooks: The Hero Poems (H_NGM_N, 2011) and, with Nick Sturm,I Was Not Even Born (Coconut Books, 2013). Her poems have appeared in Columbia Poetry Review; Third Coast; Forklift, Ohio; Cutbank; Verse Daily; The American Poetry Journal; MAKE; and elsewhere. She is the co-editor and publisher of iO: A Journal of New American Poetry / iO Books, and co-coordinator of the jubilat / Jones reading series. She lives in Northampton.
Wendy Xu interview, with John Hoppenthaler
Wendy, there is a playfulness to your lyrics; that playfulness even comes through in interviews with you. Of course, this probably has something to do with your personality; we’ve never met, so I couldn’t say. However, this sort of playfulness is also, certainly, one general marker of the contemporary experimental lyric, and it’s not any sort of earth-shattering observation on my part to suggest that such surface tonal manipulation is a strategy that might be said to complicate a reader’s negotiation with the poem. Can you speak to this in your work, particularly in the poems featured here?
I think the notion of play, yes, in poetry or in living and speaking to others is most important--this seems related to the act of surprise or being surprised, too. It also feels related to syntax, expectation, glitched language, humor, and timing. I suppose if I really believe what I think I believe, which is that poetry is where I go to speak most like/of myself, than the real manipulation is the kind of “plain speech” we use every day. Poetry allows me to be my most associatively-thinking self, which seems the least number of steps away from contemplation, the often mysterious and associative paths our brains think to go. If I walk into a coffee-shop and say to a friend “what time are we leaving for the movie,” I have a goal, my goal is to deliver some notion of information, my friend is a person with a schedule, maybe my friend needs to learn the information from me in this conversation in time to be at his job in 20 minutes, maybe he doesn’t have to leave anytime soon but we both makes choices to speak plainly, clearly, and efficiently, so as to move our conversation along. This doesn’t mean it is not very enjoyable, and maybe we are both laughing soon after. What I mean though, is that there are always constraints. I am always filtering language subconsciously through a situation, through the conventions of where I am and what I am trying to “accomplish” there.
I think language is always waiting patiently on us to engage it, to play with it and arrange its parts, to build something weird out of it, but the hardest time to stop and think to do this is any space outside of poems. To “negotiate” with a poem is right--it says things, you say something back, you say YES! or you say OH NO, but the two of you build the complete experience together. I always like when part of a poem’s contribution to the negotiation is a pseudo-“normal” syntax, if it seems aware and proud of its glitch, and if it wants to subvert my normalized expectations at every turn.
The poems here are interested in leaping a little farther between thoughts--like, if “logic” in the concrete world means charts and proofs and rational thinking, then thank god poems are not that way. A poem, its author, and its reader, are bound by their own meandering logic. Emotional logic, intuitive logic, the logic of erratic observation. I always liked that phrase, tired as it is, “train of thought,” maybe because it wasn’t “tracks of thought.” It’s a pretty good thing to imagine, a very free train.
In a—I guess I need to use the term again—playful interview you did with Pank, you answer the question, “What have you circumnavigated lately?” with a response that includes this statement: “I sailed around some other people’s poems this morning, does that count?” This statement perhaps serves as a metaphor for the set of skills a reader who wishes to engage with a particular breed of period style poem must bring to bear. Would you say that the best way to go about reading a poem by, say, Wendy Xu is to sail around in it?
I couldn’t say what the best way is--but yes, maybe a sort of buoyant curiosity helps. Maybe the “around IN IT” part is also most important about reading poems by anyone in general--to get inside a space, move around in it, to be ok with whatever happens next.
Many of your poems, including the three represented here, seem to accomplish their work via a sequence of declarative sentences that artfully use enjambed lines to both resist monotony and to create torque and momentum. Can you speak to this?
Yes, Hmm, I love the line-break, I love its power and how it is, itself, declarative of its intention. I especially love the “aggressive” line-break, when it comes at the middle of a clause or thought, when it says MAKE THIS LEAP, when it is demanding. Of course it depends on the poem. I think the sentence-as-unit carries its own power. With these poems, I was interested in acceleration and accumulation--enjambment allows a kind of speed that pushes and pushes. It also gives a moment of pause at the end of every line, kind of like a deep breath before you put your head under water again. I’m not saying anything original, but that the momentum comes through, that makes me happy.
I think declaration in poetry can be an almost radical act, thinking of Whitman, his declaring, his un-afraidness to declare the socially repulsive aspects of himself. Every declaration after him is a re-purposing of the work he’s done for us as poets. Sometimes I go to poems to be quiet, and small, but it seems more interesting to “declare” from that same space of unknowing. Declarations are made to be revised by subsequent declarations, often in the same poem. In this way, it is an act of questioning and discovery. It is like “hello I will declare that
I don’t know, then I will declare a possibility, then I will continue to declare both my wrongness and my desire to not care.”
You are active in many aspects of the writer’s life beyond the making of poems. You’re the co-editor and publisher of iO: A Journal of New American Poetry/ iO Books, and you’re also co-coordinator of the jubilat/ Jones reading series. Can you tell us a bit about these activities and how they help or hinder the making of your art? That is, these sorts of activities can be an awful lot of work and can take away time otherwise spent writing poems; on the other hand, there is a lot of value to be found in such activities, value that can sometimes finds its way into one’s art.
These activities, and the many many writers who participate themselves in these activities (editing, publishing, etc), these are the ways we say YES to each other’s art. Yes they take time, often they take money that nobody has to spare, often they mean excruciating daily visits to the post-office. But that’s a tiny part of it. They are rewarding, intuitive ways to affirm somebody else’s work, and to encounter new work in unexpected ways. Everything that happens is filtered back into our own poems. How could these activities not go hand-in-hand? I don’t feel like I want to make art if I can’t help other people make art.
So, two of the poems here contain hats.
I think a lot about hats. Mostly because I believe I look terrible in any variety of hat, so am filled with an interestingly intense hat-envy feeling.
Reasons Other People Go to the Theatre
Someone takes their private life and puts it
on a stage. And then it is still their life but other
people share it. It gets an opening night
and all the sidewalks are roped
in velvet. Famous people come
for the champagne. Regular people come
because it is Wednesday. Everybody wears
a hat which features a different bird depending
on how important they want to appear
at the reception. There is a brave pigeon circling
the nest of immaculate, white doves. Look
how one guy forgot his hat. Look
how a chandelier is more parts shine
than crystal. There are only sad reasons
for feeling sad and doesn’t that seem right?
Look how the curtains have a purpose.
They have big red faces parted
by light. Look how they excel at hiding
the show from everything else.
for E. White
There are reasons to ride a bike not
related to joy. But you don’t believe in not
believing. I believe in blaming everything
on the highway, big dumb highway sliding
toward conclusions. One of you and one
of me, to be numerous. We handle
ourselves like some kind of gospel. I go
for a walk to tell you about this terrible
dream involving wolves. You and I
went down into the cave. We went down
like we knew what we were doing. We
went down and it mattered. Everything
matters when you are reverently displaced.
But you don’t say anything
about moving through all those stars.
Something Else Is Burning So You Don't Have To
The Yacht Club caught fire but you
were not there, you were wearing
a purple hat and all your hair flying
around under it. There are no rules
about looking great while other
people panic. Wind contributed
to this but mostly the fire. I feel bad
about waking up in the morning
and not thanking God that I
am not a match. Usually I drink
some coffee and continue being
a person. Sometimes you leave
and the cactus grows away
from itself. Sometimes you move
to Japan and come back
in a year. I stay in a fabulous
apartment without you. Every time
a person rings my doorbell it plays
a new tune. When the measure
of music floats to my bedroom
it is always an unfamiliar kind