Snapshot: Jenny Zhang
JZ: Hi Steven! It took about two years. The first half of the book was mostly written when I was finishing up my MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the second half of the book was written when I was living in the south of France.
SK: If my memory serves me correct, you attended Iowa’s MFA program for fiction writing? Did you also take poetry classes there? Was there much of an overlap between the poets and fiction writers?
JZ: Your memory is a fine servant! Yes, I went there for fiction. I took a few poetry seminars while I was there, but being the lazy and easily intimidated person that I am and always have been, never took any of the seminars very seriously. I also took a translation workshop at the International Writing Program (IWP) and spent much of the semester translating the poems of the brilliant (& under-translated) Chinese poet, Han Bo.
If you go to Iowa for fiction writing, you can’t take poetry workshops, and vice versa, but I don’t get the sense that a lot of people would want to take workshops in the other genre. When I was there, it felt like there was a sharp split between poets and fiction writers—both intellectually and socially. That’s kind of a grand statement, and maybe a damning statement too. Then again, my powers of observation may be mutilated by my own lack of imagination. Maybe other fiction writers at Iowa had secret poet lives that I didn’t know about, just like I had a secret poetry life that no one knew about when I was there.
SK: I love thinking about mysterious people carrying on secret poetry lives! Speaking of not-so-secret poetry lives, many poets struggle to find a home for their first books; did you enter a contest? Or if not, how did you find a home with Octopus?
JZ: I did! I submitted a manuscript during Octopus Books’ open reading submission period in April. My boyfriend at the time—who was/is a poet—was doing it, so of course, I wanted to do it too. It was one of two places I submitted my manuscript to, and the first poetry contest I had ever entered.
SK: Many poetry books that attempt to deal with identity and ethnicity seem to encapsulate a particular narrative which sometimes falls prey to over-telling. Identity is at the core of this book and what makes it so interesting is that being Chinese functions as a “fixed” identity, but this gets mixed up and complicated within the identity of “female” and how one, in turn, identifies and/or rejects an identity which makes your book of poems a wondrous mess that feels so alive, unique and fresh. Can you unpack some of these narratives and ambitions of your book?
JZ: You know, this thing happened to me when I was living in Iowa City that was really upsetting. I was at a Melt Banana concert with my boyfriend and at some point when Melt Banana was setting up, these two drunk girls started talking to me and asking me if I was in the band. It probably seems like a totally innocent question, but the thing was that Melt Banana is a noise rock punk band from Japan, and my mind started immediately cataloging and whirring through all the times when someone asked me an “innocent” question like, “But where are you really from?” or like, “You’re Japanese right? No? Chinese? Korean?” And in the context of feeling like my very existence was an invitation for strangers to comment or to make assumptions about me, it was annoying to have to talk to these two drunk white girls, who were like, “Are you sure you don’t play in the band?”
I wanted to be like, “No bitch, do you think I’m in the band because I’m Asian?”
But of course, I was a coward and just said, “Nope,” and then immediately turned to my boyfriend and made some remark like, “Oh my god, this racist girl just asked me if I’m in the band because she thinks all Asians know each other,” or something like that. And from that point on, it was ON. These girls started shouting at me and saying that they weren’t racist and that I was the fucking racist and that I deserved to be punched in the face for calling them racist. It kind of went on for a long time. At some point one of the girls started drunkenly shoving me.
A few nights later, I was at a bar telling this story to these girls who were first year poets, and they were like shaking their heads and being like, “Oh my god, I’m so sorry, that’s awful. That’s truly awful,” and instead of feeling better, I felt creeped out. Like I had this feeling that they were treating my little story with too much reverence. And it made me feel like when we are dealing with things like racism or identity as forged by race and ethnicity, we’re not allowed room to feel more than one emotion. We can’t feel disgust AND delight. We can’t take something seriously and joke about it without one reaction canceling out or beating the snot out of the other. And that shit is alienating.
But at the same time, I acknowledge that this stuff is hard to navigate. In that particular example I just mentioned, I didn’t want to be treated like the victim of a racist attack, but I also did want the acknowledgement that violence had been done to me. I know this anecdote doesn’t reflect very well on me because it probably makes me seem bratty and inconsistent, but I also feel like brattiness and inconsistency has to be granted to people who are also “victims,” and I use that word with some amount of disgust because I don’t want to draw a dichotomy between “victim” and “perpetrator.” “Victim” implies that someone needs to be saved, and I don’t personally need to be saved, but at the same time, I need and want everyone to save the world so that this world can stop hurting people.
I think, as a society, it makes us uncomfortable when the wretched and the dispossessed, when indigenous people and oppressed people, when people who have traditionally been understood through the lens of victim-hood act like brats. You’re not supposed to be sassy and ungrateful when you’re a victim. Victims can’t be cunts. Or if they are, then they aren’t victims anymore. And that’s really messed up. That’s a non-wondrous mess.
That’s my oblique way of getting at the “wondrous mess,” as you have so sweetly coined it. The mess of existence and identity, and how when you’ve spent a significant portion of your life trying to reject the story or stories that other people impose on you, the sad, twisted coda to all that striving and rejecting is that by spending so much time dismantling other people’s stories of you, you can end up inhabiting and becoming those very stories. The more other people make me feel “other,” the more I want to have control of my “otherness,” which is something I wasn’t born knowing, but now I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know it.
Sometimes, it feels like being a woman, and, in particular, being a woman of color means that my very existence is provocative. The body that carries me out the door, that other people get to see first before they see anything else, is, by its very existence, already antagonistic. I find myself apologizing a lot in my head. Like, “I’m sorry you like my body but I don’t like you.” Or, “I’m sorry you are interested in my ‘culture’ but I’m not interested in you.”
I don’t know if these ideas live in my poems, or if my poems live in these ideas. Or if my poems even live!
My poems are sorry and not sorry. When I imagine someone reading the poems in my book, I think, “I’m sorry I made you read about my cunt so many times. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” And then I think about all the times someone—whether it’s a total stranger or someone I know— has made me feel unsafe or powerless or disgusting or worthless or beautiful or godlike or powerful or unbelievable because of this thing that I am so ready to apologize for, that I can’t stop writing about, that I want to keep writing about, that I want to write about and then apologize for, and when I remember how infrequently anyone has apologized to me for the discomfort they’ve caused me because I have a vagina, because I have a face that looks the way it does, when I think about that, I’m not sorry. But now, having written that, I feel apologetic again. I’m sorry!
SK: Your book feels like a perfect mixture of both the sincere and the ironic. The flippant and the fabulous, as well as, the wounded and weary-eyed. Your use of humor enables us the ability to relate to and embrace both the ugly (thinking of ugly more in the tradition of Sianne Ngai’s book, Ugly Feelings) and the beautiful. Can you talk a bit about this?
JZ: O wow, this is one of those questions that is so exquisitely conceived and constructed that it has the effect of beatifically elevating my poetry just by allowing my poems to associate themselves with your question! Instead of thinking up my own words, I’m going to use your words because they already exist more perfectly than ones I could conjure. To go back to the Melt Banana story—when I told those first year poets about what happened to me at the concert, I felt like their reaction reduced me into being nothing more than “wounded,” when I needed to be wounded and flip and weary and fabulous and everything.
Humor is alluring but it’s also tricky because sometimes not everyone is in on the “joke.” Wanda Sykes does this amazing bit about how she wishes women could have “detachable pussies.” There are some people who will only hear the word “pussies” and be immediately turned off and disgusted. The word itself is a provocation, it’s an antagonism. But of course, the real horror is that we live in a world where women live in fear of being assaulted, attacked, and raped. That there are people who sincerely think there is such a thing as “asking for it.” People who truly think, “if you act/dress like that, what do you expect will happen?” That’s the tragedy. That’s the outrageous part. So if you’re in on the “joke” then talking about detachable pussies is a beautiful thing. And it’s also an ugly thing—not the detachable pussies themselves, but the world in which such a thing would be useful! If you don’t get the joke, then detachable pussies is just another example of poor taste.
I don’t know when someone reads my poems, whether or not that person is in on the “joke.” Sometimes, I’m not sure I’m in on the joke. Talking about genitals makes people laugh (it makes me laugh, at least) and I write about genitals a lot in my poems, but I don’t think they are the joke. Maybe they are a way of setting up the joke. Maybe they are a way of testing the joke—like are you going to be able to focus on what this poem is saying if it has the word “cock” in it? I mean, one would think, “Of course! Did you really think the cocks in your poems would distract me?” But then again cocks have so much clout in our culture. Vaginas have so much clout in our culture. As a poet, I wonder what power I have to transform power? My body gives me power and it also takes away my power. My body can be violated by someone but I can also violate my body. My body can also violate someone else just by existing. Like the time when I was twenty-one and working my first job as a union organizer and my supervisor told me to cover up my midriff because showing it was a violation of company policy. So my midriff violated her and violated the other people in my office. By being visible, my midriff was violating other people.
My body is funny because it smells bad and does things that people don’t want to witness. My body is heavenly because it has allowed me to access holy and beautiful things. When I write a poem I am both aware and not aware of my body. I cannot write a poem without a body. I cannot live in my body if I can’t joke about it. I cannot live in my body if I can’t take it seriously.
Racial stereotypes are funny not because they are legitimate but because they are both absurd and grounded in reality. I wrote a poem about having a sideways twat because someone once told me that Asian vaginas grow sideways. That was a joke but to me the joke was that something like that could actually be funny to someone. Words are a joke because they mean nothing and have no intrinsic value but they have so much power. There’s some Tumblr that’s like “emails my immigrant mom sends me!” And if I posted my mom’s email on there, some people would find it hilarious. Some people would find it sweet. Some people might find it endearing. Some people might find it sad. Some people might be indifferent. If I always found my mom’s bad English hilarious then I would never be able to stop laughing. She would become a humor machine. But despite that, I do laugh at my mom’s bad English sometimes. I do find it cute. Sometimes I jokingly say that if someone told me that my poetry was “cute” I’D CUT THEM. But I’d also thank them.
SK: Since the unofficial and official release of the book, you’ve managed to do a few readings. Where have been so far? Any upcoming readings planned?
JZ: Stain of Poetry was my first poetry reading. It was the first time since I was an undergrad in college that I have read my poems publicly. It was one of the happiest nights of my life. Did you know when you asked me to read for Stain that you priming me for one of the happiest nights of my life?* You must have known on some level.
I’ve done some readings in New York that have been wonderfully fun. Reading at Public Assembly for Hatchet Job when Ben Fama was curating was a night of trembling fun. I went on a few out of town trips—reading at the Boston Poetry Marathon after listening to Dorothea Lasky and Eileen Myles was an exercise in not heart-exploding. I drove down to Atlanta to read at Emory thanks to Bruce Covey, who rocks a thumb ring like no other, and whose generosity made me feel as vast as I ever could. I read for Dana Ward’s reading series in Cincinnati and got Graeter’s ice cream afterwards. It was the graetest, I mean greatest. On that particular trip, I also read for Big Big Mess, which is a really cool reading series at a really cool bar in Akron—when you read the lights swirl behind you and make you feel like a star.
I also did a house-warming reading in Columbia, Missouri for Andrew Leland, who edits The Believer. In Kansas City, I read at a cool little coffee shop, where, it just so happens, Dan Magers’ little brother works at. Right when my book came out, I was lucky enough to go on tour with Zach Schomburg, who is my editor and publisher, and the boys and girls of Manual Cinema, a multimedia puppetry performance troupe based out of Chicago. Manual Cinema adapted Zach’s newest book, Fjords, into an amazing live-action puppet show with an original musical score that makes me grow tiny, unflappable wings. We went to Philly, Baltimore, Richmond and Raleigh.
I just got back from a mini-Midwest tour with Zach. We read in Iowa City and did karaoke afterward. We read at a brewery in Minneapolis for Our Flow is Hard, a new reading series that some kick-ass MFA students started not too long ago. We read in Racine for Nick Demske’s Bonk series. That was kind of an incredible night. This one woman came to the reading and told me that she was a single mother of two who had just moved out of Chicago’s Southside to give her children a better life, and that she had read about the reading in the local newspaper and decided to get a babysitter and come see Zach and I. I was moved and we talked about how she was on an “artist date” and how the man she was dating was jealous. He was like, “who’s this art fellow you’re going to see tonight?” We read in Madison with Adam Fell and Anna Vitale and ended the tour in Chicago at a beautiful, sweaty, packed house reading for the Dollhouse Reading Series.
This month (October), I’m going to be reading a poem I wrote about The Empress for this jam-packed tarot card poetry reading that Melissa Broder is hosting at the Cake Shop on Sunday, October 28th. Lots of poets who are more interesting than me will be reading.
On Monday, November 26th, I’m gonna read with Aracelis Girmay for the Poetry Project’s Monday night reading series curated by Simone White, and then that Friday, the 30th, I’ll be reading with Jason Bredle and Jennifer Knox for Jason Koo’s Brooklyn Poets reading series. Sometimes I update my website with details about upcoming readings, but actually, if I’m being honest, I never get around to updating it. I can’t believe I wrote all that. I need to shut up.
SK: I’ve had the pleasure of seeing you read a couple of times and you definitely seem comfortable on stage. You also do some improv work. Do you feel like your work in improv has helped you as a performer when you give readings?
JZ: Ok! I’m not going to answer this question only because it’s just too much of a stretch to say that I do ‘improv work!’ I’m such an amateur and I don’t have a smart or funny answer to this! <3
SK: What’s next or what are you currently working on?
JZ: I’m writing poems whenever I feel like it. Usually when I’m bored or feel like it’s time to say something and then move on. More twat poems because it’s a subject of endless investigation which leads to infinite mystery, at least, for me. More death poems because I can’t stop thinking about it and it’s good to have some control over things that have control over you. Who knows where these poems will one day live. These ‘lil movers can go wherever they want, be whatever they want to be.
I’ve been writing a lot of essays for teen girls at Rookie and I’ll keep doing that. I might take a hiatus from all of it and finally finish my novel, which I’ve been working on for three years. It contains the usual smutty spread of family, sex, immaturity, childhood, displacement, identity, and death.
A lot of the poems from my last book were for my ex-boyfriend, partially because I was so in love with him and partially because he was the one who got me to write poetry again. Now I can finally write poems without thinking about him and thinking about his poetry. So that’s a whole new freedom that I have. I finally have friends who are poets, so I’ve been writing poems for my new friends. You were my new friend last year and I wrote two poems for you after reading your poems. It was exhilarating and now I feel like I’m humblebragging. Zach and I did a radio show for KRUI in Iowa City with the poet Dan Poppick, and he asked us if friendship can be a lyric form? At the time I was like, um um um um, hmmn, hmmn uuuh well uuuh. But now I’m like, yeah. Duh. So I’m writing some friendship poems. Poems about being happy. Whatever that means. Whatever that is.
Jenny Zhang interviewed by Steven Karl via email.
* I did not know that Stain of Poetry of was one of Jenny’s happiest moments, but here’s a video from her reading that evening.
Photo of Jenny Zhang from Mandate of Heaven Clothing.