Snapshot: Wendy Xu

It would seem impossible to be interested in contemporary poetry and not know the poems of Wendy Xu. Her first book, You Are Not Dead, was published by Cleveland State University Poetry Center earlier this year. You cannot not read it. For instance, it’s fine you haven’t seen Frasier, but what do you mean you haven’t seen Seinfeld? Or maybe you know Wendy’s poems but haven’t read iO, the journal and chapbook press she co-edits with Kyle McCord? That’d be like saying you like Neutral Milk Hotel without ever listening to In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. There would be a Wendy Xu-shaped hole in my life without Wendy Xu in it. That’s not a window I want. I hope that her intelligent, savvy, and enormously kind responses to these questions will make her poems as necessary a part of your life and thinking as they have been in mine.

“Stay curious or get out!”

NS: I always think about you when I think about wolves and porches. You are so connected to these things at my end of the connection. I don’t think things are dead. Though in some ways they are. Your book is called You Are Not Dead (Cleveland State University Poetry Center). Why say this?

WX: Saying something through negation, ie. saying you are not dead instead of you are alive seems so much more interesting to me. Think about all the ways you can be if you are just not something, and not a fixed thing.

The book was almost called “We Are Both Sure to Die” (after a series of 16 poems by the same name, which make up the last section of the book) but I am too partial to the second person imperative in poems, so “You Are Not Dead” won out. I know that people feel many different ways about the poetic “You.” A “famous poet” (air quotes?) told me once that “you shouldn’t use You in a poem to tell the You what he/she already knows.” It was kind of funny and ironic, but mostly I was like “you don’t know what other people know or don’t know, Famous Poet!”

I’m looking at the wolf on my desktop right now, and sitting on my porch. No joke.

NS: So many of the titles in You Are Not Dead, “It’s Almost My Birthday Don’t Tell Anyone,” “You Are Not Who They Wanted You to Be,” “We Need to Talk About Sarah,” “If You Aren’t Busy I Think I’m on Fire,” and so on, feel like they are made for being whispered to someone. Even the threatening urgency of the last title in this list suggests a quiet grace on the part of the “I” and a polite care for whatever other things “you” might be doing. This feels indicative of the intimate tonal/textural relationship the voice(s) in your poems have with the reader who receives them. Are you conscience of maintaining this kind of relationship with a “you,” with the person on the other side of your poems?

WX: I am, and I suppose I also hope that people are always trying to maintain that relationship outside of poetry–my quiet (or sometimes, loud) urgency in speaking should always be tempered by a consideration of what your needs are, what you might be busy doing. I want poems to be kind. The book exists in ‘public’ now, in The Public, whatever that means, but reading is so pleasurable in its intimacy–I sort of think of publishing a book as an act of publicness in the service of achieving (hopefully) meaningful privateness in the long-run.

Many of the “you”s in the book are grounded in real people who are alive, and things they’ve said or I imagine them saying. But that’s not important to a reader, I don’t think. A funny thing that’s been happening to me lately, as I work on my next book-thing, is a slow dissipation of the “I” and the “You.” I don’t really know where they’re going, but they’ve become so slippery to me now, in a way that they are not in You Are Not Dead.

I’ve been wondering if this isn’t a good thing to let happen, or a natural thing? Poetry starts inside, in “I,” and I feel happy that You Are Not Dead is so much an exploration of self and You. Whatever I’m beginning to explore now, or how this exploration is getting complicated, is still an exciting mystery to me.

Where do you think poetry starts, Nick?

NS: I am so happy when you ask questions. Poetry starts in tenuous spaces, in moments of collapse and expansion. I’m thinking of early intimacies, 5:15am anywhere, weather, when one world suddenly transfers into another (how that sticky note found its way into that bush), or simply waking up, finding that you’re a person after being gone for so long (a dream). I think of Padgett Powell’s The Interrogative Mood, a novel made entirely of questions. Each sentence is built of what is generative and possible. Poems then shape themselves around the variety of the world’s textures. And as you’re so gracefully saying, an “I” and a “You,” however unfixed, tend to be loving something at the center.

Who were you reading while You Are Not Dead was being written? How do you think about how what you’re reading enters what you’re writing?

WX: I was just teaching The Interrogative Mood to my highschool-aged poetry students last week! We also play an improv game where two people must build a scene speaking only in questions–when someone accidentally says a statement, they’re ejected from the game. I really wish this is how talking in regular life-conversations worked. Stay curious or get out!

I was reading a lot of Ron Padgett (woah, Padgetts!) while writing the book, a lot of Matt Rohrer, Dara Wier, Joe Brainard. The book took about a year to write, so this is an absurdly incomplete list. I tend to read slightly slower (ie less) when I’m writing a lot, which is a thing I’m still making peace with. Reading and writing poems both inform and clutter each other sometimes–

I used to do this thing where I would bounce between reading and writing too quickly, I would go back and forth in an hour between writing lines in a poem and reading a book–it got all confusing in my brain, and I think I was lessening my enjoyment of each. Writing You Are Not Dead was one of the first times I gave myself permission to fully read or fully write–I tried to allow my reading to actually gestate for a while before switching out my reader and writer hat.

The most satisfying thing is how imperceptibly one’s reading life can affect writing–I like it when it sneaks up on me. I like it when even now, more than a year later, I am finding little objects and suggestions of books I love in my own book–a needle or a hawk, the beach, coffee while not wearing shoes.

NS: A needle, a hawk, the beach, coffee while not wearing shoes: does it happen alone? What does it mean to be alone, or apart, or a part of, in these poems? I’m thinking about how deceivingly simple the movement is in a line like “I thought about really / needing a hug.” It’s not that I need a hug, I am thinking about the possibility of needing one, so I am distanced from that need. The urgency of connection is tempered because it remains internal, unactualized, like there’s a kind of quiet impasse between one’s self and their desires. I’m wondering, because your poems are often described as enthusiastic and exuberant, how this impasse, or uncertainty of need, is related to joy?

WX: This is such a perceptive question. Being alone is not being lonely, except when it is. I love what happens when you put pressure on that sneaky slippery little word, “apart.” The duality of being both 1) A Part, a piece of, or as I think of it “invited to the whole” and 2) separate, alone, not necessarily at the party, is so pleasurable–maybe to write a poem necessitates a kind of apartness. Observation demands a kind of detachment, no? The photographer of an event sees both more and less of “it,” depending on what you think “it” is. This could roll into a whole thing about modern living, experience as mediated nowadays by our phones and screens and recording devices. It’s not saying anything new.

Louis CK has a great, tangentially related (ideas of mediation?) bit about how if you miss your kid’s dance recital because you’re staring at the video recorder screen instead of at your kid, your kid is dancing forever for nobody. You put the video online with the caption “my kid dancing!” and all your friends like it and say Oh How Cute and they’re not watching it either. Cut to the punchline where he suggests taking 1 second of video of your kid dancing, and the next 20 minutes of your butt. Upload it. Nobody will ever know. Oh How Cutes keep rolling in.

I feel “read correctly” when a poem I write is described as enthusiastic and exuberant, sure, because most days I feel some version of those two words. I feel excited about getting up and looking around, about letting things happen to me and living through my own reactions. I feel excited to talk to people, to wonder, to ask questions. So what’s anxiety, or in many cases PANIC, if not what I just described, though? When I am uncertain of what I need, that’s where a really compulsive pleasure of discovery begins. Thinking about thinking, or needing, or imagining myself into a near future where I get a hug (I need a hug? I don’t want that hug? How will it feel when it happens to me?) is terrifying and brilliant.

Or as Dickinson says it always better, “the banquet of abstemiousness / surpasses that of wine”

NS: I just picked up your book and the cover was warm because my cat was lying on it. Then I put it back down and she sat on it again. In a serious way though, is there a relationship between bodies and books? You’ve been telling me about your reading interests lately, beyond poetry, and I’m so interested in how you committed yourself to those choices. What about those books are changing your body, your poems’ bodies?

WX: I wish I were petting Maggie’s little cat-head right now as I type this. She can use my book as a nap factory anytime she likes.

Sometimes a person says “oh I was really moved” and it is a little bit hyperbolic, though no less meaningful, and sometimes a person says it and then experiences the literalization of that saying. Their body is suddenly moving through actual physical space because it is filled up with empathy and feeling and can’t contain it.

Yesterday I had the privilege of being a visitor in an undergraduate creative writing class at UMass–I asked the students to share some poems they’d written from the week, I shared a Kenneth Koch poem I love (“To You”), and we talked about how to make new feelings out of “old” topics.

The thing that made me cry (and laugh) when I got home was how emphatically this particular group supported each other’s poetry and ideas, how furiously they nodded and smiled and tilted towards one another, how lovingly and actively they occupied a shared physical space. I felt in the presence of such overwhelming and tangible empathy, expressed towards and around me by physical bodies. Books made this happen. Serendipitously, this is at least partially supported by science, as per a recent study.

I venture to say it is not merely “good” but profound because a lack of empathy is the baseline cause for almost anything terrible a person can think of. “I don’t understand you, so I hurt you.” I legislate against you, I erase you from my vision of the future. An education in books pushes back against this. It constantly reminds me of how I can be moved by an idea “in the flesh,” and in this way hope to model empathy as a person who is still alive.

Recently I bought an 800 page History of Modern Art textbook, and am reading it. After I graduated college, I realized that I should have taken a visual art class; I should have taken ALL the visual art classes. I really feel that I missed out. So this new gigantic book is my next adventure–it says so many interesting things in that kind of “textbook speak” which happens to be unintentionally poetic, and wonderful to superimpose onto the vocabulary of poetry. I just want to know more about every kind of art. I mean, just look at this amazing thing it said about the historical convention of framing a painting, out of context:

“The frame is not a limit, rather a suggestion beyond which we are invited to prolong and extend the figure.”

Painting necessarily values and considers the physicality of a work, and particularly issues of texture, method, tool, color. So now I am like, “what are the textures, methods, tools, and colors of a poem?” The materiality of a poem’s body while it’s still on my computer is harder to get at, though this is helping. Last week I read the sentence “color is its own autonomous expression of emotion; it is its own end” and my head just popped off.

NS: Will you tell me about some of your new things? Can you describe the cube? The horse? The ladder? The flowers?

WX: An incomplete list of new newness in my life includes the weather (fall in new england is true to hype), learning to makes soups (winter is coming), reading so much fiction, reading so much Lyn Hejinian, reevaluating corduroy pants, reading this Corina Copp, reading this Patrick Gaughan, reading this longest-poem-she’s-ever-written Heather Christle, being 26 in exactly 2 hours from when I am typing this, eating chicken (my blood doesn’t work), making a refortified effort to finish watching Ken Burns’ The Civil War, owning a dresser for the first time in 6 years. I bought it in the rain!

A more book-centric kind of new is that for the first time this semester, You Are Not Dead was taught as a text in creative writing workshops. One at University of Minnesota (thanks, Carrie Lorig!) and one at UMass (thanks, Jonathan Volk). It was frightening and wonderful. I am so grateful to have been made to feel that burden of responsibility, to tangibly confront (once via Skype, oh my god the technology hiccups! and once in person) the idea that a book one writes will affect other people, and so it is both a privilege and a weight to carry around. It is such an abstraction most of the time–it built in me a newer urgency for speaking and writing. A particularly wonderful student asked me at the end of my visit about the ethical implications of being a poet. We talked for a long time, and I told her my honest belief that poetry is supremely ethical, because it posits a vision of the better world, it leads with an invitation to step inside itself. It is a model for cooperation. Shelley of course said the same thing in Defence of Poetry, “Poetry strengthens the faculty which is the organ of the moral nature of man, in the same manner as exercise strengthens a limb.” In this way it precedes morality, it allows for an ethical thinker to exist. I have been thinking about the usefulness of poetry more than ever, and all this newness thanks to the loveliness of young people loving poetry.

The cube is silver, floating, suspended in air at the very center of the room. It glows. The horse is gentle and wide-eyed. The ladder goes to the ceiling, meets a trap door. The flowers are everywhere. I am talking about this ancient kokology visualization game about self-knowledge. You might know everything about me now.