Wendy Xu on the Impossible Complexity of Immigrant Love
Lives of the Poets: Peter Mishler in Conversation with the Author of Phrasis
In this next installment of Peter Mishler’s interviews with contemporary poets, Mishler corresponded with Wendy Xu, a poet and writer living in Brooklyn. Xu is the author of Phrasis (Fence, 2017, winner of the Ottoline Prize), and You Are Not Dead (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2013). The recipient of a 2014 Ruth Lilly Fellowship, her poetry has appeared in The Best American Poetry, Boston Review, Poetry, A Public Space, and elsewhere, with fiction and essays appearing in BOMB and BuzzFeed. Born in Shandong, China, in 1987, she currently teaches in the Creative Writing MFA Program at Columbia University, and is poetry editor for Hyperallergic.
Peter Mishler: I’d like to start by introducing you to new readers with a biographical question: could you talk about your upbringing as it relates to your development as a writer?
Wendy Xu: Most things about me are inextricable from my immigration, certainly including my development as a writer. I came to the United States with my parents when I was young, about two and half, and learned very quickly that language is a whole world, a point of view, and an opportunity for a kind of agency I rarely felt. After I started going to school, my parents worried that my Chinese would lag behind my English because I was spending eight hours a day speaking English, and simultaneously that my English wouldn’t develop “correctly” because we only spoke Chinese at home. I mean, what were they to do? For them, the answer was to read with me, to read everything in sight in both languages all the time, to inspire in me a love for expression and to give me tool for asserting myself in the world.
We didn’t have money to buy new books, so my father and I would read whatever we could find. He had some old course texts around the house from the literature classes he took in college, sometimes Chinese translations of Western classics, sometimes English translations of classical Chinese poetry. We read it all. Sometimes we went to the public library and bought the huge cheap bins of children’s books being retired from the shelves, or old National Geographics sold for 25 cents each. My father read Hamlet to me when I was way too young to understand most of it, but I remember getting scared at the part where Old King Hamlet’s ghost shows up. My father was my first poetry teacher in all of these ways—he paused to let us wonder together at the power of words. Why was this part so vivid and easy to picture in your head? Why did you cry at this part? Why did you fall in love with this phrase and repeat it over and over? Back then I was just happy to be spending time with my father, but the gift he gave me will last a lifetime.
I also grew up in a small mostly white Iowa farm town, and language frequently hurt me when I was younger. But when I was reading or writing stories or journaling I felt a rare peace. I was in control, and could write myself somewhere safe and beautiful. My parents made this possible too—my father started “Xu Family Publishing” with me when I was in elementary school, which just meant that he would pick up free wallpaper samples at the hardware store, bring them home, help me copy my stories onto printer paper and fold them into a booklet with the wallpaper functioning as a decorative cover. We would write Xu Family Publishing and the date together on the back page, and my father would encourage me to read the story aloud over dinner.
It’s impossible to put into words the complexity of immigrant love. We were so lonely, and we were also a whole universe of support and encouragement unto ourselves. We had to be. My parents have been locked out of so much of America on the basis of language, and yet they’ve helped me to make a life of it. I write for them.
PM: When did you feel that you had begun pursuing and practicing the art of poetry?
WX: In high school I had an amazing English teacher named Sarah Wessling. She proposed to us that poems (contrary to what we might already believe) were not intentionally opaque and frustrating puzzles meant to “stump” the reader. Instead, they were vehicles for pleasure, music, and joy. She was unbelievably encouraging when we showed her our own writing, prodding and asking questions about why we were attracted to a particular phrase or image. We didn’t know the answers yet ourselves, but the experience of being intimately heard and for my poems (my language, my expression) to be accepted, was magical, and put me on a path.
In college I made my interest as “official” as I knew how, a big deal for me, by changing my major from Economics to English at the University of Iowa after taking a poetry workshop with the poet Nico Alvarado-Greenwood (thanks, Nico). I had failed several of my business classes that first year… out of disinterest and a weird inability to read finance graphs? I felt that something had solidified in my life. I was feeling it again, that agency and peace that I remembered from writing quietly alone in my room as a child. I felt like I was in control of something, that I could continue refining this tool for making space for myself in the world. I took as many poetry workshops as I was allowed, eventually being told by my advisor that “we can’t stop you from taking another one but you won’t get any credit for it,” which was fine with me.
Again, my parents made this early period of serious poetry study possible—they had encouraged me to study something like math or science early on, but eventually came around to the idea that like so many immigrant parents, they had been as “practical” as possible so that their children could, as they put it, “be a little unpractical” about something they truly loved.
PM: You’ve now written two volumes of poetry, and are now working on a new project, Notes for an Opening. Could you talk about the shift in your work from a line of poetry in which a sentence is broken across a number of lines as evidenced in You Are Not Dead, to instances of whole and unbroken lines of poetry in Phrasis, to the prose lines that appear here at Lit Hub and elsewhere in your published excerpts from Notes for an Opening? Looking at the differences between those three forms of line making, what has made these variations necessary for you?
WX: I think anything I say about the variations is definitely a retrospective idea, but I’m interested too in the changes. The shift towards prose or the prose-line has felt really necessary and challenging for me, and I think it relates to a growing desire for a feeling of suspension in my writing. The deeper dive, on the unit level, into a mood or thought.
I wrote You Are Not Dead at a time when what excited me most about poetry was its propulsive action, its momentum and its psychic leaps. The possibilities of the line break to partition an idea and the subsequent generosity of the reader to jump across the gap were always on my mind, as well as the accumulative effect of this racing. I loved (and still love) the possibility for breathlessness at the end of a poem as built into its form.
Phrasis perhaps represents a time when language felt insufficient for me in so many ways, both personal and political, and I think the syntax betrays some of these negotiations. The slope towards prose intends to slow down time and language, to stay in the moment of articulation just a little bit longer. I’m still sitting very deeply in prose at the moment, and its efficacy has been to allow me more space to think, to imagine larger units of what may come of that thinking.
PM: Has your newest prose work changed your composition process or writing rituals or routine in some way?
WX: I’m writing slower than ever before, and I think it’s good for me. I’m trying to unburden myself from the feeling that I’m less meaningful if I don’t produce at a given pace. It’s part of my immigrant inheritance, to feel pressured to write more, do more, to contribute to the marketplace of useful ideas. Maybe slowness has become a ritual for me now.
PM: Are there writers who have been lights for you as you’ve taken up prose writing?
WX: Definitely. There are so many writers who have lit the way for me, and recently I’ve been turning and returning particularly to the ones who trouble genre and form as a path to the interior: Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Lynn Xu, Bhanu Kapil, Solmaz Sharif, Srikanth Reddy, Harmony Holiday, and Anne Boyer are just a few that come to mind. I’ve also been reading just as much fiction as poetry (maybe more…) and trekking through novels like The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald, or Exit West by Mohsin Hamid has been good for the prose-brain. I love genre agnostic writing. I love when a novelist crafts like a poet at the sentence level, and I love when a poet floods out the margins of the page with an expansive thought like essay.
PM: “Commons,” your poem from A Public Space, is one of my favorite poems published in 2017, one that I have returned to several times since I first read it in the issue. The poem ends, addressing the reader: “I see you wanting to give me the gift of your un-expectation / I love you / I thank you for it.” Could you talk a little bit about this remarkable poem?
WX: Thank you for spending the time with that poem! I had been thinking a lot about the space of the poetry reading, which both is and is not like the space of solitary reading. Expectation is complicated by the gathering of bodies in a room, where the placeholder of a printed name is replaced by a living person. This is extra fraught for a writer who reads as Other both on and off the page. When I enter the space of [the] reading, I always feel a desire to articulate this tension, so I wrote a poem about it. I want to relate to my audience lovingly, and in exchange I suppose I am asking them to love me by putting their expectation aside as best they can. Both things are not always possible. I don’t always feel loving, and I don’t always receive love back. But at moments I feel a psychic connection approximating love, and I am grateful for it.
PM: Poets sometimes speak about the phenomenon of writing a poem that articulates experiences they’ve not yet had, or how a poem is able to represent a psychological or emotional state that has yet to be articulated consciously by the writer. Was this the case for you in your two collections of poems? With Notes for an Opening, in which you write in a form and genre that seems to depart from your first two volumes of poetry, are there other phenomena at work that you’ve observed while writing this new project?
WX: Writing poems, those in my first two collections included, is absolutely about discovery. Though the experience may have already “been had,” the poem won’t be successful for me if the reflection on that experience feels stale or well-trodden.
I write a lot of poems about experiences that I want to have, an emotional or psychological state of being definitely counting as an experience, and the psychic disparity between my desire and its potential fulfillment (or as Dickinson says it, “The banquet of abstemiousness / Surpasses that of wine”). There’s something deflating about the fulfillment of want, though at times it’s also sweet, and the poem functions as a space where I can tentatively poke at my desires to see what happens. I usually say that poems are proposals, and as with all proposals, they can be tested out, whether they’re proposals for a point of view, for more empathy, or for an emotional reality that has yet to happen. I’m a little fragile and I struggle with change. Poetry helps me ask a lot of myself while still keeping myself safe.
Writing in a new form and genre is exhilarating. The subject matter of writing ongoingly about my immigration and identity is perhaps also new, equally exhilarating but with renewed risk. In college, I once had a white poetry professor advise me to “write more from your cultural space” while we were looking at my newest poem, one about flowers. I think it was literally about describing flowers. It didn’t have the first person in it, nor was it tagged with racial or cultural markers that invited the reader to critique it through the lens of identity. Whether or not it was a good poem (it probably wasn’t) is of course, irrelevant here. I’ll never know how many years of writing from my “cultural space” (had I later wanted to, or tried to) were robbed from me in that moment.
Instead, for so many years afterwards, I wrote furiously away from anything that would mark me as racially or culturally Other in my poems. I was young and I took it as a challenge to write a poem so good and “universally” legible that no comments would be necessary, least of all any about it needing to be more Chinese.
Now I’m writing immigrant Chinese-American poems because I feel like it, and sometimes it hurts and sometimes it heals. The old fear is still there, that I’ve fulfilled somebody’s expectations of me, that I’m less-than because my flowers are a little more Chinese these days. That my white readers see me most clearly when I autopsy my immigrant pain on the page! But the joy of the world that this writing has brought into focus is immeasurable. I am clearest now to myself.