Over the summer, Andy Fitch interviewed 60 poets about their latest books. Ugly Duckling Presse will publish these collected interviews in 2013. This interview focuses on Zhang’s book Dear Jenny, We Are All Find (Octopus). Recorded May 20th.Transcribed by Maia Spotts.
Andy Fitch: From this project’s first line onward, we find prose formatting, often a prose pace, but also careful lineation accenting rhyme and sound play. Some sections contain blank spaces or slashes instead of punctuation. By page 20 in my manuscript copy, an “I” confesses “I lineated my prose to see if I could pass.” What draws you, as a poet, toward apparently non-poetic forms?
Jenny Zhang: Probably two things. I feel more intellectually secure with fiction. With poetry, I’m more the chubby kid making jokes about his chubbiness, or the clumsy person clowning around—preemptively pointing toward his own flaws and shortcomings and fears. And here I’ve tried to embrace as much as possible parts of me that don’t seem poetic. I’ve cultivated what you could call rants or rambles. The rant as a written and spoken form remains dear to me, helping to establish space between storytelling and narrative.
AF: Rants and rambles make me think of Thomas Bernhard, Robert Walser, Eileen Myles, Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet.
JZ: You’ve mentioned many of my favorite writers and books, which show that rants or fragments can make you bigger than you are, almost gigantic, even while they diminish you as a writer and speaker.
AF: Frank O’Hara also comes to mind. Lines turn in ways reminiscent of O’Hara. We could consider, from “Solecism,” passages such as: “thus she was / the first woman with an eating disorder / the Victorians recoiled in horror, I swear / they strapped marrow against the nape / of someone very white and someone very savage.” Then later, of course, appears the title “I write a million poems a day like Frank O Hara multiplied into fifty Frank O Haras.” Has the world said enough about Frank O’Hara? Perhaps. But I sense you have something new and interesting to say about Frank O’Hara.
JZ: I don’t know if I do. I’ve appointed him my poetic father. Certain poets seem like puzzles you can break down and master to form new links in your brain. But when I read Frank O’Hara, I just want to be the happy audience I am and have big, big feelings. Of course O’Hara’s detractors find him small, careless, perhaps even thoughtless, and he is all those things, which makes me love his poems even more.
AF: As with O’Hara, I appreciate, in your work, never knowing the extent to which I’ve encountered an identity politics, or a camp performance of selfhood, or both. And the bragging about your own voluminousness stands out. What compels you to identify with volume, with productivity? Could you describe your relationship to the miniature, which can amplify identity, like you said, even as its compact nature continually calls forth the next installment?
JZ: I guess you could call me a voluminous writer. I write quickly, even carelessly, and haven’t published many poems. I haven’t had anybody read my poetry since I was 12, in middle school. When you first get drawn to poetry you write and write and write without the thought, however dim, that someone could call you out or expose you to be an idiot or fraud or whatever. I still inhabit that space. I remain enough of an ignoramus and dumb-dumb that I can write without worrying what it means to do that. For now poetry remains a preserve of pure joy and sometimes compulsion. Because I don’t have to understand, I produce at great volumes and with great speed. But that won’t last long.
AF: So the book celebrates this initiatory passage?
JZ: I think so.
AF: It does provide some sense of an “I”-driven debut. The first section contains countless references to siblings, parents, progeny. “The Kumiho Inside a Dumb Waiter” includes these lines: “My brother, when he was younger, fit inside a tire and we took it for a drive. Afterwards, he was a tire and in order to love him we polished him daily and remembered not to leave him out in the sun too long.” Do you even have a brother? What various valences does “family” pick up in this collection?
JZ: I do have a brother. I have a mother and father. But the book’s first section, “Motherlands,” definitely addresses myth-making and the question of who gets to construct creation stories about a given culture. For me and many people, these kinds of creation myths came from the family unit, from the sense of your place amid a family and that family’s place amid a larger family and a larger family. This point leads to the role that immigration and displacement have played in my development as a person and poet—the weird violence that exile and travel do to language and idioms and conversational expectations. Such topics forever will remain wrapped up with my family. They offered this understanding about where I come from and who I am, then brought this break in language where . . . I arrived in the U.S. as a semi-formed being, with no ability to express myself (suddenly, one day). That created obsessions which will stay forever mysterious to me. But the book also emphasizes love and becoming someone who can love and be worthy of being loved. For me this also always has to do with family. I grew up in a family so incredibly, suffocatingly loving that by the time I’d developed my own volition and ability to act, the number of sacrifices they had made for me had stacked up enormously. I never could love them back enough to free myself from that imprisonment. So ideas of family and love and how to be a person of value and worth in the world became another obsession.
AF: Often in this book’s first section, the “I” identifies as a mother, potentially a cannibalistic mother.
JZ: I like that you call it cannibalistic. This “I” wants to…she doesn’t really wish to become her own mother. Still one poem asks whether the “I” ever could be her own mother and be her own dream. Again this comes from guilt, from mounting waves of love and sacrifice, from being born already loved so much—perhaps unable to love back that much, or simply not wanting to. Of course this could seem an absurd burden, a great one to have. But that compulsion, that desire to ape being one’s own mother and protector and giver of life, suggests a way to eclipse the impossible debt and gratitude.
AF: As you describe this I’ll think of all poems being born in a potentially suffocating, over-loving environment. I just mean they demand interpersonal sacrifices to come into existence, and perhaps always must atone for this guilt, or try, or project themselves (like Rilke’s and O’Hara’s poems do) as being “needed by things.” But I want to ask about identity. National and ethnic identity get paraded and endlessly permuted here, with references, in quick succession, to Chinese, Thai, Japanese, Korean relatives and affiliations—creating some kind of quasi-imperialist, quasi-Whitmanian or Nerudian pan-Asian panorama. Could you say anything about lines such as these from “The First Fancy Feast of Fancy”: “my people put a pile of bricks / on an island and Korea was born / later, the Korean war was where / my grandfather’s arms vanished / the false note of us / standing with streaming tears / in front of the Holocaust memorial / was played over loudspeakers / which hung like ripened fruit / in the backyards of every important person”?
JZ: Holy shit: I have so much to say. I don’t know where to begin. Yes a lot of the nation-building and references to colonialism, and this imperialistic tour around all of Asia, correspond to the powerlessness I feel as a person of color, an immigrant, an Asian-American woman, a Chinese-American woman. It’s completely arbitrary that a Chinese person should identify with the term “Asian.” And yet if you live in America long enough, you have no choice but to associate yourself with that word since others understand you this way. You can walk down the street and someone will speak Japanese to you since you look “Asian.” So I’ve tried to play with how those countries and ethnicities and entire worlds get blurred and rendered meaningless (yet remain quite meaningful). Two years ago, as I drafted these poems, I found this World War II Life magazine article about how to tell a “Jap” from a Chinese person. It said Chinese people are our allies—we shouldn’t throw rocks or hurl racial epithets at them, only at the Japanese. It contained this pseudo-scientific breakdown of how to tell who’s Chinese, Japanese, or some other strange ethnicity of Asia. For me that article crystallized questions about coming from a culture deemed unworthy of being understood in all its nuance. My parents move through the world understood in a very vague way. They also go through their world hating Japanese people because of a history few people here know. So I feel this burden from knowing both how my parents get perceived, and what happens inside them. I can’t tell if my parents sense others’ perceptions, or sense my own internal state. Still I shoulder this responsibility, with feet firmly placed in both worlds, always explaining to people how they look to others, or what’s really happening inside someone else. And the dearth of English-language narratives about the country I come from disturbs me. It embarrasses me to remember my mixed emotions reading Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club in sixth grade. In part I thought, holy shit, I totally understand a lot of references, and many stories feel somewhat familiar in a broad, generalized, almost caricatured way. But I also thought, why the fuck does everyone cry all the time? Then I took this translation workshop at Iowa a couple years back, and felt struck by…that year’s course focused on Chinese writers, and they brought 60 writers from all over the world and about 20 came from China or of Chinese origin. Every person they brought identified as a political refugee or dissident. And I just imagined, if the U.S. decided to send a delegation of its best writers abroad, that it wouldn’t only chose writers calling to take down the government. Because that doesn’t cover the full breadth or beauty of writing that exists in America. And it doesn’t do so for any other country. And yet, since only select narratives get told, myths or stereotypes develop about a place. And the more limited that American conceptions become about my native country, the more I seem to identify with that country, even though in actual fact I barely identify at all with China. I lived there five years. I feel uncomfortable when I go. I don’t feel at home linguistically, culturally, artistically. Still I have no choice but to claim it in those circumstances. I want to document all the violence that imperialism and colonialism have inflicted upon the Third World and the East. Yet I also want to discuss how my own country (China) has dealt out similar violence toward other countries, and all the multitudes of horribleness and bloodshed worth expressing and knowing and telling.
AF: I appreciated the deft way you’ll approach though then upstage any easy racialized reading of a young Asian poet finding her voice. Here I think of lines like: “my name is the sound of three pots clanging / against a tin garbage can / my family is related to lao tze.” You’ll deliberately cultivate a certain stereotyped rhetoric if only to reject it. Even the line you mentioned earlier, “Can’t I be my own dream?” seems both to resist an identity-based reading, and to echo Langston Hughes’s question “What happens to a dream deferred?” from his piece “Harlem”—which often serves as a classic example of the ethnic or race-specific protest poem.
JZ: Those different levels of interpretation and understanding and audience both interest and trouble me. Certain moments here require such depth, such intimacy with a specific immigrant experience, that I don’t know how limited this makes them. Still I also sense that making each poem acceptable to some lowest common denominator would betray my own freedom and volition and ability to work within a distinct idiom.
AF: Could you discuss here the book’s embrace of misspellings and idiomatic blunders—from its title to the exemplary line “I am quiet first and then the rapping is mispelle”? Beyond any obvious dramatization of a cross-cultural double-consciousness, you genuinely seem to enjoy such aberrant words and asyntactical phrasings, though never in a programmatic way. Sound often will predominate, in the more standardized English diction as well, such as “the impetigo of all the tornadoes and flies and tort laws,” or “I wore fingerless nails / Walter Benjamin reflected like a bague / and my grandfather died in 1940.” Can you describe the comfort and pleasure you’ll find constructing such polyphonic lines, which again provide some sense of getting caught between two worlds while deflecting any reductive narrative?
JZ: I want to reclaim joy. I think the worst thing about learning a new language is how fucking dumb you sound for so long. You know you’re not a fucking idiot, but can’t express this to anyone. Even once you’ve learned a new language perfectly, awkward moments will plague you throughout your life if you can’t use your native tongue. I remember, when I was 20 or some crazy age, for the first time saying “tunnel,” like I need to get to the Holland “Ter-null,” and sensing something weird had happened, yet not knowing what it was. Later I felt so ashamed. Then I lived in France last year and realized that my entire life I had based my self-esteem and personhood and identity on being a super clever wordsmith. Suddenly I became nothing more than a generalized nice person with no specific sense of humor, no specific personality. It felt like screaming into a box all the time—wanting to explain, no, I’m really funny, I can make you cry with words, I just don’t know how to use these specific words yet. Of course I also realized that your most charming moments, as a language learner, come when you make mistakes. People laugh at how cute you sound mixing up the feminine and masculine forms of nouns or whatever. You know, you say “la chatte,” which in French means “pussy,” instead of le chat, which means cat. I just wanted to take some control over that. I wanted to refill this charming hole of shame with a sense of happiness and delight and say, I’m calling my cat my vagina purposefully at this point—no longer by accident. The same occurs in Chinese, as a Chinese-American, trying to take these mistakes and make them not mistakes, recognizing the power in that gesture, understanding that expressive language comes from such transformations, which evolve into words, into the broader English lexicon.
AF: Sure Emerson calls all language fossil poetry (presuming every word initially derives from a creative act, with which we’ve lost contact). Was it in Paris that your own Celan-like compounds starting appearing, such as bloodturds and comefarts?
JZ: Yes the “La France” section contains most of that stuff. Also at Iowa I read a lot of smutty French poets.
AF: Well as our level of discourse begins to descend, I can’t help but note that many MFA applications, let’s say, always seem to have been drafted the day after The Vagina Monologues left town. And there’s plenty of pussy and cum and twat in this book— but did you have any particular female or male precedents for claiming your “diamond bunghole”? What about the anus’s role in literature interests you?
JZ: The sad thing is I don’t really respect Bataille’s Story of the Eye or Artaud wanting to fuck the asshole of God—partially because much of Artaud’s writing (and this might sound simplistic on my part) just seemed driven by mental illness and psychosis. I feel little emotional reaction to an articulation of someone’s psychosis. And Story of the Eye disturbed me on two levels. First, I just disliked the writing. It’s so bad, like a pulp novel, as if some idiot had written it. And then secondly, it made me uncomfortable but wasn’t transgressive. It feels as transgressive as a kid shitting in the park then playing with his doo-doo, just very ordinary and puerile in this way I like, but only because I like puerile things, not because it’s transformative. Shock, discomfort, transgression, innovation and profound discovery don’t seem the same at all. And I should say, with Artaud, I went back a few years later and read his letters begging people to understand that he couldn’t help but behave this way. I felt much compassion for that. I sensed, I’m the exact society that tormented and misunderstood him. I had the same uncharitable thoughts. So I kept thinking of how easy it was to shock people in shallow ways, yet still couldn’t help talking and writing about my twat all the time, since it affects me every day. Every day I tend to it. It’s often sick. It’s often physically ill and I just can’t for a second get away from it. In France not a single day went by when I wasn’t harassed or touched or groped or reached for by some random person on the street. For as much as I didn’t want to think about womanhood or femininity, it was always fucking reaching for me, just as I’d said about one’s ethnic or cultural identity—wanting to push beyond these but with everyone reminding you of them all the time. Gender probably snuck into every fucking poem because of that.
AF: The last line of your book reads “I nearly faint from the love I nearly was capable of.” Does it end on an optimistic note for you?
JZ: Yes. This book is dedicated to my ex-boyfriend. I wrote the first two-thirds or so while we were together. During the second third it became increasingly clear we wouldn’t last longer. But many of the final poems also are love poems: poems about not being a good enough person, about what I get from love, about desperately wanting to hold onto some love you think never could happen again to you. This last section concerns the horrificness of having a vagina and wanting and wanting and wanting all the time. Still it also addresses becoming OK with receiving and giving and searching out love again—romantic and familial and sisterly and all representations of love, all iterations.
Jenny Zhang is the author of the poetry collection, Dear Jenny, We Are All Find (Octopus Books, 2012.) She writes for teenage girls at Rookie magazine and teaches high school students in the Bronx. You can find her at www.jennybagel.com.