Small-press publishers have the lucky opportunity to talk candidly with authors about the downturns and updrafts of the creative process which brought them to the moment of completion that we call a book. As Omnidawn’s co-publisher and senior poetry editor, I’ve had that great good fortune. It finally occurred to me that the readers and reviewers of these books might enjoy hearing some of this talk, too. Of course, a book of poetry needs no introduction or liner notes. But I’m always interested in any stories about how and where authors’ intentions and the actual creative work tangle together. So I started asking each of our authors a few questions in writing, and then enclosed these “interviews” with our advance/review copies. When the book is published, I post the interview on the book’s web page. The Conversant’s editors have asked if they might select some of those interviews to publish. It is my pleasure to say yes!
Rusty Morrison: How/why did you begin Debts & Lessons? What initiated the work?
Lynn Xu: The first poem in the book is called “Say You Will Die For Me,” and it is a triptych for many reasons, but the main one is: How to think of love as an argument? In the wake of “twin heartbreaks,” let’s say, I wrote this poem, and my self-appointed recuperation involved a lot of French theorists: Levinas (on alterity), Nancy (on being-with), Barthes (on the lover) and Derrida (on envois). The second and third series were written a few years later, between Oaxaca and New York, when Josh and I were first falling in love. A lot of what now remain used to be sonnets. Like all things, sonnets will decay and tear open with time and listening.
RM: You’ve raised the influences of theorists. I’m curious if the poems in Debts & Lessons were influenced by any poets or writers whose work is not in the genres of philosophy or critical theory?
LX: With regard to voices in the undergrowth, this book is certainly populated. The “Lullabies” are frank with apostrophes and with crossings. Lorca was an early love. Writers whose work has instructed me: Lyn Hejinian, Susan Stewart, C.D. Wright, Rosmarie Waldrop, Anne Carson and Susan Howe. When I was starting out, to see female poets break rules was foundational. Among them Howe was most important. In her work, the value of the vocable holds equal weight as that of a visual unit. This is true in Dickinson as well. From the bone structure of the “finger” the Greeks derived the unit of the “dactyl,” as if the anatomy of one’s body could meet the anatomy of one’s breath. Reading Cormac McCarthy and Brian Evenson, this hallucination can be felt.
From Geoffrey G. O’Brien I learned the structural value of a line. From Forrest Gander, sound. From Keith Waldrop, the shape of play. And from Robert Hass, how to behold. They were all my teachers, including Lyn, C.D. and, in many ways, Rosmarie, although not formally. And the most important thing I learned over the years, from teachers as well as friends, is how to hear myself (and others: you, her, they), how to write such that writing becomes a form of listening.
RM: How did you come to choose the title of this book?
LX: The title of the book (Debts & Lessons) comes from the opening section of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. This section is very small, only two or three pages, in which he names the main figures in his life and the lessons he learned from each. Though these thoughts are brief, they set the tone for his book and provide, as it were, the foundation of being able to live and write (to think) at all—that is, before all of that, one must pay tribute for one’s thoughts, under the jointure of knowledge and debt.
The last poem shares this title, though carries within it a limit or formal difference (where “Lessons” becomes
“Lessons”), which I’d like to think of as Aeschylus’s Kassandra—at least, the way Anne Carson describes her: “A self-consuming truth. . . a glass that does not give back the image placed before it.” A self-consuming truth: an image that destroys itself in the past tense (the image placed before it) in order to assert itself, its speaking voice, in the present tense. The poem takes its first breaths from reading Milton’s Samson Agonistes and was written amidst demonstrations in Oakland and on UC campuses during the Occupy Movement. With batons and the teargas in mind, these events appeared to me a palimpsest of past struggles (of history we have failed to learn, of lessons we have woven into our lives not as wisdom but as debt). It is difficult to think of myself as a part of this education system. And by “education” I mean the obscure deictics of an old world order that make words like “ecology” synonymous with the history of market forces. I offer the poem with the self-same uncertainty of its beginnings, with hope, hesitation and also a simple meanness to ward off its illusions.
RM: What, specifically, were some of the most interesting surprises you encountered or most daunting challenges you faced as you worked through the writing of the poems in this book?
LX: Because the book was written over many years, the most exciting parts were met with changes in the measure of my natural breath. The metabolism of one’s body transforms over time, so too the rhythm that one carries and, in some sense, learns to endure.
RM: Would you tell me about yourself, your history, your interests?
LX: I was born in Shanghai and lived there until I was nine. An early diagnosis (whether by occult or superstition) confirmed that I was allergic to the sun. I spent my childhood indoors, with nannies and with my grandparents, both of whom practiced traditional Chinese medicine. The house was always filled with the smell of herbs and roots. Language (as with all education in China) began with classical poetry, and I was instructed to memorize and recite poems by Li Bai, Du Fu, Wang Wei and so on. I was a poor student in school and even now, I cannot tell you what I am learning. But hindsight provides us all with exceptional vision, so time is not a thing I want hurried. I received my BA in English from UC Berkeley and my MFA from Brown University. I have worked at various jobs and lived in different countries. I am interested in plant life, the sea and walking. Most times I am not thinking about anything at all. I admire the work of Francis Alÿs, Tadao Andō and Lee Bontecou. How to live a good life and how to make good work are not separate things. I really believe that.
RM: The Canary eventually became Canarium, the press that you now co-edit. How did all that come about?
LX: The Canary was Joshua Edwards’ magazine, which he’d edited with Nick Twemlow, Robyn Schiff, and Anthony Robinson from 2002 to 2007. They were the first to publish my poems. Josh and I started writing each other as a result. We did not meet in person until two years later, when he came to New York to launch the last Canary. I organized a reading for him (along with Fred Schmalz and Matt Rohrer) at the then Adam’s Books (now Unnameable). That summer, with support from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, The Canary was changing into Canarium. Josh had moved to New York and discussions surrounding its future found me already on board.
RM: Who are the authors with whom you feel a kinship now? Who are you reading currently? Which writers do you think your readers might imagine are in conversation with the poems in Debts & Lessons?
LX: Debts & Lessons is promiscuous, if anything, about its affinities and kin. Currently I am reading Dickinson’s letters to Susan Huntington and discovering H.D. for the first time. A lot of my reading practice is re-reading. I also like to read with voices I can hear, so friends and teachers populate these shelves. What I cannot wait for is Josh to finish Agonistes. That book blows most things I read out of the water.
RM: You painted the artwork that became the primary image for the cover design for this book. And you and your husband Joshua were the primary creators of this cover image. Can you speak to this process, and your intentions for the cover?
LX: The cover image is a watercolor study of Henri Rousseau’s Negro Attacked by a Jaguar. In many ways I wanted a wildness that watercolor simply cannot permit. What I admire in Rousseau is the clarity of entanglement. Although involved, a leaf still knows where it begins and ends. The success of camouflage lies in its remaining difference. In oil the shapes are happy to patrol their boundaries. The main conflict in watercolor is between darkness and transparency.
Lynn Xu was born in Shanghai. She is the author of Debts & Lessons (Omnidawn, 2013) and June (a chapbook from Corollary Press, 2006). Her poems have appeared in Best American Poetry 2008, Boston Review, Critical Quarterly, Octopus, Poor Claudia and others. She co-edits Canarium Books.