The Radical Act of Being a Better Person and Then Maybe Dying:
An Interview with Wendy Xu
Wendy Xu is the author of You Are Not Dead (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2013), and two chapbooks including I Was Not Even Born (Coconut Books), a collaboration with Nick Sturm. Recent poems have appeared (or will appear) in The Best American Poetry, POETRY, Denver Quarterly, Gulf Coast, and elsewhere. She is the co-editor and publisher of iO: A Journal of New American Poetry / iO Books, and teaches writing in Western Massachusetts.
Xu’s poetry is concerned with how the mind constructs ways to make living in a world that is often bleak and dangerous worthwhile. The poems in You Are Not Dead are funny and sad—often at the same time. They champion the imagination’s usefulness in the everyday and explore the tension between one’s need for connection with other people while also holding onto one’s individuality. To this end, Xu’s poetry reminds the reader of staying with an old friend; they are ingratiating, not afraid to get heavy, and know when to tell you it’s time for you to leave.
Front Porch: In an essay for the Poetry Society you wrote, “the hypothetical might be my favorite state of being.” Could you elaborate on what attracts you to the hypothetical and its relation to your poetry?
Wendy Xu: It is like Dickinson saying “I dwell in possibility,” the hypothetical being a kind of unlimited imagining—perhaps because it also invites collaboration and revision, it feels open to others. “State of being” is a funny thing, and I’m laughing now over having said that. I mean, the mode of the hypothetical is also imbued with some sadness necessarily, no? The ideal is the hypothetical. And it is always pushing up against reality.
I think that when I write a poem, in the most oversimplified but very honest terms, I am engaged in imagination. At least it is more parts imagination than it is reportage, or pure observation, or evaluation, or inquiry. So if I try to stay and build and learn in this realm, I feel I am responding to the inherent generosity of the hypothetical mode by populating it with kinder things, more empathetic listening. I’m attracted to the hypothetical world where things are, plainly, just less awful than in the immediate one. I want poetry to propose something better. I want it to create tangible, concrete changes in the ways we interact with one another.
FP: One of the first things that struck me while reading You Are Not Dead was that while your work is frequently funny and often makes use of irony, it never falls into the trap of stopping at humor and letting it distract the poem from digging deeper emotionally. A poem can include “...Don’t ask any questions/about waffle science…” and still end up being an effective meditation on the mental work required to live in a world of inequality, which seems like a real feat to me. Can you discuss what you see as the relationship between humor and sincerity in your poetry?
WX: Yes, I love humor, I love stand-up comedy, I love the mental acrobatics that an intricate joke requires and the pay-off it provides. I suppose I think that these two things are so close to one another. I am sincerely invested in your happiness when I work earnestly at making you laugh. Telling a joke is so kind, it is something we do to improve the lives of others.
And I like how you phrased that, “mental work,” and how living is filled with such inequality. That’s an understatement, sure. Maybe I’ll say that when I was writing You Are Not Dead, living in a strange place and confronted often with loneliness, living through the one million tiny daily indignations of “finding your footing” in a new place, I felt that it was insincere to excise humor from my poems. I did a lot of laughing to avoid crying. I let others explain to me the humor or irony of my daily failures, “you got lost on the way to fix your GPS.” It felt insincere to invalidate all the ways I was forced to laugh at myself.
In a wider sense, I think I would very literally die (I am not trying to make a book-title joke) if I resigned myself to humorlessness. “The news” would simply crush me. Wall Street would crush me. And in my helplessness and inability to heal and laugh with others, it would be easier for every Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin to legislate me out of their America. I want to laugh so that later I can get angry like I need to get. I want to make and think something funny and tender and kind so that I recognize the opposite when it comes for me, so that I can say “No” to a corporation, so that I cannot buy what someone means to sell me. Poetry is so high stakes. Humor is wholly tied up in those stakes for me.
The poems in You Are Not Dead are often about how a person can be in a world as strange and often dangerous as ours. This is an issue that I often think about as we don’t seem to live in a culture that values “personness.” How does poetry help you process the world and your reaction to it?
FP: Related to this issue, you stated in an interview with Poets & Writers that, “for better or for worse, being confronted by some of the horrors of contemporary America does instill a greater urgency for speaking and writing.” Could you discuss how that feeling of urgency affected You Are Not Dead? How does engagement with poetry translate to a “radical act” for you?
WX: For my little self, the literal me, poetry truly helps me function and accomplish daily tasks with a greater degree of clarity and empathy than I could possess without it. It’s helpful to read and write poems every day as practice for speaking with greater precision, for interrogating the emotional context of my reactions to things that happen to me. It is unachievable, but sometimes I think about holding the standard of every sentence I speak to another person up to the standard of a line of a poem. It’s a nice goal, a lovely dream. What then could I begin to understand and express?
It is very often anxiety and urgency that move me to write poems. And it seems to me that everybody who is not a Wall Street banker or a venture capitalist is engaged in the radical act of being a better person. I mean, it seems so easy to become awful. When I say that poetry is a radical act, I mean that there is no late-capitalism approved economic theorem that even remotely suggests poetry is a good or meaningful idea; it does not mean to be approved by late-capitalism. It is "illogical" in the best way. It does not make money. It is not FOR money. It is a radical act because it is filled with hope and widely ill advised.
FP: The book concludes with a series of poems called “We Are Both Sure To Die” and concern the various times and ways in which the characters are sure to die. The poems both feel like a “choose your own adventure” and an expression of severe anxiety. What attracted you to the idea of writing these poems? What purpose do you see them serving as the conclusion to the book?
WX: To speak to the arrangement of the final section, I think I liked concluding with poems all titled something that was a rephrasing of the book’s title. It’s nice to not be dead only because surely someday you will be. Depending on my mood, I think the final series is either bleak or affirming. I suppose I like that about it. I certainly go to poetry very often to express severe anxiety, yes! I genuinely don’t have a discrete answer, a “thing” that attracted me to writing death poems—I liked the feeling of using the page as a container for meditations on death. This cleared up a lot of room in my head.
And the final series doesn’t really stay on the assuredness of dying very long—I realized in retrospect that mainly they are interested in world-building the hypothetical span of time before death. In that sense, they are just like every other poem: they are trying to be filled with living.
FP: In addition to your writing and teaching, you edit iO, an online literary journal and publish its chapbook publishing arm, iO Books. How has your work with iO affected your writing? Has it affected your reading life?
WX: It has affected my writing and my reading so much! It’s exciting to receive submissions from (and primarily publish) younger poets like myself, to see what they’re doing while trying to do it alongside them. I consistently feel so excited about the variety of poetry being produced. Our most recent issue is one of my favorites yet. Have you read the beginning of this long poem by Kelin Loe? These two poems by Jess Grover? These by Hannah Brooks-Motl? Spencer Everett? Amy Lawless?
FP: You collaborated with Nick Sturm on a chapbook of poetry. What attracts you to collaboration? Did you and Sturm agree to any rules to make the process more pleasant? What did you learn from the experience?
WX: I really struggle to talk about the amazing experience of collaborating with Nick without Nick, so I’ll point to this collaborative interview we did once about the process at LitBridge. The rules were to be our best listeners with each other, to hear one another as honestly as we could. I learned how to be a better person.
FP: Related to this issue of digital availability is your work with iO Books. The chapbooks are hand stitched and the covers hand stamped. SHUT UP & BLOOM by Matthew Suss & Ben Kopel boasts a cover that looks remarkably like birch bark. Can you talk about how running a press, which is deeply invested in the beauty and tactile nature of physical books, compliments running an online journal and also your general interest in the internet?
WX: I never thought about it as looking like birch before! The covers are actually this amazing hand-made paper made entirely from recycled plant matter, there’s everything from flowers to seeds to herbs to weird varieties of grasses in there. It smells kind of good/weird too.
It’s rewarding to be able to publish poetry in these two formats through iO, the online and the print. The accessibility of the internet is great for showing off 10 poets that we love every few months, and knowing that it’ll stay available and free, barring the destruction of the internet. Making books by hand, which is a slower process that involves thinking about the physicality of texts (tactile nature, as you say!) allows us to give poems a different kind of voice. One that could be scratchy or glossy. Bound in flowers or leather.
FP: One of the things that seem to define the chapbook as a medium is the insistence on restricting publication to a very limited amount of print copies. That’s why I was surprised to find your chapbook The Hero Poems online. Was online publication something you looked for when finding a publisher for the chapbook? What do you think are the benefits of having The Hero Poems online as opposed to a hundred-copy print run?
WX: I think often the limited print run is less about an arbitrary restriction than it is about very real financial restrictions. Though you’re right that the chapbook as a form is certainly fun and exciting because it’s handmade and collectible, it’s an art-object as much as a place to put poems. I didn’t think too much about online vs. print publication with The Hero Poems; I sent them to H_NGM_N because I loved and admired H_NGM_N poets. I admired and still deeply admire Nate Pritts. At some point there actually were print copies, 75 I think, but having it available online to this day is great. I can put a link to it on my Tumblr, I do not have to say “please give me some money for this.”
FP: Finally, people watching is an important part of several of the poems in the collection. What is your favorite people watching spot?
WX: I like to sit in the window of the Roost, a coffee shop in Western Massachusetts, and stare at all the people using intersections. In Massachusetts, both directions of cross-walks go at once. You can cross a 4-way intersection diagonally. It gets CRAZY.