“If you can be energized by the process, even if there’s no promise that anyone will see the finished product, you can save yourself from quite a bit of distraction and suffering.”
Nowhere to Arrive (Northwestern University Press, 2017)
What’s your chapbook about?
I spent several years living abroad in Hong Kong and Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and traveled quite heavily in the region during that time. When I moved back to the U.S., I tried writing into the mood of those years abroad—the rootlessness, the restlessness, the decentering of the self when one is in transit, and the dislocation and estranging solitude.
Travel and living abroad occasioned repeated reinterpretations and re-fashionings of the self, and I wanted to probe that in these poems. In reflecting back on those years, I was also trying to make sense of my own constructed gaze as a traveler, and the interrelational seeing that binds us to one another. My outsider status encouraged me to look, take in, and to document, but it also drew others’ eyes to me.
What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? Or can you name one poem that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?
The oldest two poems in the chapbook were the two diptychs, “Phnom Penh Diptych: Wet Season” and “Phnom Penh Diptych: Dry Season.” When I began writing these poems, I found I couldn’t quite get a handle on the material. I was trying to evoke a certain mood, a sense of feeling unmoored and displaced, but it felt daunting to tackle it head on. I had a sense it would be a long poem, but I also balked at trying to sustain a poem past two pages. It wasn’t until I took a course with Craig Morgan Teicher at NYU that I started to see a structuring principle for the poems. Craig once said that many long poems were just short poems stitched together. It was a great relief to hear that. Over the next few years, I accumulated smaller poems and fragments about my years in Phnom Penh, and I could see them building toward something.
What was the final poem you wrote or significantly revised for the chapbook, and how did that affect your sense that the chapbook was complete?
The final poem of the chapbook, “Ongoing,” was also the final poem I worked on for the chapbook. The rest of the chapbook tracks the speaker’s journeying quite close to the ground and are pinned to particular locales, but I felt I wanted a poem with more of an aerial view for the ending.
Do you have a favorite revision strategy? What is it?
I often revise several poems at once. Revision works a different muscle for me than composing, and at a certain stage of revision, I’m looking to replace language that is attenuated and stale with something that has more bite and surprise. When I arrive at that stage, it helps to have multiple poems open at once, because I’m cycling through words and phrases in my mind, and what doesn’t work for one poem might find its way into another. When I’m in it, it can feel like play—trying out pieces to see if they fit, and seeing the charge that certain words take on when located into a different context.
What has the editorial and production experience with your press been like? To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
It was a joy getting to work with Northwestern University Press and the Drinking Gourd Poetry Prize committee. I consulted with the press on edits and proofs of the chapbook over several weeks, and the chapbook is stronger from their critical attention. Parneshia Jones and Anne Gendler were incredibly patient, encouraging, and clear throughout the process. The chapbooks published through the Drinking Gourd Prize have a set cover layout, but I was able to collaborate with the designer, Marianne Jankowski, on the color scheme and the background print of the book. We settled on a design that I felt captured a sense of movement—the loose herringbone pattern looked like arrows to me—set to a pleasing botanical green.
I also owe special thanks to Chris Abani, who kindly took time to write a forward for the chapbook. Chris’s critical acuity and his warm and generous words about the poems were a gift, and I’m immensely grateful to have them set the stage for the book.
What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced you?
I love the Poetry Pamphlets that New Directions publishes, especially Derangements of My Contemporaries by Li Shangyin (trans. Chloe Garcia Roberts), Poems to Read on a Streetcar by Oliverio Girondo (trans. Heather Cleary), and The Albertine Workout by Anne Carson.
Recently, I’ve been in awe of Sahar Muradi’s [G A T E S] (Black Lawrence Press) and Marwa Helal’s I Am Made To Leave I Am Made To Return (No Dear / Small Anchor)—two remarkable chapbooks full of textured poems and ungovernable music. I also return often to Soham Patel’s New Weather Drafts (Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs), Monica Sok’s Year Zero (Poetry Society of America), Maya Popa’s The Bees Have Been Canceled (New Michigan Press), Kaveh Akbar’s Portrait of an Alcoholic (Sibling Rivalry Press), Emily Yoon’s Ordinary Misfortunes (Tupelo Press), and Nicole Sealey’s The Animal After Whom Other Animals Are Named (Northwestern University Press).
What might these favorite or influential chapbooks suggest about your writing?
I seek out work that has the capacity to surprise. I’m drawn to work that feels strange to me—work that doesn’t rhyme with my own inner rhythms and voices.
What are you working on now?
Right now, I’m waiting for the reservoir to refill, so to say. I collect snatches of language, jottings, and flashes of ideas in a notebook, but I don’t know if I see a shape to any of it yet.
What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?
I’ll echo what many poets have said in these interviews: read avidly and widely. There doesn’t seem to be any substitute to that. You learn to internalize the rhythms of good writing through reading, and you sharpen your inner ear this way.
Personally, I think it’s necessary to find reasons to write and to create that are unyoked from critical reception and acclaim. If you can be energized by the process, even if there’s no promise that anyone will see the finished product, you can save yourself from quite a bit of distraction and suffering.
Jenny Xie is the author of Eye Level (Graywolf Press, 2018), recipient of the 2017 Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets, and Nowhere to Arrive, (Northwestern University Press, 2017), recipient of the 2016 Drinking Gourd Chapbook Prize. Her poems appear or are forthcoming in Poetry, the American Poetry Review, the New Republic, Tin House, Harvard Review, American Poets, and elsewhere.