Wendy Xu’s first book, YOU ARE NOT DEAD, was a finalist in the Cleveland State University First Book Prize and Open Competition contests, surviving to the top out of over 900 manuscripts. Having known her as someone whose work is not only a myriad of kind gestures, but as a person who is completely altruistic inside of and beyond her poetry community, it only made sense to dig inside of YOU ARE NOT DEAD, to truly understand where this generosity comes from. Below we discover wolves, precision through negation, and how to write a Wendy Xu poem.
Let's start simply: How long has this manuscript been in development and can you speak to the efforts involved in getting a first book picked up, published, distributed, etc.?
I think I wrote most of these poems in the 6 months before and after moving to Northampton, MA, where I live now, to go to the MFA program at UMass Amherst. Time feels so slippery now when I think about it! But I think that’s right. So they made that big transition with me, to a new place, leaving some people, discovering so many new ones, thinking about funny phrases like “next chapter of your life” which become extra funny when we’re talking in this context, about a book.
I wrote so many loose “manuscripts” before this one that I thought would be my first book, and it’s so interesting and correct that they were not. I sent many of them around to presses I admired, through the usual channels, the contests or the reading periods, even to CSU Poetry Center a few times I think, and in retrospect I feel grateful that those first rounds of âis this a book you want to publish?’ put pressure on me to re-see and reevaluate the poems, and to assemble a book held together by larger ideas, by something more meaningful than the binder clip.
I sent You Are Not Dead to CSU in 2012 with some hopeful fingers crossed but a feeling that as far as my part in the making of a book was concerned, I had learned a lot and said a lot of things that I cared deeply about. Everything after that, from the day last summer when I walked out of teaching a poetry workshop for high school students to an excited-sounded voicemail from Michael Dumanis, has been a fast paced blur. CSU thought of (and continues to think of) just about everything, their infrastructure and attentiveness has made the publishing process a well-oiled dream. I am really grateful for their belief in the spirit of collaboration with authorsâin an entirely biased way, I want to be a part of affirming and praising this spirit publicly, as it has really meant the world to me looking back now on the past 6 months.
The title reads almost as an imperative lacking punctuation, an affirmation that those who might read this book are in fact alive; the speaker and the occasional characters. With poetry being declared dead recently (even though this manuscript existed long before the Washington Post polemic arrived), do you think these poems can stand to serve as something vital? Do you have any words for Alexandra Petri?
Hmm, I do remember reading those very wrong things Alexandra Petri wrote. I think people are just going to make more art. I think Alexandra Petri is misunderstanding the right way to make declarations.
You have harnessed in several different objects throughout this collection and one that seems to be most recurring are wolves. Do you have a personal mythology behind having them appear so often or regarding wolves in general? Can you talk about spirit animals? What is yours?
It makes me very happy that the wolves in this book catch your attention this way. For the last few years the image on my desktop has been this amazing photo of a grey wolf alone in the snow that I saw in National Geographic. He’s got some snow on his snout and is staring right into the camera. He’s experiencing some kind of emotion and I don’t know what it is, but much of the time I’m just sitting at my computer staring back at him and thinking. Day after day, for years, I suppose this has leaked into my poems.
I feel absolutely obsessed with wolves, and for completely unoriginal reasons. They are the opposite of my decidedly domestic life, and poems are an interesting thing that get made in my domestic space but are not domestic, far from it. Wolves are a path through the book, they crop up sometimes to explore a kind of tension between wildness and restraint, spaces for enclosure and spaces for expansion.
Maybe my spirit animal is most similar to how it is in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials books, he calls them “daemons,” and they are like forever-companions/spirit animals that change form for many years of your life depending on mood until eventually becoming a fixed animal. I don’t want mine to be fixed yet.
There is a tendency in these poems to create syntactical inversions, that through the process of negation, the subtext can then be read as truth. I'm curious as to what drives this formal element in your work and if it is a conscious move?
I learned something very, very recently from a friend that will help me articulate this answer, which is also an admission that often it is not conscious, or maybe that it is the most human thing:
The conventions of accessing truth through negation philosophically sound the idea of being able to define something by theoretically defining everything it is not, was earliest employed in a religious context. People were like, “How do we describe this amazing God? God who is necessarily unknowable to us?” and it became helpful to define God’s perfection and goodness via defining what he is not.
In this way the tradition hinges on highest reverenceâthat what we love and cherish most (God or otherwise) is most impossible to articulate head-on. So sometimes I feel that I want to bypass the terror of attempting equivalencies, that A is B, that some experience I had is “insert any word here” which would package it too neatly. Negation in a strange way feels more precise than attempting precision itself, and it also leaves the door open for revision and accumulation. I don’t think that poetry is about definition as much as it is about representing or exploring complexities at every level of being alive.
In the poem, "Wow is What I Want" you write, "I want some kind of genuine." Can you explain why you want only a gradient of the genuine. Every one of these poems suggests a strict kind of sincerity, so I'm curious about the partiality of that statement or am I being pedantic?
No, not pedantic, no! To be genuine is a gigantic complicated task made of a number of micro-tasks. I am still trying to figure it out and poems are a good space for that figuring. Like, is it to lead fully with intuition? As it relates to other people it gets infinitely more complicated. How am I a genuine friend or caregiver or community member? Where does what I want and think (my genuine self) end and necessarily accommodate the sincere needs of others? How am I ethical? I guess I’m further complicating my own statement, that wanting “wow” (as the title says) is the same as wanting some version of what is genuine or sincere in the moment that I’m moved by it. The most genuine moments are the ones that stun me into silence, and in this way experience seems beautifully outside of the evaluative structures of sincerity and morality and ethics and “genuineness.”
Usually my poems have a title before they have a body, and often they remain the most plainspoken declaration of the finished poem as a whole. They are like the more-articulate parents of the poem in this way.
This may be a question with a really obvious answer or equivocal even, but how do you write? Is it often a moment of, "I drink my coffee and wait for what is next?" or is there more to this process?
That line is a pretty good summary of it! The routine I try to implement is about creating a manageable and organized container for what I know will be messy thoughts. The details are pretty plainâI write mostly in the morning, with a cup of coffee and something to snack on. I get up and touch things in my apartment a lot, I walk from room to room. So little of it is spent at the computer or notebook. There is a lot of waiting, yes. There is also a lot of giving up, either for the hour, for the day, the week, the idea, the line, the word, on and on. It feels important to me to know when to bail without guilt, to know well enough that I’ll return and be better equipped because of the break.
The last section of the book proves to be an answer or a meditation on the title. Is this a wind down of life as you imagine it, or the opposite? Could you keep writing, "We Are Both Sure to Die" poems for the rest of eternity? Is this what poems are anyway, a meddling with how we are going to die/are dying (or am I making this out to be a much more morbid affair, because these poems seem celebratory in a lot of ways as well)?
What you asked about negation earlier is how I feel about thisâthat being alive is most precisely being not dead. In so much as how we represent a thing in language becomes how we perceive it. I feel much more interested in the statement “you are not dead” than the statement “you are alive.” I do feel celebratory when I think about or write poems about death, and also I feel urgently about the whole business of moving linearly towards it as we all are. It’s certainly not morbid to feel interested in death or the dead, at least I don’t think so, as the whole idea of poetic tradition and reverence for “immortality of poetry vs. mortality of poet” is necessarily tied up in how everyone dies and so we learn from the dead and write while we can, no?
I don’t know exactly what poems are, in a capital-A kind of way, but they are made by the living and that act seems inherently joyful.
Lastly, what do you anticipate the moment will be like when you open up that box and see freshly pressed copies of your book, the most mortal thing an author/artist can possess? Will it say, 'onto the next project' or, 'fuck, this is it!' ?
I would be happy to let you know when I get there! For now, I’ve experienced the overwhelming joy of holding a galley copy of the book, which is of course a physical object in the world, so it translates. It was a composite feeling, it was strange and exciting and yes maybe “mortal” is always the right way to talk about art and the things we make. It is exciting that all of our poems will outlive us, and other people, while they live too, will maybe see a little bit of what we saw while we could.