"What do you do when you're born—without your consent—and you find out later that your life was at the cost of someone else's? That's how high the stakes can be."
Writers Daniel Poppick and Jenny Zhang met seven years ago when they were students in Iowa City. Since then, they’ve continued to discuss their individual projects, including Poppick's first book of poetry, The Police, released in April from Omnidawn Publishing, and Zhang’s first collection of stories, Sour Heart, out this month from Lenny Books. Poppick’s poems are grammatically dexterous explorations of power and interpersonal vulnerability. Zhang’s stories are richly narrated mostly by Chinese American girls who are equal parts tough and tender, feeling and talking their way through especially difficult adolescences. Both of these books resist predictability in language and scope. They offer, instead, vividly rendered depictions that possess the surprises, wisdom, and dark humor of our lived experiences. This summer the two writers met in Poppick's Brooklyn apartment to continue their ongoing exchanges about genre distinctions, poetry's role in contemporary American letters, how profanity intersects with race and class, and more.
Daniel Poppick The last time I interviewed you, we were on the radio in Iowa City, just after Dear Jenny, We Are All Find came out, and you were told not to use the word "asshole" on the air even though it was in the poem you were reading.
Jenny Zhang Because the radio station would be fined $10,000 if I did.
DP We agreed that you would use the word "butthole" instead, because for whatever reason that's okay with the FCC. You got through the "butthole" line perfectly fine, but then you used the word "shit" without realizing it.
JZ Oh my god, that's right.
DP At your reading that night, you pointed out how weird this distinction is because the word "asshole" is a very general term, it might not even be connected to the body at all, but when we hear the word "butthole" you can only picture the same wrinkled, puckered butthole in your mind's eye.
JZ I'm just glad we weren't fined!
DP Through the years and across your poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, you've always seemed like three different writers and I didn't know how you were pulling that off. But with Sour Heart I've come to see many common roots, one of which is profanity. The book is about, among other things, adolescents who are negotiating intense cultural crosscurrents that amplify what is already inherently difficult about being a teenager trying to attain autonomy and power. Language is especially important to them since some are learning English for the first time. At certain points two of your protagonists, Mande and Lucy, realize that they don't know how to use profanity correctly. It's humiliating to not know how to say "fuck" in the correct context, which says a lot about how language functions. Profanity plays a liberatory role in your work. What does it do for you?
JZ Liberatory. I like that. The experience of learning English really shaped me. I had to learn it as a five-year-old when we moved to the United States. In my first language, I learned to speak and write early, and language was a source of constant pleasure. It's hard to forget the experience of having your slate wiped clean and to not be able to express yourself. You become a big baby, reduced to pointing at things. I was still young enough that it just seemed like I was not very bright.
Most people, when learning a new language, want to know the curse words first as if that's the gateway to the language. The kids in my stories also desire this almost immediate power at every level of language acquisition. They want to master English rather than be mastered by it. Profanity grants the speaker possession of something powerful enough to actually affect physical change in the world.
If you curse at someone, they might hit you.
DP If you call someone "butthole" versus "asshole."
JZ It may provoke violence; it may provoke lust. There are really intense consequences for knowing how to use profanity. But there's this flip side—you often come to realize that the kids who have access to using the word "fuck" or "cunt" or "tits" have it for less enviable reasons.
DP When Lucy says "beep beep beep" because she thinks that's how you're supposed to curse, and her friend mocks her for it and corrects her, she says something like "I had no idea how she knew how to use these words and I didn't." The implication there is that something has happened in her friend's life that hasn't happened for her. Power is encoded in language and the ability to wield it.
JZ That reminds me of Morgan Parker's poem, "The President Has Never Said the Word Black." She writes about Obama saying things like "We mourn the loss of these boys," but there are blanks for where "black" should be. To say "black" in this context, which is more than reasonable, would make him seem like a raving extremist in a way that America could not accept. But it's also about the speaker of this poem feeling a great disappointment, wanting the president to say the word "black." It's presented in such a way that it becomes a kind of profanity by the end of the poem that's censored out. Maybe what really good poetry does is it shifts what we think is profane. It makes us question every single word, not just the words that are not supposed to be said on the radio.
This is like the title poem of your book, "The Police." In some circles that's a profane word. In other circles that's a word of reverence, it inspires safety or comfort. There's even a moment in the poem where it sounds like you're trying to make that word, "police," sound like it needs to be redacted.
DP I knew that this book was going to be called The Police early on, but then I was only vaguely suspicious of the figure of the cop. I didn't think of the word "police" as being either profane or sacred. It was loaded and sinister, I knew that obviously, but I thought of it as a conduit for a particular spirit of attention and authority running through the world, not just the state. The idea came to me when I read Ashbery's poem "The Chateau Hardware" for the first time—"It was the great ‘as though,' the how the day went, / The excursions of the police / As I pursued my bodily functions, wanting / Neither fire nor water, / Vibrating to the distant pinch / And turning out the way I am, turning out to greet you." It obviously evokes Eliot's original title for "The Wasteland," which was "He Do the Police in Different Voices." But I was writing this book over the course of seven or eight years, and there was originally never going to be a title poem.
Then in 2011 I got pulled over in Iowa. The interaction that happens in the title poem—where the speaker is pulled over, and the cop makes him sit in the cruiser with him, and the cop asks him about his poetry, and the title of the book he was writing—actually happened. He was friendly, but there was this jokey, winking sense of menace in his tone. I didn't fully understand the implications of that interaction until I was driving away—that it could have gone very differently if I hadn't been a white dude. I had to decide whether I was going to stick with that title. I ultimately decided to keep it, because I just felt that it would have been dishonest to change it. And some of the ideas I had about authority in the beginning, in this state of dumb innocence when I was reading Ashbery for the first time—that the natural world, or spectacle, or capital seizes your attention in a menacing way—they still feel true after that interaction. But one difference is that now the word "police" sounds like profanity.
The Police could have become a polemic, or I could have laid all my dumb anguish and guilt about my whiteness while trying to write about this metaphorical conception of the police from 2009 to 2016, but that would have just felt like another kind of performance, and even if it's genuine it's not useful to anyone. I've done it in private, but I'm not writing poetry to exorcise or make a spectacle of my feelings of guilt. I am trying to feel my way through them. In the end, we're just ourselves in our writing. No better or worse, in terms of being writers, than who we are.
JZ I think it's okay to take on one's subjectivity and to write from it. Guilt and debt have been a big part of the cultural conversation in recent years, and made much more "acceptable" to talk about, largely because of Ta-Nehisi Coates' amazing essay, "The Case for Reparations." I don't know where I fall, in the polygon of race in America, as an Asian American female. Do I owe reparations? Am I owed reparations? Am I just a third party on the side?
Then, on a more micro, interpersonal level, my characters are brought into a world with debt that they can never pay off. It's a debt that they owe their parents for everything that they went through, and suffered, to ensure that they could live and eat unharmed. I never came to a conclusion about what you do when you're born with a debt that you owe to someone or some structure. What do you do when you're born—without your consent—and you find out later that your life was at the cost of someone else's? That's how high the stakes can be.
DP There's this idea floating around that art will perfectly express the essential paradox of your subjectivity and soul and good intentions. And that's fine, but it still just ends up articulating the paradox. It doesn't do anything beyond that. Art doesn't solve anything.
JZ There's so much inequality and unforgivable repression in the world. I don't think poetry and fiction are equipped to respond urgently enough.
DP I still want to believe that they have that capacity.
JZ I am drawn to poetry and fiction because they're not particularly amenable to signaling indisputable virtue or guilt. It's not the place to make that kind of declaration. I need a place to be dark, where I'm not looking for answers. I'm interested in having better questions. And I'm interested in questioning my earlier answers—that Keatsian negative capability that poetry is supposed to provide. One of the things I was interested in exploring while writing these stories is the capacity for extremely traumatized or victimized people to traumatize or exert power over others. Lucy, for example, is a character who idealizes other people's pain. She has this twisted idea that the more hurt someone is, the luckier they are—people will come to rescue them or hear their cries for help, because their pain is more visible. She doesn't understand that the pain can be enormous and terrible, not something you actually want to go through. She just sees the part where people are coming to the traumatized person's side. I think that's a common thing that people feel about groups of other people who they see as being oppressed. They're like, Oh, they're so lucky—they get help constantly. That's something I could explore in fiction that seemed completely inappropriate to do in nonfiction.
DP I'm curious how this kind of exploration plays out for you with poetry. The first time we hung out was at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines in the summer of 2009. Steve Toussaint brought us. It was all poets, so I assumed you were also a poet. And you said, Actually I'm a fiction writer, but I'm not really interested in fiction right now, I'm only interested in poetry.
JZ Oh my god, I said that?
DP It never came up again. I saw you around town that whole first year, you did readings, and you read early drafts of some of these stories.
JZ Yeah. I never read poetry.
DP It made me think, at least then, that poetry was a very private thing for you. And that fiction was different.
JZ Poetry felt sacred. It didn't even seem to me to belong in the realm of literature. Which brings me back to the idea of learning a new language. Nobody is ever truly fluent in a language. There's no such thing as perfect fluency because there's always some other level of fluency that you want to master. Acquiring new language feels shameful, but also exciting. I love that feeling—bubbling, learning, feeling like I can't master it. And poetry is one of the few forms of writing where no matter how long I do it I'm never comfortable. It's always going to be uncomfortable. Do you feel that way?
DP When poetry becomes comfortable it becomes uncomfortable. When I know what I'm doing, that's when I feel most lost. In Iowa City, I felt like people understood me and my dumb syntax and weird ideas for the first time, not just in writing but also in conversation. Those poets had a capacity for strangeness and a sensitivity to language that was consequential in the best possible way. What you said, even if it didn't make immediate sense, had value.
JZ But when something is as capacious as poetry, gatekeepers always emerge. People who have some vested interest in displaying how this open space can be closed. It's intertwined with race and socioeconomics, access to institutions. Who can afford to be not immediately intelligible? Who can afford to write in a way that isn't immediately digestible? I want to be someone who can afford to write in a way that is hard, that requires study and attention, and I think—in a perfect world, it's of great value. But I want my writing to be available to all kinds of people, even those with limited time to read and educational resources. I have a high esteem for poetry, but I can't only write poetry.
DP It's true, poets can be insufferable. You had a strong community at Stanford, and Tony Tulathimutte and Karan Mahajan seem like the kind of family for you that I felt I'd found in Iowa City.
JZ I arrived at Iowa in a cocky state. I felt what everyone feels when they've formed a group with whom they feel connected. I was like, We're so weird, and no one else is like us, and we've somehow found each other. But it's a security blanket that you have to throw off at some point. When I met those guys, we hung out all the time. And then there was this period when everyone was trying to make something of themselves, and it created tension. I had to break out and ask myself what I wanted without thinking about what everyone else thinks. I had to write alone and not share my work with my friends for a while. And then after this period was over, they were the first I went back to. Do you still share your work with those poets?
DP Some of us still share work, but inhabiting that private language is no longer my primary motivation. I was just talking to my therapist about why therapy isn't as satisfying as poetry. That's what everyone does in therapy, right (laughter)? As soon as I say something out loud to her, it sounds false, because it doesn't give me access to saying five things at once, creating this connective web of associations that gradually become legible the longer I look at the phrase in a poem. I compared this sense of limitation to the expansiveness I feel in poetry, and she said, Oh, so it's twin language. Which I took to mean—it's an expansive language you share with a limited set of people. I hate that idea of poetry, but there's something to it. Allen Ginsberg, whose writing I don't particularly love, said this thing that has always felt true to me: "I write poetry because I want to be alone and I want to talk to people." In moving away from one's writing community, away from that initial shared language and syntax, it forces you to think about what it would be like to try to speak to someone who doesn't know your idiom. What you're left with when you abandon that idiom is your own fucked up narrative, laid bare.
JZ Your collection came out after you left Iowa. Did you change any of the poems in putting them together for this collection or did they remain in their original form?
DP It takes me a long time to feel a poem click shut. So in preparing the final manuscript the earlier poems did not change. I felt like I agonized more over the later poems because they were less settled. On some level I don't trust myself to get it right the first time. I need to say something to decide whether or not it's true. The golden poem is the one that comes out perfectly all at once, and it's so rare. To expect it is a joke—to the extent that I consider revision writing.
JZ Revision is just writing with time having passed.
DP It's writing for the first time for the second time.
JZ But ideally your soul has gone through some changes. You know more, you have new ideas that are still somehow relevant to this dead thing you made. Especially with these stories that I wrote when I was nineteen and twenty, I looked at them again and thought the person who wrote these only had so much info. I don't want this relic of my nineteen-year-old worldview to be published. I want my current worldview to be present. And then a year later you have another worldview. It never ends. I have the opposite instinct. I wrote the last twenty pages of the book the day that it was due for its final stage of copy editing. I thought, this is fine, because this is as present as it can be. And I agonized over the older stories. I felt that they were problematic. That they would cause harm. I feared that my younger self—
DP Was reckless with other people's stories?
DP You were coming out of your poet identity.
JZ It was a long period of writing in—I don't know what I would call my poetry, but sometimes it's been referred to as "the confessional mode." I'm okay with that, but—
DP Wait, what? Who says that it's in "the confessional mode?"
JZ Oh, a lot of people. (laughter) I love how you suddenly got really indignant.
DP That's insane.
JZ I know, I don't agree. I don't agree, period, dot dot dot. I don't mind it. I feel okay writing poetry that is kind of dirty or obscene or profane because all I'm impugning is myself. That's not true, but it's what I tell myself. To go all the way back to obscenity—obscenity is a good way to weed people out. If someone is going to say, I can't see a dick in a poem no matter what, then what are you going to do? If they see a dick in a poem, then it's over. Nothing comes after that. Then there are people who say, I don't want to see a dick, but I'm going to see what comes after the dick. And then there are people who are completely unfazed by a dick.
DP They might even be bored by a dick.
JZ Exactly. I like that if someone is offended by my poetry, or finds it blandly provocative, it only refers back to me, not my community or culture. With narrative, especially fiction, I feel a greater responsibility to the characters and people I'm portraying.
DP How has writing for teens in Rookie affected your writing practice as a poet and fiction writer?
JZ It sobered me up to the responsibility of having an audience. None of my poems were instantly viewed 100,000 times like my 2,000-word essays for Rookie. Whether I liked it or not, it changed the way I wrote. I still fiercely guard my illusion of freedom, but over time I've felt less free. If I offered up an anecdote from my life in the service of a funny interlude, or thinking it was a weird tidbit, I couldn't then pretend that it wouldn't be read as advice for how one should or shouldn't be. That affected what I chose to include or leave out. There are very few stories that are only mine. A lot of women of color have had experiences where someone has used them or their suffering as raw material for art. But the thing I couldn't accept was that I also do that. I do that to people who have more power than I do, and to people who have less power. What are the ethics of punching up rather than punching down? Can I appropriate the experiences of someone who has more power than me?
DP It's not really comparable, but certain characters in Sour Heart pop up in stories that are not their own, often used as cautionary tales. Christina's family, from the first story in the collection, is often used to justify another narrator's choices, never in a positive way.
JZ To put it bluntly, they're not "good" immigrants. It's not the story of the family who moved to the United States and worked as hard as they could and suffered and took that suffering and swallowed its bitterness. They're broke because they're really irresponsible. The dad doesn't want to work very hard. He has a mistress that he openly brings around. He wastes money on frivolous things that he could be using to help himself and his family. They act like carefree, rich white people. But they're not. They're poor immigrants, and there are consequences for acting that way.
I wanted to ask the question of whether you can have compassion for someone who is not the perfect victim. Are they still entitled to a decent life even if they've done absolutely nothing to make their lives better? To me, that's important, because it's almost like people only want to read about immigrants if they're ceaselessly suffering, or if they're not angry about their suffering, or if their anger turns inward instead of outward at structures of racism or structures of class inequality. They're okay having compassion so long as the character is a good immigrant. In retrospect, it was important for me to start the book with these bad immigrants. It's kind of a litmus test. If somebody reads the first story and asks, Why should I care about these people? Then I can't see them enjoying the rest of the stories. Christina's family bookends the collection because in certain ways they are the freest family.
DP In "Our Mothers Before Us," there's a line about the Cultural Revolution, "Hardly anyone spoke of poetry unless it was coded in another kind of poetry." This feels like an analog to a lot of what we've been talking about. Power is encoded into learning how to use language in these stories, and in loving your children you're encoding a sense of burden in them—and you're encoding ruin into a carefree attitude.
JZ These families are haunted by the Cultural Revolution. Christina's parents look back with a sense of nostalgia and excitement. They miss those days. The other families don't feel that way. Even in the most horrific of times, there's not one blanket, uniform experience. In the literature I've encountered, it's either painted as a horrific time in which a demagogic, tyrannical leader murdered millions, or it's presented as an ambitious experiment that was crushed by imperialist pigs who choked China off from the rest of the world. And there's almost no overlap between those positions. Did Mao commit genocide against his own people? Or was he the only hope for third world communism?
I didn't know who I was speaking to when I invoked it.
Could I write about it in a way that would speak to people who knew a lot about it already, or should I write about it as if I were introducing people to it? For a lot of the people I'm writing about, the Cultural Revolution robbed them of an adolescence. Which is ironic, because they came to America so their children wouldn't have to suffer. But their children, the narrators of these stories, feel like their childhoods have been stolen or misspent as well.
DP We're still allowed to say all that on the radio, right?
JZ With many beeps, yes.