I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
The poet on the politics of the gaze, the migratory act of reading, the anxiety of bilingualism, and the universality of shame.
I first met Jenny over a decade ago, when we were both students at Princeton, sweating through a summer of teaching English in China’s Hunan Province. Years later, we met in New York and formed a group with other female friends from college who worked in the humanities, tapping one another’s minds as freely as we sipped each other’s cocktails. Jenny was always reluctant to boast of her then already quickly accumulating successes. Encountering her work for the first time on the stands of my neighborhood bookstore in Brooklyn, I was immediately taken with her writing: the images were stark yet elusive, the lines intimate and yet evocative of so much outside or beyond; the poems seemed so delicately wrought I wondered whether they might shatter right there in my palms. Below, Jenny and I dive into her debut book, Eye Level (Graywolf Press), winner of the 2017 Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets. “Clarity is just questioning having eaten its fill,” reads the end of her poem “To Be a Good Buddhist is Ensnarement.” Which is to say: before you know it, you’re hungry with more questions.
Mariam Rahmani I want to start with the title, and the recurring figure of the eye. As much as readers expect metawriting and words about what it means to deal in words, the salient metaphor in this collection seems to be the act of seeing. The “I” in the poems—and I hesitate to collapse that I/eye with you, the author—is an observer. Does that make writing an act of observing?
Jenny Xie Much of the collection is about linking the “eye” with an “I”, and thinking through the entanglements of gazes and visual encounters with power, selfhood, and presence. The speaker in these poems, especially those from the first section of the book, engages in the act of observation and renders certain aspects of seeing into language, but observing is never a passive absorption of visual stimuli. The eye amplifies and tames; it heightens and erases.
MR Are the poems “about” you, still, today, now that they’re packaged and clean and in this gorgeous book, or do they take on a life of their own when they’re on the page?
JX My initial impulse is to say that the poems aren’t “about” me, but that response plays into the faulty assumption that poems whose primary aim might be self-disclosure or testimony are somehow less aesthetically rigorous or energizing. I don’t buy that, really. At the same time, the “I” in these poems, while they might share autobiographical details with the person that wrote them, aren’t “about” me insofar as the speakers are fashioned, dramatized, contextually bound. I invoke them and write into them to better serve the poems and their modes, registers, and textures. Many of the poems take up self-interrogation, but I’m not interested in getting the plot details exactly right. The self is a fiction.
The poems in the first and third sections of the book are precisely about the provisional nature of selfhood, how it gets generated and regenerated depending on context. When I’m writing, I’m often interested in stripping away the selves that feel artificial—that I can easily inhabit when I’m moving through the world—to turn inward toward the interior flux. In that sense, the poems are often closer to “me” than the “me.” Perhaps that’s a slippery answer, but the question is also slippery, in a good way.
MR You once told me that your writing process involves reading for hours before sitting down to compose. I was struck by the poetry of this image, the romance of coupling with other people’s words before you can produce your own. How do you prevent a sort of unwilled pastiche?
JX I find that when I sit down to compose, my mind needs ample time to loosen and to unlatch from more linear, familiar lines of thinking. One way to get myself to a more wild, elastic mental space is to read before I compose. It’s always not “reading” in the sense of plowing through a book, or surrendering to the absorption of narrative; it’s more like dipping in and out of different texts, as a way to spur disorientation. I get bored when I draw close to something I’ve written or created recently, so infecting myself with other lines (or films, music, artwork) is a way of working toward self-forgetfulness. I don’t necessarily fear other voices, because my own “voice,” if I have one, is constructed and reinforced from a lifetime of reading and listening. I’m most energized when I don’t quite sound like myself, because that’s when I get curious about what or whom I’m inhabiting, and what can be wielded with a different voice or mode of speaking.
MR You move us from twentieth-century Russia to fifteenth-century Japan, from Tsvetaeva to Ikkyū. There’s a lot about geographic travel here, or rather, tourism; how does that interact with the travel of the mind, and reading as a sort of travel?
JX Reading is migratory, an act of transport, from one life to another, one mind to another. Just like geographic travel, reading involves estrangement that comes with the process of dislocating from a familiar context. I gather energy from this kind of movement, this estranging and unsettling, and I welcome it precisely because it’s conducive to examination, interrogation, reordering. Travel, imaginative or physical, can sharpen perception and force a measuring of distance and difference.
MR But is it travel or tourism? The latter seems more incriminating. I’m thinking, of course, about the rise of modern tourism as a practice of European imperialism, linked so closely to the advent of photography; you also deal in snapshots, in a way, such as in the Phnom Penh diptych, but more frequently to expose their dark underbellies.
JX You’re absolutely right that the latter is more incriminating, though I think most kinds of travel involve negotiating ethical encounters. There’s nothing easy, or easeful, about it. Much of it has to do with the privilege of mobility—of who can enter and leave, who can traverse borders and who can’t, and what is sought out in travel. There’s a lot to think through here, but I would say tourism commodifies difference and encourages a thirst for consuming it from a safe distance. There’s also a good deal of exploitative labor involved, clearly, which is often hidden from view. Taking up residence in a place doesn’t extinguish the possessive tourist drive either. In many cases, being an expat can encourage a false sense of ownership over a place—perhaps partly devised in opposition to the tourist—that can feed into a sense of cultural arrogance.
The Phnom Penh diptych sequence that begins the book doesn’t aim to be polemical, though. I was interested in moral complication rather than moralizing. There, I’m attempting to lay bare some of the tensions inherent in being a foreigner, an expatriate, a tourist, an outsider.
MR Your work really captures the anxiety of bilingualism and how it can leave one feeling estranged from both tongues. Is that how you relate to English and Mandarin?
JX I immigrated to the U.S. from China at age four, and Mandarin was my first language. I spoke it at home, and around family friends, who were exclusively recent Chinese immigrants. I began to learn English when I entered grade school, in classes designated for ESL learners. Similar to many immigrant children, I internalized the hierarchy that placed English first, and felt the accompanying shame of being marked a non-native English speaker. Speaking and writing in English carried with it the anxiety of being betrayed by one’s usage mistakes and lack of fluency; this was no doubt reinforced by the linking of academic success to facility with speech and writing. At the same time that I began learning English, my Mandarin slowed in development, because I wasn’t using it outside of the domestic sphere. To this day, even though I enrolled in a year of intensive Mandarin study in college, my Mandarin is quite stunted. I’ve lost most of the ability to read and write in it, sadly.
You’re right that the poems carry an “estrangement from both tongues,” a sense of not feeling completely settled in either English or Mandarin. At the same time, language is a kind of estrangement in this book. Silence is fertile and full, and language—used conventionally—can feel like a reduction, a narrowing, of what is ample and in flux.
MR The “I” here seems unabashedly feminine, not just in the use of the pronoun “she” in moments of mirroring/seeing but also in the way the gaze itself, observant yet not proprietary, acute yet not cutting (or more precisely, only cutting when directed inward), seems like a feminine gaze—or better, a femininist gaze, as in the opposite of a masculinist vision. That’s not a word, femininist, but I like how it recalls feminist while taking a side step. Are the poems feminist, feminine, maybe even—and now I’m asking you to humor me—femininist?
JX Femininist—yes! I think gender is certainly one category of otherness that infuses the poems in the book, though perhaps not the principal one—at least not consciously so. If the “femininist” gaze is one that is slant and destabilizing, and working against certain kinds of centralizing power, I hope these poems exhibit it. Then again, in “Zuihitzu,” “Visual Orders,” and elsewhere, the speaker occasionally implies the desire to look without being seen, which can be read as a voyeuristic looking that gets coded as “masculine,” though the poems are trying to slip out of that.
MR It can be masculine—but couldn’t one also say that looking without being seen is the plight of many women, even if not their desire?
JX That’s certainly true. I do think a key difference, however, lies in electing not to be seen, of choosing to take refuge from exposure. Really, I’m interested in how many forms of sight can be oppressive. The rapaciousness of vision, which becomes a manner of conquering the visible world and exhausting it.
MR I have been refraining from quoting your lines back to this whole time—they’re breathtaking and they haunt me—but now that the dam’s been broken: “the borderless empire of the interior.” It seems to me that anyone who writes lives there, takes refuge there, in that infinite landless land you call “the empire of the interior.” This is a crazy huge question, but what is the interior? How do we live there, ethically, without abandoning the exterior, or what you call “the outer world”?
JX The dam has been broken from my end, as well. “The infinite landless land”—that’s a good place to start, isn’t it? I’m haunted by that line of yours. In some poems in the book, the interior is equated with the mind, that vast and fluid terrain. I think earlier I referred to it as the internal flux. So much of everyday living involves performance, exposure, and projecting a solidity of self. One way to go about defining the interior is to mark it as the obverse of the public. The interior, cast in that way, is the realm of the private, the inviolable and inalienable. But the concept of interiority is also culturally determined. Poems such as “Rootless,” “Long Nights” and “Borderless” seek to dismantle the false binary of interior/exterior, and of the interior as some sort of gated enclosure. The Buddhist perspective sees the separate self—which oftentimes gets linked to interiority—as illusory. I believe that, too. The mind loves to find ways to draw up barriers that aren’t really there.
MR As someone training in literary scholarship, I always think of the concern with interiority as quintessentially modern. Are these poems modern? Postmodern? And because I’m risking a yawn here, I’ll clarify that this is a political question for me: there’s still so much work to be done in decentering Europe from the plane(s) of modernism, and it strikes me that these poems do some of that work.
JX The poems are definitely invested in states of interiority and kinds of subjectivity, and that inward turn feels, as you say, modern. On the other hand, I hope that the poems don’t feel too narrowly inward, to the point of solipsism. My intention in the book was also to interrogate the stability and authority of the narrating self and to cast an eye on its construction, which would be a postmodern preoccupation. What marks a postmodern poem, though? The evacuation or undermining of a traditional lyric “I”? It’s worth considering who has never had a claim to the authority of a lyric I to begin with. Xiaojing Zhou thinks through this in her book The Ethics and Poetics of Alterity in Asian-American Poetry (University of Iowa Press, 2006), and argues for reconceptualizing the lyric subject as “a site where established notions of the Cartesian I are contested, transformed, and reinvented” by poets of color and writers who inhabit categories of otherness.
MR I was surprised to find the red of shame riddling poems like “Borderless” and “Zazen”. It reminded me of my childhood, and the parts of myself still shaded by that childhood. I shy away from writing about shame because it walks so dangerously close to Orientalism. And yet, for a woman with my upbringing, shame is real. What do you make of all these entanglements?
JX I’m very interested how you speak of shame and its Orientalist leaning—I hadn’t considered that argument, and I want to read about it and sit with it further… For now, I’ll ask: What is shame? Is it the misalignment between who we think ourselves as and what has been exposed of us? Is it how’re we’re being read, and how we read ourselves, against our internal codes of conduct? I recently picked up Gillian White’s excellent Lyric Shame (Harvard University Press, 2014), which underscores, at one point, how shame indicates an awareness of others’ minds, and how we take up residence there. What’s fascinating, too, is the implied shame of expressing shame—perhaps the vulnerability of laying it bare. Certainly shame and vision are intertwined—shame seems to spring from being fixed in another’s gaze or one’s own, and glimpsing a self that chafes against idealized self-evaluation. Being visible, the object in someone’s field of sight, carries with it the risk of scrutiny and reduction. In that sense, so much of existing as a social being can involve shame. Being seen or understood is shameful, precisely because it is so limiting. It feels false to be calcified by another’s presumed understanding. To add another complication, there’s also the shame of being betrayed by need; the shame of being dependent on others who will never know us fully.
MR If I’m understanding you correctly, then, you’d like to gesture toward the universality of shame? Or if not universality, its operativeness in the multiple cultures at hand?
JX Yes, the universality of shame—the shame that comes with being a visible object in the world.
Mariam Rahmani is a writer and student based in Los Angeles. She is currently working on a novel as well as, with the support of a 2018 PEN/Heim Translation Grant, an authorized translation of Mahsa Mohebali’s Don’t Worry (Tehran: 2008) while pursuing a PhD in Comparative Literature at UCLA. Her essays and reviews have been published in The Rumpus and the Los Angeles Review of Books.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee