Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
The poet on the myth of total knowledge, resisting answers, and the anxiety of completion.
Yanyi is a writer and critic whose debut poetry collection, The Year of Blue Water (Yale University Press), was chosen by Carl Phillips for the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize in 2018. The book is a stunning archive of Yanyi’s mental universe as he examines the construction of selfhood from a trans masculine perspective, the cultural boundaries of nation states as both a Chinese and American citizen, and intergenerational dialogue between friends and literati such as Maggie Nelson, Robin Coste Lewis, Frank O’Hara, and Louise Glück. In one such poem he writes, “Definitions are not static. They are where we begin. For what? / By whom? beginning is not an origin. It is the arbitrary place / from which we start one life, when that becomes this.”
Yanyi is currently a poetry editor at Foundry and Public Books, an MFA candidate at New York University, and has received fellowships from Poets House and Asian American Writers’ Workshop. I met Yanyi when he joined Office Hours in 2018 and was immediately struck by the muscularity of his mind when deconstructing a poem. While we spoke, I drank black tea out of a stylish tumbler and enjoyed lavender ice cream that he prepared himself. Yanyi punctuated the evening with a tarot reading from his Wildwood deck.
Sarah Sala The title of your book is The Year of Blue Water. Where does that come from?
Yanyi I have this forever interest in time, which is why it’s called The Year of Blue Water. Most of the writing for the book was done within a year.
SS The poems amass and press down onto each other to create this tremendous body of water.
YPure water has a slight blue color. In small quantities it looks see-through, but the more layers, the bluer it looks. Writing was really like distilling the contents of my life as much as possible. It felt like what I look for in poetry. Like the sonnet and the turn— there are all those ways that we reach illumination through poems that are really about giving dignity to the thought.
SS How did the project begin and how did you know when you were done?
Y At first it was just a notebook. I think a lot of the time, especially in the kind of MFA/Poetry™ Po-Biz world, we’re given an idea that we need to create a product of the thing that we’re writing. What I was writing had to be free from the idea of it being a product—free of the idea that it would educate people about what it’s like to be a queer and trans Chinese-American person in the world. I didn’t want my book to be a badge someone could wear after reading it, but I also wanted to honor and have it be true to the identities I do have.
SS How did you land on the particular style of the poems?
Y Well, the thing about this book is that I didn’t realize I was writing a book. I was trying to write again and really give myself permission to write whatever I wanted and to honor the things that come into my mind that I think are valuable. I realized all the prose poems explain the shit going on in my high lyric poems that I was too afraid to talk about directly. I wanted the book to be true to that idea.
SS Where do you think the lyric impulse comes from?
One day maybe I’ll write an essay about Asian American literature and the lyric form. There’s this idea that it is a cultural thing to evade or talk indirectly about what people say, but it also has to do with racism. Not being able to say the thing that you want directly is a consequence of not being allowed to have the things that you want in general.
SS In many ways, this book is about transition and immigration—both physical and metaphysical. How do these concepts permeate the poems?
Y I think that the anxiety of completion is a real bane of colonization that we have adopted or inherited from our history. It’s about a manifest destiny of your own identities. The other aspect is it’s not just a colonization of knowledge but the kind of thinking and value system of “I need to know everything all at once. I need to say everything all at once. I need to be everything all at once.” That has very clear ecological consequences as well, like, There’s nothing we could possibly do wrong because we know everything that’s happening. The myth of total knowledge is a really toxic and scary thing.
I’m going through a phase right now where I’m trying to reclaim “Americanness.” How much do I identify with being an American? How much do I identify with being Chinese? How much do I identify with any of these things that have been foisted upon me as identities? Because there’s lots of ways that I could be those things.
SS The collection begins with an epigraph from Susan Sontag about literature requiring a lot of voices. How do you envision poetry as a conversation we enter into?
Y I pulled that quote from Susan Sontag when I was reading through a book of her interviews, backwards. The full epigraph is, “Literature needs a lot of people. It’s enough to honor the project.” So many words in there buzzed at me. The first one that I think about is needs. Also, there’s this idea that art is supposed to be inaccessible to the masses or elevated in a way that ordinary people—or people who aren’t into the arts, but may be extraordinary in other ways—aren’t supposed to engage or appear in it. Why is it that we think artistic processes are about one person in a room alone? That’s a really isolating experience and not my experience of literature. I would not be able to continue on as an artist if I didn’t have people who loved me and cared about me, who were part of my artistic process.
SS That’s a much healthier picture—it’s enough to write it.
Y I don’t think we really get that message enough, not just from the literary world, but there’s an American mentality of “You need to work hard to make something of yourself” doubled with an immigrant one of repaying your parents. But that really edges into a place where you can talk yourself down. Of, “well, then there’s nothing I could do or write or be that could amount to something worthy of the history that has come before me.”
SS What kind of practice did you create to generate the book?
Y The notebook kind of created a practice for itself! It called to me. This is kind of woo-woo, but I am very woo-woo! The practice of when I would write, how I would write, why I would write came out of noticing when I was writing and how I was writing. When I first started, I needed to get some stuff out. I was like, I’m just going to record all the things I have. Then it slowly built its own structure. Most of the time I wrote on the subway when the Q train was going over the bridge. That’s when I wrote quickly. Whenever I had an impulse or thought, I tried to write it down if I had a way to do it.
SS You’d write down thoughts that fit the book?
Y No, literally anything! There are poems that will never see daylight. I’m writing about Justin Bieber, about dancing, about movement. I’m writing about tons of dreams, obviously.
SS Do you keep a dream journal?
Y I have an on-again, off-again relationship with dream logging. In moments of crisis, sometimes the only creative outlet you have is your dreams because there’s no way for you to physically, mentally, or emotionally make things on purpose. If you’ve ever experienced anxiety or depression, it gets in the way of being able to be with yourself. Basically, I’d wake up and I’d transcribe the dream and then it would lead into something else. It wouldn’t necessarily be me interpreting it, but my mind would wander and it would be focused somewhere. It allowed me to get to a space where I was with myself again. That led to me to getting the other thoughts that I actually wanted to get to.
SS That’s a wonderful ritual. Not tricking yourself, but creating a portal in your day to find your way back to art.
Y The thing about dreams is that they’re about being unguarded and also about thinking about things you have to wait for, or you can’t think yourself into. Your brain is a part of your body; your dreams are a part of your body. Your body brings you things—you can’t go to it. Dreams are involuntary in the same way that having those illuminations in the middle of the street can be involuntary. They’re kind of all related to each other in that there’s nothing you can force in your life. The only thing that’s certain is change.
SS There’s a dream poem where you deliver a speech on why art matters. Why is it important to continually approach the question without answering it?
Y When I wrote that poem, I was interested in this idea of endlessness. What would it mean for there to be more and more reasons for us to keep going? I think an answer ends those things. An answer is static. What I really want as an artist, and also as a person, is to continually experience that desire to explore and discover and to relish things in the world. We’re all going to die and someone else is going to be listening to pick up from wherever you left off. If there’s anything that we can leave for people after we die, it’s this whole expanse of questions that we still wanted to get through or to.
SS What’s your relationship to tarot? It surfaces in powerful ways across the poems.
Y I see tarot as yet another alphabet through which I read the world. In tarot and astrology, there’s a meandering spirituality necessary for a burgeoning consciousness. Not a means, but a very end in life.
SS Let’s talk about editing the book! I’m always hungry to know how people construct a manuscript.
Y It’s very funny to edit a book that you didn’t mean to write. I was writing these notes to get through a horrible time in my mental health. Farnoosh Fathi taught a class at Poets House that gifted me the idea of prayer, play, and invitation. That was the feeling that propelled most of this book. Like, What would it mean to invite whatever wants to be invited into my artistic life and into my writing? Later, I took a first draft of the book to her. She helped give me confidence about the work.
SS How did you order the collection?
Y I changed both the order and the poems themselves every two months until it settled. Every time I thought I was done I would look at it again. It was like clockwork, honestly. I knew I had finished the book when I was still interested in the whole thing from beginning to end.
SS You write that you never want to “disappear unequivocally into masculinity. Womanhood is the country I come from, a home I reach back for to reproduce, recreate, replenish.” That’s a stunning way to honor womanhood without making it about gender. To be “of woman” is a source of nourishment, ancestry, and pride. Not to erase where we come from, but also not to be bound by it.
Y It’s my friend Diana’s idea: a beautiful illumination of how to keep something that is no longer with you. One of the really scary things about physically transitioning is that there’s no way to go back into the closet and there’s no way to go back to another version of yourself.
To this day, the scariest part of my life as a trans person was the period when I was starting to transition and no one could figure out what I was. I say “what” very particularly because one of the things about gender is that when you land in it correctly it lends you a certain kind of humanity that prevents other people from treating you like someone who isn’t a person, basically. It’s not just one kind of femininity—it’s a very particular kind of femininity. The same thing goes with masculinity and so on and so forth with class and certainly with race. I was most scared when I didn’t look either like a man or a woman. That need to categorize—that need again for knowledge to look a certain way—the need for others to know exactly who you are.
SS To simplify identity with a glance.
Y My hope is that I will always remember—and I try to always remember—what it’s like to move through the world as a woman, but even my experience of womanhood was very different from other peoples’ experiences of womanhood because my catcalls were all people saying “konichiwa” or “you’re a fucking dyke.” I wasn’t straight-passing and I wasn’t femme. There are so many different kinds of femme experiences—to try and encapsulate all of them would be a disservice to the idea of womanhood.
SS There’s no way to gather the femme experience without reducing it.
SS How do you think being an immigrant informs your identity or continues to inform your identity, and how you choose to interrogate it?
Y The experience of being an immigrant has really influenced my perception and/or reading of abundance. The resilience that I inherited—my ability to deal with change has to do with the fact that my whole life things have been changing around me. Or that I’ve had to confront difference as a fact continuously throughout my life. That lends to me a particular ability to recognize and honor what kinds of stability are possible in times of change.
There’s this American myth that once you leave the country you came from, you can erase it. That’s completely untrue. There’s no way my parents will wipe away that people respond to their accents. There’s no such thing as a clean slate. Instead of being ashamed of that inheritance, what would it mean to celebrate it? And not just celebrate it in a particular way, but to live with it.
When I love someone, my entire family loves that person, not just me. The way that you express yourself, the way that you talk, the way that you write or create art exists with the legacies of those who have cared for you. The care is really what we remember. We remember the trauma, obviously; it shows up and it’s horrible. But I think the most beautiful thing is the idea that love is something that we can inherit.
Sarah Sala’s debut poetry collection, Devil’s Lake, is currently a finalist for the 2019 New Issues Poetry Prize. The founder of Office Hours Poetry Workshop, she teaches writing at New York University and is currently at work on Migrainer, a poetic examination on the interstices of migraine and creativity. She is a regular contributor to BOMB.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.