By Dana Hirsch
Being able to travel freely without fear of disease is something we have learned not to take for granted during the last year and a half. Like many of us, poet Jenny Xie “acutely missed being able to travel to unfamiliar spaces without having to worry about the risk quotient and air quality” during quarantine.
The debut poet was the first poet to be featured in a “Poets at Work” reading on Zoom.
Xie is the author of “Eye Level,” which was published in 2018 by the Graywolf Press and won the Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets, as well as the Holmes National Poetry Prize, and was a finalist for the National Book Award.
The first poem Xie read to a Zoom room, full of creative writing students and other poetry enthusiasts, was a piece she wrote in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, when, according to her, time was watery, inconsistent, and strange. She recalled the trouble she had coming up with a measure of time.
Her poem “Unit of Measure '' was inspired by the artist On Kawara. For more than five decades, he woke up to mix his paints, draw out the date, and painstakingly paint his signature “date paintings,” which were simple and clear, yet required so much effort. Xie followed this with the reading of “Phnom Penh Diptych: Wet Season” from her debut book “Eye Level.”
“During quarantine, the last two years or so, I acutely missed being able to travel to unfamiliar spaces without having to worry about the risk quotient and air quality,” Xie said.
She explained that in a new place, a person is busy mapping themselves in the space, busy trying to learn that one may forget the constraints they would have in a familiar space.
“Familiar spaces encourage familiar selves,” she said.
A reading of “Lunar New Year, 1988,” also from “Eye Level” followed. Xie explained that the poem is based on a photo of her two-year-old self cupping her ears because of fireworks during a Lunar New Year celebration. According to Xie, this is one of the only candid photos she has of herself from this time.
“Even what hasn’t yet cracked into being/ can at times exert its pull,” Xie writes in her poem. “The whole neighborhood emerges at dusk./ Wakefulness drawn from the red applause/ of firecrackers./ In the alleyway of my childhood home,/ you can see I’m covering my ears.”
This connection to her Chinese roots also comes out in an excerpt from her next book, which she hopes will come out in 2022. In this piece, she explores the experience of going back to China in 2019 for the first time in 30 years and how she was confronted with a “messy, incoherent ambivalence and sustained fictions,” which she describes as the way her family remembers their past.
Creative writing major Brittney Trachtenberg asked Xie what her research process is like when writing a poem that’s anchored to real-life events.
“I take notes of what startles, what jostles me in my research,” Xie says. In her next book, she will also be focusing on generational memory, on what erodes in a world where so much of what we do is recorded.
When asked by Noah Rigby, a creative writing major, how publishing her first book changed her writing process, Xie said she gets a little more self-conscious now because she is reminded that someone may read it someday. She finds it helpful to quiet those voices to get back to a playful space.
“Keep writing until you figure out the core,” says Xie. “Trust your own instincts.”
Leaving writers with a piece of wisdom about navigating time and their work, Xie says, “My relationship to who I am on a page is always shifting. I’m not the person on the page because I’m a person in the world.”