Lynn Xu was born in Shanghai. She is the author of Debts & Lessons (Omnidawn, 2013) and June (a chapbook from Corollary Press, 2006). Her poems have appeared in Best American Poetry 2008, Boston Review, Critical Quarterly, Octopus, Poor Claudia and others. She co-edits Canarium Books.
1 - How did your first book change your life?
How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it
It both does and does not, of course, on a very basic level, it must be both. It does, because for a lot of people ‘writing poems’ does not become ‘poetry’ until it is published, so based on this logic, having a book gives my poems permission to be: poetry. But this engine of ‘affirmation’ is almost entirely outside of me and my relationship to writing. I say ‘almost’ because it has, without a doubt, been a positive reinforcement for my self-esteem, especially when I find myself struggling elsewhere. However, life remains a self-reckoning, and ‘having a book’ (unfortunately) is not a magical handkerchief I can wave in front of it and make the various pains of psychic life go away. Put another way, it does not make writing itself any easier.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I am a terrible storyteller.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
I’m not sure I can distribute writing into “projects,” although I use the word to give thinking a sense of time. I am a very slow thinker and slow writer. I need to live with something for a long time (in reading and in writing) before I can sift, crab-like, through the sediment. In this way, re-writing is my primary mode of writing.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
Writing begins where understanding is weak and desire is strong. By “understanding” I mean: constitutive knowledge. And by “desire” I mean: a proleptic sentience.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Public readings are a part of my practice. Subsequently, I find it strange that it is an unquestioned part of the poet’s work, as if it is an easy (or worse: natural) extension of the work itself, which it is not. For reasons which threaten self-possession, public readings remain a sphere foreclosed from criticism. But clearly the “reading” aims to offer a different experience from reading in private, to oneself and in silence. Poets should not be expected to be performers as well. But if one does take on the task, I think more should be made to offer different ways of listening and attention.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I like formal problems, because they are problems of history.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
Today, maybe, the writer fights against the becoming-obsolescence of her craft—against the giant wave of multi-media displays and screens—so seeks to change it, to meet the demands of changed-experience. The temporality of consumption is so fast and just getting-faster—and the appetite for ‘the next best thing’ is always on the tip of our tongues. We are dissolute, completely useless, mediating mediated media. I think of poets (and makers of creative work in general) as an “active culture” (the things advertised in yogurt or in Kombucha)—which tries to metabolize existing culture, because it cannot but completely internalize the gathering debris of its own unsuccess.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I loved working with Rusty Morrison. She was essential.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
There is no reason to be mean.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
For me this is very difficult. I need several weeks (even months) to transition from critical prose back into poetry. It is easier the other way around.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I do not have one. Sometimes I do not write for months. I have not written for months.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I sleep. I shower. I wash my hands. If I really want to get something done and cannot, I get erratic and buzz around like a self-distorting rock.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Funnily, the smell of plastic rain jackets in the rain. This is not a Proustian madeleine, because it is not associated with nostalgia, but rather dissonance and a kind of nausea.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
I suspect that the most powerful “influences” are ones that remain unconscious—or, cannot be delineated as a material presence as such.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I would like to learn how to swim.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
Filmmaker, no question.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I don’t know. I came to poetry through visual art, so I am quite attached to the image-making faculties of language—these can be metaphor or the simple accretion of affect over time, hardening into a material presence you can and cannot touch.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The opening sections of Kierkegaard’s Either/Or blew me away. I feel the same way about the first five chapters in Cao Xueqin’s Story of the Stone. As for the film, Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev lives with me like a strange crater.
20 - What are you currently working on?
Friendships, and catching up on sleep.