Interviews

Jenny Xie

On memory and migration

Maggie Millner

Earlier this year, we published two poems by Jenny Xie: an excerpt of a ranging sequence called “Reaching Saturation” and a long elegy in sections titled “Postmemory.” Both appear in her forthcoming collection The Rupture Tense, which explores, among many themes, migration, memory, and life in the aftermath of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Senior editor Maggie Millner spoke with Xie about the how loss, the pandemic, and travel—both geographic and metaphysical—have informed her recent poems.


Maggie Millner “Postmemory” opens with an epigraph from writer and political scholar Celina Su: “We take on the names of the deceased, give them new voices.” How has this elegiac impulse manifested in your recent poems?

Jenny Xie Many of the poems in The Rupture Tense were seeded during and shortly after a trip I took to China in 2019, when I returned to my birthplace, after thirty years away. I met with relatives I hadn’t touched base with for over a decade. I hadn’t been prepared to preemptively feel the acute loss of whole generations who will one day leave us. It was a complicated experience, and one thing that came out of it was an understanding of how much would disappear—memories, knowledge, textured impressions, life—when my older relatives pass on. I think the elegiac impulse you pick up on is the poems trying to thin the membrane between the living and the dead. Trying to give new grammar and movement to those that came before, so as to feel the past-in-present.

MM Your poems do so much journeying. “Reaching Saturation” transports the reader from Brooklyn to Hefei to Huangpu in the span of a few pages. Did you find that your poetry changed at all during the periods of limited travel imposed by the pandemic?

JX I do derive creative energy from being spatially dislocated. Quarantine of course stifled movement in an obvious sense, though the disorientation and shifts of the pandemic were so radical in other dimensions. There was psychic dislocation, for one. You couldn’t but relate to space differently, thinking about distance and invisible particles traveling through the air, or the risk of touching surfaces and other bodies.

I always balk at what constitutes a poet’s role, moral or otherwise.

In all honesty, I struggled to write and “work” during stretches of the pandemic. Initially, my faith in the moral significance of writing weakened in the face of everything. But as the weeks and months passed, I also had a bit more time in my days, and some of what I’d been generating before gave welcome relief from the immediate, rapid-fire developments of the news. I returned to writing because it afforded a kind of immersion in something that wasn’t just the loop of pandemic-news reactivity and fear.

MM In an interview from 2004, the poet Arthur Sze said, “I believe the poetic sequence is the form of our time—mutable, capable of shifting voice as well as location, open to a variety of rhythms and structures.” What draws you personally to this form?

JX That’s an excellent point made by Arthur. I’m drawn to the poetic sequence for precisely what he underscores: how the form accommodates variety and mutability. You have in the sequence both lateral and longitudinal reach, along with expansive ways to sustain inquiry, and agility in perspective and formal approach.

In the past few years, I think my work has become more invested in instability and irresolution, in the act of allowing language and the poetic line to wander across wider canvases. Perhaps this is a corrective to the parts of my disposition that are drawn to spareness and sculpted lines. It could just be that I get restless easily.

I find I tend to write in sequences when I’m circling around a subject that feels it can only be approached obliquely, or by way of many entry points. When working within a sequence, you can reinvigorate a question, thought, or feeling from new modes, tonalities, voices, or soundscapes when you feel you’ve depleted or reached the end of a previous one.

MM Do you tend to write these sequences all at once, or do you usually accumulate individual sections to assemble later on?

JX Never all at once, though I’d like to attempt that just to see what it results in. No, the longer sequences that appear in The Rupture Tense were assembled over months, if not years. I don’t usually go into a poem aiming to write a long, ambitious sequence. I collect little clusters of language and image, shapeless impressions and questions, and the like. Sometimes they don’t turn into anything. Sometimes, given time and distance, I turn back to these clusters and see that they vibrate with a kind of charge when arranged together.

MM Many lines from “Reaching Saturation” strike me as at once comments on migration and distance and, more obliquely, as comments on the nature of memory. What do you see as the poet’s role with regard to collective and personal memory?

JX That’s a tough one. I always balk at what constitutes a poet’s role, moral or otherwise. I do think poetry can re-arrange and re-collect the past and memory in ways that are distinct from the work of historical scholarship, official archive, memoristic accounts, and other prose narrative forms. Poems can destabilize state-managed memory, or what gets flattened through the inscription of collective memory. In my second collection, I was conscious of trying to play with the syntax of memory—how it gets constructed and spliced together, both on personal and collective levels. I wanted to think about how a poem could veer from the usual scripts of memory, and how the personal and collective means of remembering can be enmeshed.

Maggie Millner is a poet and a senior editor at The Yale Review.
Originally published:
July 6, 2022

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