Literary Hub

Meet National Book Award Finalist Jenny Xie

The 2018 National Book Awards will be held on Wednesday, November 14 at the 69th National Book Awards Ceremony and Benefit Dinner at Cipriani Wall Street in New York City. In preparation for the ceremony, and to celebrate all of the wonderful books and authors nominated for the awards this year, Literary Hub will be sharing short interviews with each of the finalists in all five categories: Young People’s Literature, Translated Literature, Poetry, Nonfiction, and Fiction.

Jenny Xie’s Eye Level, which Dan Chiasson described as “a kind of Fodor’s or Lonely Planet guide to inner life,” is a finalist for the 2018 National Book Award in Poetry. Literary Hub asked Xie a few questions about her work and her writing life.

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What time of day do you write (and why)?

It’s not always the time of day, necessarily, but feeling my way into a charged, yet loosened, state of mind, where there’s slippage between the conscious and unconscious. When I’m writing, I don’t want my mind to move in a plodding and structured fashion. I need to be in a more fluid state, closer to the waters of dream-life, and there, I find the thoughts, lines, and images I can access are stranger, more likely to be filled with fortuitous crossings and rough sparks. I don’t know that this correlates with time of day; it oftentimes comes down to tapping into a kind of diffuse focus.

How do you tackle writer’s block?

I try to distance myself from systems of literary production and strains of thought that place primacy on publishing and publishing quickly. Ironically, one way to keep myself going is to surrender completely to the fear that I won’t write again, and try to access some recessed zone where any need or ambition to write poems, or to write for others’ eyes, falls away. Once I’ve been emptied of those needs, I find I can allow myself to be filled once more.

Reading invigorating work, putting myself in the presence of formidable voices and minds, or submerging myself in slow films usually helps, too.

If you have a day job, what is it? How do you negotiate writing and working?

I hold a full-time lecturer position at NYU, where my course load is three classes per semester. Being on the academic calendar affords me some time to read and write during summer and winter breaks, and I feel fortunate for that. During the semester, though, I’m afraid I don’t always fight for the time to engage in poem-making. Partly this is due to the nature of my job, which involves a great deal of reading and responding—in writing—to others’ work. I read a good amount, when I can, and make notes; I also jot down thoughts, lines, conceptual threads, and snatches of language. When I’m off from teaching, I go back to these notes and jottings, and begin to sift through them, trying to see where the energy lies and what vibrates there.

What do you always want to talk about in interviews but never get to?

This recasts your question slightly, but I’d like to take part in more conversations about the material conditions that enable artists and writers to produce, and the kinds of policy interventions needed to ensure that artists can financially sustain themselves. Quite often the conversations around art assume cultural production, such as poem making, isn’t labor, but primarily a passion and a privilege—one that we’re lucky to give our lives over to. Perhaps there’s a tendency to avoid linking art with work because there’s a fear this will come across as ungrateful and entitled. Having these conversations are vital, though, because we need to understand the vivid reality of being a writer and an artist—cultural workers—under capitalism, where very little to no value is assigned to creative work that regularly gets lauded as “necessary.”

Poetry and other art forms benefit from being insulated from market pressures, but that doesn’t mean pursuing creative work should mean financial insecurity. It’s appalling how many writers in this country live in states of precarity, without access to healthcare and savings, and how many genuinely struggle to sustain their creative work in a life full of material demands. In the community of writers I’m part of, people—and I include many arts administrators, publishers, editors, and event organizers in this— support one another regularly by giving over time and committing to countless labors of love. There’s something deeply moving about these relations, for sure, but it shouldn’t be solely up to artists to look after one another. Artists, like anyone, require some level of material security to support the conditions of their work, and not everyone whom we should, and need, to hear from has the privilege of inner spaciousness to think, imagine, and create. What kind of minds and voices are we deprived of because creative work is valued in one narrow sense but not in others?

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

There’s a lot that’s stayed with me, and what applies in one season changes in another. I return often to this passage from C. D. Wright’s Cooling Time, as much as for its arresting metaphors as for its hard wisdom: “Along the other vector, writing for me is a thing delicate as love. And one struggles (the struggle is never separate from the engagement) to be a newborn in love, to be without attributes, like snow nobody has walked on. Prelapsarian. Also to be mutable like the river which cannot be stepped in twice.”

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