This interview was conducted via email by poet and writer Ann van Buren in anticipation of Jenny Xie’s reading for Katonah Poetry Series on June 5, 2022.
Jenny Xie is the author of EYE LEVEL (Graywolf Press, 2018), a finalist for the National Book Award and the PEN Open Book Award, and the recipient of the Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets and the Holmes National Poetry Prize from Princeton University. She has taught at Princeton and NYU, and is currently on faculty at Bard College. Her second collection, THE RUPTURE TENSE, is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in September 2022.
Ann van Buren: Thank you for taking the time to talk with us as we anticipate the release of The Rupture Tense (Graywolf, September 2022) and your upcoming reading for Katonah Poetry Series. Your book opens with a series of ekphrastic poems in a section called “Controlled Exposure,” a reference to the photography of Li Zhensheng. Can you tell us about his work and how you happened upon it? I am also interested in your thinking behind the titles of five out of seven poems in this section, all of which are named “Red Puncta.”
Jenny Xie: Encountering Li Zhensheng’s photography was a fortuitous discovery, made in the stacks of the NYU Shanghai Library. In the summer of 2019, I was on a fellowship from NYU, which granted me an air-conditioned office space and generous stretches of time to write on NYU’s Shanghai campus in the Pudong District. My routine involved roaming the English-language stacks and plucking out books that exerted a pull. I recall my eyes snagging on the bright red cover of Red Color News Soldier in a section on the Chinese Cultural Revolution. It was astonishing to have the pages fall open, astonishing to confront the faces and scenes that peered back at me.
Li Zhensheng is responsible for perhaps the most complete photographic archive of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. I’d likely seen a small selection his photographs before, online, but I’d never witnessed them collected like this—with the sheer density of images—or had an understanding of what he went through to accumulate this archive, which remained hidden under his apartment floorboards for close to twenty years, before being smuggled out and printed.
Part of the shock sprung from the plain fact that everyone in my family a generation above mine lived through the Cultural Revolution, but for a spate of reasons, they never discussed their past in detail. There were vast swaths of their lives that were full of lacunae. I knew of some of the deep hardships of that decade, but didn’t possess a visual or sensorial understanding of what they lived through. My family members certainly had no photographs from those years in their possession, save for a few formal family portraits. So to suddenly see a dimension of the past crack open in this way was remarkable.
I knew I wanted to write about these photographs, but initially, I didn’t know how to be in conversation with them. How could language compete with the stark black-and-white realities presented in Li’s photographs? I ultimately decided that my point of entry and engagement would be to write about background—of what might go unexamined—and about punctum, Barthes’s concept for the part of the photograph that pierces us, that wounds us.
AvB: I have several questions to ask you about language. In addition to the history of China, how does the structure of the Chinese language affect your work? Chinese does not have a past or future tense, yet your work is about the past and the attempts to repress what happened in the past. It is about the past’s effect on the present and the future. The Rupture Tense ends quite dramatically, with one sentence divided between two pages: “When winter comes around, your pages fall open” (p. 103) “And you, all future tense, leak through.” (p.104)
Jenny Xie: I compose my poems in English—my spoken Mandarin these days is somewhat rudimentary and circumscribed to the domestic sphere, though I hope to make efforts toward composing or translating in it someday.
Mandarin doesn’t have verb conjugations; time adverbials, modifiers, and other temporal contextual information help indicate when something happened and in what tense. But the verbs themselves are in the continuous present, yes. I don’t know that this continuous present of verbs in Mandarin was consciously shaping my treatment of time in this collection, but it certainly provokes thinking. Across the poems, I was interested in rupture points, and chief among them is the way the past tears into the present and future, and vice versa. In this way, the present is a continuous with the past and future.
AvB: The shape of language is also integral to your poetry. Ancient Chinese writing was closer to the pictogram than it is now. The “Red Puncta” poems are all contained in nearly perfect squares, perhaps as a way to reflect the attempt to contain one version of history. Part of your title poem, “Rupture Tense” (p.45) arranges phrases in visual opposition to each other— in two columns—and describes conflicting perspectives. Can you talk about form in your writing?
Jenny Xie: Thanks for engaging with the visual arrangement of the poems. As I draft and revise, I pay attention to how the shape of lines across the field of the page encodes information, and determines sound, rhythm, pacing, and the harnessing of silences.
I like what you point out about the “Red Puncta” poems and their squares as reflective of forms of containment. I was thinking of the shape and framing of a photograph when arranging those poems, and how the camera’s viewfinder accentuates and dramatizes.
AvB: The following question might be asked of various places in your work, but I will point to one passage as an example. In “Controlled Exposure” you write:
Li’s camera can capture distance in a face. It can materialize a
person’s doubt, so transparent is his lens. Yet the distance
between the seen and the known can’t be crossed by the
In this passage, you describe this distance in a close-up picture and the perception of distance that “can’t be crossed by the senses.” What are the philosophical underpinnings of this kind of awareness? You seem to be plumbing the depths of consciousness here.
Jenny Xie: Right—what draws my interest is how a photograph forces and measures distances: between the viewer and the subject, between spatial positions, and between the time the photograph was shot and when it was being viewed. A photograph calls for close looking, and part of this looking is toward what isn’t immediately visible. Photographs also make us confront the impossibility of crossing distances and of the unsettling unknowability of what is looking back at us.
AvB: Your work is filled with one of my favorite literary devices; paradox. You describe how prohibitions on free speech can intensify what is being silenced as in the line “Every face hides a stone and beside it a lamp.” (p.79) and you quote the poet Lan Lan, who said “Silence has the largest ear.” How do you navigate the phenomenon of paradox, which can be both disturbing and strangely satisfying in that it reveals an unexpected truth?
Jenny Xie: Thank you for drawing attention to this. I think poetry is a space where we invite in different kinds of sense-making, much of which can run counter to transactional, everyday speech, and binary thinking. It’s a space where ambiguity, ambivalence, and indeterminacy can plant various kinds of knowledge. Paradox is something that I feel pulled toward, because paradoxes are insoluble and playful. They invite deeper thought but not resolution, and therefore, they keep opening to insight in unexpected ways.