Contributor Spotlight: Yanyi

Yanyi’s debut poetry collection, Yale Younger Poets Prize winner The Year of Blue Water( Yale University Press, 2019), is a record and cultivation of the poet’s discovery of the self. The poems explore Yanyi’s relationship to his family and friends, his mental health, his experience as a trans person, his sense of belonging as a Chinese American, and his engagement with writing, reading, and art. Far from being hermetic, the collection’s self-discovery is shaped by and shared with friends, artists, and writers, both living and dead. Yanyioffers this dual purpose of writing, that “In all instances, I am talking to myself” (3) and “For the reasons that I write, I cannot write alone” (63). In Yanyi’s poems, we learnthe invaluable lesson that the connection to oneself and the connection to others are not in competition, but are, instead, enriching to each other.

While The Year of Blue Water is complex in its exploration of identity, the language of the collection, mostly comprised of prose poems, is lucid and direct. The artistry of this collection doesn’t distance the reader from Yanyi’s (or our) life, and there are no embellishments or flights of fancy that would cause distraction. Instead, the clarity and insight of each poem only brings us closer to the poet, and brings the poet closer to himself. “But nothing in me says I am different from a poem” (55)—in Yanyi’s The Year of Blue Water, readers experience a radical attentiveness to life and to poems that help us live life.

Yanyi is a writer and critic currently attending the MFA Program in Creative Writing at New York University. His debut collection, The Year of Blue Water, was awarded the Yale Series of Younger Poets prize in 2018 by Carl Phillips. Yanyi has also received fellowships from The Asian American Writers Workshop and the Poets House. Yanyi’s past positions include Director of Technology and Design at The Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, senior editor at the journal of art and literature Nat. Brut, and curatorial assistant at The Poetry Project. Yanyi’s recent writing can be found in Granta, Tin House, and The Los Angeles Review of Books.

The Year of Blue Water commits to a writing that feels so close to life. It made me wonder if there was anything of poetry (as you once understood it, or as others understand it) that you had to leave behind, any features of poetry that you couldn’t—or didn’t want to—bring this close to your life.

I left behind poetry as a way to seem beautiful.

I am reading Ways of Seeing for the first time, where John Berger says “the publicity image steals [the viewer’s] love of herself as she is, and offers it back to her for the price of the product.” Berger writes about publicity in relation to oil painting; I offer this in relation to poetry. Replace publicity with the state and market-sanctioned poetic tradition. In the same essay, Berger states that publicity has the function of selling an enviable past or future, but never a present, to the viewer. Like publicity, which offers an illusion of choice while actually narrowing it, our nationalist, market-oriented poetic tradition offers the myth of the “authentic voice” which ostensibly can only be known when encountered.

I know that voice because I was one of many struggling young people who was told that I was special but for the wrong reasons. I wanted to be chosen. But from that vantage point, to double one’s voice upon oneself is to be bound between normality and alterity. I was to perform a knowledge of possession while also being the subject possessed (“painting was perhaps an instrument of knowledge but it was also an instrument of possession,” says Levi-Strauss). I knew poetry as a kind of beauty because this is what was sold to me. What emerged were sometimes beautiful, usually emotionally evasive, oblique poems. Whatever tone I took, whether classical or maximal, my thoughts had no staying power because I was driven by my want to be seen as beautiful.

It was only when I removed my writing from beauty that I could leave the question of authenticity altogether. I gave up writing poetry in exchange for a space to live. I ask the reader to cross the same threshold. To stop reading poetry; to come closer to life. It is better, ultimately, that it is not at first called poetry.

Especially after reading your poem “Robin Coste Lewis talks,” which explores the close relationship between silence and poetry, I wondered how you saw silence being expressed, or maybe doing the expressing, in The Year of Blue Water.

The ideal version of the book is in its manuscript loose leaf. Each of the poems as its own page. I remember most, from that time, the rustle of each page lifting and landing. In music, we mark silence with rests: stillness that is meant to be there. In poetry, this is the line break, the space. But then there is the page turn: stillness that is inevitable. I tried to make that intentional. It turns out this is also a metaphor for the crux of the book.

We begin in silence and end in it. The only difference, between the beginning and the end, is how we learn to occupy it.

As I read The Year of Blue Water, over and over again I found moments that I wanted to call wisdom—insights that truly resonated, that rang true even beyond the moment in the poem. I know, though, that in many ways the concept of wisdom can be fraught, and an impossible standard. What do you think about wisdom in your writing, in poetry more generally, in your life?

Wisdom in poetry is song: what is more easily repeated. When I write lyric poetry, I hear a song. I don’t know how the song goes, but it becomes stronger because I listen for it everywhere. My best poems don’t totally make sense to me but echo afterwards in other books or experiences, getting explained after I’ve finished them.

There’s a difference between knowing and making. I don’t think wisdom has much to do with its originator. A reader who finds my work remakes the song in themself, where it becomes the reader’s. And then? The rest is up to them. Whatever wisdom they find is their own. Wisdom is repeating what has already been said more deeply.

It seems like the prose poems in The Year of Blue Wateraren’t afraid to embrace being made of prose: they sound like prose; they seem to feel and unfold like prose, and they don’t really take part in the surreal or fanciful like many contemporary prose poems do. What drew you to prose poetry for this book? What poetic features of prose did you have in mind while writing these poems?

Muriel Spark, interviewed in 1985, says “you have to thinkaccording to a prose style. A prose style is not just a decorator’s piece of icing on the cake—it’s a form of expressing a theme that can’t be experienced in any other way.” The keyword here for me is think. The most striking difference between vulnerability and opportunism is thinking, in public, through what presently challenges you—not a representation of you, not a history of you, not a future of you. Prose was the only form in which I could authentically think, and when I did so, I naturally followed a style without effort. It was not that I was writingbut that was writing. Let the writing be easy and the thinking be hard.

The second and third poems of The Year of Blue Waterintroduce this striking double-intention of writing: one, writing to others, writing to “invite you to my life,” and two, writing with oneself as the audience: “In all instances, I am talking to myself. At least, I mean to.” Some readers might think of that double-intention as self-conflicting or contradictory; how do you think about it? 

I love this question because it throws in relief a misunderstanding between invitation and possession. An invitation is, above all, to that which has been freely given. The invitation of the second poem is that of witness. The first thing I ask the reader to witness after that is my claim on my own writing. A reader who is used to witnessing for possession may not have a relationship to knowledge that can never belong to them. The invitation is to learn how to witness only what is freely given and honor it as whole, no matter how fragmentary or unknowable it seems. The invitation, for readers who are up for it, is to practice one’s humanity as a witness to another’s.

Interviewer Evan Blake is a graduate student in the MFA Creative Writing Program at Bowling Green State University. He was born in Lesotho, grew up in mid-Michigan, and is now very happy to be reading and writing poems in Bowling Green, Ohio.

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