Yanyi is the author of Dream of the Divided Field (One World 2022) and The Year of Blue Water (Yale University Press 2019), winner of the 2018 Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize. His work has been featured in or at NPR’s All Things Considered, New York Public Library,Tin House, Granta, and A Public Space, and he is the recipient of fellowships from Asian American Writers’ Workshop and Poets House. He holds an MFA in Poetry from New York University. Currently, he teaches creative writing at large and gives creative advice at The Reading.
This interview was conducted via Zoom by Interview Editor Veronica Gonzales. Of the process, she said, “It was such an honor to have the opportunity to talk with Yanyi face-to-face about his poetry collection, Dream of the Divided Field. If you were to flip to any page in the collection, you would be left in awe from his lyrical and vulnerable poetic voice. The insight he provides during this interview on specific poems only adds more depth to the emotions and meanings within this book.” In this interview, Yanyi talks about the two lives of writing, the socioeconomic shock of becoming a writer, and being an Aries.
Superstition Review: Thank you so much for joining me this morning, or I guess, it's afternoon where you are. It’s still morning here in Arizona, but thank you so much for sitting down and having this conversation with me. I'm really excited.
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Yanyi (he/him/his): I’m really glad to be here, Veronica. Thank you for having me.
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SR: Thank you. So we'll just jump right in. I just first want to say that reading your collection was really eye-opening for me. I remember trying to find books and authors to interview, and I saw yours. I was just so intrigued by even the description of it, specifically the part where it talks about how your book suggests that we enter and exit our old selves like homes. I think that perspective was really shattering to my own world and thinking about how to look at my own past self and how to enter my new self in that sense. That connects me to my first question, so in an interview with BOMB Magazine, you said, “What I really want as an artist, and also as a person, is to continually experience that desire to explore and discover and to relish things in the world.” How has writing Dream of the Divided Field allowed you to fulfill that desire, and after writing this collection and learning more about yourself and the world, how has it changed your approach to writing poetry?
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Y: So Dream of the Divided Field is a book that I now think of, after having written it, as a book that required me to go into my own underworld. I generally believe that the ways that we perceive the world and the ways that we value the present that we live in comes through in both our sensory perceptions, but also spiritual perceptions of the things that you believe about yourself, the things about you that you believe about your life.
So writing the book was a way for me to delve into those topics that were a little difficult for me to face and work through. In a way, poetry is the thing that kind of is the railing that I hold on to to do that kind of work because I don't think I would have done it if I hadn't been like, “I think the book needs this. I think I have to write this because otherwise, I won't finish this book." I think that that's actually an interesting metaphor for the ways that we actually extend or go into our next selves, of having to stretch ourselves in order to say the things that we need to say so that we can learn and grow and move on to the next stage of whoever we are.
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SR: That's a really insightful answer. I really liked what you said about using poetry as that sort of railing, that sort of bridge between your past self and your present and future self. I also like that idea of using poetry as a means to further explore yourself, and in a sense, to heal from past experiences. I think poetry and art in itself is very powerful, so thank you for that insightful response. Moving on to the second question, the collection is divided up into five sections, all with a different number of poems and varying themes. While I was reading, I became really curious to learn more about your process for organizing the poems and if there was a reason behind which poem came first, which poem came last. So that said, can you discuss how you decided which poems would go in which section and the meaning behind each section?
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Y: This book took a lot of time and energy for me to order. It went through many reorderings, and I did not have this experience with my first book. My first book was like, “Here I am, ordering these little prose poems.” But this book was much more difficult in the sense that the general tone of the poems were different from poem to poem. They spoke to different, for the lack of a better word, storylines in my life or threads in my life that were not immediate. I had to kind of be like, “So which ones do I put next to each other? Do I sort them by themes? Do I sort them by a kind of lyric association? Or do I try to put them together in some sort of braid?” It was really difficult. I think I did a mixture of all of the above. If you go through the book, it's actually kind of interesting that it's in five parts, now that I think about it, because it kind of mirrors a more traditional exposition, climax, denouement type of thing. I was not really doing that on purpose. But there's, for example, section two in this book is mainly poems about my family and me thinking through family stuff and how it might relate to the rest of the book. In other iterations of the book, those poems were dispersed and not necessarily next to each other, so I made a different choice basically, in terms of what story was I going to pull through the entire manuscript and which ones were going to be the ones that I was going to more encapsulate in one spot.
For some arcs, like for my family, I mainly cluster them in one section, but the book kind of follows the movements in grief that I felt through physically transitioning, romantically transitioning, if you will. After a breakup, you have to transition from being in a relationship and being in love with someone into a version of yourself who is after that person. Those were kind of the two main, concrete threads that I was going through. But the thread of the entire book is about how we keep the people, places, and lives we've had when they are ephemeral and they will always disappear. You can kind of see that it ends where I make an argument for art and poetry by the end of the book and that being not necessarily different from the self.
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SR: That's really interesting. I think whenever I'm reading poetry collections I'm always wondering about that order because I know for myself, when I write my own poetry and thinking about if I'm submitting a couple of poems, which order do I put them in? So that's really interesting. Also, I really liked what you said about how [the book] follows the movements of grief. When you brought that up, I feel like that definitely can tie back into those five stages of grief, and the book is split up into five sections so I think it's interesting how in the moment you don't necessarily think about the order as much, but then, when you go back and look at your artwork, you can see all those threads and see how it all came together. Moving on to the third question, the poems in this collection vary in length. For example, the poem “Leaving the House” has three short stanzas, and in comparison, “The Friend” is a couple pages. Could you describe your process for determining what direction the poem is going to go in and how you know when a poem is completed?
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Y: I wonder if an analogy with other genres is useful for this particular case because I really think of genre as a “squidgy” thing. If I need to say something in a certain way, there are certain pros and cons, strengths and weaknesses, in different forms. The kind of story or the things that you can talk about with a novel, for example, are very different from the things that you can talk about with a poem. Not to say that those are mutually exclusive, but just that one form has all these practices that allow you to express certain things in orders of scale in a novel, for example, versus something in a poem.
The same thing kind of happened with me in the forms in this book where I really was just like, “What form do I need to get to what I'm actually trying to say?” Often, it really depends on how I begin the poem, where I am, and how I'm writing it. Sometimes, the poems will start in a written notebook, and those phones can be different from the ones that I write straight on the computer or on my phone. Part of it is chance, like “Where was I? What was I doing? How did this poem come to be?” Then the other part is like, “Well, what am I trying to say?” Inevitably, what happens is that the poem comes out of itself, kind of like a butterfly coming out of its little cocoon. You write a first draft, you write a second draft, and you realize, “Well, this is actually what it should be.” Some of these poems, like “Leaving the House,” for example, was a poem that I wrote after reading a journal entry. It had some of those phrases in there, and for me, I'm an “ear” writer. So I heard something that was worth following, and then I wrote that poem.
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SR: I like what you said about how the poems might differ from being written in a notebook to be written on a computer. That's something I didn't consider, especially when writing, I think we usually think that when it comes to writing, whatever device or whatever paper you're using, it's all going to come out the same. But I think that's a shifting perspective for me on how to write a poem. Also, I like what you said about the butterfly coming out of the cocoon, that the poem unravels itself. I think most of the time, poetry sometimes turns into something completely different. Thank you for your insight on that. Moving on to a more specific poem, the title of “Catullus 85” references the poem by Roman poet Catullus about hate and love. The repetition in your poem is also reminiscent, to me personally, of the repetition used by Gertrude Stein. Could you discuss the multiple inspirations behind this poem specifically?
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Y: For a while, the epigraph for this book was that Catullus poem, “I hate and I love. Why, perhaps you ask. I know not, but it torments me.” I have that poem on my mind because it was the epigraph, but when I was writing that particular, what I’ve been calling, a slant translation, I was really trying to just talk to myself about the complicated nature of this relationship that I have been in and all of the twists and turns that gummed up and summed up that complicated nature of it. That particular poem by Catullus is about being tormented, and I was interested in expressing that torment in the actual syntax, in the language, of the poem. What does it mean to be tormented by hate and love? This is my particular version, a really complicated relationship in which no one gets to hate or to love directly. I wasn't thinking about Gertrude Stein, but I think that Stein was really interested in sound as much as language. Whenever I think of Stein, I think about the word as object, and the sound of that word also being part of, one might say, the torment or the complication. I wasn't thinking about her necessarily, but it's a cool connection to make.
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SR: I was reading that poem, and Gertrude Stein's one of my favorite poets, and that repetition that you used, to hate and love and going back and forth, came to mind. But now that you bring up the torment part of that poem, it definitely makes sense to go like a tennis court between love and hate. Moving on to a different poem, or rather a different set of poems, in your collection, there are five poems titled “Aubade,” with one being “Antiaubade.” I was really intrigued by the repetition of these poem titles and your ability to write different poems for one title, as well as what an aubade actually is—a poem that praises or mourns the coming of morning. Could you discuss your decision to use this traditional type of poem? What do you see as its significance to the collection?
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Y: The reason why there's mourning for the morning coming is because, usually in an aubade, lovers are saying goodbye to each other because they slept together. I was writing these aubades at a moment in my life, for the most part, when the farewell had already happened, and the aubades were being written mainly during times when I was alone. Even the originally titled “Aubade” at the end of the book, the one that does not have a parenthetical, was written right at the beginning of when I met this person, and they were not there. I was really lamenting this relationship and its end. Part of what was so difficult about it ending was not really being able to like—you know how certain relationships just end, and it's not really what anyone wants, but it's clearly what needs to happen. I was really working through those things when I wrote those poems. Then looking back at the ones that I had written when we were still in conversation with each other.
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SR: That's really interesting, I've never heard of an aubade before, so I thought it was really cool to see what this form is. Even when I first started reading the collection, when I first saw the aubade, I thought it was just a regular word. Then when I saw the other poems, I thought that this might be an actual form, or a traditional type of poem being used there. I also think it’s really interesting how you were able to write those poems, especially considering what you said about what happens after the relationship happens. Moving on to another poem, I’d like to talk about the poem “Paradise, Lost.” On the page, this poem uses indentation and functional white space to create a visual effect for your reader. Can you discuss how form informs that poem? Did the shape of the poem change during your composing process?
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Y: I remember that I was reading Jorie Graham’s Region of Unlikeness. In that book, she does this incredible lineation where there’s text over here and text over there, and it’s almost like it’s split in half, like in that poem [“Paradise Lost”]. I wanted to try it myself, and I used it in that poem because when the lines are enjambed, there’s a slight pause from line to line. It groups the language, and I was kind of interested in an extreme version of that, of what would happen if this poem specifically was slowed down.
That poem is about a time when I was traveling alone in Santorini, and it was the longest time I had ever traveled by myself. It was so hot that I couldn't think, and so the poem is kind of written with that “mind” in mind, of remembering how hot it was and not really being able to put together sentences. So I thought that that particular form would be useful and appropriate for getting that kind of effect. I also was very interested in grouping. In particular, the various images and the words that were all in the same stanza but look like they were part of different stanzas and that was not a contrapuntal. That is what I was thinking when I was reading that poem.
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SR: I definitely see—now that you explained when you wrote the poem, being in Santorini, being in that heat and not being able to put sentences together—the memories that fuel these poems. I think they definitely influenced how the poem looks on the page. Moving on, in the poem, “Eurydice at the Mouth,” you reference the Greek myth of Eurydice and Orpheus, yet the latter is omitted entirely from the poem. I found it interesting how you were able to use this character to explore the death of the feminine. Can you discuss the importance of specifically focusing on Eurydice and what it means for the purpose of this poem?
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Y: When I wrote that poem, I was not thinking about Eurydice at all. I was thinking about myself and my own life, and I wrote it actually before I came out as a trans person. I wrote that poem when I was thinking about what I was saying in the beginning about looking at the face of the thing that you fear most, and it's very interesting to me. The last line of that poem is based off of a Walt Whitman line, which is “I am the man, I suffered, I was there,” and he’s talking about the war. But I was like, “I was the woman, I suffered, I was there” because I was like “I’m a woman.” It takes on a new meaning because of the text of my actual lived life because I was a woman, and now it's no longer true.
I was really interested in thinking about and writing about Eurydice’s journey back into the Underworld. This poem happens in the moment when she realizes that she has to go back to the Underworld. She's not going to be saved, and it's that moment where she realizes that she has to work through whatever is down there, whatever it is that haunts her, that she's afraid of about death. That's still something that I think I was very much thinking about. So that's how that poem ended up in this book because I wrote it very much outside of the context of much of what I talk about in it.
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SR: That's really interesting how it was written outside of the context of the book, and I think, going back to what you said earlier for that first question about how writing this collection helped you go into your own underworld, this poem can definitely connect to how Eurydice is going back to the underworld and facing what haunts her, what she fears. I think this is a really interesting poem to put in that collection, and it's definitely one of my favorites particularly because of the Greek myth, and also the insight about the inspiration behind that poem. Moving on to our eighth question, in the description of the collection, the poems are described as relating to “violent heartbreak,” “tenderness,” and “suffering.” I would agree that what you’ve written is incredibly raw and emotional, appealing to your readers’ own hearts. I know when I was reading the book, there were some poems where I had to put it down, pause and just sit with myself, and think about those emotions and what it made me feel. That said, how do you go about writing about topics that are deeply personal and vulnerable and then sharing it with the world? Are there poems or parts of poems you keep for yourself?
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Y: There's definitely parts of poems and poems that I keep for myself. I always operate under the context and the idea that the writing always has two lives. The first life it has is with you, and the second life it has is with other people. There's writing that's for you and only for you, and it will not be easily translatable or helpful or useful to other people, and it's okay for that writing to be yours. Then there's the writing where this deeply personal thing is something that another person would want to know about, care to know about, need to know about. I don't think it's ever about like, “This poem is so beautiful, I must publish it.” For me, it’s always about “What is the emotional core of the thing that I’m trying to say, and will it move another person? Will it be useful for another person to move through whatever it is that they need to move through?” That's kind of the sharing and editing part, but just getting into writing it, the answer is very reluctantly. Like I said earlier about putting the book together, I wasn't expecting or wanting to write poems like “The Friend,” but I realized that if I didn't write about those things, I would have never finished the book.
After a certain point, the book is a metaphor. The book is there as an illusion through which I can move through these lessons in my life. But in order for me to finish the book, I had to face those things. They [the poems] always start with, “I'm writing this for myself.” It could be that I will never publish this, and it could be that I'll never finish this book. As soon as I give myself permission to say whatever I want, to not fear putting it down on the page, then after that, I can evaluate after a few days or weeks or months whether or not I will put something out into the world.
There are poems that I was really attached to, even for my first book, where I was like, “This is so important. It’s so vulnerable.” Then, I reread them a year later, and I realized this doesn't need to be out there.
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SR: First, I just want to say I like that saying you have about how writing has two lives, first with yourself and the second with others, and also how you approach whether or not to publish a poem based on, not just if it’s beautiful, but how it will affect someone, how it will help them move on, how it would help others heal. I think that’s a really beautiful approach to figuring out if the world needs to hear these poems. I definitely think that taking that time to think about others and the poem’s second life with others is really interesting, and it’s a very thoughtful approach. Your experiences, even though they might feel really lonely at times, sometimes it's something that another person might share, so I think that's a really insightful approach that you're taking with your poetry.
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Y: I feel like everyone has a different relationship to writing down their innermost thoughts. I think part of that has to do with systemic oppression, but also your relationship with what has happened to you because of the things that you've written down. So in my case, I once had a journal, and when I was thirteen, my mother read it and then confronted me about being a queer person. It exposed me to emotional abuse, and it was not something that I would have chosen for myself. But there are things like that in my life that have happened that make it very difficult for me to talk about whatever it is that I need to talk about because even though I don't live with my mother anymore, there's an emotional block there of “That is not safe to do.” I think that there is a truth in that too with being a public figure, with being someone who puts writing out in the world.
I think another consideration that I should probably mention is “How are you protecting yourself? How can you be read?” Because no matter what you do and no matter what you say, your writing will always be read as “This is what this person thinks, and this is who they are,” especially if you're a person of color or a marginalized person in any way.
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SR: I like how you brought up systemic oppression and how if you're a writer from a marginalized community, how those stereotypes that others might put on you might affect your writing. That's a really interesting perspective that you have there, and I also liked what you said about that emotional block and how will writing what you’ve been through, writing it down physically, how will that affect you? I think those are very important points to make. Going to our next question, in an interview with The Creative Independent, you talk about how you left your full-time job in tech to become a working writer. Taking that leap definitely requires courage and perseverance, and I truly commend you for taking that risk. Could you describe what inspired you to fully devote your time to your craft, and if you experience a culture shock when moving from working in tech to working in a more creative field?
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Y: This question is multivalent because I don't think I was ever inspired per se. I just knew that if I had full control of my life and I didn't have to worry about money or other things, I would be writing. In my case, my economic independence was a huge reason that I was able to distance myself from my family for a while so that I could build up my own strength and set up boundaries that were enforceable to protect myself emotionally. I wasn't necessarily inspired, I just knew that without the constraints on my life that having money allowed me and then disallowed me, I would have been a writer.
There was a culture shock, but there was also a socioeconomic shock because working in tech, I was making a lot of money. I also was able to save a lot of money, which is what gave me the push into the world, to actually be able to leave. But a lot of people don't actually have that opportunity. It's something that I'm still struggling through and working through every day because when you don't make a ton of money, which I don't, you are constantly hustling and asking yourself, “Where's the next bread and butter going to come from?” It really does affect your art because you see, especially with social media, other people getting book deals, you see other people getting jobs as professors, and you're like, “Well, maybe I should get it, maybe I should write a book that will sell for a lot of money, or maybe I should become a professor because it seems like a steady thing to do.”
So in the past couple of years since I’ve left my job, I've really been struggling with what is or how can I be the writer that I want to be without ending up in a very precarious financial situation. I still think, “Maybe I should go back to tech,” but I probably won't because I'm very happy otherwise doing what I do. It's a really serious decision to make, and it’s affected my access to health care. It’s affected my general psychological wellness because of the rising racism in this country, but also the hustle and bustle.
I often think about going back to tech, but it's not because I want to be working as a tech worker in the same way that I don't necessarily want to be a professor. I want to be a writer. There's no stable economic path that is being a writer. You're never gainfully employed, you don't have a 401k. It is like gig work, but it happens to be that your gig is your own. So I think the answer for everyone is different. Some people need the stability of a university job, for example. Some people would rather have the stability and the peace of mind of a 40-hour work week. There's a part of me that really values that, and I think that has to do with intergenerational trauma. I think that has to do with my family knowing that ugly face of this country that hates poor people and relegates economic disadvantages to marginalized communities, which cyclically works on itself. It's something that I think about almost every day, and it's something that I continue to work through.
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SR: Thank you for that insight. I think when society, or when we think of people going from a job in STEM to a job in the humanities and arts, we really just think of a loss of money, but there’s probably more passion in that. I really like what you brought up about the socioeconomic shock and how going from one career in tech to another career in writing can affect writers from marginalized communities. I think it’s important to keep that intersectionality in mind. Lastly, currently, you teach creative writing and give creative advice at The Reading. What advice would you give to people who wish to become published poets?
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Y: The advice that I feel like giving today is take your time. It's better to publish with the work that you're proud of than to publish faster. It could be that the work that you're publishing with is what you're proud of at that time, and like five years later, you're like, “Ugh, okay,” and that's okay.
Something I continually have to learn, as an Aries, is that I don't have to go fast. I can go slow. In fact, most of the time, when you're going a little slower, you're able to be more intentional with what you put out into the world and in all of the things that we've talked about today. You're also able to really develop your own voice, and I don't mean that in a voice type of way. I mean how can you write in a way where you can truly be honest with yourself? How can you be tapped into that vein of art and creativity that first led you to writing? How do you stay true to that feeling or that passion? Because writing is different from a writing career, and if you don't have your ducks in a row about writing, your writing can get muddled up by your writing career. You will start to feel as though, if you don't have a direction already, you have to take whatever direction happens to be the most popular or happens to be the most electrifying or interesting looking to you. Just remember that that largely doesn't have to do with you, not with what work you're trying to do.
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SR: I think that's really amazing advice. First, I'm also an Aries, so I appreciate what you're saying about trying to figure out how to stop going so fast and go slower. I think definitely taking your time is something that I'm also trying to learn in life in general and also as a writer. Also, I really appreciate what you said about developing your own voice and not focusing on just getting published fast. I think even in our society today, especially with social media like what you said in the last question, we see people being “more successful” or successful at a sooner time than we are. So I think just taking your time and moving at your own pace is great advice for people who want to become published poets. Thank you so much for sitting down with me today. I really appreciate all of these insightful answers, and I'm sure our readers and viewers will appreciate them as well.
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Y: Thank you for taking the time to think of these questions and for talking to me, Veronica. You've been really great.
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