The Poetry Project

In Conversation

Wo Chan & imogen xtian smith

Friends in poetry and queerness, Wo Chan (aka The Illustrious Pearl) and imogen xtian smith each published their debut collections from Nightboat Books last fall. In a wide ranging conversation, Wo and imogen discuss structuring their books (Togetherness and stemmy things, respectively), immigration, double LPs, Chopped, and growing up down the road from each other in the South.

Wo Chan: I want to start by asking about the chronology of the book.

imogen xtian smith: With stemmy things, there isn’t a linear narrative, but constellations of times—big moments like the early pandemic, or the time I spent in January 2020 in Berlin on fellowship. There were rumblings of COVID in Europe and that time feels carefree in a way that isn’t the same now, but has allowed me to retain some sort of wide-eyedness. And then the congealing of years living in the South being confused as far as who and what I am.

WC: I’m interested in chronology when reading first books of poetry. They contain everything in a writer’s life up to a point, more or less. What has it been like seeing past versions of yourself? I felt like I encountered an image of the South, and of you in Berlin, working through bodily pleasures and political thoughts as you’re trying to figure out how to move through the world, causing less harm.

ixs: Right, and you do so much of the same in Togetherness. There’s so much of your adolescence, moving around the restaurant and family spaces, the you that is voyeuristically captured in the immigration testimonies of your neighbors that are interspersed.

I thought about the fact that I grew up fifty miles down the road from you in—in a different decade maybe—but I thought about proximity and the world of difference between our experiences. That has been striking and generative and made my heart ache, just imagining either of us in those places, regardless of the very real and differing contexts.

Encountering old selves has been weird and nerve-wracking since the book came out. I’ve wanted to read new work, but felt I needed to sell this book or whatever. So I’ve been trying to perform pieces that don’t lend themselves to a five minute set I know is gonna be electric. That gets boring, so I’ve been reading stranger or more abstract ones, encountering this liminal self, poems inhabiting more ethereal or intangible spaces.

WC: What you’re saying makes so much intuitive sense. I think as queer people, especially in a place like the South, fifty miles or ten years make so much difference. We write poems to hold parts of ourselves that are difficult to process internally and create this physical space in order to unpack them.

It’s exciting to hear your thoughts on readings, because the poems that feel liminal and unresolved are so alive. I find reading from Togetherness has become a bit routine, and while it does hold my experiences, I’m afraid of becoming bored. The worst thing would be to look visibly bored by my own stuff! I like that you prioritize the aliveness of poetry.

ixs: stemmy things definitely has some anchoring poems in each section, like a pop song or something I know I can always do to be an engaging performer. But yeah, that gets tedious, so I’ve started to memorize or riff on them, just to be spontaneous, or not look down!

WC: I’ve started seeing how long I can go without looking down! Really edge the page and fuck with people while reading. Maybe your eyes roll while trying to recall something and you look like an oracle.

I wanted to ask if there’s a poem in your book that has changed meaning for you, or revealed something different through performance in surprising ways.

ixs: There’s a poem called “the way we get by” that has always felt striking, but I’m surprised by the intimacy of it—so earnest, disordered eating, disassociating. I’ve only read the long section (“true blue uncanny valley”) once, mostly in reaction to the audience. I was being angsty and wanted to read this poem I felt might be challenging, dealing with colonization, whiteness, and gentrification. Parts of it I now find cringeworthy, or edging cringe, but I understand it more as a piece of art, in terms of what I was working through and with. I’d use different language now but whatever.

WC: The cringe of the first book reminds you of how powerful a mirror poetry can be, and that I can still be inscrutable to myself, which is exciting. Or when a review reveals something I didn’t know about the book.

ixs: Some of the cringe of the first book was realizing how indebted I was to the trope of trans memoir. A first book can be a catch-all, and it was impossible for me to avoid being autobiographical. In that way there’s a lot of cringe! Also, a lot of learning how to be a writer.

WC: This is interesting to me. I was also avoiding tropes—documentation, deportation, immigration, being a queer poet, certain tropes with that as well. Were you actively thinking about those tropes?

ixs: I was just noticing them. When you’re blessed with the opportunity to make a book, you go for it, because you might never have the opportunity again. I wanted to say everything I knew about being a human. It feels good to have that behind me, because I have this project-based manuscript I’m working on, and the process is like—here’s a question, I’m gonna write around it until I feel satisfied, then move on. Those new poems are not not tethered to me in personal ways, but differently than stemmy things.

WC: There’s that joke with poets that the first book is their entire life and the second is about some hobby. So the first book is like everything, terrible and wonderful.

For my next book, I’m thinking a lot about my process in psychotherapy, and about the shapes and characters that I inhabit in my mind—some of which are like characters I’ve done in drag—and wondering what I look like, dressed like them and moving through the world.

What right now feels most alive in your book?

ixs: I appreciate seeing myself in the real time of the poem, especially in the flirty ones where I envision going deep into my desires to name them. A lot of the poems are aspirational, putting all my hopes for pleasure and curiosity and body. I can see myself trying to come into language.

WC: Poetry creates so much pleasure for other people—the shaping of breath and movement of mouth, there’s something very erotic and synchronized with that.

ixs: What about you? What feels most alive?

WC: What feels most alive, mysterious, kind of insidious in what it holds, are the letters of testimony in Togetherness. These are community statements of character that were submitted to the courts when my family and I were deported. One of them is from my high school best friend’s dad, who was city manager and wrote something about us paying our taxes on time, and about my family’s restaurant being a sizable source of tax revenue for the city. Those pieces are excerpted and never performed. They’re supposed to serve as molecular objects or separate pillars dividing the book. I recognize now that those documents are sort of evil and shouldn’t exist.

ixs: I’m so curious about how they function in the book, and the emotional gravity of their inclusion. So much witnessing and being witnessed, tension of gazes and the way those letters announce your family’s role and “value” in community, juxtaposed with observations about your parents, your older brother, how life has played out in the realm of those assignations. Togetherness is full of the expectations of that term (community), and those documents do feel evil, reducing civic life to economic value. Economic value as signifier of “the human,” where even expressions of praise are underpinned by the violence of the forms required of them.

WC: It’s wild to note their language, that they exist in their own form, as their own performance. They tried to speak from a place of pure intentions and sometimes are very moving. That can feel like a twisting of a knife.

One talks about our family hosting a wedding reception. It’s by the delivery driver, who, by the time we were being deported, had become an immigration lawyer. So she’s a deep family friend who wrote this beautiful letter. She also talks about witnessing my mother’s love, which is a very real thing to read, especially when you’re a queer person trying to work through family.

ixs: Those artifacts are often placed alongside another thru-line of your book, the prose blocks, your Chopped poems. Like, “It was a Monday, you remember your roommate once said that food is like paying rent to your body.” Those pieces and sentences send me back to the letters—like, how can you afford this, and for how long?

WC: I love the Chopped poems. I used to work at Sephora and as a waiter. Every job required some form of human exchange—smile, do makeup, serve food—kinds of care work. That was very grounding, but when I started in nonprofit work, it was jarring, uniquely depression-inducing, and those poems helped me stay in my body. This was during deportation proceedings and I was watching a lot of Chopped to keep whatever mental thread I had. I was reading about my position in the US in the second person, via documents, and those voicings really came to me.

Childhood sounds and memories—the rush of the kitchen, the look of a chef, steel trays on steel tables. I was watching, thinking “what would my brother or parents do if they auditioned,” while knowing the show is also very metaphorical for the US, the scarcity and construct of success. There’s only one winner, and you have to stand in front of the judge and plead your case.

ixs: Right, whether literally, in terms of deportation, or with whatever product you can produce to validate continued existence.

WC: Yeah, and it has to be shiny and entertaining and innovative. Chopped is fascinating to watch and doubly fascinating when it becomes a confessional for immigrants, as they’ll invariably talk about their backgrounds and struggles. So these prose poems were like television vignettes.

ixs: I’m curious about your identification with the second person in the specific moment of those poems’ creation. Was it from seeing yourself objectified in the language of the courts?

WC: What I recognize about the tone and voice of those poems is how mean and laced with contempt the voice is. That left me at some point, and the nature voice came in.

ixs: During our time in class together, you spoke of your love of [Gerard Manley] Hopkins, which I find recognizable in your work. The “nature poems” in your book are so dynamic, so strange yet formal. Can you talk about influence and how you came to these fluid yet formal forms?

WC: I do love Hopkins and think he’s embedded into my writing DNA. I also claim him as a queer. But actually, I want you to answer this question! I know you love Kathy Acker…

ixs: I do love Acker, and Bernadette [Mayer] of course, and attempt some sort of experiment in noticing everything and writing that, which her work continues to teach me. In trying to take aspects of that on for myself, I’ve seen how difficult writing simultaneity actually is! I’m not sure I succeeded, but did and do try to compose all the sensations around me in a moment in such a way as to capture them slamming together at the point of my body—and how that initiates politics.

Some reviewers have said stemmy things is too sprawling, which I disagree with. I was really insistent on the excess! The major templates for the book are double albums—records like Exile on Main St., Sign O’ the Times, Sandinista! or “the white album,” these records that, if you condensed them, would be perfect and precise. What makes them interesting though is the mess. I think you get a much richer vision of life that way.

The other template is Poetry State Forest by Bernadette Mayer, which I feel similarly about. It’s really long and jumbled, conceptually and temporally all over the place, containing so many different forms that sometimes feel haphazardly thrown together. It’s so fun to read because you’re constantly interrupted! The excess is intentional and I kind of live or die by that. It was my choice and maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t, but that doesn’t matter to me because I trust myself as a writer.

WC: And some of us don’t live seamless lives, we have very sprawling experiences.

ixs: It feels like a stereotypically queer impulse. I’m kind of a nightmare at readings for that reason, because, with my new poems in particular, they’re really long, and if I’m given five-seven minutes, well, it might just take ten and I don’t know what to do!

WC: We just need to have more specific spaces designed for longer readings.

I love hearing about your non-book influences, that’s a fascinating side of the process. Your book really has a double album feel!

ixs: Maybe it’s surprising because you don’t always get a double album as a first record—it’s like “who does she think she is?” But whatever—same price, more poems, take it or leave it, y’know?

WC: If I were to compare my book to a non-book art medium, I picture it as a long dance piece. In my mind there’s an empty stage and the first poem steps out, does its walk, makes its shapes then exits at the page break before the next poem leaps on and does it differently.

That’s how I thought about organizing it, and I had a lot of trouble figuring out how. You don’t get that practice in school. You get practice writing a poem each week—

ixs: A very specific kind of poem, too.

WC: Right? And there are so many ways to organize a book. So I did it like a drag number, or a lineup where you need to see the pieces in a certain order to understand the story. What’s the least didactic order, or the least boring that creates tension in or between the poems, or a nice reprieve or dramatic term? I see the poems as shapes that move across the stage, pose, maybe say something then leave.

ixs: Togetherness is so strikingly unified and well choreographed, the shifts are dynamic and very pronounced, the transitions between Chopped or the more legalese—you really stay within the book’s flow. Then there’s all the extravagantly gay shit, that opening poem “performing miss america at bushwig 2018, then chilling,” and “the smiley barista remembers my name” towards the end. Those really sashay!

WC: Yeah, I wanted to ask you about the ordering of stemmy things.

ixs: The first section, “ecologies,” holds poems on that subject—broadly defined. That’s a huge theme and organizing principle of the book, ecologies of land and family moving through social spaces, erotics, fantasies, and turning more concrete in the last few sections. “field jar” is more observational, a collection of moods, travels, relationships. They each find their grounding. But really, the classic MFA poetry book has three sections and I wanted anything but that. I feel great antipathy towards my MFA time, and wanted to imagine the book the program trained writers to write, and then make the antithesis of that.

WC: You wrote such a full book that has its own legs in the world. The MFA book feels so produced. Even your author’s note is so thoughtful, a clear place to open and introduce yourself.

ixs: That was important to me, because, take a sequence like “true blue…” that deals with gentrification. So much of that poem emerges from real experiences working as a dog walker, spending everyday for years outside, observing and reflecting on my place in it all. Editing the book was very difficult because I didn’t want to come across voyeuristically, but engaged, and not for spectacle or experiment’s sake. I didn’t want to flatten the world, so it was necessary to situate myself and give the reader more agency in how they approach the work. It’s like, this is who I am and where i’m coming from, which might be illuminating for you, or might actually not be good for you, and here’s the info so you can make that choice.

WC: I think that comes across, as well as how open you are with your own experiences. I love, in “true blue…,” the format of a walking journal. There’s a rhythm to it all.

ixs: It’s about envisioning how a poem sits in relation to other poems, whether to create fluidity or tension or something else. I don’t like thinking of poems as discrete—they’re relational.

WC: I remember running into you at a reading in the fall and talking about releasing our first books, how it felt eerie because there’s so much buildup and you aren’t sure what’s supposed to happen. I was like, is someone gonna drop confetti on my head?

ixs: It’s really anticlimactic!

WC: I was in a mild-to-low level state of panic, going into the world and looking for my book, physically, in bookstores, and that never felt satisfying. The first time I felt recognition of it being real was talking to a student whose class I’d visited. We were signing books, and she said, “I’m a 58-year-old Chinese woman, I changed careers and started writing poems seriously.” She’s in an MFA program. I really felt like the book exists in the space between people’s minds.

ixs: You realize having the artifact isn’t the thing that keeps you writing or makes you happy. It’s absolutely these linguistic and energetic entanglements that come from others and the life of the world itself, things you can’t necessarily see.

#271 – Winter 2023