Lynn Xu's debut book of poetry, Debts & Lessons, has just appeared (April 1) from the always terrific Omnidawn Publishing. Together with Robyn Schiff, Nick Twemlow, and Joshua Edwards, Lynn edits Canarium Books. My interview with Lynn follows, but first, here's one of my favorite poems from the book, "For Frank O'Hara," from the "Lullabies" section:
Dear Frank. I am writing you a letter with nowhere to send it. We've taken a room in San Felipe, on the Calle de los Claveles. Separating the bedrooms are fifteen paces covering the length of our courtyard. Purple jacarandas seesaw above us and in the street, blouses dissolve like lozenges to release the natural color. At night we are carried out with our noses missing. Darkness spreads from person to person. Black hills outstretch the rugged profile of the soil.
Anis: How long did it take you to write Debts & Lessons and what were the major stages in its growth and progression?
Lynn: Debts & Lessons took about seven years to write and the book proceeds pretty much chronologically, with the first poem written in 2005 and the last finished in 2012. Given the fact that there are seven poem sequences in the book, I would say I write about one poem (one series) per year. Each time I sit down to write something new it feels like an insurmountable stage and I am plunged into the unknown. I'd like to believe that what I learn comes from my ability to forget. I've always consigned this to be a defect of my intellect, but now that I've lived thirty years with this engine of a mind, I am making an effort to embrace my forgetfulness as a valiant feature of understanding. I am growing, in spite of what I know.
Anis: This is your debut book. Can you talk about particular challenges you faced in putting together this book? What did you learn in this process?
Lynn: The hardest thing was to figure out what a "book" is--that is, what it is to me. I mean: is it a project? An argument? A collection of poems under the aegis of a governing lyric voice? These questions return us to a very basic problem of parts to whole. But the book, as an object in time, exercises its unifying power--indeed, it solicits our synthetic powers to make its existence something comprehensible, consumable in one go. My book does not openly undermine or seek to sabotage the regulative principle of the book as a form--but what I learned in making it, about myself and what I wanted it to be, was that it was simply a pause, a resting point against which to lean the mind's restlessness. I do not conceive of it as a closed object, nor secured against revision and further change. The book should not succeed too successfully, but raise furtive glances amid the dead and living alike.
Anis: What are your most important poetic influences? Both in general, and in particular for this book?
Lynn: This book is not shy about announcing its kin, or what it hallucinates to be its cultural deictics. Names not openly acknowledged, or books I was reading and rereading at this time: Cormac McCarthy (Blood Meridian), Brian Evenson (Dark Property), William Faulkner (Absalom, Absalom!), Walter Benjamin (Arcades Project), Susan Stewart (Poetry and the Fate of the Senses), and various parts of W.G. Sebald.
Anis: I particularly like the section "Lullabies." Could you talk about your favorite poem in this section, and the nature of your dialogue with the poet in question?
Lynn: During our reading tour this last month, the two lullabies I found myself returning to were: the lullaby for Hart Crane and the lullaby for Jules Laforgue. The Hart Crane one still remains a mystery to me--so I won't ruin it for myself by talking about it too deeply. As for the Laforgue, the incantation is not for him alone, but for the undergrowth. I wanted to call to mind a cross-current, wherein the voice that is speaking (whatever it is) cannot but risk it all--that is, subjectivity at the risk of history. Laforgue came to me first through Eliot and his ventriloquy in "Prufrock." I wanted to produce a similar ventriloquism here, but to restore to him (to Laforgue) a fearful intelligence, a promiscuity of absolute embodiment.
Anis: In what particular ways do you think Debts & Lessons is marked by your unique voice?
Lynn: This is a difficult question, not because I do not think my voice unique (since every voice due to the timber and tenor of how one lives is singular), but because Debts and Lessons is so interested in preexisting voices. As a framing device, I am one way in which our relationship to what we read (to the canon, to what we learn and how we come to do what we do) can be read. I must regard the ego as a faceted lens.
Anis: Have you learned things during the composition of this book that you are either determined to repeat or not to repeat?
Lynn: I do not want to lose the exigency of voice, but I do not wish to repeat anything else.
Anis: Can you name a few specific ways your closest readers and/or your publisher helped make this a better book?
Lynn: First of all, it cannot go unsaid that I had the best teachers (Bob Hass, Lyn Hejinian, Geoffrey G. O'Brien, C.D. Wright, Forrest Gander and Keith Waldrop): they were a dream team for my mind. Geoffrey in particular was an incredible reader for the title poem, which in early drafts was in want of a structuring principle. And Rusty Morrison, editor extraordinaire, read through the manuscript with me, poem by poem, over the phone. I cut several lullabies as a result, and rewrote parts of "Debts and Lessons" (the poem). Finally, my husband (poet, translator, and founder of The Canary and Canarium Books, whose being-in-the-world I take to be an antidote to my own) provided an honesty and etiquette of tough-love I could not expect of anyone else. He made this a better book, no doubt about it.
Anis: Who in the contemporary poetry landscape do you think comes closest to the sensibility in this book?
Lynn: Another difficult question. I want to say: everyone and no one--because so much (and perhaps all) of writing is writing-with and writing-alone. I am a big fan of my Canarium co-editors (Nick Twemlow, Robyn Schiff, and Joshua Edwards--his Agonistes poem is something I feel extremely close to, to the point where I sometimes hallucinate its speaking voice) and, in effect, many of our Canarium titles I feel a strong bond with--for example, John Beer's The Waste Land and Other Poems, both collections by Robert Fernandez, We Are Pharaoh and Pink Reef, as well as Ish Klein's Union!--to say the least, in these I find spiritual and lyrical resonance, a balance between historical understanding and self-assertion. Hearing Mary Hickman read recently, I find this dissonance (how to test personal experience against this intellection of objective knowledge) in her ekphrastic poems to be an incredible challenge. This is true for Suzanne Buffam's poems as well as her husband's, Srikanth Reddy, both of whom make the ground rules of epistemology a playground, the clearing of which makes: a life well lived.
Anis: What is your next poetry project?
Lynn: This is a secret! I cannot work unless I have the non-committal reassurance of equal parts experimentation and failure. But I will say that one of the things I am working on is a collaboration with a British (but Paris-based) visual artist, Charlotte Moth, a Canadian architect and film-maker, Rebecca Loewen, and (my very own) husband Joshua Edwards. Also with Joshua Edwards, we are working on a building project with British architect and sculptor Alan Worn, tentatively titled: Notes Toward a House. Finally, I look forward to working with one of my best friends, the artist and poet (and one of the curators of Private Line) Kendra Sullivan; although our discussions remain aquatic at this stage, it is the best possible way.
Anis: What advice do you have for poets trying to make their way in the world of publication and recognition?
Lynn: My sincerest advice (and one which I abide by myself) is: do not let the rat-race lead you astray. Creative work is the work of the spirit, and though the spirit must do its earthly work in its allotted lifetime, remember that its responsibility and conversation is always with a much larger and much more abstract sense of space and time.
Anis Shivani's My Tranquil War and Other Poems has recently been released by NYQ Books. He has just finished a book of sonnets called Soraya. His book The Fifth Lash and Other Stories has also just been published. Look for his novel Karachi Raj in 2013, and a new book of criticism called Literature at the Global Crossroads.