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. He was most recently poetry editor at Foundry. Currently, he teaches creative writing at large and gives creative advice at The Reading.
James Morehead: Before asking about your wonderful book Dream of the Divided Field, what is it that you love about poetry? What first attracted you to expressing your ideas through poetic forms?
Yanyi: “I feel like I remember different things every time I answer this question. What comes to mind for me right now is a discussion I had with a friend of mine, a poet named Kate Walsh, who was saying that poets are people who want to be right about things, but the kind of right is not about winning — it’s about getting closer to whatever is true. I’ve always wanted to know at a deeper level what something signifies, or what something is telling me about how I should live my life. It’s a way of life for me. The writing is something I happen to do to get to that kind of understanding.”
James: I love the variety of forms and voices you’ve employed in Dream of the Divided Field. Poems that are slight and sparse like Blackout, and longer prose poems such as the pair of Home for the Holidays poems. How do you find the form that captures the image or idea you want to share?
Yanyi: “A lot of poems start out with a spark or a flash of something, and a lot of times for me it’s musical. Blackout happened during an actual blackout. I was staying in one of those earthships in Taos, New Mexico with a friend and the electricity went out. I woke up in the middle of the night and all of the lights were on. It was at that moment where I ended up just writing something quickly on my phone. Most of the time, my poems start out in some kind of prose. I can tell pretty quickly whether or not the poem wants to turn into a form with the rhythm and with the kinds of rhymes that show up when I’m writing the poem. I try so hard not to impose anything at the beginning. I let myself think as fully as I can before I whittle down the poem to whatever it ends up becoming. Home for the Holidays and Blackout were both written in the same way, but they ended up in completely different forms.”
James: The poems in this collection about transitioning achieve an extraordinary balance of setting just enough context without being so concrete that the poetry is lost. Taking Care is a powerful example. What was your approach to achieving that balance?
Yanyi: “This is a really interesting issue that still comes up for me. I’ve also noticed when I’m teaching that I have students who are explainers. There’s a two-pronged way that I think about this. The first of which is you have to have the courage to not ask someone to understand you. I think there’s an emotional courage that needs to be there to believe that you can be understood and get to the kind of editing that you want to do. For me, I write as fully as I can and include everything that I think of for the first couple of drafts. There’s a lot of push and pull where I write a little, edit, and then read a little. After a certain point, my editing style is in terms of image. The question for me becomes, “does this image tell me just as much as this abstract detail tells us?”, and if that’s the case, then I can probably cut the explanation part of the poem. There are aspects of editing where I’m not wanting to share certain details of my life, so I have to ask myself if I lie, add something different, or do I just cut it all together.”
James: What I found so fascinating reading, and then re-reading, Dream of the Divided Field is how the poems could be interpreted one way in isolation and in a completely different way in the context of the book. Coming Over, which you’ll read later in the interview, could be interpreted as referring to a separation of two people as a standalone poem but in the context of your book the poem takes on a different meaning. What was your approach during revising and editing the manuscript to achieve poems that work individually, but that also serve the book as a whole?
Yanyi: “Once I understood the book as a book, I learned about Coming Over as more than just a breakup poem. It is a poem about integration of the self and also disintegration. It was a really difficult process this time around because the poems in this book are stylistically very different from each other. I had to ask myself about the balance of what it feels like going through the book formally and also conceptually how much information I want to give. I had to go through every single poem and write down the themes of each poem and what each is really touching on. I looked for what else was coming out of the book beside my preconception of it being a breakup book, which it is but is also so much more than that. The book asks the larger question of how one retains or has a self between two moments in time. It asks if it is possible for that same person to exist.”
James: In Landscape with a Hundred Turns you write:
"A hundred birds flew over a hundred fields. A mountain flowed into a hundred rivers then ended. In a hundred rooms, I turned and turned, hoping to return to you."
Such a beautiful passage. How do you know when you’ve created something beautiful versus knowing you need to revise, edit, or even re-write entirely? What are the feedback loops that help you craft beautiful and powerful poetry?
Yanyi: “Time is definitely a big factor for me. I do a lot of things in my editorial process to re-meet the poem. I do a lot of handwriting and retyping and part of that process is asking myself whether this particular part is worth writing out again. I ask if I derive pleasure from writing something out again. I remember writing Landscape with a Hundred Turns and I was doing morning pages at the time. The poem was part of this blob of stuff, like six pages long, where I was moving through that metaphor. When I reread it when I was typing it up, I realized I didn’t need to say half of it, or some of it was contrived. Part of it is my editorial experience of having to approach writing as a reader, and knowing what I want to and don’t want to read. It’s so much more than what is beautiful or what is not beautiful. It is about the newness of experience and the newness of understanding. The poem as Tomas Tranströmer calls it is a railing that you hold onto as you’re going into the dark of understanding. I like to think about how the metaphor can continue to help me and I want to feel excited whenever I read my own work again, even if I’ve read it a hundred times.”
James: When finalizing the manuscripts of my books I agonize over which poems to include, which need more work, how to order the poems, and if grouping into sections would help. How did you approach selecting poems for this collection and then finding the best way to group and order them?
Yanyi: “It was a really arduous process for this book. My first book was a lot more intuitive and part of that has to do with the fact that my first book was written in one style. I also had a clear vision of what I wanted to do and I had a lot more time. I had two years of no prospect of it being published to polish it off and really make it into what I wanted. For this book, I went through a couple of different phases and I had to create different drafts of it in order to understand the possible resonances of this book that I wasn’t seeing.
“My editor, Nicole Counts, was really helpful in bringing those to my attention. I do feel as though having another reader or an editor is kind of a shortcut to that time thing I was talking about because you have another person who can point out things you may not have seen. I did that categorization thing I talked about earlier and then I did this thing that I call ‘DJing my feelings’ where I read one poem at a time and I ask myself what I feel like reading. But in the case of this book, I also had to think about what I explicitly wanted to share with the reader so they could successfully navigate this book. That is more abstract and you have to read a little bit more deeply into things in order to get the full experience.”
James: The poem Dream in Which I Try to Disappear in Front of My Aunt, or, Interrogation is a powerful example of a recurring theme of separation from family, of the challenges of acceptance, of dislocation. You write:
“She’s coming over and I know she will tell my mother everything, so I retreat from the rooms I know she’ll be in, I reverse my time. My low voice and short hair return to drawers and dark corners.”
It’s difficult if not impossible as a poet to write without including very intimate and personal details of self, of trauma, of family, of relationships. How do you approach deciding which personal details to include and which to edit out, without sacrificing the poetry when doing so?
Yanyi: “I always think about a couple of different things. The first thing that I think about is if the thing that I’m sharing is possibly useful for another person to know as perhaps a collective moment or shared experience. Another thing is I do have a bit of an ethical guideline that I follow. If I name people by name, I will ask them if I can use their names and I will send them a copy of the poem. With family, it’s a little more complicated because of my history with my family and just how important that is to my experience as a person and therefore my poetics. Some ways that I get around it include actually just writing about dreams and allowing those details to be a bit abstracted. The poem that you just mentioned is a dream that happened to me, but it’s abstracted in a way where I can really get to just talking about the thing that I’m more interested in, which is like not being able to go back in time. It’s my version of the ‘being chased by monsters’ dream and that feeling of wanting to let someone in and but being afraid of them getting too close.”
James: I’m fascinated by very short poems. Migrants is an example, just slightly longer than a Haiku. My poems tend to be longer and a poetry coach I’m working with challenged me to write micro-poems and it was a valuable exercise. Using Migrants as an example, what is your thought process when writing a poem that only needs a few lines to capture an idea?
Yanyi: “Migrants was a poem that started out as a page-length poem and I kept trying to revise it or add to it, and the poem just wasn’t working. Every single time I did a draft, I realized the part that is now Migrants was the only thing I wanted to say. It’s always very liberating to realize that the poem will always rear its head in whatever way it wants to be. I cut the rest of everything that was not necessary to that poem and the whole poem is that turn. I had a Vision of a Hill is a poem towards the end of the collection that I wrote in one stroke. I thought I was going to add more, but the whole point of the poem is that it just is what it is. That poem I didn’t cut anything from. It just kind of came out that way and I was wise enough this time around not to try and make it more than it needed to be.”
James: Billy Collins said at a reading I attended recently, in response to an audience question, that a key to writing poetry is reading poetry by poets that make you jealous. What poets do you read that make you jealous, that challenge you to expand your voice?
Yanyi: “I’m in this place where I’m interested in expanding my voice to be longer. I’m working on a long poem right now and it’s just such a different experience. I’m learning a new way of being with a poem. I’ll always be jealous of Virginia Woolf and the way that she pulls things together. Philip Williams just came out with a book last year that is really well constructed. Roger Reeves also comes to mind as someone who’s just got something really in the medium to long length line that I really admire. I’ll always say Linda Gregg because I’m working on her work as well.”