Jenny Xie’s work not only introspects complexities but it spends time with it. Perspective has a new meaning and oppositions work together in her poems. I read Eye Level in a manner of cracking a thing wide open, and in The Rupture Tense, this turns outside in.
I spoke with Jenny Xie about the integration and displacement of memory across cultures, history, the transformation of the lens from Xie’s first book, Eye Level to The Rupture Tense, patterning, movement of language undoing the anatomy of poems, the passage of grief, and the uneasiness between it all.
Aekta Khubchandani: Your first book, Eye Level, explored, as you put it, “the moral significance of seeing and perceiving.” The Rupture Tense is an extension and expansion of perspective through the particular lens of Chinese photojournalist Li Zhensheng, as well as a first-person speaker. What is your relationship with photography like? What other artistic tools and techniques did you use while writing this book?
Jenny Xie: Thank you for tracing these through-lines and continuing preoccupations across Eye Level and The Rupture Tense. In both collections, I’m drawn to acts of looking, and toward what a gaze can puncture. Vision and connected forms of perception map the coordinates of what we know, while simultaneously directing our attention toward what remains unseen.
In this sense, my interest in photography stems from its invitations toward deep looking. What gets arrested in the past, staged by another’s lens? What is coiled on the print, what is missing, what sneaks through as light enters the aperture? I’m compelled by photography’s claims on truth-making, but also its many contingencies and imaginative textures: what is left out, what registers unknowingly, how something gets reanimated in the present or future that the photographer and subjects within the photograph never intended.
Li Zhensheng’s photographic archive was staggering to me not only because of its historical significance but also because it was an opening, a violent tear, into a past that wasn’t discussed openly among my family, and not documented in any form that I had an access to when I was younger. Writing into and out of these photographs, along with the memory-images stored inside me, became a mode for making contact with the past and the past-in-future throughout the collection.
The image of circles stayed with me while reading The Rupture Tense. The book opens with Li Zhensheng’s lens—a camera lens being circular in shape—which investigates the terror of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Further on, the speaker talks about Shanghai buildings in a context evoking cyclical obsessions—a dream being an echo, memory being a loop, the past informing the future through intergenerational trauma. Can you talk about these circular patterns? How did you go about mapping them, if you did, through the course of your book—was it a conscious choice?
The circular patterning you so astutely pick up on draws on my preoccupation with openings, in apertures, in returns. The Rupture Tense began emerging as a collection when I was trying to undo knots brought on by my return to my hometown in China. What does it mean to circle back to a psychic space from the distant past, anchored in the geographic? To return, to double back, to look again, to trace the contours of a circle, which is only ever illusory, as there’s no real repetition in this life. This led me to pursue the loopings of memory, of holes and wholes that appear in history and across memory, of generational circling, of endless beginnings.
I have to say that I’m not usually conscious of the patternings and recurrences until I’ve been afforded ample distance from what I’ve been submerged in, or until others alert me to them. While I try to steer away from paths and territory that already feel familiar to myself, I also have little choice but to yield to preoccupations and obsessions, which by essence snag on the mind and subvert intention. That’s another kind of circling, I suppose: those repeated returns to subjects and questions that have a claim on you.
The poems in your book often change shape. They move from prose blocks to enjambed lines, extra spacing, short columns, and others. And despite this formal fluidity, the poems are thematically cohesive. Did you have a vision for what you wanted the poems in this book to look like? Or does the structure and form of the poems emerge later in the revision process?
I rarely begin work by holding before me a static vision of structure and form. As is the case with much else, I’m wary of how the will can blot out or mute the unruly movements that pulse with real insight and inquiry. Drafting poems, then, becomes an exercise in recursivity: allowing something to accrete, shaping it, stepping aside, returning to reshape it, and so on.
Both in drafting and revising—the two are often entangled—I am laboring to locate a sound, a rhythm of unfolding, a tonality, which allows me to make contact with the live currents of the poem. The forms and structural shapes that the poems take often come out of acts of listening and arranging, and also trying to align the expressive gestures of a form (e.g. the way a stereoscope integrates two separate perspectives to create dimensionality) with the poem’s emerging subjects and obsessions.
How did you decide on the order of poems—which ones to place where?
Ordering, in my experience, is a matter of attending to instinct, which makes it tough, if not impossible, to pin down into something programmatic. In trying to mold a book’s shape, I tend to consider compelling opening gestures—what kinds of movements, visuals, voices, and questions might invite a reader into the realm of the book—and how I want to lead a reader out, from the stirrings of the page back into the stirrings of world. These openings and closings might play out in different tempos and scales throughout a collection’s many movements. Other times, I’m attending to energies that emerge between poems or among clusters of poems.
For The Rupture Tense, temporality guided my ordering. We begin in the historical past, but also the past-in-future vis-à-vis the photograph, move to a more immediate personal past that is simultaneously the past-in-present, and finally look out into the present continuous and the future-reverberating-in-deep past.
The color red seems to stitch these pages together. It’s an anchor, it keeps coming back and intensifies the known history with a thicker layer. From the red in “RED PUNCTA” poems, and the red in puncta itself, which is the opening of the tear duct, red in smaller details throughout the book to the red in Zhensheng’s book, Red Color News Soldier, Mao’s Little Red Book, your book explores truths of suicide, poverty, blood, language, brutality, grief, shame, and memory. Can you talk about the association of color with your writing?
I appreciate your keen eye, and how you chart color associations throughout the book. There are obvious associations of red with China—across historical and political dimensions. Culturally, when applied to Chinese customs, red is an auspicious color, one denoting festivity and luck. It’s also potent and plainly loud: the color of revolution.
I wanted to register the ubiquity of red as this state-sponsored color in China, but also reflect its densities of symbolic meaning: associations with blood, shame, revolt, heat, and what leaks from inner to outer. Red is what ruptures when the body opens.
The lines in “RED PUNCTA,” “Harbin in the / deepest of winter: eight stripped trees matching / eight individuals on their knees. Close the book, / they disappear. Open it, and they’re upright again.” stunned me. What was your experience of integrating historical, personal, and collective memory?
I’m not sure I think of the collection as necessarily integrating threads of historical, personal, and collective memory, in the sense that integration implies some sort of harmonizing. Historical, familial, personal, and collective memory are all lodged in us, and us in them. The more I thought and wrote into the concept of memory, the more I wanted to show how these categories—borders between past, present, future, or between personal and collective—dissolved. I was interested in how all of these shaping forces fuse together, to the point of incohesion.
The lines, “Think of the years of living two lives, / two kinds of speech, two kinds of silences” will strike a chord with many readers. How do you negotiate this duality, if I can call it that? How has this friction of sharing two places—China and the US, molded your journey?
When I returned to China in 2019, I found myself confronting the many sustaining fictions about China and the United States, of what “the Chinese” think and “the Americans” believe, as constructed through the biased framing of media networks in both nations and through the Cold War tensions that reverberate into the present. My interactions with my Chinese relatives, and their understandings of who I am, and vice versa, are inflected by these tensions and fictions.
I’m most pulled toward what opens up in the gaps between things not fitting side by side, in what refuses to lie quietly, and what resists categories (false binaries or dualities) and coherence. I think my multi-dimensional relationship to China, the place I was born, and the US, the place in which I reside, are some of these uneasy spaces.
That particular line from “Reaching Saturation” is also thinking about the kinds of life one leads in a culture of public secrecy that flourishes under authoritarian nation-states: of what can be said, and of what to keep in, until it gradually begins to calcify or erode.
This book uses in-depth research of Zhensheng’s work, which at the time was restricted from the public. How different was the writing and making of this book as compared to Eye Level?
The poems in Eye Level were slowly distilled across many years, and were comprised of discrete pieces written at different junctures of my life, mainly throughout my mid-to-late twenties. They were also provoked into being by myriad external and internal pressures: accountability to graduate workshops and other writing groups, difficult unmoorings, deadlines.
With The Rupture Tense, there was a propulsiveness to the drafting of the poems that was plainly tied to my 2019 trip back to my birthplace in Anhui province, thirty years after I left China for the US. It was during this trip when I saw relatives I hadn’t met with in over a decade, and when I discovered the photographs of Li Zhensheng, in a library at NYU Shanghai. Those experiences wouldn’t release their hold on me, and so I found myself returning to a recurring set of inquiries and images across two years. I was submerging myself in the archives of Zhensheng’s work, along with scattered family oral histories. The writing of The Rupture Tense felt more sustained, and fueled by more intensity, across a compressed period of time. This is also likely because some of the drafting took place during the pandemic, when I was cloistered, in many senses of the word.
In The Rupture Tense, time is morphed into the present moment. We move through photographs of terror that capture injustice and reveal death as a “living” or ongoing experience. We also navigate through the speaker’s childhood and her family’s expectations and presumptions of her American life. For me, the intergenerational trauma emerges from the silences in the book, like in the line, “Somewhere a generation of faces melts onto the last generation’s.” Can you talk about the language of distance in this context?
Yes, silences have amplified reverberations across the poems in this collection. There’s state-sanctioned silence (silence that emerges from the fear of persecution), the silence of a culture of public secrecy in China, shame-induced silence, silence that emerges from not being able to pin down experience, and silence that is indiscernible from being shocked into speechlessness.
Across many of the poems, I was trying to think through how repressed and unresolved psychic trauma—including the trauma of having survived the Chinese Cultural Revolution—leaks through in the behaviors of survivors and the generations that come after them. I think the thick variety of silences and a difficulty around speaking, or even an inability to speak, is one of those strange behaviors. At the same time, there are silences that breed out of linguistic distances I cannot easily cross with my relatives in China.
The book holds grief and carries it through the last pages with “Distance Sickness” and “Alternate Endings.” Though the grief is thick and dense, there’s a distance maintained. Is distance equivalent to perspective for you in writing? Can you talk about this dynamic?
It’s interesting that you pick up on distancing in grief. Grief is a measuring of distances, ones that cannot be narrowed or crossed. In the poem, “Distance Sickness,” I am addressing my grandmother who took her life shortly after the Cultural Revolution, and a decade before I was born. She stands for a past I will never have access to, even though it’s a past that remains lodged in many of my relatives. The distance is of time, space, image, memory. In writing into different currents and densities of grief, I wanted to probe how language is insufficient, precisely in that it forces distances. How we fall silent before that which confounds us.
Aekta Khubchandani, a writer from Bombay, is the founder of Poetry Plant Project. She holds a dual MFA in Poetry & Nonfiction from The New School, where she worked as Readings and Community Development Assistant. She is the winner of Breakout Prize 2022 in Poetry and The Baltimore Review’s Winter Contest in Poetry. Her poems have been long listed for Toto Awards by TFA three times. Her fiction, “Love in Bengali Dialect,” which won the Pigeon Pages Fiction contest, has been nominated for Best American Short Fiction. Besides, her work is nominated for Best of Net (Poetry) 2021 by Nurture Literary, Best Microfiction by Passages North, and Favorite Online Articles and Essays by Entropy. Her film, New Normal, whose script she has written, won the Best Microfilm award at Indie Short Fest by Los Angeles International Film Festival. She has works published in Speculative Nonfiction, Penn Review, and elsewhere.
This post may contain affiliate links.