THE EARTH IS FOREVER GOOEY: a conversation with Jenny Zhang

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I had to take my time with My Baby First Birthday, Jenny Zhang’s second book of poems, because the vividness of feeling slapped me out of quarantine dullness. The poem “Everyone’s girlfriend” opens:

I wanna be everyone’s girlfriend
Crawl like a dead bug before I die…

And closes:

…I want to be or feel awful
I want to repent or show you
I am good and my saintly practice
has a home at last
and I am deserving
though it is true I cannot be the first one
to say so

Here, Zhang’s ferocious weirdness nods to the weirdness of time itself: how is it – and it is – that feelings move, return, flow? My Baby First Birthday enacts ongoingness, doubling- and tripling-down on the ickiest alongside the purest of desires. It’s tough to excerpt these poems because of her wild and precise pacing and momentum down the page. That, and the image-world, which dances between aching confession and animate pubes, viscera both physical and emotional. Too short a quotation misses how the gross and the profound reflect – and need – each other.

I was grateful to speak with Jenny about time, goo, and poems recently over Zoom.

Jenny Zhang is the author of the poetry collections My Baby First Birthday (Tin House Books, 2020) and Dear Jenny, We Are All Find (Octopus Books, 2012). Her debut short story collection Sour Heart (Random House, 2017) won the Pen/Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction and the L.A. Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, and was a finalist for the Believer Book Award and the NYPL Young Lions Fiction Award, among others. Sour Heart is currently in development as a film for A24. Zhang’s essays appear online at The Poetry Foundation, Rookie Magazine, Buzzfeed, and Glimmer Train, among others.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Isabel Neal (IN): While rereading My Baby First Birthday, I was struck by how the final poem invites this book to be understood as a cycle. It was written over several years, over many seasons. Can you talk about the seasons as containers and about the year as the shape for the book, that sense of roundness?

Jenny Zhang (JZ): It is about cycles! And it is about not seeing life – or whatever you want to call this the journey of being alive – as not a linear one with an end goal, but sort of like a spiral. It feels like you’re returning to the same point, but it’s often a different point on the same axis.

And because I spent so many years writing these poems, that became apparent. I didn’t write [My Baby First Birthday] over the course of several months or just a year, but several years. It became apparent the ways in which ideas circle back. It feels like you’re stuck on an idea. It feels like you’re not progressing. It feels like you’re going backward. It feels like you made all this progress, only to return to the same place.

I noticed that part of living in seasons is always looking forward to the next season. Always wanting the next one to happen, dreading the next one happening, looking back and wishing you could go back, you know, that feeling in midsummer where you’re like, Oh, I just want it to be cool and autumn again. And at the end of summer, no, please, I can’t have summer end. Especially this summer, when the dread of winter has been hanging over [us], and this fall as well.

I remember growing up, and my parents were shocked that you could eat a strawberry in December because they had grown up in a place where you eat strawberries at the end of May, beginning of June, and then they’re gone. And then you wait another year. And if that year’s end of May happens to be super cold and dry, there are no strawberries. 

I think poetry is about never being numb to what we assume is normal. Poetry is annoying; it’s being the annoying person who’s alive to everything. So, I was also thinking about seasons as – and this may be nostalgia for a life that never was – a life where we respected the world and respected that things begin and things must end; a world where we haven’t destroyed the environment, where forest fires don’t have to be just a horrifying annihilation of resources and people, where they are things that must happen. And now, because we’ve destroyed the world, they must happen in a destructive way, which doesn’t invite rebirth. So all those things were swirling around.

IN: There’s an incantatory quality to many of the poems in My Baby First Birthday. I’m grateful for YouTube because the first time I read your work online, I could then access a video of a reading. There’s a shift: this is what it sounds like. It sparked in a new way.

Another poet whose work I fall into even more deeply after hearing it aloud is Tommy Pico, a friend of yours and a press mate at Tin House. He’s referred to his speaker, “Teebs,” as an amplified self, a more appetitive self. In this way, his work and the way it emerges out loud feel in conversation with your work and reading. At the risk of being reductive, can you talk about your relationship with the Jenny or the Jennies in My Baby First Birthday?

JZ: Tommy is so good at that! I was very inspired by Tommy’s poetry. He is one of my biggest inspirations. The way that he triangulates the self, the poetic self, the inflated self, Teebs, Tommy. I love it.

I don’t exactly know what I’m doing. Sometimes I think even in my regular life. I don’t know who I’m referring to when I’m speaking, like I don’t know who I’m saying when I say “I.” Which “I” am I talking about? The one I am with my parents? The one I am with my friends? The one I am with my lovers? The one I am when I’m completely alone, and I’m speaking to myself? The one I am when I’m being a teacher, when I’m speaking in public? I don’t know. The public and the private collapsed early on in my life; I had to have a public persona simply because of immigrating at a young age and being bilingual. And bilingual means being not just of two languages, but two worlds, two humors, two experiences, two cultures, two homes, all that stuff.

I think there’s [often] a fear of the “I” being too exposing, being too adolescent, being too obvious. And I’m just like, are you kidding me? Everyone is completely ignorant about themselves! Most people couldn’t be more in the dark about their “I”! Most people have no idea who they are and have almost no insight. And that’s the root of almost every single conflict and problem. The answer is not being narcissistic, navel-gazing, or self-absorbed, but to be actually curious about oneself and one’s effect on others. So that’s my oblique way of answering you. Which is: I think poetry is just one of many different ways that I can be curious about my effect on others, on myself, on the world. About the effect of the world on me. I’m never, ever, ever going to be certain of what I mean when I say “I” in the poetic sense, in the speaker sense, and even in like casual everyday convo.

It will forever be a mystery to me. And so, yeah – I think it’ll be a lifelong thing for me to understand that.

IN: I’d like to ask about the themes and reprises. The short poems – often with someone else’s name in the title – serve as punctuation and as a set of vocal shifts within the book. Your poems vary visually on the page between long lines, long utterances, and a more staccato repetition, which is sometimes oracular, sometimes stammering: “They called for us to live this way and so I did, and so I did/, and so I did.”

I was often delighted, though, by the short aphoristic poems, those themes and reprises: “ariana’s theme,” “jenny’s trying: reprise,” the poem “it’s so intoxicating to be unwell” whose body is only “y/n?”

To me, these poems amplified the book’s sense of theatrical utterance. They’re an aside or a Greek choral interlude. (Though there is a choral or a fractal quality even within the poems where ostensibly the speaker remains relatively fixed as an entity.) These short poems sometimes remind me of Jenny Holzer’s aphorisms, that compression and affect. They also reference musical titles, as if they’re sampling this other set of tonal movements. 

Can you talk about the very short poems?

JZ: I hadn’t thought about this book in a while, and you just breathed so much life into it. Now you’re part of the book too, in the way that I think about it, forevermore. 

This is a good question off of the last question because I will say that the closest I’ve ever gotten to feeling, shall I say, secure, or at peace for a moment, with the “I” has been when someone I really, really love and trust and who I know loves me has reflected back to me who they think I am and has mirrored to me who I think I am.

And it makes me emotional because it’s so hard –it’s so corny, but it’s so hard to have love for yourself. But when you’re talking to someone who loves you, and you can hear and see in their voice, in their eyes, that they think you are so deserving of love or that you don’t deserve some terrible thing that you think you deserve or they want more for you. It’s weird, but that’s the closest I think we often get to believing it. We have one standard for our loved ones and then this horribly low one for ourselves! We’re like, they can’t treat you that way! And then, Oh yeah, every single person treats me that way. So that was so healing for me. It was just the closest thing to truth that I was able to find. And so I wanted some way to archive that, memorialize it and pay tribute.

Because that is also poetry, right? We seek out poetry because we seek in this completely subjective form some kernel of beauty and truth. And so for me, friendship is poetic, and it is lyric, because it does that, and it is mysterious why when a friend mirrors to you what they think you are – it works. And when you try to do that to yourself in the literal mirror, it doesn’t.

I love that you reference the Greek chorus, and I think friendship, the group text, becomes a Greek chorus sometimes for better or worse in the 21st century. And I, like many people, survived so many hard times in my life and in the world’s life through the group chat, through one-on-one texts. And texts are also poetry – especially if you are not one of those psychopaths who text in full paragraphs! There are line breaks, there are different forms of syntax that do not align with “standard English,” there are stutterings, you get back to things, you don’t talk in a linear way. It’s not like, answer, question, answer, question, cause-effect. I’m inspired by these moments where we’d be rapid-fire texting, and sometimes I’d be like, Why isn’t this in the Library of Congress? Like, why is that other stuff? This stuff is amazing.

I would take screenshots of things that friends had said or that I’d said to friends to return to, and they became my sacred texts that I used as prayers and mantras. And prayer is also a form of poetry, so that’s why I decided I wanted to include these interludes.

I also just want to be respectful of someone reading a book of poetry. It’s exhausting to read something really long, followed by something really long. So I am aware of that in a musical sense. Back in the day, when I would buy actual albums and not just listen on a streaming service, it was nice that artists thought of an entire theatrical experience where you have these intense movements: a peppy song, then a sad song, then an interlude. And it leads into the next movement. I tried to think about it on a structural level, to create that effect for a reader and be aware of when they might be exhausted and need just a little break.

In terms of the reprises, I’ve had these experiences where I’m talking to a friend, and we’re saying, Okay, we solved all our problems! We’re never going to go back to being who we were again! And then a week later, I’m crawling out of my hole, and I’m embarrassed, back in the same place I was three months ago. And then my friend’s like, Yeah, me too. I think that’s also very healing: to realize that sometimes you have to say what is true over and over and over again; you move microscopically.

IN: Ana Cecilia Alvarez writes about the book’s “goo aesthetics.” The poems’ textures are wet and sticky: cum, puke, shit, spit, pussy lips, birth, blood. They get all over everything. And there’s a sticky repetition and a build of phrases lingering – again, goo. Even the roundness of the book’s form feels like an egg, a wet orb.

The final lines of the book begin: “there was water between us,” and that quality almost webs around the book’s cutting language – the swords and the pain, the bullshit and the rage it induces.

Can you talk about your newer writing’s  textures, the textures you’re writing with or into now? Are “goo aesthetics” ongoing? Is goo a forever texture?

JZ: That’s a great question. In some ways, it is a forever texture because the earth is forever gooey, and birth is forever astoundingly intense. But the act of creation has never just been soft. It’s always been about the ripping apart of flesh and the unleashing of substances and blood and cum, and I’ll always be interested in that. It’s a forever fascination of this world and of human bodies and of earthly bodies. And cosmic bodies, I guess.

The textures that I’ve been interested in now, it’s hard to say. I was writing almost a romance novel, an erotic romance novel before the pandemic started. In my mind, it had a 19th-century quality, a reserved quality. I don’t know why I was interested in that. It’s just something that I started writing. But I couldn’t just keep going.

I think right now, to be honest, I’m in the process of figuring out what I want to write about. I think I said [at a reading] that I’ve been interested in healing. And I don’t know how that translates into writing, what that means for me as a writer, because to be honest, I haven’t been writing a lot of fiction and poetry lately. I wrote a little bit back in May. I’ve been doing more screenwriting, which is not quite the same thing. I talked to an astrologer friend who said, You might be on like this journey that’s for now too corny to write about. And I was like, Yeah, I might be. But I want to find a way to do it. So we’ll see.…

I’ve been interested in the I Ching. I’ve been interested in tarot; I’ve been interested in astrology. I’ve been interested in synchronicities and magic. Not in the sense of saying a spell and hoping that a bunny will poof out of a hat, or whatever. But like actual magical things that happen. So we’ll see what kind of textures that leads to. Hopefully not corny ones.

IN: You mentioned yesterday [during the Q&A] that My Baby First Birthday’s release felt almost unimportant, initially, because it came out in May, alongside early pandemic spikes. So much of the book’s rage – against capitalism, against white settler colonialism, the self-effacement of whiteness, its appetite for trauma – feels even sharper set in a COVID-19 context, though obviously none of those phenomena are new. I’m wondering what it has been like to watch your book as something outside of you, living as it has been in this particular world.

JZ: I’m going to speak on it in terms of this very experience, talking to you, because you’re right: it has been a while. And I very deliberately didn’t try to have a big splashy reception. Tin House is a wonderful, incredible small press, but it is still a small press after a fiction debut. I don’t think most people who care about money, power, and glory would advise that. But I wanted to do something smaller. I wanted to have a different experience after Sour Heart because I got so much attention. But it was quite overwhelming for me. I got so much feedback on what the book was that I forgot what it was for me. After a while, I could no longer have a direct experience with my own stories because they had been described so much, and I had been asked to describe them so much, in terms of a framework that other people had designed.

Sour Heart had become too significant in all the ways I never thought about it being significant when writing it. So it was important for me to publish My Baby First Birthday and to know that it wouldn’t be described that often.

Poetry is not a genre that invites too much reception and attention, so most of the experiences I’ve had have been more one-on-one, like right now talking to you, talking to other people – and there haven’t even been true one-on-one experiences because you can’t meet people anymore! But it’s been great because it means that only people who really, really, really genuinely had an experience with it try hard to communicate it to me.

This sounds maybe corny again, because I’m on a corny little journey, but it makes me happy because in choosing to publish something and not just keep it to myself, I’m choosing to let go of it. I’m choosing to relinquish it to whoever wishes to have it. And letting go is scary because it could mean I’m sending it off into the wrong hands, or I’m sending it off to people who hate it, and that is valid as well.

When people tell me that these poems hit or that these poems feel relevant, I don’t know what to say. I can only be grateful that I had something I wanted to say and explore and that it reached people. I’m having a hard time answering this question because I think I have let go of these poems in some ways. Maybe I’m willfully trying to have no idea what they mean to people because once a writer buys into the meaningfulness of what they have to say, it is very hard to say more.

I need to keep thinking of myself as a pretty insignificant, unimportant person who is a student and not a prophet, not a leader, not a visionary. I’m not a cultural critic. I don’t think what I have to say is any more dazzling than what anyone else is thinking and trying to say. I just have things for myself that I want to say, and I want to share. And I think sometimes staying in a place of contradictory willful ignorance is what allows me to keep doing it.