Poet Of The Week

Jenny Zhang

     March 18–24, 2013

Jenny Zhang is the author of the poetry collection Dear Jenny, We Are All Find (Octopus Books, 2012). Her fiction, non-fiction and poetry have been published or are forthcoming in Fence, HTMLGIANT, Glimmertrain, Pen American, Coconut, Octopus, Jezebel, The Guardian and Vice, among other venues. She’s a regular contributor to Rookie, curates Stain of Poetry, a monthly reading series in Bushwick, and was a 2012-2013 Workspace writer-in-residence at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. She holds degrees from Stanford University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was awarded a Teaching-Writing Fellowship and a Provost Fellowship, and has taught fiction, nonfiction and poetry at Iowa, the New School and Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop. She currently teaches high school students in the Bronx and lives in Williamsburg.

My Mother Leaves Me a Message Where She Pronounces All Romance Languages in a Deep Voice

We are all find she says
bonjour well because
well she is Chinese and anyway
we don’t use R’s
to think that I will never fall in love
is to be the me I was when I thought
I would never fall in love but I am now
this other me
in love and not too scared
I regret the heart we were captured in
in there I was not a nice person
in there I was a forgetful person
in there I required to know everyone
before anyone can know me
in there no one knew me
in there I was so alone
I might as well have been out there
which is where I am
out here and the deepness of my mother’s thoughts
so weighty and impressive
I nearly faint from the love I nearly was capable of.

–From Dear Jenny, We Are All Find, Octopus Books, 2012.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

I wrote it in France when I was heartsick for my family but also ecstatic to be in France, ecstatic about the possibility of adventure and mistakes, especially making the same mistakes over and over again and defending new mistakes with as much zeal as I have for old mistakes and entrenched patterns. Over the past decade, I’ve received so many emails from my mother that start with, “Dear Jenny, How r u? We are all find.” So many of the poems in Dear Jenny, We Are All Find are concerned with mistakes. The relishing of mistakes. The humiliation of mistakes. The isolation, but also the community that mistakes afford us and force us into. How making a mistake can mean you are too invested, or not invested enough.

This poem also probably reflects some of the ongoing anxieties of what it means to be “known.” What it means to reveal oneself. How little language reveals and yet entire lives are staked on it. I’m not going to fight anyone who reads my poems and sees all of those I’s addressing all of those you’s and thinks, Well, another confessional female poet of color writing about what it’s like to be a female poet of color. But I’m always getting ready to fight, to claim opacity when others are suggesting transparency. My fists are up but they’re not clenched.

It’s hard for me and my insecurities to talk about the making of this poem because it means I’m supposed to make my poetics known–not just to others, but to myself. Do I even want to know? It’s like in high school when you finally talk to that one guy or girl who sits in the back and never says anything and you convince yourself that person is DEFINITELY the most profound person alive in the world right now, but then you finally strike up a conversation with him or her, and you quickly realize, O wait, this person isn’t deep. This person has nothing to say. And suddenly all the dazzling possibilities of who that person could one day be to you are gone. I think in this scenario, I’m the brain of the person who could be great but isn’t. Or something.

What are you working on right now?

A second book of poems. Revising a collection of short stories. I’m working on a novel I started years ago but can’t seem to finish. Putting together some essays that I’ve written for Rookie and trying to see if there’s anything tying them all together other than incurable narcissism and excessive interest in my own troubled adolescence.

How long have you lived in Brooklyn? What neighborhood do you live in? What do you like most about it?

I was four and a half when I emigrated from Shanghai to New York. My parents picked me up in their maroon Oldsmobile and we took the Williamsburg Bridge and it was the first time I had ever seen a suspension bridge in my life and I thought we were supposed to drive on the arced cables and hope not to die. I was like, Why would anyone choose this? But then I saw the smooth, flat ground and realized I would survive. I spent my first night in the US in a tiny first floor apartment on the Brooklyn side of Ridgewood. Someone broke into the apartment and stole our laundry detergent that night and the next morning we moved to Rego Park, Queens. Two years ago, I moved back to Brooklyn and now I live in Williamsburg. My favorite thing about Williamsburg is the Foodtown supermarket. They treat their customers so sweetly. I shake the manager’s hand whenever I get a chance. He’s always there, bagging everyone’s groceries and when Sandy hit, he kept the placed stocked with bottles of water and gave discounts to everyone who asked and some people who didn’t ask.

Favorite Brooklyn poet(s), dead and/or alive?

Biggie, duh. Whitman, duh. GZA, duh. Lorca, duh. Though, did he actually live in Brooklyn? Lines from his poem “Sleepless City (Brooklyn Bridge Nocturne)” are all over the streets of Bushwick, and I feel lucky whenever I encounter them. And so many amazing poets who live in Brooklyn and write in Brooklyn–Dorothea Lasky, Simone White, r. erica doyle, Rachel Levitsky, Ariana Reines, I could go on but why not stop now.

Favorite Brooklyn bookstore(s)?

Unnameable Books and BookCourt. Molasses Books in Bushwick is a sweet spot too.

Favorite places to read and write in Brooklyn (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?

G train. Coney Island and Brighton Beach in the off-months.

Favorite places to go in Brooklyn not involving reading or writing?

SmorgasburgLos Hermanos on Starr Street, Mandate of Heaven‘s mint green paradise/studio/clothing store, Brighton Beach in the summer.

Last awesome book(s) you read?

Re-read Zirconia and Bad Bad by Chelsey Minnis. Kate Zambreno’s Heroines moved me so much. William Pope.L’s The Friendliest Black Artist in America.

Rewrite these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate goo goo and the existence of everyone,
And what I burp up you should imagine its shapeless opposite,
For every time, holiness excretes me as good as it knows to

Why Brooklyn?

I must think before I answer.