STRAND writer Bianca Layog interviews three Barbican Young Poets — Fathima Zahra, Troy Cabida, and Jinhao Xie — who performed at the R.A.P Party at 05Fest, Inua Ellams's poetry festival at the Barbican Centre.
Photo by Christy Ku, Courtesy of Barbican Centre
Bianca Layog: I saw that you had a poetry pamphlet shortlisted with Magma Poetry called You were here all along. Putting together a pamphlet can be scary. Could you speak to your experience of putting that collection together? What was that like?
Jinhao Xie: I’ve wanted to put out a pamphlet for a long time, but I had no idea where to start. It's such a daunting task because you have to thread all your poems into a theme. I honestly sort of panicked and randomly put all the poems together. I’m still flitting between "You can do this" and huge impostor syndrome. I’ve been trying to encourage myself into believing that it’s going to be okay. That’s what my experience has been like, so far.
BL: Speaking of collections, your poems have found their way into many poetry anthologies and magazines, like Articulations for Keeping the Light In and Instagram Poetry for Every Day. In what ways is your poetry concerned with the larger poetry community?
JX: My relationship with the poetry community has developed in such an unorthodox way. I didn't study English Literature or creative writing. I didn't win big prizes. I felt like such a newcomer, like a baby of the community. But I’ve been very well-adopted into the poetry community. And what poetry has done for me… it might sound dramatic, but it was so life changing. I never thought hearing words and discovering your language could change somebody’s life, but that’s what poetry has done. I find the Asian community really enriching as well.
BL: I couldn’t help but notice that so much of your Instagram feed is dedicated not only to your own work but to that of others as well. I also saw that you recently reviewed Jinjin Xiu’s There Is Still Singing in the Afterlife. A lot of writers connect with each other by reviewing and blurbing each other’s books. It requires a lot of close study and attention to detail. It's such an honour to blurb someone's book and be blurbed by someone. Could you speak towards the importance of collating and writing about the work you love and admire? What do you hope to give and receive through the act of writing these reviews?
JX: On the point of sharing other people's work, I intentionally choose poets that I know and have come across in my own personal experiences in poetry events, mostly because I feel like more well-known poets don't really need any sort of shouting out. In contemporary poetry, I feel like there's so many people writing but not enough people shouting each other out, and I really want to create an atmosphere or community where we cheer on each other's work. Where we’re like, “Hey, I'm over here. You're not alone. I like your poem”. If there's just one person that shares my poem on Twitter or Instagram, I’m like, “My poem is reaching one person who really needs it”. And then that just makes my day. I want that to happen to other people. I want to give more to other voices I really admire, mostly my peers, like Gboyega [Odubanjo], who sadly passed away, which was a great loss.
On reviewing, being able to review Jinjin’s collection was a huge honour because I came across her collection via Twitter and I was like, “Oh my God, who is this person?” I'm always reaching out to diaspora poets online. I'm curious about what people are talking about. What caught me first was the title. I initially reached out to her, and she responded. I was kind of fangirling the whole time. She said, “Would you like to do a review? And I said, “Yeah, of course I want to do a review of your pamphlet!” She then shared the whole collection with me, as I’d only seen bits that were shared online. I read the whole thing and was blown away. Later, I attended an event she was reading and thought “Wow”.
See, the poem she shared didn’t use any Chinese words. Sometimes in diaspora poetry you use Chinese words or other mother tongues to show that you’re from a different culture. But in my own poetry practice, I’m always trying to interrogate or question this idea of othering. When I write poems today, I’m trying to see if I can transcend the sense of a certain culture, if I can do without the signposting. When I read her poetry, I was like, “There’s somebody else doing it. It’s great”. There’s some sort of sensibility I can just detect [in her poetry]. It’s in my review— that even through a motif or the image of a blade of glass, even if it’s something small in the title, Jinjin makes it so that if you experience a certain culture, you will know its relevance. But if you haven’t experienced the culture, it just seems like a regular metaphor or image. So that’s something I’ve always sought out in my poetry practice, and to find someone else doing it was like— yes! That was a great moment.
I’ve not put out a collection yet, but I’m hoping to have some great friends blurb my work. I think in some ways, being blurbed will feel like a lineage, you know, like some sort of inheritance— not culturally, or by blood, but in terms of literature. I’m seeking poetic kinship. When Mary Oliver and Toni Morrison passed away, I felt it, you know? And I was also very regretful, because I only came across them after they’d passed away. I felt sad that I couldn’t have experienced more of their wisdom while they were alive. Even though you can trace them through interviews, it’s just not the same. The other day, when I saw Claudia Rankine in London, I was like, “Oh my God”, because I was seeing someone who felt like my literary ancestor in front of me. It was magical.
BL: No, you answered it wonderfully! Thank you so much. You mentioned that image of the blade of grass, that different understanding of things if you've lived it. I noticed that you had a highlight dedicated to “found word”. You also had your poem with The Bramley Sessions about exploring the multiplicity of a single word, “China”. I’ve also been thinking about the theme from last Saturday: home. Do you ever feel daunted by these large themes? How do you deal with the friction that comes with loving where you come from and your cultural heritage while choosing to live and work away from it? Also, how do you deal with the expectations that come with being a poet of colour?
JX: In the earlier stage of my journey in poetry, that's all I saw— with Button Poetry, with all the spoken word performances and slams. There’s a real emphasis on marginalised identity. When you're coming in without any critical thinking, you'll think, “Oh, this is what I'm expected to write”. That’s why representation matters. If you’re only seeing one part of your identity being performed—and praised, in a certain way—we think that’s the only way. We start replicating that, right? I think that’s why I always talk about my identity in the earlier stages of my poems. I felt like that was what was expected of me. I didn’t know better.
So then I went through a transition where I interrogated that. I started to think about what my poetry truly was. I rediscovered what poetry truly meant to me. I found this through listening to and reading things about poetry. I can’t reference them all, but good examples are VS Podcast, Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook, and the Poetry Unbound podcast. What I’ve gathered is that I’m fine talking about identity, but I want to dive deeper to discover a new meaning of poetry for myself.
I do feel daunted by themes whenever I participate in poetry competitions. I’ve taken a huge interest in the mundane and everyday life because I wanted to pay attention to all the things that can easily be overlooked. Even just a speck of a crumb on the table— I wanted to heighten that image to a level where people think, “Oh, there’s something there”. That’s where my poetry is at now.
Whenever I inhabit the identity that I am “supposed to have” I ask why that is. For example, if I talk about New Year in my poems, I don’t say it’s Chinese New Year. Not because I don’t want to be identified as Chinese, but because when I was growing up, the New Year was always known as New Year, not Chinese New Year. A Western person coming to a different culture wouldn’t say, “Oh, I’m celebrating my Western New Year”. You know, they would just say, I’m celebrating New Year. That's it. I’m trying to challenge that universality. When I talk about the New Year, I’m talking about the one I spent in China, which would be according to the Lunar New Year.
In one of my poems that I got published in 14 poems, the line says “Come / & meet me all this way”. My poem is about a collaboration with the reader or the viewer, because I see my poems as a piece of artwork. It’s collaborative work. This is who I am. This is my essay. This is my poem. And you know exactly what it is. You come with me on a journey. You meet me all this way. You need to do the work. If you don't want to do the work, that's fine, too. It's like the feeling of painting by Monet. If you don't want to meet Monet, then you would just say it's hazy colour. But if you truly want to meet him, you will realise how long he spent painting these pieces. That’s the kind of work I want my poems to ask for.
I love mundane objects because I want to imbue them with meaning. I think that when we chase after big meanings, we get lost, but if we focus on the small things, we can reconnect with each other. If we talk about racism or decolonization as a big subject, we will always be divided into factions, but if we sit down to say, what is this cup of tea that we’ve been given? What is that piece of bread? We can all share. What is this grain of rice that we can all share? That's where it gets more powerful, right? I think that's my mission that I don't get to share that often because I don't want to be a preacher.
BL: That was so beautiful, and I don't think you seem like a preacher at all. Does music or other forms of art usually play an important part in your writing process? I’m curious because of your participation in the R.A.P. Party.
JX: R.A.P. Party is a legendary platform. Every poet has wanted to be on the line-up because of the vibe— you experienced it yourself. The R.A.P. Party focuses on both the poets and the songs. For me, the personal connection there was that I personally didn't really grow up listening to R&B or hip-hop music, but my brother was. He’s a big fan, so I thought that this would be a perfect opportunity to honour somebody else. Whenever there's a possibility to bring someone else into the presence of my performance, I want to do it.
In the bigger, grander scheme of things, even though we know there are 1.4 billion Chinese people living in China and there are so many more globally who identify as part of the Sino diaspora, we are both visible and invisible. We are visible in the way that the country or state has such a huge presence in the global consciousness, whereas individual experience does not. That creates a dilemma. People don’t really connect with people who are from a different culture. For example, some people don’t relate to people who are Muslim, because they don’t see them. But once you see that they’re eating that bowl of noodles the same way you do, getting burned by the soup the same way you do— you realise their humanity. That’s why I wanted to bring my brother into the R.A.P. Party. I want people to see the humanity in me but also the humanity and connection with somebody else whose way of existence they think is impossible.
BL: In that same vein of connection, a lot of people complain that poetry isn't accessible, which is exactly why events like the R.A.P. Party are so important. I noticed that you hosted an online workshop with the Southbank Centre called Nature as Active Participant. What is the most rewarding thing about hosting workshops and bringing poetry into your public life?
JX: I'm super enthusiastic about poetry and what poetry can do. Poetry is not just putting words on the page. Poetry is a daily practice. It’s about, for example, the connection you and I have now.
CAConrad is an indigenous American non-binary poet whose idea of [Soma]tic Poetics I hugely believe in. It’s not just writing the poems down. There are certain instructions [in the ritual] that you need to experience the world. So, whenever I host a workshop, it’s not just me saying, “Oh, here I am trying to teach you how to write poems”. It’s not that; it’s shifting away [from that] to look at things. Sometimes people are like, “Oh, I can’t write” or “I can’t produce”. That capitalistic thinking is not what poetry is about, to me. What poetry is about is tracing things differently, looking at things differently. If we don't define the poem as the words on the page, then everything can be a poem. Delivering a poetry workshop is a way to encourage others to discover the poetry in their life.
In the workshop, I showed them a series of poems from various poets. In English poetry, there are a lot of poems about nature as metaphor. You don't call the tree your mother, but you call the mother a tree, right? Or you metaphorically say, “My father is the mountain”, not “The mountain as my father”. If we change the dynamic, we might care about nature a bit more. Have you seen the Sycamore Gap Tree that was axed? It’s been on the news recently. We don't mourn the trees that have been burned in California or in Brazil. You know, we don't mourn them like that because we didn't have a personal connection. We didn't have a wedding in front of that tree. We didn't have a wedding in that forest.
BL: If everything could be a poem, then this whole interview feels a bit like a poem.
JX: Yeah, everything can be a poem.
BL: I’m going to circle back and ask you about a poem of yours that I really liked: "Chinese Love Story", in Spilled Milk. It’s prose-esque, but there are breaks in the form that denote things that might perhaps have been overheard, or phrases that are said to teach someone a lesson. At the end, though, the body itself becomes the lesson. I remember reading that you often try to explore the ‘domestic existence of queer bodies’. What about form fascinates you?
JX: Thank you for liking the poem. Really. That was my first published prose poem. Let me dial back a bit. I became a complete nerd for form after a VS Podcast episode in which Patricia Smith was interviewed by Danez Smith and Franny Choi. They asked her about form. She said that because she came from the world of spoken word, people told her that her words had no form, that they were always free. So, she studied the hell out of form, and developed her own relationship with it.
One thing that really struck me was that she said, “I want to write a sestina not because I want to showcase how smart I am but because I want to write the sestina to make a personal connection”. The sestina has repeated words, right? She reframed the form so that instead of just focusing on the repetition, she focused on what the repetition meant. She said, “If you have something or have things you can’t let go of, write a sestina”. And that was so powerful to me, that the form itself carries a meaning.
My poem’s title is "Chinese Love Story", so it has that property of prose in its title. Only the prose can carry it and that’s why I decided to use that form. I wanted the flow and rhythm to be determined by the commas and full stops and line breaks. It was meant to be about my mom and dad, but I only gathered bits and pieces from her mouth about what her wedding was like. But then I asked her, “Oh, is this exactly what happened?” And she was like, no, none of that. No cheap house, no wedding dress. I was literally none of that. It was very rushed. It was none of that. That reckoning of reality with fiction is what frayed the story itself from a nearly autobiographical narrative to something else, and that's why there’s that fable-like quality to it.
BL: So going back to that podcast episode with Patricia Smith and how she got a lot of criticism for being in spoken word; I wanted to ask: how have your experiences as a spoken word poet and performer informed your written work?
JX: I've never really distinguished between spoken word and written poems because I don't like that divide. I’ve always felt that there’s a spoken quality in the written word, and there's always a written quality in the spoken word. I just feel like if you perform on the stage, that's a spoken word performance, but if it's on the page, then it's a written poem. It doesn't matter. I think a lot of times I've spoken with artists who think spoken word isn’t poetry anymore, and I don't like that. I feel like we shouldn't encourage or discourage anyone.
Joelle Taylor won the T.S. Eliot Prize. She’s amazing. She brought spoken word to the biggest stage in British poetry. And then there’s Anthony Anaxagorou. They’re both spoken word poets who established Out-Spoken Press to validate the idea that spoken words can be published. It has value in literature, not just as performance.
Raymond Antrobus’s The Perseverance— great collection. He was from spoken word, too. Salena Godden was from spoken word and wrote a brilliant novel, Mrs Death Misses Death. There are a lot [of poets]. Nikita Gill has put out a book called Great Goddesses: Life lessons from myths and monsters. She writes brilliantly because she rewrites these myths and recentres female mythological characters. I have so many references.
BL: At the end of this interview, you could drop some of your spoken word and poetic inspirations. I appreciate this so much. I wanted to ask if you had any tips for young poets seeking to write and publish poetry.
JX: Yes, yes, yes. I always encourage people to submit, especially if they’re free. Don't judge your poems. If you're ready to submit them, just go for it. My poem “moonlight”, which got published on the Poetry Foundation, got rejected multiple times. A year later, the Poetry Foundation got back to me saying, “We really like your two poems.”
I was like, “Are you kidding me?” Because I was losing faith. The version of ‘moonlight’ that I submitted was version four or five. I told them, “Oh, I’ve been working on it over the past years. It's already on version eight or nine”. They told me to send it along, and then said, “You know what? We like the earlier version better”.
I had to compare both versions because I was so confused. I think that because I lost so much faith, the later version had so much angst that replaced the joy I had in the beginning of writing the poem. The poem was written about a dream I had with my brother in it. I was smiling because he called me up. My brother never called me up. He called me up, and it was just amazing. I wanted to record the joy, not the angst, but because I had been getting so many rejections, I’d started being self-critical. The poem became very sad.
With “Chocolate”, the other poem on the Poetry Foundation, I wrote it in one go. It was a freewrite. I wrote it in the morning. I made a few edits. I was like, it’s the Poetry Foundation, they’re never going to pick my poems. I'm just going to pick a random poem. And they picked that one, you know? So, you never know. Don't ever judge your poems. You just need to get them out there and submit. And once you do, don't think of rejections as the other person not liking them.
I take it as the other person not getting me yet. The more I submit, the more they’ll know the intention I have behind my poems. Somebody's going to see it, you know. Hence why I share mine and other people's poems. I used to write daily and then share uncorrected drafts because I wanted people to see that nothing's perfect. You just do it.
BL: The part that really got me in “Chocolate” was the ending. The line “Don't lick it”. Incredible. I loved it.
JX: What happened in that poem was that my mom was on her period and had forgotten to bring a pad. I told my mom about it. I still remember the conversation. I was really young, and said, “Mom, what's that on the seat?” And she said, “Oh, it's just chocolate”. And I thought: chocolate melted on the seat. Obviously, I won't lick it. But I also thought: when did she buy chocolate? Because she didn't have chocolate.
It was only years later that I realised it was related to a period, you know? And I told my mom, “That poem is on the Poetry Foundation. Ta da!” She was like, “Oh my goodness”.
BL: That's so funny. I think it's always interesting hearing about where poets get their inspiration from.
JX: I always hide personal memories in poems. Some moments are fictional, but there are other bits that function as an open diary, things that I want to capture.
BL: The chocolate to me just was very reminiscent of childhood summertime. It’s a perfect summer poem. Thank you so much for your answer!
You were on a roll earlier about the poets you really love. It would be wonderful if you could share those. I’d also love to hear about some upcoming projects you're excited about, directions you want to go in in the future.
JX: Yes, I have a few projects I'm doing. I am venturing out into the world of prose writing, so I'm writing a few short stories. I sometimes feel like poems don’t give me enough detail. I want to enjoy the mundane. I want to enjoy, for instance, somebody picking up water. In poetry, you can’t just let that person pick up a cup of water for no reason. Well, maybe you can, but I’m testing out prose. I’ve also been planning a few novels I’m writing. I’m working on my poetry collection. It was only recently that I finally got the title for it. I want to give people intimacy. I want people to think that these poems aren’t just about queer experiences that they can’t relate to, they’re about experiences that are being expressed by a queer poet, something they can still relate to.
Do you know K-Ming Chang?
BL: Is she the one who wrote Bestiary?
JX: Yes, yes. Did you read her first pamphlet?
BL: No, I haven't yet.
JX: Past Lives, Future Bodies. Oh my goodness. That collection changed my life. And Eye Level by Jenny Xie.
BL: One thing I'm reading right now that I have been enjoying is OBIT by Victoria Chang. Very good, very sad.
JX: Yes! Have you got Dear Memory by her?
BL: No, I haven't.
JX: The books have similar themes. Sorry, I'm just pulling up poetry books.
BL: No, I love this! A book I saw that you had in your Instagram feed that I really want to buy is Mary Jean Chan’s collection Flèche. I also really want her new collection, Bright Fear. I love the chopsticks poem.
JX: I'm writing a review on that.
BL: No way!
JX: Yeah! And do you know Marilyn Chin? She's the OG. She wrote The Phoenix Gone, The Terrace Empty. She is amazing. This collection was one I discovered through my university library that changed my life. And I don’t know if there’s a connection here, but the syntax [of the title] is very similar to K-Ming Chang’s title for her book, Past Lives, Future Bodies. My favourite poem from Mary Jean Chan’s collection, Flèche, is “The Window.”
And with the chopsticks poem, couplets are so often called a juvenile technique, but it’s not.
I really like couplets. It’s about pairing. It’s about company.
Another thing I'm working on is a nonfiction or essay collection on my take on poetry. It’s not just about teaching you to write poetry. I want to add a little bit more that extends beyond the page— to see what the couplet is, in your life. You know, what is the sonnet in your life? How do you find the sonnet in your life, not just the sonnet on the page? Or how do you see the sestina in your life? If there’s something you keep falling into, why does writing a sestina help you out with that obsession? I do workshops to test out those theories.
BL: That's beautiful.
JX: Oh, another thing I want to mention: State of Play, which is an anthology I took part in corresponding with Will Harris, is going to be published by Out-Spoken Press. I just want to put that on the record because I actually didn't do much personal correction regarding my response for that anthology, because I wanted to preserve the originality or authenticity of that response in the work. I don't believe that publishing should just be mistake free. They’re all just e-mail responses. Will and I did little e-mail responses back and forth talking about different topics.
BL: Oh wow, that's so interesting!
JX: Yeah, it’s quite interesting to have that recorded. It’s like a time capsule. I can't wait for later to be out in the world! It's coming out this month.
BL: Exciting! I'll definitely have to grab a copy. Thank you so, so much again. I hope you have a wonderful rest of your day.
JX: Have a good night! Thank you so much.
Edited by Lara Mae Simpson, Literature Editor