Technically, no. You're not dead. But when the universe keeps singling you out for history's greatest disasters, it's nice to be reminded that the bright corners of the human imagination have the power to prevail over the mono-cloud overhead. Wendy Xu's book of poems, You Are Not Dead, is here to help. Her voice welcomes you to a world in which "the wind plucks flowers for sailing," and where one can be "on fire and like it." Sure, the plucking kills the flower. And, yes, being on fire is not ideal. But, like Whitman before her, Xu seems to understand that there is no death, not really. Life killed it.
On Thursday, March 26, the APRIL Festival teams up with various Seattle artists selected by Sierra Stinson's fortnightly home gallery project Vignettes to turn Xu's book into a real place you can walk through. The location is secret, so RSVP (here) to get a spot. Recently, I called Xu on the phone and spoke with her about what she thinks it will be like to walk through a re-creation of her own mind.
Artists are transforming your poems into a gallery of sculpture, paint, and shadow. How do you feel about that concept?
I feel very honored. And also really excited to see how the images read for people who work in three dimensions. I want to see how the concepts will take up space, weight. I can write a line that imagines anything, and it doesn't have to exist in the world. But transforming that into visual art—and especially sculpture—seems like a real challenge. Also, I heard there's puppets!
They said something about puppetry. But not crappy sock puppets—cool shadow puppets. Do you know shadow puppets? They're beautiful. You make them with your hands and your body.
I've heard one of the artists is making cast-iron potatoes.
I don't think there's any potatoes in that book. But I'm excited to see that.
Flattery and excitement aside, do you think it might be terrifying to walk into a room full of your own realized imagination?
You're touching on my greatest excitement and my greatest fear. I will be in a room that I made, but one that I've never inhabited physically. I won't be able to just close the book.
Did visual art inform the poems?
A lot of the book is composed of moments that felt more like film than life. For instance, I talk about sitting in a bar and watching a bachelorette party come through and seeing all the girls in their sashes having a conversation about what it means for their friend to love someone forever while their sashes catch the light—I think that's amazing. And I think it's particularly amazing that I didn't even have to imagine it.
Do you think that poetry and visual art have a special connection?
On one hand, the collaboration asks visual art to engage with a medium for which it has no need. Sculpture doesn't need language. A painting doesn't need language. On the other hand, the collaboration presents an opportunity for visual art to "make real" things that were previously only described in a poem. I do wonder how text will be part of it. If the pieces are free of text, then it'll be an expression of a materiality and physicality that poetry can't access. That seems like a fruitful exchange.
Has a piece of visual art ever made you cry?
Last year, I went to Xu Bing's show Phoenix at MASS MoCA. They were these two enormous phoenix sculptures—one male, and one female. They were made of garbage. PVC pipes and old lighting fixtures. Metal beams, etc. The debris and garbage of industrialization. I cried all over the place.
On the level of conceit, the piece is easy to understand: symbols of rebirth and hope out of the despair of urban industrialization. But it's something completely different to regard them. You can't take them in, not all in one look. You have to walk around them and under them. The scale of it is overwhelming.
Being a Chinese American artist myself, and sharing a last name with him, intensified the experience. Part of it was that I was with someone who didn't speak the language, and we were watching a film of the artist talking about the work. So there was this divide. I was feeling at once very connected to the Chinese American experience through art, but I was also feeling very alone, despite the crowd, because there were no other Chinese Americans that I could see in the gallery.