Jenny Zhang's no stranger to the pleasures of discomfort. Her quietly hilarious, intimate, dream-like collection of poems Dear Jenny, We Are All Find, published in 2012 by Octopus Books, is filled with body fluids, pubes, buttholes, awkwardnesses, spelling mistakes and a hundred other truly ordinary things that some people don't even talk about with close friends, and certainly don't expect to appear as the subjects of poems.
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Her bawdiness belies a sharp intelligence, and tonally it feels more Broad City than South Park. Her lines temper confidence with curiosity, the conversational with the crystalline, all of which you can see going on in this perfect line that closes her book: "I nearly faint from the love I nearly was capable of." That uncomfortable-but-exciting state of nearliness is the sensation Zhang likes to explore, both in subject and in form.
Zhang doesn't confine her curiosity to only one genre. She's hungrier than that. Maybe you’re reading what Lena Dunham is reading over at Lenny Letter and have seen Zhang’s new chapbook-length collage essay, Hags. Or maybe you’re a devotee of Rookie and you’ve been bookmarking Zhang’s personal essays about sadness and Weezer and handling the fallout from abusive relationships all over the place. No matter the genre, Zhang is always going there, saying that thing everyone else is thinking but is too politic or too afraid or just too nervous to say.
Next week Zhang will be here in Seattle serving as APRIL Festival’s Writer-in-Residence. During her tenure she'll help judge the popular storytelling competition A Poet, a Playwright, a Novelist, and a Drag Queen (start your pandering and bribing now, writers). She’ll also be reading at APRIL's Opening Party AND at my favorite event: APRIL Festival + Vignettes, where local artists will transform Zhang’s Dear Jenny into a room full of art.
That's so much stuff! Figured it'd make sense to have a little gchat sesh and sort it all out.
You write in many different forms. Do you find yourself writing all genres at once, or do you leave some fallow for a while?
I took a long break from fiction because that was my "genre" for much of my early twenties. I went to grad school at Iowa [Writers’ Workshop] for it, and when I got my degree, I felt so icky and over-professionalized in fiction. It wasn't fun anymore. I lost the spirit of wonder. I knew too much, saw how all the cogs were turning and could no longer marvel, so I started writing poetry, a form that made me feel very stupid—which is an exciting way to feel.
After Dear Jenny came out, the same thing happened with poetry—I started to know too much and it was destroying my enjoyment, so I started writing essays, something I had never done before, and it was fun to try even if it's also embarrassing and cringy to have your learning curve published and made public.
The good thing about having so many genres to work in is that I can go back to an old one and it feels new again. Distance made my heart grow fonder for fiction. I went back to these stories I was writing when I was in my early twenties, and it was a sweet little reunion. Some of those stories are coming out in a short story collection that will be published by Random House in 2017.
WHAT. You have a book of short stories coming out from Random House? This I did not know.
Ha, I said that so awkwardly! Sorry, I feel weird promoting myself. But also it's odd to not mention it I guess.
What's it called?
It's tentatively titled We Love You Crispina.
It seems like so much is asked of writers: you have to write well, perform well, promote yourself well, and then act gracefully when you get to a place in the publishing world where other people do some of the promoting for you.
Yeah, on the one hand anyone who publishes their work has an ego that is probably not the most modest, but, on the other hand, most writers don't get into writing because they are dazzling at talking about themselves in public.
It's also a kind of labor that, at least to me, is not very compatible with writing, which involves a lot of dreaming, a lot of stuff that looks unproductive, that looks like lazing around, staring out, staring in, thinking, etc. If I have to promote something on a certain day, it's hard to switch off immediately and go back into dreaming/thinking/writing mode.
When you read poems, you adopt a sort of dreamy-sounding reading style. Is that the sound of the voice in your head when you’re dreaming and wondering and thinking?
I don't know what the voice in my head sounds like when I'm dreaming! I do try to perform rather than read when I do poetry readings. Part of it is just because I have to protect myself. I'm reading stuff that is really open and seemingly personal. I'm talking about bodies in a way that might seem like I'm just talking about my own body, and that creates this sense like I don't have boundaries, like I'm available for any kind of comment or interaction, so it's important to me to make a distinction between "me" and the speaker of the poems I'm reading.
A bunch of artists are going to be transforming your book of poems into room full of art. What are some objects you expect to see in that room?
A lot of splatter and splutter, I would imagine. There are a lot of fluids and a lot of flinging in my first book of poems. There are also a lot of formations of family, the idea of being your own dream, being your own mom, so perhaps there will be tender objects—"objects" being a very loosely defined term—present as well.
Any dark horse objects/shapes/figures/colors?
Many of the poems are invested in creating new mythologies and borrowing from the genre of fairy tales, and even though none of the poems are lyrical epic poems, the language can sometimes approach the bombast and chest-puffing of epic poetry. It would be interesting to see if any of the artists go in that direction.
And “mistakes”—there are a lot of misspellings and mistakes and errors and hiccups [in Dear Jenny.] I'd love to see how that can be represented visually.
You say "Distance made my heart grow fonder for fiction.” But now you’ve got a book of short fiction. Is your heart growing fonder for another genre?
I'm writing a novel, which is a different beast from short fiction. There's room and expectation of messiness, meandering, which is a lot of fun. I'm also trying to write more reported longform essays. And because I'm greedy and insatiable and fetishize the experience of the new, I'm also working on some screenplays. The danger of potentially putting out some Really Bad Art is kind of thrilling. I like comfort when it comes to, say, like a bed or takeout, but I need and compulsively seek out discomfort when it comes to making things. It's the part of me that doesn't want to embrace maturity as a writer, at least not yet. For now, I'm still going through puberty.