Emma Shi: Xiaole! Thank you for taking the time to do this interview. I absolutely admire your prose poems—they are so honest and tender, and they flow beautifully on the page. I especially love your poem mammalian, which won the National Schools Poetry Award in 2019. What draws you to prose poetry?
Xiaole Zhan: Thanks so much, Emma! That’s a tough question, actually—I’m not sure if I ever begin writing with an attitude of this is going to be a prose poem or this is going to be a ‘normal’ poem. So maybe it’s a bit of an accident that so much of my work can be classified as prose poetry. I’ve always been afraid of the first sentence, though, and I do think that this has something to do with it. To me, there’s something terrifyingly predestined about what people see as a ‘formal poem’. What I mean is, you spend weeks analysing a poem in high school English, counting syllables, seeing how one word is the shadow of another, how everything is irreplaceable and interlinked like some towering Rube Goldberg machine… you get the sense that everything needs to be there from the first sentence. Kind of like performing a memorised fugue as a soloist, actually, this type of music where every note fits into the larger picture in a specific way. You need to know already the destiny of each subject from its first sounding. And there’s something chilling about this: like being in a shadow slanting backward in time. It goes to show—I’m not all that good at memorising fugues!
With prose poems, though, a first sentence doesn’t feel like a first sentence, you know, like how people ease into speaking with “so, the other day…”, or “well, I was wondering…” And I think it’s because, and this is an entirely trivial reason, the words just look different. There’s something comfortable about a solid block of words. You could trim the prose poem on either side and it would still look like a prose poem—a hardy hedge of words. Or a pot plant that’s just great at staying alive. And I don’t mean this to say that it’s a less ‘heightened’ form of poetry. What I mean is, it’s a form that’s vitally interlinked with life as it unfolds. Because there are no visual breaks in breath or pacing, these elements come into being only as the poem is read aloud. The prose poem demands to unfold in present tense. And this ties into how it so naturally comes into being in present tense. You have something to say. You try it out. You don’t know how things will go, but you start talking anyway. One thought pulls another, and things go from there. For me, this feels like a more humane way of making poetry: we flounder, we don’t know how things will go with another person from the first ‘hello’, we overwater our orchids… why not capture this constant unfolding in poetry?
Emma: Your 2019 novella The Extinct is a compelling and haunting story, told through a narrative poem that’s layered with memories and dreams. I had another read of it recently and was once again struck by how beautifully you’ve stitched this story together. What was your process in writing The Extinct?
Xiaole: Thank you so much for taking the time to read my work, Emma. It’s wonderful to know that my words are out there in the world having a life of their own. I think that’s one of the peculiar and mesmerising things about writing—the words become a world within themselves once they leave your care. I remember my working title for The Extinct was The Invention of Memory. There were many specific images sitting in my head for a long time, and a particular emotional impetus that I wanted to capture. Sometimes you have an intuition of how a piece of writing should feel, but you can’t quite find the right words to hook on. These words from Virginia Woolf had a huge influence on me at the time, describing her writing of The Waves to her friend Ethel Smyth who was a composer: “I am writing to a rhythm and not to a plot.” Finding the structure of The Extinct—the musical ‘Theme and Variations’—was like finding the rhythm, after which the process became quite easy and breathless: I wrote the manuscript over three days. I was listening to the Op. 109 Beethoven Sonata over and over, the last movement, where the main melody, the ‘theme’ is repeated and transformed over ‘variations’ the way a childhood memory changes each time it is recollected. There’s very little material in The Extinct. There are, perhaps, a few core memories that are concretely described—the rest is rhythm and colour and repetition.
I remember also wanting to write something complete in itself in that I wasn’t pretending to know more than I did at the time, and that spoke of things I could have only known at the time. And I think it is—I couldn’t have written it now. I couldn’t have written it six months later. I’m continuously losing the ability to see certain things for the first time. The Extinct talks of this loss, and of memory and childhood, but looking at it from the outside, it’s also an embodiment of this loss itself. And interestingly, though I intended The Extinct to be about childhood, I’ve had people read it from the perspective of old age. Perhaps this makes sense because other than in old age, childhood is the closest we ever are to death. As children, we’re never quite secure in the fact that things will repeat themselves over and over. Briefly, the changing light of seasons catches our hearts off guard. Briefly, the end of each day comes to us as many individual deaths, one plus one plus one. The narrator of The Extinct sees things in a way that I could’ve only written two years ago, coming across these realisations about time and memory and mortality for the first time like a child. There’s so much colour, a dizzying amount, held together by this dangerous and breathless idealism. It’s a world entirely different from my world today.
Emma: You’re a musician as well, and you won the Commonwealth International Composition Award in 2020 for your composition ...speech having its way again, I gave a cry… (which also sounds like it could be the title of a poem!). There are echoes of musical themes in your writing, how does your practice in music blend with the way you write poetry?
Xiaole: I feel that there’s nothing that music doesn’t blend into in my life! I suppose the same can be said of my love of words. And I think it’s because both are just ways of going about life rather than a self-contained microcosm in themselves. You don’t become a musician by locking yourself in a room with a piano all day; you need to know something of what it means to be a person in the world. The same can be said of being a writer. I can’t really separate the stuff I need to do to live from the stuff I need to do to write. I don’t really separate between words and music either—both are just tools of expression. Thoughts and emotions and sensations don’t categorise themselves. It’s not like I think entirely in music some days and words on others. Usually, I think in neither—in modes far less articulated—and so use all the tools I can! It’s like having an extra colour cone, perhaps, or another needle on the seismograph. I think we all think and feel in this grey area of expression as opposed to within a particular genre or art form, but we don’t necessarily find the adequate tools to recreate it in the minds of others. So I feel very fortunate to be able to depend on music as another way of expressing myself and of being susceptible to the world. There are many specific ways of understanding the world that I’ve only reached through music, and often I am trying to express these understandings in words. The opposite is true, too. I’ve never really understood why artists wouldn’t try and approach things from multiple mediums.
Emma: Thinking back to when you first started writing poetry, how has your writing style developed? And has your idea of poetry changed?
Xiaole: I used to think of poetry as a thing in itself as opposed to a way of going about life, I guess. As something highly cerebral and serious and academic timetabled into my day like a school exam. Over time, I found myself reading more, and writing things down in my notebook more until I realised I was constantly thinking about poems and writing without actually doing anything that I wouldn’t do on a normal day. Now, I find myself reading poems every day. It’s as much a part of my lifestyle as making and then forgetting to drink a ridiculous number of mugs of tea. It’s infiltrated my social media feed. I’ve been so thoroughly infected since writing my first poems a few years ago; I’m a self-professed poetry zombie. You hear so much about the arts being disposable with the argument being no one would perish from a lack of something so ornamental as poetry. I would! I would absolutely perish. And, thankfully, I don’t think I’m the only one. In fact, I think there are many people already slowly perishing every day who would benefit immensely from the metaphoric immortality of becoming a poetry zombie.
I guess this is how my idea of poetry has changed—it’s a natural and highly rewarding way of going about life as opposed to some ungainly creature one would only have the misfortune of happening across in a Victorian classroom. It’s entwined with your personality: with your specific brand of emoji use; with the inside jokes you tell your friends; with your niche Spotify playlists—it’s who you are as a person and how you go about understanding and articulating that. It might just be the most important form of education of all. I think, like me, most people don’t realise this when starting out. And it doesn’t help that everyone has some preconception of what poetry should be already. The poetry you ‘should’ be writing doesn’t exist until you write it. For a poem to be of any interest at all, it has to be something that only you could have written. Of course, I still find this difficult to do. And I’m not sure if my style has changed so much over time as my attitude toward writing. I think I’ve always had this need for honesty and vulnerability in my work, for better or for worse. I remember walking into an interview with Karlo Mila in the atrium of the Toi o Tāmaki Auckland Art Gallery where she said: I'm a huge oversharer. Most poets are. Oversharers saved my life. I guess I am, too—a poet, and an oversharer.
Emma: What are you currently working on, and what would you like to create in the future?
Xiaole: I’d love to piece together a poetry collection. Or some kind of novel. I’m also working on some musical projects that will hopefully debut at the beginning of next year (fingers double-crossed). I’m still figuring things out in my creative practice. Sometimes I get this uncanny feeling that instead of many unconnected works, my whole life is just leading to and producing this one interconnected work that stems from the same vague and indescribable emotional impetus. I’m not sure. To be honest, I spend most of my time just being an adolescent: moping, and the like. Worrying reasonable and unreasonable amounts about the future. Coming to terms with the world. I mean, in my line of work, all these things count, haha. They’ll surface in one way or another. I just turned twenty yesterday (and I’m writing this on the day of the deadline you emailed me a month ago as it edges toward midnight, haha). I’m currently in my second year of university, which comes with all its particular discoveries and trials. This year, I’ve been doing a lot of editing work with student media, as well as journals such as Takahē, which I love in that anonymous, epistolary way. I’ve loved learning to read with empathy and working one-on-one with writers toward their vision, and I want to do more of that in the future. I don’t know—I love words, and I love music, so I’ll try my best to hang around them both as much as I can.
Emma: Finally, could you mention some of your favourite prose poems?
Xiaole: I remember a big influence on my writing was coming across a translated copy of South Korean writer Hang Kang’s The White Book in the PaperPlus of St Heliers Bay Village, a twenty-minute walk from home. I think this must have been in 2017. It’s a work that blurs the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction, between prose and poetry, and challenges the concept of a novel. Photos are also incorporated throughout the book. Most of it is written in poem-like bursts of prose that are usually no longer than one or two pages. It was one of the first times that I came across a story that was told in bursts of imagery and emotion and colour as opposed to a tightly woven plot. It made sense to me. I think I had written in one of my journals at the time lamenting how I felt I understood how to build strong sentences with startling images, but I didn’t have anything for those sentences to be about. It was like having a really nice vase but no flowers to place into them. Seeing an example of a novel that was held together by this intuitive lyricism that worked was important for me. Along the same lines of inter-disciplinary work, James Agee wrote a breathless prose poem called Knoxville: Summer, 1915 that I came to know in quite a roundabout way. I was playing the piano Ballade by American composer Samuel Barber, and my teacher introduced me to another work by Barber, which set the text from Agee’s essay to a beautiful symphonic poem by the same name for orchestra and soprano. You can tell that both the music and the words stem from the desire to translate the same indescribable emotional impetus one may feel recollecting a vivid childhood memory into art. Both fail in slightly different, painfully gorgeous ways. And I think that’s what prose poetry and every other in-between art form is all about—trying to articulate the inarticulable through a collection of interesting translational malfunctions.
Xiaole Zhan (詹小乐) is a writer and composer currently in second-year university studies. Her name in Chinese is 小乐 and means ‘Little Happy’ but can also be read as ‘Little Music’. She was the winner of the National Schools Poetry Award 2019 and the first-equal winner of the 2019 Secondary Schools Division of the Sargeson Short Story Prize.