Yanyi is the author of Dreams of the Divided Field (One World, 2022). His poem “Inheritance” from The Year of Blue Water was previously published in The Offing. Q&A conducted by Crisosto Apache, Associate Poetry Editor.
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Crisosto Apache: Hello Yanyi, thank you for taking the time to talk with us today here at The Offing. It is so great to speak with you. First of all, I want to say congratulations on the new book, Dreams of the Divided Field. I personally enjoyed reading the book and I still am feeling many of the specific lines that you have written. To start, tell us about the title and also the concept behind the book.
Yanyi: The title of the book, as you just said, is Dream of the Divided Field. The poem title that precipitated the title of the book came to me in a dream — it was a dream. The title was the name of the poem, which, in a way ironically, never made it into the book. I ended up cutting it because it didn’t quite say enough of what I wanted to say. I would say the concept of the book — for me, books don’t really come out as concepts. The conceptualizing usually happen after. But if you think about the image of the dream, of “the divided field,” I was very interested in the idea of this negotiation. A negotiation that you have to do, as you leave one life and enter another. Whatever that negotiation means, right? So, for me, I was noticing the resonances of like, oh, transitioning in my body as a trans person but also the one life with someone and then another life, you know, beyond a relationship or the lives that you live as you’re growing up with your family. I would also say there’s a metaphysical element as well in the book that I was kind of interested in exploring, about different lives that we live, as different selves, so yeah, that’s what I would say about that. Like, how do you hold more than one existence at the same time, and is that even possible? What are the distortions that come along the way, in the ways that we fantasize about other people or the ways that we represent ourselves?
CA: I think those concepts you were just talking about just now really do resonate within the book itself. I think those are the areas where I really gravitated in terms of writing. I think they were the strongest moments. In one of the poems, you talk about doorways. I do like the idea of the body in transition, and I think as writers we want to explore that sense of identity in terms of the various different parts of the transition. Whether it’s living, whether it’s moving through life, or even accepting yourself. Moving through those various different places.
Y: Yeah absolutely, I mean transition is actually part of the process of this book. The concept was very different from my last book. I ended up revising the book very, very close to basically getting the final draft in for publication. This is not a thing I usually like to do. I’m a kind of slow editor, a slow reader. I like to let it sit for a couple of months but yeah, the process was a very different process, which we can talk about if you want. The book had a different epigraph for a long time. It was “Catullus 85.” Which, as you know, was the Ōdī et amō poem, and the epigraph that is in there now is a quote from Czesław Miłosz, which is about kind of what you’re just saying, about how our homes or ourselves are open to many, many, different actors willing or unwilling on your part. And when I read Arse Poetica, or when I reread it, I realized that particular section had to be the epigraph for this new book that I had basically revised.
CA: I did connect with the epigraph at the very beginning and I’m glad you did talk about that a little bit. Because I do believe what you suggest in terms of the idea of identity, I think being a person of color, and within my writing, I see that idea of an evolving “self” as we move through life. One of the things that you mentioned throughout your book is this idea of “aubade,” the concept of the song or even music associated with your poems. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Y: I wonder if you find this as well in your own poetry: often, or just sometimes, you know, you get a little earworm in your ear. Like, not music in the ways that you might think of. A song but language. I have always been an aural writer in that sense. My writing practice is very intuitive which is very different from other facets of my life. So for me, the song is a lot of the time the heart of the poem. It is in the moments when often… I’m kind of drafting a poem and trying to hear the next line. I’m trying to hear what wants to come next. For me, I was interested in “aubade” because they are this particular tradition of poems that come at that moment right before the sun rises and when you’re saying goodbye to a lover, etc., etc. There is a thread in the book, a prominent thread in the book, about saying goodbye to a lover but it’s also about, to me, this threshold space between night and day. The place of the unconscious and the place of the conscious. And if you want to talk about this concept symbolically, I also wanted to kind of play with this idea of what it means to say goodbye to someone and to the idea of that someone also possibly being the “self,” you know.
CA: That’s interesting that you do talk about the sunrise because when I was reading, those poems, they spoke to me about that remembrance, which made me think about the sunrise within my own culture. That specific part of the morning is a very sacred moment, where you’re able to talk to your ancestors and also commune with many of the deities and most specifically our creator. So, we consider that specific moment, just as the sun is coming up. It’s that first light that is sacred. Generally, the ritual around that sunrise moment is when we see that first line, we start running until we start to hear those voices come to us, and then we return to the point of our origin. So how you’re explaining that sunrise moment, I started to think back on those sacred moments. I also recognized getting up early and meeting that point of communing with the past.
Y: That’s so cool to know that sense of time or that space. That sacred space was something I was thinking about a lot in the poem, “The End of Another Year,” which is at the end of the book where I talk about island time and clocks. It was a very intuitive poem that came out. And originally the poem was a prose poem that I added a bunch of lineation to later on. It was very much like a space where I was thinking about beginning and ending lives, inevitably thinking about death and thinking about ancestors. There’s a poem actually called “Birthday” that is in previous drafts of the book. That is about me talking to my grandfather on my birthday. He had died in February of that year – my birthday’s in April. I was not able to go to his funeral and I was wondering how I would talk to him or when he would come to me, and it happened to be that day. I was meditating; one of the first things that I did at that time in the mornings. I just started really crying and I felt myself talking to him – it was really, really, powerful. But yeah, that poem is about the particular evanescence of the soul into the sky because he was cremated.
CA: That’s a very nice idea in terms of how you’re communing with people who are influential in your life. I know that I myself have written a lot of poems about my relatives and people who have gone on. I think it’s a very special moment when you think and reflect on them because you are moved in that kind of way. Where you want them to be around but you also know that you can still speak to them and somewhere, some way, they’re comforting you.
Y: I think a lot of the things that I was working through when I was writing this book are about how to still talk to those people. About how to still be with those who have passed on. And also those who you know are just no longer part of your life. In a way, they’re no longer there but it’s not like you can hold a funeral. I think it’s really powerful to think about poetry as a possible space for that communion to happen. Writing poetry for me has been one of the ways that I’ve been able to hold on to, or create a space where that kind of reflection is possible.
CA: Now that space almost seems like it’s a kind of infinite place where you put those poems in a book, and the book is published, it almost seems they’ll be housed there, together.
Y: I imagine every time someone chooses to give breath to something that you’ve put on the page is also another life for those words. I just really feel like I just happen to be how the words pass through, I guess.
CA: One of the poems that starts off your third section of this book is “Antiaubade,” which is almost, I don’t want to say the opposite, but it did catch my attention. Can you talk about that poem?
Y: In that poem, I’m talking about loving being alone. I love waking up at 6:00 am, I love the sound of the morning birds, etc., etc. It’s an “Antiaubade” because it’s not a parting. It’s a moment of gratitude for the things that don’t leave me. And at the end of that poem, there’s the last line. Let me see if I can remember it. “I must not fear, I, it’s something about, like… I must not fear the way that my face has changed.” I forget the exact words. It was a poem really about not saying goodbye to a lover but about saying hello to myself and the courage to say “hello” to myself.
CA: Yes, a lot of it dealt with this idea of letting go or even reacquainting yourself as you said. There’s a moment where you talk about not being able to write for long periods. But I think that last line, that is what I gravitated to—“I cannot fear / my own face, knowing its alterations”—and that sense of time that you’re trying to capture. Even knowing “ourselves” or recognizing “ourselves” and that acceptance of what you’ve known previously.
Y: Something that I’ve been thinking about just in the past week is a reintroduction, or maybe new learning, that when we’re faced with a traumatic thing in our lives, physiologically our bodies just shut down and you just… however you’re gonna go through, you’re going through. I think part of that poem is an acknowledgment that something has happened but for months and months, you can’t just go through. I think I kind of was just getting through to the next day and there’s sometimes shock that can last for a long time. I think especially with what’s going on in the world right now, I think that was a moment for me when I had to acknowledge that I couldn’t just keep writing. That in fact, I had left my body for a little while out of necessity.
CA: I think you’re right about that in terms of how a lot of times we sort of spread ourselves out too thin. We don’t stop to think of how that’s impacting our bodies. I like that idea of how we should take time to ourselves and stress over those moments because you’re right, there are a lot of things happening in the world. To take all that in, it’s very burdensome. I think oftentimes we forget that we have to give ourselves moments to heal.
Y: Yeah, or to even name what’s happened and to really take time to do that. Not just to be like, well, so and so is gone, or, you know this thing happened. Which is, you know, I don’t think our bodies cycle like the news.
CA: There’s something that I realized going through this book and it made me think about, in terms of the use of a literary tool, is your use of mythology. There are several poems in the book where you mention or allude to Greek mythology. I’m very curious about how you use that connection in your writing, like in the poem “Eurydice at the Mouth.”
Y: I can tell you the origin story of that poem. I was thinking about John Keats. I wasn’t thinking about Eurydice until the images showed up, about this person at the mouth of a cave and it’s almost like a reverse persona because I remember writing that poem as myself and at the end I was Eurydice. I realized the images that came about were those of that particular myth. I wish I was a more intentional genius. I wrote it on a plane on the way to Iceland in 2015. I remember that very distinctly and it’s one of those poems that just came to me. I wrote that poem, I revised that poem on the plane. This is a whole inner monologue about that poem. But, yeah, it was very intuitive. I follow the images and I follow the sounds and inevitably they come from my dream brain and that happened to give me Eurydice.
CA: I think the reason why that poem caught my interest is because of this idea of letting go but then also seeking that someone who has been lost. You want to go back and reacquaint, but it is a challenge that you have to go through in terms of this idea of not looking back to see the beauty that you’ve left behind. It’s the idea of reacquainting yourself. And in this case, I think it’s like you’re looking at that as a mirror and it’s interesting that you said you know it’s really a poem about yourself and looking back. It kind of reminds me of the — I don’t read the Bible a lot, but I remember from childhood — the story of Lot’s wife. The poem kind of reminded me about that idea as well.
Y: What’s funny is that you bring up the Orpheus part of that myth. I really was not thinking about Orpheus that much or at all when I was writing the poem. I was asking the question as I realized it was about Eurydice, about what it would look like for Eurydice to go back into hell, and what she was doing and thinking, and what would she do after. I’m really into astrology and it’s plutonic work basically, it’s about going into the underworld, what do you do, or what must you do, if you return to your own version of the underworld. And who will you become, that kind of stuff?
CA: Right, I sort of thought about these moments where we’re moving through life, and all of a sudden we’re there in that moment. We don’t intentionally go to those dark places, but we end up there, and we’re figuring out how to come back from that. I compare that to this notion throughout your book, this kind of push and pull of self-reflection. I mean, interestingly, you wrote this poem with this alluring idea, this connection, and I think it’s a really good basis for writing a poem. Relying on mythology and using it as a literary tool to move the poem along. I don’t know if that was your intention or not, but it moved me in that way.
Y: I’m also a very intuitive “titler” and the title “Eurydice at the Mouth” came to me and then I realized what the poem, after I reread it, was like, oh, it is inside of this particular myth.
CA: Many of your poems deal with this idea of separation and loss through the movements of corridors. What inspired you to think of those concepts in terms of metaphors and the overall emphasis of that idea in the book?
Y: I think I was really moving through complicated types of loss. The first thing was that I wanted to write a book specifically to grieve a relationship. But then, I realized that I couldn’t write about the relationship without writing about the not-so-great parts about me, particularly around emotional abuse and really naming that. And then, I also had this experience of realizing that I wanted to talk about a more complicated part of being a trans person. And to speak to the part of transitioning that is supposed to be really happy but is actually quite complicated. I’m someone who thinks of my body as a very good friend of mine, and I really struggled with what is the right way to honor my body and honor myself. I have a whole inner conversation between my body and the things that I wanted for my future, and I tried to capture that in the book around top surgery stuff.
So, for me, it was about understanding and working in the poetry to learn what I thought about both these things and other things in the collection. It was not cut and dry like something’s not there and it’s sad, and let’s move on. It wasn’t a good riddance story either. I was really asking myself, can I have all of these things? And I think that’s also what the title evokes for me. There’s partly a dream of the person who is in a field that cannot be crossed, in some way, or cannot be had in its totality, unlike Georgi Graham’s, “Dream of the Unified Field”.
CA: And the idea of being something that you can see in a peripheral and like you said, it’s hard to maneuver through that. I do like that concept. The poems in this collection have this feeling of intimacy but also vulnerability. I think that’s one of the things I appreciated in your book because it made me feel a deeper connection to what you were trying to move yourself through. I did appreciate that because I reflected a lot about myself. I think a lot of times like you said, it’s really difficult to decide to write about these moments. I’m really glad that you talked about that. Because I think it’s those moments that make connections to whoever encounters the writing. What do you hope your readers will take from this book?
Y: Oh man, well I believe that poetry is collaborative. All literature is collaborative, but I think poetry in particular because of the ways that space distance, and silence are important to the experience of it. I feel as though when a reader comes to the work, what I hope happens for them is that they find a reason to collaborate deeply, emotionally. I don’t think there’s just one takeaway necessarily for that reason. I can say for myself that I learned that, I mean, I learned a lot of things from the process of writing it, but I learned very much about how I in particular choose to continue loving past the expiration date or inhalation date. And how to hold all of those things and how I’ve always been holding all of those things in literature. I think for me memory will always be the puzzle that I’m trying to solve and, thankfully, I’ll never solve it. My hope is that someone will come across the book, and feel moved, and find it useful for how they might contemplate their life in the ways that you did. So, thank you.
CA: Well this has been a very great conversation. I am honored to have this conversation with you. I do hope that many people will pick up the book, Dream of the Divided Field because the book has a lot to say about the “self.” The book has a lot to say, like you said, about memory and how we choose to carry those memories. Though it may be very hard at times, I think it’s a very good book to read and reflect upon. I know that this book will probably be on my shelf as one that I would go back to, refer back to because there are certain books that I do that with. So, I do appreciate the fact that I was able to read the book and share some of those reflections within myself that you provided.
Y: I’m really happy that we got a chance to talk. I really appreciate that. That’s really an honor to be one of the rereads. I know because I also have those books.
What I’ve been telling people to do is if you read some of those poems, and you feel as though it reminds you of someone, I hope that people will write in the books. And then send it to them and it can be a little traveling keepsake of communities.
CA: I think that’s a wonderful idea. Well, thank you for your time again, and hopefully, we’ll talk again.
Y: Yeah, absolutely, thank you so much.
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