INTERVIEW WITH DAVID XIANG
Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: We love how “daydream” and “waking” engage with the idea of finality through lines like “where the sun feels small / enough to sit outside / watch it set” and “this inability to end things / to know that an end exists.” How do you think about and develop images and themes as you write?
David Xiang: I often begin a poem with an image or two in mind. I don’t have an agenda, or a motive, or even a theme when I start—I just have an image, and I let that carry my words. Often, I think the rest of my poem takes shape around the images. I’ve always been a big believer in letting my images carry the emotional freight and actual progression in my poems. The images for me are the rawest form of expression—as close to pure communication as I can get with our language. As for where they come from, they emerge from simple things I see in life, yet I find them so saddeningly beautiful—the peculiar brightness of the moon on a sunset walk, the sound of leaves twisting in the breeze, the grand and the small, the indescribable and the mundane.
RR: Your use of slashes in place of line breaks gives your poems a distinct visual identity. Could you tell us a little about how you developed this form?
DX: I started using slashes in these poems because I wanted the speaker’s voice to be fragmented, chaotic, simultaneously out of breath and with too much time for breathing. I wanted the disarray to be ordered and charged in every phrase, and to let the reader decide where the pauses and emphasis would go (by foregoing punctuation and capitalization). The slashes are there for a rhythm guide, but ultimately, I wanted the slashes to convey a sense of unease, slowed hurriedness, and to let the images coalesce into more complex emotions. In the past I had experimented with double space for full stops, or just capitalization without any punctuation, but for these poems, the slashes felt the most appropriate.
RR: We love how “daydream” and “waking” come together as companions, and there’s some evocative contrast among their images, and even just in their titles. Do you ever write poems in sequence as part of a larger project, or does each poem feel more individual to you?
DX: Yes! “daydream” and “waking” are actually part of a series of eight poems under the umbrella title of “From an Outpost.” “daydream” is poem one and “waking” is poem five in the series. This was actually a rather long project, inspired from a brief trip to Alaska, where I was immensely struck by the sheer solitude of living, and of trying to imagine how humanity could construct relationships with the natural environment if no human interaction was possible. In the past, I have also written poems that go together—such as a historical series of poems on the Chinese Great Famine in 1959-61, a set of ghazal poems, and a series of poems inspired by Vicente Huidobro’s Altazor. However, most of my poetry stands alone, and definitely feels more individual to me—usually I have a single idea or image I desperately need to write down, before it flutters into oblivion, and in each poem of mine I can usually pinpoint exactly what I was feeling or experiencing when writing it.
RR: You mentioned that you are attending Harvard Medical School. How has your time as a medical student influenced your creative work?
DX: Surprisingly, I’ve always thought of my aspiring dream to be a writer and poet to be separate from my career aspirations in medicine. However, that being said, being a medical student has definitely influenced my style and expanded my horizons in terms of styles of poems I can write, content I can include, and perspectives I wouldn’t have had otherwise. I see these fields, medicine and creative writing, hopefully merging for me down the line in my life. I actually think the processes of both are fairly similar, in terms of imagination, precision, and emotional power.
RR: You mention that you studied under Jorie Graham. Do you have any other major influences on your writing, or favorite contemporary poets?
DX: While at Harvard, both of my poetry professors, Jorie Graham and Josh Bell, were immense influences on my writing. I owe so much to them in terms of my growing comfortability and maturity with my voice. As far as other favorite more contemporary poets, I have so many: W.S. Merwin, Robert Hass, Vicente Huidobro, Louise Gluck, Jack Gilbert, Tracy K. Smith, Larry Levis, the list goes on and on. And in addition to poetry, I think art, especially impressionism, post-impressionism, and surrealism have had big impacts on my writing, as well as music (of any genre). One of my favorite paintings, the Sleeping Gypsy by Henri Rousseau, has inspired several of my poems. And when I listen to music and write, I can often go for hours before noticing the time.
David Xiang’s work in Issue 8.1: