The poems in JinJin Xu’s debut chapbook, There Is Still Singing in the Afterlife, come to us from a dreamscape suffused with memory, grief, and longing. The chapbook was selected by Aria Aber for Radix Media’s inaugural Own Voices Chapbook Prize, and published this November. In it, Xu explores family dynamics and taboos, a sisterhood built of grief, censure and erasure; she explodes form. Her poems internalize influence—from Dream of the Red Chamber to haptic theory, from street protests to Tibetan pilgrimage. Yet through this metamorphosis of form and influence, lyric and confession, Xu’s poems stay grounded in their allegiance to their people.
JinJin Xu is a poet and filmmaker. She and I have known each other since 2013, from our first poetry workshop as undergrads. Since then, she has won the 2020 Poetry Society of America George Bogin Memorial Award; her poetry and essays have received honors from Southern Humanities Review, Tupelo Press, Cosmonauts Avenue, and two Pushcart nominations. Her films have been shown at Berlin’s Harun Farocki Institute, NYC’s The Immigrant Artist Biennial, and more. While traveling for a year as a Thomas J. Watson Fellow, she recorded docu-poems with dislocated women across nine countries.
We spoke recently about There Is Still Singing in the Afterlife, the relationship between film and poetry in her work, the power of what it isn’t said, and more.
The Rumpus: You’ve described the first “To Red Dust” poem before as a kind of unlocking, or a portal into what you wanted to be writing and how you wanted to be writing it. How did you know that this poem was a game-changer for you? What did that feel like, to know that this was unlocking something else?
JinJin Xu: I wrote the whole thing in a spurt. I remember it being painful, not that it was painful for it to come out, just that I was hurting in my personal life, and writing it felt like I was digging deeper into feelings that I’ve never articulated to myself, moments that I never thought I’d speak out loud. “The Forbidden”—and maybe that was the word that unlocked everything—became an anchor, a mask, a place of safety that I did not have to actually name, that prompted me to dig deeper into this tension in my family and with loved ones that I’d never dared to put into language. Honestly, I’m still not sure what “The Forbidden” is. When I was writing the first in this series of “To Red Dust,” I was dwelling in this painful feeling of not being able to say what I really wanted to this person that I loved, this sense of inarticulateness, really hitting against something ice cold, impermeable. This energy of not being able to convey exactly how I felt to this person—the inarticulateness and failure of language between loved ones—was redirected into the writing.
Rumpus: I love the way you’re talking about the forbidden, because the way it transforms throughout the poem is so interesting. It feels like the speaker becomes the forbidden and the speaker becomes the poem. Not knowing what the forbidden really is makes sense to me because it’s a feeling, it’s nameless. I still remember hearing you read it at KGB back in the winter of 2019, like watching a movie through your voice. Could you actually speak a bit about the cinematic elements of this poem? It has the structure of a film script, moving from scene to scene using empty brackets or brackets that just say [STATIC]. And it incorporates scenes from Mona Hatoum’s Measure of Distance. A later poem, “Showing My Mother a Censored Film She Cannot Unsee, In Three Acts” is about watching a film and also includes film stills. And I feel that in a lot of these poems, you borrow logics and structures from cinema.
Xu: I actually was writing a screenplay and making little films while writing some of these poems. It was really generative for me to have the elements bleed in. Not on purpose, just in that I was working on these things simultaneously, and where they meet is often the most generative space for me.
But going back further—after that first poetry class you and I took together my freshman year, I turned away from poetry because the forms were just so alienating. I just could not write a sonnet; I felt trapped within what a poem should look like or sound like. I thought that was what poems had to do and I couldn’t find myself in that language or in that rhythm. I felt like I was just doing math while writing, trying to count meter. I also felt trapped by the page, its physicality and how the words had to look on there. I’m just such a visual person, and the way these poems were composed on the page never matched how they felt in my head. So, it was really when I was taking this experimental and documentary film class, my senior year of college, that it suddenly clicked together.
Actually, I encountered the film I reference, Measures of Distance, and the haptic theory, in that class. Haptic visuality refers to an embodied perception of film, how the closeness between beholder and image creates this erotic tension, and the pixels become another skin. And that really opened something in me. In the film, I felt this deep tension within the text: the Arabic text was overlaid on top of the image while its translation was read aloud by the speaker. I also watched other experimental films where the subtitles moved alongside, or in contradiction, or against the images on screen—and that relationship between text and image suddenly made so much sense. I realized, oh, that is how poems feel in my head! The relationship or the gap between what is said, and what is written down, and what we see, is a space that feels really intuitive to me. But I couldn’t express that properly when I was only thinking about words on the page—or trying to write a “poem” the way it should look like.
Rumpus: That makes so much sense, especially thinking about how much you play with space in your poems, and how much use you make of the page. A lot of your work seems to be about absence, too. There are so many blank spaces, elisions, parts of the poems that empty out, that are about obscurity and what you can and can’t see. Sometimes the blank moments feel like space for breath, and sometimes like gaps where things are being withheld from the reader. I could go on, but I’d love for you to talk about the role that absence plays in your work.
Xu: Absence is such a great word to describe it. Because people have said that there are silences, but what I see as a gap is not necessarily silence, which implies a clamping down or void or something that we can’t hear. When I read the poems, what’s missing is loud—not loud but—
Rumpus: Yeah, how absence is still a presence.
Xu: Exactly. I can feel the presence of what’s not said. And in some places, like the second “To Red Dust” with the dates I erased, that was taken out of necessity because I was trying to protect the identity of who I was writing about. I was trying to purposely, in a sense, self-censor, which is a weighty choice. Like with the erasure of Mao’s Little Red Book in “The Revolution Is Not A Dinner Party,” I can feel my poem attempting to carry the weight of all the violence that book evoked, but also the millions of people who waved that book proudly and what it meant to them. Erasure as a form necessitates absence, but of course, the utter complexity of the book’s history is still there for me. I can’t really talk about this in blanket terms because each poem necessitated absence in specific ways. I had to mess with the form again and again until I got it right.
“To Her Brother, Who Is Without Name,” the poem that splits the page in half into “alive” and “not alive,” took the most trials to get right. I think I tried for the entirety of my first year in the MFA to write that poem. And I just I couldn’t. People in my workshop were confused because my poems were obliquely hiding and referencing my friend, but I did not want to directly tell them, in person or in my poem, that he had passed away. I couldn’t explain him because I wanted to protect him from the word “dead.” Even though he’s no longer here, maybe precisely because he’s not, I also felt responsible for protecting his privacy.
Finally, I realized that while the poem did not owe anyone an explanation about my friend, the essential fact about the relationship between him, his sister, and I, is that we are alive and he is not, and that’s the heartbreaking thing that cannot be changed. I did not need to explain that further. He and his story is absent from the page, but “not alive” gestured towards all that I did not know how to say. It ended up being the most essential and simplest thing to put down on the page, but also the most difficult.
Rumpus: This brings me back to the other aspect of absence in your poems, or the blank spaces: do you feel you self-censor in your work? Are things that you find yourself leaving out, erasing? Or forbidding yourself from writing?
Xu: I feel like people would often tell me, with all the best intentions, that I can’t censor myself while writing. And there’s a kind of taboo to saying that you are self-censoring while writing, because it just seems like, lacking in writerly integrity or something? I don’t know. But I want to be honest—self-censorship is a real part of how I write and I feel offended when people try to tell me, in an essentializing way, that there is a pure ideal of writing without censorship.
I’ve learned to separate what I want to write from what I want to publish, which helps with this feeling of intuitive self-censorship. There are subjects that I don’t feel ready to take on yet because of their sociopolitical stakes. I’ve seen writers who have faced real consequences. So, what I write about and what I choose to publish is always a choice. What I’ve also started to understand is that my poems can and need to embody this thought process—that this conflict will be manifest in the poem itself—instead of totally avoiding writing about certain subjects.
It’s not an aesthetic choice to censor certain things—I just couldn’t find another way to put it on the page that felt safe to me. I also want to mention how self-censorship is a part of the Chinese modern language, a part of how I grew up, how most people I know speak. From a young age, I knew to listen to what is not said in a conversation, whether in public or in private. And that public diction or language or how we talk about a certain event infiltrates private family conversations, too. So, I’ve always realized the slight dissonance that goes on in private versus the public sphere, even though it may be using the exact same wording or language. You listen to the gaps of what is not said, or to the way events are obliquely referred to as something else, using homonyms. And the homonyms are where I really learned about the slippage of language. Instead of saying the name of a certain person, you’d use a homonym and say something else. And that’s, I think, what is most complicated and wonderful about the Chinese language, how every word tilts into meaning to something else. It feels strange to say, “Oh, because of this way I grew up, it brought me into poetry,” because I don’t want to make it beautiful. But I do want to be aware of all the complexities and ways that language changes with our relationship to the state.
Rumpus: I appreciate the way you talk about censorship as a choice, too, and the pitfalls of this idea of art as a pure realm where you can never self-censor for fear of anything, not the state, not personal stakes or consequences. I also like what you said about how you put that process of self-censorship into the poem, how you gesture to, or recreate, the fact that there is censorship in the work. Another theme I notice in the book is the censorship, and self-censorship, of memory.
Xu: Our relationship to memory is so essential to how I think. There’s this quote I’ve been thinking about throughout quarantine. When the pandemic began, after Li Wenliang, the doctor in Wuhan who was a whistleblower for COVID, died, the exiled Chinese writer Yan Lianke said, “If we can’t speak loudly, then let us be whisperers. If we can’t be whisperers, then let us be silent people who have memories.” I think about that all the time, how memory transforms and mutates and is saved out of necessity, but maybe also changes out of necessity, and the memories we share collectively versus privately. And how even though some things are not talked about, and seemingly lost in our collective memory, they’re still remembered in private. Certain events in Chinese history are censored from the collective memory, but people still remember individually. And even though we don’t talk about it, and I’ve never talked about it individually with most people, I know it is something we share.
Rumpus: Are there moments you censor yourself in your work, not just out of concern with the state, but for the people mentioned in the poems?
Xu: Yeah, totally, and that’s what I was thinking of earlier, too. But it felt really weighty to use the word censor there, because in a way I feel like I have more at stake in those poems emotionally, and I also have more agency.
Rumpus: And the consequences are completely different.
Xu: That was the main drive of the “To Her Brother” poems. What are the responsibilities of remembering someone who’s no longer here, and how to convey the memories of someone who changes every time I try to speak about these memories. But also the complicated memories I have, the difficult ones. I don’t know what my responsibilities are. How lonely it is, too, to have a memory that was once shared with someone who could have their own version of it, could speak against it or speak to it, and had a completely different recollection of it, and to suddenly realize that now I’m the only one who holds that memory. And actually, I have no idea if my remembrance is correct. What does correct even mean in that sense? I’m also thinking about how when I write about my memories as a child in English, they somehow feel more loyal to the memory because they’re not tainted by the fact that my parents might read it. Obviously, my memory might be different from how it’s put down on the page, but in English, at least, my own memories are my own, away from my parents.
Rumpus: Thinking about the family dynamics in your poems brings me to all the doubling happening in this book, where the speaker is either a mirror to someone else, or a kind of hinge between two people. And all of these doublings are happening within a family unit, whether the biological family or your sisterhood of grief. I was wondering if you could talk about that doubling.
Xu: I have to share what happened yesterday. I was walking through the pottery market here in Jing De Zhen, I made eye contact with this woman. She looked at me in her mask, she was older, maybe forty, and I looked at her, and we recognized each other in a very mutual way. She was like, Do I know you? And I was like, I don’t think so, but I felt the same. I felt like I knew her. So I started asking her, Are you from Shanghai? She says, No. I ask, But have you been to Shanghai? And she was like, No, but have you been living here for a while? And I say, No, I just got here yesterday. We worked out all the connections, and we didn’t have any! But we just kept looking at each other. I asked, Can I see what you look like under your mask? And she took it off, and I still didn’t recognize her, though she looked so familiar. So we just left each other in wonderment.
I keep thinking about how sometimes recognition is one-way, like you see someone who for a split second you think is your mother, but you realize she isn’t because she doesn’t look at you with that same recognition. But this time, it was so rare and electrifying because we both recognized each other. It was mutual. I think that moment feels like the kind of doubling in my work, because I’m always striving for that strange, out-of-body recognition. I never feel wholly like I’m just in my own body. I’m always trying to reach for some other part of myself, somewhere else, that I’m trying to find.
Photograph of JinJin Xu by Xu Xiao Ping.