by Madison Whatley
Anni Liu is a poet, essayist, translator, and editor. She is the author of Border Vista (Persea, 2022), her debut poetry book. Gulf Stream Managing Editor Madison Whatley’s interview with her at the 2022 Miami Book Fair is below.
MW: Thanks for coming.
AL: Of course.
MW: How does it feel to have your first poetry book, Border Vista, out in the world?
AL: Yeah, it’s been really moving to me. Before it came out, I was scared, I guess, of this feeling of exposure or of the sense of, like, what is the world going to make of it? Or is it going to make anything of it? Like, maybe nothing at all? I guess silence would have been, in some ways, the expected outcome of a debut poetry collection, but it’s actually been this feeling of kinship, maybe. This year, I had several really close writer friends who also published their first collections, and today’s panel [at Miami Book Fair] is also all debut poets, some of whom I’ve already known and really looked up to, some of whom I’m going to meet for the first time. On the one hand, I think it’s scary to think of there being a thing out there in the world that represents you in some way, but then, on the other hand, there’s this piece of you out in the world that’s creating connections for you, which you can share with friends or with people who’ve supported you all the way through. It feels, really, like a gift in that way.
MW: That’s beautiful for you, that’s great.
AL: Yeah, thank you.
MW: What is your personal process for writing about trauma, grief, and challenging topics, and what do you do to find joy when you need it?
AL: I’m a pretty slow writer, so a lot of times when I’m approaching a subject that holds a lot of heat or feels painful, it’s usually with quite a bit of time having passed. One thing that I do is sort of write in different modes. The first mode is just for me. It’s really exploratory; it’s anything that comes, and oftentimes, this is written by hand. Then I just put it away when the notebook is full, always with the understanding that there’s never any expectation that anything that gets written is ever shared with others, or that nothing might ever come of it in that way. And then, you know, at some point, as I’m drafting, I’ll go back and read through the notebooks. There will be language that is maybe energized, language that holds, maybe, rhythm or a kind of imagistic richness that is exciting, and then I’ll pull it out and put it into my computer, and then the work often starts from there. I think for me, one of the reasons that I write is to process painful experiences or to change my relationship to something painful or something traumatic. And so, it feels like something to lean into if there is a certain kind of emotion or a certain kind of sense of being moved. I do end up yeah feeling it very strongly, and I think that there’s a lot of joy that comes out of that process. The new relationship that’s achieved, the resulting work holds joy, in the sense of joy being a kind of aliveness, a kind of ability to be true. I think trauma often creates inhospitable or uninhabitable spaces, so writing is a way of reinhabiting that.
MW: Why did you decide to format Border Vista into sections?
AL: Initially, I had just three very loose groupings of poems, ones that were about childhood, ones that were about Vermont, and then everything else. I just realized as I was writing those were just sort of thematic areas where homes were kind of congregating, and initially, I thought these are all maybe separate chapbooks or separate manuscripts. But then I started to recognize that they were speaking across to each other, that the Vermont poems also had a child in them who was experiencing a form of separation and grief, and that, you know, the early childhood poems for me were about crossing borders and about a kind of encounter with a limit or with a certain kind of crossing that approached the death of a certain version of myself, so I think I finally wanted to have them speak to each other more clearly, so I pulled them out of the three sections. I laid them out on the floor and said, OK, these are speaking to each other, and this feels like a natural place to pause. So, I think it was very intuitive in a lot of ways.
MW: How did you play with form in Border Vista?
AL: When I spoke about sort of the different steps to how I draft, usually when I’m starting out, there’s very little shape to what language there is, and oftentimes, as the poem starts to really gather language to itself, it becomes clear how long the lines are or like what shape it might be. Sometimes it’s obvious from the start, and other times not, like there were poems in there that I wrote as prose poems originally, and then there were other ones where I was breaking them into different shapes and trying, like, putting them all over the page. Yeah, I feel like, for me, I like visual difference and visual variety. So, it was fun. For a long time, the poems I wrote were all like single stanzas or like tercets, and so it was really, I think, freeing to realize that they could just be different shapes.
MW: Can you talk about your relationship to language? How does language inform your creative work?
AL: Yeah, I would say it’s probably one of my main preoccupations. I was listening to a Victoria Chang interview on my way here.
MW: Oh, I’m interviewing her today, too.
AL: Oh, she’s here? Yeah, amazing. She’s incredible. I love her work. I’ve never met her. I hope I find her at some point, just to say, “Thank you, thank you.” Maybe you could even tell her that. That would be amazing. Tell her Anni Liu says, “Thank you, and hello.”
MW: Yeah, I definitely will.
AL: But anyway, she was talking about how for, like, the child of an immigrant like herself, language is theater. And I think that’s very true for me too. I learned English when I was a kid, and so I became aware of the limitations, I guess, of the language or about sort of what self I could be in it. There’s a sort of almost quality of ventriloquism in that, where you realize I’m able to talk about, let’s say, my grandparents because I’ve learned particular vocabulary words that now I can use. I can say my grandmother has gray hair because I learned the word “gray.” And so, there’s an awareness of everything that we name and how much language is a thing of itself, and that is something we borrow, and we use. When it comes to poetry, I think that is relevant in a couple of senses, one being that you’re always in conversation with the poet who came before you. You’re also in conversation with the ways the language is being used in a day-to-day context. And then there’s also for me, as someone who had a different first language and who’s now working in an acquired language, a sense of being in conversation with kind of the communal, cultural, and global sense of what positions our languages and cultures, sort of, have in the world, right? The power of English to reach so many readers. The power of English over me, at a certain point in the past. So yeah, it’s definitely something I think about a lot.
MW: Do you think being a translator and or an editor informs your creative process from the individual poems to putting together the book?
AL: Yeah. I’m a very, very new slow novice translator, but it taught me a lot about writing. I think translators are probably the closest readers of any particular work. You literally reconstitute that work in a different language, and I think it made me slow down a lot when it came to revising my own poems. When you’re translating, there’s the idea of, well, what is this word? How would you translate it? But also, what is this word doing in the line or poem? And how does it contribute to meaning across those different levels? And then, when I was approaching my own work, I kind of took that idea. Putting the book together was something that I undertook in my first year at Graywolf, and at that point, I was an editorial assistant. I mainly work on prose, so it’s a different genre. The really exciting thing to me about working with prose and, oftentimes, working with novels is that they are cohesive wholes. There’s only just that one thing. And so, it made me think much larger, much bigger, structurally. Yeah, so I think, in some ways, I was learning both of those things at once. And one of the things that we do a lot as editors is think about how to communicate to readers about the significance of what they’re holding. What’s special about it? What’s unique about it? Why it’s speaking to timely and universal concerns, which became really helpful in thinking about how I would frame my own work. We have to write all these pitch letters or cover letters. As writers, I think it’s a really good skill to be able to talk about yourself in the third person in a way that’s both true and hopefully exciting.
MW: When you wrote Border Vista, were you thinking of the audience? Who were you thinking or hoping would be your audience?
AL: Since I wrote the poems really like one at a time, I wasn’t thinking of the book that they would make. I initially didn’t really have anyone in mind. It was a very private activity, and I think the privacy of it helped me be able to say things that I wouldn’t have otherwise said. If somebody had said to me, “your book is going to be published by Persea in 2022,” it would have been like a little moment of stage fright. Something I’ve said in the past that resonates with me is that writers write for their younger selves or selves they could have been, and I think that’s very true. It’s definitely to the other selves or the younger selves that I often address in the work.
MW: In your poem, “Document: Eight Months before Expiration,” you wrote the line, “Such pleasure, to learn what I could do without.” I wanted to know if that is a true philosophy you hold or if that’s just true in the poem.
AL: Maybe true for the poem and for a long period of my life. It’s a certain kind of way of thinking about survival and thinking about how much we are able to endure, and there’s a certain pride in that, maybe even a thrill to think about how capable I am of enduring something, but I think that’s maybe a specific kind of pleasure that actually might not be a pleasure, right? In the sense that it’s not a nourishing or sustaining kind of pleasure. It comes from a place of lack or from thinking that you will always have to be able to survive that lack. So, I think it’s a philosophy that I have moved away from more so and a way of looking at the world that I’m trying to leave behind.
MW: Thank you. What are you watching, reading, or listening to right now?
AL: Well, I love books that are kind of about writing, and so there’s Amina Cain’s A Horse at Night. I’ve just started. There’s a Lisa Robertson book called The Baudelaire Fractal. She’s a poet, and that’s her only novel, and it’s about a young woman who decides to move to Paris. But it’s kind of like a coming of age, coming of age as an artist, as a young woman, which is a category of book that I love, much like Patti Smith’s Just Kids; I think it’s in that kind of vein. I’m reading Ross Gay’s Inciting Joy. He’s a very dear mentor and friend, and I learned a lot from each of his books. The kind of growth that he’s doing as a person, not just as a writer, has always been really inspiring to me.
MW: What are you looking forward to this weekend at Miami Book Fair?
AL: Oh my gosh, there’s so much here. I’m a little overwhelmed by the schedule. Actually, I know for sure that I’m excited for the author’s gathering tonight. And I’m excited to just walk around and visit the booths. Now that I know Victoria Chang is here, I’m going to look out for her event. And then there are, I think, a record number of Graywolf authors in attendance. So, I’m excited to meet with them and hopefully get to some of their events as well. And to eat lots of plantains.
MW: Thank you so much again. This is my last question. What is something you learned recently that surprised you?
AL: I think a lot of things. So last night, I was reading a book called The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating. It was really great. Yeah, it’s about this woman who has this really intense illness where she’s bedridden, and then she has this garden snail that’s like next to her bed, and she notices what it does when it eats. It’s really like very sweet and touching and interesting. Lars Horn, who is one of the Graywolf authors here, their book is called Voice of the Fish. I love animal facts, and in that book, it’s like essays, and then there is kind of little interludes that are about various aquatic life. There’s one about the Greenland shark, which is apparently the animal with the longest lifespan, and they only reach maturity at 150 years. Yeah, so that was very surprising and beautiful.
Anni Liu is the author of Border Vista (Persea, 2022). The recipient of fellowships, scholarships, and residencies from Undocupoets, Adroit Journal, the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, and The Anderson Center at Tower View, she was born in Xi’an, China, and is currently based in northern Louisiana.
Madison Whatley is a South Florida poet, an MFA candidate at Florida International University, and the Managing Editor at Gulf Stream Magazine. Her poetry has appeared in Variant Literature and FreezeRay Poetry and is forthcoming in Cola Literary Review. She is on Instagram @hawttymadison.