“Graduate student” can be a totalizing identity. It can also be a fraught one, depending on your discipline (those of us in Comp Lit, for example, may be said to be “always already in crisis”). But we graduate students do sometimes manage to emerge from the devastating weight of questions like “Can contradiction be redeemed as determinate negation?” and “What am I doing here?!?!” to do other things, and identify in other ways. Lynn Xu, a first-year in the Comparative Literature department, is also a poet, which she sometimes finds at odds with academe. (Her poems have appeared in 1913, Best American Poetry 2008, Tinfish, Octopus, The Walrus, and elsewhere.) But if Lynn is always or ever in crisis, she’s also the kind of person who will, with glee, wish you weeks full of “happiness, humor, and disgust.” I’ve had worse weeks. (And if you’d like any of these things in your week, heavy on the happiness/humor side, you can come hear Lynn read with recent Pulitzer Prize-winner Rae Armantrout.)
During the academic year, Lynn may take notes for future poems, but most of her time and mental space is devoted to coursework. That doesn’t mean, though, that her lyrical spirit lies dormant. “Academic (critical) work asks so much from the imagination, but refuses to acknowledge it (the imagination) as an expression of the thought, as a form of expression inherent in the thinking,” she says. I suspect she’s not the only potential PhD who sympathizes with the grumbling so familiar in extramural discourse: a lot of academic writing is deadeningly dry, suppressing the imaginative impulse instead of fleshing it out. Though Lynn believes poetry itself can be a form of critique – and is writing a manifesto on the topic for a methodology course – she finds this mentality meets institutional resistance. “Criticism does not have take the form of the essay. But in school it does. And a very restricted sense of the essay at that.”
When she’s not walking the rope between academic writing and creative writing, Lynn likes to walk the streets and trails of Berkeley. She also helps run a small press, Canarium Books. Though conscious of complaints about the institutionalization and over-production of poetry (the poets churned out by MFA programs, for example, and the poems they then churn out themselves), Lynn, who received her MFA from Brown, doesn’t think contemporary poetry is consigned to mediocrity. “The solution cannot be: stop writing poetry, or: stop publishing poetry,” she says. “Rather, it must be: to increase the quality of the conversation. And hopefully our press does this. All our authors I believe are luminaries in the craft.”
Lynn’s own luminous writing is, I find, peripatetic, peppered with paraprosdokian. Her lines have been described as “equal parts elegance and flippancy while staying all song.” In “Language exists because,” she writes: “Language exists because nothing exists between those / who express themselves. All language is therefore / a language of prayer.” Indeed, trying to write my seminar paper, I can’t help but feel that my language is a performance of prayer – a prayer that the thing will end itself. I don’t think that’s what she means; but I’m glad Lynn and her poems exist.
To read Lynn’s poems, go here.
To hear Lynn read, go here:
Rae Armantrout and Lynn Xu (music from Wee Giant)
Friday, May 7th, 7pm
365 45th Street (@ Broadway), Oakland (near the MacArthur Bart)