Transcript - Episode 93: Yanyi
Mike Sakasegawa: Hello, and welcome to Keep the Channel Open, a podcast featuring conversations with artists, writers, and curators. My name is Mike Sakasegawa and this is episode 93. Today’s guest is Yanyi.
Hey there, folks, welcome to the show. Today’s guest is Yanyi. Yanyi is a writer and critic. In 2018, he won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize, awarded by Carl Phillips, for his first book, The Year of Blue Water, published by Yale University Press in April 2019. Currently, he is a poetry editor at Foundry, a poetry review editor at Public Books, and an MFA candidate at New York University. He formerly served as Director of Technology and Design at The Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, senior editor at Nat. Brut, and curatorial assistant at The Poetry Project. He is the recipient of fellowships from Asian American Writers Workshop and Poets House. You can find his recent work in Granta, Tin House, and The Los Angeles Review of Books.
I read The Year of Blue Water back in June and what struck me about it was how hard it is to categorize. In a lot of ways, of course, trying to describe a book—or any work of art, really—in terms of categories is a kind of fraught or potentially limiting way of engaging with it. But that’s what we’re taught to do, right? And this book, it incorporates free verse and prose poetry, but also seems like something else. It feels like an essay at times, or perhaps a series of connected very short essays, or perhaps even like a journal. All of those seem apt, but also incomplete, and to me that’s one aspect of what the book is doing, that it’s refusing to be one thing or another but instead insisting on being only itself in the most complete way possible. To me, that feels profound. In case that doesn’t make it clear enough, I do recommend picking up your own copy, and there are links in the show notes for that.
If you’re in the DC area, Yanyi will be at the Asian American Literature Festival on August 3rd and 4th. He’ll be participating in two events, the “Queer Literaoke” event on the 3rd and the “New Books Reading with Franny Choi and Sally Wen Mao” on the 4th. You can find a link to the festival in the show notes and for updates on Yanyi’s upcoming appearances you can go to his website at yanyiii.com/appears, that’s y-a-n-y-i-i-i, with three i’s.
Finally, for subscribers to our Patreon campaign, Yanyi was kind enough to add a new reading to our bonus archive, an excerpt from The Year of Blue Water. That joins readings from authors like Michelle Brittan Rosado, David Bowles, Lydia Kiesling, Shivanee Ramlochan, and more. If you’d like to hear those readings, a monthly pledge in any amount to our Patreon campaign will get you access, you’ll also get access to each full episode a day early. You can find that at patreon.com/sakeriver, that’s sake like the drink and river like river, and there’s a link in the show notes for that.
Alright, let’s get started, shall we? Here’s my conversation with Yanyi.
Yanyi: So I'm going on a little—I decided to set myself on a diner adventure every week. So today I want to the Brownstone Diner that's in Jersey City and I had a little breakfast and walk around and now I'm back in my apartment. So, so far I've gotten some sun, some walking and some corned beef hash.
Mike Sakasegawa: Wow. [laughs] That sounds like a perfect morning.
Y: So far, so good. And I'm trying to hydrate. So, you know, I'm already light years ahead than the most depressing tweet that you may have read this morning.
MS: [laughs] All right. Well, so I was wondering if we could start with a reading?
Y: Yeah. So I'm just gonna read the first poem from my book year of the water. Okay. Something about reading the beginning of a book at the beginning of something seems appropriate. Okay.
You're awake, then you are standing.
Then the last thing that you dreamed will unfold
its field of memory. What you touch will come
to life: a whole room sprung in the backwards words
of people untalking to you. Walking reverse with such
confidence until you reach another room. There stands
this person who is also a talisman. In the dream,
it doesn't matter when they loved you. In the dream,
when you talk, the butterflies are orange and then blue,
and together you lead the rabble to the square where
you touch this person and then leave them. And on cue
a flock of pigeons will soon want nothing but to return
to you. And on cue the cedars become green and then
stone, this person unmaking love from you and placing
the pieces elsewhere, again, on earth. Until before that.
Until the somewhere else before you agreed to move.
Then you are language, too. Backwards words unstuck to
the dream as the dream began to happen. And the ghosts
inside the many rooms wrestle nude inside the blue water.
And the ghosts inside than many rooms illuminate
the many walls.
MS: Thank you.
Y: No problem. That was fun. I'd do it again.
MS: [laughs] So before I say anything else, I just wanted to say I really enjoyed this book. I've read it through twice now and if anything, it was even better the second time. And I feel like it's the kind of book that reveals more to me as I reread it. So one thing that sort of immediately stands out—I'm sure that I'm not the first person to make this observation—is that the form of it is sort of interesting. This thing that you just read is what we would think of as like a traditional, free verse, lineated poem with a title and everything. But as you go through the book, there's actually, I think, only two poems that are like that in it.
Y: Yep. Mm-hm.
MS: And the rest are these short little prose poems, or... It's hard to even necessarily categorize them. And one of the things that was striking me about that is that... Well, maybe if I say—one of the things that this was reminding me of was I had just recently read Maggie Nelson's Bluets for the first time. And I read The Argonauts last year. Both of those obviously are amazing books and these kind of reminded me of Maggie Nelson in that something that seems to be true of this book and certainly of both of Nelson's books are that they're hard to classify. And in some ways that almost feels like the point of it. But I wanted to sort of see how that struck you.
Y: Of just your interpretations? Well, you know, I had read both of those books before I wrote this one. Maggie Nelson does influence me, but I think not in the way that people probably assume that she might. The biggest thing that she taught me as a writer was the idea that the part of myself that is intellectual can readily engage with the part of myself that is in some way engaging in a very spiritual and unremarkable practice. And when I say that I mean a practice that isn't really about making remarks, isn't about language as much as it's about discovering something that can't quite be grasped through whatever it is we're trying to make with the art. I think it's Sontag who said this, that art is a way for us to try and recapture an experience of consciousness, that through the process of experiencing the work you hopefully experience something of that consciousness that that artist was trying to produce. For me it was really valuable and important to have an example of what it's like to write—and so The Argonauts was the book that influenced me more because I had read Bluets, but it wasn't the book of Nelson's that really influenced me. So the prose poems in my case came about from this practice of keeping a notebook, which I think it's really—maybe it's something about the K through 12 education that we have. I was a very good student and I'm someone who really can get stuck in rules and forms. And I was writing these poems very similar to the poem that I just read that were kind of elusive to me, and surreal or abstract, but reaching for this emotion that I was trying to express. And I realized that I was avoiding saying what I actually wanted to say because I thought I had to make art with it. So what I did was, I had a friend who told me about this notebook practice that they have and they told me that it really helped them. And I kind of, you know, didn't think about it. And then I basically was trying to get back into a writing practice after a pretty intense anxiety episode that I had one fall. And the notebook was a very easy way for me to kind of, no rules, no whatever, just write stuff. So it would be like, "Oh, I'm on the train and I'm thinking about something." And then a thought pops up. And usually like when you're thinking, you may not necessarily write down the thing that you're thinking because it's just a passing thought. But what I started doing was that I would think about something and then immediately turn to an app on my phone—which was the Notes app at the time and I've switched to another one at this point, but neither here nor there. But now I was writing basically until I finished the thought, and it became a way for me to honor the thinking that I was doing, whether it was emotional or intellectual or just talking about a memory that I had with someone that really struck me. But nothing that I wanted to keep escaped this notebook. So those are the pieces that have ended up in this book. They've obviously been edited or I've looked at them and stuff, but those were kind of... I wrote until I basically achieved the illumination that I wanted. And ordering the book, figuring out that it was a book, et cetera, was also an interesting process for me because it wasn't what I thought poetry was. I didn't think that anyone would want to publish it, honestly. But it was valuable to me and I had written something that I wanted to read over and over again because it's a part of my life in the same way that maybe looking through a photo album can be part of your life. Yeah. So it was very surprising and I'm very grateful that it's resonated with other people and it has been recognized as poetry, even when I couldn't for a very long time.
MS: Mm. I mean, so there [were] like a hundred things you said that were really interesting to me. [laughs]
Y: I know I say it all in one breath and then I'm like, "Now take it. Do something with that."
MS: [laughs] No, it's great. I really liked that thing that Sontag thing about entering someone else's consciousness. That's something that I think a lot about when it comes to form. For my own practice, I'm partially a visual artist and partially a writer. And when I write, I sometimes write creative nonfiction and sometimes write poetry and I spend a lot of time thinking about, "Well, why am I doing this in this form instead of that form? What does this form offer me that that form doesn't?"
Y: Right. Yeah.
MS: And I think it always does come back to that "what is the experience of the audience?" Which, that sort of leads me in a couple of different directions that I kind of was hoping to go. But I want to come back to this thing that you were just saying about the notebook because the book does have a sort of diaristic feel to it. And I guess, circling back to what I was saying at the beginning, I feel like the book contains a lot of different things and yet I feel like you can find in it what you want, if that makes sense? In the foreword, Carl Phillips talks about the queer/trans stuff. He talks about mental illness. He talks about a few other things. One of the things I noticed that I thought was interesting that he didn't mention in the foreword was the immigrant/race stuff, that to me seemed really foregrounded. It seemed like a really obvious, major part of the narrative of it. And so I thought it was interesting that that was something that he didn't specifically call out as a major theme in the book. But that what that really did for me was it sort of... I think that what resonates with me is going to be a product not just of what's in the book but also of what I'm bringing to it. And I thought that was so interesting because I do feel like there is a lot in here and the idea that it doesn't have to be one thing or the other, that it can be a multiplicity of things all at the same time. To me that was, I think, one of the things that I found the most resonant and exciting about it. And to me the form of it really did play into that, where it's not prose poems, exactly. It's not traditional lineated poems, exactly. It is both of those things, but it's also neither. It's not exactly a journal but it kind of feels like one. The pieces can be taken individually, but they also don't seem individual, you know, they seem like they all kind of run together. I just found that really interesting, how I felt like both the form and the content really invite this multiplicity, you know what I mean?
Y: Yeah, I'm glad that you see that because that is the intention. My hope is that the people who read my book feel liberated in their practice of their art, their lives, in seeing that there's a way to be your whole self in regards to what you make and in regards to how you live. Because I—Carl and I had some conversations about the immigrant aspect of this book and he did have some interpretations about it that I kind of was like, "No, I don't really think it's like that." But I also think that's just because I wrote the book in a way responding to and resisting these multiple narratives that we have about basically everything. We have ideas about what poetry is. We have ideas about what a prose poem looks like. We have ideas about what an immigrant book should look like. We have ideas about what a queer book should look like. And I didn't feel like I was... I felt like I had poems that were like, "Maybe this is about queerness or maybe blah-blah-blah is about transness or whatever." And it felt as though I couldn't be all of those things in the same time. And part of that is because I think that there's a really strong economic, and even just intellectual—I should say anti-intellectual impulse to market and tokenize people who have identities who are not that of the center. And I didn't want my book to be kind of a field trip for someone else. So there are all these elements that are for people who are from the immigrant experience. There are elements in this book that are for queer and trans people and there are elements that are for very specifically people who have all of those identities. And the reading of it is hopefully that I'm speaking to those people directly, not about their experience but to their experience. Giving them, hopefully, something that was useful for me and is hopefully useful for you. So I'm glad that there is this elusiveness to the book because I think that's one of the only ways that I feel as though I've both been able to show and to hide—or protect, I should say—the parts of my experience that are not really for sale. But also the parts of my experience that I do want out there so that other people can understand that they don't feel alone. So the response that I've had for this book from people who have been in readings and stuff has really been emotional and that is something that I feel is one of the most valuable responses that I get from the book, not just that people feel as though, "Oh, you described a similar experience," but that they could read the book and feel as though they could improve their lives beside it.
MS: Mm. You know, for me it's pretty explicitly why I both make and view art is that I'm always after this point of connection, that there have been times when I will read a book or see a painting or a photograph or something, and I will recognize something about myself in it and it makes me feel less alone. And I think that's a really valuable and powerful thing that art can do. It strikes me as we're talking that there is that, but there's also this thing that—like in this book for example, there are axes along which I—at least relative to the book—feel a real closeness and a similarity, and there are axes along which I feel a difference. Like, you know, most obviously I'm not queer or trans, for example. But I feel like in a lot of ways maybe the book is about integrating this multiplicity into a sort of an accepted and accepting self-accepted whole, and that by doing that it allows me as the reader to... Like the points at which we have similarity allow... I always hesitate to say that art is or can be a bridge, exactly, because it feels a little trite, but I do feel like there is a way in which this multiplicity invites connection where there isn't already connection, through the points where there is already connection. I don't know if that makes sense, but that's sort of where I was headed.
Y: I mean, I think I know what you're talking about, but the thing that was coming to mind when you were talking about that was I guess less about bridges or windows—metaphorically, obviously—but for me, one of my favorite things to do is read interviews with writers and other kinds of artists. And that's because when I see and hear other people talk about art, it's a way for me to set myself in an aesthetic and historical context and being in a context of other people, whether or not they're dead or they're alive, in practice of something that is still happening, that's been something that I really love about art that is part of this much wider ritual about being alive. So it's not so much a bridge as it feels like kind of like a relay race, but there's no race. You're just like handing off the torch, et cetera. And one of the things that's interesting about reading about history, and the interpretations and the beliefs and criticisms of periods past is seeing, again, also similarities in our time, and trying to find patterns and trying to find whether or not there's any kind of common theme or thread—or threads, I should really say—of how we're trying to negotiate how to be alive with each other. Yeah. I don't know, for me it's all about contextualization and becoming closer through situating ourselves next to each other.
MS: You know, even as I was saying that, I was cringing a little bit internally as I heard the word "bridge" coming out of my mouth.
Y: [laughs] Sometimes you have to just say whatever the thing is that comes to mind and then you refine it.
MS: Something else that you mentioned, that you touched on was who you're speaking to with the book. And to me it seemed like the question of who the book is addressing is in some ways—I don't know if "foregrounded" is exactly the right word because it's not exactly shouting that, but I feel like it is a central concern of the book in a few different ways. I mean, in the most explicit way, the book does use the second person from time to time. The speaker of the poems says "you" sometimes, and so that's always interesting. But I think one of the things that I also found really interesting was in the way that the book brings in these other writers. So for example, at several points these different artists who are living or dead are—at least as written in the poems—they're speaking directly to other people here. Like at one point "Agnes Martin tells me" or "Maureen McLane tells Rebecca," or things like that. Compared to "I ask Tanya Foster about sound." So there's this conversation happening between the speaker of these poems and these other artists, and what that was making me think of was, that's happening in the book, but then in a more meta way, the book then is doing that to me, if that makes sense.
MS: And so that question of address, it really seemed like an important thing in this book.
Y: Yeah. The more I think about it, the more I either realize or believe that it is a central part of my poetics to be speaking to other people. And specifically speaking to a you. I really don't think language is something that exists without other people, in the same way that I think there's that adage of, "If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, did it really fall?" Or something like that. The answer is yes, because the tree is an ecosystem of other trees that we're not thinking about. But I do think that you can have thoughts by yourself, but the times when I've experienced language come most alive have been in context with other people in conversation, or in a classroom watching a text come alive with the discussions that people have of the ideas inside of it. And you only need one other person. But a book is essentially a way for a writer like me to reach another reader and to have a very specific kind of intimacy with someone whom I've never met. And in the same way that I'm having a conversation with you and revealing things about myself to you without really knowing that much about you—because we really just "internet met"—
Y: —to write something and to give it truly to a reader is about exhibiting a kind of vulnerability that I think is the beginning of empathy and the beginning of what may be called community. So the epigraph is actually a really important part of that idea, which is the idea of literature needing a lot of people and literature needing a lot of people who are not necessarily even artists. Writing about people who are not writers—who are not Writers with a capital W—was also just as important to me to include because I think that... I mean, I've kind of said this before, but there's this idea that writing is something that you do by yourself, or art making is something that you do by yourself. But the joy of making anything for me has simultaneously always been for myself, but also for other people. It's been a—when I made something for myself, there is a belief in me that, well, maybe someone else will find this useful because I've read stuff when I was like seven where something became useful to me by someone who was dead. So those people are always telling me things and that's kind of why there's that particular verb structure in "Agnes Martin tells me" or even the overhearing with Maureen McClane and Rebecca.
MS: Yeah. It strikes me that this idea of art being a conversation—I mean art being a conversation is something that, you know, it's not a new idea. It's something that I talk about all the time. But the idea of what you said, language not existing in isolation, that is something that really runs against the American grain, in a way that it's so obvious to me. But I feel like it might not necessarily be obvious to a lot of Americans and even a lot of American artists because we do have this sort of idea, just as you were saying, of the artist being a solitary, struggling figure, and explicitly pushing back against that notion and putting everything in the context of community and relationship is... I don't know, there's something that feels kind of radical about that to me.
Y: Yeah, I hope so.
Y: It's radical, but it's also not at the same time. Right? I feel like when we get to a place in our lives when we really are part of a community that cares about us, who love us and show up for us in very real, material ways and not just at brunch every three weeks, that idea becomes very obvious. But I think it's really hard to get there and it's really hard to get to a place where we understand that we need that kind of thing, that there's not just optimization of "Well, this person has x, y, z credentials and therefore they're good enough to be my friend or not." People reveal what kind of values that they found in their own lives to us, and we can all benefit from them. I was talking to a friend recently about—I went to kind of an elite school, so it was very easy for me to think that the only way of socializing was intellectually, by sharing articles that we had opinions about, and to think about aesthetics or art or whatever. But that cut me off from many different kinds of people. And obviously a huge part of that is class and money putting me in positions where I can learn those types of things and relate to people in that way. But no amount of money can teach you how to relate to someone who has nothing in common with you on paper. True kinds of empathy are not things that you just take out of the air, much like art. It's something that you have to work at and practice and really show up for. So I don't even remember what the beginning of this was, but that's kind of where I'm ending.
MS: [laughs] Well, that's not a terrible place for us to maybe take a little break and then we can come back and do the second segment.
Y: Sounds good.
Mike Sakasegawa: So for the second segment, I always invite the guest to bring a topic of their own, which could be whatever you'd like to talk about, whatever happens to be on your mind. So what would you like to talk about today?
Yanyi: Well, I don't know if "like" is necessarily the verb, but definitely "interest."
Y: Yeah. There's always kind of a million things going on in my head and my brain kind of feels like the Internet sometimes. I've been reading The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt. I just read this very interesting section on the Declaration of the Rights of Man, which was this document that was written basically at the end of the French Revolution after the disassemblement slash probably beheadings of the class system in France. And so basically France went from this—or actually really Western Europe went from this place of of government that was kind of regulated by class systems to something else, which is hopefully democracy. But the most interesting thing about that section to me was how Arendt refutes the idea that there are what we think about as human rights now, which is what every single NGO is working on, how they're not as necessarily essential to our treatment of other people. Okay, so let me articulate that a little better. So the thing that I'm interested about in particular is the idea of statelessness and that you can have rights, but without a community in which to enact the kinds of protections and the things that you need to uphold those rights, being a mere human doesn't necessarily give you a dignified life. So my pull quote from this section is—and not really a quote, but the best to my paraphrase—is basically that in this particular period in history, you need a community in which your opinions matter and your actions are effective. And without those things, you're just a person. You're a human being and you have freedom of thought, but your thoughts may not end up anywhere or may not matter anywhere. And you're free to go anywhere, but you may not be welcome anywhere, really. And so if you're someone who's outside of the state system, without any legal protections really that give you the means to live a dignified life in a community, you're not going to be able to do that. And so she goes on and explains how this applies to many of the stateless people who came out of World War One, and eventually talks about Jews and the Holocaust and stuff. But I'm very interested in this idea of statelessness because I think it can exist in very, very large examples like the Rohingya, the Roma, like other people in general. And refugees, obviously, right now from all of the wars that are going on in the Middle East, bankrolled by and conspired with the United States. But it can also be a poetic community or it can also be an arts community. But what's essential to the idea for me is the fact that rights must be maintained and ideals are not just going to exist out of thin air. There are things that we have to practice and things that we have to give each other. So I don't really have a deep thought outside of that, aside from the fact that this is in itself a very deep idea to me because I think it goes into other ideas of what kinds of things that we think are essential or come from the essence of mere being. So race is, for example, one of the big myths that I think of. But in a weird and subtle way, we reinforce those ideas, like in the way, for example, that poetry books are marketed, of like, "Oh, read Yanyi's book because you can get a queer and trans Asian immigrant experience out of it somehow," as though it will emanate from the pages like a fine perfume. But those things in a way are part of my practice, but don't manifest on the page in the ways that we may expect. Like, I'm not going to naturally bring you a report of what it's like to be an immigrant, for example. And those are things obviously that we've talked about. I'm naturally kind of a contrarian in that way. I want to surprise or interrupt in my writing. But I think it's very dangerous to think that certain things or certain rights come out of nature because it means that we don't create institutions or fight for or hold the right of every person to live a dignified life. That's what I'm thinking about.
MS: It's funny, this kind of reminds me a little bit of this conversation I was having with one of my coworkers a while ago—I don't know, maybe six months or a year ago—where we got into this argument that we ended up just having to walk away from because we were coming at it from completely different angles. And it turned out that, of all the things that we could disagree about, the thing that ended up being the sticking point was whether rights proceed from values or whether we decide what we value based on what rights we have. It might be a little bit of a tenuous link to what you were just saying but this is what comes up for me. To me, it just seemed obvious that rights are something that proceed from values, that rights are not something that just are handed down from on high. That they're not something that are intrinsic or fundamental. That we decide that people have certain rights because we believe that, for example, we value human life or we value the dignity of life or we value the quality of life or certain qualities of life, and in order to promote those values we decide, okay, then we're going to say we have these rights. I guess the reason that this ties in for me is because if that's the case, then the implementation of those rights is something that has to come from some sort of community structure and I guess that's sort of a similar thing to what you were just saying.
Y: Yeah, I mean that's essentially what I believe, that a community is necessary for those rights to exist. I've been thinking a lot about citizenship, too, in relation to this question because I'm a naturalized citizen, which in The Origins of Totalitarianism Arendt writes about this denaturalization campaign that basically sweeps through most of the countries in Europe, where basically all these countries variously decide to add clauses of ways that citizenship can be taken away from you. So I feel really dodgy about intrinsic values of people. I believe that just through the filter of history, anything is possible and the sooner you understand that anything is possible, the more rights and the upholding of rights and the support of rights for people to live peacefully and to live well becomes more important to me. So in Arendt, she talks about this story of this group of citizens from—I want to say Germany, I could be completely wrong. But the situation is that there's this mass group of people who end up in Italy and Italy basically offers to repatriate all of them as Italians. And that group of people says, "No, we don't want your Italian citizenship" because they're so afraid of losing their original citizenship. Because the terms of how you can be a citizen has gotten so shifty that people are clinging onto, "Well, I should keep my citizenship because at least I have birthright citizenship over here, so that when [the] time comes for citizenship to be taken away from people, at least I will have a more legitimate claim to that citizenship." And obviously that has very direct connections with what's going on right now with this questioning of birthright citizenship in the United States.
MS: Even to your point, the whole denaturalization thing is a thing that is happening in some ways already, and maybe not to the same degree as it eventually became in Europe at that time, but it is happening now. There was a whole series of things down in Texas where they were trying to denaturalize a whole bunch of citizens there. It's a scary time.
Y: Yeah. I think that people feel comfortable with these things happening when it's like, "Oh well it's those people over there, so it's never going to be me." But it's very clear from even yet another example from the book—I'm amazed as to how much I remember [laughs] because there's really so much information—there was a period where the Third Reich was changing a law about denaturalization and they were denaturalizing the Jews. Basically they changed a part of the language so that it wasn't just Jews, it was "Jews and." And I think it's very, very dangerous to trust "Well the law says this" because the law can really change at any point. And it can be to the degree of, if Hitler had won the war, he had already put out a decree before he died about starting to label people whose families had instances of heart problems or lung problems. So once you start labeling people—obviously, because we know what happened—that that was just the precursor to extermination, no matter what your racial background or what your quote-unquote your "ties to the land" were. So the fact that those things are happening right now in the United States should be very alarming to people. And we should be talking about them because we do have actually the hindsight to know that it's an incredibly dangerous time and that it was completely legal back when it had happened and it will happen legally when it happens or if it happens now. So... What does this have to do with art? [laughs]
MS: [laughs] Well, it's not—I mean, I don't necessarily have any rules [that] we have to talk about art in this part of the show, you know? But, in that, I do think that artists are people who exist in the world. And so obviously the things that we're making, even if they are not explicitly about the big, scary things that are happening in the world, even if our work isn't what someone else would call overtly or explicitly political, it's all in there. It's all coming from our experience. And so these things that are happening in the world definitely do inform the context in which we are making the work. So, I don't know, I think it all applies.
Y: I agree. But I also think that there is a direct link between artists and this idea that we're talking about because it's very much connected to the idea of being the exception. You know, the minority exception. Of like, "Oh, I didn't know that Asians could XYZ." That type of thing, right? So another kind of—well, tell me if I'm talking too much about Arendt.
Y: [laughs] I don't have original ideas, I just have Hannah Arendt right now. [laughs]
Y: In short, there's this story about how in the concentration camps that there was kind of an aristocracy, or whatever you can call it, higher classes of inmates at the concentration camps. Which were, you were either a criminal or you were a artist. Because as a criminal, if you're someone who's stateless, if you're not at all recognized or even seen by the state, if you commit a theft or you commit a crime of some sort, you're a criminal but at least you have a label or a place inside the nation-state in some way. So there's being a criminal. And then there's the other thing of becoming a genius, because geniuses are also held to places of exception. And I think that that's actually a very dangerous... I mean, it's obviously the idea that we have of artists in general—at least in the United States—of like, "Oh, you're an exceptional human because you make certain kinds of art." And, you know, it's much more likely, probably, that a person who is considered a genius will be granted asylum than just a person who's a person. It's kind of dark, but I think in terms of, well, if I'm an artist and I am considered kind of an exceptional person, what role can I play as an artist or otherwise as a person to talk about—well, certainly I'm talking about it now, but to continuously talk about and bring attention to the plight of people who are not in my position.
MS: There's a thing here—you know, I think a lot of people have a question about the degree to which art can be an effective tool for resistance or anti-fascism or any of these things. There's this really famous Kurt Vonnegut quote where he talked about how in the '60s and '70s the entire artistic establishment of the United States—I think he says something like, "We were laser focused against the war and the entire effect of that laser focus amounted to that of a banana cream pie dropped from a ladder in terms of stopping the war." Which, I sort of see his point, but I also think sort of misses the point in a certain way. You know, I don't feel like art can have direct effects, exactly. But I also think that that we as a species are primarily driven to act by story and by our understanding of things, which is just a different kind of story. And that the role that art can do is to shift or sometimes even radically shift what that story is. And not just art, of course. I mean, journalism and other forms of narrative and things like that all play a role. But I do think that there's something about art that, in the way that it can engender empathy, that it can play a role, or at least I hope it can. I know some people are very skeptical about this, but I'm not quite there yet.
Y: Well, something that's always curious to me is how one of the canaries in the mine of totalitarian regimes is when artists and intellectuals are being rounded up. And I always am like, "Well, why is that? Why are these people so dangerous if they can't do anything?" And I agree with you about the idea that narrative and art in general is extremely powerful in how the events of history are perceived. And from that perception, things happen. So I think that there was a incredible amount of art that convinced people that black Americans are subhuman, for example, that enabled and continues ideas of racism. Certainly that kind of art existed even in—like have you ever seen those pamphlets of how to tell the difference between a Japanese person and a Chinese person—
MS: Oh, yeah.
Y: —those illustrations, right?
Y: And all of that is part of propaganda and obviously we have all the—especially in that same period that you were talking about with Vonnegut of social realism, being told that art has to exist in a very particular way in order for it to be considered art. Hitler's exhibit of degenerate art. But in particular to writing, actually, I think art has a very particular place of teaching us how to practice how to think, practice our consciousnesses as people, to sensitize our sensibilities really, not just of aesthetics but of historical interpretation. We're barely able to interpret the past. And being able to think about the past and to use those forms of arts that were created then to think about our present is one of the very few ways that we can understand what is the right thing to do next. I just read an article yesterday, this series of anecdotes of women who have dated men who have been red-pilled. And a lot of these men who were radicalized by watching related videos on YouTube. They would come across these videos, right? Those videos are arguably also art, so to say that they have no influence is clearly wrong because we have these men like this raping and assaulting women probably at higher levels—I don't have numbers—and then actually going out and massacring people. I don't know about stopping wars necessarily, but certainly the seed of what turns into destruction can be made by art, which is also why I say that I think that anything is possible, right? I think that there's ideologies that can exist in art, as they can exist anywhere else, but something that is very valuable to me is this idea that we can make art that is made within the context of a dream of writing and creating without rhetoric, without persuasion per se. But that there is a way towards thinking with a certain kind of liberation. So sometimes I think—I'm writing a book of love poems right now. Sometimes I think that the things I am writing are absolutely stupid. The logic brain says. But then I remember that it's important to have respites and to be reminded of other ways of being alive so that we may continue doing that when these moments are over. Sometimes they're never over. And that's something that we also have to deal with. But being able to dream towards and to write towards and to think towards a future where things are better is that shameless optimism that I feel when I write love poems.
MS: That's beautiful.
MS: So there's—
Y: —for coming to my TED Talk.
MS: [laughs]. There's one question that I like to close with and that is—I guess we've kind of been talking about one example of this, but—
MS: —maybe we'll reach for another example. But it's: if there is a piece of art or literature or creativity in some form that you've experienced recently that meant something to you?
Y: Yes. So one thing that I've been doing recently is I've been baking again and that's felt really good because... So I think it's very easy to get lost in the productive forms of art making, but to make something that I'm extremely—I'm not good at making bread. I just want to put it out there. You're not going to see a loaf of bread on my Instagram anytime soon.
Y: But baking has—you know, when I was 15 I was kind of good at it. But baking is this real way of being able to be with myself and be with other things and to make my house smell good and to, you know, gradually get better at another art form that requires a different kind of expertise, also known as precision. Which is, I like being precise but in very messy ways. Which is why I became a poet [laughs], because I was too impatient for narrative. So I've been baking. And the other thing that I've been doing is I've been watching reality TV. I'm watching the queer season of Are You the One? on MTV. I think I'm going to start getting a group of friends to do it with me, but I'm having a lot of fun with that. I love to gossip, what can I say? So sometimes it's just nice to like sit back, have some light analysis, and enjoy yourself. So that, and I'm reading Origins of Totalitarianism, I don't know if you knew that.
Y: By Hannah Arendt. [laughs]
MS: Yeah, I might've picked up on that. [laughs]
Y: But I promise I have fun. Trans boys just want to have fun.
MS: [laughs] Don't we all? All right, well thanks so much for talking with me. I really appreciate it. I had a good time.
Y: It was good talking to you, Mike.
Mike Sakasegawa: OK, so, once again, Yanyi’s book is called The Year of Blue Water and it is available now, I highly recommend it. You can order a copy from your own local bookstore, or if you’d rather purchase online, there are links in the show notes for that. And don’t forget to check out yanyiii.com/appears, that’s y-a-n-y-i-i-i, three I’s, dot com slash appears, that’s where you can find all of his upcoming appearances.
And that is our show. As always, if you want to respond to something on the show, ask a question, leave a comment, or just say hi, you can find me and the show on Twitter and Instagram at @ChannelOpenPod, on Facebook at facebook.com/keepthechannelopen, and via email at email@example.com. You can help out the show by mentioning it to a friend, by leaving a rating and review on Apple Podcasts, or by making a monthly pledge to our Patreon campaign at patreon.com/sakeriver, that’s sake like the drink and river like river. Our theme music is by Podington Bear, you can find more of his music available for licensing at soundofpicture.com. We’ll be back on August 14th with a conversation with poet and podcaster Rachel Zucker, so don’t miss that. Until then, remember: keep the channel open.