The poet writing about about birth, death and bodily fluids

Jenny Zhang’s new anthology, 'My Baby First Birthday', isn’t afraid of asking the big questions, or talking about cumcakes.

by Jenna Mahale
13 May 2020, 3:00pm

Right now, the main thing that’s getting Jenny Zhang down is that she’s lonely. “I know that's not the worst thing to feel, and that it's also not not the worst thing,” she says, her voice somewhat garbled over Google Hangouts. “And it's not like something that I didn't feel before all of this. I think people who are lonely before are lonely still, and everything is compounded. All of the feelings of scarcity that I had before can only be compounded.”

It’s nearing the end of April when we speak, just a few weeks before Jenny is due to release her sophomore poetry collection. Titled My Baby First Birthday, the book is split into four sections, each named after a season of the year. The writing in the collection is concerned with big ideas, addressing existence, trauma and systematic injustice, but it is also full of intimate musings, text-speak, and, well, semen. The resulting volume is a confessional delight, but it also raises increasingly pressing questions about entrenched social and economic inequality.

“I want to say the world was different when I wrote these poems, but actually it was not different,” says Jenny. “It's always been like this, it's just that now there is a global pandemic that is affecting everyone, and making clear elements of the world that I think a lot of people turn away from or don't want to believe.” Here, Jenny tells us about the existential questions that she’s been obsessing over, her weirdest quarantine dreams, and the kinship between her new collection and the I’m baby meme.

Are you excited that your book’s coming out?
I went through a few phases with it. One was: “Who… the fuck cares? The world is literally barrelling towards its fiery destruction.” But afterwards I thought: “I guess it's not fair to myself or my writing, and to people who might actually care even if I can't give a damn about myself at this time.” It's not fair to my publisher, and their editors, and all the other people who worked on it. I owe it to them and to whatever seed of caring within me that thought it might be worthwhile to share these poems in the first place. I wish I was a doctor and could offer real help and real relief. I wish I had actual power to affect things positively. But as it is I'm a poet, and a writer. And it feels very small, and very negligible, but maybe I can offer some relief.

What are you missing most about pre-pandemic life?
I miss the physical intimacy of being close to people, being able to hug friends and family. I love going to someone's house and plopping on their couch. I know New York has become the stomping ground for SoulCycle and eight-dollar lattes and all that stuff, but the New York I always loved and still frequented was all homey, family-owned restaurants. I don't know if those places are going to be okay, I think some of them have shut down permanently already. There are so many cramped places in the city that are some of the best ones, and I love those places.

Have you been having any mad dreams in quarantine?
I don't want to get too deep into it, but I had a dream that I was staying in this really strange cement house. For some reason Elijah Wood, as a baby, would get carried past it every day. And every time he walked past, I was changing. So I was like, “Oh my god, I've traumatised baby Elijah Wood! He'll be a traumatised person because he keeps seeing my tits every single day as a baby, for some reason!”

Let's get back to your book. You said once in an interview that your writing always comes from being “consumed with some question or series of questions grouped under the same obsession” -- which questions brought about My Baby First Birthday ?
A question I've always had is, “Why was I born? And why didn't anyone ask me if that was okay?” That doesn't seem fair -- I’m forced to exist? I think the reason why I felt so disgruntled about it was because I felt like the world I had been brought into was not safe or stable. It was chaotic: it was a world of lack, not a world of abundance. And then I think the other thing I was thinking about is this idea of being a baby. I know this is really popular, there was that meme that was around in 2018 or 2019? Well I've been fucking around with being baby since 2012, not that I need the credit or anything! I think I was into this idea of babyhood because I was also interested in these questions of innocence, of who gets to be protected and who gets to be considered worthy of protection and care.

A lot has been made of how willingly you discuss “gross” stuff like excretions in your work. It feels like a very deliberate choice, so what motivates that language for you?
I think I'm just really interested in the body. I'm really interested in intimacy too: I really care about being genuinely intimate and genuinely open. I like the times when you're popping your partner's pimple. Maybe people don't do that, but for me, that is the height of intimacy. I've had family members scrape out shit from the toilet to take to the lab to make sure I'm okay -- that to me is love and tenderness. I think I'm always also interested in how we hate those things and find them so disgusting, but it's also like... you've got to embrace it, because that’s it. We just have these bodies and we have to be okay with the bodies of the people that we love, we have to love all of it. That's probably why I'm always writing about this stuff, because for me it's the height of vulnerability and closeness.

Do you have a favourite poem in this book?
I don't know, I love all my children! The one I feel most attached to right now is the first poem [ I keep thinking there is an august]. I wrote it at a time where I felt kind of despondent. You know, when you're like “Ah, I'm depressed! So now I'm going to isolate myself further and not bother people because I'm such a downer.” That always makes things worse. Connection is everything, is what I have realised as I've had more years as a human being and talked to my friends. And I guess I feel a little bit attached to that now because I think all of our bodies must know that lack of touch and lack of connection is never the answer. Or it's the answer right now, because we have to, because we fucked up so badly and created this situation, but the goal is obviously to resolve and change that.

Jenny Zhang