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Interview with Ziyi Yan

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ZIYI YAN (闫梓祎) is an emerging Chinese writer living in Connecticut. Her work is published in Poetry Northwest, Rust and Moth, and Tinderbox Poetry Journal, among others. She is also the editor-in-chief of the Dawn Review. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter @Ziyiyan___ or visit her website at https://ziyiyan.carrd.co/

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Ziyi Yan
 

I let myself just live and experience life and experience people and what it means to be human.

The editors of Eucalyptus Lit recently had the privilege and opportunity to speak with Ziyi Yan, editor-in-chief of the Dawn Review. Her work “here, corked in the doorframe,” features in Issue 2, Passage.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

How did you start writing?

 

I've been writing basically as long as I can remember. I think I started writing seriously a lot more during COVID because a lot of stuff was going on. A lot of unprocessed emotions. So that was sort of out of necessity.

 

Then I stumbled upon things like summer programs by accident. When I first applied to Iowa [Iowa Young Writers' Studio], I didn't get in. The second time I applied, I didn't think I was going to get in, but I did. I think those were really important milestones to make sure that I maintained my writing as well.

 

So I don't think there's a concrete point where it started or stopped, but that's how I got into writing.

What genres do you mainly write? Why these?

 

I mostly write poetry because I think it's the genre where you have the most breadth and depth of expression. You can say the most with the least words and it doesn't confine you to just one meaning. I think in life, I'm someone who sees a lot of ambiguities, and I don't like to commit to one concrete perspective about any given issue. In one reality, there's multiple realities existing at the same time, and poetry reflects that.

Over the summer, I wrote one fiction story—which was a feat. But then it ended up being quite poetic in that it was also like a narrative with a lot of narratives within it. So hopefully that's the gateway for me migrating into more prose-y fiction. Lately I've been trying some creative nonfiction as well. This sounds silly, but even within the scope of my college essays, there's been some room for experimentation and developing my literary voice. And sometimes I'll journal—there's a fine, very blurred line between what is journaling and what is more ‘artistic’ writing.

How do you find your inspiration? 

I find my inspiration from a lot of different places! I think the first thing that goes to my writing being actually kind of okay is reading a lot of other people's work. But I find that when I'm in a writing period myself, I don't read that much because my work can become a tiny bit imitative.

Sometimes I'll find inspiration from news articles. I'll read the news and I'll want to write a poem. Sometimes it'll be a movie—I watched The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes and I wrote a lot based off of that. Or it'll be a random tiktok! I saw this tiktok about a machine at the Guggenheim Museum called Can't Help Myself. Basically, there’s fake blood that spills out from it and the machine keeps trying to suck in the blood back toward itself. And I was like, that's a very interesting concept and something that could be expanded to a lot of areas of life.

 

But I think mostly though just living. During the school year, especially when I'm busy, it's a lot harder to write because there's less to write about. So either something really bad happens or I have a period where I don't do that much quote unquote ‘productive stuff.’ I let myself just live and experience life and experience people and what it means to be human. And I think that gives me the most inspiration.

Do you have a favorite author or work that you've read? 

I don't necessarily have a favorite author, but I do have a lot of scattered individual pieces that I really like.

 

When I think of books, the first thing that comes to mind for me is Life Of Pi by Yann Martel. That book actually made me bawl. There's a scene where the main character is starving and he's hallucinating that he's talking to a tiger about these really delectable foods. And I think that scene was always so moving for me because it shows that stories are really important for survival, right? Stories aren't just something that you make up for fun. And I think that was really powerful.

Another book I like is Lolita by Nabokov. I know it's a little bit controversial, but I think to its core, it's about how narratives influence our reality. It's about how you can tell yourself certain narratives and how that reinforces the world in which you live. You can spin a web of lies or fictions or ideas about any given topic, but that won't conceal what's within or how the surface interacts with what's within. I think the literary and ideological constructs that result from that intersection in Lolita are really interesting.

 

In terms of poems, I really like “The Dog” by Gabrielle Bates. I taught it to a little poetry class for elementary schoolers. I've just talked about that poem a lot just because it's simple in its language, but each idea in the poem has such complex symbolism and interacts with the other ideas in the poem really, really well in a way that I admire.

 

And then another poem that I've come to love is “To Be the Thing” by Dorothea Lasky. I know if you had Gilad at Iowa, he talked about that. When I first read it, I thought, okay, this is depressing. This is about death. But again, it's about how language shapes realities and about how people attempt to capture their realities through language. And I think that's beautiful.

 

And then maybe another poem would be “Peanut Butter” by Eileen Myles. It's replete with very rich symbolism. And it also is a state of life that I would aspire to. Like, it represents a state of peace and harmony with oneself and with the world that just reallysor comforts me when I need it.

You mentioned earlier about how stories are essential to our humanity. Can you tell us a little bit about how you work to share stories? I mean, we know you run the Dawn Review and I'm a huge fan. 

 

Yeah, of course. I actually started The Dawn Review while I was at Iowa. It was a little hectic, balancing workshops and also starting a literary magazine.

I wanted to create a place where people could get feedback—and not just emerging writers, any writer. We also didn't want to classify people as emerging or established writers, because you can be both, you can be neither. So a place where everyone could find that feedback was important to us.

 

I also wanted to create a place that highlighted these emerging voices but didn't segregate them from other voices. And so that's why The Dawn Review isn't just a youth-only literary magazine. I think it's important for newer voices and more established voices to be displayed together and interact with each other. They're equally valuable.

Can you share with us some recent works that you've enjoyed writing?

 

I mean, I'm gonna take this as the past two years because that's how long I've been really publishing stuff. The stuff I've written before, you know, unpublished as it should be, should never see the light of day.

 

One piece that I really enjoyed writing is called “Fishing”. It's actually published as “Fish” in Poetry Northwest. There's a fun story about this. I was at Iowa and I was very confused about, you know, the state of the world and how I form relationships and all that fun stuff. So everyone was going to the talent show. And I was staying in my dorm. But then I was like, if I stay in my dorm, I'm going to write a slay poem. That's how I'm going to recompense for it. I originally wrote [the poem] as just one stanza. But then when I was editing it, trying to form all the contrapuntal pieces in it was really, really fun.

 

This makes me think of another piece that was really fun for me to write! It's actually coming out on the 22nd in Tinderbox Poetry Journal. It’s called “How Prophecy Was Invented.” I wrote this one at Interlochen. We were talking a lot about the invention of poetry and of words. I was in this very natural, very rural habitat, and I was reckoning with ideas like love and belonging and identity, and new friendships and people's emotions. Just a lot of complicated things.

 

So that piece is also kind of a contrapuntal. It has four quadrants with a little line in the middle, and it can be read down each column, across each line, and diagonally like a little DNA helix. That was really fun for me to write because it really interrogated the fluid nature of invention and how invention isn't something that just happens at a particular moment. It consists of a lot of different acts and what lies in between the lines—there's not one moment where something exists and then something doesn't exist or vice versa. It's a process of becoming.

How do you plan to continue to interact with writing beyond high school or school in general?

 

Well, I'm working on my chapbook manuscript, so that’s an ongoing project.

 

I think another good way to engage in writing for me is to have a writing community and talk about writing with other people and help other people with writing. That's really rewarding for me. 

 

Obviously just continuing to write! In college, I'm anticipating at least minoring and possibly majoring in something like English or creative writing. I'm not sure how I feel about writing professionally because, first of all, stuff that's commercially successful isn't necessarily what I would want to write. I want to continue writing in a way that feels true to me, even if I end up having a different day job. 

 

I think I'll incorporate writing into my day job as well. Maybe journalism or research. All of those things involve writing in some way. So no matter what I do during the day, creative writing’s never going to be completely out of my life and I'll always continue doing it just for the joy and the fun of it.

I think you summed up what a lot of us feel. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Thank you!

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