Wendy Xu is the author of You Are Not Dead (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2013), and two chapbooks including I Was Not Even Born (Coconut Books), a collaboration with Nick Sturm. Recent poems have appeared (or will appear) in The Best American Poetry, POETRY, Denver Quarterly, Gulf Coast, and elsewhere. She is the co-editor and publisher of iO: A Journal of New American Poetry / iO Books, and teaches writing in Western Massachusetts.

Xu’s poetry is concerned with how the mind constructs ways to make living in a world that is often bleak and dangerous worthwhile. The poems in You Are Not Dead are funny and sad—often at the same time. They champion the imagination’s usefulness in the everyday and explore the tension between one’s need for connection with other people while also holding onto one’s individuality. To this end, Xu’s poetry reminds the reader of staying with an old friend; they are ingratiating, not afraid to get heavy, and know when to tell you it’s time for you to leave.

Front Porch: In an essay for the Poetry Society you wrote, “the hypothetical might be my favorite state of being.” Could you elaborate on what attracts you to the hypothetical and its relation to your poetry?

Wendy Xu: It is like Dickinson saying “I dwell in possibility,” the hypothetical being a kind of unlimited imagining—perhaps because it also invites collaboration and revision, it feels open to others. “State of being” is a funny thing, and I’m laughing now over having said that. I mean, the mode of the hypothetical is also imbued with some sadness necessarily, no? The ideal is the hypothetical. And it is always pushing up against reality.

I think that when I write a poem, in the most oversimplified but very honest terms, I am engaged in imagination. At least it is more parts imagination than it is reportage, or pure observation, or evaluation, or inquiry. So if I try to stay and build and learn in this realm, I feel I am responding to the inherent generosity of the hypothetical mode by populating it with kinder things, more empathetic listening. I’m attracted to the hypothetical world where things are, plainly, just less awful than in the immediate one. I want poetry to propose something better. I want it to create tangible, concrete changes in the ways we interact with one another.

FP: One of the first things that struck me while reading You Are Not Dead was that while your work is frequently funny and often makes use of irony, it never falls into the trap of stopping at humor and letting it distract the poem from digging deeper emotionally. A poem can include “…Don’t ask any questions/about waffle science…” and still end up being an effective meditation on the mental work required to live in a world of inequality, which seems like a real feat to me. Can you discuss what you see as the relationship between humor and sincerity in your poetry?

WX: Yes, I love humor, I love stand-up comedy, I love the mental acrobatics that an intricate joke requires and the pay-off it provides. I suppose I think that these two things are so close to one another. I am sincerely invested in your happiness when I work earnestly at making you laugh. Telling a joke is so kind, it is something we do to improve the lives of others.

And I like how you phrased that, “mental work,” and how living is filled with such inequality. That’s an understatement, sure. Maybe I’ll say that when I was writing You Are Not Dead, living in a strange place and confronted often with loneliness, living through the one million tiny daily indignations of “finding your footing” in a new place, I felt that it was insincere to excise humor from my poems. I did a lot of laughing to avoid crying. I let others explain to me the humor or irony of my daily failures, “you got lost on the way to fix your GPS.” It felt insincere to invalidate all the ways I was forced to laugh at myself.

In a wider sense, I think I would very literally die (I am not trying to make a book-title joke) if I resigned myself to humorlessness. “The news” would simply crush me. Wall Street would crush me. And in my helplessness and inability to heal and laugh with others, it would be easier for every Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin to legislate me out of their America. I want to laugh so that later I can get angry like I need to get. I want to make and think something funny and tender and kind so that I recognize the opposite when it comes for me, so that I can say “No” to a corporation, so that I cannot buy what someone means to sell me. Poetry is so high stakes. Humor is wholly tied up in those stakes for me.

The poems in You Are Not Dead are often about how a person can be in a world as strange and often dangerous as ours. This is an issue that I often think about as we don’t seem to live in a culture that values “personness.” How does poetry help you process the world and your reaction to it?