Burying the Mountain, Shangyang Fang’s debut poetry collection, was one of the best books I read in 2021. The first poem of Fang’s that I ever encountered was “Serenade behind a Floating Stage,” which awed me not only with its gorgeous language but by its propulsive resistance to self-satisfaction because of that beauty. The poem is one of deep intimacy, a phone call between two queer men, one of whom has just had sex with another man for the first time, an action that “saved him.” The poem contains a lush Philippine landscape and an explication of a Tang Dynasty sutra before delving into the speaker’s equally majestic inner world. Beauty is never the goal of Fang’s poems. It is simply a portal through which further intellectual, philosophical, aesthetic, and historical concerns can emerge. Ambitious, darkly comic, and drawing upon multiple artistic traditions, Burying the Mountain is exhilarating and moving. Reading this book felt like recognizing kin.
SHANGYANG FANG: When I saw the title of your opening poem, “Days of 2014,” I was ecstatic. It is clearly a reference to C. P. Cavafy, in a certain sense, one of our gay gods. At the same time, I realized what an arduous and profound task this book undertakes — queer desire and queer existence, and simultaneously the historical interest and responsibility shown in Cavafy’s poetry. Can you speak about how you enter this collision of the personal and the historical? How did it come about?
DERRICK AUSTIN: Working on Tenderness, I was trying to figure out how to transform the daily material of my actual life into art. I also wanted my poems to engage with what was happening in the world at the time, politically and culturally, so it felt right that the book begins with “Days of 2014.” The poem immediately grounds the reader in time. And as you mentioned, the poem invokes Cavafy and a lineage of queer 20th-century poetry. Cavafy has always been an important poet to me. Ever since undergrad I loved his erotic poems, those were early favorites, but when I was writing the book’s earliest poems, I was reading more deeply his historical poems — those poems set during periods of Greek decline and obscurity. I appreciated their elegiac manner and clear-eyed understanding of human folly. I loved how attuned the poems were to the world’s sensuousness in a clear and understated line.
SHANGYANG: Fascinating. I’m reminded of the Cavafy poem “The Grave of Eurion.” In 11 lines, he depicts the life of a handsome boy, who died at the age of 25 and wrote “a history of the province of Arsinoe,” which Cavafy claims, “That at least will remain.” But then he turns his argument in the final couplet, “But we have lost the most precious — his form, / that was an Apollonian vision.” Like Cavafy, your poems also possess such electric brevity, and you end “Days of 2014” with a similar Apollonian vision: “Pine needles on sharp grains. This is what I remember. / This is how I escaped the world. A little foam.” This notion of transience and tenderness in the last image. I couldn’t resist but to read these lines as the soliloquy of Eurion himself. You begin this book with a gesture to escape the world, to disappear, then for the rest of the book you go on an exodus through various geographic locations. I like this little paradox — you escape the world by deeply diving into the world.
DERRICK: That paradox was so fruitful. In order to more fully understand his inner world, my speaker had to enter the world in a more open and engaged way — be it thinking about art, hanging out with friends, getting into ill-advised love affairs, or simply traveling.
SHANGYANG: Places and landscapes in a poem are often the reservoir of memories. In this book, the speaker travels to the Midwest, Florida, Mexico City, the Frick, as well as the metaphysical landscape, “The page is one landscape I move through.” I was so touched by the phrase “move through.” There is a sense of exile in it. When you are harrowing the sedimentary layers of each place, you are also uncovering the interior layers of the speaker. I am thinking of the poem “Cumberland Island.” But what’s most heartbreaking, again, is that the speaker never stays. It seems the speaker takes up the pain of those bruised lands and moves on carrying that pain with him. Can you talk about this feeling of “displacement” in your poems?
DERRICK: I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, and I’m not sure I know how to articulate my relationship to place. My first book is very much based in Florida, at the time my most familiar landscape. I still consider Florida my imaginative home. But as I’ve gotten older my relationship to place has become more nebulous as I’ve moved from the South to the Midwest to the West. California is influencing the landscape of my new poems. I come from a military family, so traveling from place to place is all I’ve ever known. I guess it’s been in the work all along, one of those things that was too close to see. As you mentioned, I think you can see that in the longings of my poems, the speaker questing after the beloved, questing after the divine. Maybe restlessness is a part of my poetics.
SHANGYANG: Longing, the divine, and restlessness — are those something permanent along this mutable journey?
DERRICK: Maybe there are two permanent things: first and foremost, permanence is the unsatisfied desire, the thing that impels us to move. The object changes but desire is the same. The other constant is Florida, it’s still the landscape of my heart and mind. Wherever I go, I’m always looking for Florida in it. When I lived in Madison, for example, I found myself moved to go to the lakes all the time, drawn to that water because I missed the Gulf. We’re always chasing after home or running away from it.
SHANGYANG: That’s beautiful.
DERRICK: To bring it back to Cavafy, one of the things that I adore about Burying the Mountain is it’s replete with references to artists across time and geography. It heightens the intimacy in your poems. I experience the allusions as a gesture of sharing that I find really moving. After I read your poem “Beethoven,” I can listen to a sonata and have my own aesthetic encounter. Your poems are in conversation with the artists they summon. It reminded me of this genre of Renaissance painting called the sacra conversazione, a sacred conversation, in which the Virgin and Child are surrounded by any number of saints. Could you talk to the conversations your poems are having with the artists they allude to? Is there a through-line that connects these figures?
SHANGYANG: Well, that’s a difficult question. The easy answer would be I’m pretentious. But I grew up trying to run away from life, from my family. Art, to me, is a reality that hurts less. It is a way of alternative existence, and in it everything is possible, we can even climb “to the knife edge of the snow with the voices of the dead dahlias” (García Lorca). What madness and freedom.
The conversations started long before I could write poetry, when I was a child, a patient listener. But then I started writing poetry, which is a private language. I started responding to the arts that shaped me, to say thank you. Looking at these arts and thinking about them constitute an indispensable part of my growth. They are the most private and intimate experiences. I love what you said about sharing. It is the intention. The result might be the opposite, allusions might make the poems inaccessible. But I do believe sharing thoughts about one’s obsessions is more intimate than sharing what one had for breakfast. These arts, to me, are more real than my autobiographical episodes.
If there is any through-line, I think one is that these artists expand our imagination that instructs us how to live, how to accommodate this regimented reality and remain tender. The other is the courage to embrace tragedy.
DERRICK: I loved what you were saying about how these artists expand the potential of our imagination.
SHANGYANG: I think people who are attracted or attached to art tend to be either those who love life, or those people who hate life. There are people in the middle. I categorize myself among those who dislike life, who does not know how to deal with this ongoing personal narrative.
DERRICK: I’m fascinated by that division between people who hate life and people who love life.
SHANGYANG: [Laughs.] I was being silly. One must always resist the appeal of dichotomies. But I know people who love life deeply enough that whatever appears in their lives becomes art. They are utterly content and satisfied, walking around, and loving everything they see and calling everything art. It terrifies me. But I’m also drawn to them, admire them; they are my best friends. Art is a door, to them a way in, to me a way out.
DERRICK: That’s so interesting because when you said that I immediately thought, I’m one of those people that loves life. When I look at an artwork, particularly because I prefer old things, I’m awed by the fact of its existence. I’m awed by the fact that we have a piece of somebody’s imagination and intellect and spirit and labor still in the world.
SHANGYANG: Absolutely. The conversation is ongoing, surpassing space and time. Distant souls are united in the nonchalant eyes of Salome while she holds the head of John in Titian’s painting. All this is our labor against death.
DERRICK: To bring it back to the imagination and possibility, I’m so inspired by your use of simile and metaphor. They’re not only gorgeous and inventive (“The world grotesque like a stretcher”) but also often generative. They create new paths rather than definitively clarifying an object or idea. How do you think about figurative language? What kind of work do you want it to do in your poems?
SHANGYANG: I want it to take on a life of its own, to forget about me, forget about the apple it’s describing. But that’s not possible. The question we ask is whether figurative language elucidates or obfuscates an object. I guess one thing I tried to do with those weird similes at some point, rather than describe the object, is to attempt to obliterate the objects they are compared to — create a diverged timeline that stems from this world and branches into a parallel universe. But it’s metaphorical, neither real nor surreal, it stays on the language level with the annoying “like/as,” reminding us that nothing happens. I am thinking of the usage of figurative language in Yusef Komunyakaa’s poem “You and I Are Disappearing,” the burning girl is trapped in similes, on the threshold of becoming and undoing. That is visionary. That is tragic.
I was also influenced by poets like Georg Trakl, Federico García Lorca, Tomas Tranströmer, etc. They taught me how to see the world through language and through figurative language. “The old giant oak like an elk turned to stone with / its enormous antlers against the dark green castle wall / of the fall ocean” (Tranströmer). The elk here seems more particular and real than the oak. I think that’s one reason I fell in love with poetry in the first place. That things are not what they seem. That the stability of this world is in peril when we investigate. The boundaries are shifting. We are not meant to live in this unchangeable way or see the world as a fixed machine.
DERRICK: Another reason I wanted to ask this question is because even though we know figurative language is a comparison through unlikeness, I feel like every poet has to negotiate what element is the most important: the aptness of the comparison or the surprise of the unlikeliness. And I’m intrigued by poets — and I think that you’re one of them — who are interested in the expansive possibilities of figurative language.
SHANGYANG: That’s beautifully put. And what we are seeing is not only the object or its metaphor, but also the void between them. The very “is/are.” And I think that thin space in between reveals a certain amount of truth about them. The good metaphors I think are those we find things, as Stevens says, becoming “more truly and more strange.”
Your poems are so lyrical and sensual, but also austere in their syntactical manner. Some sentences are terse but then they leap so fearlessly. I’m thinking of your poem “Late Summer.” It begins with police brutality and then leaps to a more personal, intimate vignette. The personal and political echo and amplify each other. Those leaps are so confident and authoritative, especially when you arrive at a declarative line/rhetorical statement. I am a writer who always takes detours to arrive at a revelation if there is one. I postpone and stumble and often I distrust what I say. I need a craft lesson from you to teach me how to arrive at declaration. You seem to achieve it so effortlessly.
DERRICK: I needed to learn how to write those terse declarative sentences. In my first book, I was obsessed with complicated syntax: clause on clause on clause, em dashes galore, semicolons connecting everything. I challenged myself to move away from that type of sentence. I wanted to find the beauty in a direct, unadorned line. Perhaps that emboldened me to take wilder leaps. If my syntax is simple, then I need to compensate in another way for the energy that is lost in the poem.
SHANGYANG: Who did you learn from?
DERRICK: The poets who really guided me in the beginning were Cavafy, as we mentioned earlier, and also Robert Hayden. I spent a lot of time with his collected poems. He typically wrote very brief lyric poems, and I am endlessly amazed by what they achieve in their brevity. I also have to say that prose deeply changed the way I thought about syntax and the line. When I lived in Madison, the writing community I was part of threw monthly salons where we read new work, and it was the first time that I'd been consistently exposed to contemporary short fiction. I was listening to Brandon Taylor, Jean Chen Ho, Dantiel Moniz, Jamel Brinkley, and so many other brilliant fiction writers. I was awed by everything they were able to achieve in their sentences. I didn’t have to make dramatic syntactical flourishes every time.
SHANGYANG: Ah, that resonates with me. I was unfortunately one of those bitter poets who despised prose language. But I know the deeper truth is my fear of English. But during my MFA at Michener Center for Writers, which is a multidisciplinary program, I had to take a lot of fiction workshops and seminars to fulfill the secondary degree requirement. I was hugely inspired by my fiction classmates, particularly Tracey Rose and Rachel Heng. I started writing a bunch of narrative poems, which I never thought I’d write.
DERRICK: Because you mentioned the relationship between your work and prose, I want to ask about your relationship with the prose poem. Until relatively recently, it’s been a form that’s baffled me. I didn’t know how to write them for years. I’m also awed by the length of your poems. There’s an impressive ranginess in the poems (even the brief lyrics have such an expansiveness to them). Yours is a book unafraid of the long poem, and as someone whose poems are fairly short, I’m curious how you go about writing your longer work. Are there particular poets or poems you look to as guides? What does scale mean to you as a poet?
SHANGYANG: You’re too generous. Well, I think I’m just loquacious. There are poems that end and there are poems that stop. The poem that ends is like Chopin, a forceful “bang bang” as the final gesture, and the audiences know it’s time for applause. The poem that stops is like Debussy, the notes, each lighter than its predecessor, disappear. I guess there was a time I couldn’t understand either of those ways to exit a poem. I didn’t know the way out. I write until the poem exhausts itself. Also, in my early days I liked poets who wrote expansively, like Giorgos Seferis, Mayakovsky, Whitman, T. S. Eliot, Hart Crane, and Browning even. I never seem to get a hold of their poems, but I liked the feeling when I felt myself dissolving in the continuous language of other people.
I don’t understand prose poems, but I must confess my poems have longish lines. I have poems in prose language. I find that liberating. I grew up in a culture rich with poetic traditions. I think poetry, to me, carries a burden of beauty. That obligation to beauty sometimes makes a poem stale or static. In those moments, I find myself losing the capability to speak about things that are not necessarily beautiful but truthful. I become constricted. Prose language provides an expansive space to interrogate back and forth.
DERRICK: It’s a form that fits you. “Phantom Limb,” for example, is one of the longer poems that gives you space to imagine and question and dream.
SHANGYANG: I do want to ask about poems that feel more parabolic in your book. There are a few poems, for example, “Little Epic,” which I deeply love, also the poems “Villiers” and “Black Magdalene.” They seem to me to open a different realm. Can you talk about those poems?
DERRICK: Unity is important to have in a collection, but I’m always drawn to ruptures and surprises. The veil between me and the speaker is thin in Tenderness, so ostensibly you have this whole book that’s more or less me me me me me, which is not interesting. I’m not that interesting. I don’t expect the reader to be that compelled by my depression. So it was important for me to have these other elements in the book, different personas, different tones.
SHANGYANG: I love those poems. And I also love the me me me. My teacher Jane Miller once said that poetry lies in the wounded openness of the speaker. I love the word “openness.” The me or I is always a portal for others to enter. And speaking of “me,” I want to talk about “self.”
I want to ask about the relationship between the writer’s personality and the writer’s voice and style. It’s something I constantly reflect on my own writing, for I foolishly think the improvement of a writer’s work must come from the improvement of a writer’s mind and soul. I think in my writing there’s a sense of doubt and distrust. It shows a part of my personality, perhaps a weakness, that is irresolute and hesitant. When I make a statement in my poem, I almost always overthrow it with another statement that is antithetical to the previous one. I didn’t understand it and tried to make sense of that gesture, that impulse. When I look inside myself, my growing-up experience, I was in a family that functions on totalitarianism from my mother. And growing up in a society that oppresses the queer identity, or even that notion was in fact absent when I was growing up. I had no idea who I was and became skeptical. I distrusted my own emotion, I vacillated. I tried to run away — I mean writing in a foreign language is an act of running away. But that also became a style of my writing, that between the groaning and grinding and conflict of statements, maybe a sliver of truth is perceived through the brokenness that is left by the battle of thoughts. I just wonder if similar things happen in your writing. You shift gears in your poems, and your writing expresses such emotional and philosophical intensity that comes from restraint. I am thinking of the ending of the poem “Is This or Is This True as Happiness.” So much is left unsaid yet somehow, it’s fully realized. The power comes from the absence of speech. Can you talk about that?
DERRICK: My poems are quiet like me, drawn to beauty and art. Maybe what my writing reveals about my personality is my relentless seeking toward getting a thing just right, I suppose. I feel like I am beholden to do the right thing, the sensible thing. I’m always asking myself, “Did I make the right move? Say the right thing?” And there’s all kinds of ways to think about rightness. Moral rightness for example. Or rightness as aesthetic, symmetric, and asymmetry. But out of my neuroses, the counterchallenge emerges in my life and art: learning how to loosen up, to leave space for awkwardness and sloppiness, to expect failure and gracefully move past it. Maybe my ultimate goal is to feel confident enough to not have to prove anything to anyone. To always seek after surprise and possibility. Allowing space in my life and poems for not knowing. It’s all very Keats.
SHANGYANG: The notion of rightness is so fresh. And of course, Keats. There was a moment, when I was a passionate young poet, I thought the perfect way to die is reciting Keats’s “When I Have Fears that I May Cease to Be.” I was a dramatic teenager. When you are talking, I am also thinking about the quote by Thelonious Monk that “a genius is the one most like himself.” I hope that the opposite of that statement stays true: “A genius is the one most unlike himself.” For my whole life, I tried to run away from the self. But now I think it is a moment for me to confront myself, my past. It is a moment for me to change, for my writing to change.
DERRICK: So what changes are you trying to make? Where are you in your art these days?
SHANGYANG: I have no idea. Right now, everything is in mystery. I talked about my fear of making a poem too definitive with relentless statements that sound true. And my weird dialectic sensibility that seems to perpetuate the arguments in oscillation. But in my recent writing instead of honing that voice, I try to push back. I try to take a different position. Instead of walking around, I try to stand still, to sit down. I try to talk more directly. I don’t know if the growth of poets is like this, after you created your own mysterious garden, you look back on this reality that remains sharp and clear, and you try to reflect on it again with transformed eyes, but first with silence. I’m learning. I think I’m learning how to speak again. What about you?
DERRICK: The new poems rely more on imagined scenarios. I was tired of relying so strongly on biography after Tenderness, and I needed to retreat into imagination again. Spirituality has come back in a really big way. I feel like I didn’t write much about belief in the second book, especially compared to the first one. Mostly, I want to challenge and surprise myself. I don’t want to be bored.
SHANGYANG: Your first book, Trouble the Water, has a great portion of imagination. Your second book steps inside reality. Now you’re retreating to imagination again. What do you feel will be the difference?
DERRICK: I think the difference has more to do with issues of acknowledging an audience. I wrote Trouble the Water for me. Those were the poems I wanted to write, and I wasn’t thinking about an audience. Since the poems in that book were so rooted in the self, the interior, I knew I had to try and write a more public-facing book with Tenderness.
SHANGYANG: Since you mentioned belief, my other question is about the religious elements in Tenderness. I wanted to ask that question, but, you know, coming from an atheist country, where the Communist Party is the only god, I was like, “What is this god thing?” Jokes aside, I am intrigued by the way you write about God, as an external figure. It is compelling. It reminds me in certain ways of how Adélia Prado writes to Jesus, whom she calls Jonathan in her poems. The eroticism and love she projects and the indifference and cruelty she receives. Those desperate Hopkins poems are also in this vein of yearning. Can you speak about this?
DERRICK: You got it right on the money in the sense that the lover and the divine are often not different in my poems. It’s an old spiritual and literary tradition I’m invested in, which is funny because I didn’t grow up going to church. I still don’t really have any kind of conventional religious life, but I’ve always been endlessly fascinated with ideas of the Divine and representing that which is bigger than us. I feel like it’s a worthwhile question to ask. It’s at the heart of my practice as a poet, I’m beginning to realize.
I was going to ask you earlier if you consider yourself a metaphysical poet. I think you are.
SHANGYANG: That’s a scary word, metaphysical. I adore poets who tackle metaphysics. I’m influenced by Stevens, including his nonsensical part, which I have yet to comprehend and for now try to get rid of. I guess I am skeptical about feelings. That Louise Glück line, “Feelings: oh, I have those; they / govern me.” I hoped to save myself from my feelings. That was the old strategy. I think my next step is to leave the palace of thoughts and row a kayak into that storm of myself, that labyrinth of feelings. Wish me good luck.
Derrick Austin is the author of Tenderness (BOA, 2021), winner of the 2020 Isabella Gardner Poetry Award.
Shangyang Fang grew up in Chengdu, China, and composes poems both in English and Chinese. A Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, he is author of the poetry collection Burying the Mountain (Copper Canyon Press, 2021).