Poet and Princeton alumna Jenny Xie has been selected as the latest recipient of the Theodore H. Holmes ’51 and Bernice Holmes National Poetry Prize awarded by the Lewis Center for the Arts’ Program in Creative Writing at Princeton University.
The Holmes National Poetry Prize was established in memory of Princeton 1951 alumnus Theodore H. Holmes and is presented each year to a poet of special merit as selected by the faculty of the Creative Writing Program, which includes writers Jeffrey Eugenides, Jhumpa Lahiri, Yiyun Li, Paul Muldoon, James Richardson, Tracy K. Smith, Kirstin Valdez Quade, and Susan Wheeler. The award, currently carrying a prize of $5,000, was first made to Mark Doty in 2011 and has since also been awarded to Evie Shockley, Natalie Diaz, Matt Rasmussen, Eduardo Corral, and Claudia Rankine.
“To say I’m humbled and moved to receive the Theodore H. Holmes and Bernice Holmes National Poetry Prize is a vast understatement—as would be any superlative I could offer here,” said Xie. “I’m very honored to be awarded a prize from those who did so much to shape who I am both on the page and off as a reader, a writer, and a mind. I owe an unpayable debt of gratitude to my professors in the Creative Writing Program at Princeton, and to be recognized by the Holmes Prize is a great joy and deeply meaningful to me in manifold ways.”
Xie is the author of Eye Level (Graywolf Press, 2018), recipient of the Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets, and Nowhere to Arrive (Northwestern University Press, 2017), recipient of the Drinking Gourd Prize. She holds a B.A. from Princeton University, Class of 2008, and an M.F.A. from New York University’s Creative Writing Program, and she has received fellowships and support from Kundiman, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Bread Loaf, the Elizabeth George Foundation, and Poets & Writers. She teaches at New York University.
On April 27, Xie read at Princeton along with six seniors in the Creative Writing Program through a series hosted by the seniors at Labyrinth Books. The C. K. Williams Reading Series presents a public showcase for the work of the thesis students and gives the senior class the opportunity to read with and learn from established writers whom they admire. An interview with Xie, along with video from her reading, is below.
“Jenny Xie is a poet of keen observation, quiet wisdom, and astounding lyric revelation,” notes Tracy K. Smith, Director of the Program in Creative Writing and current U.S. Poet Laureate. “It has been particularly meaningful to those of us who were once her professors to witness her mature work make its entry into the world. We feel a deep sense of pride and awe at the poet she has become.”
To learn more about the Lewis Center for the Arts and the Program in Creative Writing, visit arts.princeton.edu.
An Interview with Jenny Xie ’08
What does it feel like to be back on campus to read with Princeton seniors?
It’s a great honor to read alongside these talented seniors and to celebrate their hard work. It’s been exactly ten years since I was rounding off my time at Princeton, so it’s a meaningful return for many reasons. In spring of 2008, I gave a senior thesis reading with my peers, similar to the one the seniors are giving today. It’s terrific to revisit that heady time through them, and being back on campus makes me reflect on the past decade and how my time in the Creative Writing Program at Princeton has shaped and sustained me through all of these years.
What were some of the most formative experiences or influences for you as a writer during your time at Princeton?
I had the great fortune of studying with Tracy K. Smith— my thesis advisor at Princeton—James Richardson, Yusef Komunyakaa, and the late C.K. Williams in the Creative Writing Program. They each had their own manner of directing you toward the strengths and idiosyncrasies in your writing, which was beyond valuable. Their generosity and encouragement, and the ways in which they showed respect for my efforts, allowed me to find my own way as writer and a mind. Outside of the Creative Writing Program, I was deeply influenced by professors Jeff Nunokawa, Jeff Dolven, and Rebecca Rainof—just to name a few.
My first poetry workshop on campus was with James Richardson, in the spring term of my freshman year. There were about a dozen students in the workshop, and over the course of the semester, we became intimately acquainted with one another’s work and voices. The seriousness with which we treated each other’s attempts, and the kindness and encouragement we extended to one another, convinced me that the Creative Writing Program would be a home for me on campus.
My development as a writer at Princeton was very much intertwined with my development as a reader. I learned to write by first learning the slow labor of close reading. If you’re paying close attention to how someone’s writing and lines work from the inside out, you grow more adept at evaluating and shaping your own writing.
I remember learning a great deal through creative imitation exercises, both in my writing workshops and in English courses. It was a similar principle: learning how to write by trying to understand what animated other people’s work and style, and attempting to inhabit their voice. In James Richardson’s poetry workshop, our last assignment of the term was to write a poem in the voice of another student in the class, and to submit it anonymously. It was a thrill to see how someone else read your moves or aesthetic, and it was also a wonderful challenge to try to adopt someone else’s gait on the page. In Jeff Dolven’s junior seminar on style, we were assigned weekly imitations of writers such as Virginia Woolf and Ernest Hemingway, and these exercises taught me so much about the rhythms, cadences, the pacing of prose on the page.
Along with breaking down a piece of writing, I was also learning to invite in the mystery of the forces that compel us to create. I remember Tracy introducing us to Lorca’s notion of the duende, and teaching us how to make room for the associative logic and leaps of the unconscious. That was profoundly formative for me.
Did you arrive at Princeton knowing you wanted to be a writer?
I began writing poetry in high school, and I knew Princeton was renowned for its creative writing program and faculty. I also came to Princeton at a time when the Lewis Center was beginning to expand, which strikes me as lucky. That said, even though the writing faculty drew me to the University, I wasn’t set on becoming a writer—I’m not sure I understood what that would look like, really. I dabbled quite a bit, and considered majoring in philosophy, religion, English, and possibly biology. Still, I was always pulled back to the creative writing workshops, semester after semester.
“Push yourself to explore what is vivid and strange in your own work.”
What are some of the milestones in your life that have solidified your commitment to writing?
So much has depended on teachers, who offered the right kind of encouragement at the right time. I’ve always been an avid reader, and in middle school, my literary tastes were maturing slowly. It was dawning on me that language could be complex and arresting, and elegant sentences could be pleasurable in and of themselves. I understood that the effect that a string of words could produce was electrifying, I wanted to be able to manufacture that on my own. Perhaps the initial impulse to write came out of being baffled at how something as simple as a few words could devastate so profoundly, or detonate inside the mind with such force.In high school, I was fortunate to attend New Jersey’s Governor’s School for the Arts, which was a month-long boarding program for young artists housed at the College of New Jersey. We wrote and had workshops every day, and I was being initiated into a community of writers with similar enthusiasms. It was also my first taste of a regular writing practice.
When I arrived at Princeton, I began to commit to my writing in new ways in part because I knew my work was being treated seriously by professors, who were also esteemed writers I’d followed for many years. It’s quite rare and lucky—the attention you’re afforded at Princeton as an undergraduate student.
After Princeton, I spent a few years living abroad in Hong Kong and Cambodia, and during that time I didn’t write much at all. It was a fallow period, in some sense, but I was reading and absorbing. After three years of working as an educator and copywriter, I realized I wanted to attend graduate school. I went to NYU for an MFA in poetry, which in many ways set me on the path I am now, as a teacher of writing and a practicing writer. I was also very happy to find such a warm and generous community there.
How did your graduate study in poetry differ from your work at Princeton?
Princeton prepares you very well for the kind of work one engages in during an MFA program. In the creative writing workshops and English classes I took, I learned the critical tools to illuminate and evaluate a piece of writing. I find there’s far less of a focus on professionalism in undergraduate creative writing courses, and for good reason. It seemed that very few of us were striving to publish our work beyond campus literary magazines. As undergraduates, many of us had vague aspirations to write and publish in the future, but there was a kind of freedom in not thinking about the wider publishing world, or how your work could fit into larger professional goals.
MFA programs are structured quite similarly to the creative writing workshops I took at Princeton, but there’s more looking ahead to the next step: book publication, trying to figure out how to sustain one’s writing while navigating a career, and perhaps a teaching position. In college, I didn’t feel the weight of those pressures at all. It was a good time to absorb, and to experiment and fail—the stakes felt lower, in a liberating way.
How many of the poems in Eye Level came from your MFA thesis … or from your Princeton thesis?
None from my undergraduate years, and maybe just twenty percent from my graduate thesis, and even then only with intensive reworking. Perhaps it’s temperament, but I don’t tend to want to revisit older work. That said, I was at my mother’s house yesterday, and I found and read through my undergraduate poetry thesis. And you know what? I was surprised to discover that one line made it into the first poem in Eye Level, “Rootless.” I didn’t realize I had written this line over ten years ago: “on this sleeper train, there’s nowhere to arrive.”
What was your reaction to receiving the Walt Whitman Award?
It was a complete surprise. I had been sending out the manuscript for about a year and not hearing anything, and I knew that was normal in the process—the rejections and silences. Then one day, I received a short and rather cryptic email from Jen Benka, the Executive Director of the Academy of American Poets, to set up a phone call. I thought maybe I had been listed as a job reference for someone, or that it may have had something to do with a job I applied for at the Academy years ago, or maybe, just maybe, I was a semifinalist for the Whitman Award. When Jen informed me that my manuscript had been selected, it was so unexpected and joyful. To know the book would be published through my favorite publisher, Graywolf Press, and through the Academy, was a thorough honor and thrill.
Do you have some advice to today’s Princeton students about pursuing writing?
The advice you always hear—read widely, read avidly—is, in my view, still the best advice. I feel it’s also important to read against the grain, against your own aesthetic. Annie Dillard once said in her writing classes that what you fill your mind with becomes part of you. I believe that. You need to be picky about what you read, because you metabolize it.
When I was younger, I worried a lot about whether I sounded like a “real writer.” I would ask myself, “is this what a poem looks like?” I think I expended far too much energy on focusing on what would be accepted as a poem. Young writers should be protective of their own idiosyncrasies. Too often, young writers mute or dial down what is singular about their own experiences and voices in order to be taken seriously—I wish that weren’t the case. Push yourself to explore what is vivid and strange in your own work.