In Conversation With
Christina Xiong’s debut poetry chapbook, The Gathering Song, explores identities as wife, mother, and artist while reflecting on her former self. Whether confronting her years of active addiction, or meditating on the apparent mundanities of household life, her poems reflect her reality, unmasked. She is a graduate of the University of North Carolina and Southern New Hampshire University and a certified Story Medicine facilitator. Xiong’s poetry has appeared in Wild Goose Poetry Review, Cotton Xenomorph, and Inside the Bell Jar. She can be found on Twitter @AzureXiong.
Megan Valley: In The Gathering Song, there seems to be a divide between past and present selves. How do you relate to your past self?
Christina Xiong: As someone in long-term recovery from addiction, relating to my past self is complicated. Addiction led me to wear masks and those masks became a compulsion in themselves. In my poem “Letter to a Former Tenant of my Flesh,” I address my past self as an alter-ego, named Pearl.
In 2012, after ending years of active addiction, Pearl loomed in my peripheral vision: she was dangerous, hyper-sexual, and self-destructive. When I got clean it was during a period of great upheaval in my life. I had just moved away from Asheville [North Carolina], where I had lived for a decade. Within months I was laid off from my job, my father died, and my first marriage ended.
I endeavored to become a more genuine person without a mask to hide behind. I believe that if I had not experienced these simultaneous losses, a kind of a forced loss of self, that I may have never been able to shed my alter ego and truly change. Recovery is far from linear, but I believe that I am always finding ways to be a better person than I was in the past. I try to forgive my past self and love myself in the present. I endeavor not to wear a mask, even though at times I feel incredibly vulnerable.
MV: Currently, you're working on curating an anthology of essays, poetry, and art on mothering with mental illness and trauma. What has this experience been like, compared to writing your first book?
CX: Acting as a curator, I am focused on creating a cohesive space for these powerful works to reveal their common threads. While writing The Gathering Song, I explored themes of place, home, motherhood, and survivorship in my poems. Narrowing my editorial focus for the anthology allows me to see what themes emerge that connect these pieces and how to best fit them together rather than creating thematic connections intentionally in my own work.
My partner in this project, Liz Howard, is an amazing writer and we click in a way that makes this project very exciting. The collaborative nature of this project is much different than my previous experience in workshops. Every step of the process we are working together to communicate and bring this anthology to life. The subject matter of It Will Not Be Simple: Motherhood, Mental Illness, and Trauma, is very raw. We want to bring more awareness to the challenges that so many mothers experience that they rarely talk about.
MV: You're living in a pretty geographically isolated location, and you've said before that Twitter has been an important way for you to find your writing community. How have both the isolation and the community influenced how and what you write?
CX: My isolation has led me to write about my own personal rituals and challenges, however small or insignificant they may seem. The Gathering Song contains several poems about chores, work, or household maintenance because so much of our lives are filled up by these activities. In my poems “Rootless” and “Transplant,” I grapple with questions of home and belonging. As someone who has been homeless before, I know the disconnect that can occur when a material home does not exist in a person’s life. My geographic isolation causes me to turn inward, writing about the home I have made and the nature surrounding me.
The community I have found online has helped me realize that my experiences have value even if they are different from many other poets. The online community has not really changed how I write but it has allowed my poems to reach a larger audience. I have read a ton of poets whose work I had never encountered before. I have connected with other writers, celebrating their achievements and commiserating with their struggles. These connections help sustain me as an artist.
MV: Richard Chess has said that in The Gathering Song, you're "transforming life into art." What does that mean to you?
CX: I have attempted to create art from lived experience, even when that experience is ordinary. Sometimes this means focusing on one moment and using poetic devices to create a sort of alchemy. I try to make my poems seamlessly musical and their rhythms subtle. The narrative structures of my poems are carefully constructed. My hope is that my labors can draw someone into the world of the poem.
MV: You're a certified Story Medicine Facilitator, doing work that you've called "life-changing and path-affirming." How are you healing trauma, and why is this particular modality so important?
CX: Story Medicine is a form of self-care and healing that is based on indigenous wisdom. My friend, and Story Medicine Worldwide founder, Meta Commerse, has built this healing modality over thirty years as a wellness practitioner. The modality includes breaking silence, finding language, and writing, although it goes much deeper than writing. Story Medicine addresses the lack of community, purpose, and ritual that pervades much of modern American culture.
MV: What's next for you?
CX: I have an idea for a full-length collection of poems, but I want to give myself some space to push my work into new territory formally. I explored a lot of narrative structures in The Gathering Song, which gave me more confidence in my ability to write prose. I would love to write a novel and I already have a set of plans written out for one. One of my greatest passions is editing and providing feedback and guidance to other writers. I have plans to expand my editing services.