Willie Lin on Conversation Among Stones


Willie Lin discusses the process of writing and putting together her book, Conversation Among Stones, which was published in November 2023. Her piece, “Object Lesson,” was featured in Volume 68.2 of Shenandoah. Read “Object Lesson” here.


Can you tell me the story of this book: When did you start working on it? What were some of your preoccupations as you were writing it? How did you know when you had a complete collection on your hands?


The oldest poem in this book was written more than a decade ago and the most recent one was written maybe about three years ago. During most of the time that spans those years, I wasn’t consciously writing toward a book, or at least, not this book. I’ve not been someone who sets out with an overarching idea or concept and writes toward it—and often, I’ve had trouble holding the unit of the “book” in mind. Because of those facts, putting together my book was mainly a backwards looking process. I looked over the poems I’d written over a decade or so, gathered some that seemed to address related themes or topics, and worked to revise and make a manuscript.


If I had to distill the central concern of the book, I would say I’m trying to make a case for smallness. I’m interested in not so much the grit that brings about the pearl but in the pebble in the shoe or in the dust on a camera lens that marks each image captured. By which I mean I’m interested in doubt and failures and mistakes and how our ideas and understanding of ourselves—necessarily limited by the smallness of human imagination, the brevity of our time on earth in our own bodies, the finite sliver of life we lead among the entire range and span of human existence—change over time.



Is there a passage/poem/image/quote you feel is a good representative of the book as a whole, or do you have a current favorite? Can you give us a taste of something you’re especially proud of?


Thank you for asking—this question is an especially fun one to think about. A favorite poem of mine is “Mercy the Horse.” I’d read an oddball wire service news story about a horse that had fallen into a septic tank and had to be rescued—and that horse had the unlikely name of Mercy. I was struck by that detail and the way the owner had spoken of the horse in the story. I immediately saved the story with the idea that I’d do something with it later. It took a couple of years to find the occasion and to figure out the right approach, but I ended up writing a persona poem in the voice of the horse. Here’s how the poem begins:


The reeds, the tall grasses bent, holding

the impression of such weight. Such was the way

I went on, afraid to set my weight entire

on the world, shifting, distant at someone’s knee.




Too prone to darkness

all my life I have asked for a task,

a purpose to survive me. To be a beam

broken by a falling weight. To be impossible,




like the woman in the poem, who longed to be gathered,

swept up and carried

like a pile of fallen leaves. I came to a name

as was my method: late, to everything.



I’m curious about some logistics: How did you come up with the title? What about the cover art?


The title is a phrase from a poem in the book. Before it was in a poem and before it was the title of my book, it was phrase that kind of just floated into my head. To me, it evokes in part how often people seem to speak past one another and remain unmoved as well as how often people want to (and do) speak to forces—the dead, God, our past selves, etc.—that do not speak back. These ideas seemed like a good approach into the book.


I was a bit clueless when it came to the cover art. BOA Editions was very open to my input, but I didn’t have a concrete image in mind. I was very lucky that the brilliant designer Sandy Knight, in conjunction with my publisher, came up with a few wonderful options for cover art, and I chose my favorite among those. I’m especially grateful to them because the final cover design is not anything I could have conjured or imagined beforehand but suits the book perfectly.



What did the process of sequencing the poems look like? Is the order of the poems intentional or random?


For a while, I struggled with organizing the book into sections. Once I figured out that it made more sense to lose the section breaks, I was able to better sequence the poems. I decided to start with a poem that feels very intimate and maybe slightly disconcerting because of its intimacy—like someone whispering in your ear. From there, I wanted to zoom out a bit and then zoom back in, to create a push-and-pull, to weave together poems that argue against and/or revise earlier poems so that by the end the reader can trace a few different lines of thinking and sense something has shifted.

Willie Lin lives and works in Chicago, Illinois. She is the author of the chapbooks Instructions for Folding (Northwestern University Press, 2014) and Lesser Birds of Paradise (MIEL, 2016).