Writing blog tour

Thanks to Penny Boxall for inviting me to take part in this writing blog tour! What am I writing on?  At the moment I am obsessed with anything to do with identity, history and visual art: Matisse’s colourful cutouts, butterflies, lost keys, misplaced library books, children’s innocent remarks, train journeys when one looks out of the window and finds something totally unrecognisable…I also have this draft poetic sequence that is being reshaped. I hope all these will speak to each other in some way, and become a longer narrative. In time it may fill up all the pages there needs to be, then acquire some saddle stitches, a cover.   How does my work differ from others of its genre? I don’t think I am doing anything that is completely new. For me I write with a desire to be understood. I aim for poetry that will grow on a reader. If I have to analyse my own work, it is a tapestry of different personalities and cultural understandings. I am drawn to the gaps between people and between things. I like to turn poetry into a kind of curious stare and reveal the unacknowledged truth.

Carl Fredricksen's house from UP, creation by Alan C mocpages.com
Carl Fredricksen’s house from UP, LEGO creation by Alan C mocpages.com

Why do I write what I do? I have always enjoyed writing that crystallise truth or feelings in a simple yet complicated way, and I want to write in that context. In my teenage years, I got into poetry from reading works by Larkin, Plath, Heaney, Pablo Neruda, Carol Ann Duffy etc found in anthologies (you cannot find so easily the works by emerging, contemporary poets in Hong Kong’s public libraries or bookshops back in those days) and I liked their storytelling, their layers of meaning, their uncluttered cadence. I read some experimental poetry and enjoy their exuberant energy, but this is not to say that I can really write that way. I suppose we can only be ourselves, learn to be really good at expressing the hidden springs within us, and then just go from there.   How does my writing process work? I usually reflect on ideas in a dreamy sort of way any time I can afford to – which can be in a cafe, on a train, while having a sandwich, washing dishes, or in between different sorts of work.  I enjoy making use of information or new knowledge that comes my way and transforming it into something strange or uncomfortable. Generally I enjoy writing at night or early in the morning but out of a need to juggle roles I usually am happy thinking and writing away whenever I get a chance. The good thing though is that I can concentrate quite easily when I am on my own. Usually I’ll buy a coffee, pick a seat and then the background noise of the cafe becomes like a soundtrack, and then I visualise an object that intrigues me or remember a loose thread of conversation or invent a line, and then the rest follows from there, surrounding the story. I type things up and leave the materials before coming back, tossing lines or stanzas around, replacing one word with another. It’s simple but not immediate. It’s a bit like playing advanced level LEGO. What happens next… Two stellar poets, Matt Bryden and Anna Wigley, have agreed to the challenge and will be posting their responses on how to write well in their blogs, in a week’s time. Watch out for the answers!

Goldfish reviewed in Magma Poetry – Multiple Sides of Everything

Matt Merritt has reviewed Goldfish alongside two other poetry books – Pretty by Ahren Warner (Bloodaxe Books 2013) and Selected Poems by Peter Hughes (Shearsman Books 2013) – in the current issue of Magma Poetry (Issue 57) edited by Ian McEwen and Hannah Lowe.

Below is an excerpt:

It takes a little time in this lengthy second collection by Jennifer Wong before you start to appreciate exactly where her considerable strengths are taking you. That’s because, on first reading of the opening dozen or so poems, her restrained, pared-down style threatens to tip over into the prosaic…and then her delicate, unshowy language begins to feel like her greatest asset. In poems such as Photographs and Itinerary, it’s used to create pictures of a world seen through lenses or in mirrors, which act as boundaries or barriers between different states. So, the latter poem asserts: “In the pivot of glass everything/ is so small and manageable”, but by the end of the poem, reality is far more unsettling to deal with:

It is not easy anymore

to forget or be free of the bear

that roams the place where I come from.

The place referred to there (Wong’s Hong Kong-born) plays a key role. There’s a fine series of English versions of Chinese poets, and more than once Wong makes connections between the bilingualism of her home and the way poetry itself recreates familiar scenes in a different language (not always positively). […] Her ambiguous relationship with Hong Kong itself becomes an extension of that ability to see multiple sides of everything…

*Matt Merritt is the author of The Elephant Tests (Nine Arches Press 2013)

***Buy a copy of the magazine from magmapoetry.com to read the full text.

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The Next Big Thing

I’ve been tagged by the very talented poet Kirsten Irving to give this interview for an expanding blog project called The Next Big Thing. You can read her interview here!

The idea is to post mine and tag other writers to do the same on 9 January 2013.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

I suppose the writing follows from Summer Cicadas, my previous book, even if the two books are quite different in style and voice. I’ve always been trying to understand what it’s been like to emerge from our families, childhood, education and impressionable years, being a product of where we came from, and yet choosing to be who we want to be. I grew up in a rather conservative Chinese community where there’s a clear sense of what’s good and what’s not, and that superstitions make up reality. I ate steamed fish with ginger slices and I would avoid going out on ghost festival day. When I came to England to study and to work, I felt that nothing’s the same anymore: I needed to modify my beliefs or make up rules as I went along. I think the book is a response to the tectonics of growing up, and the need to understand what’s going on.

What genre does your book fall under?
Poetry!

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

I’d love to see poems turned into films, for poetry has a very sensual and cinematic quality to it. I’d love to see Faye Wong or Tang Wei play the female protagonist in some of the poems set in Asia, say ‘2046’ inspired by Wong Kar Wai’s movies. Norah Jones or Lea Seydoux for the more sensual poems such as ‘Entwined’: their faces express such strength in character, such vulnerability. Yu Aoi will be great for ‘Roppongi Hills’.

2046 whisper into tree

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

Time travels in a bottle, bobbing up and down the vast ocean: time marked with fairytales, taboos, childhood dreams and shaken truths that build our characters.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

More than I envisaged! Some of the poems are more recent, some have drafts dating back to a few years, and they keep changing. I keep coming back to the work, adding and transforming it, changing the characters and the narratives, and above all trimming away. I  want to make it easy for anyone to get something out of my work: those who normally read poetry and those who don’t. In time these ideas grow and evolve. Sometimes people I get to know or new encounters would change my mind about the way the poems should travel.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Childhood, dreams, and works of art inspire me. They give me hope, yearning, and strange ideas. Think of a music box with a ballerina, a hot air balloon, games invented by kids, Chinese superstitions, conversation overheard in a local pub…When I was in primary school, there’s a girl in my class who liked to keep a scrapbook full of ghost story clippings from newspapers. She used to tell me those stories when we walked home after school. They used to give me such goose bumps.

When I was writing this book, I come across works of the others that really speak to me — Heaney, Kay Ryan, Simon Armitage, just to name a few — their poems make me understand that there is something very mysterious and global about poetic language, that well-considered words put together with such economy can be shared and understood among complete strangers.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

This is a coming-of-age book, something about being Asian and yet not quite. It’s about what you struggle for, the authenticity of self-beliefs. I’m also interested in how class affects or changes people.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency? 
Goldfish will be published by Chameleon Press in early 2013.

***

It’s new year time when everyone is away, but I think these amazing fellow writers will be posting up their own responses to the questions soon! Make sure you check them out on/after 9 January 2013.
1. Patricia Jabbeh Wesley
2. Rob Mackenzie
3. Nikola Madzirov (soon!)
4. Marisa Sd

Peppering independent bookshops with arts leaflets

I’ve been helping to put together and distribute poetry contest leaflets for Magma – a nation-wide contest opening this month (16 October). Having dished out a considerable batch to the bookshops in London last month, I am most delighted to come across this gem booklet issued by the Guardian last week – the directory on UK’s independent booksellers – which makes it easy for us to reach out to bookshops of reputation and character. It’s sweet to imagine the nicely illustrated competition leaflets appearing at the till or counter at some of these cool and quirky bookshops.

This Guardian pocket guide is a handy who’s who in the literary world. I’m most fascinated to find out from it which authors are the regulars of those independent bookstores.

There is the story of former Macmillan sales director, Tim O’Kelly, who ventures to open up his own bookshop in Petersfield, Hampshire, back in 1994. One Tree Bookshop has now grown into a two-storey local wonder with a remarkable cafe, a bustling coffee bar and an unrivalled atmosphere. Tim’s work has won much respect. The bookstore has been named the independent bookseller of the year.

I also found out that the boutique-like Lutyens and Rubinstein in Notting Hill – a pretty little bookstore with a comprehensive stock of children’s picture books, jam jars and postcards for sale, and which has a snazzy coffee machine hidden in the basement – is set up by two literary agents. No wonder.

Boasting its own literary lineage, Surrey, Dorset, Sussex, Yorkshire and Somerset are places peppered with beautifully decorated bookshops that ooze character and history, and my dream holiday is to embark on a train journey of my own, stopping by all these little gems, poring through packed bookshelves, whiling away the time, finding and reading something completely obscure and rewarding on a warm sunny afternoon.

Even the Queen is said to frequent G Heywood Hills, an antiquarian treasure in Mayfair. I wonder what she likes to read?

This little country, despite its economic struggles, fares well in literature. Look at what the bookseller stalwarts have done to upkeep the reading tradition.

If you’ve been away last weekend, copies of the directory are still available via Guardian. Don’t forget to go online and add your own favourite bookshop on the map!

Naipaul and his tenaciousness

vs_naipaul-lgDespite his age, Sir Vidia Naipaul is still a vivacious, resilient and doubtlessly thought-provoking character.  I like the way the London Evening Standard editor, Geordie Grieg, introduced him at the seminar, hosted by Intelligence and held at the beautiful setting of the Royal Geographic Society: 50 years ago he came to England, 40 years ago he wrote A House for Mr Biswas, 30 years ago he won the Booker Prize, and 10 years ago he won the Nobel Prize. What a life.

A younger alumni of the same college, I remembered going to his talk at Univ, Oxford, ten years ago. Introduced by Lord Butler, Naipaul was back then already a rather outspoken character, and he refused to perform the role that the Master had carefully set him up for: to be thankful. Instead, he told everyone in the audience how he disliked his days at Oxford and felt miserable there, and that he went to Oxford in the hope that such an education would help him become a better writer, only to realise that it hadn’t. For him, the habit of speaking out, of offending people, were to become an important part of his later life. For me, still an impressionable young college student back then, always taught to respect authorities and to feel indebted, I admired him for his courage to talk about his exile, his alienation and his tremendous self-conviction. I also respected him for writing books that dealt with difficult topics.

I never shared the same level of enthusiasm or nostalgia for my Oxford days as compared with other college friends. It is true that I enjoyed the freedom and the opportunities immensely – but it was the freedom of a college student living abroad, and being able to live her days without worrying about money or job prospects – not so much out of love or loyalty for the centuries-old institution. Back in those days my English was dreadfully inadequate, and countless times had I felt out of place, awkward and defeated. I disliked the posh accent, the subtle, upper class ways and the tight-lipped culture of it all. I thought them mere gestures to disguise old school insecurities. Yet it was a sense of inadequacy that spurred, or partly spurred, Naipaul on as a writer. He has become more famous as a result of his anti-Oxford view.

For many days last year I had my design lessons at the Royal Festival Hall Cafe, and each time I would pass by Nelson Mandela’s bronze bust statue outside the hall. Under the sun’s glare, I would look at the statue’s inscription on the plinth, ‘The struggle is my life’, remembering the fact that each day in England doesn’t come easy, and that perhaps it never would.

Ten years ago I was glad of that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet Naipaul. Ten years after, I felt incredibly lucky to have a second chance to hear him talk about his work. I hope it won’t be the last time.

I will write more on his books and especially, my favourite, Literary Occasions: a collection of essays, which I shed tears when reading.

Thoughts on Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence

It has been a great joy reading Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence. The novel starts with a relationship that is doomed for disaster: an affair before a man’s engagement. The Mehmet Apartments where the affair happens is the central setting, a place which quickly becomes a house of regret, of unending languishing and a museum of innocence. I wouldn’t say innocence is the best word to describe it, for the protagonist senses the tragedy from the beginning. Yet there is such decadence, such complicity in the voice.

What I have been enjoying so far about this novel is that other than the distorted memory of a past affair, nothing much seems to be happening. There is a reluctant indulgence in it, in wallowing in one’s tears. There is so much self-pity that the reader is invited to judge and almost despise the narrator, yet the obsession is the very anchor of this book, it suggests something salient and sickening about the secretive culture, of second guessing who was sleeping with whom, of condoning self-deception or deception of one’s parter, of caring what society thinks far more than what oneself thinks. That it is more permissible to lie and to gloss over one’s life choices and emotions. The affair is the trigger, but the crux of the problem lies deep in the reliance on collective judgment and the appearance of virtue.

museum of innocence