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!

Interview and a Chinese poem on Urban Diary

Urban Diary, an online journal supported by Oval Partnership, has featured my Chinese poem ‘Turtle Jelly’ from my poetry collection Goldfish and an interview on writing poetry in English.

To read the full text in Chinese, please go to http://www.urbandiarist.com/012

For the benefit of non-Chinese speakers, an English version of the feature article is appended here: Urban Diary article in English

Photo credit: 123rf.com
Photo credit: 123rf.com

Thoughts after Michael Marks Poetry Pamphlets Awards

After the Michael Marks Poetry Pamphlets awards and poetry reading event, I am now in possession of three award-winning pamphlets by James McGonigal, Olive Broderick and Sophie Robinson. These very slim and yet thoughtfully made volumes are absolute gems. For one thing, they rarely sit smugly on bookshelves in chain bookstores. You have to make an effort to get them. London Review Book Shop or the Foyles is your best bet. I’m lucky to have bought some at the awards event.

michael marks awards pamphlets

Yesterday evening, I read some of these poems to my boyfriend. He loves the nature-inspired poems by the Scottish poet, James McGonigal. I have to agree that McGonigal’s collection, ‘Cloud Pibroch’ by Mariscat, is very good in capturing the sweeping hand of Nature, and the subtle changes of natural landscapes. In his work, the expansive landscape harbours such zest. I like the precision of his words, ‘ropes of tears’, ‘nectar jazz’ of bees, oilskin book covers…It’s refined, controlled, pensive musings of man’s relationship with nature, and how one gathers strength from it.

I’m intrigued by Sophie Robinson‘s poetry book published by Oystercatcher Press. The first poem, ‘Preshus’, is a stunning, angry poem on love loss: ‘what is love but last year’s hate. What is hate but last / year’s death…’ All that vehemence, plummeting and so much resistance against reality. The imageries are startlingly visual and very forceful, the language innovative and beguiling, yet at times I am unsure about the unsettling line-breaks or uncomfortable pause(s) at the end. Noting the cinematic quality of her poems and the delving in contemporary issues, it is not difficult to understand why Robertson serves as poet in residence at the V&A.

Olive Broderick‘s collection, ‘Dark-haired’, on the other hand, has a more sophisticated pitch. I like the measured pace and diverse range of topics. There is refined grace in the way the poet reveals half-hidden truths. ‘The Oakwood Trilogy’ is delightful to read, using the surreal to highlight the tension in relationships, ending with the spilling of water or tears. I would like the poems to be more emotionally charged though.

Shortlisted poets for the award:

  • Neil Addison, Apocapulco (Salt) – not only is his poetry as exotic as the title for this pamphlet collection, but his personal profile is also worth rereading
  • Simon Armitage, The Motorway Service Station as a Destination in its Own Right (Smith/Doorstop Books) – which Lavinia was slightly embarrassed to have read differently
  • Sean Burn, mo thunder (The Knives Forks and Spoons Press) – first time I have heard of this press
  • Olive Broderick, Darkhaired (Templar)
  • Ralph Hawkins, Happy Whale First Smile (Oystercatcher)
  • James McGonigal, Cloud Pibroch (Mariscat)
  • Sophie Robinson, The Lotion (Oystercatcher)
These mini poetry collections are a very effective channel for showcasing emerging, experimental poetry talent. If you are curious about the origin and history of poetry pamphlets, do read Helena Nelson’s interview with Peter Sansom on Poetry Business.

The Guardian and me

I am having fun with my Guardian style book, which is a precious gift from someone.

A few of the entries are particularly inspiring, in some cases amusing ideologies.

Oxford comma

A comma before the final “and” in lists: straightforward ones (he had ham, eggs and chips) do not need one, but sometimes it can help the reader (he had cereal, kippers, bacon, eggs, toast and marmalade, and tea), and sometimes it is essential. Compare

I dedicate this book to my parents, Martin Amis, and JK Rowling

I dedicate this book to my parents, Martin Amis and JK Rowling

Very: usually very redundant

Walkman: Walkmans, not Walkmen


Yo-yo Ma: cellist

Haagen-Daaz: American ice-cream; despite appearances, the name was made up to give a European cachet to a product emanating from the Bronx in New York City

Public schools are actually private schools, so that is what we should call them

Chicken tikka masala: Britain’s favourite dish, note that there is also an Italian dish called chicken marsala

Cummings, EE: US poet who, despite what many people think, used capitals in his signature

Frankenstein: the monster’s creator, not the monster

And I am tempted to add a few of my own riddles:

Tube: characterised by weekend engineering works. If you want to know what’s slow, try taking the green line

Red tape: something you come across when you apply for things

First class: a slightly more spacious seat for a much more expensive fare. Gives you better drinks and food, a slightly bigger TV, and better access to the loo.

Marks and Spencer: known for good quality underwear and a great food hall. Appealing to middle-class moms

Volcanic ash cloud: an unpredictable cloud that paralyses air traffic. What people associates with Iceland

iPad: a gadget for people who haven’t had enough of the computer screen (yet).

Bigoted: for usage, google search for Gordon Brown

Coffee break reading

I was rereading my automatic writing the other day and quite enjoyed it. Just a snippet to share here:

Nothing kills boredom this spectacular air conditioned smart suit finger drumming existence everyone waiting for a holiday amusing to have even a useless chat with colleagues and to spend some time alone in front of a photocopy machine knowing this is not just all in your head it is in everybodys everybodys just they are mum about it mum and dad don’t like that don’t you ever say you are bored it is a discipline life is a discipline a pattern a rigorous training a practice makes perfect but how can you ever sustain? No one can tell you that and you cannot blame them they have families they have what we call burdens they have promotions to care for and if you stay put long enough and pleasant and helpful to everyone you get to win the promotion like a lottery so you take another fair-trade caffeine dose and make the best of your situation and think of family of love of honour and possibly an apartment somewhere in the distance you scrabble for words you spell like the others you achieve and excel and manipulate your own thinking you are getting perfect you are making the world your oyster and the world smiles at your success approves of it yes approve and you think of mom and dad that is it you sail the world you watch a film all cowboys and rebels and machine guns and flashy cars and merry nights women with long legs you don’t have any of it you are surprised that you need something to relive you live in your measured ways you meet your partner after work they call everyone partners nowadays no love anymore no lover no boyfriend no girlfriend all obliterated all are social and virtual pals whom you don’t meet you chat you message you text you don’t like to see them in real life because you don’t like travelling by tube so smelly the sofa seats you wonder when they are last washed and so it’s just the screen you’re with day in day out the sun doesn’t get into the laptop you interact with yourself all that joy all that solitary entertainment and they sell computers like mad or ipad and ithis ithat you can choose laptop netbook webcam broadband anything can mobile anything can surf anything can skype anything just blog blog about it blog until you belch and regurgitate other people’s words copying is not a sin there is no plaigiarism anymore there’s nothing unhealthy about staying up for the night at all and you need is a dongle that sounds like a dolphin to me a swimming dophin but the London zoo tonight is already closed no one sees any animals no one pays for that kind of entertainment they pay for apps the little cute candy icons and you stare out of the office window looking at what you are doing from Monday to Friday and maybe some weekends as well all that talk about work life balance life work balance they give you a blackberry and call that a holiday and call it power and you cannot kill this shiny animal that beeps and beeps in your car in your shower in your kitchen when you talk to your partner no he is not my business partner just my partner oh this life this fantastic multimedia virtual game where everyone lives far away from everyone else and this is called space this is called privacy this is called seamless connectivity and we like the way we communicate or not communicate I remember with some fondness the way we used to go to the grad bar and shoot darts the musty smell the wet coasters used and reused and we reycle other poets world and dream of getting published and in the evenings we like to go out sometimes we print out all the dining vouchers and go for the high street the big chains the glossy stuff you can buy from the stores the sale is always on the sale that they mark up prices and mark them down and everyone wears the same copied from the same London fashion week which is all very exciting all that glitzy buzz skinny underdressed women doing stiletto walks on the platform blinded by camera flashes and if you are lucky enough you get to work for free where they call it an intern you call it free work and to pour coffee for everyone and to dress well and to smile and if you are lucky you get to stay like the sugary apprenticeship you can choose to work in fashion business which must be fun all those nice perks and handbags and this season must haves so you can even skip sleeping all the parties and gigs and cosmetics so different from the same old office where even gossips are the same and the secretaries the drab clothes the stale smell of papers and useless power points talk talk talk about teamwork oh rebranding oh streamlining and downsizing everything minus the profits and empowering about raising sales targets all that self-raising flour happening and then the next morning there is the sad news you read about Alexander mcqueen

Chinese language: the imagery in slangs

I have been thinking about the fascinating gaps in meaning for English-Chinese translations and vice versa. Meanings hidden, those creeping up your side unawares and words  paradoxical.

Some of these slangs or catch-phrases commonly used in Cantonese are highly telling, and a plain translation of its meaning is almost impossible. Yet the mere attempt of it trawls up highly creative and in some cases cryptic imageries.

Here is a selected sample and attempts to give a simplified picture of their hidden meanings.

‘Jib Mai’ – (literal translation:  folded-up / real meaning: antisocial behaviors or attitude; reclusive)

‘Sai’ – (literal translation: sun-dried or sun-dry/ real meaning: show off)

‘Gwai’ – (literal translation: ghost / real meaning: sometimes it refers to a ghost, sometimes a foreigner – you have to check the context!)

‘Ju Par’ – (literal translation: pork chop / real meaning: sometimes it refers to the pork chop that you can eat, sometimes it refers to an ugly and chubby girl / more commonly used by a guy.)

‘Qim’ – (literal translation: submarine, or to duck under the water / real meaning: antisocial behavior or attitude; reclusive; non-communicative)

‘Bak Gu’ – (literal translation: ‘Northern Chinese mushrooms’ / real meaning: can mean either those black Chinese mushrooms you use for making claypot rice with Chinese mushrooms and steamed chicken pieces, or it may refer to a prostitute from Northern China. Depends on context. Derog. However, it is becoming less used)

‘Um Chun’ – (literal translation: pheasant / real meaning: can refer to a pheasant, or to a timid person. Derog.)

‘Chau Yau Yu’ – (literal translation: stir-fried squid / real meaning: can mean stir-fried squid, or gets fired by the boss.)

‘Gum yu lo’ – (literal translation: goldfish man / real meaning: a middle aged man who seduces girls)


The English has done wonders to the conjunction ‘and’. There is hardly anything that cannot be fit together with that magic word. The starker the contrast, the more memorable and endearing.

Many lovely brand names and pub names are formed this way.

Anchor and hope

Anchor and Hope  (old gastropub fit for a king)

Elephant and Castle (a most fascinating tube station name)

Bed and breakfast, fish and chips

Pitcher and Piano, Slug and Lettuce, Cock and Bottle, Milk and Honey, Wig and Pen…  (good pubs across London)

Gavin and Stacey (tv show)

Marks and Spencer, Ben and Jerry