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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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

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

Review: If We Could Speak Like Wolves

Published by Smith/Doorstop by Poetry Business this year, Kim Moore’s newly launched poetry pamphlet draws the reader in with hypnotic power and builds a seamless transition between truth and fable. Watch out for the curious balance between enchantment and danger in ‘The Wolf’: ‘the one who eats chalk to make his words / as white as snow’ and ‘the one who is not / as he appears’. Enchanting one with his language, the wolf, or wolf-poet figure, is so believable that ‘he can take / a house from you’.

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Water imageries and wild animals articulate the complexity of one’s mind, the desire for intimacy — intimacy with people and places– and resistance against it. I enjoy the texture and expressiveness in ‘Sometimes You Think of Bowness’ while ‘Hartley Street Spiritualist Church’ reminds me, in a strange way, of Larkin’s poem ‘Aubade’, the pendulum swing between devotion to poetry and faith, blurring the divide between the visible and the invisible world.

The title poem ‘If We Could Speak Like Wolves’ postulates an intimate relationship or connection that will overcome mistakes and conflicts. The vivid imagery of wolf bodies and the estuary where one can hear the wolf howls transform the abstract quality of estrangement and make it so much more palatable. The hypothesis of ‘if we could speak like wolves’ deliberately refrains from story-telling. It is as if the poet says to the reader: ‘you have to learn it the hard way.’

These poems mark the development of a sensitive and bold voice, and hold as much beauty as unrest.

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!

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.

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.

A poem a day

Cigarette Span

You roll and burn a cigarette

from beginning to end.

I watch your planet orange glow and burn.

You’re safe in your train of thoughts.

Suits me fine. I don’t want more.

I’m your one-minute neighbour, friend

sharing shelter as this rain holds on.

The brutal precision of poetry

A poem a day 

I have recwetherspoonently helped to create a short clip for Kim Moore’s poetry reading of ‘Tuesday At Wetherspoons’. This poem speaks to me more than ‘Robin in Flight’ by Paul Adrian (the prizewinning poem for the National Poetry Competition). Having listened to it over and over as I edited the clip, I am intrigued by how emotion and imagery become intertwined with each other, how the poet does not let you go away without feeling disturbed. There is tenderness mixed with an almost brutal quality in the precision of poetry, quite surprising for such a young poet: ketchup around the mouth, the hand between the thighs, the sad gleam of the forks and knives at Wetherspoons on a weekday. I find it a very effective way to include the name of the pub, a detail that gives gravity and a twinge of disappointment towards unglamorous life. Interesting to be reading and listening to this poem before the royal wedding day. It leads one to think about the ideals and tension in a relationship. Her poem reminds me of Philip Larkin’s work, especially ‘Home is So Sad‘.