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!

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.