裂 / Tear
Published in Wildness
On a bench in the laundromat, I see him
slumped, sobbing, his back reflected
in the washer’s porthole. Inside the machine,
a deep, irregular whirr, the metal drum
tossing loose socks, shirts, invisible limbs.
Never have I seen a man break
so completely, as if a vast crevasse
had unzipped his life. Later, hauling
a warm bag of clothes up uneven flights,
I recall my father’s woolly voice,
our last meal together, the ceiling fan
chopping light above us, when he asked
if I would ever forgive him, how slowly
he took o his glasses and wept.
不 / No
Published in The Adroit Journal
How the word stands like an inverted tree,
a refusal to obey the laws that birthed it.
Or is it a proper tree 木 with its top
chopped off? All my life I’ve wondered
if my brain’s inverted, improper, asterisked
with defects. Be honest bro, you straight 直
or bent 攣? Bent like a branch or straight
like a trunk? Like a man? You like men?
Ma said Don’t stand slanted 歪 like a girl.
歪 like 不正. Not proper. A man’s spine
should be trunk-strong. Once, after a fight,
she sat me down with a cup of fig soup.
Tell me you’re not like those defective men.
I looked her straight in the eye and said no.
Why did you start writing poetry? What attracted you to it as an art form?
I started writing poetry when I was 16 or 17. I think I was drawn to its freeing ambiguity and for its uncanny ability to describe something more truly without actually describing it. There were also more intuitive pleasures: the sounds, the unexpected transmutation of objects and their meanings. Poetry was my own room that allowed me to unearth certain ideas and feelings not articulable elsewhere.
I like the idea of intuitive pleasures. What do you think poetry allows you to communicate that perhaps other artistic forms do not?
Poetry seems to be the most generous form of meaning-making in the sense that it doesn’t enforce anything. Mediums like paintings and films can be more directly sensory, but at the same time there’s a tyranny of the image where what is imagined is being dictated to the audience. Other types of text like novels feel bound by narrative logic. That being said, I think the reason I “chose” poetry was simply because it was the most accessible. Writing doesn’t need any equipment and is a more solitary process. Also, I’m not very disciplined, and finishing a poem isn't as daunting as finishing a novel or even a short story.
It’s interesting that you find poetry less daunting than short stories or novels, as instinctively I tend to find poetry more intimidating, in the sense that every word counts. The execution matters as much as the idea, in a way that longer form may be more forgiving. What ideas are you trying to unearth in your poems?
I think what I’m most interested in right now is a poem’s ability to access, question, and condense (fictitious) memory. The way this has manifested for me in the past is mainly through looking at things adjacent to my own experiences. I’m currently working on my first pamphlet of around 20-ish poems. Most of them are concerned with sight and photography in relation to queerness, familial dynamics, multilingualism and location/dislocation. However, I’ve been trying to write poems that take a less narrative approach where the link between speaker and poet is almost invisible. I think this actually gives one more freedom to write about topics that they haven’t approached before.
What do you read, nourish yourself with, to help you in your quest to articulate feelings and transmutation of objects?
I’m very much drawn to poems that think and feel at the same time. Henri Cole’s sonnets will never cease to amaze me. Sarah Howe was the poet that made me realise I could write about Hong Kong. I really admire Padraig Regan's writing. As for recent reads, I’ve been enjoying Maureen N. McLane’s collected poems and it’s absolutely electrifying. Maybe it’s because I haven’t been reading and writing for a long time, my mind is still in a relatively pliable state, and I get the itch to (badly) imitate poets that I’ve recently read.
I wouldn’t say it’s a conscious exercise but more a natural result of being amazed by a poet’s brilliance and wanting to recreate that amazement from the other side. The imitation revolves more around technique than content (e.g. How does one write long lines? How does syntax work in unpunctuated poems?) I think each poet has a singular approach coming from the amalgamation of all of their influences, and experimentation driven by exposure is a great way to locate and refine that approach.
I have to say, all your poems tend to be quite different in their form. How come?
Many of my poems are visually similar in that they’re left-aligned and of regular line length, but I’ve been playing around with how a poem is laid across a page in order to shape how the poem is read. I think the best uses of form (and the kind of use that I aspire to) are instances where form and content meld perfectly. One example that comes to mind is Kayo Chingonyi’s stunning sonnet crown in A Blood Condition, where HIV is transmitted from one carrier to another across each sonnet.
You were born and raised in Hong Kong, and you talked earlier about Sarah Howe making you realise that you could write about Hong Kong. I guess, does thinking in multiple languages influence your craft in a specific way?
For some poems, I definitely think across languages, specifically how words and ideas in different languages are disconnected in certain instances and unexpectedly linked in others. ‘不 / No’ and ‘譯 / Translate’ are perhaps more explicit examples. They were part of a series of ‘character sonnets’ I wrote last year where I was interested in what certain Chinese characters meant to me. When I want to be more subtle, this thinking manifests in the form of puns that only reveal themselves when translated. Because homophones are extremely common in Cantonese, punning is a huge thing in Hong Kong. I feel like slipping this extra layer beneath the poem’s English surface adds a dimensionality that also serves as a little secret between me and certain readers
Quite a few of your titles are both in English and Chinese. How do you select the titles for your poems? What role do they play in conveying a message or intention?
I think I’m not very daring when it comes to titles and usually just stick to some understated word or phrase that thematically unites the poem. My general goal is that one shouldn’t be able to guess completely what the poem will be about based on the title, but by the end the title should gain some new significance.
Aside from thinking in multiple languages, does translation play any role in your work? Do you translate poetry much?
I’m not translating regularly, but I’ve had some random attempts here and there in my notes. I’ve only translated poetry from Chinese to English. I do this when I read a poem in Chinese that I really like, and I become curious about how much of its brilliance I can carry over to English. It didn’t take me long to realise translating is extremely difficult (especially for poetry), and I have enormous respect for translators and the important work they do in connecting works across different languages. Translation can be a powerful exercise for a writer because it emphasises choice and imposes constraints. Doing it regularly might help with intuition regarding diction and syntax.
Do you write in Chinese as well?
For creative works, I write exclusively in English. Because of the media and books that I was exposed to growing up, I had always been better at writing in English compared to writing in Chinese. and there was a snowball effect where my proficiency in English made it easier for me to read things in that language. It's quite strange to be writing in a language that I don't use directly with my family and friends, and even stranger when considering the language's deeply embedded class and colonial connotations. I think at this stage I've made peace with the fact that I'm more able to express myself in English, and I don't believe the essence of writing is confined or defined by the medium within which it takes place.
I loved the rhythm in ‘裂 / Tear’. I felt like I was whirling in the metal drum: ta-ta-ta vvvvvvvv ta-ta-ta vvvvvv. Selfishly, as it was one of my favourites, can I ask about the inspiration behind and how you went about building that rhythm?
The poem really began with the image of the washing machine, which extended into circular objects, especially those that spin and distort. I liked that English part of the title has a double meaning, but the Chinese character 裂 locks it to a particular one (‘tear’ as in ‘tearing’) and also contains the radical for clothing 衣.
An inspiration for this poem specifically is Córdoba by Eduardo C. Corral, which has a similar (albeit terser) structure and too focuses on a moment of extreme emotional vulnerability. I feel like the couplet form with short lines forces precise rhythmic choices. For me, the comma was a great help in reigning in and loosening how certain lines would be read.
What’s is your editing process like? Are you someone that comes back and changes things a lot, or is the first draft often quite close to the published version?
I often jot down fragments or ideas onto my phone, and occasionally some of them will coalesce into a poem which I’ll transfer to a document for further edits. I think I’m an over-writer in the drafting stage, as I tend to cut a lot during revision. Very rarely have I expanded a poem or altered its trajectory significantly once it’s been drafted. The impulse behind a poem is quite important to me, so when a poem arrives, it often arrives in a single breath where the whole piece takes shape in a single session. My drafts fossilize and begin to resist edits as time goes on, but I revisit poems all the time to make small changes even after they’re published!
On that note, I guess that's this interview fossilised.