FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION IN CONVERSATION WITH MARY JEAN CHAN

FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION: What does being shortlisted for the Forward Prizes mean for you?

MARY JEAN CHAN: This is the second time I’ve been shortlisted in the Single Poem category, which is a great honour. I am grateful that the judges have deemed my poem worthy of inclusion on this occasion, and am particularly excited to be sharing the stage with so many poets whom I deeply admire.

FAF: Tell us a bit more about your poem and your work.

MJC: ‘The Window’ is first and foremost about what it means to live, and about the responsibilities of being alive. I was inspired by Marie Howe’s stunning collection What the Living Do (1999), both the title poem and the collection as a whole. Howe writes:

It’s winter again: the sky’s a deep, headstrong blue, and the sunlight pours through

the open living-room windows because the heat’s on too high in here and I can’t turn it off.
For weeks now, driving, or dropping a bag of groceries in the street, the bag breaking,

I’ve been thinking: This is what the living do.

I wanted to examine what it means when the speaker contemplates a space of possibility – that of the window – which connects the potent act of living to the possibility of death. The speaker struggles with facets of their identity (i.e. queerness) but chooses to survive, and the window crystallises precisely what it is that the living do – that they choose love, reconciliation, and the stubborn – often painfully complex – realities of living. When I wrote this poem, I also had in mind Audre Lorde’s ‘A Litany for Survival’, in which she writes: ‘…when we are silent / we are still afraid / so it is better to speak / remembering / we were never meant to survive.’ Another influence on this poem is Alice Oswald’s ‘Wedding’. These lines in particular:

when the trick begins, it’s like a toe
tip-toeing on a rope, which is like luck;
and when the luck begins, it’s like a wedding,
which is like love, which is like everything.

I hope my readers will appreciate the ways in which ‘The Window’ simply represents a moment in time – within my life, and within the life of my first book of poems. Despite the complexities of carving out a queer existence, love remains. This poem and my collection strive to honour the richness and power of familial relationships which matter deeply to me. 

FAF: Where can our readers find more about you and your work?

MJC: My debut collection, Flèche, is forthcoming from Faber & Faber (July 2019).