FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION IN CONVERSATION WITH MARY JEAN CHAN

FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION: When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?

MARY JEAN CHAN: I began writing poetry in earnest during my BA at Swarthmore College, where I majored in Political Science and minored in English Literature. I was introduced to the poetry of Adrienne Rich, which opened up a whole new world for me in which poetry was not only enjoyable, but vital to life. I had found a kind of poetics that was both political and personal, cosmopolitan and intimate at the same time. After I bought myself a copy of Rich’s The Dream of a Common Language for my 21st birthday, there was no turning back.

FAF: Please talk about your development as a writer of poems. Tell us when you first felt you were a poet and how it went from there.

MJC: I first took myself seriously as an emerging poet whilst I was doing my MA in Creative Writing at Royal Holloway from 2014-2015, three years after I had left university. During that year, I had the incredible fortune of learning from Professor Jo Shapcott, Professor Kei Miller and Professor Andrew Motion, all of whom influenced and challenged me to expand my horizons with their differing poetics and voices. Professor Kristen Kreider introduced me to the work of more experimental writers such as Andrea Brady, Lisa Robertson and Yve Lomax, which made me increasingly aware of alternative poetic forms such as the lyric essay. I love the way language becomes strange again in the writings of these poets-as-critics, thus I continue to try to emulate them in my own work.

FAF: What does being shortlisted for the Forward Prizes mean for you?

MJC: It means a lot in terms of feeling as if I have been accepted into a community of writers whose work I deeply admire, and whose books accompany me on my ongoing journey towards becoming a better poet. Currently, I am pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing at Royal Holloway, with a critical focus on Caribbean poets including Kei Miller, Vahni Capildeo, and Christian Campbell. The Forward Prizes have been instrumental in promoting the work of these poets to a wider audience, and I count myself as being a beneficiary of that process.

FAF: Please tell us about the genesis of your shortlisted poem. Is it part of a collection or sequence? Where can a reader find more by you?

MJC: My shortlisted poem was written last year, whilst I was back home in Hong Kong for a gap year. Due to my identity as a queer poet, I have found my relationship with home to be increasingly fraught, owing in particular to the lack of basic LGBTQ protections and rights in Hong Kong. As one might expect, family tensions have enlivened my creative work in multiple ways, and this poem was born out of an intensely personal experience, and also informed by ruminations on the state of mental health amongst LGBTQ youths in a city that I flee from, yet constantly wish to return to. For the past decade, poetry has been a means of finding my way home.

FAF: Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?

MJC: Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric is a favourite of mine, particularly since I wrote my MA dissertation on her book, which culminated in a recent article published by The Journal of American Studies. I was fascinated by the way Rankine was able to hone in on micro-agressions that are often overlooked even by those interested in issues of racism and racial justice – how the steady drip of racism through seemingly small acts of hurt can culminate in an entire system of white supremacy that wounds and scars people of color not only physically, but also mentally and emotionally. I felt that Rankine captured what it meant to have racial trauma reside within the breathing black body, how even breath might be construed as an act of resistance.

FAF: What is next for you as a poet?

MJC: I am working towards my first poetry collection, and also hope to embark on a career as a Creative Writing/English Literature Lecturer upon finishing my PhD.

FAF: What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?

MJC: Never let your fears stop you from writing. I loved what Ocean Vuong said at his recent readings in London – how he is able to write on days when the urgency to say something outstrips the pace of his fears. He said it more eloquently than that, but his sentiment was mainly that doubts or fears will always exist when it comes to poetry or other forms of writing; we simply need to accept that as part of the writing process and continue to forge ahead. Some days we might be silent and unable to write, and that’s part of the process too. Also, I would say: read those poets you love, those books you feel like you can’t live without. For me, it all began with Adrienne Rich; now Claudia Rankine is someone whose work I can’t imagine living without.