When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?
I started writing poetry – initially in Chinese – when I was fourteen years old. I was a student in Hong Kong, and it was during Chinese Literature classes where we were tasked to mimic the strict regime of metre and rhyme of Classical Tang poetry. Mimicry is an art of reincarnation, which I like the sound of.
I started writing poetry in English when I was twenty-three, during my doctoral study on Thom Gunn at the University of York. My partner commissioned me to write a poem about my childhood. For economic reasons, from the age of six my mother used to leave me in the Telford Gardens Library in Kowloon Bay. For years, after school, in the weekend, and during summer holidays, I spent my childhood reading, starting from Shelf A and aiming at Shelf Z. The library became a second home or womb. Reading was surviving. I wrote my first proper poem in English called ‘Paper Scissors Stone’ about that time, and years later it became the title of my first book.
Please talk about your development as a writer of poetry. Tell us when you first felt you were a poet and how it went from there.
I don’t remember when I first felt I was a poet. The sense clarified over the years. There is an assumption that a poet progresses over time; their understanding of poetry – the art and craft – deepens as they publish more books. This is true, but any good poem is also a leap in the dark. With my third collection The Ink Cloud Reader, on the one hand I feel I’ve a stronger grip on the lexicon, breath and music. On the other hand, poetry is no fun without taking risks. It is a high-wire act. During a recent conversation with a friend, I realised that almost every poem in the book has a different form. I wasn’t consciously seeking extreme diversification. Thom Gunn speaks of the mind having the power of ‘consistent inconsistency’. I like to think that was the case for me, that ink and clouds were on my side.
What does being shortlisted for the Forward Prizes mean for you?
It means the world to me, but I have to remind myself that sometimes the world is devoid of meaning. Poetry is an art of recognition, but poets know that most of the time they work on their own and for a tiny audience. Recognition is a great source of motivation, though it can’t be the most essential and sustaining muse.
Please tell us something about the creation of your shortlisted collection, from first words to final book.
Throughout history, ink has illuminated us like LED bulbs. The darker the times, the brighter the ink. We consume ink as much as it consumes us.
Though poetry is committed to the pleasure principle, the new poems were certainly born in – or out of – dark times; a sense of crisis at home here, and in my first home in Hong Kong. I’ve always been skeptical of the first person in poetry. Even though I’ve used it countless times, I often feel it is it, the all-allusive I, who consumes and uses me. 2021 was a terrible year in my life, a watershed. I decided to plunge in and wrestle with the mighty ‘I’, to test its full limits. The first section of the book is an experiment on the first person.
If the ‘I’ is a raindrop that falls into the world-pool, the second section of my book reaches out to Hong Kong, my beloved, splintered city I share breaths with. The ripples get larger in the final section as rain turns to storms to floods to another Age of Disappearance, what we call the climate emergency.
These are the poems in The Ink Cloud Reader that haunt me most: ‘Delphi’, ‘Yew’, ‘The Art of Reading’, ‘Mother’s Ink’…
Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?
This will take forever but here is a sample for ‘forever’:
Emily Dickinson, for boundless ink. Elizabeth Bishop, for her map, moose and waiting room. Saskia Hamilton, for her quiet attentiveness. Wallace Stevens, for ‘The Planet on the Table’. Robert Frost, because ‘he knows in singing not to sing.’
George Herbert, for infinitude. Stevie Smith, for crossing the line. Thom Gunn, for fun and form.
The film-maker Krzysztof Kieślowski, for teaching me to see. The photographer André Kertész, for teaching me to read.
Tu Fu, for wine and rhyme. Pu Songling, for the beauty of ghosts. Matsuo Bashō, for transience.
What is next for you as a poet?
‘Next’ is a big word for poetry. I feel like I’m living hand-to-mouth when a new poem arrives, as if the magic of the new will soon fizzle out like sherbet on my tongue. That said, I’ve recently been trying my best to destabilise the lines with wonder and ambiguity, while grounding them in our common speech, so they carry an illusion of weightlessness. Something strange then happens: the lines stare back at me with that otherworldly look, as if saying, ‘You’ve made us; now set us free.’
What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?
For me, poetry is less about the poet and more about the poem. Fashion, voice, exposure, fame – they move about and change like the clouds. Read hungrily, read everything – poems that dazzle and puzzle you, distance and ignore you. Learn from the dead but hold onto the present.