When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?
I first began writing poems during my freshman year at business school in Hong Kong. When I was supposed to be doing finance and accounting problem sets, I found myself looking up novels and poetry anthologies in the university library, where I began jotting down poems whenever I had a quiet moment to myself. Those early poems were poorly written, but I had begun to play with words, and felt that there was a tensile strength in poetry that gave me a sense of solace during that turbulent year. After transferring to Swarthmore College in 2009 to continue my undergraduate studies in the US, I took a poetry workshop in my junior year and joined the college slam poetry team in my senior year, which sparked my life-long love of poetry.
Please tell us something about the creation of your shortlisted collection, from first words to final book. Does it mark a departure or change from your earlier work? Which poems in this collection are most important to you?
For most of 2020, I found myself bereft of language. I couldn’t read much, let alone write. During this period of collective and personal grief, I found myself wondering what poetry was for in a time of crisis. I began jotting down images which felt like powerful metaphors for what poems were to me: W.S. Graham’s “constructed space”, Mary Ruefle’s “wandering little drift of unidentified sound”, Billy-Ray Belcourt’s “shape-shifting, defiant force in the world”, to name but a few. It was in 2021 that these ruminations began coalescing into what is now the central poetic sequence of Bright Fear, titled ‘Ars Poetica’. This sequence of sixteen poems is bookended by two sections respectively titled ‘Grief Lessons’ and ‘Field Notes on a Family’. Some poems extend and develop forms and themes which first appeared in my debut Flèche; others chart new ruptures and reconciliations. I found myself delving deeper into my complex relationship to language: English, as well as my mother tongue, Cantonese. While editing Bright Fear, I listened to Cantopop on repeat for inspiration.
What is next for you as a poet?
I feel very fortunate to be taking up the Judith E. Wilson Poetry Fellowship at the University of Cambridge in October 2023 for a period of nine months, which will allow me some much-needed time and space to read and write poems after an intensive period of reading 20-30 novels per month (for over six months) as a current Booker Prize judge. It has been a treat to read so much contemporary fiction, but I am looking forward to having a more relaxed relationship to reading in the months ahead.