After a spring that included co-hosting Ontario Arts Council’s Fuel for Fire, launching my book in Toronto and Montreal, and attending over a dozen festivals and events, I no longer recognize my life. I don’t know if this is a normal or abnormal number of invitations for a debut poet. I don’t know if this is normal for a poet with a major press. I don’t know if this is normal for someone whose first book appeared after the age of 35. All I know is the warmth and interest that Admission Requirements has received has me dazed with gratitude.
I know what my life is supposed to look like: head-rolling commutes to teaching or tutoring across the splayed-out city and hours milled under lamplight with line-edits. Equal measures of discipline and obscurity, with teaspoons of socializing and success. I find routine sustaining, because of how long it’s taken me to be independent and to write on my own terms. Though my small taste of being in the spotlight, AirBnb stays and book signings has been modest compared to that of more established authors, I found myself quickly drained by the logistics of book promotion, socializing, travel and the anxiety of reading poems about personal family matters to a curious, expectant audience. “Why didn’t you warn me it was so exhausting!” I cried half-accusingly, half-seriously to my writer-friends. There was no way they could have– every writer is treated differently by the book promotion machinery, and every writer views doing events differently. Some thrive on public performers, others wilt without
constant snacks intervals of solitude.
Early on I realized I couldn’t let myself, my editor or my publisher down– they had invested in me, so to speak, and I owed it to them and to myself to become a strong performer of my work. I couldn’t read the way I had before my book was published, lightly, without a sense of lastingness or consequences. I had to deliver. I had to reach into the emotional heart of a poem. Which meant that even after a 10 or 15 minute reading, I could be shaking, close to tears. It was especially strange to be explaining Chinese ancestor worship, or the Hong Kong democracy protests, or telling the story of my parents’ immigration to Canada. I don’t know if this added to my underlying paranoia, but no matter what, insomnia struck in the night before a reading, the anxiety doubled if I needed to catch a flight or train. I’d have trouble sleeping the night after too because conversations swirled in my brain hours afterwards. The lack of sleep led to headaches and difficulty eating. As the weeks progressed, I became even more anxious, knowing how little rest I’d get before and after the event. I Skyped a close friend who had worked hard to promote his book widely. I asked him how long it took him to recover from his slew of cross-country festivals and events: “I’m still recovering,” he said ruefully.
At the same time, I’ve been able to let go of some vestiges of fear and dread around the book, fears that it was not what I’d wanted to be, or that it was too muted and polite, or that my publisher and editors would be disappointed in me. Amidst the hectic weeks, they always managed to find me in the crowd to press their warm hands on me and to whisper their encouragement. Their pride in me and the warm reception of my work is slowly eradicating the three decades of believing that I was somehow not enough, not doing enough, not good enough, the way a flaming knife or pure alcohol gradually sears a crawling wound.
I was still puzzled at why I was often the only writer of colour on the bill. Even as I saw and heard assurances that I was invited for my work, of course I couldn’t help thinking I checked off an awful lot of boxes: female, of colour, with a big-name publisher, a U of T MA grad, with work that’s for the most part, accessible in its lyric mode. In my insistence that I had been asked for other reasons than the quality or impact of my poetry, I could give everyone the benefit of the doubt except myself. If I couldn’t push away this self-destructive negativity, I wouldn’t benefit from all the opportunities I was being given by those in the position to manifest change and who are determined to bring more diversity to local festivals, reading series, events and communities of readers, even if that spectre of diversity is still illusory or flawed. I’ve been buoyed up by the energy, activity, and dedication I’ve seen in those communities I’ve been lucky enough to visit, while there’s still work to be done. At the very least, I can do my job, which is to be present, thankful, and a tough act to follow.