On the Record

Three of my poems are in the most recent issue of Rusty Toque. Thanks to Kathryn Mockler for including them along with the work of fine poets such as Jordan Abel, Julie Brock, Elyse Friedman, Kim Fu, Ted Nolan, Nikki Reimer, Sina Queyras and many others.

I made recordings of two of the poems but I didn’t send them in on time, so I’ll include them here. I liked how these turned out and I’m getting more used to the weirdness of hearing my own voice since relying more on recordings to make revisions. The version of “Latitude” has been revised and is different version than the one that appears in Rusty Toque. Thanks for your ears, and hope you enjoy them.

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You aren’t the only winner

A month ago, my poem “Regional Transit,” won Prism Magazine’s poetry contest, judged by Ken Babstock. Another poem I’d entered, “The Hydro Men” had been shortlisted. I felt all the things I should feel: wonder, disbelief, pride, shock. I felt something else, as well– a feeling of having beaten the odds.

This spring, Canadian poet Colin Fulton posted his research regarding the ethnic identity of poetry prize judges and winners in Canada for major contests such as the Griffin Poetry Prize, Governor General’s Awards, CBC Poetry Prize, Bronwen Wallace Awards, Malahat Review Prizes and Trillium Awards. His findings confirmed what I had already known since I began writing poetry as a teenager– that the odds of winning a contest as a person of colour are very limited. Fulton’s research cascaded across social media, and I could’ve chimed in, but I’m always curious to see, whenever diversity and ethnicity are being discussed in Canada, whether writers of colour will be asked for our thoughts and experiences. Too often we are not.

It’s true that many of these prizes are judged blindly. It’s true that literary judges have implicit cultural and aesthetic biases. It’s true that the category of “white” is inadequate– that someone’s mixed, hybrid or racial background isn’t always visible, or visible in the same way. However, the issue is more serious than why writers of colour aren’t judging and winning contests, it’s why so few of us are writing at all.

When Evelyn Lau was nominated for the  1992 Governor General’s Award, at the age of 19, for her poetry, my parents pointed her out to me as someone to aspire to, an unusual role model as Lau battled drug addiction and ran away from home. To my parents, she was an example of what could be achieved by a Chinese-Canadian woman with talent and hard work. Unlike most immigrant parents, they put no pressure on my sister and I to enter professions that would guarantee us an income. They wanted us to be creatively satisfied in the way they’d never been satisfied. They encouraged our painting, drawing, music and writing; we attended an arts high school and took arts degrees. But their support and encouragement wasn’t enough, though I couldn’t say then what it was I lacked.

Thanks to my parents, I have more ambition and self-esteem than they ever had, as well as the will to network and self-promote, and to find supporters and a community of peers. I have already received more recognition for my creative work than they ever did. I take none of this for granted. I cannot afford to.  Unlike many of my peers, I didn’t see reflections of myself in Canadian writing, I didn’t read books written by Asian-Canadian writers until I was in university, nor did I have writing teachers or mentors who were of colour.

I have often wondered about the importance of visibility; after all, my ethnic identity is a category that has been arbitrarily created. What is “Asian”? “Of colour”? “Minority?” These terms fail to capture the often contradictory positions of both shame and privilege, doubt and power. Therefore, what I share with other writers of colour is the experience of having our identity determined by reductionist terms, by an empty signifier of stereotyped traits and characteristics. I cannot address my racial category, because it is addressing me.

I closely track the work of other writers of colour in my peer group for reasons I also cannot clearly articulate. There was one other Chinese-Canadian student in my high school creative writing class, who went onto a Ph.D in Latin poetry at Iowa; in English Honours at UBC I was one of four Asian-Canadian students (I know exactly where each one is now working) and hungrily read the work of Larissa Lai, Madeleine Thien, Rita Wong, and followed the music columns and blogs of Doretta Lau, who later graduated from the MFA program at Columbia and published a short story collection. In Toronto, I confessed to another poet that it felt isolating to be one of the few people of colour in the room at events.

This sense of isolation may seem misplaced. I count among my friends some of the most talented poets of my generation, many of whom have won or been nominated for prizes such as Bronwen Wallace, Matrix Lit Pop, Malahat Review poetry prize, and Trillium. For me to claim that their prizes resulted because of racial and cultural biases would negate their hard work and rare gifts. Nor can I blame the judges for following their personal tastes and preferences, or for looking for writing that reflects their own cultural touchstones and experiences. When I’m present at festivals, events, awards ceremonies, I feel I’m there in the double, both to cheer on my friends, and also to be a presence, to be visible. It’s an eerie feeling.

Another reason why it’s so uncommon to see people of colour at certain types of literary events is because literary success is like the success of a barnacle clinging to the good graces of society’s shucked shells. It’s not the kind of success that most immigrant or Asian parents want for their children, who instead excel in the more lucrative fields of business and medicine. But who is writing the stories and depict the images of that success and struggle? What is most worrisome to me about the lack of diversity in literary publications, prizes and grants is that those images are hardly being depicted and read.

Publications and prizes create what Sarah Kendzior has called a “prestige economy“, in which recipients of book contracts and prize money may not benefit in a significant way financially, but often receive other benefits, such as speaking and teaching positions, requests to serve on prize and grant juries, and so on. I myself have served on a grant jury, when the organization had a mandate to promote cultural diversity. As long as a tolerant society can point out instances of where writers of colour are also benefiting from the prestige economy, it can claim to be diverse and open-minded. As a result, I can never be quite sure whether or not I’m being included or excluded because of my ethnicity, which drains away at that sense of assurance and self-esteem that writers of colour already lack. That state of nauseous uncertainty is perhaps the most toxic element of categorizing writers on the basis of their ethnic backgrounds.

The situation won’t remain as dire. I’m seeing signs of change in classrooms, conferences and at events. The generations of immigrants that worked so hard to secure financial stability for their kids can now afford for them to pursue the nebulous rewards of a prestige economy. I have also discovered that my muddled thoughts about moving through the half-tone landscapes of Canadian culture and giving flawed examples to the next generation of immigrant students makes for good poetry. Even the prize-winning kind.

Thaw

When the air no longer cut our faces and the sidewalk gives up its haul of squashed coffee cups and shredded flyers, I am walking again across Riverdale. The hem-wet fields, the footbridge over Don Valley, the grinning cracks of East Gerald.

Nothing has sprouted yet. But the big reveal is coming. All winter I’ve kept myself buried. My rooms smell stale with recycled ink and old tea bags. I’ve been occupied, and so far I have a few brief pieces to show for 2015:

an interview with this year’s CWILA Critic-in-Residence, Lucas Crawford, on the Puritan’s Town Crier blog;

a review of Kayla Czaga’s debut book of poems, For Your Safety Please Hold On, on the Arc Poetry Magazine site, and another of Kerry-Lee Powell’s Inheritance will soon appear (both books were recently nominated for a Gerald Lampert Award);

—and a poem on George Murray’s newpoetry.ca site, “Another View.” It’s an old, old poem that I’ve reworked many times and seems finally to have found its shape.

I’m more selective these days about what I want to take on. So each of these pieces are meaningful to me as those first goose honks of the spring. The ones you hear when you’re darting across a windy parking lot far above the 401, and you jerk your head up and see something magnificent flying overhead that had been trying to overtake you for some time.

This was my view

Lobster boats coming into the harbour

Lobster boats coming into the harbour

This was the view during two weeks in December I spent on holiday in Dipper Harbour, a small fishing community on the Bay of Fundy east of Saint John, New Brunswick. I’d watch the lobster boats come in on early afternoons while editing, and a few hours later darkness would catch the sky in its big, embracing net. More than once my hosts would boil up lobster over a propane-fueled stove on the patio for an early dinner. More than once we drove along the highway to visit a vast, interlocking web of family– uncles, aunts, cousins, nieces and nephews. We were offered home-brewed wine and a seat by the wood-burning stove, and I saw firsthand how news travels amongst the clan, from person to person, so everyone knows everyone else’s business.

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Poem in Maisonneuve

Maisonneuve

 

My poem, “Rites of Passage” is in the summer issue of Maisonneuve. It’s about parenting (or how I imagine parenting might feel) and is dedicated to the students of Newton, Connecticut. I’m not sure how much longer the issue will be on newstands. Many thanks to editor Haley Cunningham for including my work. She got in touch with me in May, asking to see some poems. Instead of delaying and doubting as I usually do, I sent in a handful of semi-polished work right away. She accepted one within a day, the fastest acceptance I’ve ever had. The poem needed a lot of last minute revisions, but in the end, remember if an editor asks you for work don’t second-guess yourself and spend weeks thinking over tiny changes. It takes many years to learn to trust other people’s faith in you.

A Restless Home

I’ve spent the past 10 days in my parents’ tiny but airy apartment overlooking Commercial Drive, a noisy and electric hippie enclave on the east side of Vancouver. Although this apartment was my live-and-workspace for a few wayward years after my undergrad years at UBC, I’ve been beset by an uneasy sense of homelessness since I got here.

I was born and spent 19 years in Ottawa, 8 in Vancouver, and now 6 years in Toronto, long enough for each place to reciprocate in friends, workplaces, and odd cravings, but not long enough to be unthinkingly, presumingly, at home. Ottawa left me with an affection for Irish pubs, deep snows, and the gentle slope of the Gatineau hills, while on the West Coast, I learned how to bike in spitting rain, how to order food in an izakaya, how to interpret ferry schedules and to vent about rental prices and gentrification; while in Toronto’s west end I grew addicted to West Indian roti and Portuguese natas, to racing sailboats in the harbour and to the constant stimulant of the city’s conversations. Rather than feeling more settled with each year, I find myself jerking my head around, wondering, “what’s next?” and feeling as though at any moment, the hardwood floors of rented abodes will be yanked out from under me.
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#mywritingprocess

I got this hashtag stuck on my back by Ryan Pratt of deadletterbirds, whom I met after several months of online back-and-forth for Puritan Magazine and after a very short GO bus ride to  Hamilton.

What am I working on?

Revisions to my first manuscript of poems, in part submitted as my MA in Creative Writing thesis. Some of the poems are the age of young children. There is a publisher that has shown a needle waver’s of interest, so there’s a bit of a deadline to my finishing up this draft, and I write best with a sense of real or imagined urgency. Last summer, I finished a chapbook of poems about emergencies and economies, and it’ll be part of another MS that I have mapped out in an orange Moleskine. So I have enough work for the next 2-3 years, which feels wonderful.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Impossible question. I don’t think originality is necessarily my main concern. Mat Laporte once said that what he finds notable of my poems is how much care I take. And this is true: I care about my reader, I want to carry them. Denise Duhamel has noted the “almost cruel lack of finality” of my poems. This is also true. If I’m going to put a knife in my readers I don’t want them to feel it going in.

Why do I write what I do?

I write what I do because of my very presence in history and in space is circumstantial– because my parents are painters and showed me there’s another parallel life of colour and dreams, because they  spoke idiosyncratic yet fluent English, because I grew up in Ottawa beside a brownfield that was covered in wildflowers every summer that was mowed down every summer, because I have tropical skin and a heart raised in a winter country, because I’m a colonial, because I’m a commuter, because how strange is it that there’s a Japanese garden in the middle of a Pacific Northwest rainforest in the middle of a university in the middle of first nations territory, because I feel at home in Lisbon, because none of this ever made any sense to me, and even when I write it still doesn’t make any sense, but then at least I’m written it.

How does my writing process work?

I circle, circle and circle the poem going crazy aiming for its centre, that feeling when I’ve sunken into it like a big cushion, but it’s that circling that is the actual writing. It’ll never look like I’m writing because this can last for hours, half the day, the whole day. I’ll be watching documentaries, looking at photographs, reading Wikipedia until I’m in a half-trance and there’s a kind of unconscious sifting at work and something will draw out an image like a poultice over a sting.

And it’s physically circling too– long walks on trails, tracks, alleyways, bus rides and train trips and boat races and bike rides. This posed some issues as a young Asian female, but as I get older I’m less embarrassed and more fiercely protective of my solitude, because I can absorb other people’s voices and rhythms in a very eerie way. Then as I let my guard down and go and wash my hands or to cut a pear, half a line or a stanza or a whole poem will drop down, and I’ll run as fast as possible, and then I’m immensely happy to have something to refine the next day. And it begins all over again.

When I’m searching for a word, the dictionary and not the thesaurus is crucial. Other languages– French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Latin, are valuable to shake a cadence or a tired meaning loose. For revisions, I write out the poem by memory– what I can’t remember usually wasn’t worth keeping. If things freeze up, my writing group is brought in for major reconstructive surgery.

I’d like for some of writing group to answer these questions but they’re new/old school and don’t have blogs! So I’ll wait until Bardia Sinaee, Laura Clarke, Catriona Wright, Ted Nolan, Matt Loney and new addition Vincent Colistro have had a bit too much good cheer, surprise them with these questions them and record the results.