In this month’s literary news I’m very excited to chat to Jennifer Wong. Jennifer was born and grew up in Hong Kong and is now living in the UK. She’s a writer, translator and educator with an MA in creative writing from the University of East Anglia as well as a PhD in creative writing from Oxford Brookes where she works as an Associate Lecturer. Jennifer’s brilliant collection, Letters Home 回家, is her third book and was published by Nine Arches in 2020. These poems explore the liminal space between cultures and what home means, both physically and psychologically. It is poignant and haunting while at the same time being grounded in the everyday needs brought about by homesickness and longing. Jenny’s generous creative spirit is a strong presence in both the UK and Hong Kong poetry scenes and I was pleased to be able to explore these worlds with her in more depth.
Portrait by Tai Ngai Lung_Fotor
Jenny, let’s begin at the beginning! How did you first start writing poetry?
I started writing poetry when I was in high school. I remember being introduced to the magic of poetry through the Bloodaxe anthology of contemporary women poets edited by Deryn Rees-Jones, and the works by Sylvia Plath and Philip Larkin etc. I felt so inspired by the freedom of the genre, how personal and intimate a poem can be, the sort of intensity and purity it has. I was also very excited about writing or learning to write poetry in English, because it isn’t my native tongue, and I feel all the freer because of that: there’s less emotional burden and I became much less self-conscious in the language. I can be someone different, or I can inhabit a different sort of space and time, far away from the traditional and rather hierarchical society I grew up in.
I have really enjoyed coming to your on-line poetry reading events – What We Read Now – where three poets read their work and discuss it with each other and the audience. You’ve has such diverse poetic voices reading, including Zeina Hashem Beck, Kostya Tsolakis, Rebecca Goss, George Szirtes, Alvin Pang and Heidi Williamson. What was the inspiration that led you to organise these readings?
Thank you for coming to these! As a practising poet with a new book out, I found myself a bit lost in the lockdown period. Suddenly there were no more readings and events to go to, and I was thinking that my fellow poets must feel pretty much the same way. So I started this series to help them promote their work. It’s often difficult thinking of themes. I started doing this and hoping my few friends will come. But I am amazed by how many poets attended these readings!
The Hong Kong poetry scene is so vibrant and full of excellent poets writing in a very engaged way. How would you describe the current scene both in HK and the UK and how do you think it will develop in the future? Who should we look be looking out for?
Yes, I am excited to see that there is a very vibrant literary scene in Hong Kong, with writers who publish poetry, fiction, life writing… The different generations of writers are very different from each other, but at the same time they shed light on different elements and values in the city. Because Hong Kong used to be a British colony, I feel that there is a close connection between the UK and Hong Kong, in that the Anglophone writers in Hong Kong have read a lot of English literature and are much influenced by English literature.
The active poets in Hong Kong, for example, include Nicholas Wong, Jason Lee, Tammy Ho, Eddie Tay, Collier Nogues, Akin Jeje, Nashua Gallagher etc. Then there are the established poets who pioneered the Anglophone poetry scene such as Louise Ho, Agnes Lam, Dave McKirdy, Madeleine Marie Slavick, Gillian Bickley… There are the new and exciting voices too: young writers who are courageous and experimental in their work. And then there are the local writers who write in Chinese, or in both Chinese and English. So, it’s quite impossible to ‘summarise’ the scene in a few words. I love the sense that in Hong Kong, the poets or writers all know each other. There are many more creative writing activities in Hong Kong than there used to be, with the Hong Kong Literary Festivals, One Book One City, Writing Plus, regular open mics, creative writing programmes, competitions and various initiatives going on. I am glad that this is such a dynamic scene, and at the same time, I am worried about how writers can continue to protect their artistic freedom and the space to write.
I enjoy immersing myself in the UK poetry scene too. There are so many talented poets out there, whose work pose vital questions on class, identity, history, race, gender…and challenge the traditional ways of seeing or understanding the world. I feel that we are coming into a new era, with much more readiness to embrace new forms and new poetic language. We need to encourage more awareness among editors and publishers to be inclusive, to offer avenues for poets from different race and social backgrounds. Organisers such as the Ledbury Critics, The Complete Works and various literary publishers have done much to broaden the range of poetry voices, but there’s so much that can be done to encourage people to discover, appreciate and accept more diverse voices in the current poetry scene.
You are a key part of the Hong Kong poetry scene yourself and I so enjoyed your beautiful collection, Letters Home (Nine Arches Press) which came out earlier this year. The book is full of living the liminal space between two countries – full of grace, acceptance, nostalgia and homesickness. Could you tell me a little of how this collection came into being?
This book with Nine Arches stems from my creative writing PhD at Oxford Brookes, and follows from my interest in the themes of home, family, memories and identity from my previous two collections (Goldfish and Summer Cicadas) published by Chameleon Press in Hong Kong. Over the recent years, the news coming from Hong Kong -the city where my parents, my brother and his family, as well as many friends and ex-colleagues still live -makes me think more about the city’s history, the values and things that I care about there, what it still promises to be and what it is in fear of losing. I am interested to find ways to understand the history of my place/places that matter to me, through poetry. In my PhD studies, I realised from my reading of poetry and criticism–Li-Young Lee, Marilyn Chin, Hannah Lowe, Sarah Howe, Naipaul, Victoria Chang, Stuart Hall, Avtah Brah–that I am not alone in thinking that one can feel a sense of belonging and alienation at the same time, that our home is no longer a single location. As a writer, I am at home in feeling elsewhere: I share a spiritual sense of place with fellow writers and artists.
Could you give us one or two poetry writing tips to end with? How can we become better poets?
I’d say, don’t imitate others, be true to yourself and what you’d like to write about. Second, read as much as you can. Also, once a draft has been done, step away from it a little and think about what it is, but what it can be. You’ll be surprised how far it can go.
That’s great advice Jenny, thank you so much! The next What We Read Now will be on 21 January 7pm UK time and features Tolu Agbelusi, Alice Hiller and Serge ♆ Neptune. Go here if you are interested https://www.facebook.com/events/819471218613897/
And watch this space! Jenny has just been appointed as Writer-in-Residence for Wasafiri Magazine whose tagline is that they profile “the best of tomorrow’s poets today”.
Last month I talked to prizewinner, José Ramón Ayllón Guerrero so, this month it felt appropriate to explore the other side of the coin with Heidi Williamson, who judged the Poetry Society’s 2020 Stanza Competition. Heidi is no stranger to prize-winning, in 2019 she won the prestigious Plough Poetry Prize with her poem ‘With a rootless lily held in front of him’ which appears in her third Bloodaxe collection Return by Minor Road. This heartbreakingly brilliant collection radiates out from her experience of living in Dunblane, Scotland at the time of the primary school shootings in 1996.
The Poetry Society was founded in 1909 to promote “a more general recognition and appreciation of poetry”. Since then, it has grown into one of Britain’s most dynamic arts organisations, representing British poetry both nationally and internationally. Today it has more than 5,000 members worldwide and its annual, themed competition is open to members who also belong to Stanza groups. Here’s what Heidi has to say about the judging experience, and her top tips.
“It was exciting to see the poems land for the Competition. I enjoyed discovering what worlds unfurled inside each one.
Common subjects emerged quite quickly. Lockdown, health, silence, nature. And ideas that resonated with the competition’s theme of ‘Hear’ – tinnitus, hearing aids, deafness, birdsong, music.
I was especially interested in poems that came from an unusual angle or that surprised me with their knowledge, music or revelations. I used to work as an advertising copywriter, and whenever I was given something to write about would jot down everything that came into my head about the subject. Then I’d put that to one side and dig deeper for more ways of coming at an idea. It’s a method that’s stood me in good stead in poetry too. ‘Relevant surprise’ is a powerful tool in writing.
I admired risks writers had taken with form or content too. Whatever they were writing about, they’d ‘pushed it further’. Also the poems that were shortlisted were so keenly edited that every syllable shone. When it gets down to the final few, unfortunately it becomes necessary to think ‘where are the small flaws here’ that can help me juggle poems to the very top.”
Heidi’s top tips
- Find a way into the subject that interests you and might be less usual.
- Take a risk if you can – with the form of the poem, with the subject, push your writing further.
- Think about the soundscape in your work. ‘Music’ doesn’t have to be a rhyme scheme. It can be repetition of sounds, echoes, and near rhymes.
- Write about something you care about deeply. It will show through in the writing.
- The more specific you can be in your images, the more clearly and successfully they land in the reader’s head. If there’s a dog in your poem, help me see the same dog you have in mind.
- Edit, edit, edit. It’s a pity when a typo or snag-word stops a brilliant poem in its tracks.
This is great advice from Heidi, and could equally well apply to prose writers. What a fascinating insight into the judging process.