We’re continuing with our National Poetry Month interviews, and excited about our next featured poet, the wonderful: Nicolette Wong! Stay tuned for more featured poets all month long.
1) Do you think poetry is still important, relevant, and vibrant in today’s culture?
I’d like to think that poetry has, or could have an impact on people’s everyday life, but that seems to be the case only among writers and lovers of literature who seek solace from this art form. There may be channels for poetry to permeate our culture and sensibility in more tangible ways, but the question goes back to the work – I’m thinking about poems that touch on the question “What does it mean/feel to be human” in pretty upfront manners, poems that are direct expression of the emotional struggle we live through the day, poems that a reader who doesn’t seek out poetry can relate to if they chance upon it online or in a magazine. I admire poets who write about their subjects with such directness – e.g. Philip Schultz, whose work is accessible, well-crafted and gut-wrenching at times – because I believe that’s the kind of poetry that could reach a wider audience.
A while ago Laura E Davis, fellow poet and editor of Weave Magazine, asked me if I know of some contemporary Chinese poets who’d like to have their work featured in a course on translating poetry she’s teaching to children of Chinese immigrants (and students of other ethnicities). I put her in touch with a friend of mine in Hong Kong who works with Mainland Chinese poets. Laura told me her Chinese students were amazed to be studying poetry in their native language in class. A few of those poets are what we’d call dissident poets in Hong Kong and Mainland China, and my friend was amused to think of their work being studied in an American classroom like it was just an ordinary anecdote. This kind of exchange makes poetry relevant, I think.
2) What makes you want to write poetry?
I simply got there. Now there’s nothing else I can do.
3) Tell us about one poet who has greatly influenced you as a writer and thinker.
Paul Celan. Years ago, a German writer gave me a copy of Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan, translated by John Felstiner, published by W.W. Norton. I’d read a lot of poetry but never thought of writing it myself. Then I read this one poem – if I’d ever looked for anything called truth in my life, I found it in that stone-written shadow. In me there’s this intensity that can only be conveyed in poetry, if not said.
4) Tell us about one lesser-known poet who you’d like more people to know about.
Anne Shaw, author of Undertow (2007) and Dido in Winter: Poems (2014). Her verse maps physical – often natural – landscapes, connections and emotions through quiet and luminous turns. It’s solid, unassuming, seductive and classy. She’s got excellent craft.
5) How do you feel about poetry in the age of social media?
For me it’s a positive thing. The other day Doug Anderson said there seem to be more readers of the poems he posts on Facebook than the ones he has published in journals. Wouldn’t you think there’s some truth to that? Yesterday I read a poem Jay Sizemore posted on his Facebook and I liked it. Then all these excerpts we see on web pages and sites… You run into stunning work from time to time. In some cases the author creates and amplifies a persona that some take an interest in, which I feel is a reasonable attempt at self-promotion – anything that intrigues, consistently, is a bonus considering poetry is a hard push and any of our efforts may fail anyway. So, why not? I’m someone who’d look up and buy a poet’s books, though, if I love what I see of their work online.
6) Share with us one of your recent poems and tell us a little bit about its context.
“Inside the Bell Flowers” was published in Connotation Press in February 2014.
Brown wings for a wreath. For slumber at sea or mirage of an inverted sun. The clouds of her dirge cleanse me of my shame: hymns unsung, torches lit with scriptures on the rocks, homes for orphans. Her steps cutting a silver trail across the soil. A mercury fire that stirs, shadow raging its blade in the leaves.
The winter axe plots my fall out of her twilight, stark coma, etchings of youth in a home of lycrois corpses. Wake me. Free me. A skylark about to take flight. With blood in my eyes.
It’s one of the ekphrastic poems inspired by the work of Shuji Terayama, late Japanese avant-garde director and poet, that I’ve been writing in the past couple years. I probably had my late aunt Patricia, who died over two years ago, in mind when I wrote it. All my better poems are about some kind of death.