“language can be made strange again”: In conversation with Mary Jean Chan

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Hello Mary Jean! Thanks for chatting to us. Poetry is a part of your life in lots of different ways – could you tell us a bit more about the various things you are currently involved in?
Thanks for inviting me! I’m currently a Research Associate at the Royal Holloway Poetics Research Centre, and am pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing at Royal Holloway, University of London. Other than that, I’ve been a Co-Editor of Oxford Poetry since December 2016. I’ve also been trying to organize some poetry events in London, mainly through my hall of residence Goodenough College, and also at Bedford Square, where the Creative Writing Department of Royal Holloway is located.

You were born and grew up in Hong Kong and also studied in America, and then in Oxford before coming to London. Are there identifiable differences between the poetry ‘scenes’ in the different countries and cities you’ve lived in?
My introduction to poetry as a living thing (as opposed to something that dead white men wrote) happened while I was completing my BA in the US, at a small liberal arts college called Swarthmore College near Philadelphia. I’d never intended on becoming a poet – particularly since I had chosen to major in Political Science – but a chance encounter with slam poetry during my senior year, and subsequently being chosen to represent Swarthmore at the College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational (fondly known as CUPSI) in California, made me realize how poetry could be a way of life, rather than just something I dipped in and out of in my spare time.

I think the poetry ‘scene’ in the US is comprised of many different scenes, each with their unique characteristics. Slam poetry is huge in the US, which has made it a very sophisticated art, to the point where the distinction between ‘page’ and ‘stage’ easily falls away, since many renowned poets such as Patricia Smith, Joshua Bennett, and Danez Smith (just to name a few) began their poetry careers in slam, but have since gone on to publish widely and to win coveted awards usually associated with ‘page poets’. In contrast, I found the poetry scene in the UK to be a lot less multifarious, since is it necessarily much smaller than that in the US, but also perhaps because I have been living and studying in the south of England, and have not yet had a chance to properly experience the poetry scenes in the Midlands and the North, not to mention Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

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As for Hong Kong, the English poetry scene there is mainly dominated by expatriate writers, many of whom are white or non-Chinese. That skews its nature towards a kind of poetry that isn’t necessarily reflective of the diversity inherent in poetic production in Hong Kong, since many local poets write in Chinese, and are thus often excluded from the city’s English poetry scene. As a Chinese poet who writes only in English, I wish that I could move easily between these two poetic worlds, but instead, I often find myself feeling rather alienated from both, perhaps as a result of having been abroad for nearly ten years.

You’re currently pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing at Royal Holloway, University of London. What has been your experience of ‘studying’ creative writing? What influenced you in deciding to pursue a PhD?
I’m someone who enjoys tertiary education, and so going onto an MA and PhD in Creative Writing made sense for me, not only for the sake of improving my craft, but also because I am keen to become a lecturer and literary critic myself. Before doing my MA, I did another Masters (an MPhil) at Oxford in International Development, which was a continuation of my interests at the BA level, but I soon found myself writing drafts of poems when I should have been transcribing my fieldwork interviews with environmentalists from Beijing!

I tried to ignore that nagging feeling of doubt whenever it crept up on me, but I eventually accepted that I was not happy because I wasn’t doing the kind of writing that I loved. In 2013, I made the drastic decision half-way through my MPhil to apply for an MA in Creative Writing at Royal Holloway. The MA was one of the most formative experiences for me as a writer, since the small workshop size (in my year there were only two people, myself included) meant that I had to produce three or four poems per week in order for there to be enough material for discussion during the weekly poetry workshop. I also had the incredible fortune of being taught by Professor Jo Shapcott, Professor Kei Miller and Professor Andrew Motion in the space of nine months, during which I was able to learn the basic nuts-and-bolts of poetry whilst being inspired by the distinctive styles and approaches that characterize the work of these poets.

I also loved how the MA was not just about creative writing and my own work – it also challenged us to become better readers and critics of poetry through a course called ‘Supplementary Discourses’. Writing my MA thesis on Claudia Rankine’s Citizen was a gruelling but enlightening journey, which ultimately convinced me to continue onto a PhD.

You’ve spoken about your sense of surprise at coming to America and the UK from Hong Kong and realizing that you were now in some ways categorized as a ‘BAME’ woman and a ‘BAME ‘poet, a distinction that you hadn’t previously experienced. Can you unpack that experience for us a little more? Has it inflected your writing?
The first time I realized I was a ‘poet of colour’ was when I got a slip through the mailbox in the US inviting me to a ‘women of colour’ group meeting. I ignored that slip for many months, until I finally found a group of friends – themselves queer artists of colour – who taught me (through our friendships) the particularities of racial politics in the US. Before I arrived in the US, I had always seen myself as simply being Chinese. Since I was born and raised in Hong Kong, I had never experienced what it meant to be a racial minority. Initially I didn’t like the term ‘person of colour’, since I found it to be quite homogenizing, insofar as it groups distinct races and ethnicities under one single umbrella term. However, since coming to the UK, I’ve embraced the term BAME (Black, Asian, Minority, Ethnic) – yet another category I did not initially know about, but one which I think has its uses.

I believe that minority representation is crucial in a multi-ethnic and multicultural society, and that one must be willing to assume the mantle of multiple minorities (queer, BAME…) if one is to attain a kind of visibility that can easily be lost. With hate crimes on the rise both in the UK and the US (two places I’ve called – and in many ways continue to call – home), I believe in the power and necessity of intersectional discourse, which is part of my ongoing practice as a queer BAME poet.

One thing I would add is that while solidarity is important (hence the BAME category is needed), there are racial hierarchies within racism, so I think it is also important to highlight the fact that I am a Chinese person from Hong Kong who is now studying in London, which makes my experience of race, racism and racial injustice very different to someone who is an immigrant, or an expatriate, or a refugee in a country such as the US or UK (see Vahni Capildeo’s Measures of Expatriation).

Claudia Rankine’s Citizen is a book that has meant to a lot to you – you have studied and written about it quite extensively. What is it about Rankine’s work that interests you? Why do you think Citizen has caused such a stir in the poetry world?
I was particularly interested (on first reading Citizen) about the positionality of the speaker – how the use of the second person ‘you’ immediately implicates the reader in repetitive acts of microaggression and racial injustice that seem to have no end in sight. ‘Yes, and the body has memory’, Rankine writes. The black body (politic) remembers all the hurt and trauma it has been through, from slavery to modern-day police brutality, and still has to find a way to survive.

The book is hybrid text which extends the lyric’s possibilities through containing lyric essays, photography, public art and video scripts, which are juxtaposed for intertextual and polyphonic effects. In Citizen, Rankine creates a poetics of racial trauma that meditates on the effects of racial injustice as it manifests in the bodies of traumatized individuals, which serves to sustain America’s conversation on racism and racial injustice on a level of national grief. At one of Trump’s rallies during the presidential campaign, a black woman sat quietly in the audience, reading from her copy of Citizen as a form of silent protest. I saw that video clip that had gone viral on the internet, and understood why Citizen mattered (and continues to matter deeply) to the American citizenry.

You’re also (more recently) an editor of poetry. What different skillsets does being an editor demand? What makes a good editor?
I can’t say too much about what makes a good editor, because I am certainly still learning the ropes, after having done one issue of Oxford Poetry (on the theme of erasure) alongside my stellar co-editors Nancy Campbell and Theophilus Kwek. I think being a good editor implies a willingness to be immersed in contemporary poetry, and a receptiveness to distinct styles and approaches, especially when many poets who are submitting their work are from all corners of the globe.

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Part of our goal at Oxford Poetry is to make the magazine more international, diversified and intersectional, so we have made efforts to spread our call for submissions through social media and other forums that might otherwise not have considered submitting work to us. As a result of this, we’ve received a lot more submissions from outside of the UK, which is brilliant because it allows me to challenge my received beliefs about poetry, and to expose myself to greater varieties and styles of writing. I’m also utterly grateful to the fact that I’m working as a co-editor alongside two other amazingly accomplished poets, whose keen attentiveness to and passion for poetry is apparent in their various endeavours. Perhaps a good editorial team should be one where each editor is sure enough of his/her/their choices and tastes, but is open-minded enough (occasionally) to be persuaded otherwise.

You’ve recently been shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem for your poem ‘//’, first published in Ambit – congratulations! Can you tell us a bit more about ‘//’, and how you came to write it? What’s the experience of being nominated for such a prestigious prize?
Thank you! I certainly did not anticipate being nominated for the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem, let alone being shortlisted. It still feels utterly surreal. The best bit is being shortlisted alongside amazing Caribbean poets whose work I admire and adore, particularly that of Malika Booker and Ishion Hutchinson. As for the poem “//”, I wrote it back in 2015 while I was back home in Hong Kong for a gap year between my MA and PhD. It was a very difficult time for me, since I was trying my best to negotiate being in a queer relationship in a space which I felt was deeply conservative and homophobic.

During those months, I grappled with intense feelings of guilt and shame, alongside a growing sense of indignation at having to hate myself for something that was merely a part of who I was. When you cannot love yourself, you begin to lash out at the world in grief and rage. On the better days, I managed to turn to poems written by those who had already experienced all these emotions before me – work by Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Allen Ginsberg, Jeannette Winterson, Maggie Nelson…to name a few.

In a recent post on Twitter, the queer black American poet Saeed Jones wrote: “love does not allow for erasure”. I began writing “//” one evening as I sat alone in a café close to home, because I wanted my family to be whole again, because I loved both my parents and myself enough to want to ‘contain multitudes’, to wish to be a loving daughter and a queer lover all at once. Since this poem was written, my parents and I have come a long way in terms of figuring out what love entails, in all its complexities.

Finally, if you could give one piece of advice to young and/ or aspiring poets, what would it be?
Perhaps I’m still a bit too young to give much advice, but I believe the best way to learn how to write is to learn how to read. Read the poets you already love, and read their work with an attentiveness to their craft, rather than simply focusing on the content of their words. Read poets in translation, so you’ll get a sense of how language can be made strange again when translated from a different tongue. Read poets whom other people love, whose style you find strange or jarring, so you’ll continually expand your own poetic possibilities.

Mary Jean Chan

One thought on ““language can be made strange again”: In conversation with Mary Jean Chan

  1. Great interview! Am very excited to read more of Mary Jean Chan, it’s so refreshing to hear about Hong Kong in British poetry (as a half-Cantonese lady myself).

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