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An Interview with Nicholas Wong by Mary Jean Chan

Nicholas Wong is the author of Crevasse (Kaya Press), which won the 28th Lambda Literary Award in Gay Poetry. He was born and raised in Hong Kong, where he currently serves as Vice-President of the newly revived PEN Hong Kong. Mary Jean Chan interviewed Nicholas Wong over email in December 2016.

How has winning the Annual Lambda Literary Awards (“the Lammy”) for your second poetry collection Crevasse affected your work? What are your views on the significance of identity-based awards?

It is too soon to say anything about the impact of the award on my creative work. Two weeks after I won [the Lammy], I fractured my wrist, which further complicated the issue, because I had to literally stop writing in order to heal. But I must say the award clears some doubts I have always had about my work and myself. We have to get real sometimes and admit that it feels nice to win something. Meanwhile, an award is just an award. It isn’t a guarantee, but a possibility of the future. This probably is also my response to the necessity of identity-based awards. These awards may seemingly operate within the mechanics of exclusion, yet the form of exclusion that is invisible or not foregrounded is even more intimidating. In Hong Kong or Asia, there is no literary recognition given to queer writers. So, even just being able to participate in any identity-based awards is, in a relative sense, an act of embracement to me. What is problematic, however, is that we do not seem to have an equivalent of the Man Booker Prize for poetry [collections].

Were there particular reasons why you chose to publish your work with Kaya Press, which is based in the United States? Did you consider publishing your work in Hong Kong, or elsewhere?

I was lucky enough to have met Gerald Maa, who, back then, was on the editorial board of Kaya Press when he was visiting Hong Kong. He kindly passed an early version of the manuscript to other editors, who finally decided to take it (thank god!) with a few constructive editorial suggestions. That is how Crevasse came to life. I always think sending out submissions to recognized journals in the UK and US is masochistic. Besides the tremendous competition for limited editorial space and the different takes on aesthetics, I also need to prepare for the fact that reviewers or editors do not see the world (or the world portrayed in the creative work) through the cultural lens that I have. This said, the US offers me the largest readership. There is no point getting published in Hong Kong, really. The reading community is neither large nor mature enough. The [Hong Kong] English poetry scene has long been dominated by expats, whom I think have not challenged themselves enough to capture the psychology of the city. You have to remember they all belong to the same class. A canon cannot be formed with only one social class’s contribution. Sadly, the city still functions bureaucratically and is slow in responding to the arts, unless [a particular writer or project] is already recognized in the West.

The body emerges as a primary concern of Crevasse. How did you come to decide on this thematic focus for your collection, in relation to your own identities, culture(s) and politics?

The body was the most convenient medium with which I explored who I was sexually in my teen years. I was born in the late 70s; in secondary school, classmates secretly circulated tapes of straight porn. Of course, I was not interested in those! So, my body and its interaction with others became what the social media apps and the Internet are to most people these days. My body was (and is) a connective device. To interact with others bodily is a very tactile experience, usually filled with wonder, frustration, doubt and yearning. That body has become part of me, so it is natural that it comes up often as a motif in Crevasse. I guess every gay poet must enter a stage of writing poems obsessed with the male body. It seems to me an inescapable subject. After Crevasse, I wrote about the body of my father, the (imagined) body of migrant domestic workers from Southeast Asia, and the body of my city.

There are three “trios” of poems that have been interwoven into the collection as variations on the same theme, including “Private Parts:” and “Self-Portrait as…” Can you tell us how the poems came about, and how they relate to one another?

I remember those poems were not titled as such in the first place, when they were submitted separately to different places. I only retitled them when I was putting together the manuscript, as it was too difficult not to notice that they were speaking to each other. Will Self wrote an absurd novel about human genitals relocated to different places of the body (say, the back of one’s knee). He destabilised the medical discourse about erogenous zones. So, I wonder if a man can possibly have other private parts, besides the penis. Or even maybe how many parts of us are private, or how much of our selves do we want to keep private? The “Self-Portrait” trio is fun to write, but they all touch upon the theme of being overlooked and responding to the centre from the periphery. It is tempting to theorize the poems in connection with my sexuality, choice of writing in a colonial language from postcolonial Hong Kong, but I will leave that to the critics.

Your poems often refer to the (uneasy) coexistence of different tongues, mainly English and Chinese, e.g. “One day / we swam to China, where words swung / between siren | serenade, sorrow | surreal” (“Orientalism”), or “bilingual centaurs spreading swine flu / at the turn of the century, we are comrades…” (“Postcolonial Zoology”). In both these excerpts, there is a clear reference to Mainland China, and its fraught relationship to Hong Kong. How does it feel to be an ethnically Chinese poet who writes in English in Hong Kong?

These two poems were written before 2014, before the Umbrella Revolution broke out sort of organically. I was playing around the stereotypes of being a Chinese with easy humour and self-mockery. But I cannot do that now, because of the heightened tension in the tie between China and Hong Kong. Even if my post-Crevasse poems make one laugh, it is humour coming from pain.

There is a strong element of intertextuality that characterizes many of your poems, including your explicit references to writers including Rudyard Kipling’s “If”, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Edward Said’s Orientalism, to name a few. Can you talk a bit about why you choose to write in response to other poets or writers, and how intertextuality works for you as a poet?

I was not aware of Kipling’s “If”, honestly. I was actually trying to use Anne Carson as a model (laughing). The references to Macbeth and Lord of the Flies were there because of my job. I teach at the Education University of Hong Kong. I am required to visit students and evaluate their performance during their teaching practice. When I am bored, I look around the classroom. Some of the better international schools teach literary texts and have quotes on flashcards everywhere. I jot them down, and am usually lured by the contrasting discourses and registers in literary language versus classroom language, which is usually flat and outcome or instruction-oriented. Gaps (or distances in general) are inspiring; while completion is not. The car after a crash shocks – while a brand new one does not. And the shock comes from the moment of impact. I consider my poetry to be an exploration of what the impact can possibly create and destroy.

Since our first themed issue is on “erasure”, could you share some of your thoughts on this? Does the concept or lived experience of “erasure” resonate in any way with your own poetic concerns?

Erasure is not just about elimination, but new possibilities. I have always enjoyed reading erasures. Recent books like Srikanth Reddy’s Voyager and Collier Nogues’s The Ground I Stand on Is Not My Ground are wonderful examples. Erasures amaze with the unexpected leaps of thoughts and images. I start to feel that some contemporary poems sound similar to each other. In a comparative sense, erasures are very refreshing. Erasure and social experience? I guess one has to feel erased (i.e. “to put oneself into trouble,” borrowing Tarfia Faizullah’s words) to write good poems. It is sad to wake up every day in Hong Kong feeling erased. I guess this is also why my more recent poems have turned political.

What are you working on at the moment? Can your readers anticipate a third collection?

I am shopping around for my new manuscript, which explores the luring yet repulsive nature of home. This is a very Hong Kong collection of poems, because two-thirds of it talks about South-east Asian migrant domestic helpers and post-Umbrella Hong Kong.