The 2017 Victorian Premier’s Literary Prize Poetry shortlist contains three collections only, all by women from migrant backgrounds, and all using very different forms, a very diverse collection that I thoroughly enjoyed reading. Each of the shortlisted poets have agreed to be interviewed for Messenger’s Booker and today I present Eileen Chong, starting with a review of her collection “painting red orchids” and finishing up with a detailed interview. I’m very proud to be able to feature the three poets, their work and their thoughts.
Today I look at “painting red orchids”, Pitt Street Poetry’s 2016 publication of fifty poems from Eileen Chong. From the opening poem, the title work, “painting red orchids” you can see meticulous craftsmanship at work;
Painting Red Orchids
Last night, red orchids in the thatched hut burst into blossom.
Worrying about the wind and rain, unable to sleep.
‘Red Orchid’, Huang Shen
My brushes hang in stillness on polished rosewood.
Weasel hair, wolf tail, mink fur. This one, an eyelash
from a leopard. The inkstone was my father’s: slate
quarried from the lake where my great-grandfather
drowned himself one spring night. I scoop well-water
onto the stone and grind the inkstick back and forth.
Pine oils diffuse into the room. My wife has made
this paper with mulberry from our gardens. I lift
my brush, pull back my sleeve and saturate the hairs.
One stroke, one breath: leaves give way to blossom.
More water – rain and cloud above the trees.
Cochineal paste, jade seal – red orchids bloom on white.
The opening quote from Huang Shen, a Chinese painter and calligraphist, his story of creation and attention to detail presented in a style similar to his brushstrokes. You can immediately read into this work the family affair involved in the creation, the use of stark colours, black, white, red, blended with vivid recollections. You know from the opening page that this is to be a slow meditative experience.
Image courtesy of http://www.visitvictoria.com
The very next poem, “Bloom”, again showing astute observation, a night of “shadows and fallen blooms” can also be transposed as a scene for recollections and observations of the same scene “last week”.
Using a crisp, eloquent style, with not a single word on the page a waste, Eileen Chong lithely presents a raft of personal anecdotes, tales of displacement, “Vantage” including the line “the woman without a country”, stories of early Chinese immigrants, “The Photograph in Australia” portraying the gold rush Chinese miners and a sprinkling of flower metaphors, “embroidered magnolias of marriage”, “pollen from one smeared onto the sex of the other”, the style of these poems are not often seen in recent Australian publications.
Presentation on the page also being a feature, pauses, short three line stanzas where you are forced to allow the line endings linger for a moment before moving to the next, even when enjambment occurs, you still dwell on the previous thought before moving to the next. Very much like the title poem, the fifty works, individual pieces of art.
The theme of displacement runs strong, “Adrift” ending with “I am adrift, far from rock and shore” and the aforementioned “Vantage” opening with a quote from Eavan Boland’s ‘A Woman Without A Country’, which becomes “the woman without a country”, is this our poet, in Sydney? “the bridge is a miracle of engineering/spanning the headlands”, alone without another voice or another’s touch?
A collection that demands to be read aloud, as the poem “Resonance” alludes to, emotional, personal and touching the themes are broad, every so often drawing us back to family ties. “Child” detailing family heartache, the poet’s pain on the page in front of you. “Revisit” opening with “My grandmother has not yet forgotten me” and moves from “She sees who I am, and who I am yet to be” through to “She sees who we are, and who we are yet to be”, a fading mind but still an insightful woman.
This is a collection seeking a strong sense of identity, where do I fit in? In what relationship? In what family? Where is my place in this world? An example, (opening stanza only quoted here);
Sunshine Avenue, Wagga Wagga
Lachlan’s house smells like home.
His mother has been cooking. I step
into the kitchen – steamed chicken on a platter,
clear soup on the boil, ginger scenting the air.
Here Eileen Chong is recollecting somebody else’s family, parallels to her own upbringing, does she “belong” there?
Fittingly the book ends with “Last Night”, a blessing to all the people in Chong’s life.
If you are new to poetry reading this is an ideal collection to begin your journey, a readable style, but with each poem having many layers and areas where you can explore the themes further, with research, or simply a work to read aloud and let the questions linger, slowly leak into your consciousness. I picked up my edition directly from the publishers at Pitt Street Poetry http://pittstreetpoetry.com/eileen-chong/
Why this work should win the 2017 Victorian Premier’s Literary Prize
Meticulously crafted, tight eloquent poems that linger, meditations on grand themes, leaving breadcrumbs throughout questions that cause the poems to come back to you long after they have been read. The Australian poetry landscape should reflect our multi-cultural society and Eileen Chong’s words of displacement are fluent, articulate voices of a new Australian. A highly polished collection from a young poet who will surely bring many more worthwhile poems to the reading public.
Why this work will not win the 2017 Victorian Premier’s Literary Prize
The reasons why it should win the prize could also be the handicap, with the street poet, activist style of Maxine Beneba Clarke or the ephemeral, structured sonnets of Tina Giannoukos maybe more appealing to the judges’ tastes.
Thanks to Eileen Chong for taking the time to answer my questions, the interview conducted via email and published here unedited.
Q. This is an extremely personal collection of poems, with poems such as
“Child” and “Split Moon” revealing a lot of personal pain and emotion, do
you feel any sort of vulnerability putting these poems into the public
Emotional truth is very important to me. As a poet, I feel like I have to be porous, vulnerable and honest in order to make the kind of work that is true to itself. It is important to me to respect the privacy of the people in my life; and this is a good time to remind people that poetry isn’t reportage — there is a reason why the phrase ‘poetic license’ exists. Sure, it’s scary to reveal yourself on the page. But if one person reads my poem and feels less alone in this world, then for me, it’s worth it the risk.
Q. Close relationships with family and friends is a common theme throughout
your collection, even a hint of nostalgia coming through, can you explain a
little about the importance of the family unit on your work?
I’m very much an extrovert and I place great importance on the relationships in my life. I was born in Singapore and my first home was a large family home with my paternal great-grandmother as the matriarch. (I write about this in my poem ‘Shophouse, Victoria Street’, in my first book, Burning Rice). It was a situation where the oldest child took care of the youngest. Moving to Australia and having to start over again, meeting new friends, and being apart from my immediate and extended family was very challenging. I was also born at a time where the basic social unit was changing from the extended family to the nuclear family; the modernisation of Singapore and the rise of the public housing flat (as opposed to ancestral homes) as the primary place of residence affected my perception of relationships. I saw it as a loss; but also as a positive as it allowed for an increased sense of privacy that was impossible when living with an extended family.
Q. The poem “Three Ships” contains a reference to the boat the “Krait”,
originally used to rescue people from Japanese occupied Singapore, it later
became a boat used to launch a raid on Singapore Harbour, setting mines on
Japanese shipping. There are also several references to displacement and
your original Singaporean roots can you tell us a little more about your
move to Australia and the maintaining of connections, as the boat metaphor
appears to contain a lot more than simply a disguised fishing boat?
When I was studying at Sydney University and taking a class in screenwriting, I wrote a screenplay about a historical figure from Singapore, Elizabeth Choy. I did an extraordinary amount of research for this screenplay, and part of this research entailed reading an interview with one of the survivors of the Krait. Now as you know, the word ‘krait’ refers to an innocuous-looking but deadly snake native to Malaysia and Singapore. I was walking down the street yesterday and a white woman called out to me: ‘You Chinese c*nt!’ I was absolutely shocked. I was just walking down the street. I think there is a level of pretence involved in living anywhere — in fitting in, being seamless, looking like the others. I have always felt like a misfit, even when on the surface I wasn’t. I think this is a sustained theme in my poems, across all three books. I also enjoy poetic ventriloquism — entering into the mind and emotional space of a character is a trick I love to perform.
Q. Many of your poems use the tercet (three line stanza) form and are
meticulously formed, can you explain a little about your attention to
detail, and why the less common tercet?
I don’t consider myself a formalist, although I have written poems in formal verse. I do take a lot of care with line breaks and stanzas, and often I try to pay close attention to the internal rhythms of the lines that fall upon the page. I like the end of a line to simultaneously close and open up an image or an idea. Ends of poems are even more important. I’m not sure why many of my poems are written in tercets, to be honest. I would like to find out. Maybe someone will tell me.
Q. Many your poems open with an epigraph from well-known poets, such as
Neruda, Du Fu, Plath, you are obviously well read, can you tell us a little
bit about your influences, as well as what you are reading right now?
I’m currently reading a long essay on debt by Margaret Atwood, which I found in my local op shop for $1. It’s a signed copy, too, which astounds me. It’s fascinating. I’ve read two Jeanette Winterson novels in the past week, and I’m also reading the poetry of Alice Oswald, Jane Hirshfield, Lorine Niedecker, and Marianne Moore. Hirshfield’s excellent essays on poetry are a must-read. I also went on a Linda Gregg binge a while ago, which seemed to affect my use of rhythm and the line for a while. I feel like I should try to read more modern British poetry, but I know I tend to gravitate towards North American writing. I read almost everything that comes across my path, and then some. I follow my nose. I find lots of books in the op shop, and one writer leads you to another. I read fiction, non-fiction, poetry, drama, comics, everything that is good.
Q. Are you working on something right now that you can tell us about?
I’m finalising the edits on my next book, Another Language, which will be published in winter 2017 by George Braziller in NYC as part of the Braziller Series of Australian Poets. I’m working with the wonderful Paul Kane on this book. There will be a selection of poems from Burning Rice (2012), Peony (2014) and Painting Red Orchids (2016) as well as some new work. I am also working on my fourth collection. I’m not sure what that is about yet, but I have every confidence that it will reveal itself to me when it is ready. My Australian publishers are the wonderful John and Linsay Knight at Pitt Street Poetry. You can contact me at www.eileenchong.com.au
I would like to thank Eileen Chong for her time in answering my questions and also for her wonderful poem “Xiao Long Bao”, a poem that reminded me of the very first time I had eaten those wonderful dumplings, the ginger, vinegar and soy mixture as a dipping sauce, making my mouth water. I think Chinese dumplings are on the dinner agenda tonight!!