With the release of Eileen Chong’s third book, Painting Red Orchids, AWM intern TJ Wilkshire took a moment with the Singaporean-Australian poet to discuss economy of language, poetic influences, and Eileen’s evolution as a writer.
How do you think social media has influenced the way poets write? Do you think it has taught poets to be more economical with their words?
It’s an interesting question: while personally I don’t use social media to publish poems or as an instructive tool for writing, I know there are some poets who play with the word limit, say in tweets, as a restrictive form. Melinda Smith has a series of tongue-in-cheek poems based on tweets.
I look to the best poetry, especially poems of the Tang dynasty and the Heian Dynasty, to influence my work in terms of economy of words – saying the most with only the necessary words; evoking a complete picture with just a few strokes.
One of my favourite poems of yours is ‘Night Bird’. Can you tell us a little bit about the writing process of that poem and the choice to use a bird in the poem?
I used to live in a house where the bedroom was on the first floor. There was a large hawthorn tree outside the window, with Spanish moss hanging from its branches. Birds would come to roost in the branches at night, and I would often stay up, listening to the sounds of the birds in the dark. At that time I was married to my previous partner who had just started a business, and he would often work very late into the night. I would wait for him to come home, but he often came home only after I had fallen asleep. And so the two situations conflated in the one poem.
How do you think your poetry has changed since your poetry collection Burning Rice? How have you evolved as a poet? Your new poetry collection, Painting Red Orchids, has just been released. Can you tell us a little bit about it?
Burning Rice was a very tight collection – initially it was meant to be only a chapbook of 15 poems published as part of the award for the Poets Union’s Youth Fellowship in 2010. But the NSW Poets Union merged with Melbourne’s Australian Poetry in 2011, and the publication was delayed until 2012. So the book expanded to 30 poems and was published in the New Voices Series by Australian Poetry. By that time I had written quite a number of poems, but for the purposes of the book, selected the poems that were coherent to my experience as an Asian immigrant to Australia.
Of course I don’t only write ‘Asian’ poems, and my second book Peony explored my other poetic concerns while still examining the notion of origin and evolution. Some of the poems in Peony were actually written before some of the poems in Burning Rice.
Painting Red Orchids is my third book in six years; and I think it is my best work to date. Many of the poems arose from my difficult divorce; they are very personal poems filled with very strong emotion. It was important to me to respect my ex-husband’s privacy, while at the same time being emotionally honest to the situation. The poems also chart my development into new ground, into a new life where I was learning to live for myself.
You’re an Australian poet who was born in Singapore. Does your poetry approach the subject of feeling torn between two countries? Does it approach feeling like a stranger in either country?
Boey Kim Cheng’s wonderful book of essays, Between Stations, explores the conundrum of being at once an immigrant (from the country you have left) and a migrant (to the country you have arrived in). I feel like I have always existed in the liminal spaces, but certainly writing as a migrant poet in Australia has formed a large part of my poetic concerns. I only started writing seriously after moving to Australia, and I have had more recognition and success in Australia than in Singapore, more acceptance, partly because Singapore views me as someone who left, who is no longer invested in their future, literary or otherwise.
What was it like being mentored by Anthony Lawrence and Judith Beveridge? How do you think they influenced your writing?
I worked with Anthony over six months, refining the manuscript to Burning Rice. I feel very privileged to have had the experience. Anthony is a very exacting mentor; he demands only the best from you. I learnt how to be brutal with my work, to push language and ideas to their boundaries. That the language in the poem serves the poem, first and foremost.
I first became a poet in Judith Beveridge’s classes while at Sydney University. Judith is a wonderful teacher, and I think in the two years I studied with her, as a class, we read maybe one of [her] poems. I don’t know anyone with less ego than Judy. She is at once gentle and encouraging, while also challenging your work. When I am unable to work at a poem any longer, I take it to Judy. Her ear is impeccable – she will sense the weakness in a poem where you suspected it, which then forces you to work at it again to eliminate that weakness. We are great friends and I trust her completely with my work. I cannot say the same of anyone else.
You can read more about Eileen Chong here.
TJ Wilkshire is a twenty-something Brisbane based artist and writer. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Writing and English Literature and is currently studying the WEP Masters at the University of Queensland. Her work focuses on birds and she hopes to one-day turn into one. Wilkshire’s poetry has been published in Peril and Uneven Floor, and won the NotJack Competition.