Jennifer Wong’s Oxford education in English Literature inspired her debut book, a collection of poems straddling Hong Kong and Oxford as a poetic journey of homelands, cultural upbringing and personal identity. Her poems have been used in creative learning projects, including poetry commissions by the British Council HK, along with learning plans and workshops bringing English poetry into Hong Kong high schools. She has taught poetry at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and served as writer-in-residence at Lingnan University of Hong Kong. Her poems have also been included in anthologies such as Lung Jazz (Cinnamon Press) and Asian Poetry in English (Math Paper Press). Her second poetry collection is forthcoming from Salmon Poetry.
SJF:In its sheer scope Poetry Parnassus offers a unique opportunity for you to interact with fellow poets from every corner of the globe. How do you think this collective experience will benefit those who attend, to be exposed to so many different traditions of poetry, to hear poetry in so many languages?
JW: I think this is an excellent chance for me to be inspired by the different traditions and styles of poetry, especially since I am a Chinese poet by background. Poetry is an art form that has a lot of freedom to it and the musicality of other languages will bring a lot of creativity to the work. I work as a freelance translator and I've always been interested in how language(s) come together and become a piece of art through the use of imagination.
SJF: Poetry Parnassus is one of the largest poetry events to ever take place, over one whole week with over two hundred poets in attendance. The nature of its design means, to a certain extent, you are a representative of your nation and its poetic culture. How do you feel about that idea?
JW: I am very excited about this idea. As you may know, Hong Kong is a former British colony and it is now part of China. I feel that it is a great opportunity for me to share my Chinese heritage and the influences of Chinese culture and poetry on my creative work, with the audience who come from various parts of the world.
SJF: With the unique modern history of Hong Kong, how has the poetry tradition shifted away from Chinese influences in contemporary poetry circles in the nation?
JW: I don't think that it has shifted away from Chinese influences. In a way I find that a lot of poets in Hong Kong are still keen to express themselves and their culture. Currently, I am doing a writer in residence term teaching poetry in Lingnan University in Hong Kong before I'll return to London and I find that the works of my students are quite influenced by their Chinese culture and the Chinese poetry that they read.
SJF: You studied at Oxford and then UEA, the course in Norwich having produced many of the finest young poets in Britain at the moment. How did your experiences studying in the UK affect your writing? Were you writing poetry from a young age, before you came to England?
JW: I started writing poetry when I was doing my first year in Oxford, and for me writing poetry in English is a sign of liberation. I remember thinking, this belongs to me, writing. I grew up in Hong Kong, a very cosmopolitan and densely populated city in Asia with over 7 million people living there. At the age of eighteen, I was thrilled to know that I've won a scholarship to Oxford. My first collection, Summer Cicadas, includes a range of poems on Oxford and my feelings about what it's like being a Chinese, or being seen as a Chinese, living in Europe. Similarly, I have written quite a lot of poems about how I feel as a Hong Kong native (Examples include 'Merton Street', 'Summer Cicadas', 'First Winter', 'Morning at Queen's Lane Coffee House'...)
UEA has been a watershed for me and my development as a poet. Although I have written and published my work before studying at UEA, I think it's while I was studying there that I felt truly a poet, a writer. Thousand miles away from my hometown, I had the privilege to learn and develop my work alongside the best of poets. My tutors, George Szirtes and Lavinia Greenlaw, have been very encouraging in helping me to develop my voice and to see what it's like to be serious with one's writing.)
SJF: And what are your feelings about reading before an audience in London, seeing as you live in the city? It seems as though the city is important to you as a living, energising presence in your work?
JW: London is a unique city and I think its charms will never fade. Having finished my UEA studies in the summer of 2009, I was planning to leave the UK and return home, but something about London has made me stay. So I bought my train ticket and found myself a place to stay in north London, near Kilburn, and the city grew on me. It is also in this capital city that I found the love of my life and got married. I worked in a variety of jobs, visited galleries and museums, even did some art internships and publishing internships and, although life's not easy in London, you can be true to your dream here. I remember how happy I was when I was asked to write a poem for TATE ETC (Tate's art magazine) online edition, in response to my favourite artpiece at the Tate. I have chosen John Sargent's painting 'Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose' which has got Chinese lanterns in it. For me that's creativity, it's a way of connecting with art, with culture, and I love it, I love the fact that there's this kind of opportunities in London for the artist. That's why I will always see it as my home (or one of my homes).
SJ Fowler (1983) is the author of four poetry collections. He has had poetry commissioned by the Tate Britain and the London Sinfonietta, and has featured in over 100 poetry publications. He is poetry editor of 3am magazine, Lyrikline and the Maintenant interview series.