Jennifer Lee Tsai Interview

Interview #3 Jennifer Lee Tsai

Jennifer Lee Tsai, interviewed by Joe Carrick-Varty

Joe Carrick-Varty: Many of my favourite poems in Kismet are concerned with family heritage, family ghosts, a person’s place in the world but also a person’s place in time. I’m thinking particularly of the speaker in ‘The New Territories’ who, stepping off the plane in Hong Kong feels first the heat: ‘tropical, alien’ before the sudden relief of anonymity: ‘For once, I’m no different…This is where my past begins.’ I’m also thinking of that heart-breaking refrain in ‘Self-Portrait at Four Years Old’: ‘In the playground, I hear something I don’t understand…Chinese, Japanese, don’t forget to wash your knees’. And finally, of the figure of the grandmother, ‘spring beauty’, who haunts and holds this collection in equal measure. I wonder if you could talk about how ideas of heritage and family inform your writing?

Jennifer Lee Tsai: First of all, thank you so much for this interview.  

Ideas of heritage and family are intricately linked to my desire to explore and focus on the second-generation British-Chinese immigrant experience in my writing. The stories of British-Chinese immigrants, their presence and long-established communities in the UK, people like my parents and grandparents are not really present within contemporary UK poetry and so I feel a commitment to tell these stories, and to honour them, as best as I can. Themes of memory, myth and migration play an important part in restoring and reimagining these narratives especially within the personal and historical context of Liverpool, as an edgy and eclectic port city. More widely, I’m also interested in questions of race, gender and loss, what might be inherited from ancestors, the effects of inter-generational and personal trauma within families, and how that plays out in the formation of subjectivity.   

JCV: Following on from the themes of heritage and family, I love the way Kismet deals with time and place. The grace at which the poems span generations, regimes, seasons, continents is something to behold. One second we are watching as a dictator ‘breathes over the petrified lake / in Houhai Park’, the next we are migrating with swallows ‘through Western France, the Pyrenees, / down Eastern Spain…across the Sahara.’ Time and geography are malleable, dislocated, as the poems (and their speakers) exist in many places at once, as in ‘Flower’: ‘my head or heart is in the past or the future / not stuck in linear time / in lineage as it is understood now’. Would you talk about the role time and place play in your work?

JLT: Recently, I’ve become more aware of the fact that my sense of time is probably shaped in a linguistic sense by the influence of Chinese, specifically Cantonese and the way in which Chinese does not have grammatical markers of tense. This means that verb tenses are the same, whether they are past, present or future. Aspects of time are made clear either by the context or expressions of time, e.g. ‘yesterday’, ‘today’, ‘tomorrow’. This seems ambiguous in ways but in others, it also allows for more fluidity and circularity, shape-shifting even.

Although Chinese isn’t my dominant language, I’m sure it has accentuated aspects of my thinking and understanding of time as something which can move in circles, spirals and at different speeds depending on our awareness and sense of the present moment. Time is, arguably, an illusion. Carlo Rovelli writes about the multi-layered nature of time in his book The Order of Time, saying that‘the nature of time is perhaps the greatest mystery’. Although it’s rather dated, I’m also thinking of Julia Kristeva’s notion of ‘Women’s Time’. I’m interested in the ways that time operates in our personal consciousness, personal sphere or dream space, which is an individual understanding of time.

With regard to place, my pamphlet Kismet explores the interplay between ideas of homelands, whether they are real or imagined, and how that relates to a sense of belonging/distance, exile and estrangement. What is lost and gained in migration to a different country from the one that someone is born in? These are the questions which confronted my parents and grandparents.

JCV: Kismet is an intensely imagistic collection. I can vividly remember reading ‘Another Language’ for the first time (I was hungover in a café in central Manchester waiting for a train…). A good poem tends to elicit some kind of physical reaction in my body, be it goose bumps, a smile, the urge to look upwards etc. I can literally remember the jolt of adrenaline, the electricity in my arms, when I read the last stanza of ‘Another Language’: 

Alighting from the liner at the docks
in the rain, hearing Liverpool accents
for the first time –
two gold koi
swimming into the Mersey.

This stanza says so much with so little. I wonder if you might talk about how you construct your images?  

JLT: Thank you so much for your kind words!

Images often come to me at random times or moments. Sometimes I’m inspired by film, art or music. I think it’s important to nourish the mind and the imagination, to let images arise organically from our unconscious or consciousness, from lucid dreaming, fantasies, associations, memories. I keep a notebook and write down interesting or striking images that come up.

JCV: Kismet is alive with language and dialect. Much in line with its plethora of geographies, the collection works as a map of language, and also as a bridge between languages: ‘When I speak Cantonese, / I’m a different person.’ The poems are intensely attuned to translation (and the implication of translation), as we are told that ‘in Cantonese the word for book sounds like the verb to lose’. I wonder if you might talk about the imaginative potential of translation, its importance to your work, and its importance to 21st Century poetry?

JLT: Growing up with two completely different languages – Chinese and English – has given me an instinctive sense of translation in that as a child, I was acutely aware of the need to navigate between two languages. Translation has also instilled a sense of sound, rhythm, multiple meanings, the subtleties, nuances and differences between languages. At home, I often had to translate for my parents whilst I spoke in English to my sister and brother, and of course to the outside world. I am not fully bilingual. As I was born in the UK and grew up here, went to school here, spoke to my friends in English etc, English must have very quickly taken over as my main language and Chinese became a second language. Even now, I’m fluent in Cantonese but in a more conversational and social way although I’m sure that if I lived in Hong Kong or China, I would progress rapidly in my understanding and use of Chinese. I guess that Chinese probably was my first language in the sense that it was the language that my parents must have spoken to me in mostly, from birth. Therefore, on a pre-linguistic level, Chinese is a language with which I am intimately and semiotically connected to. Vahni Capildeo writes powerfully in Measures of Expatriation (2016) that ‘Language is my home. It is alive other than in speech. It is beyond a thing to be carried with me. It is ineluctable, variegated and muscular’ and ‘Language is my home, I say; not one particular language’, which greatly resonates.  

With regard to translation, literary translation and poetry can offer a bridge between languages and cultures. It can highlight the challenges of translation, what is lost or how faithful the act of translation should be, how the unique qualities, characteristics and oddities of a language can be conveyed, what can’t be translated and what can be transformed. There is an excellent anthology called Poet to Poet: Contemporary Women Poets from Japan (2017) which I reviewed for Modern Poetry In Translation, No. 2, 2018. The editor, Rina Kikuchi writes of how ‘Translation crosses boundaries, disrupts comforts and brings the strangeness and newness of an encounter with another culture’. Simultaneously, it presents ‘awkwardness on the page’ but also ‘the joy of that freshness, as well as its disruption’.

With regard to 21st century poetry and translation, there are brilliant publications, presses and organisations which celebrate and bring together poetry from around the world such as Modern Poetry In Translation which I’ve already mentioned, the Poetry Translation Centre in London, Tilted Axis Press who are all doing great work. Zephyr Press and New Directions are two poetry presses that I love and they publish an astonishing range of international work, transnationally and globally. I’ve recently started reading Kim Hyesoon’s Autobiography of Death, translated by Don Mee Choi, which is published by New Directions.

It’s essential to offer space for voices who might be historically or currently silenced or in exile or excluded from a dominant culture or who might live in oppressive regimes. It links with the need to create a diverse, varied and international poetry culture which transcends boundaries.

JCV: As well as a poet, you’re a critic, and a contributing editor at Ambit. Would you tell us a little bit about your writing process; how does writing poetry fit around your other responsibilities?

JLT: I started a full time PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Liverpool this October 2019, which means that writing poetry is now a main responsibility. It’s a privilege to be working on poetry as my research area both creatively and critically with the most wonderful supervisor, Sandeep Parmar. Writing poetry coheres well with being a critic and editor; they inform and illuminate each other as well as provide respite at different times. Before that, it was a real challenge and a balancing act to fit poetry in around a professional day job/developing a career. I taught English as a Foreign Language at universities and colleges for many years to both international students and refugees/asylum seekers. I have also previously worked as a creative writing workshop leader and have facilitated workshops at a range of public venues including Liverpool World Museum, the Museum of Liverpool Life and the Centre for Contemporary Chinese Arts in Manchester as well as in community spaces, schools and children’s playschemes.

I’m so grateful to have been part of ground-breaking initiatives such as The Complete Works and, more recently, to be part of the Ledbury Emerging Poetry Critics scheme, which was co-founded by brilliant poets, critics and academics, Sandeep Parmar and Sarah Howe in collaboration with Ledbury Poetry Festival, to directly redress the imbalance in UK poetry reviewing culture, and to make it more diverse and inclusive. It has radically transformed the landscape of poetry reviewing in such a positive and necessary way. In 2017, eight critics including myself were selected as participants in this innovative scheme: Dzifa Benson, Srishti Krishnamoorthy-Cavell, Mary Jean Chan, Jade Cuttle, Sarala Estruch, Maryam Hessavi and Nasser Hussain. Working with collaborating partner publications, during the scheme, reviews have been published in The Guardian, Telegraph, New Statesman, Times Literary Supplement, The Poetry Review, Poetry Wales, and Poetry London as well as many other magazines and journals with much support from many editors although more work still needs to be done.

As a result of the Ledbury Poetry Critics scheme, the total number of BAME poetry reviewers writing for national publications has more than doubled in the last two years and is probably more at this current time. Commissioned by the University of Liverpool’s Centre for New and International Writing, the critic Dave Coates has been undertaking valuable research on the exact statistics and his report ‘The State of Poetry and Poetry Criticism’ (2019) is an important read.

The Ledbury Critics scheme has been so successful that four new critics joined in 2019: Victoria Adukwei Bulley, Joanna Lee, Stephanie Sy-Quia and Sarah-Jean Zubair. The poet and critic Vidyan Ravinthiran is now involved as a mentor and the programme has expanded to the U.S, which is exciting.

My role as a Contributing Editor to Ambit complements my writing. It’s enriching and a wonderful experience to be part of such an excellent editorial team, especially working with Briony Bax, the editor and André Naffis-Sahely, the Poetry Editor, for a literary journal which I’ve admired for a while, and which always seeks to surprise and challenge as well as publish exciting new and emerging voices alongside established work.

JCV: Many of the poets in bath magg 3 are yet to publish a first collection. While your poems feature widely in magazines, and your pamphlet has done great things, you can still relate to the life of a poet pre-debut collection. Do you have any advice for an emerging poet beginning to fashion a voice?

JLT: I’m now working towards a full poetry collection, and I’ve been fortunate to have had the great opportunity to publish my first poetry pamphlet with ignitionpress. They’ve been absolutely brilliant to work with and continue to be so supportive.

The question of ‘voice’ is really interesting. In response to that, I would say that for me, there isn’t a singular voice. I think of the self as a fluid entity with many possibilities, open to change and ‘infinite variety’. So, my advice would be to perhaps think about creating many voices in your poems, exploring many poetic selves, which will come and go. I was really encouraged to do this by my mentor on The Complete Works, Mimi Khalvati. Mimi was special to work with and wisely advised listening to the voice of each poem and thinking about one’s voice as a multifarious instrument.

And of course, make time to read as widely as you can but find those poets who you love and who really speak to you, whose work haunts, engages and challenges you – reading is inseparable from the act of writing, they mutually inform, inspire and cultivate each other. Make time for dreamy thinking and creating an embodied space for writing to happen.

Find your own poetry community.