Tammy Lai-Ming Ho and Jason Eng Hun Lee interview Nicholas Wong
Nicholas Wong is an award-winning poet, educator, promoter of literature and the arts, and a pioneering member of the English-language poetry and literary community in Hong Kong. He launched the literary journal R.ed at the Education University of Hong Kong, and is the first ever Asian to have won the prestigious Lambda Literary Award in Gay Poetry (2015) as well as the Peter Porter Poetry Prize (2018), putting Hong Kong poetry and writing on the world literary map. This interview is part of a study that charts the recent development of local Anglophone poetics in Hong Kong and Singapore and connects each city to a wider narrative of the evolving Asian city experience. – Tammy Lai-Ming Ho
How many years have you been writing poetry?
The first poem was written when I was in my third year at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), when Professor Shirley Geok-lin Lim was teaching Creative Writing there. But serious creative writing only began in 2010, when I officially started my MFA at City University of Hong Kong.
Do you remember what inspired you to write your first poems?
It’s my sexuality, but I didn’t see it as a source of inspiration. I had to write something, because there was an assignment to be done.
Can you list some important moments in your early experiences as a poet?
When I put together a portfolio as the end-of-course assignment for HKU undergraduate Creative Writing course. It’s the first time I felt I could make my own rules (in some ways) and complete as assignment in my second language, yet feeling completely in charge of it.
Community: that’s what the MFA offered me. It’s the first time I felt bonded to fellow writers, who gathered to learn to write (better) and appreciate writing.
Visiting the conference of AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) for the first time in Boston showed me how creative writing was (and still is) an industry outside of Hong Kong.
In your opinion, how useful is poetry as a medium for expressing your personal experiences? How does it compare to the other genres you write in?
I only write poetry, so it’s hard for me to make the comparison and make the comparison make sense. This said, it is the most intimate language of expression for me. I think it has something to do with the communicative logic of poetry that is so different and subversive to the mode of everyday communication. These two modes are in some ways two extremities of a continuum. I like doing something that is not practical and outcome-based.
What influence, if any, do they have on your writing as a poet?
Too many and it’s always difficult to name the influence. Not only that the list changes all the time, but one can only name it after one has realized he’s done something that is probably influenced by a book or an art piece that one has earlier consumed. But to give you some names: Kimiko Hahn, Anne Carson, Maggie Nelson, Mei Mei Berssenbrugge, Dean Young, Hsia Yu…
Language and Style
Do you think or write in any other language besides English?
Yes, after I won the Lambda, I wrote 95% of my FB statuses in Chinese, or Cantonese to be precise. But if you ask me if I am doing any literary writing (i.e. poetry) in another language besides English, no for now.
How would you describe your history and relationship with the English language? How comfortably and frequently do you use it in your writing and personal life?
I have learned the language like everybody else in Hong Kong in a very dull (and perhaps also colonial) way. Much emphasis has been put on proficiency and accuracy. There’s so little room for emotions. Without emotions, there’s a lack of intrinsic urge to express with and through the language. My grammar is not perfect and I hate my spelling. I find myself being more comfortable when I attend literary events in Asia, or when I am in the West but working closely with Asian poets. They tend to make me laugh more, whereas white poets or poets with no personal attachment or history to/in Asia tend to make me anxious.
Does your knowledge of any other languages affect how you write poetry?
Probably. But I can never tell, unless I intentionally include some Cantonese spoken markers (forgive me for not knowing the exact linguistic terms for those).
What aesthetic or poetic style would you say best characterises your work?
I was once told that my poetry looks very American. I don’t know what that means. It probably feels American-ish to some HK readers or poets writing in English. I don’t know how to aestheticize a particularly canon easily (can one do that, really?). Yet, I guess it’s the level of energy of my work projects, which feels American. There are many turns and leaps in my work and my poems, as I have always been aware, are quite claustrophobic. However, not all American poems are like this. Some are intense and dense, but not all. So I would probably attribute it to space issue in Hong Kong. Note, though, all my poetry mentors when I was doing my MFA were Americans and I read mostly American poetry.
How many years in total have you spent in Hong Kong? How many years have you spent outside it?
I have always been here since I was born.
How often do you write about Hong Kong? What aspects of it attract your attention? When you write about it, do you feel obliged to portray it in particular ways?
I didn’t write about the city as much in my early works, because it was rather difficult for me to handle, when I was still lacking the craft to talk about myself. However, I don’t believe that the self that I have been writing about could be entirely disconnected from the place, where it exists. It’s Foucault, right? – that the self is always discursive. Yet lately, I have been consciously (yet in a rather failing way) and topically writing about my city. I don’t feel obligated to just talk about my city, which, as a term, is too inclusive and exclusive at the same time. It has excluded most of the voices that haven’t been fairly (if at all) represented in local English literary writings. I write about what I want to, which doesn’t necessarily include the city.
Do you find living in a city nurturing of or stifling to your creativity? Can you explain why?
It can’t be just one at one time. The literary community for English poetry is small, but the large number of interesting Chinese poets can inject something new into me and my works. And, of course, Canton pop (I never listen to foreign music). The downside of being an English-language poet in HK is of course readership and the lack of a nurturing setting. Doesn’t someone say that the more marginal a writer is, the more creative energy s/he has?
Do you consider yourself well positioned to contribute to the narratives of Hong Kong?
Yes, I think I can contribute a bit to the queer voice. But my voice is also limited because it does not belong to the grassroots.
Is there any particular aesthetic or poetic style that you use to represent Hong Kong?
I would say ekphrasis and erasures may be the best to capture the rapid, fast-paced turn of events and the desire to capture something that is gone too quickly.
Are there any aspects of Hong Kong that have remain unchanged? What are they?
Speed. Transaction. Humidity. Density. Anxiety.
Does Hong Kong’s colonial history have any bearing on your writing of place?
Yes and no at the same time. It doesn’t quite bother me thematically, but linguistically. There’s some sort of inferiority implanted in English L2 speakers. This inferiority may also affect one’s willingness and confidence in using English to write creatively. Of course, the canon of HK English poetry has been dominated mostly by native speakers, which does give an impression that it is the way it should be, which is not right.
Which particular aspects of Western/colonial representation do you challenge or engage with in your poetry?
The way English is used and approached, with which I am also challenging perspective and the mode of narration/lyricism.
Are there any other political, social or economic critiques about Hong Kong represented in your poetry? Has this sentiment grown or been reduced over time?
Neglected and suppressed voices, I guess.
How do you think your writings about Hong Kong differ from poets of earlier/later generations? What perspectival differences do you think exist between these generations?
I notice the lack of geographical markers in my poetry: I guess I am more inclined to writing with them, rather than about them. I also notice the reluctance of poetically exploring colonial history: I think the topic has been kind of exhausted. I need new lenses, so does the canon.
How do you think Hong Kong might change in future? Do you foresee yourself living in the city in, say, five, ten or twenty years’ time? What kind of changes do you think might occur within those time frames?
A very hard question. I don’t know how to answer this responsibly, because anything goes. I do have an interesting thought lately – perhaps when we say if a person is a HK poet (or not), instead of using “HK” as a marker of geography and ethnicity, we can also see it as a place, where a poet is nurtured.
What issues or difficulties have you faced in writing about Asian identity?
Writing about any identity faces the difficulties in generalization, of course. I tend to avoid writing about identity per se. I will leave it to the critics or scholars. If a story is well told, then the identity (and the reading of which) takes shape itself naturally.
How do you think Hong Kong differs from other Asian cities?
Faster, more paradoxical.
What positive and negative impact has globalization made on Hong Kong?
Sustaining the dream that HK is a truly international(ized) city.
Do you see the city as an inclusive or alienating place, or both? How might this sentiment be represented in the public and/or private spaces of Hong Kong?
I guess everyone in HK is forced to be “inclusive” as in the lack of space puts people closer to each other than necessary, unless one is rich enough to buy space and time. I am skeptical about the true notion of private space in HK, as I have always been living with my family. No space is truly private even at home. I can occupy the shower for 15 or 20 minutes, but on a second thought, that shower is actually a shared space. Most spaces are shared in HK.
If the city could answer your questions, what would you ask it? Why are these important issues to you?
Do you also suffocate yourself? If there’s a soft spot in you, where is it?
Also let’s consider the reverse. What would your city ask you? Why?
What can I really provide for you?
Poetic Community and Support
Has being published outside of Hong Kong affected how you self-identify / are identified as a poet? Is this a positive or negative thing?
If one believes that publication is about readership, then publishing outside of HK seems to bring more positive impact.
Do you think poets living in a city should identify themselves collectively? Why or why not?
They never should, in theory. But we do not have enough poets to differ ourselves from each other aesthetically. Also, poets are sometimes ‘identified’ by later generations.
What impact has your government’s support / lack of support for the arts had on the development of Hong Kong’s poetic community?
There’s Hong Kong Arts Development Council. That’s it. But the application for financial subsidies is very rigid. Some guidelines have to be revised! Even the British Council does not provide funding for HK artists/writers to attend any exchange activity in the UK. But they do keep encouraging us to bring UK writers over to HK. Isn’t it obvious that we are forever second-tier?
Overall, what impact has local poetry/literature/arts made on the cultural imaginary of Hong Kong? How has this altered or added to existing perspectives of the city?
This is yet to conclude. But with the emergence of a few local poets writing in English, I hope to see the way English has been taught and approached being challenged. I remember a poem by Leung Ping-kwan called “Postcards of Old Hong Kong.” Maybe literature (less mass-produced) can always serve as a means to provide an alternative cultural imaginary of the city, whereas those postcards always get too hung up on a few (and only those few) images of the city. ∎