Danielle Mustarde speaks to the award-winning writer about her debut collection Flèche and the journey that led her to it
BY DANIELLE MUSTARDE
Born and raised in Hong Kong, poet Mary Jean Chan has been living in London for some six years and now holds a post as lecturer in creative writing at Oxford Brookes University. Her debut poetry collection, Flèche, won the 2019 Costa Book Award for poetry, was chosen as a Book Of The Year by The Guardian, The Irish Times and The White Review, and has been shortlisted for the Swansea University Dylan Thomas Prize to boot.
But how did Chan get from Hong Kong business student (yep, that was a thing) to internationally acclaimed, London-based poet? We sat down with her – virtually, of course – to find out just that.
Brew yourself a tea, this one’s a long read.
DIVA: Was writing always in your life?
MARY JEAN CHAN: No, actually, I came to writing quite late. I wrote my first poem – if you can call it late – at 18 or 19. I [started out] at business school in Hong Kong, but later transferred to the US where I was a political science major. I wasn’t even a “proper” literature student, but I took some courses in poetry and eventually did an English minor. At 24, I came to the UK and did my masters in creative writing. That’s when it became something I was very focused on.
How did you get from Hong Kong business student to creative writing postgrad?
I suppose it’s a cliche, but I was always good at language. Math was never my strong point. But at 18, I made the choice to go to business school for several reasons. I was pretty much miserable until I realised it wasn’t the subject for me. In the US, they don’t force you to choose your specialism early on, I found myself very liberated in that sense. I could pick whatever subject I was interested in, so it was an easy pivot towards my actual interests.
At that point of change, were you explicitly aware that creative writing was the path you wanted to follow, or was it more subtle?
It was more of a general feeling. I was definitely interested in words and writing. Even in the social sciences, I love well written essays on politics – I was always attuned to the fact that you can have the same information conveyed in a different way. Eventually I realised that, what I really enjoyed, was focusing on the craft of it. Creative writing is a discipline where you’re really allowed to indulge in that.
When did you feel that you were really doing poetry?
The feeling of being a poet started solidifying in my early 20s. I was going to open mics and trying to publish here and there, you know, in my college magazine and in the States and then, when I came [to London] for grad school, I wasn’t doing poetry immediately, but I started to look into spaces that would be welcoming for emerging writers. That’s when I would tell my friends, I’m, “writing poetry on the side.” But it wasn’t until I did my masters, that I felt I could call myself a poet. Even then, it was still, “I’m an emerging poet. I’m trying to write poetry.” When I could actually show something to people and say, “I have a pamphlet.” That made it more real.
What about poetry do you love most?
That compression of language, it’s so intense. With prose, of course you can have very crystallised and focused sentences but with poetry, just by its nature, it requires that focus. I love that intensity. And also line breaks. They naturally create more pressure, if you will. Even the longest poetic lines have to end at some point. I just really love the compression created by the form.
You did a TED Talk a few years ago and, in that, spoke about poetry as a way of “figuring things out”. Is that something else you appreciate?
Yeah. Unlike expository writing where the focus is on a clear argument, I love the ambiguity of poetry, in that, often when you start a poem, you don’t quite know where it will end. And, even when it ends there’s rarely a conclusive, this is how I feel, or, this is how one should feel. It’s often able to hold a lot of complexity, even two conflicting feelings at once. That, for me, is really wonderful, because a lot of stuff I was grappling with – coming out as queer, crossing continents – that didn’t feel clean and conclusive, or easy. Poetry allowed me to parse through those things whilst allowing for continuing uncertainty and ambiguity and complexity.
Definitely. Now, to talk a little bit about Flèche. There’s a lot of imagery in there – opposition, intricate relationships – and “flèche” is a term used in fencing. Where did that theme come from?
The overarching structure and that sort of motif didn’t actually come through until I was putting the book together. I knew I wanted a central image to tie everything together neatly and, it was then that it occurred to me that the word Flèche would be very apt because of the cross linguistic pun. It’s quite an opaque title for some people, and a shock that it’s a French word and not a Chinese term or something. I wanted to confound expectations, [especially those] which might be racialised.
As well as “conflict”, there’s also love at the heart of this collection. Would you agree?
Yes, expansive, all-inclusive love. For me, the James Baldwin quote at the beginning of the book, [“Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within”] that is the theme. That’s the idea, that we’ll take off that mask that we think we always have to wear. We’re afraid we can’t live without it. But actually, that is when we can actually be in productive and healthy relationships with with everyone, family or otherwise.
Who else has influenced your work?
I sometimes over mention her, but Adrienne Rich was the reason I began to delve into poetry in college. I found her voice so important, so liberating – how she balances the aesthetic qualities of poetry with her political and very deeply personal messages, [which] are always there. She manages that delicate balance between craft and message. She was of founding influence. And then there’s Kei Miller and Richard Scott and Andrew McMillan and Jay Bernard and all of these other queer writers – Nicholas Wong from Hong Kong too. They’ve all influenced my writing.
Through which motifs do you explore your own queerness?
The fencing motif was productive because the nature of it is gendered and along very strict binary lines – you’ve got women’s épée, men’s épée – but by virtue of that, you have the women fencing together. It could be read as quite a queer space; the jousting, trying to hit each other on the chest. All of that is relational. Another way in which I relate to people is through food and socialising and enjoying food together, so I have a lot of poems that touch on food in different ways – how it carries memory and how it conveys closeness or intimacy even.
How do you feel about the queerness in your poetry now, compared to before you were published?
Writing this book, it was at times difficult. I was struggling with what it meant to be more visible as a queer writer and whether or not I wanted to really own that. There are queer writers who write poems that don’t explicitly discuss [their queerness]. And it was a negotiating process but, eventually, I just wrote the book I had to write. It’s no longer mine in the sense that readers will be allowed to read it however they want. They can interpret certain things, they can read certain things into the poems that might not even be there. It became a process of letting go.
Was there a point in your career where you managed to make peace with such creative vulnerability?
It’s definitely been a gradual process of arrival. In a very plain and stark way, the act of coming out and obviously – we all know we come out multiple times and in many ways – it’s an endless process. That naturally made me brave or, you know, necessitated a certain kind of courage. And maybe that carried over into my poetry because, for me, there was a point in my early 20s, where I felt, if I’d come out to my parents and to my friends and to people I care about then, there’s no longer any fear in writing these poems, because the fear is that you’ll be found out, right? That was the ultimate fear. But once I’d already liberated myself by coming out, then the fear is arbitrary. It was the fundamental thing for me. If I had not come out, I wouldn’t have written a word.
What would you say to other women and non-binary people looking to give poetry a go?
There’s still this ongoing mystification of the poet as, you know, “naturally talented” or “gifted.” Obviously, there are moments of inspiration, or maybe you can’t quite pinpoint why you’ve got an idea or an image, it just comes to you, but so much of that journey has just been learning. So going to classes, to poetry school. I took every online course I could find and, just through osmosis, I learned from poets I admired. I read a lot and continue to read and try to expand my knowledge of what poetry is. So much can be learned that way, in terms of craft and how people convey emotions. And then, suddenly, once you’ve moved past that, there’s a huge improvement in the work that’s being written. So, I would encourage people to seek out opportunities to learn from people they admire, or even just to start reading. Take a few prompts online, give that a go and maybe share it with a friend. It could start very small.
Can you think of a poem suited to encouraging those people to find their voices, as writers?
There’s this poem by Adrienne Rich called Dedications. I’ve recommended it to many people, but it’s essentially a poem addressing the reader and it’s just a lovely poem about how writing nourishes us.
Before you go, is there any poem you’d recommend for life in lockdown?
I think a lot of people know already Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese. It’s just such an expansive poem gesturing at the wider world and our place in it. I think that might be my recommendation.
To read more about Mary Jean Chan’s poetry, visit maryjeanchan.com
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