Friday, January 01, 2010

An interview with Agnes Lam - Poet from Hong Kong

Poet Agnes Lam and her poetry collection, Woman to Woman (1997)

1. In the Introduction for Woman to Woman and other poems you write that “through writing poetry, I reorder my inner dissonance” and that “perhaps my words may offer some comfort in resonance to another who does not.” Isn’t this the opposite of those who believe only in writing poetry for art’s sake?

I do not believe in art for art’s sake because beauty or harmony in art in itself is uplifting and evokes a deeper appreciation of the inner life of whoever is exposed to the works of art, literature being but only one of the art forms. All forms of art, I think, try to offer some distillation of life and hence cannot be appreciated apart from an appreciation of life itself.

2. Poetry as revealing one’s innermost secrets, thus poetry as putting s/he who writes in a vulnerable position, but also poetry as giving. What do you say about these three statements?

In the last analysis, all our innermost secrets are not that secret because we share much more with other people than we normally think. Otherwise, it is not possible for readers to identify with what writers write. It is just that most people do not talk about their inner thoughts and feelings most of the time. Poets are just more articulate about their inner lives and do not mind sharing such with their readers while most people choose to share their experiences only with selected people.

3. How important are memory, childhood and nature in your verse? Do these three aspects have something in common?

All of life is important to me in my writing. Memory is narration to oneself. Childhood is the origin of such narration. Nature is part of the context of my childhood as I lived by the sea when I was young. The mysteries in Nature make me think and make me wonder what life is really all about and make me think that there are other dimensions beyond the normal everyday life of schoolwork, meals and sleep.

4. Agnes Lam in general seems to prefer free verse, and makes use of direct speech and at times does away with punctuation. On the other hand she uses regular stanzas and the occasional rhyme. The blend between traditional and modern that comes out is successful and flowing. How do you react to such a statement?

I try to write as naturally as I can. The occasional rhyme usually comes to me together with the line. Often, I read the lines over and over again to myself and, if a certain syllable seems not to jar, then I may think of using a different word. In my later works, I tend to use well formed stanzas for certain poems more frequently. It really depends on the topic and the mood I am trying to convey. I seldom decide beforehand what form the poem takes. If there is variation in my writing, it is because the poems almost write themselves.

5. You always write the date and place where the poem was written. Why is this?

The poetry I write is also like a chronicle of my times. That is why I like to put the date and place. For some poems, the date and place can also give readers a little more information on the context of my poem, which might help them to connect with the poem a little more easily.

6. Although poetry is universal there seems to be something that identifies poetry written by women from that written by men. Do you agree? What might be this distinguishing something?

I am not really sure about this. I do not really think men are that different from women. So why should their experiences and hence their inner thoughts or writings differ that much? I do hope that my poetry can be understood in some way by all who can read English, regardless of their gender, age or cultural background. Having said that, readers bring to their reading their own background somewhat coloured by their gender, age and so forth.

7. Poetry is not only black ink on white paper, but also a world full of colours which can be translated in painting. How true is this in your poetry?

Poetry is full of colour because life (and the world) is not merely black and white. I am sensitive to different shades and tints and sometimes lament that there are not enough words to differentiate between finer shades of colour or of emotion.

8. In your poetry you write about the “I”, about the relation between the “I” and “you”, but also about the society you live in, including not only the positive but also negative aspects. These are three spaces which give more dimension to your poetry. What do you say about this?

Life consists mainly of four dimensions: I, other people, the immediate society and the international world, and, finally, the universe beyond the human world and its connection with the human world. My first collection was mostly about the first two dimensions though there is some focus on the third dimension too, particularly Singapore and America. My second collection has the first two dimensions again and Hong Kong and China feature prominently in the third dimension. But throughout my writing, there is always an underlying fourth dimension, though it might not always be obvious – the universe, time and what is universal and it is this that is likely to feature more in the collection that I am writing.

9. “Kleenex coverlets”, “computer”, “TV”, “Microsoft”, “megabytes”, “Iraq”, “NUS pool”, “Lancer”, “dollars” and “instalments”. Poetry also includes moments of prose, thus describing everyday life, that which we read in newspapers and hear in daily conversations. Does all this enrich or impoverish poetry?

All of life to me is reality and, for poetry to be real, which it must be if it is to help people connect, then the everyday items cannot be dispensed with. What happens in newspapers and the world around us can only enhance our understanding of life; in some ways, news coverage intensifies life as it tends to report on tragedies or celebrations. As such, news to me, not necessarily in newspapers, could be the essence of poetry.

10. In your poem My cerebral child the voice talking takes the maternal role and offers protection to the vulnerable child, once in this world of continuous threats. In a way poetry can be seen as the womb which offers the poet (but perhaps also mankind in general) protection from the world outside. What do you think about this?

Poetry, and literature in general, helps readers to experience life in all its forms and as such prepares readers even for eventualities they never have to experience directly in their own lives. In this way, rather than protect readers, literature exposes readers to the whole plethora of life – the good, the bad and the ugly. So it is possible to have lived many lives without having to live with the consequences of some of these lives, which might be quite devastating or, at least, messy.

11. Quoting some of your poetry one can read: “I,/ married to another country”; “in three countries/ I can grow”; “Mother, you have forgiven/ my leaving, my marriage,/ my degrees, foreign jobs,/ sixteen years”; and “I have to be/ what I must be/ a middle-aged woman/ answerable to my life.” Poetry is rooted in the autobiographical but its final destination is universal. How important are the autobiographical and the universal in your poetry?

Yes, I have based some poems on my own experiences. So, in that sense, there is an autobiographical element but then, my life has not been out of the ordinary. I have not lived through war or famine or any major catastrophe. The tragic moments that I have experienced: death in the family, marital pains, concern for the less fortunate around me are the stuff that many lives are made of. So in that sense, my poetry could be the poetry of ordinary people. Perhaps, therein lies its validity.

12. Poetry in relation to the five senses (vision, touch, taste, smell and hearing), but also something more (the power or opportunity to experience dimensions/realities which are with us but which can be felt/experienced only by the few). What are your reactions to such a statement?

I think many people are affected in many ways by their senses. Some are more aware of their sensitivities than others. Of these, some are more able to articulate in words than others to people they trust. Poets and artists in general are only people who can do so with more frequency, more succinctness and more mastery with their chosen medium or channel than people in general. It cannot be true that they are the select few who can experience special dimensions. If so, they will have no resonance with their readership or audience.

13. As a teacher/associate professor and thus someone who is in continuous contact with the younger generation, what can you say about the relation between poetry and today’s youth, tomorrow’s adults?

Today’s youth has too much information at their disposal on a day-to-day basis and are very creative and could do so with several media such as computer graphics and so forth. The danger though is that too much has been too easily available and it is hard for them to tell what is more worth their attention but then the ability to choose between what is available is something to be cultivated. I certainly do not think that only the high-brow arts have something to offer. There is as much to be learnt from a street sweeper who respects his or her own work as there is from the more intellectual practitioners. If young people can imbibe wholesome values and attitudes to life, that is already an achievement. Whether they appreciate poetry in words, they will have achieved the lifestyle that poetry promises – a simple appreciation of life.

14. How does Agnes Lam spend a normal day? How does she spend her time when away from work?

A normal day begins with an early start at the office, email communication with colleagues, students, writers, friends and relatives, other people in the community. It continues with meetings in my department, in the faculty or at university level. In between, both in the daytime and on some evenings at night, I teach postgraduates. I teach PhD students from all academic disciplines how to write their dissertations. I also teach teachers how to teach language better. Two of my favourite courses are ‘Asian poetry in English’ and ‘English language teaching in China’. I go home around 8 pm or 9 pm, depending on whether I have to teach that evening. Then I have dinner, often with my husband, sometimes after his dinner. Then we watch some television and the late news. I end my night with reading the Bible and praying for everyone I care about. If I have any energy left, I read something – poetry or fiction. Weekends, I still do my email and also handle some matters at home or mark scripts or write academic papers in my study, usually with music playing in the living room. I travel a lot with my husband when I am not working and I try to read or write something I like during vacation time.

Patrick Sammut

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