Tuesday, 9 August 2016

[Undergrad/HKUSU] Meet the Poet Who Breaks through the Crevasse: Nicholas Wong

Meet the Poet Who Breaks through the Crevasse: Nicholas Wong
Written by Rainbow Wong (Undergrad, HKUSU, August 2016)
Nicholas Wong (photo by Donald Yiu)


Born and raised in Hong Kong, “Asia’s World City” dubbed by the local tourism board, the Lambda Literary Award winner, Nicholas Wong Yu-bon, feels that there are certain “off-ness” in his identities. He writes poems in English, his second language, and is gay in a city that does not even have anti-discrimination laws that include sexual orientation. Nevertheless, this is no obstacle to his creativity—if anything, it has opened up a world of myriad possibilities for him.

The purple book cover of Crevasse features a hole full of cross-shaped bacteria revealed by a paper crack. Inspired by a poem about gloryholes and crucifixions, he designed it with an artist from Los Angeles, as he told Time Out Hong Kong earlier. “The title Crevasse suggests a crack that opens up an originally intact surface to reveal what possibly exists beneath it,” Wong explained the name of his latest poetry collection, which earned him the US-based awards, also known as the “Lammys”, in the gay poetry category. Now in their 28th year, the awards recognize and celebrate L.G.B.T. books from a variety of genres published in the U.S. each year.  The award ceremony this year was held in early June at New York University. 

The hidden gem of English poetry

In brutal honesty, the local poetry scene has not been remarkably exuberant and it seemingly applies even more so for poetry written in the English language, which might be more challenging to read for many locals. But English poetry greatly enchants Wong: He likes the reading and writing of the genre, and is drawn to “the in-between-ness, the ambiguity, the clarity that is always defined by opacity”, as he said. As an English major at HKU, he grew used to writing many texts for each course and enjoyed doing it. But his interest in writing poetry really sparked off in his third year, when he was enrolled in a whole-year creative writing course taught by Shirley Lim, which explored the craft of poetry and short stories. It was not without difficulty, though. As he said, “The challenges, back then, were the literary vacuum, by which I meant I hadn't had the chance to read a lot of poetry—classical and contemporary. I believe that reading the right poems is the key to writing drafts that are worth keeping.  This said, the course let me know I was, to say the least, interested in creative writing, or creating per se.”

He then went on to complete a master’s degree in comparative literature at HKU. His fondest memories are the simplest ones. “I liked simply sitting in a classroom and listening to professor talk about interesting ideas that ultimately changed one's perspective in seeing things. They're sharing their lifetime wisdom and research with you in two hours. It's actually a good deal, from the economic point of view,” he said.

Against all odds

Wong also took the City University’s MFA in Creative Writing in 2010, an Asian-themed, low-residency program of which many local English writers were alumni. Unfortunately, the program was axed in the Summer of 2015 amid protests from current students, graduates and authors worldwide. Wong was among those who signed the letter against the university's decision. "That MFA program was different from any of the regular ones that run courses by semester. Therefore, it had to be funded by a different financial model. However, the management wasn't very flexible in creating a new funding model to keep the program. Their reluctance could be a shortsightedness, or a complicated administrative decision. It's ironic to close the program when the university advocated a truly global body of studentship. I have never been in a program more global than MFA," he said.

“Literature grows in Hong Kong. There are more and more quality readers and daring writers, both for the Chinese and English literary scenes. But it's almost true to say literature is marginalized because the people making important policies are not very good readers or writers themselves.” But despite all the challenges, “The more marginalized an artist, the more creative energy he has,”as Wong quoted singer-songwriter Anthony Wong Yiu-ming.

Poring over his poems, many may sense a dash of social sensitivity between the lines. Writers should make use of their discomfort as inspiration, Wong believes. "To me, politics is related to one's existence and positioning in a community," he said. "I do believe that good writings should transgress and subvert."

'Just another relationship'

Avid film watchers would be familiar with the delicate yet turbulent romance of two young souls in Wong Kar-wai's Happy Together (1997). It is something quite different from other local films of its time because of the straightforward depiction of a gay romance. Wong likes the film a lot, as he explained, “It doesn't bother explaining the homosexuality of the two protagonists. It's just another relationship. We need more films and TV dramas like this to counter the misrepresentation of queerness in Hong Kong or Asian popular culture.”

In his other interviews, he has been emphasizing that "gay poetry" is there only for the ease of categorization by the press, bookstores and the like. After all, labelling is perhaps dispensable, if the focus is on a poet's work and not his identity.

There are quite a few queer poets whom Wong admires, from across the world, including Cyril Wong (Singapore), Jee Leong-koh (Singapore), C. Dale Young (America), Timothy Liu (America), Danez Smith (America), Ocean Vuong (America), D. A. Powell (America) and Kazim Ali (America).

The collection

When asked about Crevasse, Wong said, “There are poems that are deeply personal, whereas there are some pieces that depart from the personal and try to explore the personal with the social. The worst assumption of reading poetry or any literature is that everything on the page is autobiographical.  This reading is very reductive. In fact, can we ever tell if incidents in the poem have happened? Why bother? Poetry should start with what is known and push itself towards exploring the unknown."

Although Wong does not have a favorite poem in the collection and interestingly, avoids reading the entire collection, there is a poem which holds a special place in his heart. “There is a poem called ‘Side Effects of Leukaemia’, and it's written for a dear friend who passed. He's been supportive of my dream,” he said.

We have hand-picked two poems from Crevasse with which many might resonate according to life in Hong Kong. "Postcolonial Zoology" explores the intricacies of race and colonization, while "Neighbor" looks into the intersections between one's private and public life.

Postcolonial Zoology
1997, Hong Kong

It is not the pedigreed corgis they left
at the handover, but the effigy of the Queen
on toothed stamps being self-important

in dusted albums. We bolted to banks to trade
for new coins. We went to the West, away
from communist coxswains, but were whittled

to sculptures called “second-tier citizens,”
second to terriers. Our being could start
a chapter in zoology: we are inedible

bilingual centaurs spreading swine flu
at the turn of the century, we are comrades
of a blue whale found ashore due to sonic

confusion, caribous on a cruise to Malibu.
Even what we remembered migrated to corners
invisible in brain scans. In Mandarin Oriental,

India, a TV host devoured British scones
and circumscribed cucumber sandwiches
on his sun porch that looked over to rice fields.

A butler next to him. He called the experience
authentic. So were the bees buzzing in air,
sick of their queen too lazy to move.

Words from the poet:
"I once watched a travel show on Discovery Channel late at night, and was bothered by how the white male host enjoyed being served by colored resort staff. Well, from an economic point of view, there seemed to be nothing wrong there. He paid for the service. He got it. Yet, the semiotics of the scenes is deeply troubling."

Neighbor

Every death is a local event every local

avoids. The way we zigzag our way
by the gate to avoid this spot the skull

has crushed then opened like a generous

guava.  e way we think the chalked
outline of the victim, a man, hardly

synopsizes the outlined body we carry

thus know of. The way a tent is zipped
to eclipse his plunge from public talks

because he has taken another he too personally,

privately—the myth of love bisects these he’s,
who wet their love for myths with well-meant selves.

Tomorrow, the street will reek of bleach,

will gray as if intolerant of red, and stories
of the spot be untold by bold tire tracks.

A wreath by the curb

tilts, an umbrella, unclaimed, waits
for better weather to disclose its ribs.

Words from the poet:
"People jumped from buildings to kill themselves in Hong Kong. There's a certain haunting quality in walking on the road, where the night before, someone's head might have been crushed like 'an open guava'. I don't mean haunting in the spectral sense, but how tragedies and deaths can be quickly 'sanitized' for a regular, normal life to resume its pace."

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