Interview with Miriam Wei Wei Lo



Michael Brennan: When did you start writing and what motivated you?

Miriam Wei Wei Lo: I started writing poetry at about the age of 5. I made up nursery rhymes and wrote them down in a little book. This is what my mother tells me – she also rues the day she threw that little book away . . .

What motivated me? Probably pure pleasure – writing because I enjoyed reading and wanted to reproduce that pleasure somehow, writing because I could, exploring the sounds and possibilities of words and language.

MB: Who are the writers that first inspired you to write and who are the writers you read now? What’s changed?

Miriam Wei Wei Lo: I read a lot of poetry growing up. Apart from Mother Goose, countless children’s poetry anthologies from the library. I encountered the metaphysicals and Hopkins as a teenager, at school – Donne’s sly wit and intellect tickled my brain; Hopkins’ intensity and his almost physical pleasure in the poetic possibilities of words and language really gripped me. At the same time, growing up in Singapore, I was exposed to poetry in a few other languages as well (mostly Mandarin, but also Malay and Tamil). I studied Mandarin (Chinese) as a second language and even though the curriculum was very functional (regrettably so, I think it would have been so much more interesting if we had tackled Chinese poetry), the odd famous Tang poem or two would make an appearance, or a Li Po (Li Bai). What struck me most about these ancient Chinese poems was their succinctness. It’s also much easier to rhyme in Chinese. Many of the poems we learned at school – Mandarin, Malay or Tamil – were actually songs, and those sounds remain with me because they are encoded in music as well as language. These are all sources of inspiration.

Contemporary poets inspire me. Many of my school friends wrote poetry, I think as a way of working out who we were, of working out what life meant. Some of these friends have gone on to become significant poets in Singapore – Alvin Pang and Aaron Lee among them. I hate the reductiveness of ‘-isms’, but studying post-colonialism as an undergraduate in Australia threw me into the company of poets who were able to articulate culture-clash and the agony of writing in a language (English) that carries a cultural history that does not quite match up with one’s own: Derek Walcott and M. Nourbese Philip are voices that have always stayed with me. Dennis Haskell at UWA has always inspired and encouraged me to write and gave me my first publishing opportunity through Westerly. As a postgraduate in Queensland I was thrown into the Brisbane Poetry Scene, which a hotbed of poetic activity in the 1990s: impromptu workshops on friends’ verandahs, long poetry readings at the IMA building, chance encounters with other poets in cafes . . . I’ll stop, this is starting to sound too much like an Academy Award winning speech . . .

Writing and reading poetry are such an indulgence. I’m painfully aware of this now that I have so very little time to do either! Right at this moment I’m painstakingly making my way through Hopkins (collected), a manuscript from Singaporean poet Angeline Yap, The Lion Christian Poetry Collection, and itching to get at more Gwendolyn Brooks. I’m also in the company of some fine Margaret River poets, Molly Hall and Miranda Aitken particularly, and we meet once a month to read poetry, other people’s and each others. A bit like a book club, but we only do poems.

What’s changed? Nothing much, really, except that I’ve read more – I like to read a mix of poetry – contemporary voices and voices from that foreign country called “the past”. 

MB: How important is ‘everyday life’ to your work?

Miriam Wei Wei Lo: How I answer this question really depends on how I define ‘everyday life’. If ‘everyday life’ means the things that happen fairly routinely every day in a person’s life – I would have to say that ‘everyday life’ is important to my work both as a subject (though it is not the only thing I write about) and as the context within which I approach events that are more out-of-the-ordinary. ‘Everyday life’ does have a pejorative meaning as well – it is often associated with tedium and boredom and opposed to the excitement and interest of extraordinary events (whether these are holidays, high-risk experiences like sky-diving, or the glamorous lifestyles of celebrities). If ‘everyday life’ is given a pejorative meaning, I would say, rather perversely, that is is even more important to my work, because it is the duty of poets to seek the sublime in the mundane, and (to use the cliché) to find the extraordinary in the ordinary.

‘Everyday life’ is often associated with the menial tasks that have to be performed for our basic survival. Most of these menial tasks fall under the category of “housework”. I am thinking about cooking, clothes-washing, dish-washing, house-cleaning, grocery-shopping and the like. It really bothers me when anyone fails to see the value of this work, but I constantly encounter people who see housework as “less important” work; these are the people I meet in Singapore who assume that housework and child-minding are “maid’s jobs”, these are the people in Australia who can’t understand why I don’t hire a cleaner and put the kids in daycare so I can get on with being an academic or writer, these are the societies whose views of the importance of housework are reflected in the amounts they pay to people who do these jobs for them, so they can be free from ‘everyday life’ to do . . . more important things (whatever they are). Ok, if Kevin Rudd had to wash the dishes after all his parties, or if Barack Obama had to keep the White House clean, they wouldn’t have time to do much else, but there was a reason for Gandhi’s famous assertion that politicians ought to clean their own toilets. It is in this context that ‘everyday life’ has become a charged topic for me and for my writing. There is a spiritual dimension to this too – when I feel particularly put out, I remember that Jesus was the kind of person who would get down on his knees to do a “slave’s job” and wash his disciples’ feet, just as they were arguing about which one of them was the greatest. I find this enormously encouraging. Writing about and from everyday life could even be seen as a kind of spiritual practice for me: a way of imagining how things should be, in the face of how things (sadly) are.
MB: What is the role or place of subjectivity in your poetry?

Miriam Wei Wei Lo: I have read enough about subjectivity (and the place of the lyrical ‘I’) in poetry to know how little I have read, and what a slim grasp I have on this topic.

If subjectivity is the exploration of directly personal material (experiences, opinions, feelings) in someone’s writing, then it has a fairly significant role in some of my work, in that I do write poetry from the standpoint of the autobiographical ‘I’. At the same time, I also enjoy experimenting with aesthetic distance. The practice of Keats’ negative capability (that is, the discipline of writing without drawing attention to oneself, of becoming the sparrow in the painting etc.) was in the back of my mind when I was writing about my grandmothers. Relative objectivity does not, however, negate subjectivity, it just reveals the character of the writer in a deliciously indirect manner. 

What I am really interested in is what I might venture to call “sacrificial subjectivity” – the I that serves the Other. I hope to achieve sacrificial subjectivity in both my life and writing, though, as my habitual inclinations are selfish, this can be very hard to do. I’m not sure exactly how this plays out in my poetry, but it might have something to do with the intentions and purpose of each writing act.

MB: Do you see your work in terms of literary traditions and/or broader cultural or political movements? 

Miriam Wei Wei Lo: All new poems are conversations with old poems (or poetic traditions). Some of these conversations are friendly, even deeply intimate, others are angry and quarrelsome.  Some might be humorously subversive, poking fun. I like to think my work does all these things.  The rich and varied poetic traditions of the world are like a giant treasure chest. Poets have permission to rifle through at will (though they must bring their consciences with them). I enjoy experimenting with a variety of poetic forms – anything from fixed rhyme to prose poetry.

Poems are inadvertently conversations with broader cultural and political movements as well. Some of my poetry probably falls within the post-colonial orbit, or equally within the Asian-Australian orbit.  Sometimes I think I write as a dissident Singaporean (even though I never formally belonged to that state, and would not ever have to suffer for my views as some have suffered for theirs). Poverty and unfairness trouble me deeply and something inside me kicks against any system (political or cultural) that endorses, tacitly or explicitly, the devaluation of other human beings. I wrote about my grandmothers partly because we live in a world that does not take old ladies very seriously, when I feel that they ought to be taken very seriously indeed. 

When I think of angry and quarrelsome, Ania Walwicz’s ‘Australia’ always comes to mind “You big ugly.  You too empty. You desert with your nothing nothing nothing . . .” – a classic prose-poetry-slap-in-the-face for any rhyming poem in the jingoistic Australian tradition (What does this say to Dorothea MacKellar and ‘I love a sun-burnt country’?). A lot of poetic movements begin in anger – the Imagists and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry come to mind. Chinese poetry at the start of the twentieth century is fascinating – it mirrors what was happening in China at the time – huge socio-economic and political upheaval with the fall of the last imperial dynasty and an influx of foreign ideas – the conversation poetry has with at this time with classic Chinese poetry is both intimate and angry at the same time! Something funny? I've just read the contemporary Australian poet John Watson’s ‘Three Instructive Poems’, the first ‘How to write a poem’ begins like this: “The first line must begin/ With a succinct, even abrupt/ Completion of the sentence/ Begun in the title.” This made me laugh because I have written at least one poem that does just that.

In my own writing, ‘Fruit in Season’ is an appropriation of a classical Chinese convention in art which comprises of a set of four paintings, each depicting a season and featuring an appropriate poem (or quotation from a poem) in calligraphy on the painting. I added the fruit for fun. This could be an example of a friendly conversation with an ancient tradition. The deeply intimate conversations generally involve creative imitation: my poem ‘Bumboat Cruise on the Singapore River’ is deeply influenced by Peter Boyle’s ‘November in Madrid’.
MB: What aspect of writing poetry and working as a poet is the most challenging?

Miriam Wei Wei Lo: Finding Time. Finding time to write and finding time to do all the publicity one has to do to be read.  The difficulty I experience in finding time is largely due to the choices I have made about parenting – these are choices that require me to be physically and mentally present for my young children. This means I cannot spend half a day working uninterrupted on a poem. I also cannot get up and go across the country to a festival or conference at whim. And when I do get to a festival or conference, I invariably make a fool of myself because I miss my family so much I can’t think straight. I also don’t have time to do the kind of networking (e.g. on Facebook) that might garner me more readers. In short, it is a miracle that anybody reads my work at all.  I fall down on my knees and give thanks if I manage to write even one poem. 

Let me re-work that. Perhaps the miracle is not that my work is read, but the acts of selfless generosity that have made it possible for my work to be read. Ron Pretty, who was at Five Islands Press until his recent retirement, worked tirelessly to promote my first book. John Kinsella has also been very encouraging, and has given me publishing opportunities I would never have dared to ask for.  And I only have a serious web presence because of the work of Michael Brennan with Poetry International Web. 

MB: What reading, other than poetry, is important to your work as a poet and why?

Miriam Wei Wei Lo: This is going to sound completely bizarre to you . . . yes I do read other books (most recently, Barack Obama's autobiography and Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz), but the most important reading I do for my poetry is not reading at all, it’s singing. I sing to myself all the time, but especially when I feel low, and the songs I sing are largely from the huge repertoire of songs I have learnt singing in church as a child and playing piano for church as an adult. There’s gospel: “Soon and very soon, we are going to see the king", ancient hymns: “Praise God from whom all blessings flow . . .”, and even cheeky Colin Buchanan songs: “Super saviour to the rescue! Super saviour mighty to save! Look, look, here comes Jesus! Up, up, out of the grave!” These songs are incredibly important to my work as a poet. Of all the written art forms, poetry is the closest to music, and a lot of this has to do with rhythm. These songs I sing are a kind of living poetry that edifies me, but they also constantly tune my ear to the rhythms of language. Song writers cannot afford to be sloppy with rhythm – each syllable has to match a note and the notes all have to fit a constant rhythmic pattern. This is a very useful discipline for a would-be poet. 

MB: What is ‘Australian poetry’? Do you see yourself as an ‘Australian’ poet?

Miriam Wei Wei Lo: I think of ‘Australian poetry’ as an open-ended category. If ‘Australia’ is a place, a unique landscape with a history (the sum total of all the individual stories that have been lived in this place) and a culture (in the broadest sense – from everyday life through to the education system to High Art, and what this generates: the ongoing definition and debate of ‘shared values’ – whether this is a belief in the minimum wage, democracy as the best form of government, or that we should drive on the left hand side of the road); then Australian poetry is any poetry that has a conversation with ‘Australia’. Then again, there may be poems that have a conversation with Australia specifically for the purpose of defining themselves as “not-Australian” – are these Australian poems too? Hmmmm. I don't know. ‘Australia’ is a useful, but by no means exhaustive category. Lots of poems written by people with a connection to Australia can’t really be described as ‘Australian’ at all – in the sense that they are having conversations with things that can’t specifically be defined as ‘Australian’.

Do I see myself as an Australian poet? Yes and no. Some of my poems have conversations with Australia. Some of them have conversations with Singapore and Malaysia – and some engage with things that don’t usefully slot into national categories at all. But I don’t mind seeing myself as an Australian poet, as long as I’m allowed to inhabit other categories as well! I like Australia – that’s why I live here. There are things about it that I hate, but of all the screwed-up places I’ve lived in on this screwed-up planet, I like it the best. I can put up with its nonsense.

I don’t envy the people who have to put national anthologies together. It is a difficult task. I’ve got the 1991 Penguin Anthology of Modern Australian Poetry (edited by John Tranter and Philip Mead) and the more recent Penguin Anthology of Australian Poetry (2009, edited by John Kinsella) in front of me right now.  It is good to see a movement away from a predominantly Anglo conception of ‘Australia’ to a more complex, inclusive version that doesn’t avoid difficult questions about ethnicity and nationality. I enjoyed reading the 1991 anthology when it came out (which, in all fairness, only attempts to cover work that falls into the ‘modern’ period), but I was genuinely heartened by Kinsella’s proper attempts to engage, for example, with pre-colonial poetry in Aboriginal language and with the wide spectrum of voices that is Australian poetry today. I felt a bit stunned to be included in the 2009 edition, but, with a ‘cast’ that includes Ouyang Yu and Ali Alizadeh, I didn’t feel like the token migrant/exotic ‘extra’.  Anthologies generally provide a fairly good reflection of how a society defines itself at any particular point in time. I am thankful that current versions of ‘Australia’ can include people like me. 

Theory is important, but not in a direct way. I don’t want to write didactic poetry. I did think a lot about hybridity (as used in post-colonial theory) before writing about my grandmothers. A lot of the theory I read on this was baffling (I found Homi Bhabha, for example, quite impenetrable) but the poetry I found was helpful. Two publications deserve mention here: Hyphenation: A Mixed Race Issue of absinthe 9.2 (1996) and No Passing Zone: The Artistic and Discursive Voices of Asian-Descent Multiracials (a special issue of the Amerasia Journal 23.1, 1997). While I did experience a sense of identification with the poetry in these publications, I was also bothered by a general obsession with alienation and the way in which the poetry seemed to become a repetitive performance of various poets’ marginal credentials. I wanted to write something that emphasised not only the relational and communal context of experiences of cultural difference, but also the positive possibilities of hybridity as a mode of being that does not have to be characterised primarily by alienation (I am just about quoting verbatim from my Creative Writing PhD thesis here). This is how I came to write about my grandmothers.

MB: Don Anderson once described Australian poetry as Australia’s only “blood sport”. More recently critics have seen Australian poetry in  terms of a “new lyricism” (David McCooey) and “networked language” (Philip Mead). What is the current state of play in Australian poetry? How do you think Australian poetry and discussions about Australian poetry might best develop in the next ten years?

Miriam Wei Wei Lo: I feel completely unqualified to make summary statements on the current state of play in Australian poetry. I’ve just read David McCooey’s article on the “new lyricism” and Pam Brown’s excellent review of Philip Mead’s book and don’t have anything useful to add. I am not an expert. I can only observe that a great deal of poetry is being written in Australia at present, and as an avid reader of Rob Riel’s Wagtail series of contemporary Australian poets, I rather enjoy the diversity of poetic voices. In response to the second question, Australian poetry probably benefits from the kind of engagement that this project requires, and from forums like the Australian Poetry Centre. If we keep talking about it and keep writing it who knows how poetry might surprise us in the next ten years.

MB: How is poetry relevant or valuable to contemporary society and culture in Australia or at an international level?

Miriam Wei Wei Lo: I am tempted to quote Les Murray: “Art is indefensible”.  The relevance or value of poetry to contemporary society and culture (both national and international) is very difficult to quantify or predict. Who can defend poetry? Or any form of art that is not necessary for basic survival?  How can I justify reading and writing poetry when I could be doing something concrete and helpful for the starving millions in Africa? Or volunteering at the soup kitchen in Margaret River? Poetry is an indulgence. And yet somehow a necessary indulgence. Even the seamstress in the sweatshop sings.  There is a necessary pleasure in these things.  I believe that we create because we are made in the image of a Creator. Poetry has to be about pleasure (poetry for its own sake) and it will be relevant and valuable as long as some of us enjoy reading and writing it.  If it has to be (dare I say) ‘useful’: perhaps we could consider its value in processing human emotion and experience, or its relevance in coming to grips with suffering, or in pleading the cause for change. 

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