August 15, 2012 § Leave a comment
Interview with Jane Yeh by Katerina Photiou
1. How long have you been writing poetry? Why & how did you start?
I started writing poetry when I was around 14. I’d written lots of stories as a child in primary school, but I don’t remember why I took up poetry — we didn’t study any in school (which is shocking when I look back on it), and my parents didn’t own any books of poetry. I’d kept a journal for many years by then; I think writing poems was just an additional outlet for my emotions as a teenager, at first.
2. How much does publishability affect what you write?
I’ve always written whatever I wanted, which often didn’t seem very similar to what gets published in literary magazines or books. For a long time, when I lived in the States, I couldn’t get published at all, and I pretty much gave up on writing for a while out of discouragement. After moving to the UK, I felt really fortunate to finally have my first collection published here. Regardless, when I write I’m not thinking about publishability; you have to write what speaks to you, and in a way that speaks to you, otherwise it’s dead.
3. Where and when do you write, especially when writing about strong emotions – is it immediate, or on reflection/from memory?
I used to be quite haphazard and undisciplined, but in the last few years I’ve forced myself to follow a routine of (almost) daily writing, in the morning or afternoon. When I was in my teens and twenties I used to write and feel “creative” only late at night, but now I find it’s the opposite. I also always used to do my writing at home on a computer, whereas now I write in cafés or libraries, on paper — at home there are too many possible distractions available, like going on the Internet or tidying my room or taking a nap.
Most of what I write is invented, though obviously my imagination is formed from a combination of external sources (things in the world, other people’s experiences) and my own memories and experiences. In this sense you could say my poems are written based on reflection.
4. What inspires your poetry the most, and why? Is there an aspect of your life that is particularly influential on what you write?
What inspires my poetry keeps changing — at university it was mostly the things I studied (Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, the history of clothing, art history), as well as the work of my favorite poet, Lucie Brock-Broido. Now it’s often things I read (not necessarily in books — it could be newspapers, websites, blogs) or see (TV, films, plays). I’m writing some sonnets based on trashy ’80s TV shows now, as a matter of fact. I do find paintings and photographs especially inspiring for subject-matter, as jumping-off points — there’s something about a still visual image that appeals to the eye and mind both, where you can get lost in contemplating it.
5. Does it irritate you when someone misinterprets your work?
Intellectually I know that a text can be interpreted in almost any way, and that authorial intent is supposed to be irrelevant, but I would be disappointed if someone reading one of my poems understood it in an entirely different way than I intended — I don’t strive to be obfuscatory in my writing or think that poems are Rorschach ink blots. As a writer, I’m trying to create a mood or voice, or a kind of self-contained world, when I make a poem, so I hope that comes across in some way to the reader.
6. At what point do you decide that a given poem is finished?
Like most poets, I almost always struggle with endings; they usually take me the longest to finish, as I can write and reject dozens of them before finding one that works. I write very slowly and keep rewriting as I go (rather than pounding out a draft and then revising it), so by the time I get to the ending I do feel the poem is finished. (Of course, there are still poems whose last lines I keep fiddling with months later.) One of the drawbacks to this method is that I have a lot of half-finished, totally dead poems lying around, which can’t be salvaged no matter how radically I try to chop them up. I definitely wouldn’t recommend my writing process to anyone.
7. Do you think poetry is a dying art?
No, especially because the Internet makes vast amounts of poetry so easily available to anyone with Internet access. When I was growing up in suburban New Jersey, it was practically impossible to find contemporary poetry to read — the local bookstores and libraries didn’t carry any, much less carry literary magazines, and even in New York there were only one or two small, specialised bookstores that did. Nowadays the Net is a gigantic resource, with sites like Poetry Daily and the Academy of American Poets’ Online Poetry Library that are repositories of good contemporary poetry.
8. What advice would you give young writers to encourage them to write poetry?
To read as much poetry as possible. I feel inspired to write whenever I read other people’s poems. I think if you like language and how words are put together, then reading and hearing poems, which focuses your consciousness on language, will stimulate you.
Another thing is that reading widely in poetry can let you see how many different kinds of contemporary poetry there are, and how many things you can do in a poem — most of us, including me, come to writing with certain ideas about what poetry is, but the reality is that it can be so many things, in terms of subject, style, expression, approach.
9. What do you hope your legacy to British poetry will be?
I think I’d be lucky to have one at all! As a writer, you just hope someone will read and enjoy your work and recommend it to others. It’s hard to see my work having a broad influence anyway as it’s rather out of the mainstream of “British poetry”.
10. What can you express in poetry that you can’t in another literary or art form?
To me, words have a magic that doesn’t exist in other art forms — the complexity of what and how they convey — their instantaneous combination of mental understanding, sense impressions, and feelings or emotions — the way they can suggest, hint, contain multiple ambiguities. I love fiction and other forms of prose, but to me poetry is (in the old cliché) the most heightened form of language, even when it’s seemingly natural, colloquial, or casually assembled. Again, the complexity of a poem’s workings, compressed into a relatively small space, is what interests me in writing; short stories and novels don’t have the same density.
The question of what I “express in poetry” is harder to answer. If I think of my poems as snow globes or shoebox dioramas, it would be impossible to turn them into pieces of prose; they tell stories and have characters, but they don’t really have plots, and without the enclosure of poetic form they couldn’t exist in the first place.