Phoebe Wang writes and teaches in Toronto. She recently edited a supplement issue on the theme of inheritances for The Puritan, and her chapbook, Hanging Exhibits appeared with The Emergency Response Unit this spring. Her debut collection of poetry, Admission Requirements will appear with McClelland and Stewart in Spring 2017.
Phoebe talks with BWS this week ahead of her Sept. 14 visit to the series, about the poems
in Hanging Exhibits and some of their subjects: the paintings in her mother’s collection.
BWS: In “Still Life with Dream Interpretation”, what can you tell us about choosing the shape of the poem vis-à-vis the shape of the image in the painting?
Phoebe: It’s one of the modest joys of poetry, to be able to play with white space. For me, constantly using a flush-left margin and tidy little stanzas can become monotonous. Lu Shou Kun’s painting is so perfectly balanced with the whimsy of the pink butterfly floating above this heavy, dark mood that I wanted in some way to evoke that tension with more than just words. The element that ties the two together—shape and image—is the story. Without the story of my mother’s struggle to “rise above” the ignominy of being born a girl, and of working in a factory from the age of thirteen—the poem’s shape is little more than a fanciful conceit.
BWS: What else can you tell us about the relationship between the painting and the poem? Are you able to translate the words down the right-hand side, for example?
Phoebe: The characters on the side are his name and the year, which is a common practice in Chinese painting. However he did it in a somewhat quirky way. The first two characters are his nickname, followed by two characters that basically mean “here is me”, then the date then his formal family name.
My mom also told me the story of the painting: the painter dreamed he became a butterfly, then he woke up and he wasn’t sure whether the butterfly was dreaming to become him. This directly became a part of the poem in its closing lines.
BWS: You’ve called the poems in this chapbook ekphrastic–they describe works of art–and though they’re not at all like explanations you’d get in a museum, you did title the collection Hanging Exhibits. Can you talk a little more about how your chapbook and a museum might resemble each other, or how poetry is (or isn’t) well-suited to the explanation or interpretation of art?
Phoebe: Museums are curated spaces, in that the works of art on display are removed from their original contexts and placed in a space that is, ostensibly, clutter and context free. However, viewers bring their own frames of reference—their moods, the time of day they visit, etc. I don’t necessarily think poetry is like this, because poetry is a container, like the empty frame. But I do think childhood and memory are like museums, in that they’re selective. My images of my mother and how I was raised by her are on display in this chapbook, they’ve been selectively arranged, and like paintings, they aren’t accurate representations. I wanted the reader to be just as aware of what’s missing from the frame of these poems as they are of what’s being tenuously held within it.
BWS: There’s clearly a personal element to the artwork you chose, too–many were in your home growing up. What’s it like bringing the personal, the almost memoir-like, into ekphrastic poetry?
Phoebe: It was immensely scary. I’ve never done anything like it before. Essentially I’m a lyric landscape poet, if I really wanted to put labels on myself. I like to write about things as a distance, and I tend to have an abstract, impersonal view of the world. But I think the most thrilling poems come out when I feel like I’m being backed into a corner. When I finished this series, this experiment, I did see that the “ekphrastic” label didn’t really fit. I had been writing in a very personal way all along, but suffered from a kind of myopia. So now when I’m writing a poem about fog or about a long walk in the neighborhood, I’m conscious of it being a very internal, private poem and not something separate from my psyche. Conversely, the harder I tried to represent my family as who they really are, they more archetypal they became.
BWS: Looking forward to hearing these poems live! Thanks, Phoebe.
Phoebe Wang visits Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, September 14, 2016 – full of beans Coffee House & Roastery, 1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto (6:30pm, PWYC) – along with Madhur Anand, Jeremy Hanson-Finger, Shane Joseph and a special guest talk, “Best Practices for Grant Writing”, by Toronto Arts Council Interim Dance & Literary Officer Natasha Powell.