An ode to Hong Kong
Poet Nicholas Wong tells Ysabelle Cheung he thinks Hongkongers ‘don’t read’ – and he also wants to please American editors
Nicholas Wong is a firestarter. A future graduate of the seminal Creative Writing Master of Fine Arts course (the first in the world to focus on Asian writing), he’s already been published in literary journals and reads for poetry magazine Drunken Boat. We speak to him about his debut collection of verse and his State-side ambitions...
Tell us about your debut poetry collection, Cities of Sameness.
I’m a gay poet in Hong Kong, so it deals with homosexuality, desire and the city. Different kinds of love. A long time ago, I wrote a piece called City of Sameness, comparing the male body to the city. Although everybody’s the same because of globalisation, we are drawn to different bodies, getting ourselves into different relationships. This is how the title came about. I really like one called Panda, Macau, Gondola. That particular poem talks about a panda going to Macau to gamble. It’s inspired by a native Indian writer called Sherman Alexie.
What is writing to you? What does it mean to Nicholas Wong?
Everything started when I was in year three of Hong Kong uni – but, at that time, I wasn’t very aware of craft and narrative strategies. I didn’t pick it up again until I was on the MFA programme with (fellow Hong Kong writer) Xu Xi one and a half years ago. I told myself that I’d have to take it seriously – it’s not something we should do casually. It’s not like writing love songs. And I don’t believe in freestyle writing now. I once did a lot of that – but then I had to do a lot of editing to take away the rubbish. Now I’m actually conscious of what I’m writing. I’m trying to get the chemistry between words. When two words are put together, does it create any newness?
Have you encountered any problems with the homosexual themes in your poetry?
I don’t think Hong Kong people actually read. I know that what I’m doing now is interesting but I won’t get the right audience, so why bother? It’s quite a novelty, writing. Why would they be conscious (of my homosexuality) in my writing? I don’t really think about Hong Kong audiences. How many literary publications can you actually name in Hong Kong? Not a lot. A lot of Hong Kong poets just stop there. They’re happy. I can’t imagine why. There’s no point in sticking to just Hong Kong.
So where will you go?
I can’t deny that I’m writing to please the American editors, writing something that they’d like. I’m trying to figure out a way to get my name out there. I’m quite an ambitious person, actually. I hope that, by the time I’m 40 years old, when you talk about Asian poetry, I will be one of those names that pops up. I don’t want to be the only name which does that – but I most certainly want to be mentioned.
Are you more East than West?
Every time I finish a book in Chinese, I can’t write in English. The language works very differently. I end up writing in Chinese but it is not wanted, not accepted. But I do have interest in Asian poetic form. Just the other week, I went to the anime exhibition at the Convention Centre with my boyfriend, who understands Japanese. He says every year a magazine will pick the most popular pop culture phrase coined and last year it was the Chinese word ‘sprouting’ – but then, when you use it in a Japanese context, it can mean something very sexual. I think I will follow more from Asia, content wise – more than anywhere else.
Cities of Sameness is published by Desperanto, priced $85. For more details see nicholasybwong.weebly.com.