PRISM’s Poetry Editor Dominique Bernier-Cormier talks with PRISM’s 2015 Poetry Contest winner Phoebe Wang about her winning poem, ethnic representation in Canadian poetry, and the importance of literary criticism in Canada. Wang also sheds some light on her writing process and what inspires her work.
Wang’s winning poem, “Regional Transit”, appears in PRISM’s Summer Issue 53.4. To read her poem, get your copy here.
First of all, congratulations again on winning PRISM’s 2015 Poetry Contest, judged by Ken Babstock, with your poem “Regional Transit”. Can you tell us a bit about the poem? Where did it come from? Did it go through an extensive editorial process, or was it mostly formed from the start?
After a year of job hunting, I began working at a tutoring centre in Richmond Hill. It was an hour and half commute, and everyday I passed the same Metrolinx billboard on Bayview and HWY 7 for the VIVA Purple line that had already been built. It contained a dangling modifier that I couldn’t help correcting every time I saw it, and it became the first line of “Regional Transit.” Despite the new bus lines, I was often late which made me wonder why it was taking me so long to get where I wanted to go, both physically and symbolically (everything physical is also symbolic to a poet). Every evening I showed students how to jump through the same academic hoops I had. I was helping them with paragraph transitions though my own transition into teaching wasn’t smooth at all. Out these contradictions came “Regional Transit.” Many of its lines were culled out of “The Hydro Men,” its sister poem, also about connections. “The Hydro Men” was the one that almost impossible to write. It was trying to do too much—talk about power and transit and the ice storm and the history of place. But “Regional Transit” was my reward for that effort. It came together like those little track pieces, the kind that come with a toy train so the toy train has something to ride on.
I’m always curious about the “starting points” of poems. For some, it’s an image, for others, a line, an argument, a landscape, a character. How do your poems usually begin?
I’m almost constantly in a state of confusion. I feel as though everything I know is based on loose associations and unreliable facts, yet life decisions are made based on that knowledge. I write poems as an attempt to sort out what things mean. Like am I really helping students or just depressing them? Or why do we need GPS trackers for children? Where does the sidewalk end? So poems for me begin with a problem or a question, but the poem itself is a “starting point” for a larger, ongoing dialogue that hopefully also shifts some of my confusion onto the reader.
“Regional Transit” deals with questions of locality, or “local-ness”, and legacy. Could you touch on these two concepts and how they appear in the poem, and in your work in general?
I always wanted to write about suburbs because I didn’t grow up in a suburb, so they fascinate me. Their locality is defined by their relation to the city, and that’s especially true of municipalities like Richmond Hill, Vaughan and North York. However this wasn’t the case 100 years ago, when these farming communities were more self-reliant. That legacy is of course colonial history, but if it’s lost or obscured, so is the sense of locality. Developers and governments are prone to selectively remembering that history. As long as it’s on a plaque, it’s worth remembering. Immigrant groups who bring in their own legacies add more layers to the place, even as they erase previous legacies. It’s those shifting layers that I want to explore in “Regional Transit” and in my other work. “Regional Transit” came out of asking what kind of children come out of these weird landscapes with their ghostly fences and maze-like subdivisions. It’s no wonder they keep looking at their phones for answers.
You recently wrote a fascinating post on your website discussing issues of ethnic representation in Canadian poetry, which I encourage everyone to go read. In what ways do these issues, and larger issues of ethnic relations, affect your writing process and the content of your poetry?
Thank you for saying that. I’ve never had a response like that to anything I’ve written, and I worried that it might seem ungrateful. Full disclosure: I received arts council funding this year to write reviews and criticism, and it gave me both the time and the motivation to address questions of ethnicity and identity that have been on my mind for 15 years, since I began writing as an adult. For a long time I hit a mental pause button on the subject because it was too painful. But I think I was recording all along.
Writing may be a means of self-expression, but that self is also defined by social factors outside of my control. Every facet of writing is predetermined by historicity, beginning from the very language we write in. To write in English means something different for every ethnic body. My writing process is also a process of reflecting on my self-position in the time and place; that’s not unique to me. So I write poems as a Canadian, as a child of immigrants, as female, as heteronormative, as an environmentalist, as an educated person, as a first-world citizen and as a consumer, while at the same time my poems speak back to those identity markers and attempt not to treat them as opaque.
I understand you have an MA in Creative Writing from U of T, where you worked closely with A.F. Moritz. What are some of the things you’ve learned from the program, or A.F. Moritz himself?
I entered the program when I was 29, after several years of writing without any acknowledgement. Those years are important too. After entering the MA program, I learned what it meant to feel like to have the backing of this powerful, generous yet capricious institution. And I learned how to be a part of a cohort or emerging writers who are becoming more self-sufficient and inclusive with every debut and launch season.
I owe so much to Professor Moritz (I can’t call him anything else!) He’s an extremely generous teacher. He often had 2-3 undergrads sitting in a row outside his office like cormorants. My lines were more natural and less stilted after our year of mentorship. He also referred to my miscellany of poems from the beginning as a book and so I had to start thinking of it as such.
You regularly write poetry reviews for publications. What importance does critical work have for you? Do you think it’s essential for poets to engage critically with their contemporaries’ work? What effects do you think an engaged critical community has on writers and writing?
These are huge questions and I can only answer briefly here. I began writing reviews in 2012 after becoming aware of VIDA’s and CWILA’s annual reports on the low percentages of female-authored books reviewed by major literary publications. It’s not the reviews themselves that matter as much as the fact that so many young women, myself included, fear misreading work or becoming entangled in a literary feud or simply don’t find writing criticism appealing. But criticism and reviewing in Canada is tied up in whole apparatus of validation: anthologizing, prize-giving, popular consensus, university curriculums and canon-formation. I feel I have no choice but to participate in whose poems gets read, reviewed, included, studied and taught, if I want to see literary criticism in Canada reflect the enormous range of human experiences contained by its borders.
It’s not essential for every poet to write criticism, but some sort of engagement is important. Even silence is a form of engagement; a poet who publicly declines to give any opinions about poetry whatsoever implies that in Canada, things are too fraught or too partisan or too intimate for them to speak without consequences. I spoke to Anita Lahey who was the review editor at Arc for years, and she reminded me that directors aren’t asked to review films or musicians to review albums. She said, “It’s a much more fraught enterprise when you have poets reviewing poets for a lot of obvious reasons, but it’s worth pointing out….And I think that’s part of why it was hard to extract really honest responses from people, and I don’t know if it’s a conscious thing that’s happening, or if it’s something that sort of instinctively happens.”
I hear a lot of writers my age saying that they’re tired of the cliquey-ness, online squabbles and feuds that have come before us. I believe that every poet finds the level of engagement they’re comfortable but the end should be to widen poetry circles and not to create more divisiveness, even if it’s less entertaining.
Can you tell us about your current projects? Any big writing plans in the near-future?
I have a nearly completed poetry MS titled “Admission Requirements.” Partially thanks to the Prism prize, a few editors have shown interest in it, so I feel extremely fortunate. It was my MA thesis and I’ve been revising it for about 3 years. I‘ve also begun another manuscript of ekphrastic poems, and I’d like to write more criticism too, maybe a monograph. Still looking for a willing subject. Someone should host a new reality TV show: Keeping Up With the Critics. No, never mind, that’s a terrible idea.
Phoebe Wang is a writer and educator whose work has appeared in numerous journals. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from U of T, and her chapbook, Occasional Emergencies, appeared with Odourless Press.