Amid a global pandemic, the business of launching a book of poems into the world takes on a curious, almost surreal quality. What does it mean to be writing and publishing at a time like this? And how do our poems speak into a world that’s utterly changed? We asked three poets – Will Harris, Phoebe Stuckes, and Jennifer Wong, all friends of The Kindling – to tell us a little more about their books, which are published this year by Granta, Bloodaxe, and Nine Arches respectively.
Will Harris, on Rendang:
Since RENDANG came out in February, I’ve tried to keep sane by drawing a maybe-too-clear distinction between writing and publishing. Writing is solitary work, whereas publishing is the work of many hands; writing is a spiritual activity, whereas publishing is part of the market; the end of writing is writing, whereas the end of publishing is the book.
I don’t think like this all of the time. In fact, most of the time I hate the idea of writing as solitary or spiritual. No, it’s communitarian and technical. It’s what happens when people come together to discover forms adequate to their experience, to make “wine from the bad blood of history” (Kayo Chingonyi), or to extract history’s “never-isolate blood” (Vahni Capildeo).
Still, I come back to this: there’s writing, and then there’s books. Writing is ancient; ‘books’ are recent things, inseparable from the rise of capitalism. Why is that important? Because even in a less market-driven world like poetry, it’s capitalism that sets the terms of its discussion and appreciation. The whole apparatus of prizes/reviews/end-of-year lists/tweets serves to fetishise and better sell commodities. In this context, it’s impossible not to feel like a failure because that’s how capitalism tells you to feel. There’s always someone doing it better, whatever that means; success is just another name for a near miss.
I don’t want to sound sanctimonious. Publishing has changed my life. It’s allowed me to work with editors who’ve improved me as a writer – maybe as a person – and enabled me to share my work with strangers. It’s introduced me to friends. But in spite of all that, I divide writing and publishing in my head because I want to know why I write. And it can’t just be to publish. I write to believe I exist.
When I write, I can pull against my raced body. Inhabit myself. Spit on myself. See the hurt child I was and look beyond him. See what drove my family to leave home after home, in hope or terror. I can put aside kindness, sincerity, care. Tuck my enemies into bed and kiss their foreheads. Feel what my mum felt at my birth. Feel what it’s like to feel.
And over the last few months, anxious as I’ve been about lots of things – publishing a book among them – it’s that feeling of feeling I’ve tried to return to.
Will Harris is the author of RENDANG, published by Granta in the UK and Wesleyan University Press in the US. The photograph above is by Etienne Gilfillan,
Phoebe Stuckes, on Platinum Blonde:
I keep thinking about this screenshot of David Lynch, it might not be real, it might be a joke, he looks agonised and says: ‘As soon as you finish a film, people want to talk to you about it. And it’s, um, the film is the talking.’ I keep failing to explain Platinum Blonde. I explained myself already, it’s all in the book.
I told a joke, I said getting published felt like a story I’d made up for attention. The joke was on me. The second time the release date got pushed back it all felt unreal, like a story I’d told myself, a fantasy that got away from me. Logically I know it is happening, but that happening lives in the imaginary reality I keep referring to, with no sense of when it will arrive. I keep talking about what I’m going to do when this is over, the parties I’m going to go to, the clothes I’m going to wear, the friends I’m going to see, but when? When will it be safe? No one seems to know.
I made another joke, I wrote my own words over a line from Bojack Horseman, ‘I do like ‘publishing my poems’ it’s proof I exist’. I tell everyone I’m Princess Caroline, the dynamic agent, but it’s Todd the hapless couch surfer whose lines come back to me when my mind races, when I wake up in middle of the night:
‘Bojack: What are you doing in New York?
Todd: Beats me, sometimes I just am places.’
I just am here, at my parents house, so I can keep paying rent on my flat in London with my furlough money and save by eating their food. I am very lucky. I have been watching the world burning from my devices, donating bits of cash where I can, reading up, swapping pdfs, feeling joyful, feeling angry.
I keep listening to Ella Fitzgerald’s rendition of ‘I Can’t Get Started With You’, that’s not a joke, that’s actually how I feel.
My joke now is that my book’s zodiac sign keeps changing. Originally she was supposed to be a Gemini, which I would’ve liked because they are funny and sharp. Then she was going to be a Cancer, which I would’ve liked because I cry all the time. Now she’s going to be a Virgo, like me, and I like that the most.
Phoebe Stuckes is a poet from Somerset. In 2019 she received an Eric Gregory Award for her first collection, Platinum Blonde, which will be published by Bloodaxe in 2020.
Jennifer Wong, on Letters Home:
I celebrated with friends and fellow writers the launch of Letters Home at the Poetry Cafe on 9 March, a week before the sudden lockdown in the UK. Back then, we were deep in preparation, and expected a smaller turnout for the launch because of fears for a potential outbreak, but decided that we could still go ahead for those who wanted to attend. Jane, my publisher, mentioned that Letters Home would be the first book to launch in 2020. I was planning to fly back to Hong Kong to celebrate the book with my family and friends in my hometown. Little did we expect that it would be the first and only face-to-face reading for quite a while.
As the government announced a lockdown on 20 March, all schools, shops, cafes and restaurants were forced to close. Because of limitations on non-essential travel and reduced routes, I decided to postpone my trip to Hong Kong. Thinking of how much my hometown is in the book, it was painful to come to that decision. Throughout these months, I was able to share and read from the collection at different online events organised by BookBound and Chener Books, which in a way made me feel much closer to the reading and writing communities. It is deeply moving to realise that the pandemic hasn’t stopped people from reading poetry. In fact, more people are reading poetry than ever, looking to it as a source of strength and encouragement.
With the fury of Black Lives Matter protests and calls to end racism throughout the world, I discover that some poems I wrote a while ago, such as ‘The Colour of Race’ and ‘Confessions of a Minority Student’, are not just my own story but the story of countless others. How irrational and contagious fear is: ‘What makes her look away? Why does she tremble?’ That no matter where we live, the racial injustice and social stereotypes that we struggle with, that ache for genuine acceptance, are universal. We are all witnesses.
And today, with the security laws about Hong Kong passed outside Hong Kong, I look back to all these poems I wrote—not without a heavy pain in my heart—how relevant they are, and all the difficult feelings I struggle with whenever I think about home, and ‘where going home is still an option’. I think about what prompted me to write ‘Metamorphosis’: ‘We laugh at the promise /horse-racing will go on forever.’ The nostalgia that I wrote about or even tried to run away from, is not just about leaving Hong Kong to settle in a foreign country, it is also a nostalgia for a home I truly love, an undivided, peaceful society I grew up in, where people feel safe and respected, and belong.
Jennifer Wong is the author of several collections including Goldfish (Chameleon Press) and a pamphlet, Diary of a Miu Miu Salesgirl (Bitter Melon Poetry 2019). Her latest collection, 回家 Letters Home (Nine Arches Press 2020)—which explores the complexities of history, migration and translation—has been named the PBS Wild Card Choice by Poetry Book Society.