Creator to Creator: Jasmine Gui

For over three years I’ve known and worked with Jasmine, I’ve been surprised at how she constantly pushes the boundaries of her artistic practice. With words as her main tool, she’s been grappling with clay and paper pulp, bringing her moving hands on the keyboard to exert force, sculpt, and get dirty. After her recent Twenty-Five exhibition with Abby Ho, which was a poetry and paper cut visual collaboration, I became more curious about what the process has been for her hands as they teach themselves new skills, as well as her words as they take on forms beyond a simple blank page.

Read below as she talks about how poetry exists in her multidisciplinary practice, what presence her multiple languages have, and how she’s expanding her art. – Mirae.

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Mirae: Tell us about how poetry became a way of expression for you. How would you define your practice?

Jasmine: I think a lot about how expression is an act of ongoing translation. It’s an artificial and performative gesture that carries meaning from one person to another person. I am fascinated by how many factors and contexts have to be activated at the same time for meaning to carry and for a connection to be made. In some ways, I think the moment of understanding a poem is a miracle. To me, poetry is the most truthful way for me to translate an interiority that I don’t know how else to bring out into a public space or into relations with people. It’s a practice that allows me to breathe naturally, in spite of and against the social conditions and rituals I feel boxed into. In poetry, my language is as close as possible (depending on my abilities) to where my gut is, and in many ways I see that place as where I am most wonderfully me. My poetry practice oscillates around the way I comfortably inhabit that interstitial interior space between the public and private, and is always an attempt to ground that position in the space of a constructed poem.

from boke, illustration by Jacqueline Lai

Whenever I read boke and your other poems, I always think about how certain expressions recall an image or sentiment that I have only encountered through the Korean language. How does knowing Asian languages and having various cultural experiences inform your poetry, as well as the aesthetic of your poetry?

I mentioned before that poetry is a grounding of me in between the public and private realm. For me, English is the language of the public realm and Mandarin is the language of my private self. I emote, think, feel, and unfold much of the time within the context and history of the Chinese language. That’s probably why I see poetry as a literal act of translation as well. How can I bring that distinct sensibility—grounded in language that is tied distinctly to a certain constellation of spaces, a sprawling history and culture that continues to evolve and expand contemporarily—into my practice as an English poet. I sometimes call myself a place poet, or an urban folk poet. This is because Chinese folk informs a huge part of my aesthetic evolution, and I often study and try to reproduce their tendency to reframe banal details into reflections of complex interior emotional landscapes. A second layer to this is that I situate my work within a decolonial framework. My approach, however, is to—through creative and personal translation—decouple the metaphor and forge new kinds of connections that change the assumptions embedded into Poetry (as genre) by the dominance of White Male Colonial voice.

I have a vested interest in growing the lush vegetation of tropical jungles into my poems, invoking the specific ecologies and urban rhythms of the Southeast Asian region. I also build subtexts and references that are completely uninterested in the universal, weaving local mythologies, folktales and sayings into the conceptual space and the linguistic fabric of my poems. I want my poetry to perform to a rhythm that my gut understands.

pulling paper at Once Upon Water Artist-in-Residence as part of jabs collaboration

You have been interacting with a lot of other artistic practice, including clay sculptures and paper-making, and they require a more physical interaction with the medium. What has been that process like? How do these practices accompany or influence your poetry? 

I love working with my hands because they remind me that to be a creative person is to engage with yourself at every possible level. From claymaking and papermaking, I get to explore histories and contexts that have ancient presences in Chinese culture. It allows me to consider culture in the context of a longer view, and follow the traces of concepts, ideas and forms that are shifting over time and through space. These explorations give me more experiences to ground and grow my language in. They also keep me humble. We run the risk as writers of remaining in an echo chamber when it comes to craft – not without reason of course. The more attention we give our craft, the more we are able to nurture and refine it. However, I love a good shakeup to remind me that creativity by its own definition traverses and breaks boundaries. How can attention to the material, technical and bodied practice of craft in other mediums, expand my vocabulary and shape my sensibilities?

Jasmine’s hand-made clay cups

Since I am a poet, I look at language as both my material and my tool, so the more of it I have in abundance, the more choices I have to create. Crossing over into other genres has given me that much more perspective.

How do you think you’ve evolved as a poet over the years?

I’ve worked as an editor for the last five years, and an interdisciplinary artist for the last two. The editing experiences I’ve had have taught me a lot about being able to communicate and work through the performative nature of poetic language with another person. This awareness changes the way I think about my writing and the reader. It also makes me that much more obsessive as a poet. I have to practice an active balance of both writing and editing impulses in me. On the other hand, being an interdisciplinary artist gave me a profound appreciation and awareness for an object’s materiality. I now consider the book and the writing in it to be of equal value. This is why my preference is to work with artisanal bookmakers and to create small batch books that have clear traces of handiwork on them.

from jabs (Jasmine Gui and Abby Ho) collaboration for “Twenty Five”, 2019

You recently started Teh People, an interdisciplinary production studio, and been releasing projects like “Teh Talks” (which I’ve been enjoying a lot!) What were your intentions in starting this studio, and what are your hopes for its growth?

Teh People is my attempt at synthesis. In an age of professional compartmentalization, I find myself in tension with this idea that I have to label my skill sets separately to belong to different industry communities, or market my work in different ways. As much as I understand how it all “works”, there’s a stubborn streak in me that prefers to just do the thing as I like it, simply because it’s easier on my soul. Teh People in its current form is a soft pilot of this idea, where I identify simply as a producer – of art, events, conversations, programs, spaces etc. I do have a dream for it in a mature iteration, but I’m going to keep that information under wraps for now 😉

What are questions or themes you’ve been thinking about recently?

I tend to oscillate around nouns or verbs as entry points into linguistic explorations. boke was produced from the words, “rain”, “blue” and “walking”. If A Carp Dreams Of The Milky Way was about “galaxy”, “language”, “myth” and “drowning”. The current manuscript I’m working right now is anchored to “black”, “yellow” and “grief”. But in many ways, these words don’t settle into fixed positions until after I’ve completed a first draft. I write through a series of images that expand or contract around these words, and collage them together. The piecing and stitching together process feels most natural to me, and I sometimes refer fondly to my writing process as “frankensteinian”.

sneak of A Carp Dreams Of The Milky Way (@penrosepress)

What’s coming up next in your creative career?

If A Carp Dreams Of The Milky Way is a scroll chapbook created in partnership with Brianna and Natalie at Penrose Press. I emailed them back in January, feeling like they were one of the few people I knew in the city who were down to accept a manuscript idea that demanded a scroll form. Thankfully they were 150% invested in it and it’s really come into this world as this beautiful, tenderly assembled object. I’m very excited for it. The launch will probably happen around mid-September.

Lastly, what does being a part of the Canadian art scene mean to you?

To be part of the Canadian art scene for me is to grapple at the intersections of settler colonialism and diaspora. What does my struggle with my subjectivity mean in the work I do? I never want to sidestep the difficult questions for the sake of an easier narrative, nor do I want to wield art as an uncritical practice. If I am as committed to language as I claim to be, then my part in the art scene is to dismantle language that causes harm and to bring forth language that heals and restores.

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Get to know more about Project Coal here. And follow Jasmine on her website here.

New Creator to Creator feature every other Thursday!

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