I find it quite comical that when I google “Admission Requirements”, I get an endless list of post-secondary webpages. One of them reads: “What kind of applicant are you?” – a question that seems so mundane yet presumably necessary.
I remember hearing Phoebe share excerpts from her debut poetry collection Admission Requirements two years ago at a reading, and having the two words roam in my head within a mixture of my own narratives of migration and belonging. As someone who’s written very mediocre poems in high school, I am forever fascinated by what poets can do – playing with words to tell, imagine, and inquire; carrying us into realms and ordinaries with vulnerability. During this interview, when I learned about how Phoebe transitioned from drawing to writing as her main artistic form, I went back to her poetry and could immediately make that connection and recognize the influence in her words.
Read below as she shares her journey into and her relationship with poetry, plus who her “favourite” visual artist is (which now seems like a coincidence that I got to ask her this question). – Mirae
Can you tell us a brief background about your creative practice? How did your interest in poetry begin?
I began, actually, with drawing and painting because that’s the background my parents had. Lots of rainy weekends sitting around the table installed in front of a fruit bowl, doing colour wheels, copying Cézanne’s landscapes on a grid, things like that. I appreciate it so enormously now because, of course, that’s not how most Chinese-Canadian kids are brought up. It taught me to really look closely at things. From there it’s a small leap to poetry. I loved the privacy of it, the magic of language. As a child, I loved the idea of spells and incantations. You said a thing, named a thing, and could make the world and transfer an image to someone else. When I stopped believing in magic, the belief in poetry–as a means of invocation–stayed.
In a bio in Poetry in Voice, you describe yourself as “seek[ing] to heal the rifts of colonization and trauma with the timely language.” What do you think is the responsibility of words and languages, especially for an immigrant? How do you navigate these responsibilities as a “Canadian” writer and poet?
The responsibility is two-fold. First to one’s mother tongue, not to forget how much it is a part of you, how it colours the way you hear and see and taste and smell things. Then in English, or whatever is the language learned as a result of colonial systems – there is a responsibility to insert that other understandings into language as it’s currently employed. It’s to create fissures, stretch the language, plant quiet bombs within it. Poetry can call attention to the values embedded in language, explode them and bring them into the open, and then there can be an aftermath. As Leanne Simpson writes, “we are the singing remnants/left over after/the bomb went off in slow motion/over a century instead of a fractionated second.”
Who (usually) speaks in your poems?
It depends. In Admission Requirements, it’s a speaker who has been, up to this point, polite and in some ways, stifled through the gratitude that she feels she owes to the settler-colonial state. Different poems show the progression of her fury and her talk-back. Other poems, there is a collective voice, or a parental voice—usually the poem adopts the inner voice of a speaker who has been silent, up to now. I had thought this was my voice but now that I’m in midst of a new manuscript, there is a different speaker entirely. A scarier one, I think.
Do you have a poem of yours which you hold dearly in your heart? Could you share us a line from the poem?
“Sudden Departures” is a long-ish poems that tells the story of my parents’ meeting, a story I heard hundreds of times, snuggled on the couch with my sister. I am lucky to have this story, which is in a sense my answer to a familiar, othering question, “where are you from” :
“Useless to claim I, too, was nursed in this border hospital.
How I’d wished I had an envelope with the easy answer.”
In your debut poetry collection Admission Requirements, you share “stories of the land and searches for a secure sense of belonging”. What has been your journey navigating the land, and what is a safe space for you?
Long walks, reading history, listening to stories, looking at maps. No space is really safe if you’ve mined it this way. Rivers, rail flats, mall concourses—they all contain potential disruptions and explosions of memory.
What are questions or themes you’ve been thinking about recently?
Time–cyclical time, parallel time, how trauma repeats itself. What’s missing, such as women’s lives and records of their presences and how to eulogize, in particular, female artists and young Asian women whose lives were cut short, for one reason or another. Why it takes me so long to get up in the morning. Related to that: how to revamp the aubade, elegy form, etc. What it is we’re currently grieving for, collectively, and the current state of mental health among BIPOC artists and writers. What needs to change. What needs to sloughed off.
What can we look forward to, in your creative career, in the next few months?
A whole lot of incubating, really. I have a last burst of readings at universities (Trinity, York, UNB and Dalhousie) and few publications here and there, but I’m at an ebb tide. I’d like to do another chapbook, perhaps in the summer. And some essays on the questions from above. And I may be starting to draw and paint again, because I miss it, which is generally a good reason for doing something.
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