Pui Ying Wong: "Exploring the Possibilities of Language"
I met Pui Ying Wong a few weeks ago during a festive weekend in
Tim, a wonderful poet whom I met at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference in 1991, and Pui shared their joy with friends and relatives at a luncheon at Pete’s in downtown
I was also glad to discover Pui’s poetry, in two chapbooks, “Sonnet for a New Country” (Pudding House Publications, 2008) and “Mementos” (Finishing Line Press, New Women’s Voices Series, 2007). She also has a book collection forthcoming. Nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize, she has published poems in the Asian Pacific American Journal, Blue Fifth Review, China Press, DMQ Review, New World Poetry, New York Quarterly and Poetz.
In her work, she displays descriptive delicacy, power and precision, whether using forms like the sonnet or free verse. She recounts small yet surprisingly complex narratives that cover an enormous range of emotional territory. From the first poem of hers I read, I instantly recognized her as a poet of strong vision and individuality.
Tim was my first interview subject for “
Visiting My Sister in
Smog in the sky, bushfire burning outside
the city. The constellation has changed.
I’m under. The years peel off like old skin.
My sister sipping coffee, her eyes wide;
between us, a blooming walnut tree. Strange
all these fruits, maybe spring won’t go to ruin
after all. December, this side of world,
sprigs of green fruits round into each other.
It took us forever to count, moments
long enough to freeze a heartache— unfurl
and release. If memories can sever
from their roots, will they become sacrament
too like harvest fruits we put in a dish?
Cut one open, the meat is babyish.
1. You are part of
This is a difficult question to answer. Writers seem to move around more now than they have in the past, and this fluidity is expanding our understanding of each other. More than ever, we have access to many writers through the Internet and translation. For example, the Chinese writer Guo Xingjian (2000 Nobel Laureate) went to live in France in the 1980s and though his stories are often set in Communist China, his theme, an individual’s struggle against oppression, has relevancy everywhere. Good writing transcends ethnic and national boundaries. The Polish poet Adam Zagajewski lives in both
2. Your work adds to the oeuvre of Chinese writers like Ha Jin and Amy Tan. What special values do you and other Chinese writers bring to the literary landscape?
Ha Jin and Amy Tan’s backgrounds are as different as their concerns. Ha Jin lived in Communist-ruled
3. Unlike Jin, whose work reflects the experience of the Communist Chinese mainland, you grew up in hyper-capitalistic
I think lots of experiences influenced my writing, being raised in
4. Mainly through poems of Ezra Pound and James Wright, I’m aware of the ancient tradition of classic Chinese poetry, which combined sensory power with the discipline of strict forms. I see the same in your sonnets, in “Sonnet for a New Country” and other poems. Do you see yourself as part of that long tradition?
Other poets have spoken about freedom when writing in forms, when adherence to forms pushes you beyond what is available. I tend to agree. Writing in forms is one way for me to explore the many possibilities of language, but the same is true when I write in free verse which has its own inherent form as well. I think the sensory power in classic Chinese poetry comes from the density in language, which has to abide to forms. To me, the pleasure of classic Chinese poetry is in the visual lushness, and this has probably influenced me in my writing. But I also find contemporary Chinese poetry, like those by
5. Your poems often have the narrative symmetry of short stories, and “Blue Hedges” is a prose poem with a central character. Do you wish to write fiction?
The character in “Blue Hedges” was inspired by someone I met briefly while doing freelance work for a
6. You write in Chinese as well as English. In which Chinese dialect do you write, and do you see yourself as having a different consciousness in Chinese and English?
My native tongue is Cantonese and it is the dialect I am most fluent in. In written language Chinese understand each other regardless of the dialect since the characters are the same. Chinese characters are pictorial; often a character has an origin in a visual image. Therefore the word “house” also evokes an image reminiscent of the house. And this is one thing I love about the Chinese language. I remember when I was little I practiced writing the character “fly” which has the feathery strokes resembling birds in flight, or the character “rain” with dots like raindrops. This gives a sensory component to the language which is quite different than English.