Consuming Poetry: Ya-Wen Ho
Poet, artist and zine innovator Ya-Wen Ho has just published her first volume of poetry, last edited [insert time here] with an international publishing house. Renee Liang gets inside her brain.
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I think I first noticed Ya-Wen because she’s about the same height as me. Also like me (dare I say it) she’s a quiet-looking Asian girl – that is until she takes the stage. Ya-Wen is well known on the Auckland poetry scene, with many performances at Poetry Live, Lounge, Rhythm and Verse and other poetry reading events. She’s also the editor of Potroast, a zine which specializes in publishing innovative new works in fiction, art and poetry. She has now published her first volume of poetry, last edited [insert time here] with a small international publishing house, Tinfish Press.
Why do you write?
The short answer is that I write to balance my consumption of culture.
The longer answer is, well, longer, but more informative. When I was young, my mother organised a Mandarin language class for me and the children of family friends. Our teacher would set us writing exercises every week and send those she deemed publishable to children's journals and magazines in Taiwan. My work was often published and my mother saved all my writer's fees towards 'something important you want to do in the future'. As I grew older, I became ineligible to send writing to these publications and slowly forgot about my early publishing experiences - I mean, I was what, eight, and these were poems and short-fiction pieces were about the loss of my pencil case or our family holiday or some other subject matter that I didn't really see the full value of at the time.
When I began writing again in university, my mother was like, 'oh, you've been doing that since you were little' and refreshed my memory with the scrapbook she had meticulously kept. Seeing those clippings crystallised something I was just starting to suspect: I can't settle for being a reader because it is too passive. Writing is an assertive act and I had reached the point where I was ready to assert myself. I write to synthesise all the culture I voraciously consume into something of my own that I can feed back into the conversation. I do not want non-participation to render me invisible again.
How do people react when you tell them you're a poet? (do you tell them you're a poet..?)
Hahaha. When people ask me what I do, I try to answer according to their level of interest and sincerity. This means I will tell some people that I am a poet, others that I am an artist or an economics graduate or a cat lady (I have many identities). Once it's known that I'm a poet, the conversation usually becomes a well-intended but sometimes awkward dance of trying to establish common ground. There exist many kinds of poetry and I have learnt not to be defensive when other people's expectations of what I write differ from my own perceptions of what I write. I have also learnt to be brave and try to establish early on in the conversation what the other person’s interests are. It's easier to start with the knowledge of what my conversation partner enjoys about language and try to give examples of how my favourite poets do or use or challenge those things rather than be caught in the awkwardness of them rattling off their favourite poets and me not having read them because I find that kind of poetry less interesting.
Do you only write poetry?
I write broadly, but the different strands inform each other. I also write to-do lists, shopping lists, complaint letters, essays, facebook posts, prose and copious numbers of emails. Of all my writing tasks, emails take the most of my time and energy but also make the biggest contribution to supporting my writing practice.
Do you call what you write poetry?
I do, with the wobbly heart of someone whose work seems well-received but feels under-qualified and under-read to deserve that success. I think I will always feel this way because I came by the form I am now most known for rather haphazardly. I had been invited to read as guest poet at Poetry Live and did not have enough fresh material to fill the allocated twenty minutes. At that point, I was also studying ENG323 Contemporary Poetry with Lisa Samuels and had just done a class on torque, a poetic technique that recontextualises words in unexpected ways. So I decided to write a poem using this technique: the last word or syllable of the preceding line becomes the first word or syllable of the following line. This simple rule gave me the flexibility to write a twenty-minute poem quickly out of readily-available found text and the results exceeded my expectations.
I'm curious... your long form poetry is a collection of wry, funny and wildly discombobulated thoughts, quotes and ideas - how do you go about writing one of these?
I gorge myself on as much material as I can for a while - a really accepting exposure to the world - things that float past my facebook timeline, current events, ad campaigns, snatches of conversation overheard on buses, lyrics, jargon, everything and anything. Everyone is bombarded with text like this all the time. The thing is to absorb it instead of blocking it out. Then I sit myself down in a library, set my first line and take the poem as far as it can go until my brain runs out of juice. If the poem needs to go further, I take a break and then press on.
Tell me about zines and chapbooks.
Ah, zines and chapbooks. I was just talking with a friend the other day about how elusive zines are. I discovered zines at university via Fiona Jack, my third-year tutor at Elam, and immediately fell in love with its values. Zines value agency, that is, someone's control of their own actions and forms of expression. It sounds silly because we live in a democracy with freedom of speech, but certain kinds of writing remain marginalised even under these happy circumstances, whether due to its content or its form of expression. Zines circulate writing and voices that would otherwise go unpublished and unheard. People have observed the future of zines with both pessimism and optimism. Some say zines have become detached from its historical roots as radical, subversive publishing while the buzz of zine activity seem to suggest a resurgence. Chapbooks, as I understand it, are a category of independently published books of a more literary inclination that often get talked about alongside zines because chapbooks also value agency and the DIY ethic.
Tell me about The Deformed Paper.
The Deformed Paper was a poetry broadsheet founded and published by Makyla Curtis. She essentially jump-started my writing practice by giving me something to write for. The Deformed Paper hugely impressed upon me the contribution one person can make to the vibrancy of the writing community by publishing a limited-edition two-sided page once a month. Being a part of that project has given me the courage to start my own publishing projects.
You've built quite a reputation for poetry performance. How does one get started?
Thanks! I think you're the first person to say I've got some kind of reputation for performing! I started as any untested poet starts - at open-mic evenings. More specifically, I started at Poetry Live, a well-established Auckland-based weekly poetry event that has welcomed many new voices to the stage. I was also lucky that my lecturers saw enough potential in my work to invite me to read at Lounge, a continuing project of the New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre (nzepc), Auckland University Press and Auckland University English Department. From these beginnings, I began reading at a variety of venues and occasions - whenever I could, wherever I could. It was immensely validating when I received payment for the first time for reading at Rhythm and Verse last year! It's also very humbling and encouraging when people invite me back for second readings.
How did your book, last edited [insert time here] come into being? How did you meet the publisher?
I met my publisher, Susan M. Schultz of Tinfish Press, at the Short Takes on Long Poems symposium at the University of Auckland in early 2012. It was my first symposium and I remember being extremely nervous about performing in front of such an esteemed group of writers and readers. I think all that adrenaline may have actually improved my performance - it was incredibly buzzy to be on that stage seeing smiles and appreciation from people I greatly admire. Susan and I started chatting over some nibbles during one of the breaks and she asked what the poem looked like on the page. I showed her. She said she'd consider publishing the work if I emailed her the digital manuscript. Embarrassingly, I dawdled for weeks revising the manuscript and almost didn't follow through because I thought I had missed my window of opportunity. I'm very thankful I ignored that fear and pressed that 'send' button! You can buy copies of last edited [insert time here] from the Tinfish Press online catalogue.
Have you got any tips for people who want to get independently published?
I am not probably the best person to give advice about becoming independently published because I was very fortunate to be invited to submit a manuscript. However, the advice I've been given by various industry speakers on the publishing course that I'm doing now is that they are more likely to publish an author with previous publishing history. So I would start by sending my work to journals and building up my credentials as a capable writer. Some good poetry journals to consider for new poets are Minarets, Potroast, Black Mail Press, Live Lines plus Turbine and all the University journals.
What are you working on next?
The next big thing in my life is publishing an unbound book titled lea phs. I dreamed this up when I simultaneously discovered Unity Wellington had broken up The Phaidon Archive of Graphic Design to sell as individual pages and that there existed a series of creative non-fiction titles instructing readers 'how to look at a painting'. I thought, a-ha, how cool it would be to have a 'how to enjoy experimental poetry' series done in the same unbound book format so I can publish works one page at a time to suit my laughably limited budget. I envisage each sheet to include a one-page poem accompanied by a critical text on the reverse side. Another really unique point about the lea phs project is that decisions are made in an open forum. If anyone reading this would like to participate in the planning and execution of an experimental writing project, get in touch!
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Ya-Wen can be seen in action in Auckland on National Poetry Day: Black Salt, 7pm Wed 14 Aug, $5 on the door. A number of notable poets will be reading.