Q & A with poet Eileen Chong

Having published four books in the last year alone and with another one on the way, one could say poet Eileen Chong is on a roll.

FOCUS caught up with the award winning poet ahead of her A Touch of Poetry talk at Castle Hill Library on Thursday, September 20, to chat about her work and what the future holds for her.

Q: Describe your style of poetry.

A: I am essentially a lyric poet. I seek to write poems that are crafted, heartfelt, evocative, and meaningful. I don’t often write very long poems. I love the sonnet; I love its containment, its brevity, and its compression. I mainly write in free verse; structure and rhyme does not come naturally to me, although it is important to me that a poem has a perfect synergy of sound, image, and heart.

Q: What sparked your love of poetry?

A: I have always loved reading and language. I have loved poetry since I was in high school; the first poem that made me sit up and take notice of what language could do was T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’. I was 16. I discovered modernism, I suppose. I then read everything of Eliot that I could find; I was quite disappointed with the heavy-handedness of Murder in the Cathedral, I must say.

Q: Which poets have inspired you?

A: I try to read as widely as I can. My key inspirations are Philip Levine, Sharon Olds, Li Qingzhao, Linda Gregg, Alice Oswald, Li-Young Lee, Judith Beveridge, Maggie Smith, Eavan Boland, Robert Lowell, Robert Hass, Derek Walcott, Gabriela Mistral, Bei Dao, Du Fu, Wang Wei, and so many more. I think it is important to read contemporary poets as well as poets who were writing from before.

Q: Where do you draw your inspiration for your work from?

A: I pay attention to the world around me. I seek out nature, art, music, and beauty, and I like to think of my poetry as a response to what moves me in life. I think it is important to live life fully. Boey Kim Cheng described me as primarily a poet of feeling. Jane Hirshfield, after meeting me recently, described me as a person without a shell. I try to maintain a great degree of openness to the world, and allow poetry to do what it must do.

Q: You’ve written numerous poetry books and won prizes for your work in an industry that is quite difficult to excel in. What do you attribute your success to?

A: While I possess inherited privilege as a person as Chinese descent who was born and educated in Singapore, and is therefore a native English speaker, I also write from the position of an Asian migrant who is marginalised in a field that is dominated and gatekept by white writers. It is tough to be a person of colour (POC) in this industry: if you don’t succeed, you worry it might be racism or ignorance; if you succeed, you worry that it might be tokenism.

I am very fortunate also to be middle-class, to live in a cosmopolitan city, to have a degree of financial security, to have access to technology, and to be part of a larger poetry community. Ultimately, there are a multitude of factors that determine success and many are beyond anyone’s control. The only one I can really determine is the work itself. And so I try to focus on the work: on producing poetry that is the best version of itself.

Q: What’s next?

A: 2018 has been a big year for me, with the publication of four books—a book of essays, poems and recipes (The Uncommon Feast, Recent Work Press), a full length poetry collection (Rainforest, Pitt Street Poetry), a collaborative book of poems and photographs with the photographer Charlene Winfred (Map-Making, Potts Point Press), and a chapbook of new poems (Dark Matter, International Poetry Studies Institute). I am working on my next book of poems, while also focusing on participating in literary festivals, and teaching poetry in schools.

Catch Eileen at Castle Hill Library on Thursday, September 20, at 6.30pm.

Find out more and book now at www.thehills.nsw.gov.au.

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