In Conversation With
Born in Singapore of Chinese descent, Eileen Chong is a poet and creative nonfiction writer based in Sydney, Australia. She writes about food, family, migration, love, and loss. The Singaporean-Australian poet Boey Kim Cheng has said that "Chong's work offers a poetry of feeling, rendered in luminous detail and language, alive to the sorrows and joys of daily living."
I first came across Chong's work when I reviewed her 2017 poetry collection Another Language for Tar River Poetry. It knocked me out. I wrote, "Eileen Chong's Another Language is a meditation on distance, a decade's worth of rich, textured reflection on what it has meant for her to leave home, in Singapore, and be reborn in Sydney. The migration has been both blessing and curse, and what has the power to collapse and intensify distance haunts and transfixes her: the force and the limits of memory, of human connection, of the senses, of words." We connected recently on the occasion of the publication of her newest poetry collection, Rainforest, which is her sixth book. – Tom Simpson
Tom Simpson: Tell us about Rainforest and what it was like to go home to Singapore for its launch.
Eileen Chong: Rainforest is my fourth book of new poems from Pitt Street Poetry. I feel like it is my most realized collection to date, and while it springs from my cultural and geographical origins, it also links the different experiences I have undergone and the different directions my work has grown towards. The 52 poems are divided into four sections: East, South, West, and North—the order of the cardinal directions in Chinese. I have lived in Sydney, Australia, for 12 years now. Yet my roots remain in Singapore, a tiny island on the equator. I see myself as a Singapore-born Australian poet of Chinese descent who is quite deeply Westernised, but also connected to my Chinese and South-East Asian heritage. It was important for me to bring the book back to Singapore, where it all began. I was very moved to have my family and close friends attend my launch, including my goddaughters for the first time as they are now old enough, as well as a surprise attendance from an ex-student of mine whom I taught years ago when she was 13.
TS: Who are some of the writers who have influenced you most, and who are some of the writers you're following closely now?
EC: As I say in my poem, ‘Compass’, ‘the first poetry of my undoing’ was verses from the Bible—I attended mission schools in Singapore from the ages of 5 to 18, although my family was not religious. At 16, I discovered T.S. Eliot, amongst other poets; at 19, Adrienne Rich. But it was likely reading Philip Levine at age 28, and then returning to the work of classical Chinese poets such as Du Fu, Wang Wei, Li Qingzhao, through the wonderful writer Boey Kim Cheng, and then my immersion in Australian work that has shaped my writing the most. My favourite poets now are Judith Beveridge, Sarah Holland-Batt, Bella Li, Linda Gregg, Melinda Smith, Jane Hirshfield, Bei Dao, Jennifer Chang, Alice Oswald, Felicity Plunkett, Jenny Xie, Judith Bishop, Ocean Vuong, Sarah Howe, Maggie Smith, Adam Aitken… I could go on. I try to read widely and voraciously; to be committed to the ebb and flow of the energy that is poetry.
TS: When you think about the challenges that women writers face in a male-dominated literary world, and the challenges that Asian and Australian writers face in a literary world dominated by voices in the U.S. and Europe, what comes to mind?
EC: I know that when I was growing up, I never imagined that it would be possible for me to one day be a writer at all, much less a poet. No poet I read in English (which is the only language I can read) looked like me, or was writing about the things I knew to be true. The established rules of what it means to be a poet, or what constitutes good writing, have been determined through the ages by those in power, who are more often than not white male gatekeepers. Australian writers today also find it hard to have their work read outside of Australia due to geographical distance and a lack of interest and awareness of antipodean concerns. So much of Australian literary inheritance is also shaped by its colonial heritage. I’d like to hear a wider diversity of voices from Asian-Australian writers; there is often an issue of representation—Asian-Australian writers have to struggle to be seen as writers in their own right within Australia. It's nearly impossible to think of being seen at all on the world stage. This is unfortunate for everyone—Asian-Australian writers have much to say that is interesting, valid, and powerful.
TS: You have published both poetry and creative nonfiction. Do you always have a clear sense, at the start of the writing process, about a piece's proper genre and form?
EC: I don’t often set out to write creative non-fiction—I see myself as a poet first and foremost. I think it is the medium that suits my writing the most. But every so often, I might find the need to elucidate my thoughts more directly, with more space—and that is when I turn to the lyric essay. In another life, I wished to be an academic. Today, I find academic writing extremely challenging; I no longer wish to write work framed by answers. I find that the more I write, the more questions I seem to uncover. Everything, for me, seems to be one long search for answers that may or may not exist.
TS: You write beautifully about food and cooking. Do you consider yourself a food writer? Do you see similarities between constructing poems and preparing meals?
EC: I don’t consider myself a food writer, really, although I write about food a lot in my poetry, and have now published The Uncommon Feast, a book of essays, poems, and recipes, with Recent Work Press. I feel like food, for me, is merely a vehicle of expression, of creativity, generosity, and nourishment. My maternal grandmother and my mother are both excellent cooks, and somewhere along the line, I became a fairly good cook as well. I do love eating and cooking; and if poetry is merely the ash of one’s life, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen, then it explains why I write so much about food. The job of cooking at home often falls to women; and it is my intention to witness, to acknowledge, and to celebrate this often unseen labour. My poems about food are rarely straightforward; what I strive for in my work is to have several layers of meaning, accessible to every kind of reader. In her introduction to The Uncommon Feast, Judith Beveridge puts it most succinctly: ‘A poem, like a well-executed recipe, becomes more than just the sum of its parts’.
TS: What's next for you?
EC: I’ve just completed the launch of a collaborative book, Map-Making, with the photographer Charlene Winfred. Map-Making is a limited edition book of photographs and poems about Singapore, and is the culmination of a 20-year dream for the both of us. All 100 copies were sold out prior to its release, which we are very thankful for. I’m so proud for the existence of this book; I truly believe that poetry can also exist as an artifact, and as a thing of beauty. It is also important to me that my poetry continues to engage with other art forms, and by extension, with a diverse audience.
I am a longlist judge for the University of Canberra’s Vice-Chancellor’s International Poetry Prize 2018, and as part of my participation in the associated Poetry on the Move Festival in September 2018, I will have a chapbook of 20 new poems released by Recent Work Press entitled Dark Matter. I am also working on my next full-length collection of poems. I’m quite surprised at the direction my new work is taking, and I am enjoying the poetic journey. To paraphrase Philip Levine, if you can do without poetry, poetry can certainly do without you. Poetry is necessary and urgent for me; each day that I can continue to read and write poetry is a day filled with joy and purpose. And I hope to be able to do this until the end of my life.