THE SHORTLIST IN CONVERSATION | PUNEET DUTT AND PHOEBE WANG, PART 1

Puneet Dutt: I was drawn right away to the title and the cover of the book. Can you tell me about how those came to be? Did the title and cover come together after the manuscript was ready, or were these two elements something that you had an idea for as you wrote?

Phoebe Wang: Some form of the word ‘admittances’ or ‘admissions’ was part of the title from a very early stage. I think it was originally a title from one of the garden poems. The word has an interesting etymology; ad is the Latin preposition for ‘to’, and mittere means to send or to let go, and somehow the combination of the two resulted in a word that means the opposite of a missive or mission or sending out. Then there’s also the double meaning of ‘admit’, both to allow someone to enter a place and to acknowledge and to allow a truth or responsibility. That seemed to encapsulate the Canadian nation-state: we have allowed, or not allowed, many to make Canada a home while not acknowledging the culpabilities of our history and ongoing inequities towards marginalized communities and First Nations peoples.

As I felt the single word title did not adequately express that contradiction I included ‘requirements’, as later on I became a tutor and ESL teacher and was reflecting on what was being required of the next generation to enter its institutions. I’m not strong with titles and often prefer them to be as literal and flat-line as possible—to avoid misunderstanding when of course, no true understanding can be ever arrived at in poetry.

While I’d sent the designer and my publisher a number of possible images, the resulting cover was the work of the designer, Jennifer Griffith. Maps are one of the most prominent recurring images in this book. I loved the idea of a map that’s deliberately nonsensical, as it harkens to Champlain’s wishful and inaccurate maps. All mapmaking is in a sense, expectant.

 

PD: Your content grapples with the idea of places and geographies from many voices, how much of it was inspired by actual journeys and experiences that you have had? How much of it involved research?

PW: Travel is a huge source of culling images for me, especially the trips I made to Hong Kong when I was growing up to spend summers with my grandmother. The contrast between the placid river flats of the government town I grew up in, and the cacophony, heat and colour of Hong Kong made me wonder about what city felt more like home. Moving to the west coast, then to Toronto, I was continually looking for ways to orient myself, and poetry is one way that I can create time-markers.

Another way to create connections between place and time is research. I did a lot of it for this book, reading about history of places, gardens, structures, etc, looking particularly for subsumed stories, like how the Anishanaabe made offerings to the falls or what the Chinese and Japanese cannery workers in Steveston ate for lunch. I have a theory that these stories and histories are threaded in the air above us and in the soil, and that the more of them you know the more they tie you to the land.

 

PD: Additionally, on your Acknowledgments page, you write of your “hungry ancestors,” – how much of your writing has been pieced together about your family’s circumstances and in particular about your family’s migration? Was migration and ancestral history something that you initially wanted to explore? Or did you allow the words, that came to form the manuscript, to start out as an exploration without an intended central specificity/idea? What was the first spark or germ of an idea?

PW: I never set out deliberately to write about my family. In a bifurcated and blind-sided way it didn’t occur me that I might write about my heritage. My intention had been to write about the Canadian landscape the way the Group of Seven painted their world, and to write a garden book. ‘The Japanese Garden’ and ‘Yard Work’ were the earliest poems I wrote. They took several years, and gradually I saw that I could not absent myself or my family from these places. We were already implicated.

 

PD: The Globe and Mail writes of your work: “Another motif in Admission Requirements is paperwork – the demand for documentation necessary to establish one’s legitimacy in a new land.” I noticed the imagery of material things in juxtaposition with natural and geographical elements. Things like duvets, logoed shirts, LPs and magazines – what role do these elements play with the idea of migration? This element was interesting to me, because my work also included imagery of duvets and LPs, elements of material consumption that were necessary to conform, or at least feel as if one was fitting into a new world.

PW: Because my family moved often, these material things took on an additional significance beyond their daily use. It was not just my immediate family who moved—my grandparents also left their villages to larger cities in China and I heard a lot of stories about the attachment they had to furniture, pencil crayon sets, combs, records, etc. These become like totems, reminders of a different life and identity. We see it now, in the Syrian refugees crossing Europe with just one bag of personal belongings.

I agree with you that shopping and North American consumerism is one way in which newcomers can fit in, and at the same time, there’s a tendency to hold onto heirlooms and what Edith Wharton calls “bits of wreckage.” In some cultures, these material things are in fact documentation of one’s claim to land and are honoured—things like regalia, belts and carvings. These are the things we show to children when they ask about where they’re from and who they are, not passports and paper documents. No wonder they are the first things that are taken away when we wish to assimilate or eradicate a cultural group.

 

PD: I noticed the poems “Sudden Departures” and “Dufferin Grove Suites” have stanzas that begin on an entirely different page. Versus your poem “Gift Economies” that uses an image that appears to be a tree to separate stanzas, and other poems in the collection that continue a poem’s stanza onto the next page. As your work engages with geography and variety of stories and characters, can you explain the intended or unintended format of the distinct stanzas on a separate page? How did you decide to separate the stanzas into different pages? Were these originally separate poems or serial poems? Or was this an editorial decision that was made later? What were some other form considerations you have made? How important was the actual body and forms of the poems and how they looked on paper? I’m thinking about this because during research and interviews for my manuscript or discussing elements of immigration, the form of poetry and spaces stood in for the silences of what wasn’t shared.

PW: I play with a lot of form as a means to discover and manipulate the content of the poem. I believe each poem has to find its own form, and nothing was unintentional with this book. I thought a lot about how much a reader could absorb in a page. To have stanzas continue, without a break or white space, would imply visually that the narrative was unbroken. At times I wanted to suggest an interruption, as often stories or the storyteller are interrupted.

In a serial poem like “Dufferin Grove Suites” and “Gift Economies”, I wanted to convey that these poems were written over several visits and a longer period of time. I have other poems that use the stanzas to suggest garden patches, or patchwork, and I was interested in combining the English lyric forms with haiku and tanka forms. The feeling of the speaker of this book is controlled and deliberate—this is a speaker who has been surpressed, who chooses her words with caution and at times with anger. I wanted the reader to feel that restraint and deliberation in the formal choices, even if they didn’t understand the reason for them.

 

PD: In an interview with Open Book, you write that rewriting the entire manuscript took over five years, and involved including new poems after revisions. What was the editorial process like for you? How much was changed after each revision? Was there anything that did not make it into this manuscript that you absolutely loved? Would you share it with us? I know when I was working some poems were redacted in the final stages because of security concerns. Additionally, one poem that I loved did not make it into the manuscript, and was published elsewhere.

 PW: I rewrote the book every year until it was accepted for publication, and it was like an excavation process. I didn’t understand what many poems were about when I wrote them; I was holding myself back from saying what I really wanted to say. This is the attitude of the good guest, who does not want to embarrass her host. Then I would write new poems that did manage to break free of my sense of constraint, and so then I would try to make the rest of that manuscript as fresh and as honest as that newer work.

When I was working with Dionne Brand, she gave me a lot of permission, such as asking for more about my family, asking for more passion, and of course asking for more poems. There were also poems we cut, because they were not doing the work of saying what I meant to say; they were getting me from one place to another, or they were reiterating histories that had been told many times. I would always end up agreeing with her, in the end. Strangely these were also poems that had been highly praised by others, published or awarded.

I tended towards wordiness, and evasiveness, and to overusing certain words, in this manuscript. So the editing process was strenuous and not strenuous. We didn’t change the manuscript in a drastic way in terms of its overall concept. Instead it involved me going in to a poem like a surgeon and adjusting diction and snipping and suturing, which took a lot of concentration. I did most of it in the hour or two before I passed out after a day of tutoring and teaching ESL, and in that way I wouldn’t second guess myself and I could let my unconscious mind dwell on the changes and the poem’s new stitches smooth out.

 

PD: What are you currently working on? What are you reading?

PW: I’m currently working another series of poems about waking. Waking in a different city, waking while ill, waking in the aftermath of a disaster. They will be part of a new manuscript and somehow connect up with disappearing women, love in the end times, time travel and mad leaders—I’m not sure how but that’s part of the surprise.

I’m reading André Aciman’s essays and have a stack of new poetry by Laura Ritland, Stevie Howell, Klara du Plessis, Michelle Brown and Dani Couture to attend to. Also I don’t watch a lot of TV or film because a little goes a long way for me, but I’ve just finished a series called The Leftovers. Bleak, mysterious, parallel timelines and apocalyptical situations—so satisfying for a poet’s dire sensibilities.

Puneet Dutt’s The Better Monsters is shortlisted for the 2018 Raymond Souster Award.

Phoebe Wang’s collection Admission Requirements is shortlisted for the 2018 Gerald Lampert Memorial & Pat Lowther Memorial Awards.

See the full shortlists here.