Retrospective: 2016 – A Poem in 3 Acts

As I take my digital labour of love – Classic Jenisms – into 2017, I have decided to take part in my first WordPress Discover Challenge.

In the spirit of a brand new year, the challenge is titled ‘Retrospective’, and the Editors are asking us bloggers to “look back over our past years’ worth of blogging… to build on or synthesize our best work of 2016”. Since I’ve only ever published prose on this blog, I figured that it’d be a nice change for me to write a ‘found’ poem using lines from my 10 most popular posts to date. For ease of reference, I have hyperlinked all of the lines to their original posts.

I hope you enjoy it, and in contrary to my customary urge of offering ‘literary critique’, I will leave you, dear readers, to ‘interpret’and glean from it whatever you will. 🙂

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Adventures with rogue lit journo Jen: Covering the HKU Open Forum on ‘How, What & Why Do Writers Write?’

“How do I write? Why do I write? What do I write? This is what I am writing: I am writing Mr. Potter. It begins this way; this is its first sentence: ‘Mr. Potter was my father, my father’s name was Mr. Potter.’ So much went into that one sentence; much happened before I settled on those eleven words.”

-Jamaica Kincaid, ‘Those Words That Echo… Echo… Echo Through Life’ (1999)

Two weeks ago, I went to a writer’s open forum hosted at the University of Hong Kong, titled ‘How, What and Why Do Writers Write? A Conversation between David Tang, Hannah Rothschild, Simon Winchester and Wilbur Smith’.

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(From left to right) Simon Winchester, Hannah Rothschild, David Tang, Wilbur Smith

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An Interview with Nicholas Wong, HK poet

We went to the West, away
from communist coxswains, but were whittled

to sculptures called ‘second-tier citizens’,
second to terriers

– Nicholas YB Wong, ‘Postcolonial Zoology’ (2012)

 

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Nicholas Wong, HK poet and “firestarter”

In my second episode of ‘Litera-chats with Jen’, I talk to home-grown poet and scholar Nicholas Wong Yu Bon about the beginnings of his interest in poetry, his creative writing process and the state of reading and literature in Hong Kong today.

Considered a “radically inventive” writer and “the future of poetry” by Ravi Shankar, Pushcart Prize winning poet and Founding Editor of Drunken Boat, Nicholas has published his works in a number of literary journals, in addition to two collections – Cities of Sameness (2012) and Crevasse (2015). He is currently on the 2016 Writers list of the Hong Kong International Literary Festival.

Aside from being a poet, Nic is also a Fellow at the Hong Kong Institute of Education, where he teaches contemporary poetry, creative writing, film and gender studies.

Oh, and if T.S. Eliot and Allen Ginsberg had a baby, I feel like it’d be him.

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‘These are my confessions’

 

“When I try to analyse my own cravings, motives, actions and so forth, I surrender to a sort of retrospective imagination which feeds the analytic faculty with boundless alternatives and which causes each visualised route to fork and re-fork without end in the maddeningly complex prospect of my past.”

– Vladmir Nabokov, Lolita (1959), p.12

I hate it when my mind draws a blank.

 

 

 

 

This is especially maddening when I’m in the mood to write, which doesn’t happen too regularly these days. John Updike’s advice to aspiring writers is to write every day, however short the length or trivial the content, while Jonathan Safran Foer’s weekly routine consists of waking up at 4 am so that he could write for two hours before going to work. The fact that they practised what they preached is also what makes them Updike and Safran Foer, two of the best authors to have come out of the American post-war literati. To them, writing itself is religion, and the act of writing comparable to that of prayer.

Ideally, I’d follow in their footsteps, but the lure of sloth and sleep too often precludes my pursuit of more writerly ambitions. Regardless, I still keep a journal, which helps curb my laziness on the pen-moving front.

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Why I Write the Way I Write: Part II

Part II: The anxieties I’ve faced & the changes I’ve made in developing my style 

“Literature’s worth lies in its power of mystification, in mystification it has its truth; therefore a fake, as the mystification of a mystification, is tantamount to a truth squared.”

– Italo Calvino, If on a winter’s night a traveller (1980)

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The look I’d get whenever I used words like “obsequious” or “nefarious” when “brown-nosing” and “wicked” would have sufficed

“Tennyson’s aesthetical imperative renders the emotional expression in ‘Mariana’ an effusive endeavour.”

That’s the title I came up with for my first ever undergraduate essay.

If you don’t understand what it means, then congrats – you’re perfectly normal. I’ll also let you in on an embarrassing secret: I didn’t, and still don’t quite know what that sentence means. Being classic Jen, however, I went ahead and waxed faux scholarship on Tennyson anyway, thinking that my gung-ho efforts marked the instauration of a path to glorious professorship.

Eh, fat chance. The feedback that I got from my tutor Hannah was at best a kind of baffled bemusement, and at worst the worldly disdain of someone who’s ‘seen it all before’. Let’s just say it took me an entire year to convince her the way I write isn’t symptomatic of a “worrying lack of conceptual rigour” – a comment which I received in my first term report. And a most sobering one at that.

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Why I Write the Way I Write: Part I

Part I: What it means to be an accessible writer

…Poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult. Our civilization comprehends great variety and complexity, and this variety and complexity, playing upon a refined sensibility, must produce various and complex results. The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning.

– T.S. Eliot, ‘On the Metaphysical Poets’, first published in the Times Literary Supplement, October 1921

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No apple pie; that postcard is just about the most ‘American’ item I own (It’s a collage titled ‘I Was A Rich Man’s Plaything’, 1924, by Eduardo Paolozzi)

“I don’t understand it.”

“It’s just not very accessible.”

I’m often told either/both about my writing: the content eludes, the style obscures, the tone inflates. Jen, piss off with your pretentious patter, please; that self-indulgent bombast of yours, eugh.

Well, fair.

Three years ago, my slightly more defensive self would have dismissed these as ad hominem remarks, purposely made to make me feel bad about myself because WHAT DO YOU MEAN I CAN’T WRITE WORTH SHIT. These days though, I tend to take them on board as instructive feedback. I’ve never been a sucker for clichés, but it takes two to tango, and so goes the relationship between a writer and his/her readers, I guess.

Or maybe now that my readers are no longer college tutors paid to hear students spew feel-good BS on a weekly basis, but real people in real life, I’ve come to be more aware of my stylistic quirks and flaws.

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Wrestling with Restlessness & Writing

“I do not read today what I wrote yesterday; nor shall I read this tomorrow. I write simply so my hand can move, my thoughts move of their own accord. I write to kill a sleepless hour.”

– Hjalmar Söderberg, Doctor Glas, 1905

“Mortality – seems like the sort of chat that’s just everywhere now, doesn’t it?” (Overheard at Waterstones, Oxford)

These days I find myself restless – or rather, restlessly wavering between the states of inactivity and restlessness.

Re the Scotland travelogue that I promised, I suppose I owe everyone (or anyone who cares) an apology. The truth is, I’ve transcribed and truncated that 20,000-word narrative, only to realise that it contains too many private thoughts and resonances for me to post on a public platform like WordPress. I could excise and revise, but then what’s leftover would essentially be a second-rate, overly rhetorical Lonely Planet-esque entry – i.e. meaningless.

After all, you don’t come to my blog for travel tips or itinerary suggestions, because it’s not intended for that. Not really. It’s shamelessly lyrical*, and therefore shamelessly non-objective in content. So, I’m putting my Scotland travelogue on the back burner, at least for now. If I ever, in the future, find a way to separate the personal from the public in those journal entries, then perhaps you’ll see them digitalised in full excised glory.

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