Eileen Chong is a Sydney poet who was born in Singapore. She is the author of eight books. Her most recent full-length collection, Rainforest, was published by Pitt Street Poetry in 2018. She has been shortlisted for the Anne Elder Award, the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, and twice for the Prime Minister’s Literary Award. Ahead of her poetry seminar as part of DWF18, Eileen shares advice on diving into the world of poetry.
Many writers and non-writers alike are scared of poetry; do you have any tips for those looking to write their first poems?
Poetry can be confronting, for several reasons. One of them is that most people first encounter poetry in a formal setting, for example, in the classroom. A poem is presented as a puzzle that possesses an answer. I don’t think all poems are necessarily puzzles, or that all poems have answers. Certainly, I feel that poems can try to be answers to questions, that poems can arise from a state of questioning, and a state of not-knowing. Poems can also be a way to talk about what frightens you, and sometimes that in itself can be intimidating. Enter into that uncertainty, don’t be afraid to say ‘I do not know’, and the poem will happen, because you are not pretending to know anything except the attempt to write the poem.
Can you recommend some poems for those new to poetry to read?
I recommend starting anywhere, and following your nose. One good poem will lead you to another, and another. There is no right or wrong way to read. What matters is that you read for pleasure, as well as for other reasons, like learning. If you enjoy a poem, read more by that poet. Look up who publishes alongside that poet, and read them. My first poetry was T.S. Eliot, which led me to Walt Whitman, which led me to Philip Levine, which led me to Li-Young Lee, which led me back to Tang dynasty poets such as Wang Wei and Du Fu, which led me to Li Qingzhao, etc etc. You see what I mean.
What has been the highlight of your career thus far?
One my first loves in life is teaching, and I always enjoy teaching poetry workshops in schools. My first book, Burning Rice, is on the New South Wales’ Higher School Certificate syllabus from 2019, and this has opened up more opportunities to visit schools to speak about my work. I believe we grow readers, and I also take my responsibility as a poet of colour in a predominantly white society seriously. It is important to have role models who look like you, and I hope that when someone who was like me reads my works, or hears me read, they think that they, too, can do it. That for me, is the highlight, that I can make some small difference to someone, in some way.
How can responding to the work of other poets help to improve your own poetry?
I strongly believe that poets must read poetry: to keep your finger on the pulse of what fellow poets have thought, and written about the world we all live in. It’s important to read outside of your experience, outside of your time, outside of your comfort zones. Reading widely fosters an open mind, empathy, and for me, it awakens an impulse to respond in my own words. It helps me to find my voice, if you like.
What can attendees expect to learn at your seminar?
I will take attendees through a reading list of poets from Li Qingzhao, Carol Ann Duffy, Jack Gilbert, William Carlos Williams, and show how I have responded to elements of poems by these poets in my own poems. I will also explore how one might write a poem based on questions and answers, and I will delve into ekphrastic poetry, which is how one can respond to artwork in poetry. It will be an open, generous, and joyous session and I am looking forward to sharing what I have learnt with you.
Eileen is running a poetry seminar on Sat 3 Nov, 12:30PM as part of DWF18.