Writers-in-Dialogue: Discussing Narrative Poetry with Ray Hsu and Fiona Tinwei Lam11 min read

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FIONA TINWEI LAM: The poems in Enter the Chrysanthemum are indeed meant to flow like events in a chain. Although the mostly lyric poems do represent discrete fragments of time and experience, there is a narrative arc within and between each of the four sections. Readers can certainly dip in and out of the book, choosing poems at random, but they will miss the overall emotional trajectory of the book.

The poems were organized into a loose sonata-like structure, with four interlocking “movements”, each building and spiralling upon the last. The epigraphs commencing each section set a tone or mood. The first section starts with poems about my father before his death and my mother’s struggle as a single parent during my childhood; the second section moves towards depicting my own journey into single motherhood. The third section develops these themes, while also riffing upon them.   Several dramatic monologues written from the perspectives of various female fairy tale characters were included in this section in order to investigate universal and potentially political ramifications of personal experience. I noticed that you used the screenplay form in your own book of poetry, Anthropy, by employing characters such as Walter Benjamin, James Dean and others to reveal certain truths about human experience.

Besides being a chronicle of a journey, this book is a tribute to my parents—and to parents and families in general—with all their flaws, passions, longings and struggles.

The last section returns to the themes of mother and father, and represents a recapitulation, a reconciliation, and a moving forward. The motif of the chrysanthemum serves as the frame for the collection, shifting from a symbol of loss and absence in the first section to one of grace in the last section. An additional frame is provided by the first and last poems of the book. Both poems focus on a child’s response to art. But again, there’s a shift: in the opening title poem, Chrysanthemum, the child is a passive witness to her mother’s artistry, whereas in the closing poem, Still, Life, the child is an active participant who transforms both reality and art through art itself.  Besides being a chronicle of a journey, this book is a tribute to my parents—and to parents and families in general—with all their flaws, passions, longings and struggles.

RAY: I’m curious to hear more about your poetic response to the musical structure of the sonata. I’ve recently had the opportunity to work with the Vancouver International Song Institute—and with students on interpreting poetry within song cycles–which sets existing poetry to music. Poet-critic Jason Guriel has written about how thinking about structure in poetry-books has devalued the poem as a standalone object, though I’m not sure I agree. As your book suggests, thinking about individual poems through their relationships to each other can create resonances that develop and riff. Can you tell me more about what inspired your musical approach to book structure? Has working in poetry challenged your sense of music?

FIONA: The structure for the sequencing of the poems occurred after most of the poems were written.  So I made the bricks first before I built the house. I had to toss out some that didn’t fit or didn’t work and write a few new ones.  The poems definitely can all stand alone (about half of them have been published as stand alone poems in literary journals, magazines and anthologies), but read together they have an additional effect.  As for my musical influences, my mother played several instruments, including classical piano and pipe organ. As a geeky introverted teen, I used to go home after school and listen to classical LPs from Readers’ Digest boxed sets that my mother collected. Although never a very good player, I also have returned to playing classical piano as an adult.  Music has informed my sense of rhythm, line, and image within discrete poems, and how I shape a group of poems—although not necessarily directly or consciously.

RAY: Your description of making bricks before building the house rings true for me for the following reason: I believe that there is something gained by allowing the contours of the house emerge over time rather than anticipating its shape and pattern. I think resisting the temptation to predict its structure can be very valuable. Do we claim to know answers before we’ve explored our questions? I hope not.

I’m thrilled to hear that my book of poetry has had a conceptual life of its own, much like a living being from whom I continue to learn.

FIONA:  I love your analogy of a book to a living being.  And I agree with you: spontaneity and surprise, whether arising from a poem or collection of poems, can be wonderful, whereas over-control and lack of risk-taking can be deadening.  Just as you continue to learn from your book, it was a real delight, a discovery, and a journey into attentiveness for me to see Enter the Chrysanthemum’s organic shape emerge.

RAY: I’m intrigued by your focus on narrative or musical progression as a way to reflect upon Anthropy. If I consider the book’s sections—”Third Person” to “Second Person” to “First Person”—as a movement, does the book suggest a progression from distanced and objectifying writing about someone towards a “subjective” expression of personhood? Are first-person forms of writing reconstructive? I suspect that I find narrative just as interesting as you do, even if we seem to respond quite differently to what it means to tell a story.

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