I picture Jen Lam living a dual existence. By day she’s trapped in a cluttered office cubicle or a windowless law library perusing some obscure statute as a researcher for the Vancouver Association of Chinese Canadians (VACC). She’ll be wearing a white blouse and navy skirt circa 1962, perhaps a wig to hide her shaved head, maybe even horn-rimmed glasses. By night though, the demon-poet/entertainer within her will spread its leathery wings and she’ll break free. Forget the conservative clothes, the wig and glasses she’ll be wearing a black bustier, mini skirt and jungle boots as she hits the stage to alternately seduce and assault her audience.
Of course, I’m exaggerating–I hereby admit to spending years obsessed with bad horror/sci-fi comic books. So let’s explore the real Jen Lam experience.
Lam was born in Vancouver, December 26, 1973. Her parents emigrated here from Hong Kong via southemChina, and shehastwo younger sisters. Ruining my above mind picture, she actually does most of herVACCworkat home by computer. A Van Tech high school grad, she’ll be studying urban archeology at Simon Fraser University in the fall. She’s also just self-published a chapbook called Serial Cockroach.
Garrett Eng: In terms of your creative work, do you consider yourself a performance artist?
Jen Lam: No! No. I hate that term…spoken word artist is the only thing I can actually put on my shoulders and live with.
GE: But isn’t there an aspect of performing in what you do?
JL: Generally, for my readings–you know, when I’m doing open mike and all that–it just happens spontaneously. I do very little in terms of constructing a performance and rehearsing. I certainly learn the pieces by heart and work through them, but that’s also part of my writing process.
GE: What got you into poetry?
JL: I started doing this whole writing thing in high school, except I was like all into sci-fi. You know, I wrote sci-fi short stories. That was my thing. I was a totally big Philip K. Dick fan. I took creative writing but I just kinda dicked around. I had like forty poems due by the end of the term, so I did them the night before and totally aced the course. It wasn’t anything I took all that seriously.
GE: Does science fiction still get into your work or is it something you’ve grown out of?
JL: Every now and then I’ll find myself playing mad scientist. My first non-science fiction prose piece was like a combination of Douglas Coupland and Amy Tan–just to see how people would respond. It was actually written for a college creative writing class. I was the only non-white student in there-up in North Van at Cap College. I was supposed to be, like, this representative of the Chinese community. So I decided to do this Douglas Coupland/Amy Tan story and the class ate it up. They would not let me end the story where I ended it, they wanted me to keep writing. And I was like, you fuckers, I’ve got better things to do.
GE: So you never had a plan to become a poet?
JL: Who does? What poor sap actually plans to be a poet? No! I was in a band called Tank and we did fast metal be-bop. Wewould do like,”Welcome to the Jungle” as a polka, and shit like that. After awhile I just got tired of it and so in the middle of a song I started throwing in my poetry and everyone got pissed off. So I thought I’ll be my own band, dammit!
GE: What was your first reading like? You’d already been onstage with your band…
JL: My writing teacher in college was Bob Sherrin, who’s the editor of The Capilano Review, and he wanted to print that Douglas Coupland/Amy Tan story. So I got into The Capilano Review without realizing what it meant! My first reading was actually the launch of that issue. Before that, I’d never seen a poetry reading. i was there, just hangin’ out with my friends. Drinkin’ beer. The editors of sub-TERRAIN were there, the whole English department of Capilano College was there–and I didn’t know who the hell these people were. I thought they had nothing better to do on a Saturday night but go to a poetry reading. Losers! And so like everybody else was reading prose. I hate reading prose. I hate listening to people reading prose. So I did two minutes of my story and then I said fuck it, I’m going to read my poetry. So I read my poetry and it went really well and I was totally amazed. Somebody from sub-TERRAIN came over and asked me to submit stuff. And I was like, cool! I haven’t submitted any thing yet but…
GE: You’d rather publish your own chapbook?
JL: Yeah, publishing on my own. The whole, you know, getting into magazines and journals is not high on my list. They’re not how I really want to reach people. The community I met when I first started going onto poetry stages–everybody had their day jobs, you know, their real lives, and a lot of them were working with chapbooks. And I saw that this was how you left a bit of yourself with your audience.
GE: What’s it like being onstage?
JL: I have this awful stage fright. It’s like I’m always on the verge of puking. It’s really hard to explain why…it’s not so much being onstage that gets me, it’s that walk from my chair to the stage. I’m so aware of the audience. Everyone has their eyes on me and they’re watching me walk up to that stage–and they’re waiting for me to fuck up! I just know they are, the fuckers! And when I get up on the stage and I turn and look at the audience, there’s a split second where I know I’m in danger of fainting, I know I’m in danger of blowing chunks. I’ve just gotta keep myself composed for that split second. As soon as I get into the words, I’m fine, I’m flying.
GE: Do you take on some sort of onstage persona? Does your personality change once you get started with the words?
JL: It’s sort of a magnification of certain aspects of my personality. I become more obnoxious–if that’s even possible! I get louder, nothing embarrasses me. In “The Dogs Have Taken a Sabbatical” I talk about some ex-boyfriend pissing in my lap…
GE: Are you saying you wouldn’t be comfortable talking about that kind of stuff if you weren’t onstage?
JL: Not with the energy I do it with up there…there’s a rush that comes with being able to get people into the words with you. It’s totally a power thing.
GE: I’ve heard strippers talk about that sort of control/power thing, too…
JL: Totally. When I first started doing it, all I was doing was “sex savage poetry”. At that point, I had a number of friends who were doing phone sex, a couple who were peelers, and I had one friend in particular who was an escort. Women in the sex trade know that they have power and they’re willing to use it. They watch their power change people right in front of their eyes.
GE: Is sexuality still a big part of your writing?
JL: A lot of times when I talk about sex and write about sex it isn’t done to turn people on. There are a couple of pieces like “Mindfuck,” which plays with titillating people to that point and then turning around and slapping them in the face with a one-line joke.
GE: So you’re using the language of sexuality to provoke something in the audience…
JL: It’s a tool for me–especially being an Asian woman. I’m not even supposed to be able to spell the word “sex,” let alone enjoy it.
GE: Is being an Asian woman important to your work?
JL: It’s one of the reasons why I prefer readings, rather than people coming to me from the page. They can’t ignore the fact that I’m Asian. They see me and that’s that. Excuse the pun, but it colours the words differently.
GE: So what exactly are you trying to do to an audience? Is trying to provoke them more important than entertaining them?
JL: Of course I’m trying to entertain them. But part of entertaining them includes provoking them and getting them a bit pissed off at me. When people come back to see me, they have an expectation that this is not going to be a nice poetry reading. They’re going to be walking away disturbed sometimes–especially when I do hardcore shows.
GE: Hardcore in what way?
JL: Like Henry Rollins hardcore, like thrash metal …
GE: You take off your shirt and get a sweat going?
JL: I’m out there kick-boxing!
GE: So music’s still important to you?
JL: Everything I know about poetry I learned through music–how to use a melody, how to use rhythm to my advantage, how to bring an idea through a piece. Poetry is an oral tradition, you’ve gotta remember that. You know, I do not go up there and speak in a monotone. Delivery is a really big part of what I do. I mean, to be totally honest, I’m a decent writer–but I am not an incredible writer. The way I get remembered is through my delivery.
GE: If somebody just has your chapbook, would you suggest that he or she read it out loud?
JL: Yeah, it’s important to hear the rhythms. It’s the reason why I choose the words I do, why I construct my lines the way I do–it has to do with feeling the rhythm, feeling the movement from one sound to another. Not that that dictates what I write, but it dictates how I write. All my editing is done out loud.
GE: Do you use a tape recorder?
JL: No…if you just hang out with me at my house you’ll hear me chanting stuff over and over. For me, it’s a matter of playing around with words, hearing them.
GE: A lot of times when I read poetry I find I have to read it out loud because otherwise it’s kind of lifeless. It’s interesting to think that if someone takes your book and reads your poetry and gets your rhythms right, then they’re actually breathing and making sounds the same way you are, so that they’re really connecting to you on a physical level.
JL: Yeah, I read everybody’s stuff out loud. And the writers that I like, their words feel right in my mouth…I don’t understand a damn thing that Dylan Thomas says, but I love the way his words work!
GE: You were talking about chanting around the house, is there a typical way you write a piece?
JL: It comes and I grab it and I run with it. A lot of times I’ll be like passing the television and I’ll hear a couple of words, like at the end of a sentence. And they’ll trigger something and I’ll run to the nearest piece of paper to write them down. I have a shoebox filled with these little pieces of paper. I just play around with them until a piece works itself together…I try to stay away from a word processor until I’m ready to do a final draft.
GE: You do all your revisions by reading the piece out loud?
JL: Yeah, I’ll just read it out loud over and over again and make changes based on how I hear it, as opposed to how I want to present it.
GE: And your family’s used to this?
JL: They’re used to me yelling at the top of my lungs!
This #ThrowBackThursday article “The Jen Lam Experience” was written by Garrett Eng, originally published in Ricepaper Magazine’s Summer 1995 Issue, Volume 4, Number 2. Would you like to read more of these retro pieces? Stay tuned for more.