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In Conversation with Mary Jean Chan

Mary Jean Chan is the current Judith E. Wilson Poetry Fellow at the Cambridge Faculty of

English and a Bye Fellow at Murray Edwards College. Their debut collection, Flèche (Faber,

2019), was the recipient of the Costa Book Award for Poetry and was shortlisted for the

International Dylan Thomas Prize, the John Pollard Foundation International Poetry Prize,

and the Jhalak Prize amongst others. Last year, Chan’s second collection, Bright Fear

(Faber, 2023), was met with similar acclaim, recently appearing in the shortlist for the 2024

Writers’ Prize. Here, we discuss fear, hope, and poetry as a capacious home for


Portrait of Mary Jean Chan, by Ray Burmiston

Hope Nicholson: I want to talk about Bright Fear, firstly about the title, which might seem

oxymoronic, especially with the Faber cover which is a beautiful, light yellow. There are a

couple of poems in the collection with that title – did they come first and then you realised

that it summed everything up? How do you see the title working with the text as a whole?

Mary Jean Chan: Thank you for picking up on that. So the poem came first. ‘Bright Fear (I)’ was the first poem that had that title, and then I realised that ‘Bright Fear (II)’, which was

called something else, was speaking to similar things and had the ability to carry what a title

poem needed to carry. So ‘Bright Fear (I)’ and ‘Bright Fear (II)’ work together. Then it was my assistant editor at Faber, Lavinia Singer who, in one of her initial responses to some of the works in progress, said that Bright Fear could be a potential contender for the overall title. It was a working title, but I was really open to changing it and seeing what else would work. Once I finished the first full draft, I realised that Bright Fear worked well in terms of speaking very directly to certain things like fear. That word, fear, was almost the thing I was surer of because that was so salient during that entire period I was writing the book. Also, I had come across a quote from Anne Carson that's now one of the epigraphs – Who can invent a new fear? – and I was just so captivated by that idea of new fears, but also old fears and what that means. There's a line in one of Audre Lorde’s essays called ‘Poetry is not a Luxury’ which talks about how “we suffer the old longings, [and] battle the old warnings and fears”. So the idea of new and old fears and whether they're actually that new was interesting to me, and yet I knew that I didn't want a book that was just about fear and despair. Despite the fact that things were so heavy, especially during the lockdowns, the moments of joy and

reprieve also felt much sharper in contrast.

HN: Lots of people spoke in the pandemic about finding joy in different things during such a

dark time.

MJC: Exactly. A ray of sunlight hitting the wall on a building that I would walk past every day felt like such a significant event, whereas I normally wouldn't even have noticed it, so that idea of brightness became increasingly important to the collection. I thought that Bright Fear could also be read as the brightness modifying the fear, in that the fear can be so salient that it's glowing. The fear is bright itself. But then I also wanted brightness and fear to coexist and contrast with one another. So the title is hopefully doing several things.

HN: I saw that because, as you said, there's a lot of fear and sadness in the collection, but

it’s not one note. In that Audre Lorde essay, she speaks a lot about imagination and poetry

being this means of escape and of dreaming up a future. I noticed that you have lots of

poems which are dreams. Is that just a trope which has come up naturally for you, or do you

like to use the dream as a certain frame to help you reimagine real life?

MJC: I do think it's doing two things. On the one hand, I feel like there is this tendency for

people to read work by women or non-binary folk or queer folk as testimonials or as

autobiography. So I do want to add moments where the speaker says, this is not what

happened, this is a dream, or this is autofiction or fiction. But there's also an element of, as

you say, dreaming up what has not been possible, but might be in the future. It's funny

because I was preparing for something the other day, and was revisiting a poem in Flèche

that I’ve never read out at poetry events. It's called ‘Splitting’. There are two lines towards

the end that say “she wondered if any / of the joy would become apparent / in a future poem

of hers”. And I realised that some of the joyful poems that were possible in Bright Fear had

not been possible in Flèche, but I have now written the joy.

HN: A prophecy in a way?

MJC: In a strange way, yes, or a hope. The desire becomes a kind of dreaming, but a lucid

dreaming in real life where you do things that will hopefully make that dream possible. It's not wishful thinking – you actually take action to change things. Audre Lorde talks about that. It's about allowing feelings a space alongside thinking, because feelings are just as real as thought. Allowing yourself to feel can change how you live your life.

HN: It’s feeling as revolution. Poetry often has a reputation of being very insular and not

having an impact on the world, whereas what your poetry does is look outwards.

MJC: I hope so.

HN: Maybe we could just dwell on ‘Splitting’ for a moment, because you use that split form in Bright Fear as well.

MJC: I was very captivated by how Emily Berry uses it in her second book, Stranger, Baby.

She has a poem called ‘Aura’ and there's only one line towards the end that actually

connects, because she's talking about a lack of separation between the speaker and her

mother. That poem is almost like a haunting where the mother is either outside of the poet

because she's not there anymore, or she has been internalised. I’m just so captivated by the

idea of the internal and external, and whether there's any boundary between that. But of

course, there is this split between the daughter and the mother in Berry’s poem. I was very

influenced by Emily Berry as I wrote both Flèche and Bright Fear. When I was writing

‘Splitting’, I wanted the sense of that gap between the mother and the daughter, the psychic

gap, maybe not so much the physical because they’re actually inhabiting the same space

within the poem. But also, I talk about “love / and its absences”, and how “truth is a sky / that burns dark / with all its hidden stars / missed items / the poet has now / singed so diligently / from the page”. So I'm sort of saying with this gap in the middle of the poem that there are things that the reader is not privy to, there is perhaps a lot of joy and a lot of love that the reader can't see because I haven't written it. It's too much, or it's too difficult or complex. The form of the poem is signalling that there is a gap here, but hopefully in the future, the poet can write into that gap.

HN: Which, as you said, future poems can attest to. When you use that form again in Bright

Fear, does it connect to this original ‘Splitting’ poem or do you find that it helps your writing in a different way?

MJC: I think because this form has been so effective for me in the past, I remember it as a

kind of poetic possibility. In both these poems [‘imperfection’s school’ and ‘Ars Poetica IV’], I

think they're doing something slightly different. In ‘imperfection’s school’, I am trying to mirror that feeling of reading with a lover who is dyslexic. So the lover in this poem sometimes will stumble over words or pause before they are able to articulate the next word. Then the act of passing the book back and forth as we're reading to one another, that I wanted to mirror in the poem. But also, that hesitation is reflecting on this idea of what is ‘perfect’ and ‘imperfect’. Obviously, those are just relative terms, but they are also highly oppressive. Thinking back to the education I received in Hong Kong where there was very little room for this kind of neuro-divergence, and wondering how that can impact a child’s growth and development. Had I been dyslexic, I might have never found my way to poetry because I would have been so discouraged from the start.

HN: And poetry often, I think, works with neuro-divergence.

MJC: It really does.. So I think there are multiple layers here. I wanted to invite the reader to

reflect on this idea of external pressures causing a rift within people and how we see

ourselves […] I think the form mirrors that kind of conflict – you want to be a good student,

you want to excel, but you're also struggling. In ‘Ars Poetica IV’, it’s a bit more straightforward. This idea of being distant from poetry (hence the rupture in the middle of the poem) begins with the speaker thinking back to when they were eighteen, and actually, they weren't a poet yet, though they loved reading poetry. I was thinking about how being distant from poetry also meant I was distant from myself. As a closeted person, I couldn't access certain feelings. I didn't realise poetry was not a luxury. I didn't realise that feelings mattered. I didn't realise queerness was a possibility. So it's that internal rift. But then, towards the end, there is a kind of grasping onto the idea that a line of poetry is going to “bring back the hallelujah”. I remember reading Mary Oliver, and I go to her when I'm in need of some kind of solace that's deeper than intelligence, or just something that's simply life-giving, and I was thinking that a line of poetry can do that. She has a poem called ‘Wild Geese’ and the first line begins “You do not have to be good”. It has so many meanings: goodness in terms of morality, but also, you don't have to be perfect, you don't have to be straight etc. There are so many echoes in that one line, and it's such a beautiful and profound poem. So ‘Ars Poetica IV’ is about reflecting on how poetry was once so far from the speaker, but now it's an integral part of their life.

HN: And on the theme of queerness, and queer poetry, we see in the collection an enacted

literal idea of queerness with this figure of the partner, so it's a narrative in a sense, but you

also refer to “the queer poem” [‘Ars Poetica XVI’] as if it’s a sub-genre. I know you did an

anthology of queer poems as well called 100 Queer Poems, so I wondered if you could talk

about what “the queer poem” means to you?

MJC: I was writing that poem at a time when Andrew McMillan and I were writing our

introductions to the anthology, and we were asking ourselves, what makes a poem queer? Is

it just that the poet is queer, or self-identifies as such? Or is there some kind of element that

makes a poem queer? I think it's a question that we're still asking ourselves, but of course, it

has something to do with refusing categories, and has something to do with refusing certain

received norms or normative frameworks. Oddly enough, maybe because it's a complex

question to answer, I quote a lot from other people [in ‘Ars Poetica XVI’]. So this is a poem

that's highly intertextual. I quote from Sara Ahmed, Billy-Ray Belcourt…I was intrigued by

Ahmed’s notion of race also being queer. I think sometimes people would think that’s

pushing it too far, but it's true because if you see whiteness as the straight line, then those

who aren't white deviate from that straight line. I think that's a powerful way to think about

what it means to be racialized in a world that obviously treats the global majority differently. I also like this idea of Billy-Ray Belcourt saying that poetry is “creaturely”. I like the idea of a

poem being alive, almost like an animal, like a dog – you could love it as much as you love

your golden retriever. Or it could be as real as a tree. That gives me comfort, because you

wouldn't look at a tree and think, “you're so ugly, you need to be more like this other tree next to you”.

HN: Uniqueness is seen as a good thing.

MJC: Exactly – it is what it is. I think that's something that a queer poem gives me. This is a

prose poem and you don't look at it and think “you shouldn’t be a prose poem. You should be

a sestina”. It’s funny because I'm saying this and I don't think I realised this, but that’s the

underlying feeling. And then finally, José Esteban Muñoz, when he says that “queerness

exists for us as an ideality that can be distilled from the past and used to imagine a future”.

He says in his book that queerness is something that has never arrived. It’s a utopia that we

haven't reached yet. And maybe he was writing at a time when it seemed like we would

never reach it and maybe one day, we will. But I like that idea of a queer poem being

fundamentally hopeful and open to possibilities. It doesn't say, “because this is what

happened in the past, this is what it will be in the future”. It's a radically hopeful thing. I think Adrienne Rich once said something about a “wild patience”. What are you patient for? You’re patient for something that you hope might be possible in the future, but the “wild patience” means that there is passion, that there is some kind of energy behind it. So you're not just passively waiting for that future, you're going to do something about it.

HN: On this topic of intertextuality, I noticed that at the end of both your books, you have a

Notes section where you attribute your references and inspirations. Does drawing on other

poets feel like active research, given your academic background, or does it feel more


MJC: I think, for me, it doesn't feel as academic. Obviously, if I'm reading Sarah Ahmed’s

Queer Phenomonology, there is a sense that I'm going to a book that is more theoretical. But

fundamentally, I think the spirit in which I'm going to these people is not, “oh, I need to cite

Sara Ahmed”. It feels more like, “I need you to help me think through this”. So it feels like an

act of mutual support, it feels like a genuine exchange of ideas, and some of these people I

quote from are friends, or people who I admire and know. So it just feels so generous that

they've given me something that I can then use to aid my thinking. It is an act of generosity

on their part, and I'm simply continuing the conversation. It's like I'm talking to them, but

we're not in the same room. I also do reviews, but that feels less organic, somehow, more

polished, because I’m writing an essay in response to someone’s monograph, for example.

This is more porous in a way, like I'm just taking a little gem, or a moment of insight or a

feeling even, and making it my own. For example, Elizabeth Bishop’s idea of the “inscrutable

house” in one of her poems called ‘Sestina’, I've always been fascinated by that. What does

it mean when a house is inscrutable? Does it mean that the inhabitants are inscrutable? I've

been always fascinated by houses and interiors. So the way I engage with these writers and

thinkers feels less academic, but I wouldn't say it's not rigorous, if that makes sense. I think

it's still a lot to do with thinking through concepts and ideas, but not in a way that feels devoid of emotion.

HN: It's sort of a symbiotic relationship.

MJC: Exactly, but that’s not to say that academic work can't be done with the same spirit of


HN: I think queer theory is so refreshing as what is academic is often also personal. For

Judith Butler, for example, the personal isn't an issue, it doesn't conflict with the theory itself, but is actually integral to it. On that idea of a house or home, I love the line, “here is home, in the long poem / of our lives” at the end of the ‘Ars Poetica’ sequence. You write a lot about identity and dual identity. Is poetry a way of dealing with that identity and finding somewhere where you feel like you don't have to split yourself?

MJC: I think poetry is a safe space for me, which I have written about in Flèche, but it is also

a home, because, as I say in that poem, “Home, my therapist suggests, is where / you don't

have to explain yourself”. I do feel in poetry that the speaker can hold multiple contradictions

at once. There is no need to reconcile anything. Specifically, this has to do with the way

poetry functions, by way of juxtaposition, associative leaps of the imagination. You have a

line break, and then the next line doesn't necessarily even have to follow on from the

previous line in a narrative sense. There has to be some kind of association, but it could be

an association of colour or smell or touch, it doesn't even have to be a logical association.

It's surrealist in a way. In the way that some of the paintings that I increasingly love by

Magritte or Miró, it's what you're able to imagine could exist side-by-side – an apple in a

desert, for example. But that's kind of what a poem is, and that's useful when I'm trying to

navigate things that are fundamentally contradictory, or there's a tension between two things

and yet, I want to hold both truths at the same time. So where do you put those truths that

are messy, and for the time being irreconcilable? In a poem. It is literally a container. It is a

bench. In an interview the American poet Nikki Giovanni said, “Love is a bench”, because

you can sit on it. For me, poetry is a bench. I can sit on it. I can trust it. I don't have to contort

myself or split.

HN: Yes, poetry can be a restful place. But there are also a lot of uncomfortable aspects of

your poetry in this collection. It’s full of voices, and often these voices are shocking in their

ignorance. For me, it felt that another element of this “Bright Fear” is fearing these

conversations. Going back to the idea of poetry as revolutionary [Lorde], how much do you

think about the reception of your poems and changing other people’s opinion? You’ve written

about a sense of frustration at having to constantly be a voice or representative of a certain

group. How do you navigate that expectation?

MJC: Honestly, I think I navigate it as best as I can, because sometimes it genuinely

depends on how much emotional strength I have that day. There's so much I've experienced

that I’ve obviously not put in this book, because in some ways, less is more. Something

more subtle makes a stronger point than if I said: someone wrote me a really long email

essentially telling me that racism towards Chinese people doesn't exist anymore. It's

incredibly frustrating, and sometimes the only response is to cry about it for a bit, then talk to a close friend, then move on. Or there are some experiences that aren't exactly harmful, but they were uncomfortable. For example, that scenario [referenced in ‘EDI for Migrants (II)’] where you're in a supposedly celebratory space, it’s Chinese New Year, you're there to

celebrate Chinese culture, but then you get told something like, “Oh, thank you for helping

me understand that things are hard for you”. And I think to myself, “You're being very nice to

me, and you haven't actually said anything problematic”, but it oddly then reminds me of all

the other things I’ve experienced that this person has no idea about, and I'm not going to say

that to this person, because they don't need to hear it, etc. It’s not their fault. So that then

made me reflect on the idea of how heavy it can sometimes feel to be tokenized, because

you feel that you have that one opportunity to clarify something that is your issue to clarify.

HN: You become the voice of a group.

MJC: Exactly. It's like, “oh, not all Chinese people are the same”. Sometimes you think that

there are some things you don't have to say aloud, but it turns out at a particular Q&A that

someone asks you to read a poem in Chinese, which I do mention in the book, and having

clarified that the person actually doesn’t speak Chinese, it turns out that they only want to

hear the “music of [your] language”. What do you do with that? These are realities that I think all racialized poets have to navigate. Especially in my case, because I am bilingual, I am

from Hong Kong, Cantonese is my mother tongue. […] So I think the reality of having books

in the world is that you do become more exposed to things that normally you wouldn't be.

Sometimes it is tricky, which is why I think it's really good that we're having more

conversations about these issues. Cathy Park Hong wrote this book called Minor Feelings,

it’s mainly about being Asian-American. That book was very helpful for me in thinking

through some of the things I've experienced in the UK, even though these are two

completely different cultural contexts. […] I think the pandemic also made me realise that the racism that folks had already experienced pre-pandemic became much more crystallised

around COVID. There was so much going on with COVID racism, but I also realised that a

lot of people didn't realise it was happening. In poetry, I touch on things that matter to me,

and I'm not going to shy away from that.

HN: ‘The Translator’, for me, felt like it was the culmination of all the poems which deal with

language and identity in Bright Fear. Suddenly here’s a moment of realisation of what

language can be. To quote from the poem: “language no longer meaning / rift or sorrow, but

its opposite”. We have spoken about bilingualism, but what does this specific role of ‘the

translator’ mean to you and your writing?

MJC: This idea of translation has become increasingly compelling to me because I think I've

always been doing it in some ways. […] Oddly enough, ‘The Translator’ is a very old poem

from 2017. A different version was published in my pamphlet, and I left the poem out of

Flèche. I looked at it again as I was putting together my second book because a close friend

of mine who is a polyglot and translator said she loved the poem, and I felt that this was a

hopeful poem, but I wasn't really saying what I meant there. The idea of the translator hadn't

really come through in the older version, and I realised that actually, years later, it might fit

into Bright Fear if I rewrote it. It makes sense […] this idea of translating between cultures,

translating between languages. Being bilingual, I often have to translate myself to myself. I

have to translate my life here in the UK to my life back in Hong Kong, where I'm speaking

Cantonese, where I'm not inhabiting a life where I'm predominantly a poet – I'm

predominantly, in that context, someone’s child. I'm there to inhabit a younger self, because

we do regress when we go back home. Yet, when I come back here, I have to translate my

current life in Hong Kong back to this reality where I have written two books, it turns out. I

sometimes see them as parallel lives. It’s kind of strange that I could live in one and almost

forget about the other, because they each have their own rules. I'm so privileged to be

inhabiting these two realities, although it’s not great for my carbon footprint. Increasingly, I

realise translation is so integral to how I live. For a while, during my twenties, I didn't

translate. I just tried to keep these two lives very separate. Now, with translation, and with

this desire to translate, I'm bridging that emotional gap. Increasingly, I'm interested in

multilingualism, because I think that this is my reality, so why do I have to not think about

Chinese? When I was editing this book especially, I was listening to a lot of Cantopop songs.

[…] But it's funny because the younger me was trying to acquire English as a second

language and rejected Cantonese songs. Now I know that I can write in English and be

editing Bright Fear and listening to Cantopop because these two languages are integral to

who I am. The musicality of Cantonese as a language has actually inspired some of the

rhyming and the music in this book in subtle ways.

HN: I liked the poem where you speak about Shanghainese and Cantonese [‘How it Must be

Said’]. It seems almost revelatory that there is another figure who is having to deal with the

politics of language, a task which can often feel very isolating.

MJC: Cantonese is my mother's third language. Shanghainese is her mother tongue, then

Mandarin, then Cantonese was something she had to acquire in the same way I had to

acquire English. Just the difficulty of that and being told that maybe your Cantonese isn't

perfect, whilst also living also in a city that at the time was still a British colony. I also wanted

to make the speaker more complicit, to make the speaker less pristine. I remember attending

a workshop led by Matthew Dickman. He's an American poet, and he was talking quite

candidly about how, in some of his earliest poems, his speakers would always come across

as very self-righteous, that they were always somehow the ones who were suffering, and the

world was doing something to them. The reader was meant to sympathise with the speaker.

But especially in this poem, I remember literally before the book was going to go to print, I

added the line: “I had said some things to my mother that hurt her deeply. I was incapable of

such fury in English.” I had a moment of epiphany that I needed to add this line, because it

makes the speaker less innocent.

HN: Just to finish, I want to ask about your time at Cambridge. You speak about Oxford a bit

in your poems, but I wonder what your experience is of being in these institutions with such a rich poetic history, but often a very white, male poetic history?

MJC: I think Cambridge currently has such a vibrant poetic community, and I didn't actually

realise this before I arrived. There are so many poets across the colleges because of what

Cambridge has invested in. So apart from my position as the Judith E. Wilson Fellow, I've

met a really wonderful poet, Alison J Barton, who is a Wiradjuri-Australian poet who came to

Cambridge for three months last term on a fellowship offered by the English Faculty. At the

moment, there are the two Trinity Fellow Commoners in Creative Arts: Mona Arshi and

Padraig Regan; at St. John's, Voana Groarke is currently their writer-in-residence; at

Churchill, you've got Bhanu Kapil; Momtaza Mehri is going to be at Homerton. Then there

are poets who come through regularly for the readings organised by Pembroke or the

Faculty, for example. Mina Gorji, another wonderful poet, recently organised a reading

featuring Valzhyna Mort and Ishion Hutchinson; the Faculty hosted Maureen N. McLane last

term, among many other great poets.

HN: It’s hard to keep up with all the poetry events!

MJC: Yes, so that's been great. […] Also, I think Murray Edwards’ ethos has also been really

inspiring for me. Being a Bye Fellow in a women's college that is non-binary and trans

friendly has been nourishing: just being in this Art Cafe…and there's the Women’s Art

Collection, the fact that the Brutalist architecture here is so different to the other colleges, it

just feels very down-to-earth, and that suits me really well. It takes away a bit of that

pressure of, “Oh, I’m just walking around these hallowed halls of white men”. But also, I've

been lucky enough to collaborate with people here who have further fostered that sense of

belonging. I recently interviewed Diarmuid Hester, he’s a radical cultural historian at the

English Faculty and teaches at Emmanuel. He's written a nonfiction book called Nothing

Ever Just Disappears. It's a book about seven queer artists, including figures like Josephine

Baker and James Baldwin. The first chapter is on E.M. Forster who studied at King’s. Talking

to Diarmuid made me realise the fact that Cambridge is actually a very queer place in many

ways, but of course, these queer histories are often hidden, and you have to excavate them.

There are lots of queer traces and queer spaces in Cambridge, and that also makes me feel

like I have a place here.

Interview by Hope Nicholson


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