Joyce Chong Interview

Joyce Chong's poem 'how to exacerbate the mundane' was featured in Reality Hands 9. You can find their work on their website and follow them on twitter.

RH: What was your approach to structuring the work?

JC: I usually don't know how a poem is going to turn out when I start writing it, and I don't tend to follow any strict structural guidelines. Some line breaks come from natural pauses, others are fabricated, places where I want to interrupt your reading, break apart an expected phrase. Or even just to insert a pause there, to play around with the rhythm. 

The last stanza stands out because it's formatted differently as a list, as a how-to poem, which ties it back to the title. I like this type of format because it affords the opportunity to change structures, to introduce the unexpected and experimental. I look at formats that require structure as a good place to hide things in your poems. What's left out, what's left in, what is the intent behind it?

RH: What effect do you want the text to have on the reader?

JC: This is a hard question to answer because I almost never think of the reader when I write poems. I think of the way it presents itself on the page, the sound of the words and the way it takes up space visually, but I feel like I can't anticipate how anyone would respond to the words. I know that it came from a place that was very detached and apathetic, and in a way it's a depression poem and what I think I always try to do with poems like these is to push for replication, to make the reader empathize or understand, to recognize a fragment of something in there. A lot of the times I write poems about depression, or poems tied to my mental state, as a way to ground myself. If the reader can find something familiar in them, then it's also a way of staying tethered to others.

RH: How does your text reflect or reference the world outside the text?

JC: I almost think it doesn't at all. This poem feels like it's too far inside my own head to have any mention of things outside of it. It's grounded in the anatomical, the self, and the abstract. A lot of the times, apathy and depression is not grappling with the world and the things that happen in it, but more grappling with myself and the way I digest and maneuver these external things. Looking beyond that and incorporating ideas beyond the internal would be a good direction to grow in my writing, though.

RH: How far is the final text from the original exploratory words; what's your approach to editing?

JC: Often it's not very far. When I first write a poem, I spend a lot of time running through the previous stanzas, editing and checking as I go. A lot of the time, a poem is very specific to a certain moment and so they're usually written all at once, with a couple of revisions shortly after that. Other times I might excavate fragments from old poems that weren't working and incorporate them into new poems or put new themes and ideas onto old poems I'd stashed away. 

When I edit, I always try to pare down the original piece. I separate the extraneous, cut out the fat and condense it so that it only contains what I need it to. I find that occasionally the first stanza can be more of a warm up than an actual component of the poem, so sometimes those are cut out or re-worded and inserted into another part of the poem. Occasionally, I find that I have trouble with endings and I definitely had that issue with this poem. Sometimes there are things I want to say but I'm not sure how to incorporate them in, so relying on structured formats like a list or "set of" instructions works for me. I don't know, maybe that's a cop out in terms of poetry writing, but I do like trying new things with form.

RH: I really like that nested body image in the fist section where distance is building in yourself. I feel that way when I'm in a bad space. Are detachment and apathy themes your work with often?

JC: Yes, I think they definitely are. When I first started writing, it was a way for me to make sense of or to gain some kind of agency over things I otherwise had little to no control over, like my depression. I also love how you phrased it as "distance building in yourself", which seems almost like a contradiction, but is really an accurate way of phrasing it. Being able to transform an emotion or a memory, to turn it into something almost tangible that I can work with and try to better understand, is a big part of why I write.

RH: How do you participate in the broader writing community?

JC: Mostly by spending way too much time on Twitter, haha. My educational background is not in creative writing (it's in the medical sciences), so a real life writing community is pretty much non-existent for me and all of my writerly cohorts exist online. I only started using Twitter a couple years ago, but the difference it's made on my writing has been huge in all directions. There's a really talented and supportive community of writers and literary magazines on there, so as far as staying in the loop with new publications or finding a new favourite writer goes, it's done a lot for me. Although, I definitely plan on being more active in my local literary scene, too!

RH: Do you have any upcoming projects readers should be keeping an eye out for?

JC: Free time has become an anomaly as of late, so I haven't been able to get nearly as much done as I would have liked in the past several months. I do have some very exciting forthcoming publications, including a short story in Tiny Owl Workshop's collaborative world building project, The Lane of Unusual Traders, and a questionnaire-story about the end of the world coming out in Outlook Springs' inaugural issue. I'm also working with a couple ideas for putting together a chapbook based on some common themes that have come up in my poetry. Nothing's in stone yet, but all my forthcoming work and writing updates can be found at joycechong.ca.