Tyee Books

For Evelyn Lau, Poetry Is Life and Death

The author of 'Living Under Plastic' talks about mortality and confessional writing. And shares a poem.

By Fiona Tinwei Lam 27 Oct 2010 | TheTyee.ca

Fiona Tinwei Lam's work has appeared in literary magazines across Canada, as well as in over 15 anthologies. Her book of poetry, Intimate Distances, was a finalist for the City of Vancouver Book Award. Her latest collection of poetry is Enter the Chrysanthemum.

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Lau: 'We are so driven and so distant.'

One marvels at how those 33 Chilean miners who were rescued two weeks ago managed to stay sane during their 69 days trapped deep underground. News stories described how the miners set up a daily routine and organized themselves into a micro-society to address their basic physical needs. Significantly, the miners also recognized the necessity of nourishing the spirit: one miner was appointed the group's spiritual counsellor, another functioned as a biographer, and yet another, Victor Ramora, served as the group's poet. According to an article in The Guardian last month, the miner's poems were among the most-read messages sent from below to the outside world.

Some might argue that this situation was unique, given the cultural value accorded to poetry in the country that produced Nobel prize-winning poets, Pablo Neruda and Gabriela Mistral. However, poetry, particularly poetry that examines some aspect of the human condition, can be meaningful across cultural or national borders. A poet can serve as a form of messenger, and a poem as a kind of message communicated to the world at large.

'You can't hide in poetry'

Since her bestseller, Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid, published in 1989 when she was 18, award-winning local author Evelyn Lau has published two books of non-fiction and two short story collections, as well as four volumes of poetry. Because of a connection between our parents, I've followed her career since the beginning. For the past decade, she has devoted herself to poetry. While interviewing her about her latest book, I asked Lau about her choice of genre. She underlined the importance of poetry: "In this culture we are so driven and so distant. There is a hunger by a segment of the population to examine where we're at in a true, deep, meaningful way. I go to poetry again and again, and never tire of it."

Many poets are also successful fiction writers -- Margaret Atwood being the most famous Canadian example, along with Michael Ondaatje and Anne Michaels. Lau can be counted among them, but unlike the others, she has chosen to focus on the less lucrative path of poetry. "I used to go back and forth [between genres], but never simultaneously. I feel far away from prose right now." In the past, when writing prose, she couldn't imagine writing poetry, and now when immersed in poetry, she can't imagine writing fiction. "Most poets I've talked to say it's true. They will work in creative nonfiction or the personal essay form as there is emotional transparency in both, whereas fiction works a different part of the imagination."

Lau and I discussed how difficult writing poetry can be. "In poetry, there are very few words, but you want to get them right and you need to get into that space [to write it.]"

Each poem is a small canvas that becomes your world. You live in that small canvas, and that becomes the parameter. Writing fiction is more extroverted, while poetry is much more about going inward. You can't hide in poetry. You're laid bare."

'I need a lot of solitude'

A huge amount of rumination, reading and walking can lead toward a poem, but even then a poem may not come. "It can be difficult to justify to others that it is work," Lau said wryly. She talked about how poets may circle repeatedly around an experience to try to capture a particular moment. "There's nothing like that satisfaction when you capture a line or image exactly." She described the lengthy process of revision, of trying to excise the inexact in the pursuit of precision, and the feeling of never being satisfied.

Her devotion to her craft affects other realms of her life. Although she is partnered, her lifestyle is necessarily reclusive. She lives and works for long hours alone in her small downtown condominium. "I need a lot of solitude and silence to think." But she acknowledges that this comes at a price. "It's easy to fall out of touch, not earning money, not being in the same culture of busyness and acquisition."

Whereas her past poems primarily focused on relationships with men, her new book explores the theme of mortality and Lau's realization of life's finitude. It is dedicated to a number of individuals close to the author who have died. There are a number of elegies, as well as poems about funerals and suicide. Even in the poems that are ostensibly about travel or consumerism, there is an undercurrent of absence and grief. The title of the book not only refers to the actual situation of dwellers in leaky condominiums on the west coast, but also refers to the numbing sensation of loss, where the world seems at a remove, as was so vividly depicted in Joan Didion's memoir about her husband, The Year of Magical Thinking. Lau told me, "Once someone dies, your experiences of that person will be all you have. Nothing will be added. It's an odd sensation. I remember a character in one of Martin Amis' novel saying that 'no one ever dies they've just moved to another part of London'. But I came to understand that I'd never find that person again."

Confession and craft

I asked Lau about how she felt about her poetry being categorized as "confessional". She agreed that the term can be used in a belittling or dismissive way. "What people don't understand by that label is that it eliminates the idea of the craft involved [in writing poetry], that somehow it's just someone just blurting out an experience or trauma. There is that kind, but there's no art to it." She mentioned poet P.K. Page's good fortune in being able write about experiences gleaned from her travels with her ambassador husband, noting that every poet has a different set of life experiences to draw upon. "We write about what we have, and we must be grateful for any experience that finds its way into our work." Surely themes of hope, suffering, love, war, and death are meaningful and relevant, whether written through the lens of the collective or the individual, the global or the local, the general or the particular.

Some of my favourite poems in Living Under Plastic are about family. In the opening poems, "Blindness" about her father's admittance to hospital, and "Vancouver Special" about her parents' search for a new home, Lau only needs to provide a few brief strokes to render a whole complex tapestry of familial relationships and to set an ominous tone of dread and tension. Another powerful poem was "The Pickton Trial", where Lau weaves together her past as a sex worker and the impact of a news story: "Nights you sink into burning baths,/wash away the grime of the day's headlines, scrub at the handprints/scorched into your skin--/you want to bleach them out of you/as if the milk bath were a bath of lye./But the body won't forget. . ."

I also asked Lau about the Asian references in the book, for example in the final poem, "The Heron Returns to False Creek". Lau indicated that these images had surfaced unintentionally or subconsciously. Being born here, she had "no wrenching moment of dislocation" of the kind many immigrants experience. The rupture that was most formative and pivotal for her was the decision to leave her home and family for life on the streets. The experiences and turmoil flowing from that decision took over everything else.

Completing a connection

I remembered hearing about Lau's decision to run away from home when I was an undergraduate. My mother, a family physician, knew her parents. As I'd been writing poetry since elementary school, my mother told me about her patients' brilliantly talented daughter. When she heard that Lau had run away from home, she was horrified. She bought Runaway as soon as it came out, and frequently fretted about Lau's safety and wellbeing, holding her up as an example of the evil that would befall headstrong rebels who disobeyed their parents. But I envied Lau's courage and conviction to escape. I knew I didn't have the guts to run away or the ability to fend for myself, let alone the kind of raw talent that Lau possessed to write with such power, brilliance, and eloquence about experiences I was too chastened and middle class to have. It took me many years and stomach-churning missteps before I would take the leap into writing.

Although I'd attended a few of her readings before and our poems had appeared next to each other in an anthology of Chinese-Canadian poetry, Evelyn Lau and I didn't have a true conversation until we were slotted to read together at Richmond City Hall a few years ago. The roster of authors outnumbered the audience members, so there was ample opportunity to chat. I hesitated at first, but finally told her about our connection through my mother, whom she remembered.

Then last year, in introducing me at a reading at the Word on the Street Festival, she mentioned that her parents used to tell her about their doctor's daughter who was going to university and law school, holding me up as an example of the good that could come of hard working obedient daughters who obeyed their parents! Good Daughter vs. Good Writer. I had to laugh. Most of my years of postsecondary education were a waste, and in the end, I'd left those degrees behind anyway in order to arrive where I should have been in the first place. She'd taken the direct route to where her calling to write -- and live fully -- would lead her. Yet now our lives had intersected. I wondered why. Perhaps it was to interview her for this piece, to write about a poet's passionate commitment to her craft, something every emerging or self-doubting artist must have in order to create something meaningful out of the unfathomable tangle of his or her experience, and send it out to the world.

LIVING UNDER PLASTIC

By Evelyn Lau

The building across the lane from me
is a leaky condo. At daybreak the workers' shouts
score the air, their calls no more like birdsong
than traffic is like ocean surf. At night
the tower resembles a paper lantern,
its owners sealed inside a shroud
of white, the lights in their living rooms
giving off a ghostly glow that says
they are still there. For a year
or more they will live under plastic
with their green aquariums and plasma TVs,
breathing weakly in the underwater
toxic light, mould spores and dust mites
dancing in their lungs.
The faintest gleam from their suites,
flickering like the pulse on a monitor,
signalling life. My uncle whose wife
died three years ago hasn't left their house since
except to buy groceries. He calls once a year,
his voice fading, says he may not survive
the winter. Rambles about Jesus and aliens,
says he's working on a thesis that will save
the world—the answer is there somewhere
in the Scriptures and the science magazines,
the answer like a face he recognizes
but can't put a name to, like a word
on the tip of his tongue. He spends his days
reading, deciphering the code that will bring
this planet back from the brink, admits it's easy
to love humanity when you live in isolation. Says
his life ended when she died. I want
to say no, you do not have to do this,
you do not have to nail yourself to this cross
under the flaming sky, wait for the vultures
to pluck out your eyes. Just open the door
and leave this house where she lay dying
in the back room with her diapers and Decadron,
come out into the yard with its cherry tree
chopped down, come out into the wild and frayed air,
the salt slap of the storm that lifts
branches and plastic bags and flowerpots
up into the sky, that tears through the shroud
of the leaky condo with the sound
of a ripping sail on a savage sea,
the storm that makes even garbage rise.
Come out into the cracked
and flooding world.

Copyright 2010 by Evelyn Lau, and reprinted with the permission of Oolichan Press.  [Tyee]

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