A transnational and endlessly surprising thinker


“It was a complete surprise,” Wong May tells me with a laugh. One day in February, she checked her emails, then received a phone call telling her she was being awarded the Windham-Campbell Poetry Prize, worth $165,000 (€150,000). “My latest book [Picasso’s Tears] came out in 2014, and since then I’ve worked on translating Tang poetry, and done very little of my own writing.

Although she is described by the award committee as “enigmatic”, and admits that she “went into hiding with [her] poetry for 40 years”, Wong May is neither reticent nor withdrawn in person, she has simply abandoned the literary scene in favor of a commitment to the work itself. “Silence, exile and cunning”, she says.

Born in Chongqing, China, in 1944, she moved with her mother – a classical Chinese poet – to Singapore in 1950. Since then she has lived in the United States, Canada and many European cities, and moved from Grenoble to Dublin in 1978 to settle with her husband, Trinity College physicist Professor Michael Coey, whose research into rare earths inspired Wong May’s pictorial pseudonym, Ittrium Coey. “I feel completely at home in Ireland. I am very lucky to be married to an Irishman and our two boys grew up here. Everywhere I go, I miss the Irish.

In China, painting and poetry are considered as one art. If there is a muse, there is only one muse

Never comfortable being called a ‘poet’, May describes herself as a ‘cultural worker’ who writes poetry and paints, and her mind, interests and energies are more focused on the project she is working on. currently. “In China, painting and poetry are considered as one art. If there is a muse, there is only one muse. For May therefore, there is not much adjustment to be made between the two.

When I talk to him in Dublin, his current concern is an iconoclastic stained glass window, titled The Madonnas of Kharkiv. the five-piece artwork features sacred and anatomical hearts, vivid images of Putin and a black banner reading “Deserving Refugees”. Her dream, she tells me, is to find him one day refuge at the Irish Emigration Museum, Epic, in Dublin. “No church will be brave enough to shelter it.”

This may seem like a stark departure from his most recent book, In the Same Light, which was only published at the end of January this year. “Once a book is published, she says, it must be able to live without its author.

But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have enough energy for conversation. She’s a great talker: gregarious, insightful, and manages to bring levity and humor to a conversation that spans Peruvian poetry, translation, identity politics, and what she sees as our current era of Narcissus – Narcissus in Crisis, c i.e. characterized by “self-obsession” and “infantile I-my-self-itis”.

In poetry, she includes Fernando Pessoa, César Vallejo (whom she calls the greatest poet of the 20th century) and Anna Akhmatova in her “pantheon”, but she equally quickly admires Elena Ferrante and Banksy – two contemporary figures who avoid fires ramp in favor of anonymity. Her poems, like Wong May herself, often have an underlying dark humor, irreverence, and are characterized by crisp line breaks and a restrained but sensual style.

Wong May Says She Believes in “Reading Poetry” and Not So Much in “Reading Poetry”

The words on the page should play for you, teach you to read, so that the poetry is an act of transference or transport

In the Tang poems she translated, and in her own poems too, there is a sense of self-effacement and silence. She loves the moments, as she writes in the long afterword to In the Same Light, “where poetry arises independent of words: not what is said, but what it does to you.” Yet silence can also be a haunting presence in her work, which can sometimes create surreal images out of absence.

Seeing itself as “contrary and old school”, the words on the page should “play for you, teach you to read”, so that “poetry is an act of transference or transport”. This was a guiding principle in writing his latest book – a brilliant, expansive, and accurately rendered set of translations of classical Chinese poets – In the Same Light: 200 Tang Poems for Our Century, recently published by Carcanet Press. “When I translate, the goal is not just to translate the poem; but to translate the reader, the person sitting across from you, to the poem, to translate them into the Tang dynasty, into a Tang poet. That’s what excites me.

For the past five years, while working on In the Same Light, she has viewed each poet as her patron. “I work for them.” So who was the better boss, I ask. Who did she like to work for? Tu Fu, she answers without too much hesitation: “It is the most humane, and the most indulgent.

Over the past six decades, Wong May has published four collections, with a notable 36-year gap between Superstitions (1978) and Picasso’s Tears (2014). She is nonetheless admired by readers around the world, commanding reverence as a transnational and constantly surprising thinker.

“You don’t make poems like cookies, flipping another pastry cream or bourbon, put a stamp on just because you can, every stamp well done, well written. I’m only interested in things I can’t do, that’s the thrill of poetry. For now it’s stained glass. It excites me because I have no idea.

I realize that I have to be responsible for the work I have done

Happy outside the “literary scene”, she says that “poetry, for me, is a refuge. And being among people who don’t know that I write or work on poetry is a refuge. There is, however, a tension in her thinking: she feels comfortable not being known, but she also feels the need to be a better guardian of the work she has done. “Anonymity is my element. I’m free to do whatever I want because I’m not obligated to the world. Ireland, she thinks, is her “home base”, and she does not wish to take refuge elsewhere.

When I ask her what she thinks of the publicity that will accompany the Windham-Campbell prize, she is still hesitant about the potential exposure. She admires Elena Ferrante, and those artists like Banksy whose art is public, but whose person is private: the work is everywhere, but the person is nowhere. “But there comes a time, she reflects, at a certain age, when you feel responsible for the work you’ve done: it’s done late all the time, and I realize that I have to be responsible of the work that I have done. ”

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