'Poems are play-spaces for a special mode of connection'
"Something happens when a book is published and the contents start to exist in a fixed way, outside and away from the author"
Dr Alex Wong, College Associate Lecturer and Director of Studies for English Literature, will see his second book of poetry, Shadow and Refrain, hit the shelves next week.
The collection is a sequel to Poems Without Irony, which was published in 2017 and shortlisted for The Seamus Heaney First Collection Prize and The Roehampton Poetry Prize. It was also heralded as an ‘astoundingly well-crafted’ debut collection in the London Review Bookshop’s fictional 2017 poetry awards, where it won the Smiley’s Choice Award - named after the character George Smiley OBE in John le Carré's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
Admired for his ‘brilliant linguistic finesse’, Alex's new collection offers more direct second thoughts on memory, intimacy and friendship. He tells us about a nostalgia for his childhood 7,000 miles away, the wait for his poems to ‘settle’ like new plaster, and his attempts to translate Hawaiian poetry in lockdown.
When and how did you start writing poetry?
‘Poetry’ certainly wouldn’t be the word for it, but I started trying to write verse at around the same time I started seriously reading it. I suppose I must have been 16 or 17, and I was mainly writing Victorian pastiche and parody, trying to get the hang of traditional metres and particular styles. I reckon I could do a pretty decent D.G. Rossetti, as far as these things go. I have that in common with many of the forgotten and mediocre poets of the early 20th century. It’s probably left a vicious stain.
You were born and schooled in London but spent much of your childhood in O‘ahu, Hawaii in the 1990s. How did your upbringing influence your writing and ideas?
I started school in Hawaii, where (according to the reports, which I still keep in my desk) I was ‘satisfactorily’ able to print my own name, my ‘work quality’ rose from ‘satisfactory’ to ‘satisfactory +’, and under ‘appearance/hygiene’ I managed to rise from ‘satisfactory +’ as high as ‘excellent’. It was a nice time.
At my next school, back in London, I was taught by an even more youthful and energetic incarnation of our very own former St John’s College Chaplain, Carol Barrett Ford...
One of the main results of the divided childhood has been a kind of chronic nostalgia or homesickness which can’t be satisfied (or only very rarely and imperfectly), largely because it costs such a lot of money to get back there.
What draws you to poetry, what do you love about it and why is it so important?
I don’t know. A lot of it repels me. When it doesn’t, what I value in it is something that feels nourishing, a bit antinomian, and carefully or lovingly made; which gives you the sense of form, of tentative thinking, and of a communicative function that is somehow in excess of what is straightforwardly there. To explain the last point, I’m thinking of the indirectness of meaning in poetic language: implication, ambiguity, oblique kinds of emotional investment, and the like.
I’m more or less with Walter Pater in feeling that the importance of poetry has to do with its sidestepping of the usual preoccupation in life with ‘means and ends’ and straightforward pragmatic utility.
What or who inspires you?
Two Stevies; a few Walters; old Tokaji… I don’t think I ought to get into a longer list.
How would you describe your poetry?
Awkward, but well-meaning and probably harmless. Playful, miserable. Hopefully not too academic.
What do you want to achieve in the reader’s mind?
Some kind of integration; a sense of things coming together and being ‘formed’. That’s the basic function, in the abstract. Beyond that, it’s a matter of communication. What is communicated is different every time, but it’s the fact of the communication, or the sense of it, that matters most. ‘Only connect’ could be the motto for this book. You can see that from the recurrent themes and preoccupations. But also the poems, like all poetry, are play-spaces for a special mode of connection.
What is your writing process?
I try to carry things in my head and I usually forget them. Getting things out of the head and down onto paper or into a word processor takes more energy and impetus than I can easily account for. Probably for the best.
I have various methods of eluding my conscious intentions for a poem, which, where they exist, generally either come to nothing or result in a particularly lousy poem.
"There are many poems in the book addressed to absent friends"
Tell us about your journey to St John’s.
I was at Peterhouse, the College of one of my favourite poets, Richard Crashaw. I stayed on for three degrees and then migrated to St John’s, the College of Wordsworth (of course) but also of Wyatt, Herrick, Benlowes, Cleveland, Prior and Kirke White, all valuable in their own ways. So it was only a journey up the road. Though if I’d stuck with my original plan - to read Social Anthropology as an undergraduate, rather than English (in which case, having accepted my offer at SOAS University of London, I would probably have been taught by our very own Dr Adam Chau) - or if I’d stayed at school in Hawaii… I have no idea what I might be doing now.
Sum up Shadow and Refrain. For example, how it relates to Poems Without Irony; the meaning of the title and the themes; how the poems diverge from traditional set forms, and the significance of the cover photo.
The poems just accumulated since the last collection was finished in 2016, although a few go back further than that. There’s a translation from D’Annunzio that has taken me 11 years to get right. I don’t know how many times I’ve redrafted it.
‘Shadow and refrain’ comes from a poem by Surrey, well known to my students, I should hope.
I’m very responsive to verse rhythm, and generally more of a ‘sound’ person than a visual one, at least when it comes to literature. In fact I have little or no capacity to visualise. So I use the resources of English metrical practice, but don’t (any more) oblige myself very often to stick to set forms.
The photo on the cover is significant, but in a range of ways. I think it’s a wonderful image; I collect 19th-century photographs.
Do you have a favourite poem from the collection and why?
I’m more aware of the weaknesses. Something happens when a book is published and the contents start to exist in a fixed way, outside and away from the author. It’s like waiting for the plastering to ‘settle’, and that’s the moment when the waiting starts. It’ll take a few years before I begin to develop a sense of which poems worked better than which others - or just write the whole thing off. At the moment I hold them all in roughly equal contempt (and yet tell myself it’s a good fight).
How would you like readers to respond to your poems?
As long as people don’t simply misread them - I mean in ways that the usual conventions of our language make totally illegitimate - I don’t think I should be fretting about how readers respond to them. Ideally I’d like them to sense the ambiguities of tone. I’d like them to feel a sense of the sound and rhythm. I do say that they’re ‘designed to be read using the mouth’, which doesn’t necessarily mean ‘aloud’. But that’s not an instruction or even a plea - just an indication that they were built with such matters in mind. And a provocation, I suppose.
What do you enjoy about the poetry scene at St John’s and what are you looking forward to when life gets more back to normal after the pandemic?
Under normal circumstances, and when I have the energy after all the teaching and all the marking, I do like to toddle along to poetry events in College - either the evenings hosted by Sasha Dugdale (our Writer in Residence) or occasions arranged by the English Society, which I hope will resume soon. I hope our newest students will be able to experience all this before long. They’re not so new any more… but I know they’ll bring fresh cheer.
How has the pandemic affected your writing? Did it influence Shadow and Refrain?
There are many poems in the book addressed to absent friends. People may imagine that this is an effect of Covid and ‘lockdown’. Actually it isn’t. There’s one poem only, quite a scatty and ranty one, that’s overtly a ‘plague-year’ piece.
As far as this book is concerned, the biggest consequence of the lockdown was that in my vexation I tried, against all wisdom, to translate some poetry from Hawaiian, a language I don’t read. I spent many hours banging my head against dictionaries and grammatical primers. I still don’t know Hawaiian, but I emerged with a couple of versions.
* Shadow and Refrain is published by Carcanet in paperback and as eBook on 27 May.