Today, I read a sign which said, ‘When you write your life story, don’t let anybody else’s hand on the pen’. Now, that feels so right to me when I apply it to poetry – but then … there’s a multi-handed force directing my hands called ‘influence’. We all have them, no matter how we try to ditch them along the way. Even Tranter with his tricky manoeuvres – they’re learnt from Oulipo and his influence from Ashbery is well documented. Or the poets who murmur Sylvia Plath poems to their pillows and write their shadow texts at dawn. When we survive our first influences and stop sounding like a watered-down Ginsberg or a bland Bukowski, we may gain our own voice – some vibration of our entire self which tickles its way into a point and we attempt to be true to it on the page or the screen – or the ‘primal scream’, if we’re into therapy.
To do this blog, I had to give Southerly’s Tessa a short bio. There is virtually nothing I hate writing in this world more than a short bio. When Fremantle Arts Centre Press first began, they enlisted the help of that renegade, Veronica Brady (a distant relative, I’m proud to say). She asked the poets of WA for poems for an anthology to be named Soundings. It did come to pass, and had that amazing poem of Dorothy Hewett’s, ‘Memories of a Protestant Childhood’, or some such title – I’m in Hong Kong writing this, so it is difficult to check. It caused a legal uproar and all kinds of demands on the publisher to stick pages together or reprint, etc. My point is not that – my point is my humble short bio. I sat in my backyard study with my old manual Olivetti tripewriter and began: ‘Mainly have always lived in Perth.’ Nah, that didn’t sound right. So I wrote, ‘Have mainly always lived in Perth.’ Hmm, an idea dawned on my Edwin-Morgan-influenced brain, so I wrote this:
Mainly have always lived in Perth.
Have mainly always lived in Perth.
Have always mainly lived in Perth.
Have always lived mainly in Perth.
Have always lived in mainly Perth.
Have always lived in Perth, mainly.
Born Melbourne 1944.
Veronica used it as a poem – and I proudly accepted. The man reviewing the anthology for The Australian printed the poem in its entirety and then damned it by saying, ‘You won’t be surprised to hear that Mr Burke works in advertising’. Oh, what a high and mighty sneer – and from a journalist! (Return sneer.)
Somewhere along my literary track, I read a quote which said, ‘There’s no need for a contemporary poet to write an autobiography – all their poems add up to just that.’ And, damn it, I think s/he is right. Not exclusively, to be sure, but it’s true for a whole lot of us, me included. I wrote a confessional poetry book in the 90s titled Mother Waits for Father Late (FACP, 1992, republished Picaro Press, 2010). That book was written in blood. As Tom Shapcott kindly said, it had light and dark in it, but it stirred me up greatly. Maybe that’s why it was a good book – ‘No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader,’ as Robert Frost said. But I was determined to be more objective in my next book, to be more universal and not so personal. Hah! It never happened. I have moved a little bit away from Confessional poetry, but I’ve had to learn more poetry techniques to do it. Or to apply more tricks and stylistic turns – more IQ, less EQ, if that formula works in poetry. I think some maturity in writing has happened, and it should’ve after fifty years of writing …
The people with their hand on my early pencilled scribbles were Eliot, Pound and William Carlos Williams, then the Beats – Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Corso – then Black Mtn and the Objectivists. I’ve been a Dylan fan since I was 18 and a Miles Davis fan a little earlier. Now I’m hunting for the new Tom Waits CD but I’m new to Hong Kong and don’t know where to look. My next influence will be the bus timetable for the 962 into the heaving metropolis.
One of the first things I did in Hong Kong was look for a good bookshop. As I don’t have any literary friends in HK I had to stumble around and hunt. My son showed me Times Square, so I looked up their directory – and there was Page One. Sure, it was an inner city bookshop and mainly aimed at the general reader and English-speaking tourists and residents, but it was biggish and well laid out, so I dawdled around, letting the books dictate my pace.
When the prices are couched in the hundreds, it tends to slow down your urge to buy, even if it is in another currency. Call it my tight-fisted mindset, if you wish, but I was keeping my wallet closed – until I saw a little book, a poet’s thin volume, in the Poetry section (yes, they had one, and good for them). It was titled Paper Scissors Stone and the poems were by Kit Fan. What caught my eye was the banner across the cover – The HKU Poetry Prize Winner. Here I had stumbled upon a local prize-winning contemporary poet, and at HK$70 the price wasn’t frightening. In fact, that’s roughly about $A10.
Here’s a taste of his style:
Rain on a Spring Night (an extract)
after Tu Fu
It seems the kind of good rain
that knows the season. It happens
in spring when everything happens
It follows the wind that slipped in with
Night. It moistens everything soundlessly
Born and educated in Hong Kong, Kit Fan now lives in York. He completed a PhD in English at the University of York. His poems are widely published in UK literary magazines such as Poetry Review, Poetry London, Poetry Wales, and The London Magazine. He won a Times Stephen Spender Prize for Translation in 2006 and the inaugural HKU Poetry Prize in 2010. His first book of poems Paper Scissors Stone is published by Hong Kong University Press in March 2011.
Kit Fan will be appearing at the 2012 Hong Kong International Literary Festival, 5-14 October.