An Interview with Mary Jean Chan


Mary Jean Chan is a poet, editor and academic from Hong Kong. Her writing has been published widely and she was shortlisted for the 2017 Forward Prize for Best Single Poem as well as other notable awards. Her debut collection is forthcoming from Faber & Faber (2019).

She will be facilitating Spread the Word’s first online poetry course of the year, ‘Deconstructing the Lyric “I’ in Poetry’, which will run from 5 April-16 May. We spoke to Mary Jean to find out more about her creative ventures, what participants can expect from the course and any top tips she has for new poets….

Congratulations on being shortlisted for the Forward Prize last year. That must’ve been a very special moment. What impact has this had on your poetry, from both a creative point of view and for your career?  

Thank you! That was indeed a very special moment in my young writing career, since I was able to share the stage with some of my favourite poets on the night of the awards ceremony, and to chat with some of them in the green room. However, the most important lesson I’ve learnt is that if a particular set of judges happen to like your work enough to shortlist you for a prize, then hurray! If not, the work continues, because as my PhD supervisor Jo Shapcott reminds me: at the end of the day, it’s about you and your relationship to the blank page – nothing else really matters. It was a huge honour to have been shortlisted in the Single Poem category, but there is always more to be written.

As well as writing poetry, you’ve also written essays, most recently an article on Claudia’s Rankine’s Citizen that was published in The Journal of American Studies. How much does your critical work influence your poetry?

I’ve been grappling with the relationship between my critical and creative work, and it continues to be a rather fraught one, if I’m being honest! Sometimes, I keep the two worlds quite separate, but the nature of working on a PhD in Creative Writing is that you have to juggle both concurrently, so I do let my mind wander into more creative territory when I’m writing my critical essays, and might allow theory to seep into my creative work, if it happens to suit the poem I’m writing or revising. Increasingly, I’ve been trying to think about poetry as a form of research; or, as some critics might put it, to think about “practice as research”.

Claudia Rankine’s poetry is one of the key texts on your course – as well as Nuar Alsadir and Solmaz Sharif. Who, for you, are the most important poets out there?

You’ve named a few of them! There are so many poets whose work I draw inspiration from, so I wouldn’t attempt an exhaustive list. I also wouldn’t suggest that one poet was more “important” than another; it really depends on where you are with your writing and what your preoccupations are. Some of my current favourites include Kei Miller, Andrew McMillan, Emily Berry, Helen Mort, Vahni Capildeo, Sarah Howe, Warsan Shire and Mona Arshi. In terms of older influences, I would include Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Rainer Maria Rilke, Alfred Tennyson, Walt Whitman, W.H. Auden, Yusef Komunyakaa, Langston Hughes, Carolyn Forché, Pablo Neruda and Octavio Paz.

The course itself has a very specific focus – why have you selected the Lyric I as a focus and what are the benefits of this approach? What do you believe participants will get out of the course and how will it enhance their creative work?

I thought it would be interesting to examine some of the discourses and debates that have been raging around the “lyric I”, and to offer course participants instances where poets have attempted to subvert or complicate this first-person approach to (lyric) poetry. It’s also an excuse to teach some of the poets I love! I think course participants will have a chance to delve into some exciting contemporary poetry, and will hopefully gain inspiration that might spark new directions and approaches in their creative work.

And finally, Mary Jean, what top tips do you have for new writers thinking about starting to write poetry or new poets at the beginning of their career?

Returning to the idea of apprenticeship, learn as much as you can! Read widely, take courses (both in-person and online), go to readings. I often find poets to be great thinkers, so if you know that a poet also writes scintillating prose (e.g. Adrienne Rich was a profound essayist), read both their creative and critical work to get a better sense of their thoughts and ideas. Good luck!

Mary Jean’s course starts on 5 April – sign up here. Members of the London Writers Network get discounted rates.