New Shoots: Eileen Chong
Eileen Chong is an accidental poet. Back in 2007, soon after moving to Australia from Singapore, she needed a couple more credit points to finish her masters of creative writing course at Sydney University. She didn’t want to write any more essays, and was completely done with research, so she took a poetry class.
“I walked into the first class and thought I’ll just do my thing—I’ll just come in, give the teacher what they want, get my A, and get out. I mean, how hard can it be?” Her first poem, she tells me, was dreadful, but by the end of the semester she was hooked, and decided then and there that poetry was for her.
I caught up with Eileen Chong at the Royal Botanic Gardens on a warm autumn day to speak about life with poems and plants, as part of the New Shoots project – a collaboration between The Red Room Company, the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney, Sydney Olympic Park, and Bundanon Trust. We had a great conversation – so great, in fact, I couldn’t cut it down into an essay! Here it is:
GEORGINA: So, Eileen, it’s 2009, you’re at Sydney University finishing off your Masters degree and doing a poetry class just to fill credit points, not out of any burning desire to be a poet. How did you move from this headspace to where you are now and was your first poem really that bad?
EILEEN: My first poem was atrocious! It was this complex, three-page poem about Henri Matisse and Picasso. Cézanne often painted his wife, Hortense, and I called the poem ‘Woman With the Green Hat’ after the painting. It was a really esoteric poem, and I thought it was great.
I brought it to class and my teacher, Judith Beveridge, was so sweet and gentle. She said, “I don’t think that this is the poem that you were trying to write.” I’m like, “What do you mean? It’s great.” She said, “Well, you know, you’re just not really talking about what you’re trying to talk about.” I thought “this is rubbish, what is she saying?” I then started talking about this entirely unrelated matter, about a woman whose hat I’d been given. She lived in Western Sydney, in Fairfield, and I’d got to know her through a photography hobby of mine. I was shooting on a Rollei 35S. The camera was made in 1965, the same year as Singapore gained independence. Her husband was the one guy in Sydney who could fix it for me, from his garage in Fairfield. He repaired my camera and I got to know his wife who subsequently died of emphysema. Their daughter gave me her hat. And so, my poem was really about this woman and her hat.
The last poem I wrote for that class was called ‘Woman With a Hat’, and it was really about this one woman. It took me 12 weeks to realise what Judith was really talking about.
I didn’t really have the “aha” moment until the third or fourth class. I had an epiphany whilst reading Philip Levine’s poem, What Work Is.
I realised when I was reading that poem, what poetry can do. And I thought “this is what I want to do.”
GEORGINA: What can poetry do?
EILEEN: In the poem Philip Levine talks about being in the queue to get a job at the car factory. And in the middle of it, he shifts. The poem side steps into this different universe where he’s in the queue and he sees a man in front of him, and he thinks it’s his brother. But it’s not his brother because his brother is in bed trying to sleep off a miserable shift so he can get up at midnight to study his German so he can sing Wagner, the worst music ever invented.
He talks about the work of loving. How he can hardly stand the love flooding him for his brother. I realized at that point that in poetry you can talk about one thing, but at the same time be talking about another thing. There are no boundaries. It’s like a dream. I thought “I can do this” and I never looked back.
GEORGINA: So, when you meet people and they say “Eileen, what do you do?” Do you say “I’m a poet?”
EILEEN: I do.
GEORGINA: How do people respond?
EILEEN: My favourite thing to do is write it on immigration forms. I always get a reaction. They think I’m taking the piss or lying. But no, I’m just a poet.
When I meet people, the way they react is very telling. One type of person may say “You’re a poet? What do you mean, you write poems?” Others may say “That’s so cool, that’s amazing, I love poetry.” And then there are some who just say “Oh…” and edge away.
I’m very proud to say that I’m a poet. Philip Levine said, “If you can do without poetry, poetry can certainly do without you.” So, if you feel that you can’t do without it, then you have to do it. The money I earn from poetry is the sweetest money of all. It’s just incredible. Every day I think “Wow! People are paying me to do what I love. I just wish they paid me more though…”
GEORGINA: I guess that’s the same with all creative pursuits, isn’t it?
EILEEN: It is.
GEORGINA: In some ways, it’s the most valuable work, but it’s always the most undervalued in terms of money.
EILEEN: This is where I think something like the New Shoots project is so important. For an organisation like The Red Room Company to exist, to give credence to your work, is incredible.
GEORGINA: When I interviewed Tamryn Bennett from The Red Room Company for the New Shoots series recently she spoke about helping people break open the idea of what poetry is. That poetry can be the sound of a car doing a burnout or the rain on the window. After a while, people will realise that they’re living a poem. I thought was such a lovely way of looking at the world, and poetry. What is poetry to you?
EILEEN: I like to think of myself as a poet of small things. When I first was a student and starting out writing, I thought “what have I got to say that’s different from anyone else? What gives me the right to tell my story?” I think a lot of students struggle with this idea as well. I want to remind people that their stories are important, that small things are important. Poetry is a way of observing something in minute detail and linking that to the greater narrative.
GEORGINA: Plants have woven through many of your poems since you began writing in 2010. Do you consider yourself a poet of plants and nature?
EILEEN: I don’t think of myself as a nature poet. I don’t have a green thumb at all!
I love plants but my parents don’t even let me plant sit when they go away because they always end up looking so sad. I keep them alive, but they never look happy. My friend says it’s because I don’t talk to them.
I adore plants though. If you look at my poems throughout my books, plants are very much a part of my poetry. Sometimes as a source of food, other times as a source of medicine or as part of ritual, of culture. I think plants and poems are very well matched.
I suppose when I say I’m not necessarily a plant poet, I mean to say that I don’t say to myself “I’m now going to sit down and write a poem about plants.” But if you look at my poetry they’re interwoven into many of my poems. I think it’s because obviously I have such an awareness of the importance of plants in our surroundings and in my own culture. They form the backdrop of so much of our lives, and we often tend to take them for granted.
GEORGINA: The New Shoots project has been so wonderful for me because I’ve always been really interested in poetry but have never really felt confident engaging with it. How do you encourage people to engage with poetry?
EILEEN: I think what The Red Room Company does is wonderful in terms of creating and disseminating poetry in unusual ways. What people need to realise is that poetry is really just another way of making sense of the world.
I’ve chosen to write my New Shoots poems about various sites in the gardens but two of these sites are sculptures because I’m always interested in the intersection between art and poetry. I want people to use the poetry as an entrance into the art and vice versa. Of course, the poetry and the arts have an impact on the natural world and are both also a way into the natural world.
I think people need to stop seeing poetry as something that’s separate to them. They need to learn how to, and they need to be shown how to, integrate poetry into their everyday world. It’s my personal mission to infect as many as people as possible.
GEORGINA: Is it? How?
EILEEN: Well, I’m the crazy weirdo who goes around with a poem and gives it to someone on the bus. A few days ago, it was Poem in Your Pocket Day.
EILEEN: Yeah. It’s a festival where you put poems in your pocket and give them out to random people. It’s great.
GEORGINA: Did you do that?
EILEEN: I did. I do it all the time. In my building they knew me as The Poet.
GEORGINA: It sounds very ominous.
EILEEN: It’s just lovely. I even had to go for surgery recently—minor surgery—but I spoke with the anaesthetist and said, “Look, I’m happy to wait to go public because I just don’t have enough money for the private procedure.” And he said, “Don’t worry, just send me a poem.” Isn’t that lovely?
GEORGINA: That’s so nice.
EILEEN: I know. These people recognise that you’re doing something you love. That it’s a passion.
Poetry doesn’t need to be something that’s difficult, or esoteric, or separate. Poets are not strange in that unreachable way. I mean, I like to read Vogue as well as Fitzgerald as well as difficult things. I’m interested in shoes as much as the next girl.
We’re not different really. But we are I suppose. It’s about awareness, isn’t it? It’s about honing an awareness of a certain dimension.
So, you could be passionate about anything and let poetry in. I think there’s a poem for everyone. Just because you have a bad experience with one poet or poem doesn’t mean you don’t like poetry. Just because there’s a fruit you don’t like doesn’t mean you stop eating fruit. That’s what I always tell students. Try it, try poetry!
Eileen Chong is a Sydney poet who was born in Singapore. She has had three books published: Burning Rice (2012), Peony (2014) and Painting Red Orchids (2016), all by Pitt Street Poetry. Her work has been shortlisted for many awards, including the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards and the Anne Elder Award. Oh, she also has a little letterpress shop too!
Eileen, along with Mark Tredinnick and Eric Avery, has been commissioned as part of the New Shoots project to write a series of poems based in the Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney. You can read all the poems she’s written for the project on The Red Room Company website. Here’s one, called Fern.
for Marshall Hartwich
The fern, in infinite slowness,
uncurls each frond; each frond a sister
to another, so many fingers and hands
learning to flourish on the underside
of things. The fern is steady, unafraid
of the dark, pushing through stem, bark,
growing vein by stubborn vein through
morning dew and winter rain. Mists
gather to watch the rills incise themselves
and ripen with spores ready for release –
the beginnings of another, sprung from moss:
fragile, maidenlike, translucent in the light.