By Tara Armstrong
Fiona Tinwei Lam is the author of two books of poetry, Intimate Distances and Enter the Chrysanthemum. Her poetry, fiction and non-fiction have been included in over twenty anthologies. She is a co-editor of and contributor to the literary non-fiction anthology, Double Lives: Writing and Motherhood published by McGill-Queens University Press in 2008. She edited The Bright Well, a collection of contemporary Canadian poetry about facing cancer, published by Leaf Press in 2011. Oolichan Books will be publishing The Rainbow Rocket, her first book for children in 2013.
Stepping into Higher Grounds Coffee on a drizzly Thursday morning, Fiona Tinwei Lam scans the room. I wave. She approaches. We shake hands. Then, we argue over who will pay for the tea. “I’ll pay. You’re a student,” insists Fiona. “It’s your time. Please,” I say. I win and we settle into the interview over two cups of herbal tea.
Did you always write, even as a child?
I started writing poetry regularly in grade seven. I was encouraged by my teacher to keep going, so I continued writing poetry through high school. But then when I reached university I thought it was time to be practical. So I did a degree in political science. Then I did two law degrees. And it wasn’t until after all of that, that I came back to writing, and completed an MFA in Creative Writing at UBC. How did you know you were through with law? And how did you make the move back to creative writing?
I knew I was through with law from the first day of law school. But I still went through the paces. I kept trying to make it work because of my strong social justice side. But no matter what I tried with law, it just didn’t work. It was really clear I had to do something that I was more passionate about– which happened to be creative writing.
I didn’t enroll in the MFA program right away because I hadn’t written in some time. I had to build a portfolio, so I took night courses at Langara College. I also took a five-week creative writing program at the Banff Center for the Arts, and I attended a Sage Hill Poetry Colloquium.
Would you say poetry your main passion? And if so, why?
I love the way I can work with silence, images and space in a very concentrated intense way. It’s sort of like doing calligraphy or watercolour painting– all you need are a few really well-chosen deft strokes to convey a whole world.
What is poetry?
There are a lot of definitions because there are a lot of different camps. But the way I write poetry is to focus on imagery, rhythm, sounds, line length, line breaks, stanza breaks–some of those structural elements.
How do you begin a poem?
There are so many different ways. Sometimes it comes from an idea that is triggered by talking to someone or seeing something. It could be a phrase, a line or an image. Something captures my imagination and I’ll write a few words about it on a scrap of paper, then transfer it to a computer or notebook. Usually I’ll write out a stream of conscious on a blank page to draw out all the associations I have with that word, phrase or image. Then out of that, I will carve out a poem. Occasionally though, some poems do emerge more directly, line by line.
How do you know when a poem is finished, or are they ever finished?
The sense of completion is very intuitive. There are some poems that I keep going back to; that I want to fix or do more to. And often when you’re working with an editor, they will want to re-work or make changes to a poem before publication. Re-opening a poem can be challenging. I might have to spend a day with the poem, meditating on it and walking around with it before I can find that right word or replacement line which will be just right. Then, it’s very rewarding because you realize that the poem was waiting to be finished.
I stole this question from the Paris Review: Are you are a cabinetmaker making a cabinet, or is there more drama or torment?
Both. But in the end, even if the poem has its origins in some kind of difficult, emotional place, a poet works from a position of a craftsperson.
Would you say you have become a better writer with time and practice?
Well, there are poems that I wrote early on that I’m still proud of and others I have mixed feelings about. I do think I’m a much better editor. That’s why I’ve recently done more editing of others’ work. So, I’ve developed a better eye. But I think we all have a bit of a blind eye about our own writing.
What has been a struggle in your career?
I have no shortage of ideas. I think the biggest issue for me is clearing emotional and mental space to sit and write, to retreat from the world and sit with ideas, images, or symbols for longer to let them steep and percolate.
Some of your poetry is very personal in content. Can you talk about having a public life for your poetry?
My poems mostly come from personal experience. Not every poet writes that way but I love poets that do write from a personal experience of nature, family or relationships because it allows me to see through their eyes and participate in their vision.
As far as discussing or revealing those experiences to the public, by the time the poem has been worked through, edited and published, I feel quite detached from the poem’s origins.
If I really felt that the content of a poem was going to hurt anyone, then I probably wouldn’t publish the poem. I have definitely become much more circumspect about what I do make public. But poems that may seem very private may also be very universal as well. Many people have suffered from a broken heart; many people have had kids; many people have had a loved one pass away.
You also write non-fiction pieces for the Tyee
I’ve really enjoyed writing for the Tyee because it has allowed me to discuss topics that would have been difficult to write about in poetry–political or social causes that I feel strongly about. But, even with non-fiction, I feel that the work is most effective when I can make a personal link. I’m not a journalist and don’t want to be, but I do enjoy writing non-fiction commentaries. A personal tie to the issue gives me an entry point, and maybe provides a way for other people to relate to the subject as well.
Writing for the Tyee has also allowed me to write about others’ poetry and support other writers’ work. It’s always a steep learning curve to move into another genre, but it can be worthwhile.
Like your children’s book that is being published this year?
Yes, it’s called The Rainbow Rocket. I had never written children’s fiction before. But the story came to me very quickly. I was talking to a friend about the Ching Ming Festival, which is a festival to visit ancestors’ graves. Hearing my friend talk about what she was doing for her family made me think of my son’s unhappiness about not being present at my mother’s deathbed. I remembered how he drew pictures during the funeral and during my mother’s time in palliative care. Those memories merged with what my friend was saying about the Ching Ming Festival.
So then I quickly wrote the story, and then not so quickly re-worked it and re-worked it, getting feedback with people who were more familiar with the genre. It’s been a long haul: the book was written in 2007 and is now coming out 2013. What kept me going was a rocket my son drew in kindergarten and gave to me the very afternoon after I’d just written the first draft. He hadn’t known I was writing the story, nor had I mentioned anything to him about it.
Do you ever write in fiction?
I’ve published only four short stories. I find that my fiction often feels like a disguise for writing about personal events. And I find it is more effective and authentic for me to write about personal events through non-fiction.
What does the future hold for you and your writing?
I hope one day to do an animated film based on my children’s story, The Rainbow Rocket. I’d love to complete another manuscript of poetry. I have a non-fiction project that’s currently being developed and hope to continue writing for the Tyee.
What is your favorite thing about writing?
I think it’s the sense of discovery and connection. When I’m really writing with all my concentration and all my heart, I can often discover something that I didn’t know before, or make a connection to someone or something I was not connected to before. You could call it an epiphany, but it can be something less grand. It can be just a glint of insight or understanding that is uncovered by the delving of words and images. And those glints, cumulatively or by themselves, can lead to a kind of subtle shift of consciousness, an intellectual, emotional or even spiritual opening up or expansion. Despite the pacing, procrastinating, head-scratching, and agonizing, it can be a profoundly satisfying process.
Tara Armstrong is a screenwriter, and a fourth-year BFA student in the Creative Writing Program at UBC.