Mercedes Eng is a writer and teacher in Vancouver, Coast Salish territory. Her first book, Mercenary English (CUE Books, 2013) “combines tart insights into gender and racial relations, and a playfulness of language not always found in political poetry.” Her writing has appeared in various critical and literary journals, on the sides of Burrard and Granville bridges as contributions to public art projects, and in the collective-produced movement-based chapbooks, r/ally (No One Is Illegal), Survalliance and M’aidez (Press Release).
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
It was published less than a year ago so it’s hard to say; sometimes I still can’t believe I published a book.
Recent work is similar regarding starting place and poetic tactics but now I produce tighter work more quickly.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
As a poetic form, (some) rap music exposes, critiques, and resists oppression in lyrically innovative short narratives all while making a body want to move; I wanted to try that.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
The first book took the longest, both to start and to finish. Initially writing was a slow process, then I began to write longish documentary poems. The process of working with found text—finding it, ingesting it, transcribing it—generates material quickly but it takes time to distill the language and organize it into a structurally cohesive poetic weapon. Working with found text right from the beginning of my current project, Prison Industrial Complex Explodes, I find I “write” less and less. Sometimes I think I don’t need to write anything anymore because what’s circulating in the infosphere only needs to be curated.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
Originally I wrote short pieces, now I think in terms of book-length poem.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Definitely part of. I often intend to practice my work aloud and don’t, so readings force editing because you’ve heard the words aloud not in your head and they don’t sound right and you’re embarrassed because you didn’t have your shit together. Also, I’ve felt encouraged by audience responses, which motivates the creative process, especially when you feel like you killed it and left the room empty of breath.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
Material concerns definitely. My current project uses a government questionnaire on the implementation of the Multicultural Act in the Canadian federal prison system. My answers are three streams of information: the privatization of the prison and refugee detention systems in Canada and the US; the criminalizing of dissent and the corresponding rise of indigenous activists in prison populations where indigenous peoples are already disproportionately represented; and the criminalizing of poverty and the corresponding rise of incarceration rates of refugees, many of whom are people of colour.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
Currently, for myself, see previous question.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Essential. Mercenary English wouldn’t be what it is without the editorial prowess of Roger Farr and I’m a better writer for the experience.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Remember to breathe.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
Sometimes I think I write poetry because I’m a lazy prose writer, so I don’t find moving between genres easy. Instead I create (or more accurately, borrow) hybrid forms that bridge them. When I write creative text (which often starts with distilling found text such as mainstream news and government reports) I think in terms of argument or thesis. “knuckle sandwich” was taught in a university class not as poetry but as critical writing alongside Spivak and Fanon. That was cool.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
When I’m coordinated, and depending on my paid-work schedule, weekdays begin with reading/writing for 1-2 hours.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
It’s not so much getting stalled as needing time away from writing as part of the process of writing. If I’m not getting anywhere with what I’m working on, I research another aspect of that project, or I work on another project, or I don’t look at any projects for weeks because the NBA playoffs are on.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
All of them, music and visual art especially.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
The folks comprising the various writing collectives I have or do work with; writers whose books I’m not interested in reading but are conceptually innovative and help me think about form; books I wouldn’t read again but were formative in expanding the boundaries of my thinking in my youth; books I wouldn’t read again but were imperative for escaping painful parts of my youth when I didn’t yet have a command of the written language to help me through it.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Write a novel set in the Chinatown supper club my grandfather used to own.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I really like what I do now which is teaching and writing.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I teach because I love learning so I guess I write because I love reading?
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
20 - What are you currently working on?
Finishing Prison Industrial Complex Explodes, an excerpt of which recently appeared in Line; a subversive sewing sampler; internalizing the principles of water.