Kate Rogers’ new poetry collection, Foreign Skin, debuted in Toronto with Aeolus House Press in July 2015 and in Hong Kong in October this year. She lectures in Literature and Media Studies at the Community College of City University in Hong Kong.
Kate’s poetry about the Hong Kong protests has appeared in The Guardian and the Asia Literary Review. Other publication credits include the Kyoto Journal; ASIATIC: the Journal of English Language and Literature at the Islamic University of Malaysia; Contemporary Verse II; Orbis International; and Many Mountains Moving.
Kate’s previous books are City of Stairs (Haven 2012) and Painting the Borrowed House (Proverse 2008), both of which received publication grants from the Hong Kong Arts Development Council. Kate is co-editor of the OutLoud Too anthology (MCCM 2014) and co-editor of Not A Muse: the inner lives of women (Haven 2009).
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book, Painting the Borrowed House (Proverse 2008) changed my life by showing me I had an audience for my poetry. It was far more personal, or "confessional" than what I write now, but also borrowed some of the cultural rituals and artefacts of Hong Kong which I have admired for many years. I think by including those aspects of Hong Kong life in my first book I discovered my own myths. My most recent poetry collection, Foreign Skin (Aeolus House 2015), has a lot more persona poems. Some also feature Chinese cultural rituals and myths, but weave them together with my own myths, my questions about my cultural heritage (Ukrainian). At the same time, this latest book is less confessional. I also like to think I have continued to work on my craft and that this most recent book is the best crafted of the three collections I have written.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I like what Margaret Atwood said about poetry in a talk she gave at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in 2009. She described poetry as "condensed emotion". Poetry has always felt like the best way for me to look more deeply at a feeling, to pause with a moment. Fiction can do that - the short stories of Canadian Alice Munro pivot around moments. Hong Kong writer Xu Xi, whose work I teach in an Asian Writers in English course, has many stories which spotlight a moment: a revelation (To Body, to Chicken from Access: Thirteen Tales). Malaysian novelist Tan Twan Eng's The Gift of Rain and Japanese novelist Junichiro Tanizaki's The Makioka Sisters both follow the main characters movements and interactions with a camera eye, but poetry is different for me. Its brevity allows more room for intensity and for epiphany.
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?
My work seldom comes out almost ready to share. My poetry usually goes through many drafts. I try to look at drafts several times before sending them out to a literary journal. The nature of my job means I have enforced gaps between editing drafts and that can be good because | see my work more clearly. If I am working on a series of linked poems I may write a lot of notes before drafting the poem. That can be especially true while drafting a persona poem about a real person. I feel that I have to inhabit that person's life as much as possible so I can experience empathy for him or her.
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?
I have done both. My first two books were assembled from poems which came together around themes organically, especially my second book, City of Stairs (Haven 2012). I got a grant from the Hong Kong Arts Development Council for that collection in part because I had forty per-cent Hong Kong content, so that affected how the book took shape too.
My latest book, Foreign Skin, doesn't have the same constraints. The poems in that book came together naturally, but there is a whole section, "Ah Ku" poems, in the voices of Asian women from backgrounds, communities and periods of history where they had little or no voice.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I do enjoy doing readings and like to share my work. I learn from doing that. Poetry was meant to be read aloud before it was written, so the spoken rhythm of poetry is important to feel its shape. I often go away from readings ready to tweak poems I've just read again. I read from Foreign Skin at Art Bar in Toronto on July 28th.
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?
I do have a theoretical concern behind my writing: giving voice to those who could not express themselves, usually disenfranchised or isolated women from traditional cultures and a distant past.
This concern behind my writing has led me to ask which questions a writer must consider to avoid appropriation of voice. I will be participating in a panel on that topic at the Asia Pacific Writers and Translators conference in Manila, the Philippines, in October 2015. It has been very easy for white writers to take on the voice of any character they choose, of any race or culture for many generations, but writers of colour have not found it as easy to write about race - whether in their own voice or that of a persona - and find a white audience. (This is a big concern for writers of colour in MFA programs at American universities these days.) Writers from India, Malaysia and China, among other Asian countries, are producing books in English at a rate they never have before. Yet they can still feel boxed into writing clichéd stories about immigrant struggle or isolation in the suburbs (Michelle Cahill, Australia).
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?
I think I answered that question about the role of the writer in larger culture to some extent above. In addition to being a writer, I lecture in literature and creative writing at the Community College of City University in Hong Kong. I think it is my duty as a writer who teaches to keep reading and teaching the works of my peers in Asia - writers from Malaysia, India, China, the Philippines - Ricky de Ungria; Sreedevi Iyer; Xinran, Amitav Ghosh, Luis Francia - and to promote the reading of their work to my students so their experience is mirrored for them.
I also think that as a Canadian poet I need to keep reading local poets and writers such as Alice Major and Bruce Meyer and Patrick Lane and Lorna Crozier and Donna Langevin and John Wall Barger and Heather Roberts Cadsby and John B.Lee and Evelyn Lau and rob mclennan and Anna Yin and Madeleine Thien, along with so many others, so I can keep learning from them and learning how to communicate with a Canadian audience while I am responding to life in Asia.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I have found working with my two editors very helpful. Both of them were kind and patient yet challenging. Thank you John Wall Barger for your help on Foreign Skin and Kate Marshall Flaherty for our work together on City of Stairs. I learned a lot from both of them. John in particular pushed me to push my writing further than I knew it could go and I really appreciate that.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Don't let self-doubt or rejections prevent you from writing. Those feelings may slow you down for a day, but get back to writing as soon as possible.
10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
If I am not teaching, a writing day begins with me reading poetry to get myself into the altered state of consciousness I need to be in to create my own poetry. It was Buddha's birthday today and I was at home writing, but first read some of Mary Oliver's Blue Horses and Sharon Olds' The Wellspring. They helped me find what I wanted to write about and access the part of myself from which to do that.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Reading the poets I admire can help me a lot. Or I swim for 45 minutes and let my mind go.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Sun-warmed pine needles.
13 - 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?
I have ekphrastic poetry which responds to the art of Van Gogh, and the Japanese artist Hokusai, in which the artist’s daughter O-ei speaks. I also have a series in the voice of German war artist Otto Dix, an exhibition of whose work I saw in Montreal about four years ago. Science can also inspire me. I've recently been reading about heart strings - the literal part of the muscle behind the cliché.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I read widely because I also teach Asian literature in English. I have already mentioned some of those writers who are important to my work above. Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being made a big impact on me and I read a lot of Banana Yoshimoto and Haruki Murakami because I love their surreal view of the world and my students respond to their writing. I am reading more American poets such as Mark Strand, and short story writers like Junot Diaz and Thad Rutkowski, but being in a former British colony, I also still have access to the poetry of Stevie Smith and Seamus Heaney and Carol Ann Duffy. I am lucky that I can still access such a variety of books while living in Hong Kong. I fear that eventually that will change here.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I would like to write a collection of largely historical persona poems in the voices of a range of women in Asia - the local women and the travelling Victorian women - and somehow weave their experiences - both separate and where they connect - together into a book.
16 - 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 am doing that other occupation as a lecturer in literature, creative writing and media studies.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Writing is my vocation. I can't live without it - it's my life's blood. Teaching complements writing except when I have periods of heavy grading or administrative duties. It can be hard to balance the two at times, but I often feel very lucky I can do both because my vocation is fed by my profession, and vice versa.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The last great book I read was The Orenda about the last days of the Hurons. I found the alternating points of view compelling. Joseph Boyden's writing keeps me connected to Canada and the troubled history of our country. I found The Orenda raw, deeply disturbing and moving. Another book I mentioned earlier - Junichro Tanizaki's The Makioka Sisters, also made a strong impression on me. The story is set in pre-WWII Japan and tells a slow and meandering tale of four sisters and their struggles to find asuitable husbands for the younger two women as Japanese society becomes more westernised and women have more choices. The narrator reflects on the nuances of the younger sisters' behaviour and their implications at length. The book reminds me of Pride and Prejudice, but it isn't as amusing. I am also reading Susan Morgan's book Bombay Anna, on Anna of the King and Siam fame because of my interest in the real woman behind the icon. One of the last great films I saw was The Life of Pi based on the novel by Yann Martel. There have been others too, but that stands out.
19 - What are you currently working on?
I have begun to work on the project I mentioned above: a collection of largely historical persona poems of women from and in Asia - the local women and the travelling Victorian women. I even have a few poems in the voice of the fictional character Fenella Crabbe, wife of the well-intentioned, but ineffectual British school master, Victor Crabbe, from the first book of the Anthony Burgess Malayan Trilogy - Time for a Tiger.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;