Monday, October 09, 2023

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Amy Ching-Yan Lam

Amy Ching-Yan Lam is an artist and writer. Her debut collection of poetry Baby Book, was published by Brick Books in spring 2023. Also available is Looty Goes to Heaven (2022, Eastside Projects). From 2006-2020 she was part of the artist duo Life of a Craphead.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

This book, which is my first, both came out of major changes in my life and also changed my life in major ways. I began writing it during a period of transformation, in my work and in my relationships, and I couldn’t have anticipated how much the act of writing would also help that transformation along. This was my first time writing poetry, and there’s something about figuring out how to work in the form of poems that changed my brain and my capacity for feeling. It made me more sensitive.

2 - How did you come to visual art first, as opposed to, say, fiction, poetry or non-fiction?

Actually, I always wanted to be a writer, throughout my childhood. So when I went to university I studied literature and writing. But I was so disappointed and repelled by my graduate program in creative writing (at Concordia, FYI) that I sought escape from it and wanted to find other outlets. So I stumbled into the visual arts through the world of zines and DIY publishing and performance, and at the time, I found it so much more free than what I was encountering at grad school. I put aside writing and literature for basically a decade, to do performance and film and visual arts projects, and then finally came back to it in 2018.

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?

I think I’m a slow writer in the sense that I need lots of time to receive and gather ideas and images, and then fast in the sense that composing the drafts can happen pretty quickly. But then I need a lot of time again, to let the drafts sit and come back to them later to edit, and then time to repeat this editing phase with multiple poems in relation to each other for as many times as possible.

4 - Where does a poem or work of fiction 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?

For poems, I collect notes, and I start from there.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I think there’s something important about speaking the poems out loud, and having people listen to them. The speaking and listening creates a special space. I don’t want to take that for granted.  

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?

Writing seems like one of the few tools that makes sharing or expressing an interior world possible. It’s a way of representing lived reality. And lived reality—actual lives—are so repressed all the time.

I also think that any use of language is at least a little bit magical, in the sense of the speech act, like the act of naming, or the act of promising. It’s a way to make spells.      

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Do they even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

I’d like to be humble and not have an exaggerated sense of my importance. I also can’t stand writers who claim not to have political positions. So I guess I am of two minds: I don’t think writers have roles, but I also think that some writers are very bad at their roles.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

I always need other people to read my work and help me figure out what’s going on. I really value having other artist friends read my work and sharing the process with them. As a triple Virgo, I love a good critical eye.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

I once heard John Giorno respond to the question of “How to make it as an artist” with the answer “You have to ruin your life,” and it comes to mind often. I think it’s true in the sense that your life will no longer make sense to most people (ie. ruined) but it will also be a lot better (ie. ruined in the romantic sense, of having a more full relationship to the forces of change).

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction to visual art)? What do you see as the appeal?

Sometimes I wonder why I work in so many different genres and if it would be simpler and maybe more financially intelligent just to do one thing, but I enjoy the solitary work of writing as well as the collaboration inherent in other art forms.

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?

No comment.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

I find inspiration in other artists’ work and lives. And I also like to read about history, because I always find it so strange and interesting how people have lived and how transformation happens.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?


15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, Bob Flanagan, Donald Rodney… so many other artists who have wholeheartedly expressed their lives and struggles through their work, and the work of my friends.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

Go on a really long hike.

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?

Unfortunately, I think I could enjoy being a lawyer.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

I just watched The World is Family, a beautiful documentary by Anand Patwardhan about his parents and their lives and colonial rule and nationalism in India, and it made me cry all the way out of the theatre.

20 - What are you currently working on?

I’m working on a book called Property Journal, where I kept a diary for a year writing down every time the topics of real estate or housing came up in conversation or in my life. It’s being published by Book Works in 2024.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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