Joanne Leow grew up in Singapore and lives as an uninvited guest on the unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples, including the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish), səlilwətaɬ/Selilwitulh (Tsleil-Waututh), xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam) and Kwikwetlem First Nations. She is an Associate Professor at Simon Fraser University. Her creative work and research lie at the intersections of the environmental humanities, transnational and diasporic cultural production, intimacies, autotheory, and decoloniality. Her writing has been published in Brick, Catapult, Evergreen Review, The Goose, Isle, The Kindling, The Town Crier, and Ricepaper Magazine. Seas Move Away is her debut collection of poetry.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I think that before I published my first poetry collection, seas move away, I didn’t really see myself as a poet or writer but primarily as an academic and ex-journalist. Seeing my poems in print, on the shelves of bookstores and in the hands of readers really helped me understand the materiality of my work.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I have been writing poetry since high school… one thing that really changes how I approached it was taking a workshop with the late C.D. Wright at Brown during my undergraduate degree. Reading her work and having my own poems workshopped really opened up my mind to what poetry could be and do.
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 tend to spend a long time thinking about something and then when it comes to setting down words on the paper, that process usually happens fairly quickly. Especially for poems, my initial prose draft is quite close to the final piece. For me, editing is a process of sharpening, cutting, and breaking up the line.
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?
Between work and family life, especially when I was caring for two young boys and then elderly family members who were in a different country, I have always only ever had the time to write in fragments. Yet, I do think these fragments are part of a whole, it’s just that sometimes I can’t see the entire book until the last fragment is down and I can go about structuring my pieces.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love public readings, as someone who teaches the words of others, it has been a revelatory experience to read and reread my own words to many different audiences. I find that my relationship to my own poems evolve as I read them aloud in different contexts and I learn so much about them from how an audience reacts.
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 think it’s an occupational hazard as an academic, but yes, I do have larger theoretical concerns behind my writing. I often find that my poetry and creative nonfiction are where I work out things that can’t be said or explored in conventional academic writing. I find it freeing to incorporate elements of memoir and experiment with language in my creative practice. I am very much concerned with how bodies react when subjected to power and desire and an increasingly hostile climate. I’m interested in global environmental histories and how these are manifested in our family stories and our everyday lives.
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 think there shouldn’t be one way to be in larger culture prescribed for all writers. I think that whether they choose to work in a political way or an ahistorical mode, that perhaps there is a need for all different kinds of writing… I admire, read and teach writers who consistently speak truth to power and who aren’t afraid to take risks that way. But I also enjoy writing that lets me escape into different worlds or laugh at silly foibles. I think it’s important to keep that sense of joy alive as well.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I find it essential. I have really enjoyed the limited experience I have been privileged to have with literary editors. I think it is so crucial to have an outside perspective on one’s writing… by the end of the first draft, very often you can’t see the forest for the trees as it were.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
I love all kinds of language and diction, and even if certain legal or political language makes me angry, its power still fascinates me. So in that vein, I actually find it easy to move between genres… terms, words, ideas just spill over from one to the other and sometimes break down these boundaries.
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?
I don’t have a writing routine! It’s hard to hold down a full time job and to have a family and to find time to write. I start the day with a cup of tea, looking out of my window and then saying good morning to my household of pets and humans.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I go for a walk or take out my watercolours. I try to take my mind off the task at hand knowing that on some level my brain is still working things out.
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