An Interview with Tammy Ho Lai-Ming

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{This interview was originally published on Peel Street Poetry.}

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Denis Tsoi: What was the impetus or defining moment that made you pursue your writing further?

Tammy Ho: As I have mentioned elsewhere, I wrote almost exclusively in Chinese until university and it was mostly just silly scribbling. When I was an undergraduate student at the University of Hong Kong, I spent a great deal of time in the library. One day, I picked up a copy of Ambit off a nearby shelf and started reading. I was especially drawn to the poetry by living poets and shortly afterwards I began trying to write creatively in English. I showed my first poems to one of my professors and received positive feedback, which encouraged me to continue writing. I was also fortunate enough to be published in Yuan Yang, the university literary journal, and Asia Literary Review, around that time. I have been writing ever since.

Denis: What was the first challenge you encountered as an artist? What was the process like?

Tammy: I didn’t encounter many challenges when I first started writing as a university student. I had more time then, and I never seemed to run out of ideas. I was also naively confident of my writing and did not waste time worrying about how it was received. I would say I encounter more challenges now. I no longer have the luxury of time to write poetry. If I want to write something, I really have to create the time to do so. I also have a far more critical reaction to my own work these days.

Denis:  How has Hong Kong inspired you as a writer and your body of work? 

Tammy: The city has inspired me greatly. Its rhythm, places, people, stories, grievances and hopes. Growing up in Hong Kong also means that the city contains almost all of my childhood memories (I spent some time on the mainland when I was two years old), which I write about in my poems as well. In recent years, I feel a stronger urge to record in poetry what is happening in the city and the changes we are witnessing due to the increasing influence of Beijing.

Denis: What are your favourite poems?

Tammy: My favourite poems are those that tell stories or use unexpected language. I also like poems that are sensual, sexy. More and more now, I appreciate poems that have some social and political significance, poems that perform some function beyond the aesthetic and literary.

Denis: Whose work do you admire and currently follow?

Tammy: I admire many people’s work and I love coming across excellent pieces by writers I did not know before. I also pay keen attention to the development of Cha contributors and I delight at reading their new work in other publications. Currently, I am reading Leung Ping-kwan’s Hong Kong poems closely in the hope of including some in the new course Poetic Convergences: East and West, which I am offering in the Autumn semester at Hong Kong Baptist University. I am also reading a few contemporary collections inspired by Victorian poetry (one of my research areas is neo-Victorianism). Of course, there are writers I return to often—they are my ‘comfort writers’—Clarice Lispector, John Berger, Georges Perec, Geoff Dyer, W.G. Sebald, Louis MacNeice, Fernando Pessoa, to name a few that come to mind.

Denise: How do you start producing your work? What is your routine?

Tammy: I often make notes for potential poems, even though I rarely have time to write these days. As I have said elsewhere, recently, I participated in the Beijing Bookworm Literary Festival, and one of the panelists talked about the temporal distance necessary to turn an event or moment into poetry. He suggested that ten to fifteen years is possibly an ideal remove, and that if an event is worth recounting after a decade it is proof that it deserves to be written down. I agree that this is a very good approach to write about personal memories and experiences—the poems I write often recollect what happened ten or more years ago, such as growing up on a public housing estate or hula hooping with my sisters.

I think there are other types of poems, however, that cannot wait. They need to be written down and read now. Three of my recent published pieces, for example, are on topical issues: the disappearance of the Hong Kong booksellers, the ‘two-child policy’ being introduced in China in December 2015 and the censorship of an art installation in Hong Kong.

Denis:  How do you know when a piece is finished?

Tammy: As Auden paraphrased Valery, ‘A poem is never finished, only abandoned.’ This is a lazy answer, but I cannot improve on it.

Denis: What advice would you give to other aspiring writers?

Tammy: Read a lot before you start writing. Don’t write to please a particular crowd or worse, a particular person. Be responsible for what you write. Don’t be discouraged easily and do listen to constructive criticism. Be part of a writers’ community, even if you may not agree with some of its members. Have an opinion about things. Don’t compromise and don’t self-censor. Write.

Denis: How do you navigate between the two languages of Cantonese and English in your work?

Tammy: I feel more comfortable writing in English but I love to incorporate Chinese/Cantonese elements in my poetry.

Denis: What is your most memorable memories that you captured in a poem?

Tammy: Some poems are like memory capsules for me. One such memory captured in a poem was meeting my mother for lunch after I had interviewed a survivor of the Great Famine in China. Every time I read that poem I am reminded of the heat of that summer, my mother’s tired eyes, and the faceless people crisscrossing the street. Another memorable moment was picking up my young sisters after school, although they complained, jokingly, that I have changed a few small details.

Denis: What are your hopes for Hong Kong poetry in the future?

Tammy: I have high hopes for Hong Kong poetry. Many people are writing, reading at events (thanks to Poetry OutLoud and Peel Street Poetry), and publishing. But I am also concerned about encroaching censorship and self-censorship.

Denis: Do you find Hong Kong is a place that is conducive to harbouring talent?

Tammy: Hong Kong has a lot going on and an emerging writer who is not shy can easily find himself/herself in the midst of a supportive and friendly community. Still, I don’t think Hong Kong is literary or cultural enough, compared to other world cities, such as London and Paris. I wish I could do more to change that.

Denis: Tell me about the start of Cha, what was it about 2006/2007 that gave you the motivation to start Cha?

Asian ChaTammy: As I have said elsewhere, Jeff Zroback (my co-editor) and I started the journal back then because we saw that there wasn’t any online English-language publication based in the city, even though it was a common thing in the West and in some other Asian locales. We felt that Hong Kong and Asia more widely had something to offer to English writing and we wanted to do something about it. Jeff is an editor by trade and I had the experience of editing creative works and so we were confident that we were in a good place to start such a project.

Denis: During your time as a poet, living abroad and as a Cantonese speaker, how do you juggle between identifying as a Hong Kong resident compared to having an international outlook from your time abroad?

Tammy: I never feel like I need to don a particular identity while writing. I will use “Dispatches from Sawbridgeworth” as an example. The poem talks about living in a small village in the UK but the voice of the persona is Hong Kong/Chinese.

Denis: Hula Hooping is your first collection (2015), was there a motivation that you took your time curating this collection? (And if so, how did you know it was the right time to release a collection/not the right time?)

Hula HoopingTammy: My first poems were published when I was an undergraduate student studying at the University of Hong Kong. Since then, I’ve been writing and publishing continuously. I finally put together Hula Hooping last year for a number of reasons. My publisher (Peter Gordon), poetry editor (David McKirdy) and many close friends had been encouraging me to publish a collection for years. And I felt confident enough about the direction of my life (I completed my PhD and have a job I love). I suppose I also felt I shouldn’t wait any longer. I am not getting any younger.

It took quite some time choosing the poems for inclusion in Hula Hooping and in the end 66 poems were selected from more than 150 previously published pieces. There were a few that I wanted to put in the collection, such as “How The Narratives of Hong Kong Are Written With China In Sight”, “Mythologies” and “Perhaps A Second Sun”, but were excluded because the book was getting too long. I hope to publish these poems in a subsequent collection one day.

Denis: In 2017, universal suffrage will be a very poignant topic, what advice would you give for writers that have a sense of anxiety regarding this issue?

Tammy: If there is nothing other than writing that you can do to change the situation, then write. Write about your anxiety. Write about your disappointment, disillusionment, anger. Write. You can do something through writing. A gathering of voices. A call to arms. Don’t believe poetry or writing makes nothing happen. Doing nothing makes nothing happen.

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Denis TsoiDenis Tsoi is a member of Peel Street Poetry and software developer. He has been interviewing prolific writers since 2015 and hopes to share their wisdom and experience to aspiring writers.


hlmTammy Ho Lai-Ming
is Assistant Professor at the Department of English Language and Literature. She is the administrator of Agora. [Click here to read all entries by Tammy.]

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