A Conversation with Esther Vincent Xueming

¬†SC: With poems covering such a range of topics, the sectioning of the collection helped contextualize my reading of the poems. As a fiction writer, I found that I continually sought out an ‚Äėarc‚Äô to follow along. I wonder if you could speak about the intention¬†behind each distinct section of the collection? Do you see them building and telling a story, in a way?

EVXM: Thank you for this question! This particular editorial decision was something I grappled with for some time. You’re right to say that my poems cover a wide range of topics. They also traverse expanses of geography as well as landscapes of memory and time. When I embarked on this project, I wanted to produce something like Grace Nichols’ I Have Crossed An Ocean. I was also reading and inspired by Linda Gregg’s Sacraments of Desire, Joy Harjo’s She Had Some Horses, and Li-Young Lee’s The City in Which I Love You, all of which were sectioned meaningfully into four to five parts. My working manuscript comprised four sections, but my supervisor felt that four was too disparate and that three might be better in terms of the book’s coherence. Again, I am indebted to his guidance and from there, I started to think about the three sections. I knew I had to create a section for the dream poems, and decided to title each section after a poem within the section. Dream fruit held most of my dream and meditation poems, and poems evoking sleep and the subconscious. I wanted to open the collection with Dream fruit as a way of inviting the reader into my dreams and subconscious, into a mode of dream-like envisioning.  

¬†The second section¬†About love,¬†is truncated from the first poem in that section, which writes after Boland‚Äôs¬†‚ÄúQuarantine‚ÄĚ. I had to think about how to arrange the poems in this particular section, as they ranged from romantic, familial love to love for the land and home in which one is born into and resides upon.¬†I have to admit that this was the most tricky section but I am satisfied with how it has materialised.¬†‚ÄúFalcon‚ÄĚ was the last poem to join the collection and I decided to include it in¬†About love¬†rather than¬†Dream fruit¬†even though it draws from a dream too as I¬†found that¬†the peregrine falcon‚Äôs migratory nature would serve as the connection between this section and the next, just as how the bird in the poem connected¬†the¬†speaker‚Äôs home to¬†other places, bird to self.¬†¬†

The¬†final¬†section¬†Pilgrims¬†contains¬†my travel poems, or poems about¬†‚Äėelsewheres‚Äô.¬†One of the questions posed by this section is the mobile nature of home, and whether or not we can feel at home away from home.¬†The poems in this section are seeking poems. They search for home and belonging, to place and to Earth.¬†They recognise their status as outsider, as transient visitor, as pilgrim.¬†Yet, they dwell in place and establish roots through routes.¬†I wanted to end with a grounded sense of self, and chose stone, which across many cultures signify permanence in the face of rapid industrial and urban change.¬†‚ÄúMemory stone:¬†In fragments‚ÄĚ pays tribute to the various places I visited in Croatia, and traces the¬†speaker‚Äôs memory that is held within each stone.¬†The stones also symbolise time, and reminds readers that long after the human body perishes, the stones¬†will remain, weathering to¬†nature‚Äôs¬†rhythm.¬†I intended for the final lyric in this poem ‚Äú6 Ensemble‚ÄĚ to wrap up the section and collection. This ultimate¬†lyric¬†is¬†concerned¬†with ‚Äúthe history of home / away from home. Collected over time‚ÄĚ, with memory recreating an¬†‚Äúensemble of remembered places‚Ä̬†and an image of ‚Äúsojourn‚ÄĚ. The temporary nature of the ‚Äútraveller‚Äôs sojourn‚ÄĚ and ‚Äúdrifting‚ÄĚ is also a commentary on our fleeting time on Earth, and¬†the final image of the ‚Äúundercurrents crash / beneath, waves breaking reef ashore‚ÄĚ can be read¬†in¬†many ways.¬†¬†

I would love to hear what readers think, but personally I find the sound of waves crashing and the image of the broken reef so powerful and evocative, as it returns the poem, the book and reader to Earth, to water, to the sea. In all honesty, the book would not have been possible without Earth. We are not possible without Earth.  

SC:¬†This is a broad question, but I wonder if you could speak a little about your process when it comes to poetry? Do you generally begin with an image, a line, a subject, etc or does it depend on the piece? I‚Äôm thinking specifically of ‚ÄúThe Blue Mountains;‚ÄĚ I keep coming back to the image of that ‚Äúleaking hose.‚ÄĚ Imagery is so strong throughout this collection, but I was occasionally more swept away by the concept of the poem itself, as¬†in ‚ÄúMontenegro in Two Scenes.‚ÄĚ What comes first for you when drafting, and what do you work to hold onto as the poem evolves?¬†

EVXM:¬†Every poem is different, and so my process differs for each poem. Typically, I draw from recurring memories or dreams or experiences. This could be in the form of an image, line or emotion. If I refer to ‚ÄúThe Blue Mountains‚ÄĚ, the poem happened because I was reading some news about the particularly bad bushfire season in Australia sometime in June 2019 through May 2020.¬†Australia holds a special place in my heart because my family (we¬†grew up¬†working class) actually had to sell our apartment to downsize from a spacious (by local definition) four-room to a¬†much smaller¬†three-room flat just to afford this family vacation. I was twelve, on the cusp of adolescence, and this was our first family¬†trip¬†outside of¬†Southeast Asia.¬†This was a big deal for us and as a child, everything about the place¬†was magical.¬†In particular, I recall how my mother¬†loved¬†The Blue Mountains, which offered our family a welcome respite from the city.¬†In turn, I resolved in my childish heart to retire there one day.¬†The place represented for me some kind of memory of familial bliss and natural beauty, and so when I read news of the bushfires destroying the land, I felt a¬†kindred¬†sense of grief and sorrow.¬†¬†

It‚Äôs interesting how we can feel kinships¬†to places away from home, and feel at home away from home.¬†As a child,¬†I felt at home¬†and at peace¬†in The Blue Mountains, with its invigorating mountain air and wide expanse of space. This memory helped me to¬†empathise with the place. I think the impetus for writing the poem came in the form of the image of the charred joey, published by¬†The Times of India¬†in one of its articles.¬†Local news coverage reported the numbers of lives lost¬†on a daily basis, human and more-than-human, and my heart somehow went out to the latter, who were dying by the millions.¬†I began this poem in grief but ended on hope.¬†The dead joey taught me that¬†my poem could be ‚Äúbrimming, undefeated, full / of life‚Ķ against the raging dark‚Ä̬†of the fires and I am humbled each time I think about the lessons nature has taught me¬†by just being.¬†¬†

Ironically, I don’t try to hold on to anything but let the poem speak through me. I see myself more as a vessel, and the poem as the voice, message or journey that needs to take place through me. That’s why my poems begin, but I never know where they lead. Each poem surprises me as I write and when I revise my work. Sometimes, when writing a draft, I know it’s still raw and unfinished when the poem is clouded by negativity, anger or bitterness. It’s important to let these emotions through though, so that the poem can gain clarity and light. The revision process is important for me in finding my way and finding out what the poem really wants to say. It’s quite an intuitive process and I know a poem is ready when it teaches me something I never knew before.  

¬†You¬†mentioned¬†‚ÄúMontenegro in two scenes‚ÄĚ. My first draft was actually a collection four lyrics, of various places in Montenegro. My supervisor read it and said I was trying to do too much without enough depth, and so I let go of two other lyrics and decided to focus on two more poignant ones.¬†I think this was a good decision because it allowed me to¬†take my time to get to know¬†Perast¬†and Cetinje again.¬†It also meant I had to focus on these places and what they taught me: the old man‚Äôs joy immortalising the young boatman who never returned home in the former, and the stray dog‚Äôs wisdom and lack of attachment in the latter.

SC:¬†When it comes to¬†ecopoetics¬†as a genre, a characteristic attributed to it by James¬†Englehardt¬†is that ‚Äúit is connected to the world in a way that implies responsibility.‚ÄĚ This genre feels heavy in a way, as if it carries even more of a weight due to the present moment. In creating an entire collection within the genre of¬†ecopoetics, how did that ‚Äėresponsibility‚Äô manifest for you? Was it more beneficial to your craft to lean in, or was it necessary to put certain connotations aside in order to create more freely?¬†

EVXM:¬†You refer here to¬†Englehardt‚Äôs¬†‚ÄúThe Language Habitat: an¬†Ecopoetry¬†Manifesto‚ÄĚ, where¬†Englehardt¬†begins with¬†the opening line ‚ÄúEcopoetry¬†is connection.‚ÄĚ, and goes on to define¬†ecopoetry‚Äôs¬†entanglements with language, science, the non-human world, spirit, body, family, culture, society, ethics and lastly, play. I¬†appreciate this way of thinking about¬†ecopoetry¬†as ‚Äúresponsibility‚ÄĚ, an ethical framework through which literature engages politically with the world and our environment. In fact, one of the ways I might describe¬†ecopoetry¬†is as a form of eco-social activism. I like to think of¬†Red Earth¬†as my contribution to Earth,¬†through poems that mourn and celebrate Earth, that seek communion with Others (places, people, cultures, more-than-human beings) while recognising our differences, that search for home at home and away from home to come to an enlarged, expanded, planetary vision of Earth as home and the self as at home on Earth.¬†While the word ‚Äúresponsibility‚ÄĚ might seem heavy, another way to look at it is through the eyes of love. We¬†can¬†also be responsible for a thing that we love. In this light, we can¬†think of¬†ecopoetry¬†as poetry of loving attention to Earth, with an ongoing awareness of human-induced environmental damage¬†to Earth¬†and the fragility of ecosystems should¬†we¬†not act responsibly.¬†¬†

For me, when I was working on the collection, I didn’t know as yet what its theme or genre would be. I was writing poems that were eco-conscious, I was writing poems about family, I was writing poems about places away from home, I was writing poems about home. I was writing poems motivated by awe, deep anger, love, grief, hope. To respond to your question more directly, I created freely under the guidance and advice of my MA supervisor, Boey Kim Cheng, who told me to write without concerning myself too much about the collection’s theme. I think this freedom enabled me to delve deep and reach out without limiting myself to any one topic, theme or genre, i.e. ecopoetics. However, it was clear that across my poems, there were similar concerns about the speaker’s place on Earth, and how the speaker related to Others and by proxy, the self. As I prepared my exegesis, my research and critical examination of my work naturally began to gain clarity in two areas: ecopoetry: place and the making of home, as well as ecofeminism. I have to thank Kim Cheng for directing me to specific poets and readings. Independently, I devoted much of my research to the study of women authors like Mary Oliver, Joy Harjo, Eavan Boland and Grace Nichols whose poetics spoke to me and influenced my work.  

As I mentioned earlier, I did not consciously set out to write a collection of ecopoetry. However, I found myself writing a collection of ecopoetry by engaging with issues close to my heart, in responding to places or news or policies or art or memories or objects or subjects that somehow had eco-social resonance. We live in time and in place, and so I was simply writing as someone conscious of her time and place on Earth.

Esther Vincent Xueming is the editor-in-chief and founder of The Tiger Moth Review, an independent eco journal of art and literature based in Singapore. She is co-editor of two poetry anthologies, Poetry Moves (Ethos Books, 2020) and Little Things (Ethos Books, 2013), and Making Kin, an ecofeminist anthology of personal essays by women writers in Singapore (Ethos Books). A literature educator by profession, she is passionate about the relationships between art, literature and the environment. Follow her on Twitter @EstherVincentXM. Her debut poetry collection, Red Earth, is available for purchase from Blue Cactus Press here in North America and Europe and here from our distributor in Asia and the rest of the world. In Singapore, you can get a copy of Red Earth
from any Kinokuniya store.