On poetry and hosting In/Verse: A Q&A with Fiona Tinwei Lam

9 Jan 2023 10:16 AM | Megan Cole (Administrator)

The pandemic forced the literary community to find new ways of connecting with our communities and readers, and in the early days of the pandemic, Fiona Tinwei Lam helped develop what has becoming one of our most popular online programs: In/Verse. In the fall, Fiona passed the hosting duties over to Susan Alexander. The Federaiton of BC Writers invited Fiona to share some wisdom and reflections on poetry and her time hosting In/Verse.

Federation of BC Writers: What character from a book or movie do you most identify with?

Fiona Tinwei Lam: When I was in elementary school, my “comfort” book when I was feeling blue was my dog-eared paperback copy of L.M. Montgomery’s 1923 classic, Emily of New Moon. Even before my father died of cancer when I was 11, I was a lonely, awkward, dreamy introvert. Books were my closest friends. I identified with the orphaned main character, Emily Byrd Starr, who wants to be a writer.
I didn’t go to movies very often growing up (no money, no time, no one to go with), but watched lots of reruns on TV.  I wanted to be Emma Peel, a spy and martial arts expert played by Diana Rigg in the British 1960s series
The Avengers. She was a feminist sophisticate who tossed bad guys over her shoulder. She was the smartest, wittiest character on the show.  In that vein, it only makes sense that I loved Michelle Yeoh, the acclaimed martial arts actor (now 60 years old), who plays an overwhelmed mother (and martial arts superhero) in the absurdist comedy-drama about the multiverse, Everything Everywhere All at Once.  I could relate to the notion of multiple co-existing realities and the potential for wildly varying identities within each person.

What book has lingered with you the longest?

Margaret Atwood’s Selected Poems, my first book of poetry which I bought in grade 7, is still on my bookshelves.

What was it about poetry that originally drew you in?

From when I first started reading poetry on my own in seventh grade, I loved poetry’s concision and its music, how it could convey so much depth and meaning in a few lyrical lines. 

What do you enjoy most about listening to poetry being read?

When poetry is read well, the music of the words (alliteration, assonance, consonance, rhyme, half-rhyme, etc.) paired with the use of silence, breath, subtle vocal dynamics and coloration, rhythm, pacing, and tone can amplify the imagery and structure of the poem, making it even more memorable.  The background anecdotes that often precede the reading also add a lot of context to the poem.

How do poetry readings inspire your own work?

Whenever I attend a reading, I have a pencil and paper handy to jot down ideas, phrases and/or thoughts that surface as a result of what I’m hearing. A reading might lead me to read more of that particular poet’s work, or just revisit that specific poem, which in turn might lead to an epigraph to a new poem or even a glosa. Maybe I’ll be inspired to try a new poetic form or explore a theme or approach I haven’t yet explored.

How did you approach curating the In/Verse events?

Jackie Carmichael, president of the BC Federation of Writers at the time, was keen on expanding the online presence of the federation during the pandemic.  I was very impressed with her interview of marvelous local poet, Junie Desil, and so I offered to assist with an online poetry series. She showed me the ropes and encouraged me to take it on, which I did for 13 months from September 2020 to September 2021, bringing together poets of varying styles, approaches and backgrounds. I wanted to be as inclusive as possible and invited poets with debut books (e.g. Jillian Christmas, Francine Cunningham, Tolu Ọlọ́runtọ́ba, Daniel Cowper and Tara Borin), mid-career authors (e.g. Hasan Namir, Joanna Lilley, Renee Sarojini Saklikar and Kevin Spenst), as well as senior established poets (e.g. Patrick Friesen, Cecily Nicholson, Fred Wah, and Evelyn Lau).

What were some of the biggest lessons you learned in hosting and curating the In/Verse readings?

During the height of the pandemic, I was very keen to showcase as many local poets as possible, to support their work and their books when live launches, readings and reading series were cancelled across the board.  So I ambitiously tried to program four poets for each monthly reading.  I learned after several months that the pacing was better with just three poets per reading.  It gave the poets a bit more time to read a few more poems, and gave us all more time for conversation and discussion. I still had to keep very close watch on the clock, but alleviated some of the time pressure. I certainly learned to become more adept with using an online platform! I was so appreciative of the tech help provided at each reading either by BC Fed Executive Director Brian Mortenson or board member, Ian Cognito.  They were indispensable in ensuring each event flowed smoothly.

What were some of the most memorable readings?
There was one reading where we were Zoom bombed—very alarming! We managed to resume the reading, however, thanks to Jackie Carmichael (ED at the time) handling the tech.  Jillian Christmas performed a wonderful spoken word piece while playing the ukulele. I remember Tolu Ọlọ́runtọ́ba reading amazing work from his chapbook, just before his first book came out, and before he won the Griffin Poetry Prize.  And the poem about residential schools read by Wanda John Kehewin was very powerful.

What do you/will you miss about hosting In/Verse?

I loved supporting other poets in getting the word out about their work, and enjoyed meeting some of them for the first time to tell them about how much I admired their poetry.  I enjoyed the rapport, and sharing insights about writing poetry.

What advice would you give poets when it comes to doing readings?

My recent essay, “Giving Voice to Your Words” for Resonance: Essays on The Craft and Life of Writing (eds. Andrew Chesham & Laura Farina, Anvil Press, 2022) focused on three main points that I also teach in the course I co-teach at SFU Continuing Studies with Evelyn Lau:  be aware, be gracious, be prepared.  It’s essential to be punctual, to stay within your time limit, to be aware of your surroundings, to rehearse your poems multiple times in advance in order to fine-tune your phrasing and vocal dynamics, and most importantly to connect to your audience

What’s inspiring the work you’re doing these days?

It’s been challenging to find time to work on my own writing given my present laureate projects (a two-stage City Poems Contest that is now in the poetry video contest stage involving the participation of four local public post-secondary classes in making poetry videos based on adult finalists’ poems, and the organization of a poetry video workshop with the youth poetry finalists.)
The laureate role has definitely inspired me to want to write more about the city that I’ve lived in for over 50 years. There’s so much to write about!  I am working on a creative nonfiction project that will integrate a number of short themed essays, as well as a series of poems about Vancouver’s public art and cultural/historical sites.

The City Poems poetry video project has inspired me to want to do more poetry video collaborations of my own. I squeezed in two short collaborations this summer: “Merry,” a short animated poetry video with two student animators about plastic consumption and pollution, and “Neighbourhood,” a live action video with two US filmmakers about people’s disconnection, denial and obliviousness in face of the climate crisis. I’m currently working on another animated poetry video with a student filmmaker about redaction vs creation based on my poem, “Un/Write."

For more information about In/Verse click here.

Supported by the British Columbia Arts Council

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