Spanning a period of 25 years, the poems in Jean Eng's
Festival of All Souls (Inanna Publications) explore the life of an Asian woman born in Canada and the experience of living between two cultures where heritage, gender and values serve to enrich personal vision.
In our Q&A with Jane, she shares more about how a televangelist's fundraising special and a preacher's sermon on forgiveness would became an unlikely source of inspiration and how, as a visual artist, poetry provides another outlet for expression when she is unable to paint. Plus, read the poem "Lady Dragonfly" from the collection.
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All Lit Up: Can you tell us a bit about your collection and how it came to be?
Jean Eng: Festival of All Souls is a debut collection of poetry that explores the experience of an Asian woman born in Canada and the personal vision resulting from the influence of two cultures. There are three sections in the book. "White Dragons" is an acknowledgement to the ancestors. The poems here have some reference to heritage—such as my parents’ lives or childhood memories. "Her Other Children" involves encounters with nature spirits: animals, gardens, the environment. "Being Seen" features a woman’s voice.
The poems cover a span from over 25 years ago to the present. Some actually took decades of constant revision until I truly felt they were finished. I’m also a visual artist and often wrote when the painting felt stymied, or I was physically unable to paint due to fatigue, illness, or injury. (You can write on your back; painting—not so much). Poetry allowed creative energy a place to land when it was less than forthcoming in my visual artwork and vice-versa.
Photo of Jean Eng
[Image Description: A front-facing close-up image of the author that is cut off at her chest. She is of Asian descent, has chin-length black hair and dark eyes. She is wearing an open collared, light blue shirt with blue stripes.]
ALU: What has been your most unlikely source of writing inspiration?
JE: I remembered watching TV once as teen, waiting for a regular scheduled program. I think it might have been Star Trek. It was pre-empted instead by a televangelist and his fundraising special. At the beginning of this sermon, a preacher talked about forgiveness, how it was in our best interest to forgive those who caused pain, disappointment etc. so we can get on with our lives. One of his suggestions involved creating a ritual of some sort where we acknowledge and accept what occurred, then make a symbolic gesture of letting go. I decided to give it a try. What I thought would be a cathartic experience turned out to be a guilty pleasure instead. After recalling an incident, the audience was encouraged to have an imaginary conversation with their respective offenders, to express how they felt about what happened. I didn’t even get that far. When I re-surfaced a memory, visions of payback or comeuppance immediately followed. My mind pictured one elementary school teacher who use to pull students by their hair— go bald every time her hand reached for a kid’s head. A dentist who filled the wrong tooth and still charged my insurance company began losing his teeth. I’m not religious, don’t go to church, yet televangelism inspired a poem about how a solemn attempt to forgive, unexpectedly backfired and produced a fun time instead.
ALU: Has your idea of what poetry is changed since you began writing poems?
JE: I like to think my idea of poetry has always been inclusive. That hasn’t changed much except perhaps for my original attitude towards rhyming poetry; I wasn’t a huge fan. But now that I’m more exposed to different kinds of poetry and poets, I appreciate anyone who does what they do well. I’ve also discovered that rhyme can be used effectively within the body of all sorts of poetry—for musicality, rhythm or emphasis.
ALU: What are you most in the mood to read these days? Any poets you’re especially enjoying?
JE: The pandemic, with its quarantine and lockdown measures actually forced me to visit my own bookshelves. I finally blew dust off book covers either never opened or I haven’t looked at for years, in particular, print issues from various literary journal subscriptions I had to stop receiving at some point because I couldn’t read them fast enough. Some date way back, I’m ashamed to admit, from the last century. Contemporary Verse 2, Grain, Room, The New Quarterly, Ricepaper— to name a few Canadian titles. I usually read from a volume before bed. If the material is particularly intense or challenging then I do reach for a favourite poet to settle down with before lights go off. Right now, Lorna Crozier, Susan McCaslin, Mary Oliver, Fiona Lam, and Mary Lou Soutar-Hynes, leave exquisite words and images in my head before I fall asleep.
ALU: Describe your ideal escape.
JE: I already live in a neighbourhood that provides great opportunities for the kind of escape I need and enjoy, namely access to nature in the city. My co-op faces a well-kept park in one direction and lake/harbour view on the other. We are surrounded by abundant green space: more parks, public gardens, a wetland, bike trails and waterfront habitat restoration projects. Give me trees, flowers, songbirds and Lake Ontario and I’m a happy gal.
Psst, Cio-Cio San—come here.
Don’t trust that sailor.
It ends badly; I saw the opera. Marry
him and you commit suicide on the
international stage complete with a
Your grief could slice bone; but worse? You
sing about it in glorious pitch.
Karma dictates that people will buy tickets
to watch you do this over and over again. Is that what you want?
Japan, with its delicate flavours of
ceremony will entice him to sample all
blossom and fruit as refuge/reward from
the navy. There’s more to living than
waiting three years for a married man
who only returns to collect your son.
Become a martial artist instead.
Devote three years towards learning
Train in weapons like nunchaku or sai.
Practice throwing the poison stars just in
case you never know when to defend
your honour from those who
expect abandoned wives to be sport.
Quash this potential for a tragic heroine by
turning Madame Butterfly into Lady Dragonfly: the geisha-ninja warrior.
Tell the maid you intend to pine
nights away in the garden for
the scent of his hand on your face.
Then sneak off to ambush bandits
if they bother peasant or village.
Paint your shadow like a brush of sumi-e
ink through the streets of Nagasaki.
Haunt criminals with their own
imagination. Leap between young
girls and danger; show them how to snap-kick wearing a kimono and geta.
When that letter arrives stating:
he wants his child but not
you—receive the news with pain
dismay and, yes, everything could
still happen over your dead body.
Except this time you have enough
resources to hobble anyone’s knees should they try.
* * *
Jean Eng is a writer and visual artist from Toronto, Ontario. Her paintings have been exhibited in Canada, the U.S. and Japan. They also hang in public and private collections including the Government of Ontario. Her poetry has appeared in literary journals in Canada, the U.S., and the United Kingdom, including Canadian Literature; Contemporary Verse 2; The Dalhousie Review; Grain; The Nashwaak Review; The New Quarterly; Room; Vallum and WomenArts Quarterly. Her work was also included in a limited edition chapbook, Lacewing, an anthology of nature poetry. Festival of All Souls is Jean’s debut poetry collection. She lives in Toronto.
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