There’s a Poem for That: Onjana Yawnghwe + We Follow the River

Poet Onjana Yawnghwe’s new collection of poems We Follow the River (Caitlin Press) is “a love story to my family, to immigrant Canada, to Thailand” where she was born. Read our interview with Onjana and the poem “Her, Cooking.”


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There's a poem for that... NPM on All Lit Up.

An interview with poet Onjana Yawnghwe

All Lit Up: Can you tell us a bit about We Follow the River and how it came to be?

The cover of We Follow the River by Onjana Yawnghwe

Onjana Yawnghwe: All of my poetry books are love stories, and We Follow the River is no exception. The collection is a love story to my family, to immigrant Canada, to Thailand where I was born, and to the Shan ethnic group in Burma/Myanmar. It is an inquiry on (not) belonging, race, culture, and family trauma.  

The book took well over 20 years to be born. I started writing most of these poems in my early twenties, at a time when I was intensely focused on writing about racial politics and cultural identity. However, in the cultural milieu of the time, there wasn’t much appetite for these books. Eventually, my manuscript was put away and I moved on to unrelated projects. Every once in a while, I would go back and revise the poems, but I essentially thought the manuscript would never see publication.  

In November 2022 my mother died, and I suddenly remembered I wrote a number of poems about her years earlier, and I found myself going over the poems. It was then I decided to give the manuscript one last go. I spent some time doing serious revisions and sent it off to Vici [Johnstone] at Caitlin Press. To my surprise, the book was accepted, and here we are today. I’m so thrilled because the book feels larger than my individual story, and because I get to share my family with the world. 

ALU: What sparked your initial love of poetry?

OY: I always liked poetry, even as a kid. A while back I found a poetry chapbook (of sorts) which I made when I was nine years old and which included drawn pictures and rhyming verses. I remember having to memorize poems when I was in elementary school, and choosing “Fire and Ice” by Robert Frost, and “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” by Emily Dickinson (I still can recite lines from them today), both of which were from this paperback poetry anthology that our family had. But I think the moment when I actually discovered the immensity and power in poetry was when I was fourteen, spending my lunch hours in the school library (as I always used to do), and leafing through Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. I came upon the poem “Out of the Cradle, Endlessly Rocking” and was floored. I loved his long lines, the accumulation of words, his rhythms, the music of his verse. I remember crying from the sadness of the poem. That was when I realized the emotional potency of poetry.  

ALU: What has been your most unlikely source of writing inspiration?

OY: I don’t know how unlikely it is, but definitely film. Both film and poetry can capture the soul, I think. To me, the language of film is so similar to poetry – how complex stories are distilled in moments, how there is such awareness of all the senses even though it’s a largely visual medium. I almost feel I write poetry cinematically – I see a scene in my head as if it’s a movie, and try to recreate that moment with words. 

Cinema has been my stalwart companion though moments of heartbreak and grief, and it has lifted me up and inspired me like nothing else. Certain scenes have stuck with me and I remember them so vividly in my head, it’s as if I lived them. But I want to mention three films which really capture the essence of poetry so well – one is Paterson, the 2016 film by Jim Jarmusch, which is about the day to day life of a bus driver/poet; Poetry, the 2010 Korean film by Lee Chang-Dong, about an older woman who discovers poetry; the most recent 2023 film by Wim Wenders called Perfect Days, about a man who cleans toilets in Tokyo.  

A really good film really places one in a specific moment and place, and reminds us of the beautiful but transitory nature of life. Film focuses a kind of concentrated lens on life that we would otherwise miss in the our everyday world. It’s grand! 

ALU: What are you most in the mood to read these days? Any poets you’re especially enjoying? 

OY: I would say a lot of my reading is diverse and at times obsessive. A few years ago I was struggling a bit emotionally and could only exclusively read Game of Thrones fanfiction (some of them are really, really good, just as good as published books). Then I moved on to being only able to read Historical Romances – I think in one year I devoured about 350 books! These days, my reading is back to normal in terms of variety. In terms of poetry, I’m currently awed and fascinated by Claudia Rankin’s Just Us, which combines incisive social insights with astounding intellect and poetic impact. I’m reading some less traditional poets, like Dale Pendell, who wrote a three part poetic exegesis about the mind-altering power of plants called the Pharmakopoeia. I’m also re-reading Yoko Ono’s poetic book of instructions Grapefruit; I love her simplicity, joy, and fearlessness. I’m currently excited by non-traditional poetry forms, risk-taking in literature, and discovering genre-defying projects.  

ALU: Are there poetry collections you can’t get out of your head years later?

OY: There are a handful of poetry collections that have been foundational to me as a writer, which I discovered when I was just starting out. One is Dionne Brand’s Land to Light On (1997), which is one of the earliest poetry books I read that wasn’t written by a white person. It taught me so much about ideas of belonging, identity, Colonial resistance, and it is so rich and subversive in its use of language. Marilyn Dumont’s A Really Good Brown Girl (1996) was such an important work – it had anger, and looked at Canada’s history and systems critically, through the lens of a Métis woman growing up in a flawed, racist world. The book really resonated emotionally with me because it contained all these mixed up, contradictory notions of identity, culture and trying to be part of this country. 

There’s a poem for culinary connection…
“Her, Cooking” from We Follow the River

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Onjana Yawnghwe is a Shan-Canadian writer and illustrator who lives in the traditional, ancestral, and unceded lands of the Kwikwetlem First Nation. She is the author of two poetry books, Fragments, Desire (Oolichan Books, 2017), and The Small Way (Dagger Editions 2018), both of which were nominated for the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize. She works as a registered nurse. Her current projects include a graphic memoir about her family and Myanmar, and a book of cloud divination.

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Thanks to Onjana for answering our questions, and to Caitlin Press for the text of “Her, Cooking” from We Follow the River, which is available to order now (and get 15% off with the code THERESAPROMO4THAT until April 30!).

For more poetry month, catch up on our “there’s a poem for that” series here, and visit our poetry shop here.