Amy Ching-Yan Lam describes her new poetry collection as plain, as it’s all out there for the reader to see. Today we’re given a peek into the collection Baby Book (Brick Books) with the featured poem ‘The Poet Li Bai’, which Lam describes as being one of core poems of the book.
Interview with Amy Ching-Yan Lam
ALU: When was the moment that you decided you wanted to write poetry? Describe it for our readers. Was it reading another poem? Was it listening to a poet read? Was it something different entirely?Amy Ching-Yan Lam: I don’t think it was a decision to write poetry so much as a compulsion. Like it came out that way, and I felt the need to keep doing it.ALU: If you had to pitch your featured poem to someone who had never read poetry before, how would you do so? What kinds of things do you think the new-to-poetry reader might find fascinating about it? What could you share about the poem’s writing process?Amy Ching-Yan Lam: I hope that people who don’t think of themselves as poetry readers can get into my work because it’s relatively plain. My friend Dana described it as a hand sticking a plate of food out, like “Here it is, it’s on the plate.” Like it’s all there.I wrote The Poet Li Bai early on, it’s one of the first poems in the collection. And I’ve edited this poem maybe the most times out of all of the poems in the book. But throughout all of the editing it also stayed pretty much exactly the same. I don’t know what that means—maybe it means that because this poem is at the core of the book, it needed to shift a tiny bit every time something else in the book shifted.ALU: What’s a poetry collection or individual poem that you’d recommend to anyone looking to get into poetry?Amy Ching-Yan Lam: I love Empathy by Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge. The balance of clarity and mystery is perfect, a perfect reflection of living.
The Poet Li Bai
From Amy Ching-Yan Lam’s collection Baby BookIn Chinese school I learned a story:
Once there was a very naughty boy. He was lazy and didn’t
want to sit around memorizing lessons, so he would skip class
and go to the market instead.
One day, amongst the cabbages and fish heads, he saw an old
woman sitting on an overturned bucket. She was bent over,
slowly grinding a very long and thick iron pole on a stone. Over
and over in circles she kept grinding the pole.
The naughty boy went up to her and said, Hey old woman, what
do you think you’re doing?
She said, I need a sewing needle, so I’m making one. It might
take years but I am very determined.
The naughty boy’s mouth dropped. This old woman was going
to grind down a six-foot-long pole into a sewing needle.
From that day forward, he never skipped a day of school again.
He became a stellar student and did all of his homework and
memorized all of his lessons.
He went on to become a very successful poet, one of the nation’s
From the old lady, he learned the lesson of persistence.The end.
And the lesson for me?
Like the boy, I didn’t want to go to school.
But I also didn’t want to become an old woman, doing some
Why would anyone be impressed by a pole?
We had to recite Li Bai’s most famous poem as well.
In the basement classroom we gestured along to the words.
The poet is in his bedroom. He sees moonlight, like snow, on the floor. He looks up at the moon. He looks down and thinks of his home.
Idiotic poem, I thought.
He looks up and then he looks down again?
Still the words echoed all the time in my head.
My head being a parking lot with one car parked in it, and
inside the car, Hello Kitty, Jesus, Qin Shi Huang, and Nelson
Mandela arguing loudly with each other, yelling proverbs and
The moon shining brightly on the roof.
Amy! My mom snapped.
She did my Chinese homework while I daydreamed,
writing out the answers for me to copy.
Everything I memorized stayed with me for the quiz day only.
Twenty years later, my mom still has the old Chinese school
notebooks in boxes. A foot massager, a coffee maker, stacked
neatly beside the big Rubbermaids with my old clothing.
She brings out a pair of butter yellow pants that I wore
twenty-one years ago.
She says, Do you want them?
I saved them for you.
The crotch is a bit ripped but the colour is a perfect yellow.
The colour of a disc in the sky.
The colour of a hole where pressure escapes.
I find a needle to mend them.
Then my grandma takes the needle from me.
She shows me a faster stitch.
She shows me a motion that’s
not this sequence of events.
Not a fable.
Not a moral.
But a switching
between the inner and outer.
And the old woman in the market talks to herself and to the
lizard under the bucket.
She is describing the movement of the pole.
The dust piling up in spirals.
And the tip, so pointed, it pierces through what’s shaping it
* * *
Amy Ching-Yan Lam is an artist and writer. From 2006 to 2020 she was part of the duo Life of a Craphead. Lam’s exhibitions, performances, and public artworks, both solo and as part of Life of a Craphead, have been presented at Seoul MediaCity Biennale, Eastside Projects, and Art Gallery of Ontario, amongst others, and she has participated in residencies at Macdowell and Delfina Foundation. Her publications include the speculative fiction Looty Goes to Heaven (2022) and the poetry collection Baby Book (2023). She lives in Tkaronto/Toronto, and was born in Hong Kong.
Thank you to Amy Ching-Yan Lam and Brick Books for sharing ‘The Poet Li Bai’ with us. Remember, if you purchase a copy of Baby Book or any of the other featured Try Poetry collections, you’ll receive a free digital sampler containing all of our featured poems. (Purchase from All Lit Up or from your local independent bookseller; send proof of payment to firstname.lastname@example.org if you purchase from your local!)