Phoebe Wang on Poetry and Identity

Article by Adele McCann

Phoebe Wang is both very accomplished and very humble. Luckily for me, when I got to speak with her, we were joined by her father John Wang, who was more than happy to talk about everything that she’s achieved. We sat in the house of VACS founder, Keiko Honda, for an informal group interview where I had the pleasure of listening to stories from both daughter and father. I’ll share with you one of my favorites: John told us about the time that a young Phoebe won a writing competition.  As John tells it, Phoebe was eleven years old and won first place. Phoebe claimed that she was thirteen years old and won third place, but what they could both agree on was that it was a good starting move in a successful writing career. John explained that the judge couldn’t stop reading her poem all day.

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A number of years later, in 2015, Phoebe had entered another competition — the Prism International Poetry Competition — and won first place. This win would lead her to her book deal. Her first published collection of poetry, Admission Requirements, was released in March 2017. Phoebe has been touring with her book, doing readings of her poems. We were lucky enough to listen to her read one of her poems that tells the story of how her parents met and the writing is as striking as her recitation of it. He father compares her to Rousseau, which, even against her humble protests, seemed apt to me.

Phoebe’s book deals with a number of themes surrounding identity, family and boundaries. She wanted to write it for people who have to jump through hoops and follow rules that they had no part in setting up – like students. Her voice for the work came through trying to plainly say the things that are so much accepted as part of our everyday lives that we wonder why we never said them before. For Phoebe, poetry is a way to explore the unanswered questions and make sense of what she sees around her. In looking at place and people and identity and the tensions that nobody is talking about. What does it mean to be an immigrant? Or have your name mispronounced? Poetry is an outlet to ask those questions and she now recognizes that tension as the start of something that you need to express, something that can manifest itself into art. In looking at these unanswered questions, Admission Requirements draws a lot of its narrative from her own family. Her parents immigrated to Canada and she grew up stories of her parents working to make ends meet. It is a hard life, John explained, being an artist and living on a shoestring, but he is fully supportive of Phoebe. It is hard when you might have a fear of letting your parents down but he believed in her and clearly he was right to do so.

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Phoebe credits her parents as really good storytellers and she grew up listening to stories constantly, which has had a huge impact on her craft. John explained to me that if you can speak, you can be a storyteller —  you just have to listen first. It is through picking up bits and pieces from your experiences and stringing them all together that you can create stories. In getting to speak to John and Phoebe together you can see how they, and the rest of their family, inspire each other. Phoebe explained, “collaboration is really important”. A lot of her work responds to the art of her sister and her parents. Even as we spoke she noted that John had been painting earlier in the day, “its important to have other people around you who are doing creative things”. In terms of crossing into different artistic fields Phoebe says that she would like to get back into painting but that it’s something that will most likely have to wait until after her next book.

She is currently putting together poems for her next book, which is tentatively scheduled to come out in a year and a half. The direction for this next work will be focused more around ideas of time, love and the female artist. Phoebe says she’s never written a romance before and so wants to give it a try. As we at VACs have started our new poetry-writing workshop, Articulating Your Heart, I asked Phoebe for some advice for budding poets and she shared with us a little about her process. She shared with us about a part of the creative process that is less spoken about; what happens when you struggle with writing. She explained, very beautifully, that her creativity is like a well that can be drained, and you have to allow it time to replenish. You really have to fight for your time and your creativity. So much in our lives – social obligations, work, errands – are conspiring against you to create. Sometimes no matter what you do, it doesn’t seem to work anyway and in that time it is okay to be an audience member and instead enjoy other people’s art. Phoebe takes long walks, reads, looks at art and tries just to be in the world when she needs to top up her well. Yet she has learned —  though she said it took her a while — that it is okay to not always be creating. It’s an important lesson to learn but if you can tap into that creativity, poetry is a wonderful way to respond to the world. Luckily, it doesn’t seem to me that Phoebe has too much of a shortage of creativity, something I’m sure will be evident in her next work.

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