Conversation between Yanyi and Mary Jean Chan (excerpt from State of Play)

dream of the divided field
bright fear

This conversation between poets Yanyi and Mary Jean Chan is an excerpt from State of Play – shared with kind permission of Out-Spoken Press. State of Play brings together conversations between an international line-up of poets, taking place over the course of a year. 

Yanyi: It’s not so much that there’s one breakthrough moment as there are multiple. Each one is the new poem you wanted to write that you didn’t know how to write. One day you’re doing it. It only comes one piece at a time, piecemeal. Whenever I write a book, there do seem to be seed poems that are clearly important for the book and my development as a writer. They show that I’ve moved something. There were a couple of poems that did that for me in my second book. ‘Translation’ was a strange and important poem for me, though I don’t know how many people understand it. [Laughs]

There’s seeds for the third book, too. Where am I going next? In Dream, ‘Ambulance! Ambulance!’, a really long poem written in an older voice, comes to mind. I have different styles of writing that are best for getting at different values. The voice that I was writing in for ‘Ambulance! Ambulance!’ holds joy and hope. It’s exuberant, a this-or-that kind of voice that I developed when I was younger. The voice didn’t die away but took more of a backseat as I’ve moved toward, say, the tender tone of my first book or the more metaphysical or mystic voice of some of the poems of my second.

Mary Jean Chan: It’s interesting, because what you’re saying reminded me of friends saying certain things like, I gave your book to my best friend, who gifted it to her partner for her birthday. On one level, it says nothing about the poetry, but the fact that my book has now become something that is a gift that meant something to a queer person, or, I remember someone at a literary festival saying, I’m going to buy your collection because my daughter is queer, and I want her to read it. That almost transcends the poetry itself, because if I wrote something that meant something to someone, or that might provide some kind of comfort or solace, that’s the ultimate dream for any writer. In a way, I really value these comments, maybe because I never had that growing up (in terms of having queer role models in literature or the arts). In contrast, a book review feels quite different. It’s like, someone is taking my poetry seriously. That a critic has close-read a poem of mine and has understood my poetics feels valuable to me. It makes me happy in a different way. 

Yanyi: I totally know what you mean. The book being a physical object makes such a difference in how it can be part of a gift economy. It becomes imbued with the love from one person to the next. Or even, you know, the fact that the book was requested at a library is always really meaningful to me.



Mary Jean Chan is the author of Flèche (2019) and Bright Fear (2023) published by Faber. Flèche won the Costa Poetry Award and was shortlisted for the International Dylan Thomas Prize, the John Pollard Foundation International Poetry Prize, the Jhalak Prize and the Seamus Heaney Centre First Collection Poetry Prize. In 2021, Flèche was a Lambda Literary Award Finalist. Chan won the 2018 Geoffrey Dearmer Prize and was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem twice. Chan was guest co-editor with Will Harris at The Poetry Review in Spring 2020, and co-edited 100 Queer Poems (Vintage, 2022) with Andrew McMillan. Chan serves as Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing (Poetry) at Oxford Brookes University. Born and raised in Hong Kong, Chan lives in Oxford.

Yanyi is the author of Dream of the Divided Field (One World 2022), finalist for the 2022 New England Independent Booksellers Association Award for Poetry, and The Year of Blue Water (Yale, 2019), winner of the 2018 Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize, finalist for the 2020 Lambda Literary Award in Transgender Poetry, and one of 2019’s Best Poetry Books by New York Public Library. Most recently, he is the recipient of a 2023 Vermont Arts Council Grant and a 2022 Tanne Foundation Award. He teaches poetry at large.