Quill and Quire

Chuqiao Yang

« Back to
Author Profiles

Not really a confessional poet: Chuqiao Yang debuts full-length poetry collection

Chuqiao Yang credits T.S. Eliot for her love of writing poetry. As a child, she was an inveterate, and uncommonly precocious, reader: she devoured Shakespeare and Keats before moving on to Walt Whitman. But it was “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” that really made an impact on her. “This is such a clichéd moment, but I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is amazing!’ and wanting to do something similar one day,” she says.

Several decades later, one day has arrived. This April, icehouse poetry (Goose Lane Editons) is publishing Yang’s full-length debut collection, The Last to the Party. A group of richly textured, deeply felt lyrics, the book marks the culmination of some three decades of reading and writing and thinking about the potential for language to contain and convey meaning.

As a first book, it’s a strong achievement. Given Yang’s long association with imaginative writing, it would be unsurprising to hear that it came together with ease, but the reality was more complex. “I’ll just be honest: I had no idea what I was doing,” Yang says about the process of pulling the collection together.

Part of her hesitation involved the highly personal nature of the book’s content; part had to do with the time frame in which the collection was compiled. The poems were written when Yang was in her 20s and early 30s, at the same time as she was pursuing a degree in social science from the University of Ottawa and postgraduate work at the University of Windsor.

The poems in The Last to the Party are replete with intimate content: one poem opens with the observation “All fathers are their daughters’ dragons and dragon-slayers” (a line Yang attributes to her mother), while another begins, “In a bar made of first encounters, I turned nineteen.” Yang says she found much of the material embarrassing when she looked at the first iteration of the manuscript; the period between the composition of some poems and their collation allowed her a bit of perspective. “With the benefit of time, I could emotionally distance myself from some of the things I was writing about.”

When she was growing up in Saskatoon, Yang’s parents insisted she read books in English in order to improve her spoken language. As she got older, this grew into a habit of journalistic writing to interrogate her entanglement in a place where she was frequently the only Asian student in her class. As a girl, she branched out into reading books that were consciously different from her own background experience, listening to a wide array of music, and watching what she describes as “obscure” films. “The consequence is you don’t really have a lot of people to talk about that with,” she says. “I probably should have done sports or gone to more Roughriders games.”

Instead, she threw herself into writing poetry. She was shortlisted for the 2015 RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers and won the bpNichol Chapbook Award in 2018 for her first published work, Reunions in the Year of the Sheep. Publishers got in touch with her after the Bronwen Wallace recognition to find out whether she had a manuscript she was willing to show, which eventually resulted in the contract for her first full-length book and the realization she would have to push through her feelings of embarrassment about the material and her lack of experience in structuring an entire collection.

Working with editor Michael Prior helped with this process, Yang says. She credits his background as a professor with guiding her to learn more deeply about poetic structure and style, as well as recommending poets and poetry for her to read. “That really opened up for me a path to envision how the collection should look,” Yang says.

Prior gave Yang a piece of advice that was instrumental to the way she approached her material. How many lies, Prior asked, do you tell in order to get to the truth of the poem? This became a central question for Yang as she worked on revising her poems, helping her craft something that was more literary and less obviously journalistic. “I think with poetry, especially in the first few drafts, it’s too autobiographical,” Yang says. “Nobody needs to know all the details, all the facts.”

Yang’s poems generally feature a first-person narrator and deal with subject matter – family, romantic entanglements, the particular experience of being an Asian teenager on the Canadian Prairies – that could easily be read as confessional in the style of Sylvia Plath or Anne Sexton. Any reader should be careful not to immediately assume a one-to-one correlation between the first-person speaker of a poem and its author; this would seem to be especially true in the case of Yang, who balks at the suggestion that she is a confessional poet. “I hope not,” she says with a heavy sigh. “I’m generally a pretty private person and I certainly didn’t want to be in a position where if I read these poems five years later I’d think, ‘Oh my God, why did I do that?’”

Yang is aware of the temptation for a reader to assume that because elements of the poems track with her biography – she was born in Beijing and grew up in Saskatchewan before moving east to attend university – the work is transparently memoiristic in its content. “It’s hard for any reader who knows me or reads the biography at the back of the book not to assume that it’s all about me,” she says. “But I will say everything in the book is a lie. It’s completely fictional. I made it all up.”

This, of course, is a lie. What Yang is really talking about is the process of getting at a poetic truth through the judicious embellishment of craft, a practice even the most fervently confessional poets will indulge in. Even when she names herself in the poems – “I hear myself say, / Chuqiao, / Let me in, let me in” – there is a distance built into the craft of the poetry that allows for a gauze of safety or, in Yang’s own word, a “shield.”

The shield of craft is especially important given Yang’s penchant for language that is straightforward in its approach and lacks any hint of the self-conscious obscurity that plagues many first-time (and veteran) poets. Part of Yang’s approach involves employing a plainspoken syntax that adds both immediacy and emotional resonance to the reading experience. “Even my dad said, ‘I understand this, so this is a problem,’” she says.

But the unadorned language is in the service of a deeper purpose for Yang. Much diasporic experience is uniquely individual while also involving a history of colonialism and subjugation that persists through the present. Yang is clearly aware of writing in the nexus between Western culture and the rest of the world: one of her poems is titled “Pygmalion the Colonist,” while another references Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, a book that was subject to criticism for being too accommodating to a white audience.

Yang understands the complexities involved in addressing these issues and admits to thinking about the reactions of readers from various backgrounds to material that is frank and forthright and often tinged with adolescent anger. But she hopes that the poems, while falling squarely into the specific experience of a teenaged Asian girl in Canada, speak to something more common in the human condition. “I still wanted the book to be somewhat emotionally accessible. I hope there are many people who read the book who can understand having tense teenage years,” she says. “The bottom line is, with whatever style of writing or content you’re using, you just trust the reader. The reader is probably 10 times smarter than you. Just trust them to read the work and appreciate it for what it is.”