Wong May, a poet who has lived in Dublin for the past four decades, has been honoured this evening with one of the world’s richest international literary awards, the Windham-Campbell Prizes, worth $165,000 (€150,000).
“This is a complete surprise,” she said of her award, “miraculous coming from America! I have gone underground with my poetry for 40 years.”
May’s career spans more than six decades, beginning with Harcourt Brace’s publication of her first three collections, A Bad Girl’s Book of Animals in 1969, Reports (1972) and Superstitions (1978), then – after a gap of more than 35 years – Picasso’s Tears (2014).
Described by the prize committee as “enigmatic”, May admits dropping out of the literary scene in favour of a commitment to the work itself – “Silence, exile and cunning,” she says, quoting James Joyce.
“Wong May’s poems exhilarate and excoriate,” the judges said, “each precisely chosen word arriving as a surprise on the white space of the page. Her collections reveal a mind at brilliant and unceasing work: engaged with history, dismissive of patriarchal pieties, plainly sensual, and darkly funny.
“May has a transnationalist vision, her reference points ranging from Li Qingzhao to the English Romantics, Simone Weil to Dora Maar, her mother’s imperious deathbed demands for Häagen-Dazs to the ‘58 Chinese ‘nationals’ [who] breathed / Their last with packed tomatoes / In a sealed van from Zeebrugge to Dover.’
“In her omnivorous engagement with the world, Wong May fractures the line not just between the personal and the political but between languages, nations, and traditions. Again and again, she writes herself into places where certainty frays. In so doing, she expands our sense of what poetry might be, and do.”
Born in Chongqing, China, in 1944, May moved with her mother, a classical Chinese poet, to Singapore in 1950. Since then, she has lived in the United States, Canada and numerous European cities, and moved to Dublin in 1978 with her husband, the Trinity College physicist Prof Michael Coey, whose research in rare-earth elements inspired her pseudonym as a painter, Ittrium Coey.
Uncomfortable with being called a “poet”, May describes herself as a “cultural worker” who writes poetry and paints. “In China, painting and poetry are regarded as one art. If there is a muse, there is only one muse,” she told fellow poet Seán Hewitt in an interview for The Irish Times tomororow. “I feel quite at home in Ireland. I’m very lucky to be married to an Irishman, and our two boys grew up here.”
Her latest book is In the Same Light: 200 Tang Poems for Our Century (Carcanet Press, January 2022), a brilliant, expansive and acutely rendered set of translations of classical Chinese poets.
John McAuliffe, formerly Irish Times poetry critic and now associate publisher at Carcanet, described it as “a remarkable book. Its translations of classic poems are distinct, yet also various; and the book’s 98-page Afterword is a classic meditation on the translator’s art, and the art of poetry.
“This surprisingly wonderful and wonderfully surprising book speaks directly to issues around nation, border-crossing and migration. All of us at Carcanet are delighted with the news that Wong May will receive the Windham Campbell Award and celebrate the jury’s decision to recognise her work.”
This year’s other recipients are US author Margo Jefferson; Nigerian writer Emmanuel Iduma; US dramatist Sharon Bridgforth; British playwright Winsome Pinnock; Zimbabwean writers Tsitsi Dangaremba and Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu; and British poet Zaffar Kunial.
The prizes, the brainchild of lifelong partners and book lovers Donald Windham and Sandy M Campbell, are administered by Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. Now in their 10th year, they have rewarded writers with more than $14 million. Previous winners from Ireland include author Danielle McLaughlin (2019) and playwrights Marina Carr (2017) and Abbie Spallen (2016).