“It was a complete surprise,” Wong May tells me, laughing. One day in February, she checked her email, and then received a phone call that told her she was being awarded the Windham-Campbell Prize for Poetry, worth $165,000 (€150,000). “My last book [Picasso’s Tears] came out in 2014, and since then I’ve been working on translating Tang poetry, and have done very little of my own writing.”
Though she is described by the prize committee as “enigmatic”, and admits that she has “gone underground with [her] poetry for 40 years”, Wong May is neither reticent nor retiring in person, she simply dropped out of the literary scene in favour of a commitment to the work itself. “Silence, exile and cunning,” she says.
Born in Chongqing, China, in 1944, she moved with her mother – a classical Chinese poet – to Singapore in 1950. Since then, she has lived in the United States, in Canada and numerous European cities, and moved from Grenoble to Dublin in 1978 to settle with her husband, the Trinity College physicist Prof Michael Coey, whose research in rare earths inspired Wong May’s painterly pseudonym, Ittrium Coey. “I feel quite at home in Ireland. I’m very lucky to be married to an Irishman, and our two boys grew up here. Everywhere I go, I miss the Irish people.”
In China, painting and poetry are regarded as one art. If there is a muse, there is only one muse
Never comfortable with being called a “poet”, May describes herself as a “cultural worker” who writes poetry and paints, and her mind, interest and energies are most focused on whatever project she is working on at present. “In China, painting and poetry are regarded as one art. If there is a muse, there is only one muse.” For May, then, there is not much adjustment to be made between the two.
When I speak to her in Dublin, her current preoccupation is an iconoclastic stained glass artwork, titled The Kharkiv Madonnas. the five-piece work feaures sacred and anatomical hearts, glowing images of Putin and a black banner reading "The Deserving Refugees". Her dream, she tells me, is to find a refuge for it some day in the Irish Emigration Museum, Epic, in Dublin. "No church will be brave enough to house it."
This might seem an abrupt departure from her most recent book, In the Same Light, which was published only at the end of January this year. “Once a book is published,” she says, “it should be able to live without its author.”
But this does not mean she doesn’t have ample energy for conversation. She is a great talker: gregarious, insightful, and managing to bring a lightness and humour to a conversation that ranges through Peruvian poetry, translation, identity politics, and what she considers our present Age of Narcissus – Narcissus in crisis, that is, characterised by “self-obsession” and “infantile I-my-me-itis”.
In poetry, she includes Fernando Pessoa, César Vallejo (whom she refers to as the greatest poet of the 20th century) and Anna Akhmatova in her “pantheon”, but she is just as quick to admire Elena Ferrante and Banksy – two contemporary figures who eschew the limelight in favour of anonymity. Her poems, like Wong May herself, often have a dark underlying humour, an irreverence, and are characterised by sharp line breaks and a spare but sensuous style.
The words on the page should perform for you, coach you on how to read, so that poetry is an act of transference, or transport
In the Tang poems she has translated, and in her own poems too, there is a sense of erasure, and of silence. She loves the moments, as she writes in the long afterword to In the Same Light, “where poetry arises independently of words: not what is said, but what it does to you”. Still, silence can also be a haunting presence in her work, which can sometimes make surreal images from absence.
Considering herself “contrary, and old school”, The words on the page should “perform for you, coach you on how to read”, so that “poetry is an act of transference, or transport”. This was a guiding principle in writing her latest book – a brilliant, expansive and acutely rendered set of translations of classical Chinese poets – In the Same Light: 200 Tang Poems for Our Century, recently published by Carcanet Press. “When I translate, the aim is not just to translate the poem; but to translate the reader, the person sitting opposite you, to the poem, to translate them into the Tang dynasty, into a Tang poet. That’s what thrills me.”
For the past five years, while working on In the Same Light, she has regarded each poet as her boss. “I work for them.” So who was the best boss, I ask. Who did she enjoy working for? Tu Fu, she replies, without much hesitation: “He’s the most human, and the most forgiving.”
Over the past six decades, Wong May has published four collections, with a notable gap of 36 years between Superstitions (1978) and Picasso’s Tears (2014). She is nevertheless admired by readers across the globe, garnering reverence as a transnational and constantly surprising thinker.
“You don’t make poems like biscuits, turning out another custard cream or bourbon, put a stamp on it just because you can, every imprint well made, well written. I am only interested in things I cannot do, that is the thrill of poetry. For the time being it is stained glass. It fires me up because I haven’t a clue.”
I realise I have to be responsible for the work I have done
Happy on the outside of the “literary scene”, she says that “Poetry, for me, is a refuge. And to be among people who do not know that I write or work on poetry is a refuge.” There is a tension, though, in her thinking: she feels comfortable with not being known, but she also feels the need to be a better custodian of the work she has done. “Anonymity is my element. I’m free to do whatever I like because I’m not obligated to the world.” Ireland, she feels, is her “home base”, and she doesn’t wish to seek refuge anywhere else.
When I ask her how she feels about the publicity that will come with the Windham-Campbell Prize, she is still hesitant about the potential exposure. She admires Elena Ferrante, and those artists like Banksy whose art is public, but whose person is private: the work is everywhere, but the person is nowhere. “But there comes a time,” she reflects, “at a certain age, when you feel responsible for the work you have done: it’s getting later all the time, and I realise I have to be responsible for the work I have done.”