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Mary Jean Chan Recommends Her Favourite Poetry Collections

Posted on 24th December 2019 by Mark Skinner

This year's Costa Poetry Prize was awarded to the highly deserving Fleche, by Mary Jean Chan. A kaleidoscope of interlacing themes that include motherhood, identity and belonging, Fleche reaches back into China's troubled past to illuminate very modern conceptions of place and isolation in a powerful, emotionally resonant collection. Here, Chan highlights the poetry that has spoken to her and inspired her to craft her own deft, nuanced work.    

The Dream of a Common Language: Poems 1974–1977 by Adrienne Rich  

Adrienne Rich showed me that it was possible to fuse the personal and the political, and her poetry and prose acted as a powerful antidote to the queer shame I grappled with during my early to mid-twenties. One of my favourite lines from her stunning “Twenty-One Love Poems” in The Dream of a Common Language asks: “What kind of beast would turn its life into words? / What atonement is this all about?”

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A seminal collection in the annals of LGBT+ literature, The Dream of a Common Langauge gave poetic voice to queer communities throughout the 1970s and continues to resonate on a deeply personal level to this day. Intensely political yet devastatingly intimate, Rich’s words are a veritable manifesto for deep-rooted change.
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Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine 

Claudia Rankine’s fifth poetry collection has been aptly celebrated since it was first published in 2014 as an urgent and timely book that sustains the United States' conversation on race and racial injustice on a level of national grief, even as Rankine brings it to the level of personal intimacy by asking, “How do you make a body accountable for its language, its positioning?”

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One of the breakout collections of the past ten years, Citizen illuminated a cultural and political moment in the West with unflinching power and breath-taking lyricism. Confronting issues of race and racism in prose, verse and image, Rankine ranges far and wide in her interrogation of identity, injustice and violence, making Citizen a masterpiece of polemical poetry and a classic for the ages.
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The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion by Kei Miller 

I love all of Kei Miller’s books, but The Cartographer was the one I kept returning to and wrote about for my PhD, in conjunction with the ideas of Édouard Glissant, a Martinican poet, novelist and theorist best known for his seminal Poetics of Relation. Through their dramatic monologues, the personae in Miller’s book enact a “poetics of Relation”, in which, in the words of Glissant, “Every Other is a citizen and no longer a barbarian.”

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A blazingly original collection that interrogates the dissonance between learning and spirituality, Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion scooped the Forward Prize for Poetry in 2014. Pitting a map-maker and a Rastafarian against each other in a metaphysical battle for meaning in place-names and location, Miller enlightens with infinite poise and dexterity.
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Stranger, Baby by Emily Berry  

I kept returning to Stranger, Baby when I was putting together my own debut collection, because there was something in how Berry explores the mother-daughter relationship, grief and language in her second collection that really moved me. I wrote my poem “beauty” after (re-)reading Berry’s poem “Picnic”, and I’ve kept returning to her poem “Canopy” for solace.

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Remarkably rich and admirably multi-layered, Stranger, Baby explores loss, belonging and the mother-daughter bond with candour and energy. Building brilliantly on the promise of her award-winning debut Dear Boy, this scintillating collection mines experience and insight to create something truly memorable.
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When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities by Chen Chen 

I love the playful seriousness of Chen’s poetry – When I Grow Up is the kind of book that makes me laugh and cry all at once. In his poem “Poplar Street”, Chen writes: “Sometimes, parents & children / become the most common strangers. Eventually, / a street appears where they can meet again.” Chen’s poems offer a radical hope that I draw on in my darkest moments. 

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Playful and vibrant yet perceptive and wise, Chen Chen’s masterly collection explores themes of queerness, parental relationships and the immigrant experience with dynamism and rich wit. Brimming with lines that speak to multiple twenty-first century narratives, When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities is a postmodern delight.
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The City in Which I Love You by Li-Young Lee  

Growing up in Hong Kong, I had not encountered many poets who were Chinese but wrote in English; Li-Young Lee was the first Chinese poet whose thematic concerns and lyricism spoke deeply to me. This particular collection (sadly currently unavailable) was also published in 1990 – the year I was born – so I’ve always cherished it. In one of my favourite poems in the book, Lee writes: “You must sing to be found; when found, you must sing.”

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