Jay Gao on Imperium
Jay, you’ve had an incredibly busy year, from winning The London Magazine Poetry Prize 2021, the Desperate Literature Prize for Short Fiction 2022, and having just published your debut poetry collection, Imperium. What has been your highlight so far?
It has been an amazing and humbling year; all these successes may seem to have happened all at once, suddenly, but so much goes on behind the scenes, including many rejections – as all writers will know too well! I am very proud of this collection, especially when I reflect on all the invisible architecture and support that goes into writing and making a book. I hope that, whatever happens, whether I have busier or less busy years going forward, I can still find the time and space to focus on writing and reading.
Imperium reimagines Homer’s Odyssey through the lens of a witty, though often weary traveler who coasts through hotel bars and tourist spots with an introspective outlook that exposes the often exploitative underbelly of travel and the mark that Imperialism has left. Why did you choose to ground your collection in myth through the Odyssey?
I have always been interested in mythology ever since I was young. Some of the earliest books I remember reading were translations of Greek myth aimed at children, picture books and illustrated guides. Then, much later, I fell in love with poets like Anne Carson, Derek Walcott, and, more recently, Alice Oswald and Fiona Benson. What I find interesting about myth is not merely the narrative that surrounds a story – what happens next, where does Odysseus go – but also the language we use to talk about myth and storytelling; the language that surrounds myth. Especially in Homer, there’s something so interesting about the language that goes into concepts like stranger, return, nostalgia. I don’t just necessarily mean ‘what does this word mean?’, but more as a lexicon of impressions, composed of symbols and motifs and implications, that cannot be separated from language. What does it mean to be heroic in our contemporary times? How might the symbol of an island be entangled with geopolitics? What does it mean to give ‘Nobody’ a body? These questions, for me, feel endlessly capacious.
One moment in the collection that stood out to me was the comparison between a glowing Greek statue and the impact it had on the subject, while a later visit to see the Terracotta Army is lacklustre. I read this as having imperialist biases – how important was it for you to convey this aspect of tourism?
I think it’s a key moment in the book because it highlights one of the undercurrents in Imperium: this inauthentic dichotomy between ‘East’ and ‘West’. On one hand, being born in the UK meant that Greek and Roman antiquity – with its standards of beauty and art – easily becomes a period of fascination and desire. Yet being in the UK means that I am also a part of an imperialist and colonialist legacy that trafficked in Orientalism, Chinoiserie, exoticism. Imperium, in small ways, is an attempt at reframing these biases, or trying to reconcile them. How might I lean so heavily on a pillar of the European canon whilst also engaging with art, culture, and perspectives from different parts of the world that come with their own aesthetic signatures?
You divide your time between Edinburgh and Rhode Island in the States – has this transatlantic lifestyle impact the way you view travel and how you write generally?
Definitely. I moved to the USA two years ago to do my MFA in Creative Writing, and I’m about to start a PhD there too. Around that time, I was at a point in my poetics where I was increasingly hungry to explore a broader range of Asian diasporic poetry, particularly from writers of East Asian and Chinese heritage; the USA, due to different immigration histories, had more of a lineage, or canon, of those writers available, stretching back to the 1970s. Writers like Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Myung Mi Kim, John Yau. In a way, moving to the US, was a knowledge-seeking mission for me: an opening up of my poetics towards something richer and more generative. A way to find out what I did not yet know.
I wanted to ask you about form, particularly your creative take on prose poetry that you have called a ‘stack’, with several poems in the collection taking on this form. Can you tell me a little bit more about this and where the inspiration for the ‘stack’ came from?
The stack came from my obsession with islands, drawing on the ideas of an archipelagic poetics, coming from various Caribbean writers like Kamau Braithwaite, Éduoard Glissant, Aimé Césaire etc. Sea stacks are geological formations near coasts where erosion by the wave creates a pillar that becomes separated from the rest of the cliff. I found that very attractive visually as well as narratively: the image of a gap, a tear, a ‘break’ in the natural landmass. For me, the stack is a poetic space that can be filled with waves, tides, anything you want to put into the poem, in a form that I hope feels slightly organic. When I read those stacks aloud, I often first read the words separated by the gap downwards, then I go back to read the poem as a whole, and then, to end, I read the stacked words from the bottom back up. Ultimately, it’s a way for me to play with interruptions and what those interruptions might signify.
Finally, you’ve had an exciting 2022 so far, but is there anything that you’re working on at the moment that we can look out for?
I am working on a few projects. A fiction book that might be composed of two novellas: one novella is about a fog, and the other is about a doppelgänger. I am also working on some newer poems that might be about Fernando Pessoa, trees, and clouds.
Do you think poetry is where you feel the most at home?
I think so. If only because I feel most at home when I am able to explore language, and poetry feels closest to that endeavour.
Jay Gao is a Chinese Scottish poet, fiction writer, and the author of Imperium (2022) published with Carcanet Press. He is a Contributing Editor for The White Review. Originally from Edinburgh, Scotland, he is an incoming PhD student in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.
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