Fiona Sze-Lorrain Interview
by Zara Raab
Fiona Sze-Lorrain made her debut at nine as a zheng harpist in Singapore’s Victoria Concert Hall. She has since become an interdisciplinary artist working in poetry, music and theater, as well as a publisher, critic and curator of the avant-garde. My Funeral Gondola (Manoa Books/El Leon Literary Arts, 2013) is Sze-Lorrain’s second book of poetry. Presque invisible — the French translation of Mark Strand’s Almost Invisible — appeared in France last year. Her translations of contemporary Chinese poets —Bai Hua, Yu Xiang, Lan Lan and Zhang Zao — are or will be published by Zephyr Press. She lives in Paris, France.
Zara Raab: Thank you for agreeing to speak with me about your artistic life and the publication of your new book, My Funeral Gondola. You were born in Singapore, you’ve lived in New York, and now France. Our readers would be interested to know how you came to settle in France, and also why chose to write your poems in English.
Fiona Sze-Lorrain: I was born in Singapore and grew up in a hybrid of cultures. I spent most of my young adulthood in Europe and the States. For a brief stint, I stayed in Edmonton, Canada before moving to New York to pursue my studies at Columbia University and NYU. I stayed on in Manhattan and worked for a while, mostly as a dramaturge in theaters. I also gave harp concerts. I am a Francophone, and my husband is French. So I live in Paris.
I didn’t choose to write poems in English — it wasn’t something I deliberated before committing. I don’t know how else I can best express myself in terms of verses. Truth is, neither English nor any other language is a comfort zone in its entirety for me.
Z Raab: You are a musician as well as poet, critic, essayist, and translator. My Funeral Gondola is full of musical references, including a poem with a title from the French composer Ravel that recalls your learning to play an instrument as a young child. How does your music nurture your writing?
F SZE-LORRAIN: This is a tough question. I struggle with it. I’m sure there must be some informative overlap between music and writing when one practices either or both on a daily basis. They claim my attention in different ways, and I like to keep them that way. Sometimes, music does not necessarily have its “contents” when you work on it in relation to the moment — onstage, for example — for the experience needs to be honored first. It also depends on the material. I don’t mean to suggest that writing isn’t an experience; there’s something naked about yourself that you can hide more easily — if you want to — when it comes to writing. Or so it seems to me.
Z Raab: Do you mean the writer can hide behind his words more easily than he can disguise himself in a new wardrobe? Or more easily than a musician might mask herself with her music?
F SZE-LORRAIN: Yes… with Internet, it’s even trickier: the image — or the “illusion” — seems to have precedence over the real. But it’s hard to generalize . . . . it depends.
Z Raab: Are some of the poems as much musical compositions as they are verse constructs in language?
F SZE-LORRAIN: Hope so — though I understand that poems and musical compositions aren’t always lending authority to each other in ways we can control or define. They are more organic than we imagine. Mushrooms in omelets or omelets with mushrooms?
Z Raab: Some of your poems strike me as more invented than others — these poems use absurd and disparate imagery, rather surrealist — like the lines, “thoughts on the horizon that imitate / rainy sentences” (from “Sonata Amoroso”). There’s a persona there, but — forgive the allusion — it’s shadowy, dispelled. Other poems in this book—and many of the poems in your earlier book Water the Moon–– seem very close to the speaking poet in a more embodied way; poems like “Now, Meditate,” “Come Back,” or “Francois Dead” seem to have you more physically present at their center. Is this your experience? Can you avoid moving into the center of your own poems, or do you seek to remove yourself from them, or enter them only from a distance?
F SZE-LORRAIN: I find distance refreshing, and do strive for distance as an older but more resistant way of seeing. They regenerate lyric energy and re-enact conversations that speak to, instead of for, persona(e) and what was gone. I don’t know if one can avoid moving into the center of the poems. Neither do I know if one can remove oneself from them. It seems to empower the poet more than the poems, doesn’t it? My own experience has more to do with me feeling diminished while poems gradually come into their existence on a page. At the beginning it felt foreign — like a hole, an emptiness inside, pregnant with a breath — but time helps: it relieves me of the anxiety, and re-arranges sensorial experience such as this.
Z Raab: The process of writing the poem relieves the anxiety? Is the poem at times inspired by a peering into an abyss or by sensations of emptiness or the grief and mourning that follow loss?
F SZE-LORRAIN: To some extent, writing the poem does relieve the anxiety of trying to get it “right” in the head. Still, once the poem exists in a rough form on paper, other anxieties or concerns call for vigilance. Sometimes it is just a ghost poem.
Z Raab: You’re a polyglot, speaking, what, several languages or dialects?
F SZE-LORRAIN: I am fluent in a few languages — largely for reasons of survival and the contexts of my upbringing — though I don’t feel comfortable “qualifying” myself as “polyglot.” I don’t enjoy sharing the company of those who take pride in presenting themselves with an identity of being bilingual, trilingual, and so forth. A wise friend warned me that those who think they know several languages could possibly end up having several egos. The implicit point has something to do with language as an accomplice allowing us to perform a role, a self — or even a mask — instead of opening up possibilities that better our sense of being. At the risk of simplifying, perhaps it’s the voice that counts more than the language.
Z Raab: Do you write primarily in English or do you also publish in French and Chinese? How much translating to you do, and from what language to what language? Do you dream in French, Chinese, English?
F SZE-LORRAIN: Yes, English. I’ve published some critical prose and translations in French. I translate from French to English (and vice versa), or from Chinese to English (but not vice versa).
My dreams — or the ones I remember — seem silent. They move in a rich palette of colors. Probably more visual than oral.
Z Raab: Acknowledging that in grieving, one mourns, as Gerard Manley Hopkins tells us, for oneself, the funeral gondola of your book is your own hearse — an idea you express with wonderful wit reminiscent of the gravediggers in Hamlet. Would you say, though, that throughout the poems, the past keeps reappearing and inhabiting the present — that this is a central theme of the book?
F SZE-LORRAIN: Is it “past” or “memories”?
While working on My Funeral Gondola, I recalled having realized how much more restorative the process could be when narrative challenges focused on details of memory rather than the categorical variable we’d label as the “past.” Ultimately, there must be some sort of a continuity or outward momentum. Guess this is where humor could come in.
Z Raab: In an earlier interview, you say that you don’t like to let words move around in your head, you prefer to put them down on paper. Does this mean that you do not revise your writing?
F SZE-LORRAIN: No. I revise obsessively — not in my mind, on paper. From time to time I wish I could exercise magic. Poems come slow to me; I’ve to work and fail and fail and work in order to arrive at linguistic alertness. This is why I want to put words down on paper instead of letting them float around as thoughts. I relish Sir Francis Bacon’s idea that wonder is the seed of knowledge, but tend to stick to the physical act of writing. The latter helps me to listen better.
Z Raab: This sounds more like a mental health prescription than an ethical or aesthetic choice — the desire to avoid being obsessive in your thinking. Can you elaborate a little on this idea?
F SZE-LORRAIN: Perhaps it’s more practical. Or convenient. All in all, it’s spontaneous. I travel often for concerts. I don’t typewrite straightaway on a computer, hence the need to record thoughts down.
Z Raab: As a final question: can you say something about what are you working on now?
F SZE-LORRAIN: I’m growing orchids. Lots of them. I’m also reading Proust.
Z Raab: It’s such a pleasure for me to be able to speak with you even if it is electronically, Fiona Sze-Lorrain. Many thanks!
F SZE-LORRAIN: Thank you, too.