Interview with Wing Tek Lum '68: "My Poems are a Description of a Slice of Time"

Jocelyn Richards '12 sat down with Wing Tek Lum '68 during his recent visit as part of the Year of China.  She talked with the poet about his time at Brown, his path to becoming a writer, as well as his interest in the Nanjing Massacre.  What follows is a transcript from her interview.

Q:    You graduated from Brown with an engineering degree. Can you describe your journey towards becoming a renowned poet?

WTL:    I came to Brown in 1964 and I was really good in math, you know, in high school, but not very good in English and my verbal skills. So I think the school decided that I should enter the Engineering department. I studied Engineering at Barus & Holley and in those days we had to have 32 units to graduate— 16 of which were in Engineering, another 7 had to be in Math, Physics or Chemistry, and then I had to take both English 1 and English 2 because my entrance level was not that great. So that left very little time for any other elective courses. After my first year, I decided I wanted to broaden myself while I was at Brown, so I applied and got into the AB/ScB program—a five-year program, so I could minor in something. I chose art, and thought I was going to be an architect but that didn’t work out. But I did get to enjoy studio drawing and studio painting. With the fifth year, I was able to take a number of other courses and in 1967 two things happened. First, I became interested in writing poetry on my own, took one course in poetry writing, and then later audited another course in poetry—that’s the extent of my formal poetry training. Ever since then, from 1967 to now, I’ve tried to persevere in writing poems. The other thing that happened was I got involved with other classmates in political activism— this was the 1960s and there was a lot of resistance against the Vietnam War. I also got arrested at the Pentagon on a march to Washington. We were involved with a lot of issues concerning both the Vietnam War and civil rights.

So, including the engineering, I was also involved in political activism, not as one of the main leaders but as someone who was part of this particular group, and although I did not take too many poetry or English courses, I wound up in my last year as the editor of the school literary journal, so I had these two other interests.

Q:    Have you found your background in engineering to be advantageous to writing poetry?  

WTL:    I think my brain is wired differently from some other people, especially if you compare poetry to prose—I was very slow reader when I was younger and a slow writer, so I still have to write by hand. And when I compose a poem, it’s not on the computer so I have to use my hand and cross things off. I’m what you may call very meticulous with my choice of words, so that’s something that I think is different from my friends who are fiction writers— they’re not really as concerned about each individual word but the flow of words.

Another way to look at it is, when I’m looking at a photograph, very often the photograph is an inspiration for me. I look at it and jot down details about what I see, and then I look at it again, jot more things down, and then look at it again. So I’ve found inspiration in trying to describe the entirety of a single image. And I think that that has something to do with the wiring of my brain; I can look at something but it has to be fixed in time. So, I think my poems are a description of a slice of time. Again, for prose writers, they’re not interested in individual slices of time, but the flow of time and so instead of photographs, they’re more interested in film and how there’s a beginning, middle, and end in time—which is also known as a plot. I can’t come up with plots, so I have a different wiring.

Q:    Was reading The Rape of Nanking, published in 1997, the sole impetus for your decision     to write poetry documenting the Nanjing Massacre?

WTL:    I wasn’t really aware of that incident specifically—I knew about the Sino-Japanese War, I knew there were these atrocities, and I knew there were hard feelings by my parents' generation about the war, especially among the Chinese-American population, where I grew up in Honolulu, but I didn’t know about the specifics. So, in 1997, when Iris Chang’s book came out, I was outraged, so, I started writing one poem and then it cascaded into another poem and another poem. As more books came out about this particular event, due to the publishing success of Iris Chang’s book, I found some of these other books very helpful to me as a poet. But Iris’s book was the primary impetus behind my decision to start writing about the Nanjing Massacre.

Q:    You mentioned that you like to write poems capturing a slice of time. Do you primarily use photographs as inspiration or do you also look at written descriptions before writing poems?

WTL:    Both.  Obviously, you need some kind of hook before writing a poem—some piece of irony in a particular situation, which makes you think, “oh, this is interesting, I’d like to tell other people about it”, somehow, I’d like to articulate it from a printed page or photograph or whatever, and then translate it into a poem to allow people to access the incident, the historical event. So there is a purpose, an evangelical or polemical purpose to writing these poems.

Q:    And you’ve written from both perspectives when writing about the Nanjing Massacre—that of the Chinese civilians and Japanese soldiers?

WTL:    I’ve been writing now for about fourteen years, and I have about 90 poems, not all of them are good, but I have 90 attempts at different poems, and early on I decided, this is getting boring just writing from the point of view of the victim, I want to know why or what the responses were from people who perpetrated these particular acts against humanity, and so I tried to expand the perspectives from which I wrote. I have poems from people who were bayoneted; I have poems from Chinese collaborators, from Chinese soldiers who were sniping at the Japanese soldiers after the occupation. So, there are a lot of different points of view that I’ve tried to portray to get a bigger picture of the immensity of this particular historical massacre.

Q:    Is it difficult not to let your own emotions go into the poems? I think you write from a very neutral perspective, like you said “documenting a slice in time”, so it seems more about observation as opposed to forcing a message onto the reader.

WTL:    It’s definitely part of my strategy, I appear to be neutral, but hopefully people still get the point. Sometimes I’m much more up front about my point of view. Other times it’s not so much in your face and I try to lay something out and let the reader or a person in the audience come to their own conclusion— hopefully it’s the right conclusion, because as a poet, I try to manipulate a poem in such a way that although it appears to be neutral, hopefully I have enough details in there that those who are reading it will get my message; but they will not have it thrown in their face.

Q:    Yes, I think that’s a very important way to go about writing poetry. Some poems focus more on rhyming and rhythm but as you said, you’re more focused on the choice of words and in capturing a slice in time. I’m curious if you made a conscious decision not to include poetic devices in your work?

WTL:    Yes, well, I’m not a great wordsmith or lyrical writer and I can’t think of a lot of fancy metaphors, so I think my strength is in sticking to describing an image. And that was what attracted me to poetry in the first place. In the mid 60’s, when I was here at Brown, I first read people like William Carlos Williams, and other Imagist poets. I really liked them and that was my entry into poetry, and I think it was what attracted me to it, so I stuck with it.

Q:    You mentioned that you enjoyed writing poetry on the side as a hobby for a number of years. I’m curious about what career paths you chose after Brown.

WTL:    After graduation I went to New York City and attended divinity school, because I had a lot of questions, but I also did social work in Chinatown, and because I didn’t know Chinese, I decided I wanted to learn Cantonese, so later I went to a school in Hong Kong, and spent half the time learning Cantonese and half the time again doing social work. I did that for a while before returning to Honolulu, where I’m from, and worked for my dad’s business, which is real estate. So I’ve been doing that job since 1976, but then on the side I’ve also done work with Chinese immigrants and connected with Bamboo Ridge Press, which is a local literary magazine in Honolulu. So, that’s how I’ve kept in touch with poetry writing, and I’m the business manager for this small press, but we’ve been around for over thirty years, which is a pretty good accomplishment for a small press.

We have a little workshop group, which meets monthly; we’re all writers and submit pieces to the group members who then read it in advance and make criticisms or offer suggestions. That has helped me to grow as a poet. So, I haven’t had a lot of college or MFA courses in poetry writing, but I’ve tried to make up for it by attending this group, which was started in 1980.

Q:    So you said that you studied divinity in New York City for a time. I’m curious if the “passion” you’ve discussed in your poems could be compared to the “passion of the Christ”?

WTL:    Well, the “passion of the Christ” is a rather technical term, so it’s not specifically that, but I think there’s a religious passion that could be compared to the passion to write poetry. From a purely career point of view, when I went to divinity school, I discovered I was not very good as an evangelical, in the sense of delivering sermons to the public, nor was I very good as a pastoral counselor. But in terms of contemplative ways of thinking about spiritual issues, that’s what I found most challenging, most stimulating, and it was a more private type of searching, and that’s where my passion was at divinity school. And hopefully that has something to do with my passion for reflecting on myself and the world that I’m in.

I’m also not limited to writing about the Nanjing Massacre, although that’s been a major output for me in the last couple years, but I’ve also written poems about my family and about Chinese-American issues. But those are topics that won’t be found in the next book I’m publishing, next year, which is totally about the Nanjing Massacre.

Q:    Will that be your first book that’s published?

WTL:    I’ve had one book published already, called Expounding the Doubtful Points.

Q:    Do you mostly use books as a resource for writing poems, or do you also conduct interviews?

WTL:    Mostly books, especially for this particular historical event, although I’ve tried to talk to people who were around at that time. The ones that I have gotten a hold of, some of them don’t want to say anything or they forgot, or they’re not interested, and many have already died. There’s not much oral history that I can do, so it’s mainly reading history books, published diaries, or memoirs.

Q:    As you know, this is the “Year of China” at Brown, which I like to think of as a way to bridge Chinese and American cultural, political, and economic understanding, and I think your poems do a similar thing in the sense that they too bridge the gap between different interpretations of history. So I’m curious if you think poetry is one method of bringing cultures together and facilitating mutual understanding across nations?

WTL:    Yes, I think poetry is a great bridge because it is one way in which people can access the world. Some other avenues include science or the observation of the natural world, some of it is through the humanities, such as history or psychology; the university has a lot of different disciplines, one of which is literature and creative writing. And, so, not everyone is going to be turned on by poetry, but there are hopefully enough people that are so that we who love literature and writing literature can communicate with others who are likeminded. There is that method of bridging cultures, of bridging the different peoples. But, that’s not the only way—there are many others. For instance, scientists can have a point of access with other nations as well. I think it’s good that the “Year of China,” from what I understand, is multidisciplinary. It’s trying to reach out from Brown to a whole other world through a lot of different avenues.

Q:    Do you think that your poems have a special place in the hearts of Chinese- Americans or are they received equally by people from a variety of backgrounds?

WTL:    I’m not sure. I think the ones that deal with family and Chinese-Americans definitely. The Nanjing poems may or may not. I think it’s also a question of China or Taiwan. I’ve given readings in Nanjing, Beijing and Taibei, and there’s always some people who are interested and some who aren’t. It depends on who’s reading it. But I have received positive feedback, and I think from that point of view there is a bridge that I’m trying to establish.  It’s a two-way street though, it’s a two-way bridge because I get feedback and I also learn and can improve my writing because of it.

Q:    When you write, do you write for an audience with the hope that they will come away with a new understanding, or do you primarily write for yourself?

WTL:    It’s both, but although I said I was a contemplative and reflective person, I think that what’s interesting is that I’ve always had somebody that I was writing to in each poem, whether it’s a general audience or just one person or a couple of people. So it’s kind of like a conversation with someone or some group of people—it’s never been just me writing for me. To me, that would be very boring.

Q:    Do you have any future aspirations for your poetry?

WTL:    I’m waiting for this next book to get published, so I’m still trying to round out my collection. The editors say that they need to come up with an order for the publication and may decide that we need to delete some of the poems or add new poems, so I’ll need to continue working for a bit of time. But I think that this will be it for this chapter of my life and writing this type of poetry. I will most-likely go on to something else in the future and I have some other ideas of what I want to do. For example, I wrote around twenty poems about Honolulu, Chinatown, and about what it was like to live there 100, 120 years ago. So I’m thinking that maybe I can go back to that, which would be another complete book.

Q:    That sounds exciting, thank you very much for the interview; I wish you the best of luck in your future poetic endeavors!

WTL:    Thank you very much.