29 June 2015
NYWM Poetry: Lia Incognita
National Young Writers’ Month sees us throwing the spotlight on Poetry, with an interview series of young poets by Izzy Roberts-Orr. Say hello to Lia Incognita.
Lia Incognita is a Shanghai-born, Melbourne-based cultural critic and poet-provocateur whose words appear on airwaves, stages and pages including Peril,Overland and 3CR Community Radio.
What do you do?
I go by ‘Lia Incognita’ and I’m a performance poet. I also make radio and write essays and edit for a couple of publications – Peril Magazine, which is a magazine of Asian Australian arts and culture, and Mascara Literary Review, which has a focus on Indigenous Australian and Asian writing.
How would you describe your process or practice?
I was talking to a couple of writers and editors this morning, and I realised that I work across a lot of different media – not just genres of writing, but I also produce radio, I organize events, sometimes I organise protests. So I don’t necessarily have a writing process so much as an idea process.
Often I have something that I want to talk to people about, and sometimes it makes sense to do that as a poem that I’ll perform, sometimes it makes sense to write a creative essay, sometimes it makes sense to organise a protest.
For me, I think my process is that I start with the thing I need people to know about – the story I need to tell, the thing that I need to be heard. I might put it on my radio show or I might produce a poem, but it seems really obvious to me which to do with it.
Often there are things that I’ve written about in a bunch of different ways – I have a lot of poems that are, I guess, vaguely feminist in their themes, but I also have made speeches and written essays and organised events and protests about that.
I think my process is probably really different from a literary writer who’s not political, or whose work is less overtly political. My poetry is the place for the really emotional, tactile and visceral part of my ideas – almost the physicality behind some of the things that I might also explore in essay writing.
For example, I might talk about racism in Australia in an essay in a particular way, but then in a poem it will be both smaller and heavier. There are so many ways to write a poem, but for me I often have just an image or a phrase that I start with, or a feeling and then it goes from there.
Sometimes I have a lot of things that I want to say that I jot down and then put together, but I feel that poetry writing is a really physical process. Especially because usually I’m writing for performance – I’ve only really written maybe a couple of pieces that started off on a page, without having a gig in mind.
Because I’m playing with the sounds, it’s happening in my body.
Do you find it hard to go between so many different forms?
Sometimes I think it’s hard to concentrate – maybe I find it easier to have a lot of things going on, but sometimes switching from one thing to another is difficult. It kind of means you can procrastinate by doing another kind of work.
It keeps it fresh. I don’t know if you can tell from my poems that I also write essays, and maybe you can tell from my essays that I also write poems. There’s definitely some tics that flow on from one to the other.
How do you know when something’s ‘finished’?
With essays it’s much easier for me to tell when something is finished. Often, you’re working with an editor, which really helps, so they’ll let you know. The point where it starts to feel like you’ve already communicated everything and you’re just sort of fiddling with it.
Eventually it gets to the point where you feel like your editing is not necessary, you’re just sort of redecorating it – then it’s probably done and you should leave it alone.
With poems, especially for performance – often I’ll perform something that is quite raw and that I’ll probably still be working on. I’ll perform something that’s a work in progress and get the audience response and then rework it, so I’ve actually gone back and edited poems that I’ve been performing for years – only a little bit here and there, but I’ll find that after I’ve been reading something for a while, a few things will change or I’ll realise that some of the rhythm is not quite right.
I think that’s fine as well – that’s one thing I love about performance, is that there is that space for improvisation and remaking and also things being really site-specific. Sometimes I’ll really change the way I read something depending on the event and the audience, and change the emphasis and the pace, and the way I make drama. An especially big factor in that is just the size of the room, for how you play with voice.
Do you have any editing advice?
For me, because I’m primarily a performance poet, it’s just reading it again and again and again, reading it to different people, performing it in different spaces.
We’re really luck in Melbourne that there’s so many spoken word nights and open mic nights on that it’s really easy to go somewhere every week almost and read something if you want to.
It’s not necessarily just the audience response – because you might have an audience that hates or doesn’t get your work. I think that you’ll realise, regardless of what the response is, what you find strong in reading it to other people, because you’re defending it basically. It’s like a creative argument that you’re putting forward.
My advice would be to just read your own work aloud as often as you can, to as many people as you can.
Have you been rejected?
I’ve actually been rejected heaps for publication of poetry – I feel like I’m doing a lot better in terms of getting published as a non-fiction writer. I think that’s another thing I really love about performing is that you might have a few negative responses here and there, but all the responses you get a more valuable as a writer, because they’re really present. You’re not just getting a formulaic rejection.
Often, I have people say nice things – they come up and say what they liked, and what they found strong. You can still tell from that the poems that get complimented less. Also when I first started, I once had quite a seasoned poet, at one of the first gigs I did – they’d seen me at one slam I did, and then at another thing – at the second thing, they were like ‘oh, that was really great, I didn’t like the poem you read the other day, I thought it was a bit simplistic, but I really like that one.’ That was really useful.
Also, being part of a community – people think of poetry as being quite a lonely exercise, and it doesn’t need to be. Seeing what other poets are doing, hearing their work, finding what you love about their work really helps. I think that rejection feels a lot more fruitful than just getting a letter saying ‘no’.
When I first started doing slams, I did a few slams that were really hard for me because it felt like they were somewhere between spoken word and standup comedy. They were all in pubs, all really boysy, and that was really difficult, but also I think it was really useful because it helped me see which of my poems – even if the audience didn’t necessarily always respond – what I felt was strong, and I could tell when a poem was actually just weak, or whether I felt like ‘no, there’s something here that you’re not getting’.
How do you deal with rejection?
I think it is disheartening. I try and read the publications I submit to. Always be familiar with the publications you’re submitting to. If you don’t read something, why would you want your poem in it?
It’s also about supporting other writers I guess. If you’re not reading other people’s work, then you can’t really expect anyone to be reading yours. That’s where not only performing, but festivals, and being part of a community is really important because we’d all get read more if more people read at all – whether they’re reading you or someone else.
I think when I get rejected I see what things are getting accepted – sometimes it’s work I love, and it’s inspiring to be like ‘ok, yeah, well my poem isn’t as good as that and I want to be able to create the feeling that this poem creates’. Sometimes it’s not though, sometimes I read publications and think, ‘there’s no point me submitting to this, because I don’t even enjoy the work in it myself, so they probably won’t like my stuff’. It’s just a matter of taste and style, and that’s ok.
Read everything that you get rejected from.
What do you read/watch/listen to?
Some of the local poets I love hearing are Maxine Beneba Clarke and Fury.
When I was in uni, I remember listening to Romaine Morton’s CD and I really loved that. I also like Li-Young Lee’s The City In Which I Love You, Leah Lakshmi Piezpna-Samarasinha, verse novels by Anne Carson, Dorothy Porter, Brisbane poet Rebecca Jessen’s verse novel Gap which came out last year.
Seeing theatre is really useful for performance, and music, especially rap. Even when I’m watching TV, thinking about intonation, pitch and pace of dramatic speeches.
I probably read more poetry in journals and periodicals than I do in books – Mascara, Overland, Meanjin, zines and chapbooks, blogs. I go to events at Hares and Hyenas and other venues – Melbourne Spoken Word is a great resources for finding events.
Where can we find your stuff?
I have a few things published in Overland, including a recording of a poem, and a few different essays – one on transphobia, one on Chinese-Australian experience, one on intersectionality. A bunch of things on Peril and a piece on beauty in The Guardian.