Books·How I Wrote It

Kim Fu on why she envies teenage poets

The award-winning novelist on mining high-school writing for her first book of poetry, How Festive the Ambulance.
Kim Fu won the Edmund White Award for debut novels from Publishing Triangle in 2014. (Laura D’Allesandro/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Kim Fu made a stunning literary debut with her novel For Today I Am a Boy in 2014, winning the Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction and Canadian Authors Association Emerging Writer Award. Her latest work is a poetry collection titled How Festive the Ambulance, a sharp repertoire of poems about the misadventures — sometimes trite and sometimes tragic — of modern-day life.

In her own words, Fu talks about fugue state she enters while writing poetry — and why she envies the confidence of teenage writers.

Digging through the archives

"I've been writing poetry from before I can remember. There are poems in this book that I wrote over 10 years ago and there are poems that I wrote last year. When I was putting the collection together, I was selecting poems out of a pretty large arsenal. I was thinking about the tone I wanted for my first book of poems. I wanted it to be loud and intensive, as opposed to personal or meditative. It's an aggressive book. It is about things that are of the moment to me — even though a lot of them were written a long time ago."

Isn't it ironic

"The title poem, 'How Festive the Ambulance,' is about watching my father being taken away in a hospital transport van. The poem has an ironic voice, where the ambulance is described as beautiful and festive because on the surface it is — it's lit up in this carnival way in the night. I felt that set a good tone for the book. The irony in the title prepares you for how to approach the book and how that voice sounds in your head.

"My father had lung cancer. In his last month, he wanted to stay home and we tried really hard. But there came a point where everyone involved was recommending that he go back to the hospital. It was a really, really difficult decision for us to make. When the hospital transport van came and took him away, there was this horrible gut-wrenching moment that you know, as it's happening, you're never going to forget. We were driving behind the transport van and I was looking at the back of the vehicle and the bright garishness stuck with me."

Transcendent experience

"While my father was sick, I was taking fragmented notes about things that stuck to me. I think the poem came together much much later. The way I write all of my poems is typically in one go. It's in one session and that session can be 20 minutes or it can be an entire day. Any editing I do later is pretty light — it's more or less in its finished form or I throw it away. Writing poetry gets me in a bit of a fugue state. Even if the poem ends up being not very good, it's a very intense and positive experience for me. I think even though this was about such an emotionally difficult period in my life, writing it still felt that way. It still had that transcendence."

Smells like teen spirit

"One thing that I notice about my own work as a teenager and whenever I meet teenage writers is that there's an energy that I envy now. They have a lack of restraint and a confidence to them. I think that when you're really young and new to writing you feel like everything you write is amazing. Every idea you have has never been had before and it does create a beautiful energy in the work. When I read work by teenage poets now, I do wish I could conjure up that energy again. Emotions are very pure. They're not overlaid by irony or meta-thinking about your emotions. I think teenage artists create something really special that most people can never capture again."

Kim Fu's comments have been edited and condensed.