Books·How I Wrote It

Why Phoebe Wang explores Canada's landscape in her poetry

Growing up in Ottawa, Phoebe Wang felt a disconnect to her environment. Her debut poetry collection, Admission Requirements, explores the stories of that landscape.
Phoebe Wang is the author of Admission Requirements, a poetry collection. (McClelland & Stewart/Guillaume Morissette)

What does it mean to be Canadian? It's a question Phoebe Wang, the daughter of immigrants from Hong Kong, has often pondered. In her debut poetry collection Admission Requirements, Wang explores stories of the land and searches for a secure sense of belonging. In her own words, she describes the process behind creating her first collection.

Wang made the CBC Poetry Prize longlist in 2016. The 2017 CBC Poetry Prize is currently accepting submissions until May 31.

Connecting to a foreign landscape

"My parents immigrated to Canada in the early 1970s. They moved to Ottawa to start a family and, because of that, we didn't have any extended family around us. Ottawa reflects a history of Scottish, Irish and French Catholic settlers. There was a disconnect between the landscape and my family, we didn't see ourselves, our stories or our histories reflected in the landscape.

"My family and I did a lot of hiking around the city. Everything was new to us. There was a sense of wonder from the landscape, the trees, the flora, the berries. By writing about the landscape, I was trying to find a sense of belonging with the places I was in and also to have knowledge of the stories that had shaped the landscape."

Being Canadian

"I always heard stories from my parents about Hong Kong, not because they missed it, but because it was almost like another lifetime. They were trying to bridge that other life that they had in Hong Kong with a new life in Canada. It was such a long journey for them to feel Canadian and to feel like they belonged. They forced that on themselves and said, 'We are Canadian now. And this is what it means to us.'

"It makes you think, 'What does it mean to be Canadian? Do I give up values from my heritage or do they exist simultaneously?' I can see that conversation happening a lot politically now when I see people saying that it's not compatible to be Muslim and Canadian or it's not compatible to wear a hijab and be Canadian or it's not right to stay in your own cultural ghetto. I have relatives that live in Markham, which is predominantly Chinese, and I can feel as though people don't think that's a sign of integration. So what does it mean to be in Canada, but also not in Canada? How do I write about this? How do I be a Canadian writer? Poetry is a way to work through those ideas.

"I wanted to convey that your sense of belonging is never secure. Even if you are from a city, you cannot take for granted that at any time someone might say, 'You have to go back to your own country.' You might be taunted or made to feel as though you don't reallybelong there."

Resisting technology

"I carry a lot of notebooks and I worked a lot on my memory so that I would just be able to compose poems in my mind as much as possible. Most of the writing happens in my mind before I even get to a piece of paper. I write down the lines I've been hearing and work out different combinations of phrases. It's like weaving together the phrases I really want to be in the poem until I can hear the right tone. And once I've done a lot of notes and handwritten drafts, I will go to my laptop. I really resist doing that for as long as possible because once it's in the MS Word file it feels more solid. I want to make sure that all the different possibilities have been explored."

Phoebe Wang's comments have been edited and condensed.