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Waxing Poetic

Mary Jean Chan ’12 was shortlisted for the 2017 Forward Prize for Best Single Poem for her poem “//.”

The Bulletin spoke with her about her life and work.

What’s your path been like since Swarthmore?

I completed a master of philosophy in international development at the University of Oxford immediately after I graduated from Swarthmore in 2012, since I had been an honors major in political science and was inspired by Professor Ayse Kaya’s class on globalization. There, I got involved with the Oxford University Poetry Society, which led me back to my other passion at Swarthmore as an honors minor in English literature: poetry.

I had written some poetry at Swarthmore, particularly under the tutelage of Professor Nathalie Anderson, but had left off writing during my senior year. Ultimately, I decided I wanted to take creative writing seriously, and was accepted to do a master’s in it at Royal Holloway, University of London, the year I left Oxford.

That proved to be a transformative experience, during which I had the chance to learn weekly from three renowned poets and professors—Jo Shapcott, Kei Miller, and Andrew Motion—all of whom mentored and nurtured my budding sense of poetics and my aspirations of becoming a professional poet and creative-writing lecturer.

I’ve continued on to a Ph.D. in creative writing at Royal Holloway, and am now a research associate at the Royal Holloway Poetics Research Center. I’m working on my debut poetry collection, whilst researching Caribbean contemporary poetry and the various manifestations of the postcolonial in framing such works of literature.


Why is poetry important to you and how are you pursuing it?

Poetry means a lot to me not just as a hobby or an intellectual pursuit, but as a way of living. I first fell in love with poetry whilst reading the work of Adrienne Rich, and that of other queer feminist poets such as Audre Lorde. Since then, I’ve felt the need to write on a weekly basis (if not more often), and pursuing a Ph.D. in creative writing has enabled me to find the necessary time to commit myself to reading and writing poems.


What does "//" mean to you personally?

This poem was born out of an intense year spent back home in Hong Kong. Since my time at Swarthmore, I had been struggling to come to terms with being queer, and what that might mean for my relationship with my family. In 2015, I spent about six months in Hong Kong with my partner, living with my parents, which in hindsight was probably too much, too soon!

Nonetheless, it was a difficult yet important step toward reconciling who I was as a person, poet, and academic, and the person I felt I had to be whenever I returned home. Homi Bhabha calls it a sense of “unhomeliness”; I wanted to write a poem that would convey precisely that notion of unhomeliness, and to interrogate and reveal how hegemonic notions of family, propriety, and cultural norms can in fact be deeply detrimental to the pursuit of a life well-lived, which is necessarily built upon things such as love, kindness, joy, acceptance, and mutual understanding.


What does it mean to you to be an artistic member of the Swarthmore community?

I am really only starting out on my career toward becoming a poet and lecturer. However, I would say that the reason I am even a poet now is thanks to the mentors, professors, and friends I met at Swarthmore, many of whom I still consider to be my chosen family, in the broadest sense of that word. I’m still in touch with many friends who have continued to pursue their passions in environmental justice, queer activism, and international education, and I feel supported in my endeavors by belonging to this ever-growing community of Swatties scattered around the globe.