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Writing about Place: An Interview with Gail Tirone

Updated: Jan 7

Tony Huang: Thank you very much for publishing with us! We learn from your bio that you have lived and traveled widely in Asia, and speak Mandarin. Would you like to share with us a little more about your experience in Asia? What are some of the things in Asia that attract you?

Gail Tirone: Thank you so much, Tony, for including me in this issue of The Hong Kong Review. I just received my copy by mail, and I’m thrilled. I’ve enjoyed reading it so much––it’s the best thing I’ve received by mail in months! Thank you too for inviting me to chat with you today!

To answer your question, I was first exposed to Chinese culture as a young child in New York, and it has always appealed to me. I was about 3 years old and my mom took me to Chinatown and I was immediately captivated—it was love at first sight! From pungent cha shao bao roast pork buns to elegant Chinese calligraphy to poems like Su Shi’s “Ode on the Red Cliff,” I am a huge fan. And the longer I lived in Asia, the more I loved it.

I lived in Asia for several years, and spent time in Taiwan, mainland of China, Hong Kong, Macao and Japan. I studied Mandarin for 3 years, and these experiences have impacted who I am, as a person and as a writer. Taipei is the city where I lived and studied, and a city that I love. I also had wonderful experiences in Shanghai, in Hong Kong and Macao, as I mention in the poems.

Tony Huang: Reading your poems, I could imagine you were there at the foot of the Great Wall drinking latte at a coffee place, and these kids were watching you. How did you feel about that?

Gail Tirone: Well, it’s interesting because there’s always a tension between being the participant and being the observer, right? I think that’s something we all experience all the time in our daily lives. You are the participant in your own life but you are always the observer of lives around you. I didn’t really plan that––most of these things are just serendipitous. I was with my family and they were more ambitious. They were going to climb the Great Wall. It was a hot summer day and I was definitely not interested in climbing the Great Wall, so I found this nice cafe where I could sit. It was early in the morning and I could sip my latte. I wasn’t planning necessarily to write a poem; the poem just sort of happened.

Tony Huang: The three poems you sent us are about Macao, the Great Wall, and Provence, a garden in France. How did you decide on these three poems?

Gail Tirone: Good question! Since you’re a Hong Kong and China [Tianjin] based journal, my poems involving Macao and the Great Wall seemed a natural choice. The poem “Jardin de Provence” is one I wrote relatively recently and decided to include as a counterpoint to the Asian-focused work. It’s different and yet, I think, complementary. To some extent, each of these poems involves the perspective of the visitor, the observer, the passerby––and in this way, they are a sort of trilogy.

Tony Huang: In the three poems, you depict some moments you spent in Macao, at the Great Wall, and in the garden, but at the same time, your mind is carried beyond the limits of the geographical locales. How did these transcending moments come to you?

Gail Tirone: As a writer, your perspective informs all you see. You necessarily view the world through the lens of your own experiences, and these color what you see––and how you see.

In Macao I was struck by the insider/outside perspective, and the contrast of cultures: you see the traditional Chinese culture which is prevalent in Macao, but you also see how the colonial Portuguese culture impacted the city. And that was very intriguing to me when I was there. At the Great Wall, I observed the iconic fairytale surroundings that everybody sees when you’re at the Great Wall. It’s an icon of earth, beyond even Chinese culture, but certainly also an iconic landmark in Chinese culture. But I also reflected on marriage and my children, who were an integral part of that day’s experience. In “Jardin de Provence” I saw this garden shop that not only offers lush greenery, but also refuge––philosophical refuge, if you will, from contemporary chaos. I think the issues of contrasting cultures, family and refuge are certainly abiding interests of mine that I carry with me and that appear and reappear in my poems.

Tony Huang: When you’re visiting a place, a scenic location in a foreign country, it’s easy to stay on the surface, and not easy to get into the depths of life there. When you’re writing poetry about place, what are the things you do to penetrate the surface and get to see the things beyond?

Gail Tirone: Also a good question. I would say take time. The rushed experience is often the more superficial experience. Taking time to observe the nuances of people’s lives and the human experience is really helpful.

Tony Huang: In “Afternoon in Macao,” you write, “Jazz to sooth the tourists, voyeurs in shorts/ who glean what they can of the past/ as they snap the decay of an empire on high speed film.” It seems that you are keeping a distance from those tourists who might entertain the illusion that they can get to know the history of a place through compact “high speed film.” In your opinion, what can be some of the risks of having this illusion?

Gail Tirone: I do think there’s a fundamental difference between being a tourist and being a true traveler, the long-term visitor or the expat. A tourist may spend a few hours rushing from major site to major site––whether it's the Tower the London, the Acropolis, the Great Wall––and snapping little photos, Instagram, whatever. That does not necessarily lend itself to generating the insights that we’re talking about, and that often become the meat of the poem. A true traveler, on the other hand, seeks to closely observe the culture of a country or city. In my case, I grew up in a city, and I often find myself attracted to cities, and city life, and the denizens of the city. A true traveler closely observes this culture, the daily rhythms of place, and the moments of individual lives unfolding around her. Much like the perspective of the poet, right? The close observer, you know? We are observing everything, every moment––the flotsam, vagaries, sorrows and joys of human existence. Of course, as a visitor and a poet, you carry your own experiences and perspective with you, and they inform your observations about place, wherever you are.

Tony Huang: Feelings about place can be so complicated. Why do you decide you’re going to turn them into poetry, instead of some other forms of writing?

Gail Tirone: For me, poems seem to happen. Like many other poets, I’ve tried my hand at fiction and various other forms, and I enjoy it. But poetry is my first love, and the way I can express myself most frequently and most naturally.

Tony Huang: Our memories are often connected with and shaped by the places we have been to. When you are writing about these places you have visited, are you also processing the memories that are conjured up by the places? Can you share more about your concept of “place” and how it informs your work?

Gail Tirone: I love that question. Our memories are our personal mental universe, vast repositories. They are rich with place, sight, sound, smell, taste. We carry the perspective informed by our memories wherever we go.

And place––place is ever-powerful. The stories we tell about ourselves, our personal histories, our mythologies, are so often rooted in place.

Place can be a physical space, for sure––the Great Wall, Greenwich Village in New York City, for example, the street where you grew up, in your mind’s eye––you can picture that street. Everyone on this call can picture the street where you grew up, and you will never forget it, and it is emblazoned in your mind’s eye and it is eternal—it never changes. The real street may change, but the street where you grew up in your mind’s eye doesn't change. These places may be physical, but they’re also part of your mental universe. But I think place is also universal––the humanity of laundry hanging on a clothesline––in any city, in every city, the pathos of a young woman crying alone on a crowded street, whether that’s New York or Hong Kong or Paris, the smell of a wet dog that passes you in the rain.

Place is the kitchen where you were slapped, the 3rd grade classroom where you fell in love with books, the moment you decided to become a writer––all are potentially rooted in place, in your memory, in your mind’s eye. Beyond the physical, place is the circumference and the furnishing of our mental universe.

Tony Huang: This is beautiful. There are often moments of epiphanies in your poems, epiphanies that arrive so spontaneously––for example, when you’re sipping on a latte or looking at some strangers eating local dim sum at the corner of some nameless street. Your epiphanies seem to come so effortlessly. I wonder, how do you capture these brief moments, these epiphanies? They’re so elusive and difficult to capture––but you always do it so effortlessly, so how do you do that?

Gail Tirone: I think it’s about paying attention, right? It’s about the poet being attuned and reflective, right? It’s a mindset––it’s a skill. Whether it’s a natural interest or something you cultivate, I think