Writing about Place: An Interview with Gail Tirone

Updated: Nov 11




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 the poet is attuned to the world. I think part of the poet’s quintessential role is to be the close observer––to notice, to ponder, and connect the dots…


Which is the opposite of the tourist on the cruise ship who only has 3 hours in town. If you’re running from place to place, you don't necessarily have the luxury of noticing, and closely observing and connecting the dots.


This close observation of the human condition creates moments of insight and connection––and these in turn make the small epiphanies possible.


The poet Charles Wright, one of my favorites, spoke of “the metaphysics of the quotidian”—that is powerful and fundamental. “The metaphysics of the quotidian…” The crack in the sidewalk. Laundry hanging on a clothesline. The kindness of strangers, right? These are moments that occur randomly around us, and it’s what we do with them, how we think about them.


Poetry illuminates individual experiences and the collective human experience. The poet illuminates myriad facets of the human condition so the reader experiences that moment of recognition or empathy, right? Poetry reveals the small epiphanies we stumble on in daily life.


I don't necessarily believe it is entirely within your control, but you have to be open to stumbling upon something––and seeing it, you know?


Tony Huang: That’s also very beautiful description of spontaneous inspiration.


I want to ask a question about the process of writing poetry: this will be helpful to writers who are struggling with the writing process itself. Have you ever had the experience of having some challenges writing a poem? You may see the poem but, although you spend a lot of time on it, it’s difficult to move on, and you get stuck?


Gail Tirone: I would say in my experience there are different kinds of processes of writing the poem, right? There are some occasions where the poem just happens. All of a sudden you’re sitting there in the café, and something strikes you, and you begin to write––whether it’s a café at the Great Wall, a café in Naples, on Mount Vesuvius––I’ve had these various experiences in cafés. I guess I spend a lot of time in cafés! And it just sort of happens––very fortuitously, very serendipitously.


But then there are other times where you wake up in your house at six in the morning, five in the morning, and you’re an insomniac and you can’t sleep, and then some idea that has been rattling around in your head comes to you again. I will often find myself lying in bed and thinking about something––and a line will come to you that is a line that you love. And then you continue thinking about the ideas and the poem continues to form in your mind. I’ve actually come to the conclusion that I can hold about 6 or 8 lines in my memory without writing them down. So I will sometimes stay there until I get beyond the 6 or 8 line-point, and then I have to decide: Do I like this enough to get up and write it down and capture it, or am I going back to sleep? So, that’s a funny process.


But when you have a larger, more complex poem, I think you do have the process of, as you say, getting stuck, where it’s not just a moment, it’s not just a smaller observation about the garden shop, or about the juxtaposition of these cultures, clash of cultures in Macao, but a large complex issue, where you’re covering many things, not necessarily a moment in time. And I think for those complex poems you’re going to have to take time and come back to them, and that is often what I do. When you’re stuck, you know, you can put something down. You can take it as far as you can in one session, and put it down and come back to it a few days later, a week later, months later, and I think that’s helpful. That’s helpful because you look at it with fresh eyes, you see things you didn’t see when you were last working on it, and new ideas and approaches will come to. Tony Huang: This is really great and helpful advice for less experienced poets struggling with their pieces.


These days I’m always wondering with the pandemic and the geopolitical tensions going on, do you feel it’s easier or more challenging to write about these places you’ve visited and the life and people there?


Gail Tirone: I would say, Tony, that for much of 2020 and 2021, we weren’t going out into the world and we were instead turned inward, right? During the height of the pandemic and quarantine, like so many other people, I turned inward. In my writing, I wrote more at that time than ever before about what was going on inside my home, because we were home––we were all stuck home. So I found myself writing more about what was going on inside my house, my domestic experiences, and my immediate neighborhood. This was unusual for me, to that extent.


But you turn the same skill, that same close observation, to whatever is around you. As a poet, I was still the close observer, but focused on a different set of experiences. For example, I included in one of my quarantine era poems, the experience of taking a shower. Suddenly, during quarantine, the shower was a highlight of my day. Previously, you had a lot more excitement in your life––like restaurants, concerts, interactions with other people out in the world, and the shower was never worthy of attention. But during quarantine, suddenly, with this very limited range of human activities, taking a shower for me became poem-worthy. You gotta work with what you have, right?


Tony Huang: I guess it's a different kind of journey.


Gail Tirone: Also, during the pandemic and quarantine, it seems the entire world learned to communicate more, and more effectively, online. Everybody now is doing Zoom calls at the drop of a hat. Just like we’re doing right now. Some barriers fell: I can be in Houston and video chat with you in China with ease. And everybody’s doing it – we can talk to our friends in London, or in Hong Kong. Even my elderly mother does Zoom calls all the time. Suddenly everybody understands this technology, which I think is a very positive outcome.



Tony Huang: It’s been great to have you here tonight to talk about poetry, skills and inspiration and capturing epiphanies and turning them into really beautiful writing.


Gail Tirone: Thank you for having me. I’m really happy to be part of The Hong Kong Review, and appreciate this opportunity to talk with you.


I have been very encouraged over my writing life by other poets, have had the opportunity to study and work with some really great poets, from Galway Kinnell to Edward Hirsch, people who have definitely mentored me and impacted me and my writing. So to the extent that I can pass on anything, any glimmer of valuable information on the writing process, I’m happy to do it.


My other last parting piece of advice for any poet, in addition to the process of writing, is also to read. Reading is one of the best things you can do as a poet––read. Read everything. Read poetry––read good poetry, read broadly, and read deeply. The more you read and understand and are exposed to poetry, the more your own writing will be impacted and inspired.


Tony Huang: I appreciate the insights you’ve shared, especially on the process of writing poetry. The messages that you’ve shared are very helpful. This is really great advice.


Gail Tirone: Thank you, Tony, and thank you to everyone for listening in the late and early hours. Take care.


Gail Tirone has lived in Asia for several years and speaks Mandarin. A devoted traveler and sometime expat, she’s traveled widely in mainland China, Japan, Taiwan and Thailand. A Best of the Net nominee, Gail has a B.A. from Princeton University and M.A. in English Literature from the University of Houston. Her poetry has appeared in The Hong Kong Review, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Hawaii Pacific Review, Mediterranean Poetry, Blue Heron Review, Sulphur River Review, Silver Birch Press, The Weight of Addition Anthology (Mutabilis Press) and elsewhere.


Tony Huang is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Hong Kong Review. He is also the founder of Metacircle Fellowship, Metacircle (Hong Kong) Culture and Education Co., Ltd. and Metaeducation. He works as a guest-editor for SmokeLong Quarterly. His poems and translations have appeared in Mad Swirl, The Hong Kong Review, The Best Small Fictions Anthology Selections 2020, Tianjin Daily, Binhai Times, SmokeLong Quarterly, Nankai Journal, Large Ocean Poetry Quarterly, Yangcheng Evening News and other places. He teaches British and American literature and literary theories at Nankai University.


Copy editing: Nancy He

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