A special feature from guest writer, Sean Wai Keung.
As a kid I spent much of my time outside in parks playing football, climbing trees or pretending to catch pokémon. I also spent at least an equal amount of time retreating indoors to play playstation or trying, desperately, to get into poetry.
I say desperately because even though my young inner pretentiousness really wanted to enjoy reading poems I found it pretty difficult to do so. Without guidance I had started with the British ‘classics’ – my thinking being that ‘classics’ must mean ‘good’. Unfortunately, these classics also contained a lot of unnatural-sounding syntax and/or weird language, with a lot of them seeming to lack in some fundamental way I would later come to understand as ‘relevance to my emotional and physical being as a young person in the modern world’. Which makes sense from the perspective of now. But back then it was infuriating – I didn’t care about Wordsworth’s clouds or Shakespeare’s roses or Burns’ mice. I wanted real poems, by which I probably meant poems about pretending to catch pokémon and playing playstation. Which was a shame for the classics, since for all their supposed genius none of them had been able to predict the rise of pokémon or video games and then accurately write about them. Idiots.
Fast forward to 2018 and despite my inauspicious start with poems I am lucky enough to now be reading and writing them on a regular basis. But still no Wordsworth or Shakespeare or Burns. I do appreciate them a lot more today, that’s for sure. But those first memories of frustration and disappointment have left an indelible mark on me – a general mistrust for nature-based poems in a small sense and a general indifference towards nature metaphors in a bigger one. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely do care about nature in the non-poetic abstract and it makes me happy to know that there are still clouds and roses and mice in the world. And I do still walk through a park or a forest now and then. But even when I do, it’s invariably in the same way I walk through nature metaphors. Sort of just doing it, appreciating it for its cleverness and complexity and prettiness but that’s it, just appreciating rather than enjoying.
In other words, Shakespeare made me a city person.
OK, that may be an exaggeration. But, much in the same way that certain cities have the ability to emphasise the most interesting parts of life, perhaps exaggeration can do the same with truth.
Which brings me to the city I now call home. I first arrived in Glasgow, Scotland, a couple of years ago, fresh off a night bus from London and with a suitcase of clothes and a laptop of poems. I had saved up from working several jobs the year previous while I studied in a small English town I didn’t particularly enjoy, partly because it stuck me as being on the wrong side of that nature-city scale. But now I was investing that hard-earned money into living my dream – a return to big-city life. My plan was to stay in an airbnb for a couple of weeks until I found a cheap place to rent and then start a brand new city-focused living filled with creative stimulation and artistic opportunities.
Unfortunately, my airbnb host had been in touch during my bus up to inform me that the room I had booked was currently experiencing an insect infestation of some kind. So I ended up spending that first week in a hostel instead. Once again, nature got in the way. But still, I persevered and I am glad to say that for the most part, my plan worked.
It should be noted that throughout that year before, during and after my move to Glasgow, my writing focus switched somewhat. A series of conversational events during my time studying in a geographically small and overwhelmingly ‘white’ environment had changed me from someone who felt no real desire to explore my own bi-racial culture or identity to someone completely convinced that I had to, in some way, tackle it. It was a combination of realising just how much leverage the world of white academia and publishing still held in UK poetry combined with various political events: elections, indyref, brexit, etc. all these things proved to me that I was living in an overwhelmingly ‘mixed’ world, only that instead of wanting to confront this mixed-ness, instead the world in general seemed content to push their own extremes further apart, emphasise differences, artificially create ‘us’ vs ‘them’. Suddenly it occurred to me that perhaps my own personal feelings and experiences of mixed-ness weren’t just something in me (and therefore something not particularly interesting to write about from my perspective) but instead something in the world – and maybe, I thought, by taking the steps to confront and explore my own attitude to mixed-ness I could perhaps confront and explore everyone else’s as well.
It should be noted that throughout that year before, during and after my move to Glasgow, my writing focus switched somewhat. A series of conversational events during my time studying in a geographically small and overwhelmingly ‘white’ environment had changed me from someone who felt no real desire to explore my own bi-racial culture or identity to someone completely convinced that I had to, in some way, tackle it.
Glasgow is the perfect city in which to explore these ideas. Firstly, it has all those incredibly helpful things most big cities will contain in some manner – strong non-academic literary social networks, open-mics, events, workshops, festivals. An overwhelming sense of things happening on a consistent basis and the ability to connect ideas and words to these things and with other people organically. Secondly, it’s also a city historically marked by its continuous mixing and separating; a city which has feared, welcomed, embraced, fought against and fought alongside continuous cycles of ‘other’ in all kinds of different ways. On the surface level, some of these ‘others’ have consisted of nationalities, ethnicities, religions – Irish, Italian, South-East Asian, North African, Eastern European, Chinese, English etc. Glaswegian history is filled with stories of people both within and without taking steps to come together and/or to rage against, for both positive and negative reasons. Naturally, it’s the negative and the raging against which brings the most international publicity. But at the same time it must say something that in a world increasingly interested in isolation and differentiation, Glasgow as a whole continues to try and welcome further cycles into its fold. Today, students flock from all over to attend a Glaswegian University; professionals relocate here for businesses in numerous sectors; artists and people like myself get drawn by rumours and promises of a strong creative scene. Add to this a sizeable refugee/asylum-seeker population as well as an increasing home-grown population and this sense of mixing is even stronger.
Which isn’t to say there is zero tension or hostility around or amongst these myriad groups, of course. Glasgow is not a utopia. And I am also all too aware of my own privileges: my part-white ancestry, my passable-as-white-to-certain-people skin, my not-a-woman-ness. I would not want to give the impression that I am speaking on behalf of any of these other ‘others’. But from my own perspective, as well as from my conversations and friendships with people in and around the city, I would still like to think and hope that the majority would agree that Glasgow is, for a city its size, friendlier than most.
Now, the main thing I love about living in a big city is the opportunity to experience the world in so many different ways. But for my writing interests on mixed-ness I also believe that moving here was a necessity. Writing in a city like Glasgow I get to experience mixing in its greatest sense – people facing individual problems on the one had but also tackling collective-focused issues on the other. The ‘how’ of living side by side with each other; the ‘how’ of dealing with dodgy landlords and increasing rent; the ‘how’ of staying warm and dry in a mostly wet and cold place – all these questions are being asked on a day-to-day basis and to me there is nothing more inspiring. Of course, the answers to all these questions may be impossible to find. But even so, if there’s any one single quality which could perhaps define this city it has to be ‘persistence’. And much like Glasgow will persist in it’s asking of questions, so will I, and I will do so with a smile. Plus, one thing is for sure: the answers won’t be found in Wordsworth or Shakespeare or Burns, and definitely not in the countryside, shrouded in nature metaphor.
Sean Wai Keung lives in Glasgow, Scotland. His debut pamphlet, you are mistaken, won the inaugural Rialto Open Pamphlet Competition in 2017 and was named a Poetry School ‘book of the year’. As a poet and performer, he has worked with organisations such as the National Theatre of Scotland, National Library of Scotland and Apples & Snakes. He holds a BA(Hons) in Creative Writing from Roehampton University, London, and an MA in Poetry from the University of East Anglia. In 2018 he released a pamphlet of food-based poems, how to cook, with Speculative Books.