It is hard to make a living as a poet wherever you are in the world. But Mary Jean Chan, who was born and raised in Hong Kong and now lives in the UK, shows it can be possible. In 2019, she published Flèche, a poetry collection that explores the struggles of being queer and having a cross-cultural identity. That same year, she won the 2019 Costa Book Award for Poetry and was shortlisted for the International Dylan Thomas Prize and the Seamus Heaney Centre First Collection Poetry Prize in 2020. She was also the 2019 winner of the Eric Gregory Award, which celebrates the work of poets under the age of 30.
Prior to her literary achievements, Chan studied for a year at the Chinese University of Hong Kong as a Global Business student, after which she transferred to Swarthmore College in the US to study political science and English literature. Poetry writing was a hobby that subsequently became a career after she attended open mic events at the Oxford University Poetry Society during her MPhil at the University of Oxford. Now, she is senior lecturer in creative writing (poetry) at Oxford Brookes University in the UK, and will be featured at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival on November 14 and 15, 2021.
Here, Chan shares her routine with Tatler.
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My mornings usually involve a cup of earl grey tea and a bowl of muesli with yogurt. I drink more than a dozen cups of tea per day, so I try to pace myself a bit!
At the moment, I’m working on the first draft of my second poetry collection. Reading usually helps my writing; poets I’ve been turning to for inspiration include Vahni Capildeo, Anne Carson, Cathy Park Hong, Bhanu Kapil and Kayo Chingonyi. During term time, I’m usually in office preparing for my seminars. One thing that people might not realise about being a poet is that it’s really what you make of it. For example, how much I freelance, how I balance teaching, research and writing or publishing. In that sense, there’s a lot of freedom (and pressure) involved.