Cover Mary Jean Chan at the 2019 Costa Book Award for Poetry. Courtesy of Mary Jean Chan.

From earl grey tea to lunches with fellow poets in Chinatown, here is how Mary Jean Chan spends her days as a poet and lecturer.

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.

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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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9am

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!

10am

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.

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12pm

For lunch, I love boiled eggs, so usually I have that with toast, or once in a while, I get sushi from [British pan-Asian high street chain] Itsu. After lunch, I indulge in yet another cup of tea (this time, usually tieguanyin or some kind of oolong). I usually call my parents for a chat on WhatsApp afterwards. Then I get back to my desk to do more reading or writing, and to attend to any freelance obligations.

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3pm

Sometimes I meet friends or colleagues for a coffee to catch up or discuss ongoing collaborative projects; since the lockdowns in the UK, this hasn’t happened as often as I would have liked, but I am slowly getting used to seeing people face-to-face again. In early 2020, I remember having weekly lunches with the poet Will Harris in Chinatown whenever we met to discuss the issue of The Poetry Review we were guest-editing at the time. On teaching days, I’m usually in the classroom or my office.

6pm

Occasionally, I attend literary events to read from my work, alongside other poets and writers. A recent highlight was an event at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. After work, I tend to go for a walk around the park with my partner.

8pm

For dinner, I like having soup noodles with a side of salmon and pak choi, or a vegetable curry. I enjoy winding down with a cooking show or a nature documentary, as they tend to be quite calming.

11pm

I can only function the next day if I get my eight hours.

‘A Day In The Life’ is a Tatler weekly cultural series, which delves into secret lives of the tastemakers within Hong Kong’s arts scene

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