Chris Tse is a poet, actor and musician whose poetry first appeared in AUP Poets 4. His award-winning debut collection, How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes, responds to a moment in history – a 1905 murder – not so much by narrating that history but by installing a chorus of voices. I loved the book as you will see here.
I consumed Chris Tse’s new poetry collection, He’s so MASC, in one sitting, because I was caught in its grip. The knottiness belies the grace and fluidity of writing, but the tangle of self – the laying on the line and the holding in reserve – haunted me. It feels utterly exposing, playful, inventive and daring. It is warm, vulnerable, strong. I began to fear a review might appear heavy-footed alongside its lithe connections; like a delicately balanced house of cards, a review might miss the point and topple it over. Instead I have opted for an unfolding email conversation.
Chris made a deeply personal speech at his launch, acknowledging heartfelt gratitude to his friends and family. His tears, in hoping his friends and family were proud of him, moved me to tears. He told us that, for the first time in his poetry, ‘the speaker is one hundred percent me’. This is the book that matters. Chris also hoped the book might find its way into the hands of people who might ‘see themselves in it’.
Chris Tse, He’s So MASC, Auckland University Press, 2018
Paula: Are you hesitant to answer questions about this book? I am hesitant to ask them! In the first poem we meet wolves. The wolf is also there in the last poem and makes a number of appearances in between, with teeth and claws and transformations. They can never settle to a single trope or behaviour or ache. I don’t want to explain the wolf. I just want to say they were a subterranean sharpness that clawed me. I can’t stop talking about the wolf. They are plot device, semantic undercurrent, emotional barometer, love infected, unreliable protagonist, hidden key. Ah, there is that glorious knottiness. Can you say anything about the wolf?
The wolves are closing in
on the ballroom while the band members
look out and brace themselves
for the conflict to come. Shit just got real.
They pick up their instruments
and clear their throats.
Chris: For me, a big part of getting this book ready for publication was figuring out how I’m going to talk about it. With Snakes, it was like there was a safe following distance between me as author and the book as a literary/historical object. With this book, I don’t feel the safety of that distance given its themes and content, and honestly that’s a little terrifying. I work in communications and part of my job is to train our staff in how to deal with the media and select committees. We drill them on all the possible questions they could be asked and the best ways to answer them so that nothing throws them. I’ve been feeling I need to do that for myself for this book just to make me feel less anxious about it!
I like to think of each of the poems in this book being a single wolf roaming the terrain of my personal history. The first wolf poem I wrote for the book was ‘Lupine’, but it began life as a poem about my brother and I. Eventually, as the poem begin to take shape, it was clear that my brother had nothing to do with what I was trying to say in the poem. From there on, the image of the wolf and its association with transformation and masculinity felt like a good fit for what I wanted to explore, and so wolves began to pop up in other poems. I love how you’ve described the wolves as an ’emotional barometer’ – that’s a really apt description of what I wanted them to do in the book. They seem to have a habit of popping up in poems where I’m feeling uncertain, heartbroken, or angry.
Paula: I think the diverse self exposures is one reason why this book has affected me so much – and the sway between distance and intimacy. Things are at a distance and things keep disappearing. Presence is handlocked with vanishings, and not just the speaker in the poem. That flitting in and out of view intensifies the emotional impact for me, the unspoken. I am wondering too if distance is also coupled with masquerades and masks?
I can almost run my fingers through
the sun-streaked strands of those days
when I was nothing but a silhouette
disappearing into fog—just a sketch.
I could step into a crowd and never
resurface. No one would suspect anything.
from ‘Belated backstory’
Chris: The masquerades and masks are definitely there for distance. I’ve been performing my entire life – in public and private – so it was essential that this book, as unflinchingly open and true to my experiences as it is, also acknowledged the masks I’ve worn to protect, to give myself confidence, and to play. Those masks have been an important tool of survival and a way to make sense of the mess that sometimes builds up in my head. It’s also in part a response to having a somewhat public life now and the expectations that some people have of me as a Chinese New Zealand writer, especially given how few there are of us. I’ve talked at length in the past about being piegeon-holed, so I won’t go into all of that again, but sometimes I do feel like I’m performing the part of a Chinese New Zealand writer to appease others and meet a certain need. I can’t and won’t ever deny that side of me, but this book was a chance to draw from the intersectionalities of who I am.
Paula: Yes! The Chinese New Zealand part surfaces here and there – I was thinking like little teeth marks teeth to carry on the Wolf presence:
I’ll go to my next grave wondering
whether I pushed them hard enough to never settle
for being the token Asian in a crowd scene or
the Asian acquaintance in an ethnically diverse television series
I like the way intersectionalities of self are so important. The ‘coming out as a poet’ poems feel high risk when masks and arm’s lengths are dropped or reduced. I found these poems witty and raw and touching a chord. Yet there is also the nerve-ending intersections with coming out sexually. The one standing in for the other.
There’s no such thing as the perfect time or the best way to tell loved
ones about your poetry inclinations. You need to muster up every
ounce of courage in your being and just say it: I am a poet. You could
say ‘I write poetry’, but there’s something non-committal about
that phrasing, like you only dabble now and then and would prefer
not to attach labels to your preferences. Prepare yourself for a full
spectrum of emotional reactions, from ‘You’re still the same person
to me’ to ‘I can’t be friends with a poet’.
from ‘I was a self-loathing poet’
Paula: Is this an example of letting the poetry do the talking?
Chris: Absolutely. And not just letting it talk, but also letting it have the last laugh, so to speak. It was important to me that a poem like that (which dealt with something that I don’t exactly fondly look back upon!) had a healthy dose of humour in it to soften some of the emotional barbs for me as a writer. It’s not that I’m trying to run from the memory of that moment in my life or downplaying its significance. Rather, I see it as a way to embrace it for what it is while still being able to continuously learn from it and move forward.
Those intersectionalities of the self are important, and possibly even more so for readers who are trying to find someone they can identify with. On the flip side, those intersectionalities can be so easily carved up and used as labels to make someone or something appear more palatable or accessible. Even I’ve been guilty of this: as this book was coming together I would joke with my friends that this was “the gay book”, but it could just as easily have been “the break-up book” or “the pop music book”.
Paula: Sometimes poetry books should come with playlists at the back! This was what I was listening to at the time.
Is there a poem that particularly resonates with you – where everything has fallen into place and it just works or it matters in other ways? For me it is ‘Release’. I gasped when I read this. Maybe it is feeling that is both intense and restrained. I love this poem. Then again I like the surprise and momentum of ‘The saddest song’. I also adored ‘Wolf Spirit —Fade’, the last poem, but readers have to discover this poem for themselves.
Chris: Well, being the mix tape/playlist geek that I am, I’ve made two playlists for this book: Side A and Side B! They feature songs and artists that inspired the poems or feature in the poems themselves.
I can fit the saddest song in the world in my carry-on.
I can fit the saddest song in the world in my right-side brain.
But I can’t fit it in my lungs or hold on to it with confidence
when underwater. And I can’t fit the saddest song
on one side of a 90-minute cassette tape without
an uncomfortable interlude cutting into its breath.
from ‘The saddest song in the world’
‘The saddest song in the world’ is the poem that resonates the most for me – I consider it the heart and soul of the book. Writing ‘Release’ was a very confronting experience. I read that poem now and I feel so vulnerable, but it was important to me that it had a place in the collection. Every time I had to revise what was in or out, I fought for it to be in, even though it feels like a ‘selfish’ inclusion because of its personal significance, so I’m glad it resonated with you as a reader! I’ve never performed it and I don’t know if I ever could. ‘Punctum’ and ‘Performance—Part 2’ were the last two poems written for the collection, after my publisher had already seen a final-ish version of the manuscript. They were both based on two separate lines that I’d been holding on to for a long time but just didn’t want to play with any of the other poems. When those two poems were finished it felt like I’d clocked a video game – those two lines were the things I needed to complete my quest!
Paula: One of the great attractions in the collection is movement. There are vital points (themes, events, revelations, states of being) that shine out, that repeat and overlap, a bit like a constellation. But it is the movement between that creates the knottiness I first mentioned, and I am not thinking of an ugly mess of a knot, just intricacies and complications.
What attracts you in the the poetry of others. Did you read any books that got under your skin while you were writing this?
Chris: I can’t pinpoint what attracts me to a particular poet or type of poetry – keeping an open mind is essential – but lately I have been drawn to poets and books that aren’t afraid to be sassy, funny or messy.
Unsurprisingly, I read a lot of poetry by gay male poets while writing this book: D.A. Powell, Richard Siken, Stephen S Mills, Ocean Vuong, Saeed Jones, Danez Smith, Andrew McMillan and Mark Doty, to name but a few. D.A. Powell was one of the first contemporary gay poets that I remember reading while I was an undergraduate and being absolutely shaken by his syntax and the emotional intensity of his writing.
Reading Hera Lindsay Bird’s first book was a revelation – a real YES! moment that in its own little way gave me the confidence to carry on with the types of poems I wanted to write for the book. Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts and Bluets have also had a profound effect on me recently. Her work is often described variously as memoir, essay or genre hybrid. It’s all drawn from her personal experiences, which are then filtered through many layers of what interests and excites her. That, to me, is poetry. The way she’s able to draw in so many threads to weave a net of support over a single narrative is fascinating to experience as a reader.
Paula: Finally, I love the title. It feels like a little challenge. You are opening the space of masculinity – stretching poems wide open to its possibilities. As our conversation so clearly shows your book challenges us as much as it challenges you. I am really intrigued how certain books, such as this one, matter so much to me – often it is because they anchor themselves in human experience in distinctive ways. This seems like a scary, tricky question but what do you love about your book?
Chris: That is a scary question! It’s apt that you’ve mentioned the title because that is what I would pick. For the longest time – even before Snakes was published – I thought I knew what the title of this book would be. But somewhere along the way it became clear that my working title wasn’t going to cut it, and this book needed something spikier with loads more character. HE’S SO MASC instantly felt right – it’s cheeky, it’s a little irreverent and there’s a pop music connection (Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Unusual). And I love what Greg Simpson, the cover designer, has done with it too – the dash drawing my name into the title, the italicised ‘so’. In a way the title is a challenge – the word ‘MASC’ is so loaded in gay culture and I wanted to turn that on its head. It’s my way of pushing back on everything I’ve ever been told that made me feel like I wasn’t enough or didn’t fit in.
Auckland University page
Chris Tse website
Friday poem at the SpinOff