Featuring Michelle Tan
THE FIRST PUBLIC notice that Michelle Tan had published her first collection of poetry is a Facebook post that Kenny Leck, owner and publisher of Books Actually and Math Paper Press, tagged her in. “Am very very PROUD & HAPPY to be given the chance to be publishing two very awesome poetry collections,” it says, one week before the book launch.
A Confusion of Happiness, Michelle's first collection of poetry, is publicized with no more than a second Facebook post from Michelle herself, with an invitation (“Announcement \(o)/!” as she puts it) to friends to “hear poems in my slightly confused reading voice.”
That is to say – Michelle Tan is a rather quiet poet, the sort of writer who doesn’t make a performance out of writing, but one who just writes.
Michelle started writing early, participating twice in the Creative Arts Programme where she learned to mimic the style of other writers in order to find her own. “I read to explore the style I wanted to have,” she says. “The more you read the more you get a sense of which poets you love and what they do with their writing.” But her first subjects – as with most literary secondary school students – were her relationships: with other people, and with the world at large.
“People have called my poems confessional, which is not something I’m very comfortable with actually,” Michelle confesses. “Even though it might be true to some extent, writing from your own experience is still very representational.” But she has certainly moved on – informed a little by moving away from home but mostly just growing up. “Age definitely plays a part,” she says. “When I look back at my earliest poems they look foreign to me even though I can place myself back in that situation and understand how I felt at that point. But it just isn’t me anymore.”
It shows, not just in the concerns of her poems – among them: long distance relationships, experiences appreciated alone, the act of creating – but also in the very precise vocabulary of someone who has read, a lot, and who has an intimate knowledge of a very particular European aesthetic, influenced perhaps by her love of opera, a lifetime of singing, and her musical studies in London.
Take “House Wife,” for instance – one of her favorite poems in the collection and peppered through with allusions to renowned Europeans (Mozart, Susannah Ibsen) and cities (Salzburg, Oslo). The unerring musicality of her poetry is due also in part to her editor, Cyril Wong, also a singer, and who has “a similar concern with the sound of words and the music of language that I really admire.”
When I ask Michelle what’s next for her writing, she responds in character, with a shrug and an offhand comment. “I’m not that concerned about thinking about my next book,” she says. And on Facebook, too – “I don’t know how [my] writing will go from here, apart from that I will study and write for as long as I live.” Yes, please.