‘...excluding the things
we create to distract us from the rawness
like nuclear warheads or ice cream cones’
By Sean Wait Keung
The Rialto, 2017
you are mistaken is Sean Wai Keung’s debut pamphlet, a collection of twenty short poems which won of The Rialto’s first Open Pamphlet Competition. It is a marvelous, honest and personal collection including themes such as displacement within cultures – even your own – and the dangerous inconsiderateness of society towards race and mixed heritage.
It has been some time since I have particularly focused my attentions on a front cover, but I will take the time now as Wai Keung’s aesthetic visual choices feed into his subject matter. The image depicts the reproduction of a woodcut. On the flyleaf of the book, it states this woodcut originates from 1655 and shows ‘a prodigious monster’. Appearing to be a multi-headed mix of cyclops and faun, the creature stretches its arms out invitingly and each head bares a slightly different expression. To me this gives a beautifully honest snapshot of this collection as a whole, demonstrating the poet's conflicted self but also his openness and willingness to invite others to share his experiences.
In his poem ‘a gift’, an upset Wai Keung describes how he thinks of ‘my white self + also my asian self’ (13), also potentially perceiving his younger self in the form of the English-Asian baby who comes to Wai Keung's checkout. Many of these poems focus on what it is like to be of mixed heritage, to be divided between two different cultures and what it is like to be perceived through the stereotypical portrayals of a culture, while being left behind in the rituals and traditions within that same culture. In 'i am on the floor cutting roast duck into bits', Wai Keung writes 'i get shouted at/to focus on cutting each duckbit equally/except the offerings - /they have to be smaller/but I don't know how small', describing his feeling of alienation and ignorance with the task given to him. The imagery of a man cutting duck on the floor is also distressing, at least to the naive reader, in that it conjures up the idea that the poet is begging and desperate to try to do the job correctly. Perhaps one of the strongest pieces in this book reflecting this displacement is in the title-poem 'you are mistaken'. Here the poet answers inconsiderate questions based on ignorance and stereotypes that society wrongly holds up to represent the all Chinese: that they are all good at maths, they can't pronounce the letter L, that they drive Audi's, that they are hardworking because they are Chinese, that they are quiet, like fortune cookies, academically gifted and more.
However, I do not want to treat these merely as 'race' poems and fall into a similar ignorance and blindness as the people Wai Keung describes. Within the poem 'you are mistaken' there are many answers relating to being a young financially-challenged poet and the difficulties of interacting with others, such as 'no I don't think I know everything', 'no im not a happy boy' and 'no I don't want a hug', answers that are very telling of the attitudes Wai Keung has experienced. These attitudes contain accusation, pity, condescension and misunderstanding. Yet there is also a great deal of humor to be found throughout this poem and the collection.
If you have ever heard Wai Keung read his poetry (and you can listen to him on his YouTube channel here), and I'm happy to say I have had the pleasure on several occasions, there is a dead-pan wit that is reflected in this poems. By 'dead-pan' I'm referring to the effortlessness of Wai Keung's subtle humor: he doesn't change tone or pace in order to hammer the humor home. He lets it wash over the reader and provokes smiles without working too-hard for them. There is a refreshing honesty to his wit but also a seriousness: his language isn't full of jokes, every word feels true and could easily be taken seriously and in-humor. He allows the reader to make their own mind up. This is reflected in poems such as '+ so I said to the guy what...' (17) where the poet breaks down in a bookshop begging for poetry. The bookshop only stocks Shakespeare and 'that is not right at all' (26), provoking a smile in the face of every poet, student or reader who has been hit over the head with the Bard for years. The shop assistant is flustered and worried about getting in trouble. Yet there is also something beautifully serious in this poem. Wai Keung asks 'why are there no poems in this city'. If taken in a more philosophical sense, Wai Keung could be despairing at the lack of written beauty and voices in the city, the silence save for the Bard. Or he is simply recording a bad day. That is another trait I enjoy about Wai Keung, his poems can easily be taken at face value and enjoyed, but they are also layered creatures ready for deeper consideration.
His language is very natural and conversational, it is feels like the poet is confessing his intimate thoughts and fears to a friend, rather than an audience of unknown faces. Several of these poems address a particular person(s), such as in 'stealing table sauces from wetherspoons' and 'over skype' where the poet is speaking in the second person to someone who has (or is attempting to) increase his feelings of displacement, putting pressure on him to be different. In this first poem, 'hot in the rain you tell me im a bad human being' for seeking comfort in stealing 'colmans mustard/hp/cholula' so he can feel safe in 'the knowledge that with enough / condiments any meal is edible' (17), suggesting that the poet has to resort to meals that are inedible without the aid of a sauce. Throughout this collection, there appears to be a consistent flow of harsh or inaccurate judgements from people not prepared to learn for themselves and understand difference, whether it is a difference in culture or simple perspective.
There are seven poems in this collection that focus on the Chinese Philosophy of 'taijitu' and its combining factors, and one in particular factors quite strongly into Wai Keung's use of language. Throughout you are mistaken Wai Keung uses the mathematical symbol of a plus sign (+) to connect his sentences, rather than the typical coordinating conjuctions such as 'and'. It is not the first time I have seen this method used, but it is the first time I have seen this stylistic choice interwoven with a philosophy, specifically the tao branch of the taijitu tree. In his poem 'taijitu 道' (12), Wai Keung writes:
is beyond language as well much like x which
is not only a letter but also a mathematical
symbol indicating two separate things should be
combined into one which is very like tao yet
we can't use it...' (12)
However, the poet does use it. In my initial reading notes, I wrote '+ is just an x standing on two legs not one'. Not the most genius of statements to be sure, but as Wai Keung describes the visual properties of 't' and 'd' earlier in the same poem, I considered it an acceptable idea to offer up. The + symbol is exactly the same as x, just rotated and perceived therefore at an alternative angle. Therefore a symbol used to make connections as Wai Keung writes embodies the 'tao' fragment of 'taijitu', which from my - admittedly limited - understanding of the philosophy represents the interconnections and natural movements of universal existence.
I'll end on a brief note on form, as do not wish to give out any more spoilers, no I want you all to go and buy the book and support this amazing up-and-coming poet. Most of Wai Keung's poems are short, right-aligned columns, but he isn't afraid to deviate from this and try something more experimental. In '16 slices' (22), he explores the myths and ideas surrounding sliced ham - another poem where his wonderful wit shines - and divides the poem up into 16 rectangular slices, each embodying its own five lines about sliced ham. Keeping with this poem, Wai Keung is also not afraid to take this experimental streak into his performance. On his YouTube channel, he reads the poem with a packet of sliced ham in his hands and acts out the poem, for example after reading the line 'if you rip open a pack of sliced ham + // throw /// each slice in the air //////// its possible to divine the future fortunes of your love life' (22), Wai Keung does throw a piece of ham in the air. The audience love it!
While the column form is predominant in the collection, there are more spatial poems too such as 'earnings', 'cny 2016', 'stealing table sauces from wetherspoons' and 'i am on the floor cutting roast duck into bits'. This variation prevents any stagnation forming in the collection, as there is always some change, some rogue poem that spreads out and does its own thing.
I think everyone should read this book. Over twenty poems Sean Wai Keung writes honestly and openly about issues we should all be more aware of and not only those concerning race, but also what it is like to be a poor poet, a student, a man. I hope this very talented poet continues to write so bravely and openly, because we truly need voices like his in a world where truth is fast becoming on-mass a luxury not a privilege.