Poet in the Mirror: Esther Vincent Xueming
We’re so proud to share some insight into the lives and hearts of today’s poets with our Poet In The Mirror series. This week, Esther Vincent Xueming— author of Red Earth (available now from Blue Cactus Press)— shares insight into writing through history, memory, and fear.
On the Joy of Acceptance
I think for a while, I was emotionally numb from the numerous rejections I’d received before BCP finally picked it up. My heart was in some ways blocked and I couldn’t believe that any publisher wanted to publish my work. I remember crying when I received news that Red Earth was a finalist for the 2020 Gaudy Boy Poetry Book Prize, as that was my first form of formal recognition for my work. Yet, it was not the winner and that once again made me doubt myself. Looking back on it now, the most surprising thing about getting my book published is that a publisher based in Tacoma read my poems, and they moved her. I guess that’s the beauty of poetry and art, isn’t it? The power of words to connect us along common yet diverse intersections. Kinships we never thought were possible, entanglements we never knew existed. I remember my first video call with Christina, and one of the first things I asked her was, What about my poems resonated with her? Why would she want to publish Red Earth?
On the Joy of Writing
When I would find clarity in my poems, where there was ambiguity before. Such moments would present me with light, truth, and joy, and I would find myself transformed by my poem. This happens with each poem, but each poem takes its own time to come into its own being and attain this clarity.
Oh, Red Earth (it wasn’t always called that) has seen its share of rejection! In fact, many of the poems in the book were individually rejected first by various journals, before the entire early manuscript was rejected multiple times. The publishing scene in Singapore is very competitive, and when the manuscript was at its infancy, no local publisher wanted to pick it up (this I rejoice in hindsight as it’s led me to where I am today). Even my own Graduate supervisor was pessimistic about me submitting overseas, but I felt that there was no harm trying. I don’t have any publishing contacts outside of Singapore, and basically what I did was to trawl through the websites recommending small/independent presses, and then visiting these small/indie press websites themselves to read up about their work as well as submissions criteria, and then try my luck by sending the manuscript in one by one.
I guess my break came when the working manuscript of Red Earth was shortlisted as a finalist for the 2020 Gaudy Boy Poetry Book Prize, administered by Singapore Unbound based out of New York. By this time, the manuscript had started to take shape from the rigorous editing that I put it through, as I was finishing up my Graduate studies in Creative Writing. Even then, it went through still more edits before I submitted it to my publisher, Christina Vega from Blue Cactus Press (Tacoma, WA). It’s funny because when I got her email stating that she was interested in my manuscript, which was close to six months later, I had no memory of ever submitting it to her, even though there was an email to prove it. At that time, BCP was not publishing internationally either, and she didn’t know I was based in Singapore! The story of Red Earth is truly a tumultuous one, as I thought that was it initially. I’m so glad the poems in the book convinced Christina to take a chance on me, and to venture into cross-cultural collaboration with me and Pagesetters, my distributor for Asia. Poetically, I think it’s quite a beautiful thing, for a book about connections and intimacies to make kinships across borders and cultures.
I find that meditation really clears out the clutter and gives me fresh insight. About the same time that I began my Graduate studies as a student of poetry, I also began devoting myself seriously to the practice of reiki and meditation. Jane Hirshfield, award-winning poet, writer and Zen Buddhist practitioner, writes about poetry and the mind of concentration, and likens poetry to meditation in its precision to a certain kind of awareness and perception only attained through a focused mind, a mind of clarity. I read that particular essay in my Graduate class, and it spoke to me so deeply that I bought and devoured all her essays cover to cover in her two books Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry and Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World.
I found my own connections between meditation and writing poetry, and some of my poems in Red Earth are inspired by these moments and experiences. Many of my poems in the book are also inspired by my dreams, some lucid, some vivid, some out-of-the-body, all altered states of consciousness made possible through devotion to my reiki and crystal practice. Giving yourself time is also invaluable, and listening to your intuition. Somehow, I just know when I’m ready to write or edit a poem (and when I should leave it), and in the two years I was working on my manuscript, a lot of the editing took place at night, when I was somehow more alert and creative, and the energy would just flow.
On Poetry as a Profession
Before I decided to embark on my Graduate studies, I had already been entangled with poetry, but more so as an editor than as a poet. Sure, I’d written some poems, which were published here and there, but not a full length manuscript. Ever since I began writing these poems, I’d always wanted to produce a full length manuscript. I’d tried to get some chapbooks published, but the scene in Singapore is not friendly to chapbook publishing because it’s not perceived by publishers as economical. In fact, I was told by a publisher that rejected my chapbook that I should work on a full length manuscript instead of trying to get my chapbook published. The implication was that I wasn’t ready for publication since I didn’t have enough poems to make up a full length manuscript. While these comments discouraged me then, I’m glad I was able to develop a thicker hide and persevere in my writing.
Another motivating factor leading to a professional pursuit of poetry was this: I wanted to be known as a poet, not just an editor. Perhaps it was my own internalised sense of inferiority, or sensitivity to implicit elitism within the literary sphere, but I sensed an unspoken stigma towards those who only edited and did not write poetry. I wanted legitimacy. I also wanted to hone my craft. To professionalise my poetry writing endeavours, I knew I needed mentorship and formal guidance. Before my Graduate studies, I had no formal training in writing, and so I found myself stagnating in terms of my poetic craft. I knew I needed to devote myself fully to the art and craft of poetry, and to do that, I needed to leave everything else behind and pursue poetry wholeheartedly. I wouldn’t be able to do it while working and studying part-time. I was privileged enough to qualify for a scholarship, which funded my studies. So, I left my full-time teaching job and enrolled myself in Graduate school instead. Those two years marked my journey as a student of poetry.
On Surprising Family and Friends
Honestly, I think my family (my parents especially, who are staunch Christians) would get a shock if they read some of my poems, as they allude to meditation as well as cultural beliefs they would deem as deviant. To this day, they have no idea that I practice reiki and crystal healing, and in fact, that I’m a certified reiki practitioner/master. Although I don’t refer to reiki explicitly in my poems, I’ve done a lot of emotional healing work as a result of my reiki and crystal practice. I’ve also embarked on a journey of self-reclamation through the rejection of institutionalised religion, choosing instead to follow the path of universal love and light. This part of myself is deeply connected to the heart of my poetry, and who I am as a poet.
Esther Vincent Xueming is the editor-in-chief and founder of The Tiger Moth Review, an independent eco journal of art and literature based in Singapore. She is co-editor of two poetry anthologies, Poetry Moves (Ethos Books, 2020) and Little Things (Ethos Books, 2013), and Making Kin, an ecofeminist anthology of personal essays by women writers in Singapore (Ethos Books). A literature educator by profession, she is passionate about the relationships between art, literature and the environment. Follow her on Twitter @EstherVincentXM.