Image by Lucy Heywood.

Mary Jean Chan caused a stir in literary circles when their debut poetry collection, Flèche, was published in 2019, going on to win the Costa Book Award for Poetry, whilst Chan received an Eric Gregory Award (for one of the best collections by a poet under 30) that same year. Their second collection, Bright Fear, is due to be published by Faber in August 2023. Students from the University of Oxford heard a preview of Chan’s forthcoming work in a talk on Saturday the 19th of November at Worcester College, organised by the Oxford University Poetry Society (OUPS).

Chan is not a stranger to the university, having studied here for an MPhil in International Development and currently being a supervisor for the MSt in Creative Writing. At the Sultan Nazrin Shah Centre at Worcester, to an audience of their followers, fellow poets, and a few of their students, Chan read a mix of poems from both Flèche and Bright Fear as well as answering questions. Given the deeply personal subject matter of much of Chan’s work, their openness when explaining the feelings that generated the words on the page was powerful to witness.

The event began with a brief introduction from the society’s co-president before Chan took to the stage to enthusiastic applause. They began by reading some of the most affecting poems from Flèche: metaphors about family, identity, and fencing danced around the wood-panelled stage as Chan spoke. When the readings shifted to excerpts from Bright Fear, Chan mentioned the months of writer’s block they suffered during lockdown, unable to write a word as the world seemingly froze in time. They also noted that, despite originally seeking to move away from the images found in their debut, Chan felt compelled to further explore the themes of Flèche in new ways.

The Q&A portion saw a mix of questions revolving around both Chan’s own work and their advice for up-and-coming poets. Questions about how Chan’s role as both an academic and literary critic affect their poetic lens led to some insightful reflections. Chan also spoke about how reconvening with nature on daily walks helped them overcome their pandemic writer’s block. The discussion became more personal when Chan was asked if their mother (who was the focus for a lot of the material in Flèche) had read their work. Chan answered frankly that their mother does not speak English very well, so even if she had seen the poems, Chan was unsure that she would have understood their meaning in full.

It was wonderful to listen to such an acclaimed poet discuss in detail their creative process and their approach to writing. The Guardian included 100 Queer Poems, an anthology Chan edited with Andrew McMillan, in their list of the best poetry books of 2022; Chan was also recently announced to be judging the 2023 Booker Prize alongside Adjoa Andoh, James Shapiro, Robert Webb, and panel chair Esi Edugyan. Their insight is sure to be valuable to the many Oxford University Poetry Society members who came to hear them speak on a cold Saturday afternoon. Chan’s encouraging answers to audience questions and mesmerising new material from their upcoming collection filled the room with an undeniable warmth during that hour of creative bliss.