Artist & Poet Amy Ching-Yan Lam on Stories, Healing, and a Cheese-Based Universe
Stories are more than simply tales we tell ourselves and each other. They are lessons, conversations, cultural landscapes both collective and deeply personal – and in celebrated multi-discipline artist Amy Ching-Yan Lam's cheeky, whip-smart new poetry collection, Baby Book (forthcoming from Brick Books in April), stories are possibilities.
As personal as a family holiday on a claustrophobic bus and as wild as a theory about the origins of the universe being based entirely in cheese, Lam's narratives resist the colonial and the capitalist, offering alternate lenses through which to examine how and what we believe. Vivid, funny, and fresh, Lam's sensory, tactile creations take readers both around the world and deep inside the self, memory, and family.
We're speaking with Amy about Baby Book today as part of our Line & Lyric interview series for poets. She tells us about the food-centric poem that sparked the collection, how and why the "the title refers to both types of 'baby books'", and what it was like to move from her work as an artist to writing a full length poetry book.
Tell us about this collection and how it came to be.
Amy Ching-Yan Lam:
I started writing this book in late 2018 but at the time I didn’t know it was going to be a book. I had been invited by an artist, Teresa Tam, to contribute a piece of writing about food to her exhibition catalogue, and I wrote one poem in a couple of sittings that followed some of the feelings and memories I had about food, stuff like my food allergies, how I get so ridiculously stressed if I don’t eat enough or on time, how food costs money. Which brought me to writing about everything that’s needed to stay alive, and the presence of death. After it was published in Teresa’s exhibition catalogue, I kept adding to that poem, and re-writing it over and over, until it became a series of poems, and ultimately that initial poem disappeared, or was exploded into tiny bits that are now throughout Baby Book.
Can you tell us a bit about how you chose your title?
Baby Book came from a previous version of one of the poems, about writing books for myself at different ages. The original concept was that present-day me could write a book for myself as a baby, as a child, as a teen, etc. That somehow those books would help me grow or learn, or that I could shape my own formation. Basically going back into the past to give myself something healing, but the movement not just being backwards, but also forwards and sideways.
The title refers to both types of “baby books:” the kind that are blank, with spaces where the parents and the baby can make imprints of hands, feet, and write down information and anecdotes, and the kind that are filled with stories to read to babies. It refers to the book being both a document or record of a period of time, but also a fable and a fantasy.
What was the strangest or most surprising part of the writing process for this collection?
The entire process was one of discovery and surprise. I never thought of myself as a poet and I really had no idea what I was doing when I first started. I was just writing these sentences that somehow followed each other. I added and cut away, over and over. As I kept going, I could see the shape of the book more, but it came to me more than anything: I followed it as much as I made it.
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Through this process I learned a lot about what it means to make work. I’m an artist, and I usually do stuff by coming up with an idea, and then executing it. Writing Baby Book was the complete opposite of that, and I’m still figuring out how it’s changed me.
What were you reading while writing this collection?
While I was writing, I read The Cheese and the Worms by Carlo Ginzburg, and it became one of the fundamental stories of Baby Book. It’s a microhistory about a miller who lived in 16th century Italy, a poor man who was branded a heretic. He was killed by the church for insisting on this story that the universe began as a giant mass of churning cheese, in which worms (or maggots) appeared, and then the worms became angels, and one of these angels became God. And along with this story, he was also telling people that the church was exploiting the poor, that it was hoarding access to spirituality. He was persecuted over several decades: the church kept putting him on trial and punishing him, telling him to stop spreading these ideas, but he just couldn’t, or didn’t want to, stop. I was really moved by the book, this person who somehow had this wild and beautiful and persistent vision, the universe as a material that both nourishes and is also decaying, and all of this being linked to justice.
Who did you dedicate the collection to and why?
Baby Book is dedicated to my grandma, who died in 2021. She lived to be nearly 100 years old. The book begins and ends with her. When she died, I wrote the last poem in the book. She’s part of the reason why it’s titled Baby Book: she once told me about her childhood, but in such a way that it remains a huge mystery to me, and I wanted to honour that mystery.
Amy Ching-Yan Lam is an artist and writer. She is the author of Looty Goes to Heaven (2022) and her poems have been published by Book Works, Montez Press, and yolkless press. Baby Book is her first collection of poetry. Lam’s exhibitions, performances, and public artworks, both solo and as part of the collective Life of a Craphead, have been presented at Seoul MediaCity Biennale, Eastside Projects, and Art Gallery of Ontario, amongst others, and she has participated in residencies at Macdowell and Delfina Foundation. She lives in Toronto, which is Mississauga Anishinaabeg treaty territory, as well as the land of the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat. Lam was born in Hong Kong.