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Write On! Features: Letter To A Poet Of Colour by Hongwei Bao

by Hongwei Bao

The title of this feature takes inspiration from a book, Letters To A Writer Of Colour, edited by Deepa Anappara and Taymour Soomro (Vintage 2023). The book is useful and inspiring, but I’ve also noticed that all those featured are prose writers and I’ve yet to come across a book similarly titled. As an emerging poet of East Asian heritage writing in English as a second language, I’d like to share my experience of writing poetry and offer some advice for aspiring and emerging poets of colour.

The first obstacle a poet of colour encounters is a structural one: the lack of a proper, and truly diverse, poetry education. For many people of colour, reading and writing poetry is simply not an option available to them at key stages of their lives. Poetry education at school was limited for me. Although Chinese pupils are required to analyse and even recite classical Chinese poems as part of their school curriculum, the purpose is to pass exams instead of encouraging creativity. In exams, one is expected to write prose but seldom poetry and analyse poetry instead of creating poetry. Also, classical poetry’s rigid rhyming and meter schemes and the conventional subject matter do not make it easy for a young person to relate to.

It was only when I came across modern and contemporary poetry that I began to realise one does not have to write like Du Fu or Shakespeare to be a poet. So, first and foremost, a person needs to familiarise themselves with different forms of poetry, knowing its various traditions and possibilities. If this option is not available in the school curriculum, go to the local library and find out as much as you can (and hopefully your local library has a decent poetry collection). The Poetry Society runs a ‘Poets in Schools’ programme that works with schools to provide poetry education.

The biggest hurdle a poet of colour must jump across is to give oneself the permission to write. Having known some of the different forms and possibilities of poetry, select a form  you’re comfortable with, be it rhymed or free verse and start writing as soon as possible. You can write about your own life, or about the lives you’re familiar with. When I was a child, I wrote some ‘bad’ poems about life, death, human separation and pain. I wrote about these, because the adult poets I’d read wrote about such things. But as a teenager, I didn’t have the life experience or craft to deal with these big topics, so my early poems appeared very inauthentic. I’d have written better poems if I’d focused on myself, my family and school life. This doesn’t mean you only write about what you know; if this were the case, the creative potential of a poet would be very much limited. However, for an aspiring and emerging poet, before venturing into unknown and uncertain territories, it’s best to start with what you’re most familiar with.

Feeling both seen and having a voice is an empowering experience for a poet of colour. This is because most of the poems we read today as part of the ‘literary canon’ are written by people from white, middle-class backgrounds. Their concerns may differ from yours and their voices may feel strange. This is a good incentive for you to start writing about your own life in your own voice! Remember: your experience matters, and your voice matters. As Toni Morrison says: “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” I felt this way when I read poetry. After reading many queer writers’ and East Asian writers’ works, although I have benefitted greatly from their writing, I still feel that the intersections between these identities could be further explored, and that a non-metropolitan queer Chinese voice is still missing. This became my motivation to put together The Passion Of The Rabbit God, my debut poetry collection addressing the queer Chinese migrant experience in the Midlands.

Writing is often a solitary process. It often feels as though we’re working alone on some secret project very few people know or care about. But, poetry writing doesn’t have to be this way. There are local (and online) poetry groups and poets’ communities you can find. You can also visit poetry nights and slams. You may even want to stand on stage and perform your own poetry. Through these events, you’ll meet fellow poets, exchange poetry and inspire one another. In the process, peer feedback means your poetry will improve and you’ll also gain confidence and grow as a poet. When I started writing poems at the start of the pandemic, I kept them to myself, afraid of exposing my vulnerability. Then, when I discovered a vibrant live poetry scene in Nottingham and shared my poetry, I wasn’t laughed at. My vulnerability became a strength for me, empowering me and also helping me make connections with other people. As my poems started taking on a different look, my understanding of poetry also evolved. I now challenge the binary opposition between ‘page poetry’ and ‘spoken word poetry’ and have recently gained entry to a spoken word programme, leading to a stage performance in a theatre showcase. This was completely unexpected. I wish I had known about, and attended, these events and met my wonderful fellow poets much earlier!

A few words about publishing. Publishing is difficult and, given the low or lack of profit involved, poetry publishing is especially so. But there are many organisations and charities dedicated to supporting aspiring and emerging writers. Pen to Print is such an example. Pen to Print runs free creative writing workshops and writing competitions and I’ve found them very useful, not only in terms of developing my own writing craft, but also because of the opportunity to network with other poets and writers and offer mutual support. Peer feedback/critique is an important way to learn to improve one’s craft.

Alongside traditional publishing, there are also new ways of publishing such as self-publishing, peer publishing, online publishing and social media publishing. Write On! is a great hybrid publishing platform, combining print publishing and online publishing. Most Write On! editors are volunteers and fellow writers themselves. They adopt a very encouraging approach to publishing emerging writers’ work. Some of the poems in my new collection The Passion Of The Rabbit God first appeared in Write On!. Publishing individual poems is a good way to build a poetry pamphlet or collection, as building a full collection takes a long time and a poem often needs many rounds of revision before it can go into the collection. When published individually, an author receives feedback from the editor and the readers. The poem becomes stronger as a result of this feedback process. Also, building a track record in publication helps convince a publisher of the quality and potential readership of your poems. So I encourage aspiring and emerging poets to publish works on literary websites or in literary journals first, while they prepare their book manuscript.


Hongwei Bao grew up in Inner Mongolia, China and lives in Nottingham, UK. As a bilingual writer, he uses poetry, short story and creative non-fiction to explore queer desire, Asian identity, diasporic positionality and transcultural intimacy. His debut poetry collection The Passion Of The Rabbit God is forthcoming with Valley Press in 2024.


Issue 19 of Write On! is out now and you can read it online here. Find it in libraries and other outlets. You can find previous editions of our magazines here.

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For many people of colour, reading and writing poetry is simply not an option available to them in key stages of their lives.