“You’re cute but I’m not into Asians. Sorry just a preference.”
– Grindr, summer 2016
So begins “Message Received”, one of the twelve poems that make up David Ly’s startling new chapbook Stubble Burn (Anstruther Press, 2018). These first lines offer just a taste of the rest of the collection, in which Ly offers an arresting—if rather bleak—portrait of the realities faced by gay Asian men in today’s dating climate. With striking honesty, he covers everything from online racism to Lady Gaga, uncovering a side of the LGBTQ community seldom discussed in poetry or otherwise.
In celebration of Stubble Burn’s debut, SAD Mag sat down with Ly to chat lovers, discrimination, social media, and everything in between.
How did you first get into poetry?
You know, I didn’t really “get into poetry.” I always read and wrote a bit, but it was always fiction. I never approached poetry, mainly because of the reason everybody doesn’t approach poetry: because it’s scary. It’s a genre that’s on this pedestal. You have to be very “cultured” to understand the words of Shakespeare or Dickinson or whoever you’re reading. But I found I didn’t get that stuff. I didn’t understand—not only what was going on in the poems, but what their intrinsic value was. I couldn’t relate to them. They were not accessible to me.
So how did you end up here, publishing your first poetry chapbook?
I always knew I wanted to go into creative writing. So I took some courses at SFU with Anosh Irani. I wrote poetry for one of his classes, but I was writing it in this way that was not how I had seen it before. I don’t remember what I wrote, but I remember he said my poems were very beautiful.
And that’s when I really found out that poetry doesn’t have to ambiguous or shrouded in metaphor. It can just be a description of two people at a table. That built my confidence in my creative writing—that I [could] actually write about the things that I wanted to, things that I wasn’t reading anywhere else. I learned that poetry can just be about finding the right words. That’s all it is, honestly. Poetry is just picking the right words at the right time.
I definitely noticed that about the poems in Stubble Burn—they’re so relatable. Many of them take place in crappy bars, clubs, or on Grindr. Did it take you a while to feel comfortable writing poems about everyday life?
Oh, definitely. I felt like I was doing it wrong or something. I still feel like I’m doing it wrong, a lot of the time! I feel like I’m not writing poetry, because [my poems depict] mundane situations. But I don’t know, maybe that’s what poetry is? I guess I still don’t know what poetry is.
How autobiographical are your poems? Because they feel really personal.
In the chapbook, less than half [the poems] are [about] me. I’m not going to tell you which ones are real, but given the subject matter of these poems—racism—I obviously had to experience some of it myself to write about it. It would be really irresponsible of me to write some of those poems without having been a victim of racism. So in order to make the “fake” poems, there were certain strings of reality that came into play. How else am I going to make them feel real, feel personal?
I know you grew up here in the Lower Mainland, where we like to take pride in being really “diverse and inclusive.” I guess that’s not always the case?
Oh, it’s bullshit. Especially in the gay community, there’s this whole ethos of acceptance. But when you actually are a person of colour, it’s really hard to insert yourself into that culture. And I think it’s that way for many queer people of colour.
Does that “ethos” of acceptance make the prejudice even more frustrating?
Totally. And if you are accepted, it always comes with that thought: “Do you like me because I’m Asian?”
Yeah, I’ve noticed that fetishization comes up a lot in your poems.
It’s the fetishization of culture. I think that’s one reason I write poetry—to express how pissed I am! It’s shitty, but it’s the reality. It exists. Maybe one day it will change, maybe one day it won’t.
You write a lot about social media and apps in your poetry. Does racism play out differently online than in the “real” world?
Definitely. Online it’s a lot more in your face. There’s no shyness, no hesitancy in telling someone, “No thank you, not into Asians.” You go on apps or dating sites and it’s explicitly stated: “Prefer White only,” or “Prefer Latinos only.”
And I find it even more rampant in the gay or queer community. Being a gay man, in my relationships and connections, it’s more evident. [When] I tell my straight friends that I got told off because I was Asian, they’re so shocked. But it’s so normal in the gay community—so normal. So how could I not write poems about that, when I was being exposed to it? It messes up your brain, the way you think about yourself.
Is there anything positive or hopeful you hope to leave people with? Or are these all just rage poems?
[Laughing] Oh no, no, no—I don’t want to come off as a rage poet!
Sorry! Maybe “rage” isn’t the right word. But there are definitely a few poems in Stubble Burn that made me profoundly sad. It’s hard to acknowledge this side of ourselves.
Yeah, I think that’s what it is! In these poems, I really want people to acknowledge the ugly in other people and in [themselves]. The collection, I hope, will show people a side of the gay community that they may not be aware of. I want readers to really take a moment and realize, “Maybe that was me who did that shitty thing to that person that time.” You can say what you like about other people, but you slip up sometimes too. We all have.
So you want to make readers acknowledge the shiftiness in themselves?
That’s basically what it is. Though I’ve tried to write it in a very sweet, intimate way. That’s my way of dealing with the really shitty stuff I’ve been through with guys: reflecting on it, then trying to write about it in a beautiful way.
A Master of Publishing graduate from SFU, David Ly is a writer and poet from Surrey, BC and the Marketing Assistant at UBC Press. His poetry has appeared in a range of magazines and anthologies, including The Puritan, PRISM International, and Ricepaper. In 2017, he was long-listed for the Thomas Morton Memorial Prize in Poetry. He has also written for VICE, Daily Xtra, and NUVO. Stubble Burn is his first chapbook. Find David on Twitter @dlylyly.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.