About Jane Yeh
Jane Yeh is an American poet who has lived in England for over a decade. Born in New Jersey, she was educated at Harvard University, the University of Iowa—where she took an MFA at the prestigious writers’ program—and at Manchester Metropolitan University. She has taught at a number of universities in the UK, including Oxford Brookes University, and is now a Senior Researcher in Creative Writing at Kingston University. She has published two collections with Carcanet: Marabou (2005), which was nominated for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection, the Whitbread Book Award and the Jerwood Aldeburgh First Collection Prize, and The Ninjas (2012). She has received many other awards and fellowships for her work, including a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship, an Academy of American Poets Prize, and a residency at Yaddo, and was a judge for the 2013 National Poetry Competition. She has also written on a number of subjects, from fashion to sport, for publications including The Village Voice and The Times Literary Supplement.
Yeh’s work is characterised by its high artifice, rich and varied diction, dazzling cast of characters, and its ability to harness these elements to create poems of deep psychological penetration. It is a mark of her unique gifts that a seemingly-whimsical poem describing the behaviour of a group of robots can provide not just an oblique account of the poet’s own compositional techniques, but also manages to be as touching and sinister as anything produced by Pixar:
They meet in secret in electrified rooms.
They are under surveillance . . . by themselves.
They sneak food out of our kitchens, even though they can’t eat it.
The password for their meetings is ‘Please admit me, I am a robot’ (in robot language).
Her poetry abounds with similarly thwarted and suspicious characters, often ill at ease with roles they have been prescribed, such as an owl cast in a Harry Potter film (whose “greatest talent is impersonation— / To simulate a person’s idea of an owl”), or immersed in the dream-world of play-acting, like the musk-ox who fantasises about being reincarnated as a salmon, “sleek as a torpedo / In the deep green / Water, flashing his iridescent scales”. What unites these disparate protagonists is the atmosphere of sadness, alienation and desire they evoke, and yet they are realised with such wit and tenderness that the poems somehow become miniature celebrations of the characters’ dignity and endurance.
A central part of Yeh’s richly evocative and idiosyncratically plastic vocabulary is derived from fashion, and her poems seem to derive some of their formal properties from the architecture of clothing, often gravitating towards the analogies of constraint to be found there, as in her beautiful poem “Double Wedding, 1615”:
We are laced taut
As an archer’s bow strung with catgut, a lean
And deadly spring to the touch. At each breath
Our stomachs press whalebone, seven bent fingers
Stiff as our own ribs and wrapped in linen, leaving
The fine print of their weave on our skin.
The artful violence inflicted upon the body in this poem is reflective of Yeh’s oblique political vision of female experience, and is as striking in its self-descriptive facility and imaginative scope as the early works of Jorie Graham or Lucie Brock-Broido. In their care and scrupulous specificity, the “great things and small movements” these poems achieve within their elaborately and beautifully realised formal corsets is quite remarkable.
Poems by Jane Yeh
Featured in the Archive
Marabou which was nominated for the Forward Prize for Best First CollectionPrize website
Whitbread Award for MaribouPrize website
Jerwood Aldeburgh 1st Collection Prize for MaribouPrize website
New York Foundation for the Arts FellowshipPrize website
Academy of American Poets PrizePrize website