In her last years of high school, Cadence Chung wrote a book of poems, a musical, and a high-profile complaint to the New Zealand Qualifications Authority. Two years on, she’s also told the backstory.
Cadence Chung was 17, and she was livid. Her NCEA history exam featured questions about the poetry of Lionel Terry, while eliding that he was a white supremacist who killed elderly Chinese man Joe Kum Yung on a Wellington street in 1905. She and a friend complained to the New Zealand Qualifications Authority. The story ran on national news sites. Chung published an excoriating poem on review site Poetry Shelf.
‘Shadows/shades’ reads in part:
I ask myself why I should have to
write about a murderer’s
a white supremacist’s
why I should have to slip myself
into such rotting, fetid
Now 19, Chung is one of a cadre of astonishingly intelligent Pōneke poets who have broken onto the scene recently, writing straight out of high school with maturity and flair. Her work has appeared in publications like The Spinoff and Starling, and in March, she co-founded Symposia, a youth-led literary magazine. Her debut book of poems, anomalia, was published last year.
The collection “was all about being taken apart, and dissected and examined, through a scientific lens”, she says. “It was a way to examine my own identity, my outsider perspective and the way I fit in.”
Chung had suspected since she was 13 that she was autistic. She was diagnosed last year, at 18.
“It’s no wonder that many of my poems focus on curios, natural-history museums, and specimens,” she wrote in March, in an essay for Pantograph Punch. “I often feel like a specimen myself. Some curio, each quirk to be laughed at or pondered over.”
Her extraordinary output, she explained, was “also a detriment”. She wrote about poems “screaming” and “clawing” at her until she got them down; sitting at a computer for six hours “blind to everything, forgetting to eat or drink or do anything else but write”.
“It was difficult to publish something so personal,” she says now. “But I’m glad I did.” Asked whether that creative process colours how she feels about the work, she says, “I do have a level of disconnect—sometimes it feels like I didn’t even write a poem or song, but instead translated it from somewhere unknown. I’m almost ambivalent about the process: I don’t enjoy it but I don’t hate it either; it’s just something I have to do.”
What she does enjoy is going over the work later with another poet, picking over the detail of what they’ve each produced.
When she sat down for that history exam, Chung already knew the story of Lionel Terry. She’d first come across him in Chris Tse’s book How to be Dead in the Year of the Snake, inspired by Terry’s victim. She had then set about her own research.
“Terry committed New Zealand’s first recorded hate crime. He wrote a manifesto about how we need to keep New Zealand white and then he decided one day to go out and ‘kill the first Chinaman’ he saw. I knew that story. As a Chinese New Zealander, it’s important to know those histories.”
Tse, now the poet laureate, has become a mentor figure in Chung’s life, and published his own critique of the NCEA exam. But Chung doesn’t see herself primarily as an activist. Among generation Z there is great pressure to have an opinion on every issue, she says, “and if you don’t, then you’re a bad person. To me, the best form of activism is speaking to what’s true to you.”
Gen Z, even the poets, often hide their feelings beneath layers of irony and black humour, Chung says. Sincerity in this day and age can come across as anything from off-putting to even kind of gauche. Nobody wants to be piteous or, worse, cringe.
“People need to accept that poetry is cringe—everything is cringe… But it doesn’t matter. I think any sort of earnest expression in poetry is cool. Recently, I started writing about love. I think the heart of every poem is about love in a certain sense.”
Chung became besotted with singing after seeing The Phantom of the Opera, and won her school’s talent show performing one of the musical’s signature arias. She went on to write her own musical, In Blind Faith, while at high school; it was performed at BATS theatre last year. A mezzo-soprano, she now studies classical voice at the New Zealand School of Music.
“I always liked to sing, but classical is a really cool one because there’s so much to learn. It’s almost a science in a way. Classical music is very precise, and when you get something right it’s like solving a mathematical problem.”
It’s a funny contrast, modern poetry and classical music; free verse and stringent time signatures. Poets are almost totally unconstrained, and classical musicians are bound by the works of the greats, their experimentation mostly limited to interpretation. “That’s why I get really nervous before reading my poetry but never when I sing a classical show,” Chung says. With a poem, “I have to be the authority on what it is supposed to sound like. It’s up to me.”
Last year, in an emblematic multidisciplinary feat, Chung performed a series of original compositions inspired by the queer Ancient Greek poet Sappho’s fragments. She sang, and played a seven-string lyre.
I’m so in love, darling
Would you take my hand?
So in love with love, darling
Would you take me as I am?
Would you take me as I am?