on thwarted expectations: an interview
1) Do you write with a particular audience in mind or is it primarily for self expression? Why?
On the one hand, I do not believe that there is any such thing as a piece of original writing that isn't (by definition) some form of self expression. On the other, anyone whose writing is documented in a known language has a potential audience which includes every present and future user of that language in the world.
So it's a bit of an old fallacy to pit "writing for audience" against "writing for self", if you want to put it that way. It doesn't actually matter whether or not the writing was meant to be "private" or intended for a wider audience -- as long as your work is documented, it could potentially be made available (discovered and published after death etc) to a wider audience in which case you lose agency over the text as a piece of articulation and your intentions become irrelevant (or less relevant). The text runs on its own steam. Case in point: I'm pretty sure there was no way in which Shakespeare could have factored in a post-colonial Chinese-Singaporean readership when he was writing his sonnets. But here we are!
Now one can claim that one's work is intended to have a "universal" audience but that is neither here nor there. Leaving aside practical considerations such as effective reach (you can scribble a brilliant sonnet in the sand in Uganda but what are the chances it will reach Faber and Faber in London?) Instead, what I believe tends to happen is that writers have some conception of the target readership for the particular piece of work they have at hand (think Ad copy, political speeches, romance novels). Even poetry is frequently written for other poets to read these days.
My own approach is two-fold. On one level, some of my poems are written more to be read aloud than others; clearly these are intended to work in a performance setting. You'll find many poets who do this, and these pieces tend to be their wittier more popular hits. Other pieces may well be more pensive and meditative. I think of it in terms of an "ideal readership" of like minds, who have the capacity to respond to my work without my having to go too far into explaining every last detail. Of course I count myself as part of this ideal readership, but I have no way of knowing who this "ideal readership actually is. Confidence of the craft is trusting that they exist; the pleasure of the craft is discovering who they turn out to be.
Based on the range of people who've said they have read and responded to my work, I must say that the range of that ideal readership is fairly broad. Perhaps that is one measure of the quality and range of a writer's work -- how big a circle his effective and affective readership encloses.
Then again, truly great writers (and artists) don't discover but CREATE their own ideal audience, with work that is so unique yet so compelling that it results in a whole new category of appreciation and a new way of seeing the world. I'm not there yet of course.
2) Does it matter that readers understand your poem or do you prefer readers to read into your poems from their own perspectives and prejudices?
I don't write riddles or puzzle poems that have an answer to be unlocked. What I aim to do in my poetry is to have a private conversation with that imaginary ideal reader -- a conversation that can be deep, erotic, entertaining or any number of things that human conversations can carry. As in any conversation, it is inevitable that you bring your own perspectives and prejudices to the table, but one hopes the larger intention of the act (of reading or of conversing) is dialogue and exchange. So my poems are a way of saying, let's chat.
I've also felt sometimes that my love poems should evoke in the reader a sense of having overheard an intimate conversation -- in which case the target audience of the poem isn't the one who winds up actually reading the piece! You can also catch a writing talking to himself sometimes in the same way.
In which case, it doesn't really matter if you don't quite get the full context behind the words, but you can glean a certain sense of what's going on and derive pleasure from that. It's voyeuristic / exhibitionistic, but then again all writing is, since you can never fully reveal the self in all its complexity. "Tell the truth but tell it slant / Success in circuit lies" wrote Emily Dickinson wisely. I actually think it's much more fun and a boon to the imagination as a reader, not to know everything about what is going on.
Also I like to make people laugh -- if you can do that at least, how can you fail?
3) In an interview in 2002, you referred to yourself as a literary activist yet at the same time you seem to not be in favor of developing activities. How do you balance the tension between just honing your craft and 'developing' your audience?
It's a really difficult balance to achieve, particuarly since I don't consider myself the sort of dynamic Type A personality that gets themselves voted into office or founds multi-million dollar startup companies. All I have been trying to do is to build roads where few or none have existed, not least so that it will be possible for myself and my peers to get somewhere with our work at all. I'd really rather not be that much of a pioneer if I could have helped it -- I'm not someone who'd chose to start civilisation afresh on a deserted island. But what does someone who cares about the literary life do with this figurative deserted island? You can curl up and die, or you can start somewhere and build some infrastructure to get by with. You realise there are gaps, you try and build the necessary bridges.
All this takes a ridiculous amount of time, particularly if you don't have the power of money or institutions behind you. But it can also take on a life of its own. I'd be the last to say that this activism and promotion of Singapore literature as a whole hasn't brought me many valuable opportunities, experiences and friends over the years. But the craft of writing is a different trade from the promotion of it. Always there is the nagging feeling that you have to get away from it all and just read/write. It takes a certain ruthlessness to be able to cut clean away from the entire scene and all that you've helped to build, in order to work on a private endeavour. I am still working up the nerve. And as a parent of a very young child it is all the more difficult to find the time!
4) You also mentioned in the same interview that it is difficult to be a poet in Singapore. In your opinion, has there been any positive changes in the past 5 years?
I think if you look at the situation before 1995-2000, you'll see a stark contrast in literary activity and ambition from today, where you do have people actively publishing, writing, blogging etc. A lot of this "Big Bang" has to do with larger changes such as the internet (an empowering tool for writers if there ever was one), globalisation, the arrival of Starbucks and Borders, and so on. After 2000 I think Singapore woke up a lot more to the mainstream idea that we are a part of the world at large, and there's a certain open-mindedness and cultural appetite that came along with it -- people started being more interested in poetry and the arts, readings but also art galleries, wine, etc. A lot has to do with affluence and class but also these things made it possible for closet ambitions and interests to surface and have an outlet -- you could be a student and come out as a writer in a palpable way. You have a business university with a poetry program (!) You have writers who get international attention (as well as a global audience more prepared to listen to voices from cultures outside the conservative mainstream of US and Europe). The downside of course is that there's also a lot more noise now -- we've moved from nobody taking poetry seriously or even knowing what it's about, to everyone thinking they're a good poet. All these are very much symptoms of real development and progression -- you see it all over the world. In terms of sales, audience and readership, our poets stand toe to toe with poets in even established territories such as the UK, US and Australia. Poetry as a book form is under assult everywhere; but as a literary form it thrives in performance and on the net. For better and for worse. But I am glad to see that we've managed to plug into that global community more so than not.
5) Pick two of your favorite poems (that you wrote) and talk about what inspired you to write them.
My favorite poems tend to arrive fully formed on paper, after having brewed in my head for a while. I'm never actually sure what "inspires" them. Two general favorites of mine (also audience favs) I suppose can be attributed to the experience of travel -- IN TRANSIT was written after having read a poem by Filippino poet Marne Kilates on the unique state of mind experienced during air travel; I'd been travelling a lot when I encountered that piece and my own poem is an extended riff on the theme. OTHER THINGS was written during my 3-month fellowship residency at the University of Iowa's International Writing Program, and I suppose is the outcome of a wide range of new experiences (of writers from all over the world with their very fresh and very different outlooks and backgrounds; of Midwest America, which is unlike anything you see in Hollywood or TV; and of having finished my 2nd book and being in the unique position of being able to start afresh and create a new voice and new direction in my writing, unfettered by rules of composition or even syntax)
6) What are the two most-commonly visited themes in your work, and why do these themes influence you the way they do?
It varies from poem to poem and even from book to book. I am fascinated by thwarted expectations -- because that is the beginning of creativity but also of grief. The presence of the quirky in the midst of sobriety -- Thomas Edison inventing a machine for talking to ghosts -- always gives me a kick, and gives me hope for the future of the human race. I guess I've very much lived my own life in that fashion, as a former govt scholar who is also a poet, an English Major who's been in the IT business etc. Thwarted expectations but also conventions defied; grief and newness in the same breath and always the tottering balance between elation and pathos. May we always be free to be other than seem, and more than we're supposed to be!
That said, I do try something new with every poem and certainly with every book, so I'd be quite disturbed to find myself pinned down to any one theme, voice or formula!
7) Who has been the most influential figure for your poetry, and why?
I'd like to thank the writers I have read and enjoyed, for they were my best teachers -- thank you Dickinson, Heaney, Stevens, Collins, Whitman and the entire Poetry section of the library. My wife for being my most ruthless editor, my fellow writers for being spurs and readers and rivals. My cats, for not giving a damn what I did as long as I had a warm lap.
-- Questions from Kairen Chan and William Lee, SMU
12 April 2007 07:42 hours