“A writer with a day job” is how Desmond Kon likes to frame his life.
The vocations he has embarked on reveal his love affair with words and design. A former journalist with an entertainment weekly, supplement writer for a newspaper and editorial freelancer and stylist, he lectured at the School of Film & Media Studies (FMS) at Ngee Ann Polytechnic for 7 years before going off to earn 2 Masters degrees in America. Recently done with his MFA in Creative Writing, the 38-year-old has just returned to FMS, Singapore’s most established media school, to teach the Book Writing and Publishing module.
What’s new, and undoubtedly of national pride is that Desmond has released a series of 4 sculptural pieces collectively titled “The Travelling and the Rotation”, made to honour the 120th Anniversary of Poet Lore, America’s oldest poetry magazine. The pieces have been accepted and placed on permanent display at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, US.
This would be amazing enough an achievement for someone who has only picked up pottery seriously in the last year. But his 4 pieces of art are part of his Potter Poetics Collection, through which Desmond has designed ceramic pieces for a number of luminaries. To date, his works have been chosen to commemorate Albert Camus’ 50th Anniversary, the Dalai Lama’s 50th Year of Exile and Gerard Manley Hopkins’ 120th Anniversary, to name a few.
Eliot bowls before firing
Poet Lore after firing
Desmond is stunned and overwhelmed by the positive reaction to his pieces, most of which are well researched to capture the essence of the personality or the institution they honour, but he’s in no hurry to leave his love for poetry.
His works as a poet have been featured in more than 30 literary periodicals including AGNI, Confrontation, Faultline, Gulf Coast, Harvard Review, New Orleans Review, Seneca Review, Sonora Review, and Versal.
Also an editor of more than 10 books and co-producer of 3 audio books, Desmond has explored different artforms in the course of co-producing titles such as How to Read a Poem.
UrbanWire quizzed Desmond about what he thinks of the literary scene in the US and Singapore, and on his literary works and influences via an email interview, whose reply both shocked and delighted us in its depth and insights. And if you’re intrigued to know more about his works, UrbanWire presents them, right here.
UrbanWire: What inspires you when you’re composing poetry?
Desmond: Anything. Anything that I can frame in a moment. Yesterday at Wisma Atria, when I ditched the naan for the rice to better soak up the Chicken Makhani, which made me think of Mock Orange like a floral spray of white on a sandy ridge. The genus conjuring images of monarch butterflies that jolt into memory the enervating Hannah Montana movie I forked out hard-earned money to watch, except for when Billy Ray Cyrus stole the show with “Back to Tennessee” which reminded me of Amy Grant’s “Tennessee Christmas” reminding me in turn of Memphis’Pinch Journal, which published one of my earlier poetic experiments, “love song of empress wu”. What of culture survives Disneyfication is an interesting social phenomenon to watch.
I think being a poet humours my associative need to tie up all the loose ends in my life and the surrounding life that coruscates around me. This working of language resides in the tethering and untethering of all my Borromean knots. It’s language, and all it engenders, that inspires me.
UrbanWire: Of all your works, which is your favourite? Why?
Desmond: I can think of pieces I’ve written that seem to have spoken to me as if in a talkback like a backdraft, as if it were an indignant poem needing to reauthor itself in other ways. My favourite poems inhabit their own timeless energy, so when I reread them, I feel like some other poet has conceived them. My strongest poems keep their own secrets, and keep them from me. If poems screen and obfuscate, what kind of reader will “hear… more lines resonating in the same field of meaning” as Peter Gizzi says, and for whom “a poem is about tracking what is not said”? Will this reader have the patience and tenacity of Gizzi’s “condition of openness [figuring] a constant grappling with absence and lack”?
For their audacious sensuality and heavy intertextuality, I do keep close to my heart a sequence of 24 poems of 23 lines each written up as a long epithalamium, a wedding song. Although finding it “sometimes difficult to follow the movement in the poems”, Flume Press described the voice as “fascinating” and the language “complex, dense” in its letter to me: “We all appreciate the tenacity of the theme. My personal favorite is ‘XI.’ Of all the poems, I felt this was the most sensuous, tenacious, accessible and most representative of the collection.” Kent Shaw at The University of Houston’s Gulf Coast did publish that poem along with another, Literary Bohemian featured an earlier version of one installment, Blackbird just accepted one, and Ander Monson is editing the last poem within the sequence into an upcoming issue of Diagram, a complete gem of an online literary journal.
I’ve recently completed a suite of prose poems that weaves together ideas from Tibetan Buddhism and the theory of proxemics. Just when I thought I had exhausted all hulking hyperboles, I turned to turbo-burlesque. At this very truncated-haiku moment, I’m very partial to a short story I just buffed and burnished for a literary editor. It’s titled “Hand Me a Lifeline, Bahauddin, and the Bourbon”.
UrbanWire: Who is the one literary figure you most admire? Why?
Desmond: I get to choose only one? I like to tell people that I have an egalitarian love for all kinds of poetry, even for gross sentimentality. This all-embracing ethic towards aesthetics, a surfeit of it, can become both my Achilles Heel and an Archimedean point. Thing is: I love everything from Hart Crane to James Merrill to Robert Creeley. Even the Metaphysical Poets turn me on because of their intense attention to method. I like how they extend and push the metaphor into such ostentation and extravagance. You can feel the trope straining against itself. Let’s see, there’s also Plath and Sexton. And the indomitable Gertrude Stein. And Ginsberg of course. And Celan. And Hafiz. Oh, give me anything. The Objectivists, the Imagists, the Surrealists, the Symbolists, the Confessionalists, the New York School, the Beat Poets, the Lake Poets, the Language Poets, even the Martian Poets, and I’ll lap them up, oreo crumbs off the buckeye.
There are living poets whose works I admire incredibly for their beauty and sheer ambition. That of my own writing teachers: Steven Cramer, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Joyelle McSweeney, Orlando Menes, Don Share, Janet Sylvester and John Wilkinson. And of course, my poet mentors Cornelius Eady and Cate Marvin. Cate taught me to aim high, and Cornelius was always generous in his assessment of my writing. I love the confidence and graciousness that he brings into the workshop environment, so much so I sculpted a piece for him to honour Cave Canem’s 10 Years of Service to African American Poets. I also made a separate piece just for his keeping, bookends inscribed with “graffiti” and “gravity”, words taken from poems within his 1985 Victims of the Latest Dance Craze.
Ever so often, there comes along a new voice – you encounter this with The All-Purpose Magical Tent by Lytton Smith, whom I met at the AWP Writers’ Conference this year in Chicago. There’s also D. A. Powell’s amazing trilogy which is so playful and inventive with form. One of the most talented poets I know today who’s doing such important work is my great pal Grant Osborn. His first book The Human Market was published by Luapatir Press and I can’t wait for him to come out with his second.
There are some poets whose talent I’d give an arm and a prosthetic leg to have, like Joshua Clover, Bill Coyle, Forrest Gander, Noah Eli Gordon, Ilya Kaminsky, Dionisio D. Martinez, Paisley Rekdal, Sasha Steensen, James Tate, Brian Teare. From the UK, there’s Andrew Duncan, Veronica Forrest-Thompson, Douglas Oliver, J. H. Prynne, Tom Raworth. Hmmm… August Kleinzahler too, and Campbell McGrath. Definitely David St. John. Martín Espada and Alberto Ríos. Rae Armantrout. Charles Bernstein. Timothy Liu. Mark Doty, of course. Tomaz Salamun. Tom Sleigh. Cole Swensen. Mark Wunderlich. I could keep at this list like crochet and long yarn but I’ll leave you with this. When I left America in April, I had fallen head over kicked-up heels in love with the work of John Wieners. Wieners died in Boston in 2002. I only discovered his poems in the posthumously published collection A Book of Prophesies by Bootstrap Press.
For me, that body of poems represented a homecoming.
UrbanWire: How would you describe the US literary scene to someone who may not know much about it?
Desmond: It’s overwhelming. It’s exciting. It’s competitive. It’s grounding. It’s above all charming and magical. I found myself coming face to face with so many talented writers, all intensely committed to the craft. In America, there’s such a healthy respect for loving the language, right down to the level of the line, even in the midst of such a professionalization of the craft. There’s something mysterious and alluring about meeting persons so enamoured of the writer’s condition, and wanting so much of their life to be about that. People seem less concerned about getting somewhere as a writer than about the journey, the process. I’ve met people who simply want to tell their stories because it gives them joy. None of the quick-fix shortcuts us city dwellers in our bratty rat race seem fixated on and obsessed with. I say this as all-hands guilty myself, of being ridiculously pragmatic myself, terribly self-punishing but not always self-critical enough in my approach to my writing as art.
With regard to publishing, America has a very complex publishing industry, perhaps more so than elsewhere in the world, I suspect. There are the major players like Harcourt Books, HarperCollins, Houghton Mifflin, and W. W. Norton, to name but a few. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, for instance, has in its stable some of my favourite poets like Bill Corgan, Seamus Heaney, Grace Paley, and Paul Muldoon who succeeded Alice Quinn as poetry editor of The New Yorker. The university presses have put out powerful work too, as with Steve Tomasula’s VAS: An Opera in Flatland from The University of Chicago Press. Now that I’ve segued into talk about fiction, I must shamelessly do a toot for Valerie Sayers, who has published five novels, two of which – Who Do You Love and Brain Fever – were named New York Times “Notable Books of the Year”. Valerie is the loveliest person ever and one of my best readers, in helping me understand and sharpen my prose. You know how sometimes someone says something that leaves an indelible mark, that sticks with you like a wisdom line forever? Valerie did this once when she quipped: “I have no patience for willed ignorance.” Love it!
There are the smaller presses trying to keep the cutting edge, like Copper Canyon Press and Graywolf Press. I get a rush whenever I stumble upon new and exciting work – writing that seems to defy traditional conventions. Real gems have come out of Action Books, Flood Editions, Four Way Books, Tupelo Press, and Ugly Duckling Presse. Our equivalent of the independent press would include Ethos Books, Firstfruits Publications, and Monsoon Books. These presses have really managed to offer local writers the much needed platform to publish their good work.
Because local publishing is rather modest, we have little understanding of the concept of the literary agent. There, some well-respected agencies include the Curtis Brown Group, Donald Maass Literary Agency, and Sterling Lord Literistic, to name a few. Having an agent like Andrew Wylie means doors will likely open. He has David Leavitt, and W. S. Merwin, and Louise Glück. I remember stammering out an ill-phrased question to Louise Glück when I met her at Lesley University in 2006, how she wasn’t particularly impressed, but later smiled approvingly when I fielded my second question regarding her use of Persephone in Averno. When I asked her to sign my book, she happily did so, and asked me to join Yale where she teaches. Love her!
Oh, Wylie also has on his client list the Benazir Bhutto estate. And King Abdullah II of Jordan. Enough said. And by his own admission, according to this interview, I guess he did actually call Salman Rushdie for drinks in London, and more accurately, all the way from Karachi.
Where we have a handful of literary journals in this country, there are hundreds of them in America, and tens of thousands of submissions vying for those few coveted pages. Some journals I’d give another arm and Van Gogh ear to have work appear in are The Atlantic, Black Clock, Chicago Review, Colorado Review, Columbia Review, Kenyon Review, Magma, Maisonneuve, New England Review, Paris Review, Ploughshares, Post Road, Tin House, and Virginia Quarterly Review, among many others. I remain undeterred by my drawers and years of rejection letters. I think I’m a sucker for punishment, a squealer for pain. I actually enjoy receiving any correspondence, acceptance or rejection, in the mail – I feel sort of romanced, like Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins in 84 Charing Cross Road. As horribly alienating as it sounds, it’s all about the market, market, market. And knowing your market, market, market. This is a brutal reality, the nature of pulp’s beast, so to speak.
It’s hard being a writer, and trying to get a handle on what the business is like. Publishers can seem daunting but my guess is they’re all really just trying to do the important work of getting the richest writing out to the reading public, so that people can get hold of such literature. I like what Nan Talese, Senior Vice President of Doubleday, had to say about the editor-author relationship at Stanford’s Professional Publishing Course in 2001. She said she loved working with writers precisely because they had all their idiosyncracies. And she loved listening to their stories. I like it that she respects the artist, and the artistic temperament.
There are national literary organizations like The Authors Guild, National Endowment for the Arts, Pen American Center, Horror Writers Association, Mystery Writers of America, Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and of course, The Association of Writers and Writing Programs which supports more than 24,000 writers at over 370 member colleges and universities, and 125 writers’ conferences and centers.
Also, nowhere else in the world has the creative writing program been so readily accepted. I like it that the literary arts is taken so seriously in America, so much so writers have the opportunity to eke out a living doing what they love. I wouldn’t give up for the world the experience I had from being immersed within a literary community in a fine arts writing programme. To be given that amount of time to invest in your art, to be with people who understand the importance of what you’re doing, that sort of space is just so precious. It’s a privilege. It’s a luxury. It also helps you create a writing discipline for yourself so that you learn to frame your life as a writer who has a day job, rather than a person who writes as an aside.
It takes effort for me to remind myself that writing is my primary vocation, that I have to make it a priority in my life. It’s this sort of attention to the art that I’ve brought back with me from America. That is a gift I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life.
UrbanWire: In your opinion, how mature is the Singapore literary scene? How does it compare with the scene in America?
Desmond: Okay, brace yourself: I’m going to don the suit in these paragraphs. If there’s going to be a vibrant literary community here, there needs to be a strong publishing industry to support it. According to the Economic Development Board, there already exists a significant and stable publishing and printing industry in Singapore, with four out of the top five international publishers hosting their regional headquarters here. This recession aside, PriceWaterHouseCoopers’ projections for the global book publishing industry is growth of some 2.8% annually, from US$107.5 billion in 2004 to US$129 billion by 2012. The Asia Pacific region looks all set to go, expected to become the fastest growing market for book publishing at 3.9% annual growth from US$25 billion in 2008 to US$29 billion by 2012.
And the Singapore government is pulling out all the stops to capitalise on this potential, with the Media Development Authority announcing plans to spend S$250 million this year to sustain the growth momentum of the media sector despite the economic downturn. This is all wonderfully encouraging news for writers here, if you ask me.
As far as Singaporean writing goes, I was thrilled to discover how much the literary scene here had grown in the five years I’ve been away. The National Book Development Council is doing amazing work, as is the National Arts Council. I feel a buzz about writing now that I didn’t feel those years ago. This year alone, there’s been the Creative Industries Fair, the Singapore Book Fair, with the upcoming International Singapore Storytellers Festival and later in the year, The Singapore Writers Festival. There’s the Singapore Book Club which meets every two months. I’m trying to catch up on all my reading having been gone these years, of established writers here and the emerging voices. Just at Kinokuniya last week, I picked up 15 books by local writers. At the moment, I’m going through four books at once: Yeow Kai Chai’s Pretend I’m Not Here, Cyril Wong’s tilting out plates to catch the light, Ng Yi-Sheng’s last boy, and Madeleine Lee and Eleanor Wong’s y grec. All excellently well-written and well-made books. Kai Chai, whom I worked with at 8 Days magazine, is truly the consummate wordsmith. I’m constantly bowled over by his wizardry.
Sculpted for the closing event of the Singapore Writers Festival
Other local writers I have found captivating and am drawn to are Colin Cheong, Felix Cheong, Kensai, Aaron Maniam, Daren Shiau, Tan Hwee Hwee, Paul Tan, Toh Hsien Min, Yeo Wei Wei, and Yong Shu Hoong. I’m particularly impressed by Alvin Pang’s anthologies which have brought together writers from Singapore and those in far-flung countries like Australia, the Philippines and Italy. I do wish there were more initiatives encouraging budding writers like the First-Time Writers & Illustrators Publishing Initiative, which discovered the work of two old and cherished friends, Emily Lim and Lynn Lee.
Also, it’s imperative that Singapore develop a reading culture that’s appreciative of the literary arts. Poetry and fiction require commitment and attention, and not many people here have the patience for either. Creating such a reading culture, I feel, is a much harder thing to achieve. One gorgeous step in the right direction is BooksActually, the homegrown independent bookshop at No. 5 Ann Siang Road that just opened its new store. I visited it yesterday and simply fell in love with it. There, I discovered the wacky handmade absurdity of Doinky Doodles as well. On my way out, I also managed to pick up books by Wena Poon and Suchen Christine Lim.
UrbanWire: How would you describe your poetic style?
Desmond: This is where I should opt for discursive silence. I tend to gain a better sense of my work through others’ readings of it. Orlando Menes, who fabulously won the NEA Fellowship this year, has called my writing cross-cultural baroque. Some of my more difficult work reminds him of the neo-baroque of José Lezama Lima and Severo Sarduy. Isn’t Orlando just lovely? I liked that critique because it helped me look at my work in a different way and to take it to a different level. I really should leave criticism of my own work to the experts – what bighearted and patient readers there are left in the room and the critics who will always tell me something I don’t know about my work.
Still, I have only speculative notions of how to approach my wildly disparate subjects, all of which require different treatments. Yet one thing is certain: my poems will only establish their authority through a keen eye of an aesthetic that measures every image and every sound to further meaning and thereby meaningfulness.
While I’m hesitant to make claims about my writing, I will say this. I am terrified of literalists, of people who think there’s only one way to read a text. I think the first three words kids should learn in Primary One are “multiplicity of meaning”. They’ll learn alliteration, you can teach them scansion, then they can mushroom each syllable into a clause and write their first ottava rima, all eleven syllables in a litany, in perfect iambic pentameter like a steppe. Before you know it, they’ll be inhaling Spencer and Shelley, Byron and Browning.
Three words: multiplicity of meaning.
UrbanWire: Your writing seems to focus on religion. And in three of your books – For the Love of God, Don’t Judge a Book By Its Cover and Impressions of a Pipa Player – your biography ends with this line: “And in so doing, brings him that much closer to God.” Can you explain how your relationship with God influences your poetic themes?
Desmond: I forget how exacting a journalist’s questions can be. I don’t know whether I’ve sorted out my own questions regarding spirituality enough to give you a neat answer but I’ll try.
Any effort to pigeon-hole my poetics always makes me shift uncomfortably in my seat. My work in the last five years has been a response to the America I witnessed in my time there. Call it a social commentary, satirical, a parody, a bit of tongue-in-cheek, a lyric ode or a ballad. A eclogue epic of diamonds and contusions, arsis after thesis after anti-thesis after indices rubbing up against appendices. Oil-rigging the collective unconscious at war with the noosphere. Call it a postmodern verse fable, culture shock, then catharsis, perhaps narrative therapy, maybe a third-party observation. A channelling of the muse. Senseless drivel. Even journalism. A leaf off every conceivable canon. A ring-necked dove perched on an obelisk. I’m quite fine with any label, randomly slapped on or otherwise.
The truth is I feel like I sauntered into a country and strolled out with reams of stories which seemed to have written themselves out, with me re-entering the texts and shaping them, most of the time quite clueless as to how the tropes evolved out of their own volition and started conversing with each other. And I love it all, all of it. The gaping holes. The shifting veneers. The forgotten patchwork like an older Todd Oldham. My individual pieces can often read separate and fragmented, sometimes even outrageous, but all these pieces are part of a larger whole, a holistic puzzle that limns a narrative arc through an oeuvre, as if in Deleuzean flight. It’s too vestal and reductionistic to call it a unity. It’s more a figural litter, of utterances. And as with any self-respecting fiction, a lot of pitting of opposites seems to have been necessary and important.
Reading that biographical phrase – especially having it read back to me – staggered me because I’d forgotten that I’d penned that. In the poem “From the Past”, Franz Wright poses a question that shores up the perplexity of the self: “But who was I, so clearly it appeared to me that there was something else than what I saw? Who did I imagine I was, that things as they are, reality as God gave it, was not enough for me?” How often has the poetic self splintered into multiple fragmentary selves, like personalities, buoyant and bobbing across the line, even as the “I”, the “you”, the “he”, the “she”, the “we” all return to the same speaker as if in restitution, a restoration to an elemental solidity of identity that would not exist were it not for the investigation of these alternate incarnations. This notion of incarnation in religious ideas spans such extremes – from the Buddhist notion of sunyata that denies an enduring permanence of self, to the divine incarnation of Jesus ironically relinquishing its divine nature and firmly electing humanity through kenosis. These multidimensional propositions about how the self may transcend its own ontology or empty itself of it allows me the same creative freedom to revision my own self, the imagined speaker of my poems left vacillating, outlines of selfhood truly bleary and indistinct.
That biographical line, like a suffix, feels strangely abstract now because these last five years have deepened my relationship to the whole idea of spirituality. I approach religion with the gaze one does “the study of religion”, through the dispassionate scrutiny of, say, an ethnographer. I learnt this from my professor Joseph Dan, the first incumbent of the Gershom Scholem Chair in Jewish Mysticism at The Hebrew University, and 1997 recipient of the Israel Prize. Dan taught me to look at the world through a scholastic lens, with some measure of aloofness. People have been intrigued by how I first read world religions at Harvard Divinity School and then crossed over to study the literary arts at the University of Notre Dame. It was a deliberate effort – for me to school myself in the subject matter of my writing before investing in the actual writing. A lot of my writing mines the astonishingly beautiful symbols we see in the world’s religious traditions, all of which I have a deep respect and love for. Sometimes, I feel like an archaeologist digging around in a library, excavating buried secrets, all the time cognizant of hermeneutics and what happens in translation and what might be lost in it, and what it means to read with humility and generosity, and what it means to allow language its slip-and-score, to use the language of pottery rather than poetry.
I really have all my religious studies professors to thank for making me love religious pluralism so much, so much so comparative religion thoroughly informs my poetics. I had amazing talks with my advisor Donald Swearer, a self-professed Buddhist-Christian who is the Director of the Center for the Study of World Religions. In terms of Hindu-Christian scholarship, I learnt so much from the work of Francis X. Clooney, who’s probably the sexiest, coolest Jesuit scholar around. Check out Jesuit Postmodern: Scholarship, Vocation, and Identity in the 21st Century, which he was editor on. And if you’re into hardcore scholastic fodder, there’s his earlier Seeing Through Texts: Doing Theology Among the Srivaisnavas of South India. Another book on Hinduism that’s become a classic is Diana L. Eck’s Darsan: Seeing the Divine Image in India from Columbia University Press. Diana Eck is the warmest, most approachable person ever, especially given her credentials. A former President of the American Academy of Religion, she’s received the National Humanities Medal from President Clinton, the National Endowment for the Humanities for her work on American religious pluralism, and the American Academy of Religion Martin Marty Award for the Public Understanding of Religion. That sort of scholastic stature is pretty hard to top! Diana is married to Reverend Dorothy Austin, whom I studied under and worked on independent studies with. She really encouraged me in my endeavour to engage with theology as a poet, through the writing of poetry. Parties at their house were lovely, warm events. I’m still embarrassed that I was too embarrassed to read one of my poems when she asked me to. I miss Dorothy. And her curry. Boy does Dorothy make a good curry.
For the Love of God remains the most exhausting and personally rewarding project I’ve ever embarked on. It nearly took the life out of me. Weighing in at a heavy 376 pages, the anthology brought together 35 award-winning religious and literary contributors from around the world to celebrate the literary arts and religious freedom in Singapore. It was so humbling for such stalwart writers to allow us to use their works. There was Ko Un from Korea, and Arundhati Roy from India, and Ernesto Sabato from Argentina. Ronny Someck from Israel. Hans Küng from Switzerland. Alfred Yuson from the Phillippines. Jonathan Sacks and Graham Swift from the UK. Les Murray and Alex Skovron from Australia. Ron Hansen and Martin E. Marty from the US. What a mouthful! We definitely went to town with this project! The anthology enjoyed only a limited edition 1,000 print-run of one hardcover and four softcover designs, all luxuriously gild-edged. The anthology was only ever given away, none offered for sale. It was eventually awarded the Singapore Internationale Grant from the Singapore International Foundation to be launched at the First Prague International Poetry Festival. It’s art projects like these that really get me going. I do look forward to working on more of them.
The notion of the divine has lent itself to some of the most memorable writing in the world. Think Rumi. Think Tagore. Think Robert Duncan. Some contemporary writers who deal with the material fabulously are Scott Cairns, Robert Pinsky, Agha Shahid Ali, Mark Strand, Philip Larkin, Franz Wright, Charles Wright, with groundbreaking work coming from Katie Ford, who also studied theology at Harvard and this year, edited one of my poems into New Orleans Review. I remember first picking up her book Deposition, and just gasping when I moved from one poem to the next. Her rendering of the Via Dolorosa, or the Stations of the Cross, was breathtaking – cerebral and gutsy. It was a repossession, an ownership, and it helped me rethink tradition. Her new poems became stations in themselves, retouched, still stopping places for contemplation and inquiry, but brisk and kinetic. She’s since gone on to receive awards and grants from the Academy of American Poets and the Pen American Center. I couldn’t be happier for her.
UrbanWire: You were the editor for Impressions of a Pipa Player: Profiles of the World’s Most Premier. Having worked with musicians, are you likely to branch out into expressing yourself through other artforms, or possibly combining music with poetry?
Desmond: I think poetry is already so much about music. The lyric embodies its own musicality. If any poem is to be set to music, it should be an artistic collaboration between artistic minds. The musician should interact with the poem as an artist, and not simply to provide white noise, to provide elevator music. That said, I love it when I hear a powerful coming together of minds. In the first audio book I worked on, How to Read a Poem, I was floored by the way Daryln Yang responded to Leong Liew Geok’s “Fictions” with his sheng. The way Case Woo arranged the readings of Grace Jadyn Cheng on “Darnel and Wheat” and Rachel Fang on “The Flavour of a Book”. The way Soh Wen Ming appropriated Jude Chan’s “Motion Blur” through percussion. Then there’s the little-known recording of Alemay Fernandez’s take on “Backdoor to Paradise”, a poem by Redzman Rahmat. Then there’re all those songs in the other audio book, One For the Love of God. Those tracks were amazing improvisational compositions Vanessa Fernandez created, based on poems from poets as established as former US Poet Laureate Rita Dove and John Kinsella who did a hat-trick bagging The Western Australian Premier’s Book Award for Poetry. On a more experimental tangent, the project also invited three international electronic producers – Roger Alsop, Robert Scott Thompson and Stephen Vitiello – to create avant garde compositions inspired by poetry.
Samuel Wong Shengmiao and I have already discussed possibly collaborating again in the near future. He’s done splendidly well for himself, and will actually be playing a pipa solo at this year’s National Day Parade. Working with him on his first book was such a joyride that I would love to see what we come up with now, now that we’ve both grown so much in our respective disciplines. A performance poet and a pipa player over an empty score – imagine the wild possibilities!
UrbanWire: Recently, the four sculptural pieces collectively titled “The Travelling and the Rotation”, which you made to commemorate Poet Lore’s 120th Anniversary, were placed on permanent display at The Writer’s Center . Would you elaborate more about this work and its influences?
Desmond: How may a line in a poem animate itself into sculptured form? How can a single caesura or measured cadence translate into ceramics? These were the questions I was trying to investigate with the projects within this collection. Preparation for each piece involved rereading selected works from an author, meditating on the writing in isolation, and deciding on a specific textual locus from which to fashion the piece. What history emerges in the retrieval of memory, and how does transcendence take place before and after the fire?
For Hopkins, I chose the following anecdote rather than one of his better-known poems:
|Just caught sight of a little whirlwind which ran very fast careering across our pond. It was made by conspiring catspaws seeming to be caught in, in a whorl, to the centre. There were of course two motions, the travelling and the rotation. The circle was regular…. Each tail of catspaw seemed to fling itself alive into its place in turn…. I saw that there was something eery, Circe-like and quick about it.|
Framing this description that images itself like Hopkins’ deft use of the conceit was an aphorism from Wittgenstein:
|Like everything metaphysical the harmony between thought and reality is to be found in the grammar of the language.|
Poet Lore started out in 1889. That year is also Wittgenstein’s birth year. That same year, Hopkins died.
For this collection, I’ve tried to keep things simple, minimalist almost. The glazes were applied with abandon on a first dip, allowed to break and run, and then with reserve through dripping – colours were limited to a stock bloodstone and celadon, sparingly set off in magnolia or onyx. The decorations remain unfussy – unglazed clay, foliate brushstrokes and flinty carvings at best. Accoutrements like handles and feet were deliberately avoided, with trimming roughhewn, to create a shallow liminal space of uncertainty and abstraction – of clean lines like a reflecting pool.
“Motus Orbicularis / Prajna” commemorating Merton’s 40th Anniversary
“The Inscription” commemorating Kerouac’s 40th Anniversary
How would Chinese poet Ruan Ji’s Da-Ren have appropriated poetry in pottery? One of the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove, Ruan Ji (210-263 CE) is known for writing Daren Xiansheng Zhuan, translated as Biography of Master Great Man. Born in a time of political upheaval, Ruan Ji indulged in music and drink, writing a visionary poetry of freedom within the mystical tradition of mining utopia within the self. A significant motif in traditional Chinese thought, Da-Ren or “Great Man” is first found as a term in the Yijing under the first “Heaven” or qian hexagram. It is later found once in the Analects, characterised as a sage in the Mencius and as a state ruler in the Zhuangzi. Ruan Ji’s Da-Ren seemed in turn epicurean and ascetic, living out a wandering existence as a counter-narrative to the harsher realities within society.
Research into this project focused on the pot as anatomy and contour, with special interest in Kyoto ceramics’ reputed reliance on the potter’s wheel to create its refined forms, the famous Nonomura Ninsei most exemplifying such exclusive and severe attention to form. Of intrigue was Gauguin’s own fascination with ceramics, particularly his stoneware pot decorated with geese housed in Collection Mme Alban d’Andoque de Sériège, Béziers. For lack of a better word, such Orientalist underpinnings directed subsequent reading, from the inspired craftsmanship of Ernest Chaplet and Auguste Delaherche, to the modern imagination of Arakawa Toyozõ and Kawai Kanjirõ. One book that I kept reading over and over again was A Monk at the Potter’s Wheel: The Story of Charnwood-Cistercian Ware by Vincent Eley. The potters’ clarity of purpose and process offered bearings for possible future projects.
Framed against Da-Ren’s fictional character and these equally enigmatic artist-potters, the nerve center of this collection’s method lies in the throwing of earth and its subsequent altering, the same way a poetic line hurls itself across the page, always expansive yet introspective, always fraying towards an exit yet re-entering itself. When does the abdication of control and authority occur, and when the re-authoring to manifest a new presence, of a nascent state of being? This is the language of creation purposed in this collection, a desideratum much less to do with the technologist or chemist or even the sculptor as architect, and more to do with the sojourner between borders. If there is the numinous inhabiting these material bodies – of subject and construct, of tropes – it dwells in language lost and found, its origins at once luminous and cryptic, so much like cataphatic and apophatic writings in their struggle to lend voice to the ineffable.
Form thus becomes the ultimate utterance, of a discourse that unfurls yet folds in on itself, of a conversation apprehended in silence.
UrbanWire: Your Potter Poetics Collection features your exploration into other artforms. Is there a favourite piece in this collection and what does it signify of your creative expression and career as an artist?
All the pieces remain very personal to me, and it was heart-wrenching to part with them.
I created a piece to commemorate Grolier Poetry Bookshop’s 80 years of service as the oldest continuous poetry bookstore in the US, this work’s point of departure being the Nigerian zeer pot with its inner and outer containers, the space between filled with sand to create insulation for food storage. Providing dimension to this form is a phrase from Elizabeth Alexander’s “Praise Song for the Day”, the poem she penned for President Obama’s Inauguration. Ifeanyi Menkiti, Grolier’s owner, wrote me this heartfelt thank-you: “This is especially meaningful to me as I am Nigerian by birth. We are honored to be numbered among those whom the Potter Poetics Collection has commemorated. The beautiful earthy tones and the pouring out movement of the clay in referencing indigenous form do find expanded meaning in Elizabeth Alexander’s lines, ‘love that casts a widening pool of light’. I feel that poetry can pour forth light on the world.” Goodwill like this gives me pure gratification. I remember spending long afternoons at the bookshop reading one poet after another and actually feeling my worldview expand, so much more enriched because of their wisdom. This was my small way of giving back.
“Jonas” commemorating Camus’ 50th Anniversary
The Potter Poetics Collection signifies for me an expansion in the interdisciplinarity of my art, for better or worse. Other artists who immersed themselves in such ‘light relief’, of playing with clay, include painters like Picasso and Joan Miró, and the architect Peter Behrens. I liked how my book manuscript, which premises itself on the begging bowl, found its way into my work in ceramics. If poetry forces me into its extreme positions, pottery imposes on me self-restraint. I feel deeply contemplative when I work at the wheel. It’s akin to a meditative practice. My take is that while forms of meditation may sometimes be perceived as self-indulgent and escapist – and thus counterrevolutionary to social engagement – the discipline may actually be one of the most revolutionary acts an individual can perform. Within the quiet, I learn to sit, still, and allow self-transformation to distil itself. If the poem affords aesthetic pleasure through the sonic, the bowl affords the same through the visual, and for the artist, always within the punishing yet liberating act of making.
St Beuno’s Ignatian Spirituality Centre in North Wales, UK has become home for my piece commemorating Gerard Manley Hopkins’ 120th Anniversary. That the Jesuit priest wrote some of his loveliest poems at St Beuno’s, where he lived for three years from 1874 to 1877, just makes this such an honour for me. The same goes for Bellarmine University taking for its collection my ceramic bowl commemorating Merton’s 40th Anniversary, given that its Thomas Merton Center is the official repository of Merton’s artistic estate with archives of over 50,000 Merton-related materials.
The Center’s Director and Archivist Paul Pearson was wonderfully gracious with his thoughts: “Thomas Merton was primarily known for his spiritual writings and, in his final years, his writings on social issues and interfaith dialogue. However, as the son of artists, Merton also was keenly interested in art and left behind a large body of his own art, largely drawings, calligraphies and photographs. Merton’s work has inspired countless artists over the years. Such works include representations of Merton in a variety of media, including bronze, wood and fabric, and works inspired by Merton’s life, thought and legacy. Desmond Kon’s piece from his Potter Poetics Collection commemorating the 40th Anniversary of Merton’s death is a wonderful example of this continuing tradition. The bowl is reminiscent of both the bowl carried by pilgrims and mendicant monks. It also reminds the viewer of the Zen icon of the brush-drawn circle, or enso, with which Merton himself frequently experimented in his calligraphies. John Howard Griffin once said of Merton’s photographs that they need to be contemplated, and not studied, if they are to carry their full impact. I would say the same about Kon’s Potter Poetics Collection.”
When Jeffrey A. Savoye, Secretary of The E. A. Poe Society of Baltimore referred me to The Poe Museum in Richmond and the Museum took my work, I was rapturous, simply ecstatic. I practically fell off my chair! Titled “Dactylic Couplet”, the two-piece sculpture responds to Poe’s two lines: “Can it be fancied that Deity ever vindictively / Made in his image a manikin merely to madden it?”
The work was created to commemorate Edgar Allan Poe’s Bicentennial this year.
Poe before glazing
Dactylic Couplet glazed
UrbanWire: You’ve been a journalist, a poet, an editor and a lecturer. Which of these professions are you most passionate about and gives you the most satisfaction?
Desmond: I also drove an armoured personnel carrier in the army, and two years into mandatory conscription, I got crushed between two of those APCs I’d grown fond of. I’ve also broken my left clavicle and a little finger. And in 2007, I slipped and fell on ice outside a gas station in Sommerville, and broke my hip, again. This is a very broken body, and you’re making me feel even older, like a gooseberry asked to do a biopic.
Kidding. Your questions are making me think hard about my life choices.
Talking about the army makes me think of Army Daze, penned by Michael Chiang, whom I remain indebted to as a writer. Michael is recognised as Singapore’s most popular and bankable playwright who helmed Mediacorp Publishing for the longest time. He took me under his wing when I first started out in journalism. I consider him my first real writing teacher. Being personally coached by him every week to churn out The Last Page was quick-draw intense, a gambol ramble of vaults and jaunts that made me cut quick on the punnery trigger, which makes the Derrida-Habermas standoff suddenly seem awfully unnecessary, like a longsuffering interlocution. The year I arrived in America, Derrida died, the Red Sox won, and I realized Bambino wasn’t just an alter ego for Thumper with a good foot. The Chinese, with their dizzying homonymic language, should read and would likely relish Gordon C. F. Bearn’s essay “The Possibility of Puns: A Defense of Derrida”.
As anyone who knows me will tell you, I know very, very little about sport. So, can you imagine someone like me at Notre Dame, and how many people wished they could be in my place, just so they could breathe the air the Fighting Irish breathe? I did, however, have seven footballers take my poetry class in 2008, and they were all wonderful and witty and engaging, all with very individual voices. Sam Young, I hear, is doing amazingly well for himself, very talented, and the one everyone’s looking at in the 2010 NFL Draft. He writes shockingly stellar poetry, innovative with form that makes such intelligent use of space on the page. I distinctly remember one of his poems. It centred around Sumo and was so self-aware of the temporal, with a perambulating force that was at once centrifugal and decentring, like a dohyõ suspended in mid-air, sand and clay everywhere.
While teaching sits well with me, lifestyle journalism took two decades off my life, I’m sure. Sure, celebrity is all fun when not taken seriously like hypertension or keeling over from an arterial aneurysm. It’s a poky fun. But there are the moments, the moments when you feel you’ve made a real connection. I remember Morgan Freeman being wonderfully wise, as was Björk who was pottering around in the kitchen as we chatted about dogs in Iceland and chewing gum in Singapore. Pre-Daniel-Craig Bond Girl Izabella Scorupco seemed more excited about her singing than her foray into acting. Jackie Chan was very kind in Hong Kong, waving aside his aides to let me through after I’d waited all afternoon, squatting outside his hotel room to pin him down for an interview. Vivian Wu is even more beautiful in person, elegant and articulate as she discussed the film The Soong Sisters, the press conference poignantly held at The Sun Yat Sen Villa, which incidentally is a stone’s throw from where I now live.
Donna Karan similarly had no airs about her as she inspected her DKNY store at Palais Renaissance. Sly Stallone seemed quiet and tired in Sydney. Cindy Crawford was definitely media-savvy, had her wits about her, good for her. And now Michael Jackson has died.
I don’t pretend to have thought hard about this. And I don’t pretend to know anymore about any celebrities just because I’ve managed to talk a bit with them. But that sort of strobe-life-in-the-lights does seem like a bit of a lonely place.
When I returned, I was confronted with the media phenomenon of The Ultimatum. How tirelessly the media furnace is fanned. Fourteen years on and people still remember that quote in that September cover story on Fann, and enough to launch another epic drama. I remember Fann giving me a call after the magazine hit the stands, and I remember her being worried. I also remember explaining to her it was simply a quote, that it was just a story, telling her I was sorry she was worrying over it. I guess I was none too wise about the vagaries of celebrity and how difficult that life can be. I later went to Paris and Bordeaux with both Zoe and Fann, along with Alex Mann, for the shooting of Golden Pillow. You should have seen how the French gawked at two drop-dead gorgeous actresses posing for the camera at the Arc de Triomphe. Having seen both of them at work, I’ll categorically say that both of them are consummate professionals, disciplined actresses, and very warm persons with many kindnesses. In the April ‘96 cover, I did try to give Zoe the space to talk openly about her marriage, to defend her right to protect her privacy. And in yet another cover, I managed to push the gender envelope with eight women celebrities talking about what it meant to be a woman in the mid-90s. Styled as a film director and looking very dapper, Fann was chosen for the cover. Every profile started with a quote – by Erica Jong, Naomi Wolf, Camille Paglia, even Candice Bergen – running along the top of the page like a banner. I’m just happy for both women, that they’ve managed to survive and wisely navigate the world of celebrity, but more importantly, in all this, to have not neglected looking towards carving for themselves their own lives and personal happiness.
In any case, I look at my work in entertainment journalism as a sort of baptism of fire, within a Bakhtinian carnivalesque, in a heterotopia not quite epic, not quite novel, but curious and far-out enough to warrant some self-thought. Increasingly, I’m starting to realize that the art world and the world of popular culture are sometimes not very different.
When my best bud Robin Yee asked me to join him in teaching, that required another leap of faith but it did give me back some of those years. All that high idealism, and ability to hopefully share something important with students wanting some sort of answer to their many existential questions. It was such important work. I don’t know if I lived up to my students’ expectations but I did experience a great deal of love and respect, and how can that be a bad thing? Actually, I was the one learning so much, from and alongside my students, and I do think I became a better person for it.
So, I’ve loved all my vocations, all of which have fed into each other and fuelled each other. These past lives sometimes seem to me like a fiction writer’s characters yet to flesh themselves out. The various pseudonyms I write under further complicate the miasmic matter of naming and any related role-playing. I do actually have two sets of Chinese names, the first given by a tutor and the second by my paternal grandmother. Put together, the four characters effect the idiomatic. I’d rather call my pen names heteronyms, as a tribute to Fernando Pessoa whose work I adore. Pessoa conceived for himself more than 70 heteronyms, imaginary characters he created to allow him to adopt different writing styles. I like how illusory that makes identity. I like what flashes of emotion this practice surfaces within me, aware of the internal tension like a torque uncollared.
UrbanWire: A few biographies mentioned your wish to publish your collection of poems and a novel that seems to never end, do we see that coming in the near future?
Desmond: If Wallace Stegner’s Potter’s House weren’t fictive, I’d leave my writing on its floorboards in a pile, throw caution to the tradewinds and let them their shears. My manuscript currently stands at more than 300 pages, with some 60 pages of annotations thrown in. It’s mammoth. A few publishers and small presses have given wonderful comments on the manuscript but they’re either swimming in projects up to 2012 or cutting back on titles because of the recession. I don’t brood or bother or bite nails about getting my book out. I have this rather romantic notion I’m toying with, to say I never want my manuscript to see the light of day, to ever be published. Something nauseatingly indulgent like I’ll vacuum-seal it, put it in a pod, and hurl it into airspace somewhere between the Indian Ocean, the China Sea and the warehouse that’s keeping in storage all my corrugated boxes, dusty and filled with books. Maybe some historian will stumble on it centuries from now, and put his tailspin on what I was trying to do with all this verbiage. That seems very Barbra Streisand, to say the performance, the performativity is never going to get staged for all time, but inevitably she always does, doesn’t she?
Maybe I’ll send Madonna the ode I wrote on her, which conflates other historical Marys as discussed in Jaroslav Pelikan’s Mary Through the Centuries and Michael Jordan’s The Historical Mary. Alternatively, she might find endearing my poems inspired by the kabbalah that I wrote for Joseph Dan, for whom I also penned a tributary piece, this time a sonnet cycle, written in seventy lines of alternating octaves and sestets, and comprising five smaller poems. It was written in 2005, as a gift to Dan for his seventieth birthday. Although we never managed that interview, maybe Madonna will remember liking my 1995 cover story that charted her coming-of-age in those stunning Mario Testino photographs – that was Madonna transfigured, in clean Versace lines – offered exclusively to 8 Days for publication here. Maybe Callaway Editions will take my poem and have it translated into scores of languages as with Madonna’s English Roses.
Since I’m on the topic of women, I was dismayed with myself that almost none of my ceramic sculptures commemorated women or their lives. I wasn’t even aware of this till recently. So I was ecstatic when the Begijnhof in Amsterdam wrote me and said yes, to the piece I’ve been sculpting for Marguerite Porete’s 700th Anniversary in 2010. Originally a beguinage, this inner court is stunning, home now to the English Reformed Church. Porete’s story is a tragic one, one that makes me feel sad when I think about what she was put through and had to endure. I first encountered her work in Michael A. Sells’ Mystical Languages of Unsaying, which received Honorable Mention at the American Academy of Religion First Book Awards. It’s an amazing piece of scholarship that compares Porete’s The Mirror of the Simple Souls with Meister Eckhart’s German sermon Blessed are the Poor in Spirit. Sells is currently John Henry Barrows Professor of Islamic History and Literature at the University of Chicago.
Bound For Amsterdam: Commemorating Porete’s 700th Anniversary
Bound for Burma? A Begging Bowl and Charm for Aung San Suu Kyi
To this end – of creating more pieces to honour women’s lives and contributions – I’ve made a piece for Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, whose Voice of Hope: Conversations speaks to the pacifist in me. It’s glazed in a single colour – celadon – and I’ll place a piece of Burmese jade in it. There’s as yet no commemorative date attached to this gift. Maybe I’ll be able to give it to her in person one day.
One new project I’ve just embarked on, and am thrilled about, involves resurrecting my old illustrations and reworking them as schematic poems. These were ink drawings – I don’t know how to paint – some never before published and others commissioned for newspapers. I’m offering UrbanWire a reprint of the centerfold I did 20 years ago for My Word, the literary magazine I worked on in junior college. Now that I’m looking at these images again, I realise how little my pieces believed in shadows like an Aubrey Beardsley, as if this earlier linework, its harshness and rigidity, were forerunning, foreshadowing my present love for the trace that skates, wild and crazy, across a hazy rink. Makes me think of Rimbaud, a bit disheveled and under the sheets with a Quixote still chivalrous, still foolish, still idealistic, like the idea of the golem, which Scholem in his book Kabbalah defines as a human creature “made in an artificial way by virtue of a magic act, through the use of holy names”. Extending the magic to create life to many peoples including the Greeks and Arabs who speculated “drawing the spirituality of the stars” to lower beings, Scholem argues that “the development of the idea of the golem in Judaism, however, is remote from astrology: it is connected, rather with the magical exegesis of the Sefer Yezirah and with the ideas of the creative power of speech and of the letters”.
Like I said before, it’s all about the language, and how much love for the language is tied to the freedom to use and re-imagine it. Sometime between 1996 and 1997, I stopped drawing altogether – I don’t know why – and I don’t expect I’ll ever return to it. Man, that was a long time, and many slice-of-life half-lives, ago.
Liz Phair is strumming her guitar to “Why Can’t I”. And Sven Birkerts in “The Advertent Eye” is telling me to “spend part of an afternoon sifting”. I have five bucks left and I can’t seem to choose between having a tsukune rice burger or the curry dozo. And Ryuichi Sakamoto is getting anxious with a more orchestral “Rain”, so I think I’ll wait for this mid-year heat to lift before I make any more decisions about my own writing, any possible dénouement thereof, and the home it might find for itself.
I think I’m antiquarian that way, in being loyal to cellar weather and the chill zone.
Images courtesy of Desmond Kon, Inez Yuen Yui Kheng, Rebecca Y. M. Cheung, Hsiao-Shih (Raechel) Lee and Dawn Koh.