Last year’s Poetry World Cup winner Desmond Kon will show up at least half a dozen times in this year’s Singapore Writers Festival that begins Oct 30, as panel moderator, editor/host of walking tours, reader, editor/author of 3 books. UrbanWire catches up with Singapore’s most prolific author-poet in recent memory.
You’ll be launching Babel Via Negativa, your award-winning hybrid work, at this year’s Singapore Writers Festival. Can you tell us more about this collection and your motivation behind it?
It’s the book I’ve always wanted to write. Some of these pieces were written as far back as 2005, a crazy 10 years ago. It was a wild time when I allowed myself to read everything – and, to read into everything – and a lot of painful, wrenching emotions came to a head, in a real cacophony. A terrible noise that shakes the psyche into a whimpering affect, like a kid locked in a windowless room. When I first held the book in my hands, what I felt was a quiet relief, as if some closure had come to pass. It’s been a huge leap of faith with this title. Many thanks to the good folk at Ethos Books – Fong Hoe Fang, Chan Wai Han, Ng Kah Gay, Adeleena Araib, Kum Suning – for trusting my voice, and providing great support towards getting this book into print.
Babel Via Negativa sort of came into being all by its good self. Unlike my other poetry collections, which seem to have a coherence in form or theme, these “hybrid scriptings” were written independently of each other, with no larger project in mind. Yet, I suppose, when a writer becomes so immersed in a certain kind of headspace or worldview or ideation, the thought matter intuitively draws threads across that large vista, that huge mass and morass. And it is a kind of bog or marshland one finds oneself wading in, and it can take years – as it did me – before one manages to climb out of that muck, the sheer materiality of first adventures. I speak of adventures like first discoveries, of new knowledge that’s both invigorating and incapacitating.
Actually, I have a newer poetry collection, Phat Planet Cometh, with deep gratitude to the lovely Ami Kaye of Glass Lyre Press. Like I mentioned on Facebook, if you like The Martian showing in theatres now, this is like a vagrant, very tangential poetic drift. The splendid Joyelle McSweeney penned a rocking blurb for the back cover, and I place it here to provide readers a sense of the book: “A playlist, a syllabus, a rollcall and a spell, Phat Planet Cometh is a righteous act of literary vengeance for Unica Zürn, Freud’s Dora, Virginia Woolf, and any other figure of illicit femininity who has been straitjacketed by society’s regime of compulsory wellness. In the examination room, on the dark side of the moon, ‘A is for one more apocalypse against the rest of them.’ ”
Thanks to the National Arts Council, I’ll be flying up as an invited speaker for the Goa Arts & Literary Festival, where I’ll get to talk more about Phat Planet. I’ll be traipsing up there with some other really fabulous writers like Christine Chia, Pooja Nansi, Tania De Rozario, and A. J. Low (the dynamic duo of Adan and Felicia), so I imagine it’ll be great fun.
You mentioned using various different and experimental forms in Babel Via Negativa, like tweetfic and a cento written up as a play. What inspires you to constantly evolve and take on new techniques in your writing?
In the book, Lyric Postmodernisms, Gillian Conoley says this: “I try to think of my poetics as a highly protean thing. Language is protean, poetry is protean. One has to be willing to throw oneself into a sort of bottomless, bubbling cauldron for the work to be vital. The writers and painters and other artists I admire most are the ones who were working artists all their lives, who reserved the right to change at any moment, and did, who were most attracted to their art because of the kind of boundless, procreative state of being that art demands. Highly set-in-stone poetics scare me; they seem limiting and fascistic, ponderous and dull. Having said that, I do have many ideas about poetry that have been my steadfast though mercurial companions. I look to poetry to fill me with the transrational, with a kind of counter-logic to take me beyond my own habits of thought or perception; to challenge the obvious or the apparent; to multiply meaning; to take me beyond whatever it is I may think that I am writing or thinking. If poetry instructs us, it instructs us beyond the obvious. Poetry is a critique and a resistance to the obvious.”
Now, isn’t that something? I’ve shared Conoley’s reflection in the class I teach, as well as some of the other wonderful artist statements within this anthology, which brings together some of the funkiest writers working in contemporary innovative poetries. Speaking of funky writers, I’m thrilled to be on a panel on the final day of the Singapore Writers Festival with the wildly talented Christian Bök from Canada. We’re going to talk about what it’s like to write difficult poetry, and erm, to discuss the role of avant-garde poetry in the 21st century. That’s daunting, a very tall order. The event is titled “Why You Write All Weird?”. Love it!
With regard to the newness Babel Via Negativa frames for itself, I’m going to excerpt from the book’s endnotes, which I hope makes for some clarity. This book takes on for itself its own literary aesthetic, a new ism. This ism is known as ãkolpomõtism, an idea premised on using language as a way of folding into itself. In an effort to dissolve meaning through conflation and catachresis, among many other things and methods and manners. A stab at futile meaning-making, the making of meaning itself an end, a being of an intense diligence and effortlessness, something that empties itself and the things around it, out into a gulf. The term “ãkolpomõtism” combines the etymologies of the words “empty” and “gulf”. The adjective “empty” originates from “ã”, meaning “no, not”, and “mõt”, meaning “meeting”. The noun “gulf” has roots in the Italian “golfo”, with derivations ultimately in the Greek “kolpos”, meaning “bosom or womb”, thereafter taking on the sense of a “trough between waves, abyss”.
It is this feeling of a chasm, an eternal drift, that ãkolpomõtism strives to craft and make. It is a mixing up of everything and nothing, to say what language will allow, but ultimately amount to a steadying of the word through acts of unsaying. It’s not just apophasis, not just cataphasis, but both conjoined, in a contusion, a babble of language at its most transcendental.
You bagged not only a bronze for Babel Via Negativa at this year’s Living Now Book Awards, but silver for your novel, Singular Acts of Endearment, as well. How are you feeling about these 2 wins?
The moment I was notified of the wins by the organizers, I was, of course, ecstatic. It’s a lovely feeling to know someone’s connected with your work, writing that could have taken you a large chunk of your life to muster and craft. A literary accolade is like a nod from a fellow practitioner, a pat on the back to say you should keep at it, keep trundling on. It’s very encouraging, but I don’t think – at least, I hope not – that writers do what they do with award recognition in mind. That kind of reason would seem gratuitous and misguided. The writing always comes first. Everything else is the doily, sort of ornamental, next to the language.
What’s been your favourite local book this year?
It’s hard to pick one, and I sadly don’t have enough time to read as much as I’d like. I’ve enjoyed Jon Gresham’s We Rose Up Slowly. Koh Jee Leong’s Steep Tea has had rave reviews, and I’m just getting into it in preparation for the panel I’m moderating at SWF, where Jee Leong will join Eun Heekyung from South Korea, Laksmi Pamuntjak from Indonesia, and Linh Dinh from the United States, to discuss the evolving state of Asian literature, and how it fares on the global stage.
The books I look forward to getting nose-deep in are: Jeremy Tiang’s It Never Rains on National Day and Shelly Bryant’s Unnatural Selection. I already expect exceptional material from Tse Hao Guang’s Deeds of Light and David Wong Hsien Ming’s For the End Comes Reaching – both of them are wonderful poets. There’s also Gwee Li Sui’s The Other Merlion and Friends, for a lark. As for anthologies, UNION (edited by Alvin Pang and Ravi Shankar) is certainly a tour de force at some 600 pages. This year’s SingPoWriMo outing (edited by Joshua Ip, Jennifer Anne Champion and Daryl Qilin Yam), promises to be a sprawling array of intriguing texts, as with last year’s compilation. Another anthology to look out for is Get Lucky: An Anthology of Philippine and Singapore Writings, edited by my good pal Eric Tinsay Valles (as well as Migs Bravo-Dutt and Manuelita Cabrera). At the Festival, I’m launching Babel Via Negativa alongside Yeo Wei Wei and Noelle Q de Jesus, so I’m definitely going to get to know their books better. The books are titled These Foolish Things and Blood Collected Stories.
I’m going to shamelessly say that one of my favourite local books this year is the anthology I edited. Simply because I enjoyed the process so much. It’s titled Eye/Feel/Write: Experiments in Ekphrasis, a special commission by the National Arts Council for the Singapore Writers Festival. This is an amazing project in how it invited 20 eminent writers in Singapore to pen texts inspired by artworks exhibited at The National Gallery Singapore and Singapore Art Museum. The stellar contributors include: Alfian Sa’at, Alvin Pang, Anne Lee Tzu Pheng, Chow Teck Seng, Divya Victor, Edwin Thumboo, Eric Tinsay Valles, Gwee Li Sui, Isa Kamari, Jerrold Yam, Jollin Tan, Joshua Ip, K. Kanagalatha (Latha), Leong Liew Geok, Ovidia Yu, Ramanathan Vairavan, Robin Hemley, Tan Chee Lay, Yeow Kai Chai and Yong Shu Hoong.
It was such a remarkable and gratifying experience receiving the ekphrastic texts from each contributor. To see how they perceived and interpreted the selected artwork, and rendered a new piece of art through their language. To give you an example, let me share the insight Cultural Medallion recipient Lee Tzu Pheng offered with regard to working with Amanda Heng’s mixed media work, Another Woman:
“The artwork moved me well before I understood why. The exposed nude torso, viewed from the back had a certain poignancy, a sense of human vulnerability. A hand – much older, female – gently touching the nude back sealed the idea of time as thief, and the whole had a universal appeal and candour. Art, beauty and death are the central concerns of any artist, however unconsciously. Words like ‘back’, ‘behind’, ‘beauty’, ‘age’ crowded into my mind. It took quite a bit of contemplation before the poems latent in this photograph took shape.”
“My third poem, ‘Transformations’, mirrors most closely of the 3 (or so I intended) the more widely held, traditional idea of ekphrasis, not so much in verbal description of the artwork being contemplated, but in its attempt to reproduce verbally the process involved in the whole notion of art-creation in Amanda’s photograph. With mother and daughter thus represented – connoting relationship, the ambivalence of rejection or support, the separations and mini-deaths wrought by time – it spoke to me of the birthing process in life and in art, the essential freeing into autonomous life accorded every creation, the recollection of the beauty of the new-born years after the event, all captured ineluctably in the work produced. The poem tries to re-embody the dynamics of a process revisited through the lens of growth and change, in another medium.”
You’ve taken on many different roles, from being an entertainment journalist at 8 Days, to being a freelance stylist, a potter, a publisher, award-winning author, and, for several years, teacher of a creative writing module in Ngee Ann Polytechnic. When did you realise you wanted to pursue a career as a poet?
I don’t think anyone really has a career as a poet. Unless you’re Billy Collins, and even Billy Collins teaches. It’s the same condition that philosophers find themselves saddled with. I think of the commitment to writing poetry as a habit, and perhaps a virtue. The impulse to write down one’s thoughts and feelings – and to choose to do so in the particular form of poetry, with its carryall of tropic devices – comes from a very deep place. The excavation and mining of one’s voice or multiplicity of voices brings one into the dugout of one’s own soul. You then start digging at this idea of an essential being, or the ephemeral nature of it, and that widening cavern becomes another kind of shelter, another kind of hiding place.
I think I really decided this practice – this unenviable, monstrous wrestling with words – would fascinate me endlessly when I encountered Noelle Kocot’s “Brooklyn Sestina: June, 1975”. It was a wonderful stab at such a disciplined form. It attended to the formal strictures it wanted to attend to, and made up its own rules along the way. I’m a person who likes contrast, the more jarring and catachrestic the better. I adore contradiction – not just tartan in summer, but tartan with guipure lace – as well as irony. It’s not with the intention to shock or titillate; it’s more to do with sewing up a quilt, as a way of melding, of blending, of infusing. Like mixing scents in a burner to fill the room with a different atmosphere, a new register. So reaching back into history or tradition, reading it with a keen reverence and respect, only to forcibly unshackle some aspect of it, undo some thing about it, is all very exciting for me.
What does a typical day of writing look like for you?
There was a year when I forced myself to wake up and just start writing, all the way till I completely exhausted myself, and fell asleep. I remember something Boey Kim Cheng mentioned in an interview about an earlier time of writing where he wrote with the inspiration of the muse, of that sort of revelatory writing. It dissipates with the discipline, I agree. I, too, have experienced the wonderment of that sort of epiphany, as if you were purely moved by a dasein from outside yourself to write your poem.
Donald Revell speaks of this in Lyric Postmodernisms too, as a letter to a friend. He writes: “Dear Friend, I must start by telling you I can never think of Poetry as anything but a loving power, a god who sometimes visits me and visits you along its bright unfolding way.” I miss that kind of encounter, the rawness of it. These days, I’m juggling so many different projects at once, and I wear many hats. I’ve become good at making to-do lists. I’ve become good at prioritizing and compartmentalizing. But I still do have the luxury of the muse swinging by occasionally, and those periods are very precious. They produce a kind of purity of language, language before it shapes itself into narrative or lyric. It’s an astonishing feeling to be caught up in such moments.
Will there be any new works from you that we can look forward to in the next few years?
Right now, fresh from the press is Ars Moriendi: Writings on the Art of Dying, which I edited. Ars Moriendi is timed to commemorate the 600th year of the original Latin work, the first of its kind in western literature to provide guidance towards dying well.
The anthology is not for sale, and its limited edition first prints will be given away free to readers. It’s a themed anthology, one that talks about death and dying, end-of-life care, what might constitute the good death. Death is not always an easy thing to talk about or deal with. This book attempts to open up the conversation, to say that there is great comfort in reflection, honesty, succour, and acceptance. The contributors come from all over the world, and the awesome line-up includes: Amy Gerstler, Bill Yarrow, Cho Soo-Hyoung, Corey Mesler, Edwin Thumboo, Eric Tinsay Valles, Forrest Gander, Hedy Habra, Isa Kamari, Jane Munro, Jared Randall, John Barton, Karen An-Hwei Lee, Kent Shaw, Kevin Brophy, Kevin Prufer, Lily Hoang, Mandy Pannett, Marilyn Nelson, Michael Ryan, Rae Armantrout, Ryan Van Winkle, Steven Cramer, Susan Blackwell Ramsey, Susan M. Schultz, Tabish Khair, Timothy Liu and Yeow Kai Chai.
In the first quarter of next year, I’ll be having a new book out, titled FOODPORN cum Maundy Thursday. It forays into a sequence of proems (or prologues, as alluding to the works extending into a larger oeuvre of interlaced narratives), all premised on food motifs, reminiscent of Gertrude Stein’s monumental Tender Buttons. Rich in cross-cultural references, this collection features poetry and microfiction that dip into the neo-noir genre, as a lens into the vagaries of human nature. This collection also represents an odic nod to W. B. Yeats’ widely read poem, “Easter 1916”, which celebrates its publication centennial in 2016.
Following in the vein of the mildly theoretical Arbitrary Sign and away from the transparency of Wrong/Wrung Love and Phat Planet, there’ll be another alphabetized collection, Kangarewe & Wittgenstein’s Whoopee Cushion, where I get to perform language games with the logic of the great author of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.
Fingers crossed, I’ll see my next novel published in 2016 or 2017. It’s titled Manic Piggy Dream Gurrl: An Anti-Art Reauthoring According to Whitman’s Ghost. It gets more experimental than my epistolary novel, Singular Acts of Endearment. It begins with the stock character of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, the one Jun Ji-hyun plays in the original My Sassy Girl, now a Korean classic. The American and Japanese remakes – starring Elisha Cuthbert and Rena Tanaka as the requisite MPDGs – remain pale and derivative by comparison. There’s Zooey Deschanel in Yes Man. Then there’s Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown, Natalie Portman in Garden State, and even the counterexample of Kate Winslet’s fabulously played Clementine in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
My novel begins with this MPDG premise, but things get random very quickly. The narrator is Myung Hee Miki Meghan, and she’s gazing at her dysmorphic reflection. The novel is written in 14 chapters – in an experimental long sonnet comprising postcard fictions – framed loosely on the 14 poems from the Goryeo period, Samguk Yusa, which survive today. These Hyangga poems, reflective of Unified Shilla literature, represent one of the oldest Korean poetic forms. The 14 poems are legendary, said to be found in Samdaemok, an anthology completed during the Shilla period in the year 888. The anthology, in its entirety, is lost to history, and remains nowhere to be found.
As with many of my other books, old characters return as themselves or otherwise. The clues aren’t always obvious. The gaps are there, to function as soft absences, as deliberate omissions. These old characters seem compelled to return to the plot, itself a strange and baffling thing. Denouement isn’t a big thing in a multiverse, precisely because there can be so many versions of it. These old characters return to say the things that were left unsaid in previous narratives, these antecedent narratives akin to prior life cycles or any number of parallel universes. I now feel obliged to write out the fates of these characters, all of whom seem to cantilever over each other, as if to demand dominance within the larger story arc. They are all each other’s voices, yet separate and distinct enough to shape each other’s being. I like that vocal polyphony, the texture that seems to hint at how splintered the self can be. How mysterious and uncanny. How enigmatic and inexplicable. How downright bewildering.
Catch Desmond Kon at:
RAISING THE PROFILE OF ASIAN LITERATURE
31 Oct, Sat 10am – 11:30am
The Arts House, U.S. Embassy Screening Room
US-based writer Linh Dinh, South Korea’s Eun Heekyung, Indonesia’s Laksmi Pamuntjak and Singapore’s Koh Jee Leong join moderator Desmond Kon to discuss how much the literature from Asia has progressed in international consciousness, and what else can be done.
EYE/FEEL/WRITE: EXPERIMENTS IN EKPHRASIS I
1 Nov, Sun 11am – 1pm
National Gallery, Singapore Courtyard
Editor Desmond Kon has invited another 10 distinguished authors: Alfian Sa’at, Chow Teck Seng, Divya Victor, Eric Tinsay Valles, Gwee Li Sui, Jerrold Yam, Latha, Lee Tzu Pheng, Leong Liew Geok and Yong Shu Hoong to respond to heritage artworks at the new National Gallery Singapore. Hear Alfian Sa’at, Eric Tinsay Valles, Divya Victor, Gwee Li Sui and Jerrold Yam read their pieces. National Gallery curator Shabbir Hussain Mustafa will also provide insight into each artwork on this walking tour. The Eye/Feel/Write texts from 2014 and 2015 appear in the anthology Experiments in Ekphrasis, for sale at the Festival Bookstore.
ANTHOLOGIES BY EPIGRAM BOOKS
1 Nov, Sun 7pm – 8pm
The Arts House, British Council Gallery
Epigram Books present 2 anthologies of writing from Singapore and beyond:
- The Epigram Books Collection of Best New Singaporean Short Stories: Volume Two curates the finest short fiction from Singaporean writers published in 2013 and 2014. The anthology showcases 20 stories that offer insights into the Singaporean psyche and examine various facets of the human condition.
- The fourth issue of LONTAR presents speculative writing from and about Singapore, the Philippines, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia and Thailand. Featured authors include acclaimed award-winner Paolo Bacigalupi, Palanca Prize winner Kate Osias and Singapore Literature Prize winner Ng Yi-Sheng.
TITLES BY NOELLE Q DE JESUS, YEO WEI WEI AND DESMOND KON
2 Nov, Mon 7pm – 8pm
The Arts House, British Council Gallery
A stowaway ghost in an umbrella, a barking cat and possibly the first Singaporean poetic form – the asingbol… Join authors Wei Wei, Noelle and Desmond as they traverse the unknown in their stunning collections, telling refreshingly piquant stories that will thrill you or leave a strange, warm feeling in your heart. These Foolish Things by Yeo Wei Wei and Blood Stories by Noelle de Jesus Chua are debut short-story collections. Babel Via Negativa is Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé’s sixth publication.
EYE/FEEL/WRITE: EXPERIMENTS IN EKPHRASIS II
7 Nov, Sat 11am – 1pm
National Gallery, Singapore Courtyard
Editor Desmond Kon has invited another 10 distinguished authors: Alfian Sa’at, Chow Teck Seng, Divya Victor, Eric Tinsay Valles, Gwee Li Sui, Jerrold Yam, Latha, Lee Tzu Pheng, Leong Liew Geok and Yong Shu Hoong to respond to heritage artworks at the new National Gallery Singapore. Hear Lee Tzu Pheng, Chow Teck Seng, Latha, Yong Shu Hoong and Leong Liew Geok read their pieces. National Gallery curator, Charmaine Toh, will provide insight into each artwork as well, on this walking tour. The Eye/Feel/Write texts from 2014 and 2015 have been compiled in Experiments in Ekphrasis, for sale at the SWF Bookstore.
“WHY YOU WRITE ALL WEIRD?” CHRISTIAN BöK AND DESMOND KON ON THE ROLE OF AVANT-GARDE POETRY IN THE 21ST CENTURY
8 Nov, Sun 5:30pm – 6:30pm
The Arts House, Kumon Blue Room
“Language is like a weed that cannot only endure but also thrive under all kinds of difficult conditions,” Canadian Christian Bök once said. Both Christian and Singapore poet Desmond Kon are unafraid to take the difficult route, ceaselessly pushing the envelope. They are among the 21st century flagbearers of avant-garde poetry using language to question perceptions of reality.