Interview by Nadija Rebronja
Could you single out one or several verses that could serve as a metaphor for Singapore, the way you perceive it?
My poem „To Go to S’pore“ is a good example – S’pore is a common short form for Singapore; „spore“ is also a seed. Singapore is a tiny island city-state but it contains remarkable potential to unfold multitudes.
You’ve attended festivals in the Balkans, you established connections in the world of literature of Macedonia, Croatia, Serbia. What are your impressions about the literary life in this region and the poetry that has been created here?
I have spent very little time in this area, and cannot claim to know it deeply, although I have made many close friends and I have had books published in Croatia and Macedonia in the local languages. That said, there are many currents here that are also present in the Asia-Pacific region: ancient societies with a long tradition of power, wealth, trade and cultural mingling – with a lot of pride — but there is also a history of conflict and decline. These are the societies that may have lost their leading place, but are trying to find their way back to the global community. Back to a place of dignity and hope. But we are not there yet. The writing reflects both the pride, the cultural confidence that is here but also the anxieties and resentments of the present and the recent past. At the same time there is a reaching for the new – there seems to be a desire not to stay too long in your father’s house. I believe the ability to forge real change and innovation can only come from such societies as these, and some of the recent writing shows it. There are exciting breaks with the past and with comfortable conventions. There is fresh blood.
I know you as a really curious, but at the same time deep observer of the places you visit, as well as the observer of the symbolic potential of seemingly small and not so important events you come across. To what extent do the travellings and meeting various people and cultures affect your writing?
Without curiosity there can be no new wisdoms. Travelings and and encounterings nourish growth – particularly for someone from such a comfortable but small country as Singapore. One cannot be too sheltered as a writer; one must expose oneself (both in the sense of open-mindedness but also in the sense of vulnerability) to the world. The diversity of human experience, which is so richly evident when one travels far from home, is a wonderful source of inspiration. So too are the constant reminders that we are after all one species, and the human spirit knows no distinction of colour, creed, gender or tongue. That gives me hope. My writing is a way of circling, marking out, what seems true to me, and the more I travel the more I find new ways to do so. I find fresh coordinates. New voices, new structures to learn from. The lens gets a little clearer, gains more focus. We teach each other how to be more human by embodying different ways of being human, and of speaking through life.
Where are the barbarians in the contemporary world? Are they within us or within what is being considered as Otherness?
I think the roots of barbarity have always been the same: ignorance, atavism, fear, tribalism, selfishness, anger, greed, resentment, insecurity… To me, barbarians are those in any time and any place who seek to divide or destroy, rather than nurture human connections and human variety. The barbarian is not the Other; Othering is barbarism.
At times you question emotion as a reaction to the current war and political events in your poetry. What is the power of words in the contemporary world?
I think emotion is a valid response. But it is one of many responses, and they all add up. I don’t believe poetry (or language) alone can save the world, or even move it directly. But it may, like how a line of music can change a song, subtly alter the terms of engagement, shift the tone, add to what is considered, reduce noise or nudge it so that it becomes something else. Satire is the most obvious example of this (turning something serious into something funny) but there are other subtle ways in which language may change the mood, if not for the whole world, then for the individuals that make up the world. It’s like the old Depeche Mode song: „You can’t change the world, but you can change the facts; when you change the facts, you change points of view“ and from there you may change the world. I think it is very important for individuals to feel like they have the ability to consider and change their own points of view; to think about what is and what could be in more ways than are often available. The ability to thoughtfully disagree is the basis of civilisation.
Some philosophers consider that we live in postemotional world. Is today’s poetry postemotional or is it dominated by new sensitivity?
I think it’s important however to remember that not everyone is at the same level of philosophical development – who is postemotional? Ego, self-interest have been with humanity since day one, but it has not crowded out altruism and compassion completely. Neither has Singapore’s state obsession with self-reliance and enforced harmony led to a colourless, clinical polity – quite the contrary in fact. Quite frankly I think boredom, if nothing else, eventuallys drives us to connection. The self can only sustain interest for so long before it begins to eat itself. The same goes for poetry – it will swing one way and eventually another. There is, at the moment, more than enough diversity, if one cares to look, to suit any taste.
It will be difficult to get rid of emotion and emotionality as long as we inhabit mortal, organic, mammal bodies. The terms of this emotionality may change, and should change – what, for example, will transhuman advancements mean for human feelings? If we become immortal cyborgs or uploaded consciousness, as some argue will happen within this century, will emotions even mean the same thing? What will society mean then?
What are your thoughts on the relation between poetry and popular culture, music, film, and other media?
A big awkward family gathering over the New Year. Some relatives arrive in large limousines and tailored suits; some in handmedown dresses. Some of them have not seen each other all year; others meet once a month for tea. There is this one cousin who is intense and always broke. The rest try to avoid talking to him, especially about politics and religion because a fight always starts. Everyone loves the dessert, but nobody is quite sure who made it.
What do you read these days? Can you recommend one European, one American and one Singaporean poet to our readers?
I am trying to read much more broadly – particularly writers from the middle east and asia in translation but also writers from central and eastern europe: the younger and less famous the better, because I am looking for what is new, not what is respected. Instead of looking to Europe or America, I’d instead to recommend the Burmese poet Zeyar Lynn; the Japanese poet Hiromi Ito; the Chinese poet Xi Chuan; the Australian poet John Kinsella, and the Singaporean poet Johar Buang (although there are not many good translations of his work), or Yeow Kai Chai (who writes experimental verse in English). I’d recommend reading poetry that makes you uncomfortable in fresh ways, because that shows you what you don’t already know how to deal with. Which means it’s a place to learn and grow from.