Singapore Hot Takes is an interview series with contemporary writers from Singapore looking at issues like craft, reading, influence, community, and ethics.
Cyril Wong is the Singapore Literature Prize-winning author of poetry collections such as Unmarked Treasure and The Lover’s Inventory. He has also published Ten Things My Father Never Taught Me and Other Stories. A past recipient of the National Arts Council’s Young Artist Award for Literature, he completed his doctoral degree in English Literature at the National University of Singapore in 2012. His poems have been anthologised in Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia and Beyond (W. W. Norton 2008) and Chinese Erotic Poems (Everyman’s Library 2007).
What was your early reading life like, what did you read and what books left an impact on you?
I read everything: comic-adaptations of Chinese mythology and folklore, crime, fantasy and horror—loads of horror fiction by Stephen King, Peter Straub, Clive Barker, John Saul, Dean Koontz, James Herbert. They all informed my imagination and reminded me that there were worlds beyond the shabby “Christian” reality that I was immured in while growing up, thanks to my braindead parents. Then I read a couple of poems by Louise Glück and I decided I had to read everything by this particular poet. Next I moved on to everything by Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, and Dennis Cooper. The fantasised accounts of horror to the existential horror – the ironic beauty of that everyday horror-of-our-existence as captured through their poetry collections – fascinated me so much that I aspired to be a writer one day to document and make sense of the darkness in my own life.
How did you come to writing? Was there a pivotal moment when a lightbulb went off? Or, was it a gradual process?
In Singapore, all boys have to undergo military life or “National Service”. It was the worst two-and-a-half years of my life (mainly because the time spent was so isolating, sad, and boring, and to make matters worse, I had to master the art of negotiating with shit-humans – you know the kind of human that makes up the majority of sentient beings on the planet – who appeared to me like dimwitted characters from inside a Kafkaesque short-story). During my purgatorial state of being, I wrote notes to myself in a flaccid, blue notebook (which I was supposed to use to take down notes from humdrum military lectures), but these notes turned out to be poems. I realised I enjoyed writing such notes to myself. I realised I was a navel-gazing narcissist who enjoyed addressing poems to myself!
Tell us about your latest book. What are its themes and techniques?
My last book was The Lover’s Inventory in 2015 (reprinted by Math Paper Press in 2018). It is the book that represents me best, in a way. I love the short lyric form. Within such a form, I may speak directly, “crudely” (in the sense of Bertold Brecht who proclaimed that “Nothing is more important than learning to think crudely”), imagistically, metaphorically, with a fresh turn of insight into my own past love-affairs in the final line. And yet the poems were still short, curt, uncomplicated – at least they seemed that way. The poems were about sex but they were also about learning about human nature (or more specifically, “male” nature – I slept with a lot of men) and what these lessons revealed about myself – my private hopes and desires, my longing for transcendence, to live with both transcendence and my continual sinking-into-the-mud-of-this-life.
Where does this book fit in contemporary Singaporean literature? Here, I am wondering about the work of peers that you like, and the broader ecosystem in which you work?
I was the only queer male poet confessional that I had heard of when I first penetrated the literary scene. So I was writing against the grain in claustrophobic Singapore. I still am, with the publication of my last book. The only poet I had truly admired was Arthur Yap, who wrote a few personal poems that touched me as honest and moving. Everyone else was a sociologist, cultural inspector or political activist masquerading as a poet. Not to say that what they did wasn’t poetry (all poetry is subjective, I get it) but as Arthur Yap once said in an interview, if you want to be political, go be a politician. I was surrounded by poets whose writings were more centrifugal, rather than centripetal, and who kept going on about nationalist issues, playing with form in a manner that was downright tone-deaf (coming from a diverse, classical-to-experimental music and operatic background, I am still amused when poets talk about music in poetry, mostly in terms of rhyme, rhythm and alliterative effects – how limited, how autistic!), ranting against hegemony, rewriting history, using Singlish, etc. In time, more and more poets have started to write more honestly and poignantly about their own lives. I hope this means that the ecosystem here has become more diverse.
What would you like to share with emerging writers? Do you have any advice on what it takes to publish and become a writer?
In the words of Charles Bukowski, “if it doesn’t come bursting out of you in spite of everything, don’t do it. unless it comes unasked out of your heart and your mind and your mouth and your gut…” The writing of the experience should also teach you something new about that experience, or else it’s just a Facebook rant, a Tweet. Submit, submit, submit, whether to a range of journals or different publishers. And get ready for rejection – every instant of rejection teaches us something new about the nature of subjectivity. Dare to reveal and dare to rewrite your memories, because in doing so, you are changing who you are in the world. Find mentors or friends who are able to help you see better, who know where you are coming from and what heights you are hoping to reach. Trust them, but also trust yourself. Enjoy the solitude of writing. It is the only thing that is real – the space in which you confront yourself.
And, finally, can you explain your future literary plans? Are you working on anything specific at the moment?
I am writing a book of poems about my late grandmother and how she is haunting me in the present day. I just want to keep writing and performing my work. I love performing my poetry, too, as each recital is a revelation to me, even if it isn’t revelatory to anyone else. I am teaching myself something new every day, with every poem that I write, edit, or offer to a sympathetic or unsympathetic audience.