What was your early reading life like, what did you read and what books left an impact on you?
Until my encounter with Keats at about fourteen, I was reading a lot of Westerns and war novels, especially the Vietnam War ones. One of the pre-Keats books that really stayed with me a long time was Philip Caputo’s A Rumor of War, his memoir about his tour of duty as a Marine officer. I was too young to realize it then, but the book showed how much more powerful true stories are than total fiction, that the best non-fiction can engage you as deeply as great fiction. I think that developed in me an attraction to literary works that, while not necessarily autobiographical, are rooted in real experiences. The next life-changing encounter was Keats’ “Ode to Autumn.” That triggered a sort of conversion to the belief of the power of poetry to console, to save. It took me a while to understand the words, and to give in to the music behind them. It was autumnal, it was late (in the context of Keats’ short life), and filled with so much ineffable pain, beauty and peace. From Keats, I moved on to Gerard Manley Hopkins, Wilfred Owen, Edward Thomas, poets who, to use Yeats’ words, “think in the marrow bone.”
How did you come to writing? Was there a pivotal moment when a lightbulb went off? Or, was it a gradual process?
Reading Keats’ poems and letters I became convinced that poetry could move us, bring us to the deepest places within ourselves, and to the furthest reaches of language and experience, much more than other forms of art. Keats planted the idea in me, to be a poet, to give myself completely to the pursuit of poetry. It was akin to a spiritual conversion, this belief in poetry as a quest, a mission, that it would be the path through what Keats calls the vale of tears and the vale of soul-making. My poetic aspiration was put on hold, or was nearly snuffed out, when I went into the army for the two-and-a-half-year National Service in Singapore. I thought it had died a painful death in that time but the call was re-awakened when I went to university, and not surprisingly my first real poems, which went into my first book Somewhere-Bound, were about the army days.
Tell us about your latest book. What are its themes and techniques?
My latest book is Gull Between Heaven and Earth, a historical novel about the Tang Dynasty poet Du Fu. You could call it a work of literary translation, since the narrative is drawn from my interpretations of his poems. He lived and wrote through the most glorious period in Chinese literary history, but it was also perhaps the most tumultuous, for the later part of Emperor Xuan Zong’s reign ended in catastrophe, with the outbreak of the An Lushan Rebellion (755AD) that saw millions die and displaced. Du Fu’s poems gives eye-witness accounts of the chaos and suffering around him, and though he suffered a great deal himself, and was tormented with guilt at not being able to provide for his family, his compassion for his fellow country-men, especially the helpless peasants, gave his poems such unflinching accuracy of observation and poignant beauty, that he has been called poet-saint and poet-historian. I turned to Du Fu after migrating to Australia in 1997, and I guess it was part of my attempt to reconnect with my past, to reconcile the different strands in me. It was a strange but comforting, circling back from Keats and western writers, back to my beginnings, to the Tang poets whose poems I had to memorize when I was in primary school. Gull Between Heaven and Earth in a way is a migrant work too, and follows on closely from Between Stations, my travel memoir tracking my routes and roots, and Clear Brightness, my last poetry collection that brings together Singapore and Australia, my place of birth and my adopted home.
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?
It hasn’t fitted well in contemporary Singapore literature at all, because it doesn’t deal with Singapore themes or concerns. It is too distant, too remote, the theme, though I was hopeful of finding wider readership, that it would find its way to readers interested in the story of China’s greatest poet, about whom there has been strangely no full biography written, or an imagined account like Gull. Perhaps its sad fate has partly to do with my own situation as a writer, as an Asian Australian inhabiting an in-between space. This idea of liminality, of negotiating and mapping spaces between Singapore and Australia, between home and elsewhere, is something that has given me a new direction and focus, and has driven much of my work since I chose to uproot from Singapore and make a home in Australia. However, in real terms, it’s been difficult to situate and identify myself. I don’t really belong to either the literary community in Sydney, or that in Singapore. I haven’t established myself sufficiently in Australia to be accepted as a writer, and in Singapore I feel increasingly irrelevant, out of place and time.
What would you like to share with emerging writers? Do you have any advice on what it takes to publish and become a writer?
No advice, perhaps only the question which Rilke asks his young poet: “Must you write?” It’s a solitary, individual journey and I wouldn’t want to spoil all the joy and pain it involves, the very private, personal sense of quest for anybody.
And, finally, can you explain your future literary plans? Are you working on anything specific at the moment?
No plans beyond seeing the poems that have been emerging slowly over the last five or six years come together as a book. I’ve never been a disciplined, determined writer who follows a plan and schedule, so you could say I feel very much a beginner, wondering where to go to find the next poem, the next book.