Philosopher, hermit, journalist, historian, poet: Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé
A truly multifaceted artist, Singapore’s ex-journalist Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé writes, edits, and publishes books, works in clay and also teaches creative writing. He has edited more than 10 books and co-produced 3 audio books. He worked as an entertainment and lifestyle journalist at 8 Days magazine. Trained in Professional Publishing (Books) at Stanford University, Desmond studied Sociology and Mass Communication at the National University of Singapore, and later received his Master of Theological Studies (World Religions) from Harvard University and Master of Fine Arts (Creative Writing) from the University of Notre Dame.
Desmond is the recipient of the PEN American Center Shorts Prize, Swale Life Poetry Prize, Cyclamens & Swords Poetry Prize, Stepping Stones Nigeria Poetry Prize, Notre Dame Poetry Fellowship, Vallum New International Poetics Award, Singapore International Foundation Grant, NAC Writer-in-the-Gardens Residency, Hiew Siew Nam Distinguished Academic Award, and Little Red Tree International Poetry Prize. His poetry and prose has placed in literary competitions in Canada, England, France, Greece, Ireland, Israel, Nigeria, Scotland, and the US. His work has been published widely, appearing in over 200 anthologies and literary journals, including such established publications as Agni, Confrontation, Copper Nickel, Cutbank, Diagram, Faultline, Georgetown Review, Gulf Coast, Harpur Palate, Harvard Review, Nano Fiction, New Orleans Review, Pank, Platte Valley Review, Slab, Smartish Pace, Sonora Review, Massachusetts Review,New Guard, and Versal, among others.
In this interview with Kitaab’s Zafar Anjum, he talks about his experiences with different art forms and what poetry means to him, and how theorists and philosophers have shaped his mind. He also discusses aspects of his latest collection of poetry, The Arbitrary Sign, and his forthcoming books I Didn’t Know Mani Was A Conceptualist and Sanctus Sanctus Dirgha Sanctus.
Your talent knows no bounds. You have been a journalist, you have studied world religions, and you write poetry and work in clay. Is there anything that I am missing out? How do you manage to wear so many hats?
You’re lovely, Zafar. Thanks for your generosity. I do lots of interdisciplinary work. I used to be conflicted about this, desiring to devote my time and energy to one artform. There is great value in specialisation – it’s like deep-structure reading, you just dive in and swim in the depths of that field forever – but I’ve come to realise that even as a kid, I was meant to work across artistic media. The hats are all funky to wear, and life is a grand party. I fear that my effusive banter on the wonders of living it out loud as an artist betrays little of how reclusive a life such work entails. So, yes, the work is always heady and a blistering blast of rambunctious fun, but my daily routine is one formed around solitude and discipline. I absolutely love reading and writing, removed from the public eye, so this chosen life of intense quirks and habits is not so much a sacrifice as an afforded luxury.
I edit and design a great deal now. I used to illustrate too in the early years, and those were commissioned by and published in The Straits Times. I miss being able to spend a month obsessing over a single drawing. I teach loads too, and love it. It’s all work at the end of the day. And it’s all good. I have quirky penchants, like the small toy collection I own. Usually vintage or rare finds. Some commercial fare like Rayman Raving Rabbids. There’s a great figurine of Michel Gagné’s Insanely Twisted Rabbit. A sculpture of Trinity from The Matrix. Batman perched on one of Gotham’s gargoyles. Oh, and Emilio Garcia’s Jumping Brain is just all-around an inspired work of genius.
You helm Squircle Line Press as its founding editor and publisher and you have edited 10 books and co-produced a few audio books. Can you tell us a little more about some of these ventures and adventures?
Running the press has been bucketloads of fun, like going on a joyride. We’re an editorial consultancy and indie press thrown into one, what we quaintly call a boutique press. We clearly have no illusions that we’re anywhere near the league of kingpin publishers like Random House or Harper Collins, nor do we have the desire or ambition to trek such large-scale operations. We love the intimacy of small presses like Wave Books, Flood Editions, Action Books, Four Way Books, Tupelo Press, among many others. We do adore the kind of work represented in Graywolf and CopperCanyon. We’re selective in our offerings and humble in our expectations. Our press has been running along nicely, and that makes us really happy.
We just launched an eco-ecphrasis series of art prints, in conjunction with my own writing residency at Gardens by the Bay. With the support of arts patron Agro Genesis, this series features interpretations of the natural environment, by galleried artists from as far as Australia, Canada, Cyprus, Estonia, Italy, Kenya, Poland, UK and USA. The astonishingly talented artists include: Alison Chaplin, Bonnie Schupp, Elaine Kehew, Giovanni Pasinato, Hadley Anne Rampton, Jean-François Dupuis, Jennifer Gabbay, Joanna Mlącka, Jody Guralnick, John Sokol, John Vias, Kamille Saabre, Katherine Smith-Schad, Kyriakos Thouki, Lynn Grayson, Mike Leale, Randall David Tipton, Ryn Clarke, Sarah Emerson, Sarah Vernon, Stephanie Burns, Susan Porter, and Toni Silber-Delerive. The series can be found here: http://www.squirclelinepress.org/eco-ecphrasis-art-prints.html
We’ve also launched a 10th anniversary commemorative series of Singapore photographer Alan Lee’s photographs of Cambodia. I remember our trip to the country fondly. It was an amazing team comprising Alan, myself, three lovely writers, and a Khmer interpreter. Alan’s photographs were published in the coffee-table book, The One Word: Hope For Cambodia’s Challenges Today. The book addressed five social issues in the country, namely the broad concerns of homelessness, landmines, AIDS, prostitution, and destitute children. All proceeds from the sale of the book went to a children’s shelter in Phnom Penh. The book sold out, and is no longer in print. In 2004, Alan Lee had a solo exhibition of selected photographs from this book at the art gallery Chateau d’Arts. Ten years later, this series, titled “Cambodia In Camera Lucida”, commemorates and celebrates Lee’s photographic work. The range is greater, and the images all as luminous. These photographs represent a unique record of people and culture, taken of a Cambodia at the turn of the new millennium. To see Alan’s gorgeous images, please go to: http://www.squirclelinepress.org/cambodia-art-prints.html
Beyond managing Squircle, I find myself hard-pressed to find time to do my own writing. It would be terrible if I did all this, and neglected my own practice. As Kurt Vonnegut said: “When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth.” Towards this, I’m thrilled to have a new book coming out from Math Paper Press in the next few months. It’s titled I Didn’t Know Mani Was A Conceptualist.
As I’ve mentioned in other interviews, more often than not the best readings of my work are others’ and not my own. So here’s Fiona Sze-Lorrain and her take on the book: “This collection of poetry by interdisciplinary artist Desmond Kon is an invitation to ‘jump into the spray like raindance’ — between musings on philosophy, speech acts and language play, the poet performs the role of conteur, archivist, marionette…. Kon offers eleven ways of looking at a square, a fable, and a republic. What does the world represent for you? he asks in earnest. These prose vignettes are clever and defy categories. They contain a wealth of references across time and cultures, its undercurrent of a tragicomedy so irresistible that it feels like the ‘tongue tasting brown sugar.’ ”
Fiona is an absolute darling, and way too generous in her review. I’ve just read her new book Funeral Gondola, and it’s as rich and layered as her first book, Water the Moon.
How did you find your way to poetry?
I’m trying hard to remember the first poem I read as a child. Apart from nursery rhymes, I think it was something by Emily Dickinson, which would have been small and accessible enough. I must have been shown something by Yeats and T. S. Eliot because I was aware of them early on. The one poem that really caught my attention was Auden’s “The Unknown Citizen”. And Plath’s “Ariel”, which is such a tortured poem. The final line – “Eye, the cauldron of morning” – is unforgettable.
That said, what does poetry mean to you?
Without question, poetry will always be my first love. It seems the most liberating of all the artforms. For me, that is. Sculpting – working with clay – makes me one with the earth. It grounds me. Drawing and design allow me to work outside of language, to revel in shape and color and line. These same aspects permeate poetic craft, but somehow the being of language provides me enough substance from which a necessary friction can be made, and thus a resistance – and new fire. Language is so tied to history and culture and place and people; yet it can wander into an illimitable expanse of meaning. What language is – what it can do – is simply wondrous.
I stumbled on a paragraph by Pierre Leroux some time back. It was penned in 1831. It is one of my favorite observations of poetry and art, encapsulating both of them beautifully. Here it is: “Poetry is the mysterious wing that glides at will in the whole world of the soul, in that infinite sphere, one part of which is colors, another sounds, another movements, another judgments, and so forth, all vibrating simultaneously, according to certain laws, so that a vibration in one region communicates itself to another region. The privilege of art is to feel and express these relationships, which are deeply hidden in the very unity of life. From these harmonic vibrations of the diverse regions of the soul an accord results, and this accord is life; and when this accord is expressed, it constitutes art. And it so happens that when this accord is expressed, it is a symbol, and the form of its expression is rhythm, which itself partakes of the symbol: that is why art is the expression of life, the reverberation of life, life itself. Poetry, which chooses for its instrument the word and creates with words the symbol and the rhythm, is an accord, as is music, as is painting, as are all the other arts: so that the fundamental principle of all art is the same, and all the arts get fused into art, all the poetries into poetry.”
In your recent collection of poems, The Arbitrary Sign, you betray your philosophical bent of mind. Do you follow any particular philosophers or have you devised your own philosophy?
I wish, oh how I wish. Not just philosophers but theorists. I do love theory, and how its dubious but noble task of seeing threads across things helps with ideation. It gives you a wider frame to look through, a kind of meta-perspective although it’s easy to be seduced into talking in metanarratives. Some theorists I love include: Barthes, Benjamin, Foucault, Derrida, Said, Kristeva, Butler, Bloom, Lacan, Freud, Hegel, Wittgenstein, Ricouer, Eagleton, among several others. I actually started reading into philosophy after I took classes in ethics. I took a great class on the ethic of love, and studied the scholarly work of Gene Outka and Josef Pieper, for instance. I’ve always wanted to wax lyrical about philosophy, and in TheArbitrary Sign, I managed to get lyrical, but made sure to restrain the language and stick with some measure of economy.
Actually, I might have a few personal philosophies. I just came up with one. Here goes nothing: “Do what is necessary, to do what is ideal. What’s necessary seems easy enough – the problem lies in being decisive about what constitutes the ideal.”
What was the motivation behind The Arbitrary Sign? What did you want to say through this book?
In the last couple of years, I’ve been teaching several courses on children’s literature. The genre is great, and the writer needs to think carefully about framing the correct tone, theme, message, vocabulary – just to get the book to work for that young audience. I’ve always found the idea of the alphabet book as this strange construct, one that aims to help kids learn their ABCs through easy associations and referentials. Y’know, “G for Gate” and “R for Ribbon”. These represent an early sealing of the signifier-signified relationship, one that continues to underscore the way we create rules about the proper usage of language. This, for the poet, is something that has to be deconstructed later on if one is to be truly inventive and imaginative with language all over again. Much of the signification that we always took for granted and learnt so well can be investigated and rearranged and given new life. The Arbitrary Sign attempts to do that, over and above starting with philosophical terminology and jargon for the ABC prompts. Within the book, there remains the constant effort to reconcile the enterprise of the philosophical and that of the poetic, both of which function on sometimes quite separate terms.
I like pushing the limits of what’s deemed acceptable in form or genre. That said, I love going back and forth between more traditional and experimental fare. You’ll see that in my next book, Sanctus Sanctus Dirgha Sanctus, I work in the sestina, an extremely exacting and complex form. I take the air out of it – the sheer turgidity of the seven stanzas and 39 lines – by stripping each line out as a monostich. Each line is a part of the greater whole but also functions nicely by itself.
Here’s Jared Randall’s review to give people a sense of the book. This is to be printed on the back cover: “A generous offering from a generous being. These poems will delight by the uttering aloud of every sonorous line just as soon as they will reward the postmodernist’s parsing of their inter-referential echoes, the contemplative’s line-by-line meditative absorption, and the artist’s apprehension of the ekphrastic. They also subtly resist, yet beguile and even pull, and in the end they pinpoint a dimension in time and space to which you will have known you were moving with each repetition of the sestina form. Philosopher, hermit, journalist, historian, poet, Kon lets us inhabit an almost architectural space somewhere between the desert and the oasis, the walled garden and the wayside, the roughshod and the baroque, life’s varied roads of thought and experience. These do not contradict. All is good. All is holy.”
Jared’s own book, Apocryphal Road Code, is just a stunning read. That he had such lovely things to say about my work completely made my day.
What does it mean to be a Singaporean poet? Does it place any special burden on your shoulders?
That’s a label, for better or worse. It has its uses. It’s like saying something is “Made in Germany” or “Made in China”. I don’t know if my kind of work lends itself easily to such a label. I know people who’ve workshopped my work overseas haven’t read it as necessarily an account of Singapore living.
I work so much in extended metaphor that by the time any of my language circles back to the local milieu, the whole atmosphere has shifted considerably, and looking for a centre might be a self-defeatist approach. I also like to work in postmodernist narratives, so any type of naming would seem ironic, which in turn would ironically seem very apt, if not astute. I guess I haven’t used enough Singapore tropes in my writing, but I’m increasingly starting to do so, and liking it very much. I’ve always been tentative about writing so quickly and intensely about what’s close and immediate because what’s expressed can seem so easy or pedantic. Blame it on the scholarship. Blame it on evasion and obfuscation. Blame it on needing the performance on the page, as if it were an impulse. Blame it on Foucault, Derrida and Deleuze. But if I’m going to write about home, I need it to be as filled with absence as for it to be telling about what’s present. That narrative ambiguity is what makes for a heightened rendering, at least in my sense of literary things.
In poetry, who have been your influences, especially among Singaporean poets?
My influences are multiple and varied. I read photography and design books. I’m also a film buff. Music is really important to me, and I listen to anything from country to R&B to rap to soul to classical to folk to pop to jazz to techno. So these inform my work in different ways. When it comes to voice, there are so many poets whose work I admire, it’s impossible to list them all here. Notable ones include: Allen Ginsberg, Walt Whitman, Simon Armitage, Charles Wright, E. E. Cummings, Paul Celan, Rimbaud, Verlaine, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Hafiz, Czeslaw Milosz, Yehuda Amichai, Frank O’Hara, Hart Crane, T. S. Eliot, Robert Creeley, John Wiener, Carl Dennis, Forrest Gander, Peter Gizzi, Charles Bernstein, Philip Levine, Sylvia Plath, Ezra Pound, James Merrill, among so many others. I just received a whole bunch of titles from Wave Books, and the authors are absolutely wonderful to read. They include: Hoa Nguyen, Mario Santiago Papasquiaro, Noelle Kocot, Geoffrey G. O’Brien, Mary Ruefle, Ernst Meister, Matthew Rohrer, and Dara Wier. C. A. Conrad’s A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon: New (Soma)tics is just awesome. As is Joshua Beckman’s The Inside of an Apple.
I’ve said this countless times, but I think Yeow Kai Chai is possibly the most inventive of Singapore poets. His work really pays attention to structure – its wordplay is astonishing, always surprising. Kai Chai is a wordsmith through and through, and it’s lovely to see him push the line across the page. Reading Singapore poetry is really gratifying for me. You know that only someone who’s truly internalized what is the heart of this place can muster such a lyrical telling or reauthoring. It’s a lived-in experience that splays on the page. It’s a confessing and/or a kind of post-confessionalist language. Either way, the language hits deep because there’s a great deal of shared experience and history.
We’re witnessing the emerging literature of a very young and flourishing nation, so it’s a very exciting time to be a man or woman of letters here. These poems and stories help form the canon of this republic, and this canon will be studied as a cultural record of our beginnings. When it comes to local poets, it isn’t so much influence as partaking of the same literary space and consciousness. There are several poets whose craft I find wonderfully intelligent and distinctive. Alvin Pang. Toh Hsien Min. Paul Tan. Edwin Thumboo. Lee Tzu Pheng. Boey Kim Cheng. Grace Chia. Yong Shu Hoong. Alfian Sa’at. Koh Jee Leong. Ng Yi-Sheng. Teng Qian Xi. Felix Cheong. Chris Mooney-Singh. Tania De Rozario. The list goes on.
Are you satisfied with the poetry scene in Singapore? What more can be done to enliven the culture of poetry here? Do you think there should be more dialogues and more translations?
Ten years ago, you’d be lucky to have an audience at a poetry reading. Now, events are well-attended. Word Forward’s slams are packed and rousing gigs. The various literary festivals that dot our year’s calendar are awesome. When the esteemed Rajeev Patke hosted my book launch at last year’s Singapore Writers Festival, he mentioned there are proportionately more practicing poets here than anywhere else in the world. That’s a really encouraging statistic and idea. I don’t think people appreciate enough how important such a density of literary-minded people helps create a viable and sustainable community of artists. So, I feel blessed to be at this moment in this country. I also like it that I was young enough to witness the nation-building phases of this small republic – this was before people spoke of the Asian miracle – so much so I don’t take our present good fortune for granted. I’ve seen how much work and sacrifice and risk and faith it all takes. So, all the bright lights now are nice to have, but these are ultimately bright lights. Beneath the pomp and pageantry, there must be the eternal return to the theory and practice, as even the philosophers would say. And Orpheus would nod and lilt to this as well.
It would be nice to have a Poet Laureate here, with a new one elected each year. Just take a look at America’s Rita Dove, Charles Simic, W. S. Merwin, Mark Strand, Ted Kooser, Donald Hall, Kay Ryan, and Billy Collins, to name a few. A Korean friend told me that recognized bards in some countries get such amazing state patronage to help them work on their art, with as little worldly distraction as possible. They’re given a house and a salary for life. Omigawd, that would be unbelievably awesome if it were to be a reality here. As for increased dialogue about the arts, definitely a resounding yes. And Bakhtin would agree. As for more work in translation, an equally big yes. The increased dialogue across cultural communities can only come about with the important work of translation. The more, the merrier – the more engaged and invested we can become in our collective involvement in literature both foreign and local.
What do you plan to write next?
During the Gardens by the Bay residency, I’ve been fully immersed in the writing of my novel. I’ve titled it Singular Acts of Endearment. It’s been a really enriching process, thanks to the National Arts Council for making it all so seamless. The Gardens by the Bay is a beautiful place to be writing in. They’ve been a perfect host, so helpful in every way.
I’m halfway through another novella, and just started on a new one. Both Plato and Socrates are invoked in it, with a fractured exposition on the dialogues Apology and Crito, maybe Symposium. Both dip into a bit of dark comedy, and I’m having fun with my characters. Y’know, making them a tad demented, letting them live it up a bit. It’s still experimental, the way I like it, and does not fall under genre fiction. I’m thinking of which characters to kill off – both likable and unlikable ones – and how to narrate their tragic deaths in uncommon detailing. I’m seated in McDonald’s right now, and some dad has just slapped his kid. Everyone’s looking on in abject horror. I think I’ll write him into my novella as some dreadful person. A hurl-worthy scene in a torture chamber. I’ll leave him in a mangled mess on some asphalt somewhere.
I have another book, ãkolpomõtism, which I hope will be published next year. It’s a collection of poems and essays. Here’s what Richard Collins wrote by way of book praise for the back cover: “No one writes quite like Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé. It is not just that he has found new forms (though he has), not just that his syntax is a rarity (it is), not just that he has something to say that has, somehow, not been said before (it hasn’t). In other hands, the new, the rare, the as-yet-unsaid is not always pleasurable, not always beautiful, not always delicious. This book though is a feast of juxtapositions, a mélange of miscegenations, an impossibility of conversations, from the complex simplicity of the poems (like a blue belt) to the roughening texture of the essays (like a cat’s tongue). I consider it one of the triumphs of my efforts as an editor to have published several of these beautiful enigmas in Xavier Review.”
I’m always between projects – coming up with new ones even before I put the polish on earlier ones. Having a platter of different concurrent works helps me immensely. I can move back and forth easily between them. It works well with my moods. It also helps when I tire of a certain characterization, and need to move onto something fresh. I have a book idea that loosely works in translation, and it revolves around Gigi and her travels to a remote tribal community with her anthropologist lover. She makes a cameo appearance in Singular Acts of Endearment. It’s fun to subtly weave in such indications or clues within and across works – they come across as signs, a hint, traces, intimations – so much so they’ll dialogue with each other within the larger oeuvre. It gives my speakers or characters an out, a possible avenue to say something different or something that’s vindicating later on. It also gives me an out, a way to climb back into an old story, and revisit it. To rewrite it. It’s another opportunity formulated and readied way in advance, a gilded one at that. It’s like groundwork or foreshadowing, a kind of provision for what’s to come. As Jonathan Safran Foer wrote in Everything Is Illuminated: “With writing, we have second chances.”