Goal: An Interview with Poetry World Cup Winner Desmond Kon
It’s already a moment ensconced in time. Singapore bagging the Poetry World Cup, in what we previously reported as “a keenly fought contest”. Singapore received 1295 votes, while Pakistan mustered 1270. It was hair-raising: a margin of 25 votes. We revisit the day, and speak to Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé about this incredible win, where Singapore actually brought home World Cup gold. At least in poetry.
Were you optimistic about winning? What did you think of your chances?
From the onset, I knew Pakistan would be huge challenge, what with their stunning turnout in the semi-finals. A half-hour into the Germany-Argentina match, I checked the score and we were 200 points behind Pakistan. And I thought that was it – that the game was already gone. But by mid-morning, our pace had picked up, and it was neck to neck from then on. The last two hours were terrifying to watch. I hadn’t eaten the whole day. My first meal was at 6pm that day.
Because this game is completely reliant on readers’ votes, this is a country win. Couldn’t have happened without everyone’s amazing energy and spunk. A big thank you to my three sisters, friends and colleagues for getting the word out. My former students too, some of whom I haven’t seen in a decade! Being able to reconnect like this is just all-around lovely. And to Ngee Ann Polytechnic, where I lecture, for their rousing support. Votes came in from abroad as well, l was told. From Australia, Indonesia, Korea, the Philippines, UK, and USA. Hugs to all the readers who joined in the fun!
To use soccer vernacular, what was your mental game?
Wow, sports psychology. That feels strange, to apply that sort of preparation in a poet’s work. Goal setting. Learning to concentrate, to focus, to stay motivated. Not losing it, although that sort of abandon usually works very well in the writing out of a poem. A good way to deal with nerves for me is deep breathing. I breathe in for 8 counts, hold the breath in for 8 counts, and exhale for 8 counts. It works every time.
What were your thoughts on your competition from Pakistan?
Both our poems are very different. Mehvash Amin is an amazing writer. And her poem, beautifully rendered in tercets, has great imagery as well as an important message, especially given the sort of violence we’re seeing reported in the news. It’s a powerful piece.
In the early stages, some readers wrote to me, asking me about my poem, its structure and meaning. I explained how I write both lyric and narrative poetry, and adopt a lot of experimentation in my writing. Mine is a prose poem, a trendy contemporary form. And while it reads effortlessly, it’s meant to create some fissure to reflect the fluidity of translation as seen in the Chinese-to-English idiomatic title.
It had to be the Germany-Brazil game. Actually, I like reading the after-match analyses and commentaries. The Guardian just had its journalists provide their personal highlights of the last month. It’s a lovely piece that’s at once intelligent, funny and intimate. Several named Germany-Brazil as their top match. I cite Owen Gibson here, who wrote: “There were more exciting matches. There were higher quality matches. There were certainly closer matches. But nothing could come close to the shock and awe of seeing Germany tear the hosts to pieces within 30 extraordinary first-half minutes.”
Reading Daniel Taylor made me laugh out loud. This is his recollection of that memorable moment: “There was a point, after 0-0 had raced to 0-5 in the space of 18 minutes, when the goals were coming too quickly to take accurate notes, there were people screaming – literally screaming – beside the pressbox, and I can remember looking at Dominic Fifield next to me and we were both just laughing. It was that kind of what-the-hell-is-going-on kind of laughter.”
Any other highlights? What about previous World Cups?
I got caught up in World Cup fever by reading lots on soccer and its history. Bill Borrows’ Book of World Cup Banter is a fun read. He talks about the Golden Boot Award, which goes to the top scorer in each tournament. It’s an impressive list. Before Germany’s reunification in 1990, Gerd Müller scored 10 goals in 1970. That was in Mexico. In 1962, the highest ever goal count was 4 in Chile, and the award was shared by 6 players.
Brazil has a whole line-up of top scorers like Leônidas da Silva (7 goals) in 1938, Ademir (9 goals) in 1950, and of course, Ronaldo (8 goals) in 2002 when the tournament was hosted by South Korea and Japan. To add to the trivia, all the way back in 1930, Argentina’s Guillermo Stábile came away with a whopping 8 goals.
What are the lessons you take away from your win at Poetry World Cup?
That it takes a whole lot of passion and commitment to run an event like this. Jacob Silkstone at The Missing Slate has been so good about it all. At the end, he wrote me that “we’ve had an absolutely epic World Cup final”, and spoke of “lying down in a darkened room for a few days”. He’s wonderfully funny. On my end, I’m looking forward to chilling on a beach in Bali, and thinking it’s Copacabana.
Poetry competitions tend to be adjudicated by a panel of authors or critics. So this is a new experience for me. It’s been great corresponding with people, talking about literature or just shooting the breeze. It’s important for writers to remain open to readers’ wide-ranging interpretations. Each reader makes up his or her own mind about the beauty or relevance of the poems, what are offered as gifts rather than competing entries.
This Poetry World Cup is inventive and fun because literature – normally not associated with sport – is given that thrilling edge. The uncertainty of what might happen when you divest control of your literary creation. It’s stirring. It’s electrifying. It’s actually what writers already know, and it’s no less enchanting or nerve-racking or mysterious or fascinating.