Singapore: Desmond Kon’s Historic Poetry Win at 2015 National Indie Excellence Book Awards


Desmond Kon
Desmond Kon

It’s unprecedented. The first Singapore writer to bag this gold, Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé is also the first-ever author to place in a winning tie for Poetry at the National Indie Excellence Book Awards (NIEA). That there has never been a tie for the Poetry category in NIEA’s ten years of running makes for an interesting turn, but more compelling is how the tie names as its the citation two of Desmond’s poetry collections: I Didn’t Know Mani Was A Conceptualist (Math Paper Press) and Sanctus Sanctus Dirgha Sanctus (Red Wheelbarrow Books).

Based in Los Angeles, The National Indie Excellence Awards has been a strong advocate for independent publishing, a large sector of the publishing world, with most literary presses falling under its umbrella. The prestigious NIEA is open to all English language books in print. Entries come from small, medium, university, self and independent publishers. The judging panel comprises independent experts from all aspects of the indie book industry, including publishers, writers, editors, book designers and professional copywriters.

Here is Kitaab’s interview with Desmond on this exceptional win.

Congratulations on your win. How are you celebrating?

Kitaab Sanctus Dirgha Cover Desmond KonI just opened a new tub of creamed spinach dip, which I use like butter spread. I used to survive on hummus and bread everyday in Cambridge, Massachusetts. So, having a meal like that is wonderfully nostalgic. Reminds me of those good years when all I did all day was read, read, read. And write, write, write. I couldn’t have written these books without going through that sort of academic rigour. And those long days at Widener Library. Those were such good times, such good memories.

When NIEA made its awards announcement, I was ecstatic. The first thing I did was text my eldest sister, Karen, because she’s always been so supportive of my ridiculous writerly life. I didn’t have any whiskey at home, so I had Meiji coffee milk instead.

This is one more feather in your cap. Your novel recently won the Silver Award at the Independent Publisher Book Awards (IPPYs) as well as the Beverly Hills International Book Award for Visionary Fiction.

I feel very blessed to have my books selected, even as a finalist. So, to have won is just amazing. The novel is titled Singular Acts of Endearment, jointly published by Squircle Line Press and Grey Sparrow Press. It placed as a category finalist for General Fiction at the Eric Hoffer Book Awards. This was especially meaningful to me because I’ve actually read a bit of Eric Hoffer. Hoffer is known as one of the most important American moral and social philosophers in the last century. He was ultimately awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in the US.

For the first quarter of this year, my books didn’t place in several other competitions. I started to think my books were too experimental, didn’t have that polish, or just weren’t what the judges were looking for. I’m in my mid-40s, so I’ve experienced my good share of rejections from journals, agents, editors, and publishers. When one has learnt to weather such a heap of rejections, one comes to a place of equanimity when it comes to such things. So nowadays, any acceptance is a wonderful and welcome thing. Any award – that sort of recognition – is just unbelievable, lovely icing on the cake. So, I’m just really all-around grateful.

Having seen NIEA’s list of winners in the various categories, I’m now excited to get some of the titles for a good read. I have in mind Jo Ivester’s The Outskirts of Hope, Dete Meserve’s Good Sam, and Thomas Whaley’s Leaving Montana. Lynnda Pollio’s Trusting the Currents also sounds really exciting.

Tell us a bit about these two poetry collections. Why do you think they won?

Kitaab Mani Front Cover Desmond Kon copyI’ll never be able to know why the judges made their selections, and ultimately picked these books as their choice. I’m just happy they did. The two books were also scheduled for publication a year apart from each other. There was a delay bringing one of the titles to press, so they got launched in the same year. That turn-of-events has turned out to be a lovely thing.

I Didn’t Know Mani Was A Conceptualist is a collection of short texts that explore the fine line between prose poems and microfiction. This book was published after years of rejection from other presses. I remain indebted to Kenny Leck and his team at Math Paper Press, for trusting my voice enough to publish this collection. The book cover, with its fractal constellation of Tristan Tzara’s moustached Mona Lisa is just gorgeous. It was the first cover draft, from the wildly talented Shellen Teh, and we settled on the design immediately and unanimously. Within the book are these amazing chapter covers, with the most detailed, ornate illustrations.

The collection has four chapters of linked sequences, and each sequence shifts in its approach towards its text as lyric and narrative. While Mani is written into the title, the name is mentioned only once in the poems. The collection spreads its wings over a large vista, dipping into art movements like Cubism and Dadaism. It references pop culture. It invokes place names that can become metaphorical in naming and alluding to something else outside the text. There’s also an interreligious sentiment that underscores the work, one that pulls in religious symbolism as a web of tropes, in an effort to celebrate that sort of diversity of language and meaning and history and culture. I like to give my work more grit – “the narrative curveball” is what I call it – and that usually arrives in the trope of death. And by death, I usually refer to the Barthesian kind, that of the allegorical death of the author.

Thanks to Chris Mooney-Singh and Savinder Kaur at Red Wheelbarrow Books, my other collection, Sanctus Sanctus Dirgha Sanctus managed to make it to the presses. Savinder has always given me such freedom in envisioning my own books, and for that, I am deeply appreciative. This collection takes apart the sestina, reducing its 39 lines – and its concomitant perambulating end-words – into its constituent single lines, what I call monostitches, as opposed to the monostich. It’s a playful stripping down to bare bones of a very beautiful traditional form. It lays bare its sinew, what I feel gets compressed in the density of the sestina with its six sestets and envoi. One of the sestinas is titled “The Object of White Noise”. The title is an allusion to Hemingway’s poem, “[Blank Verse]”, written in Oak Park, 1916. Hemingway’s poem was published in Trapeze the same year. His poem is made up of missing texts, evidenced only through the presence of punctuation marks and symbols. My sestina creates its own matter from the absences in Hemingway’s poem. Through erasure – a kind of nothingness – comes a presence, one that needs to be created anew.

What can we expect from you next? What are you working on?

I’ve got a new book out, The Wrong/Wrung Side of Love. It’s jointly published by Squircle Line Press and Glass Lyre Press, thanks to the fabulous Ami Kaye. I just read a poem from this collection, titled “Longing”, at last Saturday’s NParks Artists’ Night Out at Dhoby Ghaut Grand Amphitheatre. The theme was ‘Memory’. It was the only poem of mine I read. I also read a poem from James Franco’s Directing Herbert White and Franz Wright’s God’s Silence. I’ll be reading more from my book at Gardens by the Bay during the Singapore National Poetry Festival in July. I view The Wrong/Wrung Side of Love as one more installment within the narratives that scale my novel, Singular Acts of Endearment. It’s like a tiny intra-text, like an embedded sequel. The characters are relocated here, in a kind of historicizing move within the fiction. What is different is the shift in architectonics. The Wrong/Wrung Side of Love comprises poems made up of single-lined clauses, phrases, fragments and interjections. The end-stopped line is a technique forced throughout, displacing the enjambment used in much poetry. I like how it makes me write in a more accessible way, where thoughts are allowed only that brevity to articulate themselves.

I’m so busy with many different projects. While corporate projects represent grand creative operations, it’s usually the literary projects that keep me going. It’s very gratifying to work in that intimate space of artmaking.

Thanks to Ethos Books – Fong Hoe Fang, Chan Wai Han and Ng Kah Gay are amazing at championing Singapore literature – my collection of hybrid works, Babel Via Negativa, will come out in time for this year’s Singapore Writers Festival. That manuscript had also been sitting at the bottom of my drawer for years – waiting in the wings, as a writer friend once said. I’m really happy that it’s found a home at Ethos Books, which is an amazing literary press that really respects diversity and intellectual freedom.

I’m also the editor and manager of Eye/Feel/Write, an ekphrastic project that pairs some of the most accomplished writers in Singapore to write texts inspired by artworks exhibited at museums here. Last year, the ten writers we invited included Robin Hemley, Joshua Ip, Isa Kamari, Alvin Pang, Tan Chee Lay, Jollin Tan, Edwin Thumboo, Ramanathan Vairavan, Yeow Kai Chai, and Ovidia Yu. They penned texts that dialogued with pieces within Singapore Art Museum’s “Medium At Large” exhibition. Select poems were published on limited edition broadsides.

This year, the ten distinguished writers include Alfian Sa’at, Chow Teck Seng, Divya Victor, Eric Tinsay Valles, Gwee Li Sui, Jerrold Yam, K Kanagalatha, Lee Tzu Pheng, Leong Liew Geok, and Yong Shu Hoong. These writers are creating their pieces based on ten heritage artworks at The National Gallery Singapore. All twenty writers will have their specially commissioned pieces published in a limited edition anthology, to be launched in November at this year’s Singapore Writers Festival. The anthology will be beautiful, no less. It’s an incredible experience working with such professional writers, all of them working in such intriguing, distinctive voices – their array of texts simply astonishing in both ideation and craft.