By Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé
I write to get away from myself, and the world, but through writing I eventually end up confronting both.
Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?
My first full-length collection, Deeds of Light, drops this October at the Singapore Writers Festival. I’m both excited and also nervous as nails, because I’m still writing. I’ve been trying to articulate something about the way I live in Singapore today, something about the pace and style of thought, the colour of the air, something more than just nostalgia or confession. We’ll see if I succeed.
Describe your writing aesthetic.
I like rhyme and meter, and form, especially when the first two are absent. I think in an age of robots and code and skyscrapers that poetry with form can capture some of the zeitgeist that eludes free verse. At the same time, I don’t think form today should look at all like Caedmon’s Hymn or Li Bai or Shakespeare or even Auden. I’m a fan of strange syntax, half-rhyme, meaningful repetition, density, and repurposing Singlish for poetic ends.
Who are your favorite authors?
Of the poets I admire, I think I draw a lot of my love for the sea and sea imagery from Derek Walcott, as well as his nimble synthesis of the ‘Western Canon’ with his own, ‘non-Western’ experiences. My obsession with Marianne Moore began when I read her ars poetica “Poetry” which begins: “I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle”. I’ve also taken an interest in Robert Duncan’s projective verse, and I believe that Wong May, who has under-known and significant links to Singapore, represents a still-living writer in that tradition. It would be remiss if I didn’t mention Arthur Yap as possibly the best poet Singapore has seen so far. My own influences lie in the direction of Toh Hsien Min and Koh Jee Leong, Singapore writers who also demonstrate a commitment to form. Recently, I’ve been reading poets in translation such as Bei Dao, Sappho, Sakutarō Hagiwara, and Giuseppe Gioachino Belli, all of whom I enjoy in their different ways.
What’s the most challenging piece of writing you’ve attempted? Tell us why.
“merging and separating” was a poem-type thing I wrote as part of Curating Lab 2012. I was asked to write about the historiography of history education in Singapore, and was given newspaper clippings as a primer. It’s always a challenge to bring something as monumental as History down to a more visceral and heartfelt level, so I had my work cut out for me. In addition, this poem had to make sense exhibited in a gallery, not simply printed in a book. It had to have a strong visual element to it.
Finally, I came up with the idea of having the poem written on a whiteboard—Goodman Arts Centre is an old school, after all—and I also turned the story of merger and separation into a drama of divorce between two history schoolteachers. Inspired by Marianne Moore’s use of quotations in her work, I also tried to ‘incorporate sources’ in the poem, and had arrows at the side of the piece branching off into the original authors and speakers of the quotes, from people as diverse as Sinnathamby Rajaratnam and Gill Scott Heron to The Decemberists.
The poem was first projected onto the whiteboard, and then written down in marker. It seemed like people liked it, and later the show even travelled to Oxford University, although looking back the poem might have been trying to do too much. It was exhilarating erasing the finished product later, once the show was over.
What’s your idea of bliss?
I might answer differently another day, but right now bliss looks like a good book and nothing to do and no-one to meet all day.
What makes you angry, and I mean all-out-smash-the-china raving mad?
I find it hard to get smash-the-china raving mad, my anger usually looks more like coldness and silence. If I had to decide, I would say betrayal.
What books would you take with you on a three-month retreat in the boondocks?
Aha, bliss! I’d bring a book that I know I would otherwise never find the will to read in daily life. I’d bring the other 6 parts of In Search of Lost Time.
Your house is burning down. What’s the most important thing you’d want to take with you?
My pet cactus Archibald, because it’s the only other thing in my room (no house yet) that’s alive.
Describe your life philosophy. In a sentence.
“Yet another thing I observed under the sun is that races aren’t won by the swift or battles by the strong, and that food doesn’t go to the wise or wealth to the intelligent or favour to the experts; rather, time and chance rule them all.”
Assembled in Singapore with parts from Hong Kong and Malaysia, Tse Hao Guang is interested in form and formation, creativity and quotation, lyrics and line breaks. His chapbook is hyperlinkage (Math Paper Press, 2013). He graduated from the Masters of Arts Program in the Humanities at the University of Chicago in 2014 with a concentration in poetry and creative writing, and co-edits the cross-genre, collaborative literary journal OF ZOOS, as well as Unfree Verse, an anthology of Singapore poetry in received and nonce forms. His first full-length collection, Deeds of Light, is forthcoming. Find out more at tsehaoguang.com.