The Lounge Chair Interview: 10 Questions with Yeow Kai Chai

By Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé

Yeow Kai ChaiLet’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?

To rewire DNA.

Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?

I’ve just finished a quintet of short stories for a collaborative project with three other authors, Yong Shu Hoong, Heng Siok Tian and Phan Ming Yen. We went to Angkor Wat and decided to write prose passages based on a set of parameters. I haven’t touched prose for some years and the genre has helped open up new avenues of expression. The stories I’ve written have a bit of David Lynch, Wong Kar-wai and the TV drama Lost into the mix. I had fun.

While awaiting the publication of my third poetry collection, I’m also starting work on my fourth. It’s pivoted on ideas about transformation and fluid identities. I’m particularly stoked after a visit to the Museum of Natural History at the University of Iowa last year. The stuffed animals, the intricate lifelike dioramas, the reimagined climes… they triggered something in me. I was there for the fall residency of the Iowa Writing Program and met so many kindred spirits too.

Describe your writing aesthetic.

Questioning. Why bother restating what is already known? I write what I don’t know. Hopefully the unknown unknowns.

Who are your favorite authors?

Two Johns: Ashbery and Yau. Ashbery was polarising right from the start when W.H. Auden, the editor of the Yale Series of Younger Poets, selected his first book, Some Trees, in 1956 as the recipient of the Yale Younger Poets Prize, almost begrudgingly. Now in his late eighties, Ashbery continues to baffle people.

As for Yau, who is part-Chinese, there’s levity and seriousness in his surrealistic adventures. I like the fact that he’s stuck to his guns, toying with form, genre and racial compartments.

What’s the most challenging piece of writing you’ve attempted? Tell us why.

Verse about Singapore. I’m usually wary about poems that wax lyrical about this place we called home. It seems so easy for many folk, but to write about it with coruscating wit, dispassion and originality… Well, that’s a different kettle of fish. I’ve written a few pieces so far, and I’m still on the fence about them.

What’s your idea of bliss?

Being at home. Family, friends. Not having to put up fronts.

What makes you angry, and I mean all-out-smash-the-china raving mad?

People blessed with the gift of the gab, but using it for spurious ends.

What book/s would you take with you on a three-month retreat in the boondocks?

Christian Bök’s Crystallography, Cole Swensen’s Gravesend, Tracey Thorn’s Naked at the Albert Hall, anything by critic Marjorie Perloff.

Your house is burning down. What’s the most important thing you’d want to take with you?

My family aside, my unfinished manuscript. And maybe the vinyl signed by Jens Lekman.

Describe your life philosophy. In a sentence.

Don’t take anything or anyone for granted.

Author Biography:

Yeow Kai Chai has two poetry collections, Secret Manta (2001), which was adapted from an entry shortlisted for the 1995 Singapore Literature Prize, and Pretend I’m Not Here (2006). A co-editor of Quarterly Literary Review Singapore (QLRS), he reviews music for The Straits Times.