The Lounge Chair Interview: 10 Questions with Anne Lee Tzu Pheng

By Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé

Anne Lee Tzu Pheng PixLet’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?

To discover what I am thinking and then, sometimes, to know why. By thinking I mean, also, what I am feeling, with regard to what the words excavate. There have been long periods when I was not writing anything creative. Those times seem to me quite lost, as if I have not existed. No other activity gives me an experience of being thoroughly grounded in my being. This is a relatively recent realization. And so, I think I write because it is to feel more alive. Don’t get me wrong; it is not always a conscious choice, and most of the time I am too lazy or cowardly to make the effort! I think human beings are mostly wired to live on the surface 40% of our being; it takes a lot to dive into the nether 60%. But when we do, we begin to know who and why we are.

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

The most recent work was the most fun thing I’ve ever put together. The book called Standing In The Corner, poems from a real childhood was published last year (2014). This is the only time I set out deliberately to make a collection. It started quite by chance when something joggled memory and made me realize that many experiences of my childhood had to do with an element of stress, surprise, or humour. It was the humour part that especially motivated me. I found the style of the writing vastly different from my usual, and a natural aptitude in handling rhythms that were metrically pronounced.

At one point I wondered who I was writing for! It wasn’t for a child reader; it was more for an adult who had grown up like me in the 1950s – but would that adult see the point of the simple language and nursery-like rhythms? In the end I thought I would just entertain myself! I wasn’t trying to “achieve” anything but to take a romp back into an earlier time over which I now seemed to have more control through capturing it in words! It was a chance to master a time when I had felt particularly lacking in control of events and at the mercy of other people. Joining the dots to make sense of those earlier experiences actually activated my sense of the comic which was what probably saved me from being a sociopath. As a child I often felt at odds with what was happening around me or was expected of me.

Describe your writing aesthetic.

This is very hard to answer. So much is going on when I write that I don’t even consciously intend. I can only speak of a certain degree of awareness that is at work when I am writing: a preference for directness and simplicity, not for any reason but that they aid the clarity I strive for – clarity of thought and expression and above all, what I can only define as a concern with the intelligibly human. I’d write so that the reader can recognize this without being made to feel s/he has to navigate distracting displays of show-offmanship, self-indulgent meanderings, and irrelevant linguistic puzzles, just because the work is meant to be creative. I’m afraid that displays of ostentatious brilliance, even if genuine as art, tend to push poetry into an exclusive and esoteric niche that builds in most readers not only bewilderment but antipathy. “Clean” writing appeals to me, by which I mean a style of expression that sounds simply human.

Who are your favorite authors?

I generally have favourite books or poems than authors; but if I had to name authors I would include: George Herbert, G M Hopkins, Emily Dickinson, W B Yeats, Elizabeth Jennings, Dylan Thomas, Seamus Heaney, Thomas Merton, John O’Donohue, J R R Tolkien, John Berger, Dostoevsky; quite a few authors for children, and quite often somebody called Anon. These poets (Merton also wrote poetry, but it’s his prose works that I love) I could never tire of reading because among other things their writings, even the prose, all have rhythms which I find exceptionally pleasing.

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

“’My Country and My People’’’, arguably the poem for which I am best known and which has put me in the history books for Sing-Lit. I don’t know whether boon or bane…. It attracted so much attention that I was really surprised, for though it involved possibly my first real struggle with a huge question of identity, it was also written at a time when I was very young at the craft. Thereafter there were rather mixed reactions to it, though it was chiefly admired (even now, apparently!) and then in the early 1970s it was banned from the airwaves, much to my astonishment. The reason was never disclosed, at least not to me. The poem, necessary as it was at the time to address a personal dilemma, hung like an albatross around my neck for years because of the many comments on it by readers, most of them complimentary, even though some had obviously never read the poem, or who were unskilled readers!

What’s your idea of bliss?

Working on a poem – and I do mean working, which is total concentration to the exclusion of other concerns (“flow” I think is the word for it), but at the same time also consciously letting go, to let the mind find where it wants to take the writing. This is the hardest part of the process, and the ‘bliss’ intensifies when I realize the poem is a viable entity, that it is becoming a poem, quite apart from what it has been yielding in meaning, significance, articulation, self-discovery, as I’ve been working on it.

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

Quite honestly, I don’t remember ever having experienced such anger, even at those times when, objectively speaking, I should have been extremely angry. I am upset by unkindness of people towards people (and animals), and by downright unintelligent parenting of children, but much of the time I am aware of the brokenness and imperfection in people, including my self, so who am I to take it out on them? I might do something to express anger, but it wouldn’t involve destroying anything. I might go and write about it though.

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

The Book of Psalms, which holds the whole gamut of emotions a human being could express – the Psalms would say for me anything I’d want to say, better than I can. And it is a book to savour, to reflect on, to deal with the deepest thoughts anyone could have about life. And I would bring several un-lined notebooks in which to write and draw, of course!

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

This must seem so puerile to tech-savvy people, but it would be my little bag of thumb drives on which my files are stored – photo albums, important correspondence, work completed, on-going, and to be done. Fortunately I do not now have a cat; otherwise the cat would come first. And if I did have a cat, as a precaution I’d store all my files in cyberspace – though as a Jurassic being I naturally am nervous about trusting to the safety of that!

Describe your life philosophy. In a sentence.

Do as you would be done by, and so, always, kindness, kindness, and more kindness.

Author Biography:

ANNE LEE Tzu Pheng, internationally published, has seven personal collections of poetry, a book of short reflections on faith and writing, and Soul’s Festival, a reissue of her first four collections. Known for its clarity and understated humour, her work has won numerous awards including the Singapore Cultural Medallion, the S.E.A. WRITE Award, the Gabriela Mistral Award (from Chile), and the Montblanc-CFA Literary Award. Lee has mentored many of Singapore’s younger poets.