Singapore Author Desmond Kon’s Four-Region Sweep at the 2016 USA Regional Excellence Book Awards
The winning titles include: Phat Planet Cometh (Glass Lyre Press), The Wrong/Wrung Side of Love (Glass Lyre Press), Singular Acts of Endearment (Grey Sparrow Press), Babel Via Negativa (Ethos Books), I Didn’t Know Mani Was A Conceptualist (Math Paper Press), Sanctus Sanctus Dirgha Sanctus (Red Wheelbarrow Books), and Eye/Feel/Write: Experiments in Ekphrasis (Squircle Line Press). In fact, had the anthology Ars Moriendi won under the category of Anthology (Southeast Region) instead of its placing as a finalist – Clay Stafford’s Killer Nashville Noir: Cold-Blooded bagged first place – Desmond would have placed wins in all five territories.
In total, this veritable coup for the author looks at a sweep of seven wins under Adult Fiction, Anthology, Poetry, and Spirituality in four territories (Northeast, West, Midwest, Southwest) at the Awards.
The five USA Regions comprise the following: Southeast (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia); Northeast (Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington DC); Southwest (Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas); Midwest (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, Wisconsin); and West (California, Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Wyoming, Washington).
According to its awards criteria, the USA Regional Excellence Book Awards recognizes and rewards excellence in books that take readers into the heart of a “place”, delivering the experience of a locale, “whether it’s the glitz of Hollywood of any era, the historic sense of New England, the glamour of Beverly Hills, the grandeur of one of the great plains states, or the high-powered bustle of a New York city”. The awards competition, USA REBA for short, is open to all print books written in English.
Kitaab talks to Desmond about these wins and more.
I’m ecstatic. Over the moon. And above all, very grateful to all the people who have believed in my work and helped me on this journey. In particular, the lovely people from the various presses and/or organizations, like Ami Kaye, Diane Smith, Fong Hoe Fang, Ng Kah Gay, Adeleena Araib, Kenny Leck, Renée Ting, Savinder Kaur, Chris Mooney-Singh, Lee Poh Wah, Gabriel Lim, Ng Tze Yong. The lovely people at the National Arts Council, who have provided such wonderful support for my various writing endeavours. And everyone who has given their time and energy to the making of these books, from penning cover praise to helping with distribution and marketing, you know who you are (and how deeply grateful I am).
And readers, of course. What would writers be without readers who take a leap of faith with our language, our words?
You must have been surprised at the haul of multiple accolades. Pick the few which were particularly important to you, and tell us why?
I am just immensely grateful for the recognition. I read it as an industry nod to my work, to say I should keep at such a writing/editing practice (and all the crazy work that comes with it). The organizers emailed me personally, and commented that my work was “truly beautiful”, which was very encouraging and heartwarming. It goes a good and long way in making me feel my writing voice is being heard, is managing to articulate something that remains important to me as a storyteller.
With the anthologies, it’s really a shared accolade, with all the amazing contributors whose lovely work graced the hundreds of pages. Hats off to their unbelievably beautiful voices!
I like it that the new aesthetic I worked on the last year has been well-received. This aesthetic happens in the poetry collections The Wrong/Wrung Side of Love, and Phat Planet Cometh. Dipping into the realm of multiverses which undergird my oeuvre, the poems in both these books comprise single-lined clauses, phrases, fragments and interjections. The end-stopped line is a technique used throughout, displacing the enjambment seen in much poetry. Quotation marks are also intentionally absent, as a way to question the presence of voice and speech acts within the text. Who speaks, and what is the nature of that oration, that articulation, that utterance? What kind of narratorial presence do we witness? That is how I’d like these poetic lines to involve and engage the reader.
You’re presently the NTU-NAC National Writer in Residence. Tell us a bit about it.
A residency is an amazing opportunity for any writer. It’s a rare and precious time that allows for deep immersion in one’s own writing project. The English Division at NTU is simply wonderful. So welcoming, so generous, so giving. It’s the go-to place for many poets and fictionists serious about the craft – and the writing faculty is forward-looking and dynamic. A total joy! The academic scholarship is diverse and exciting. It’s a real honour to be surrounded by people with such intriguing and important scholastic interests, and who approach the study of literature seriously, rigorously, graciously, playfully. All at once.
The teaching has been wonderfully gratifying. I absolutely love engaging with the very talented students. I’ve also been rethinking some of my pedagogical assumptions, and coming up with new ways of running a writing class. Apart from working on a manuscript of short fiction, I’ve been reading up lots on Samuel Beckett too, one of my all-time favourite writers. This is research for a new book, and I’m just lapping up the critical writing on Beckett’s body of work.
I just released a new poetry collection, Thirty-Seven Reasons Red Is Rad, and had a wonderful reading with old friend and funky poet Yeow Kai Chai (the very visionary director of the Singapore Writers Festival). Red Is Rad represents the first installment within the new Primer Life Series. The Primer Life Series is a suite of books that celebrates the shared text. Peppered with a prime number of poems, each collection features poems written up through eight devices: aphorism, anecdote, allegory, anaphora, envoi, ekphrasis, eclogue, and elegy.
On the left page reside the poems. The right page is left blank, merely subtitled “Dialogic Inscription”, as a nod to Bakhtin, and as an invitation to the reader to fill in the gaps, the existential caesurae, between the poems. From this peculiar hypothesis of the suppositional-collaborative, a conversation begins. It is a conversation that exists because authors exist, because readers exist. It is a conversation steeped in the dialogic imagination. In this first outing, all the poems extend the metaphor of red, in multiple iterations while invoking great writers the likes of Frost, Stendhal and the French Symbolists.
Tell us about any new projects we may look forward to.
I’m really excited about the upcoming Singapore Youth Festival, which celebrates its 50th Anniversary this year, right on the heels of SG50. I was commissioned to be the lyricist for the choral work to mark the occasion, which will be performed by school choirs across the country. The piece is titled “Voices in the Round”. The music has been composed, by the very talented Jeremiah Li Kai Han. He did a great experimental take on my lyric, and it’s a wild score. I love it completely, and am looking forward to hearing the choral performances.
In June, I’ll be performing at Poets Among The Stars, a special SWF POP event in partnership with Science Centre Singapore. Each of us invited artists have been asked to pen two original works after a preview of the planetarium show. It’s going to be a ball reading inside the Omni-Theatre dome.
Upon the kind invitation of Eric Tinsay Valles, this year’s National Poetry Festival will have me curating a special event at the National Museum, Growing Up in Post-War Singapore: How Poets Reauthor Art. What happens when art meets literature? How does a poet work with history, memory and voice while dialoguing with a work of art? Onboard this ekphrastic project are seven splendid writers – Christine Chia, Daryl W. J. Lim, David Wong Hsien Ming, Ian Chung, Samuel Caleb Wee, Shelly Bryant, and Tse Hao Guang. They have the tall task of penning new poems inspired by The National Museum’s Growing Up Gallery. Set against Singapore’s early history as a young nation, this gallery sheds light on social spaces like kampungs and schools in the tumultuous 1950s and 1960s. In these intimate spaces, children found friendship and play while growing up in Singapore post-WWII.
Interestingly, at this year’s Creative Arts Programme organized by the Ministry of Education, Kai Chai and Eric and I will reconvene for the panel, The Art of Dying: Compiling a Themed Anthology. The Ars Moriendi anthology will be given away to attendees. Commissioned by Lien Foundation and launched last year, Ars Moriendi commemorates the 600th year of the original Latin work, the first of its kind in western literature to provide guidance towards dying well. There’ll be readings from the book as well as a discussion on the challenges of working on a themed compilation.
Fingers crossed, I am likely to have a new poetry collection out in the second half of the year. It’s titled Mirror Image Mirage, a collection of Japanese forms that have been kept on the backburner till now. It’ll be published this year, as a commemorative tome to celebrate haiku master Yosa Buson’s birth tricentennial. Mirror Image Mirage gradually but methodically unravels the haiku through an interplay of “presence” and “absence” of language, as understood by Jacques Lacan as binary opposites undergirding our symbolic order of meaning-making. This book deliberately employs isms as counterpointing abstractions within haiku, this liberating stance establishing its point of departure from the contemporary five-lined gogyohka developed by Enta Kusakabe as well as Edward McFadden’s exhortation to readers to “think of haiku as mirage”.
Then there’s my new novel, Manic Piggy Dream Gurrl, which will very likely be published next year. So, I think I’m going to be kept very busy, and happily so. I couldn’t think of a better way to live my life. I am a happy writer with a blessed life, and my cup runneth over.