Writing Matters: In conversation with Felix Cheong
By Mitali Chakravarty
He wears a tattoo of a typewriter on his right arm as a mark of his trade, as his “stigma”. He wrote a poem about his tattoo. He writes what he believes, no longer with a typewriter (as he did when he started to write in the 1980s). This is a writer, who, despite staying rooted to his surroundings, sees no boundaries in literature. He reads what comes his way and does not specifically think of literature in terms of regions, like ASEAN. That writing is universal and remains borderless is well borne out in his interview as in his writing and the influences they have had…
The author of 13 books across multiple genres, including five volumes of poetry, two children’s detective novels and a trilogy of humour stories, Felix Cheong has been invited to perform his works at international festivals all over the world, including Edinburgh, West Cork, Austin, Christchurch, Sydney, Bangalore, Hong Kong and Ubud. Cheong is the winner of Singapore’s National Arts Council’s Young Artist Award in 2000, and holds a Master’s in Creative Writing from the University of Queensland. In 2010, he was named by Readers Digest as the 29th Most Trusted Singaporean. He is currently an adjunct lecturer with the University of Newcastle, Murdoch University, Singapore University of Social Sciences and LASALLE College of the Arts. Felix Cheong’s latest collection of poetry is B-Sides and Backslides: 1986-2018.
Mitali: You have been writing poetry for more than two decades now. What made you start writing poetry?
Felix: Like sex, you always remember the first time. It began innocuously enough when I was in junior college (high school in Singapore). As a geeky teen blessed with all the social skills of a wallflower, I could only impress a classmate, on whom I had a crush, by writing her a Valentine’s Day poem. It was handwritten on a card I had made; such was the entrepreneurial spirit I had back then. But as Auden famously says, ‘poetry makes nothing happen’; so nothing happened. In any case, it was bad poetry at its finest hour, which I would have cheerfully disowned now!
Mitali: In your latest book, B-Sides and Backslides, you have spoken of how both T. S. Eliot and Beatles fascinated you. What is it in T. S. Eliot’s poetry or in the Beatles’ compositions that had this effect on you? Do they still draw you as much or do you feel that you have got over your fascination? In “We are the Salary Men”, you say that while ‘We may be the hollow men but the least we own is our honesty to know…’
Felix: Beatles’ music was instrumental in making me pay close attention to words and by extension, poetry. I remember spending hours – talk about the devil finding work for idle hands to do! – trying to write down what they were singing (thank goodness there was no Google back then). Through the sheer act of transcription, I had my first lesson in poetic rhythm. I loved – and still do – the musicality of their lyrics, such as “A Day in the Life”, “Eleanor Rigby” and “She’s Leaving Home”.
Eliot’s poetry, particularly “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, affected me in a different way when I read it at the still-impressionable age of 22. It sprung me into a modern diction that spoke to my sense of alienation. It was also Catholic in the way it articulated spiritual emptiness. I recall memorising parts of the poem while preparing for my first-year university exams. His cadences and imagery would imprint themselves on my early poetry.
Mitali: Some of your early poetry is written in a style similar to T. S. Eliot’s. You have poetry addressed to Philip Larkin. You also have poems about/ addressed to stars, like Bob Dylan, the suicide of Kurt Cobain and David Bowie and poetry as a reaction to news. Would you say all these artistes and the media influenced your writing?
Felix: Larkin was another of my poetry mentors (as was Dylan Thomas). As a young TV producer with MediaCorp (then known as Singapore Broadcasting Corporation) in the early 1990s, I had met and interviewed Kurt Cobain (he appeared stoned out of his mind, most of the time!) when Nirvana was in town to promote their album, Never Mind. I saw Bob Dylan live in Brisbane in 2001. And my first-ever concert experience was David Bowie’s Serious Moonlight show at the old National Stadium.
In many ways, these writers and artistes were checkpoints in my growth as a poet, but they were not the only ones. Over the years, I must have assimilated influences from all sorts of sources, from music to film, from newspapers to poetry.
Mitali: At a point, you delved into automatic writing and surrealism. Why? What made you drop that?
Felix: Automatic writing was just one hook to fish ideas from the well in my head. It was an interesting experiment but what came out was not necessarily what I wanted to say to the world. It also wasn’t terribly coherent, so I dropped the technique after that first trial by error, though I often introduce it to my creative writing students as an exercise in getting over the proverbial writer’s block (does it come with block numbers)?
Mitali: Are your poems, as Wordsworth said, ‘a spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’ or do you premeditate?
Felix: My more recent poems, such as “Heads Up, Here They Come” and “Mediating Social Media”, were an attempt at spontaneity, letting one phrase or image suggest another, and another, and then another, until a daisy chain of associations took prisoner of the page. When I had taken it as far as it could go – allowing the inmates free rein of the asylum, as it were – I would then bring the poem to heel, finding natural line breaks and structuring the lines into order. I suppose there’s some semblance of automatic writing here – chaotic order or ordered chaos, if you like.
By and large, my writing tends to be a continuous process of layering. It begins with doodles, phrases or images that I write by long hand, which I then draft again and again until clarity finds its own way through. As my mentor, Singapore poet Lee Tzu Pheng, once told me: ‘If you have something to say, your words will find a way of saying it’.
Mitali: Can writing poetry be taught? Do workshops and creative writing classes help make a poet? What is your opinion?
Felix: Three components, I feel, make and mould a poet (or a writer in any genre, for that matter): talent, life and skill. Talent is innate – your facility with language, your sensitivity to its nuances. Life is your own experiences that percolate into what you want to say that’s worth saying. And skill is what creative writing workshops teach – tricks of the trade, genres and how to bend them, etc. In this sense, creative writing workshops – and even degrees in creative writing – do have their purpose in making you a better writer. They help you intellectualise the process, so that you are more aware that writing is more than just ‘a spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’.
Mitali: You have shuttled between Singapore and Australia with your muse. Which place and what circumstances inspire you the most?
Felix: I lived in Brisbane only for 18 months between 2001 and 2002, so I wouldn’t say my muse shuttled between Singapore and Australia (it would’ve been very expensive for her!). In fact, after the publication of my third volume, Broken by the Rain (essentially my master’s thesis) in 2003, Australia hardly featured in my imaginative landscape, other than as a nostalgic total recall.
Mitali: You have both serious and humorous poetry to your credit. Which type do you prefer? Is it easier to do one type over the other or to slide equally fluidly between the two?
Felix: Life – and love – would be all too grim if levity didn’t intervene! I don’t prefer serious poetry over humorous – it’s like asking if I like the heads of a coin better than its tail. Or if I prefer hacking off my left hand over my right. Both define what I do and who I am. The treatment – to adopt a serious or light-hearted tone – depends on the subject or theme.
Mitali: This November, your poem, “Till Love do us Part”, was performed at the Singapore Writers Festival to music set by Nat Ng, a musicologist, and Mervin Wong, a multidisciplinary artist. Do you normally have someone set your poetry to music or do you create the tune yourself?
Felix: The process is collaborative and more complicated than simply having the two musicians, Mervin and Nat, set my poetry to music (I don’t write music, so I couldn’t have written the tune myself). It’s apt that we call our art collective ‘Osmosis’ – we feed off each other’s creative energy. And most of the music is reworked and adapted from canons of classical music, from Brahms to Debussy, from Beethoven to Gluck.
Sometimes, Nat would suggest working with a classical piece – in the case of “Till Love Do Us Part”, it was Argentinian tango composer Astor Piazzolla’s “Ave Maria” – and I would listen to it again and again and pen a poem to its rhythm, locating spaces between bars where my words could roam or find a home. The three of us would gather at Mervin’s flat (which has one bedroom room converted into a soundproof studio) and jam. He would suggest making tweaks – he also plays the viola in “Till Love Do Us Part” – adding soundscapes or flourishes to sculpt the piece into a more well-rounded sound. If need be, I would rewrite or drop lines, to make the story flow better.
Other times, the two musicians would take one of my pieces already published, such as “There’ll be Time Yet”, and work something around it.
Whichever way the process goes, emanating from music or poetry, we make sure the piece tells a story, that neither the words overwhelm the music nor vice-versa. It’s been an eye (or should I say, ear)-opening experience, collaborating with two wonderfully-talented musicians who have pushed my poetry in directions I wouldn’t have thought possible.
Mitali: You have written detective novels for children. Can you tell us a little about them? What are the different genres you have explored through your writing?
Felix: My two detective novels, The Case of the Moaning Mansion and The Case of the Phantom Woman, which have been reissued under Popular Bookstore’s own imprint, were first published in 2006 and 2007 respectively as The Call from Crying House and The Woman in the Last Carriage. They were commissioned by the National Resilience Division, under the then Ministry of Information and the Arts. (Yes, I admit. I do write propaganda!)
I wanted the stories to be more than just spreading the message about ‘Total Defence’ ( a Singapore government initiative for holistic defence, adapted from similar systems in European countries) and its role in tackling terrorism. I wanted to hark back to the detective novels I had grown up with, from Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators to Hardy Boys. And I wanted them to be more than just page-turners, but embedded in the local context and in Singapore history.
So the two books are set around the East Coast area (such as Siglap, Marine Parade and Katong). I had also spent many productive hours going through the National Library archives to look at newspaper clippings from the 1960s and 70s.
Other genres I have explored: flash fiction (the Singapore Siu Dai trilogy), short stories (Vanishing Point), children’s picture book (Use Your Head and the upcoming Do You See What I See?) and non-fiction (Different). I have also written a play, One Night Standing, which was staged with puppets at the 2004 Singapore Arts Festival fringe.
Mitali: Do you always publish what you write or is there more writing like B – Sides And Backslides that we can look forward to later?
Felix: A writer, like a magician, shouldn’t perform the same trick twice. The novelty wears thin and wears out fast. Do it once, do it well, then do away with it. So another collection of B-Sides and Backslides is not on the cards. In any case, I’ve always believed a writer ought to do something different with every book he publishes, learn new ways of surprising himself, test the limits of his craftsmanship.
Mitali: Do you see yourself as a poet or a fiction writer or both?
Felix: That’s like asking me if I see myself as a father or a husband! I’m both and poorer for it if I chose one over the other. I see fiction and poetry (as well as children’s writing and non-fiction as well) as different rooms in my head. I open the different doors when I need to.
Mitali: Where do you see yourself in ASEAN literature?
Felix: That’s a tough one to answer. I wouldn’t pretend I know much of Asean literature, since my reading has always been Western-centric.
Felix Cheong sees himself as a “branded” writer, he had said in an earlier interview. Perhaps the boundaries that have been drawn physically by politics, business and governance needs do not really affect a writer who draws from whatever moves his muse. He remains above it as a vendor of words. Felix wears the tattoo to prove his point. Here is the poem that goes with the tattoo.
Chronicle of a Tattoo of a Typewriter
By Felix Cheong
Father, I have branded myself as
yours, on a Sunday,
a day of rest. The ink,
welling too long in capillaries,
has poured out of membrane,
memories, found its own pen, finally,
a striking expression on skin,
stigma, stamp, keys that deliver
and open your letters, every stroke
like a keyhole to your face,
a typeface I can apprehend,
where my fingertips move to seize it
permanent, as do these lines,
image imperfect. I am as
you have meant me to be.
Mitali Chakravarty writes essays, short stories, poetry and reviews. Her bylines have appeared in The ‘Times of India’, ‘Pioneer’, ‘Statesman’ and ‘Hindustan Times’. Her poetry has appeared as part of two anthologies, ‘In Reverie’ (2016) and ‘An Anthology of Indian Poetry in English’ (1984). She has a book online, ‘In the Land of Dragons’ (2014, ISBN; 978-1490704333). She blogs at 432m.