By Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé
Let’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?
Wow, well start with the easy questions, eh? Well, I suppose, thinking of Rilke—whose poems and letters I’ve always loved but who I would sadly come to find out (in that way we eventually kill our heroes) was a kind of a pretentious deadbeat who shirked his responsibilities and mooched off the aristocratic patrons of the Hapsburg Empire in pursuit of his “pure” art—I have gone into myself and found that the need to write has spread its roots into my heart. I don’t know if I would die if forbidden to write, but having dug deeply, that mythic Rilkean imperative of “I must” is there, for better or worse. I write because I feel compelled to describe what I’ve seen and touched and tasted, the losses I’ve tallied, the places and people who’ve inspired me, all in pursuit of trying to better understand myself as a bicultural human being at the beginning of a new millennium. Those marks of signification help me fix the flux into something that might resemble, if not the answers, then at least the questions that are most relevant to ask when delving into the nature of our shared reality.
Tell us about your most recent book or writing/editing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?
Well I should mention two projects that achieved closure around the same time. One is the anthology I co-edited with Alvin Pang, entitled “UNION: 15 Years of Drunken Boat and 50 Years of Writing from Singapore” [https://www.ethosbooks.com.sg/products/union] which encompasses two very disparate bodies of work, one from the online journal of the arts I founded in 1999 and one from the Singaporean city-state founded as a modern republic in 1965. The main purpose behind this project was to highlight the subconscious connections that writers might share, who on the surface might not have anything at all in common. To view the Malay Peninsula through the prism of experimental poetics, then to stand on the other side of the lens and look back. I’m particularly excited that I can introduce to an American readership the really wonderful work happening in Singapore. I also just recently translated the 9th century female Tamil poet/saint Andal with Priya Sarukkai Chabria [http://zubaanbooks.com/shop/andal-the-autobiography-of-a-goddess/], and this ancient bhakti poet writes remarkable sensual yet devotional work that is as relevant to our time as it was to hers. Her fierce longing takes the shape of the corporeal body but transcends in such a way that she is continually reaching beyond herself in the way true mystics do. And because Tamil is my mother tongue, it was an important project for me, especially to resuscitate Andal not as a scholar’s creation but as a poet’s, even when that meant taking some liberties with her work, for we hoped to make her sing in a contemporary English idiom.
Describe your writing aesthetic.
If I was visual artist, I might be Gerhard Richter, he of those photorealistic blurs alongside those scraped and layered abstractions. That range, that impulse never to settle on one unity of style, when it might lead to a calcification of perception, of a repetition of motive, has never interested in me. Instead I am the formalist who believes in roughening up his enjambments; the postmodern archaic who loves forms that are simultaneously contemporary and ancient, like the zuihitsu and the cento, collage-forms and remixes that are many centuries old. I believe in a geometry of language, poems sculpted until they sit in the palm like a desk clock. But I also believe in those wild, undetermined screes of language that accumulate upon the slope of speech like some alien transmission—which they are—some spiritual guidance given the form of a salamander that skitters on the page. I believe in translation and transmission, vision and revision, and mad distillation so that nothing can be pared away without collapsing the entire tower.