Poets have been quite fond of disavowing their influences—who or what shaped you creatively?
Loneliness. As a faggoty kid entering National Service at eighteen, I grew so isolated and depressed (having survived a Chinese Catholic family and all the crap that such an upbringing inserts into one’s psychology) that I moved on quickly from my earlier dream of becoming a horror-novelist like Clive Barker. Each quivering boy afloat inside his bulky green uniform was given a notebook to jot down lessons about weaponry and strategies during warfare—it was all a crock of shit. Instead I wrote little naval-gazing, self-pitying notes that a friend told me were actually poems—more like whiny doggerel which helped me to cope nonetheless with being sad all the time. I was, and still am, quite fond of what I wrote. Later I read Anne Sexton and Dennis Cooper whose poems taught me how to write with a darker intensity and shimmer.
No major influences within your own country, Singapore—that place which looks like a thriving metropolis on the outside, but which isn’t so different from North Korea on the inside?
Culturally and ideologically, we are mostly indifferent, or secretly afraid of change. Collectively, my fellow countryfolk inspire this image of a bored, high-class prostitute in my mind—legs open, accepting all manner of gifts, then yawning and rolling over to nap, muttering sleepily about how expensive everything is these days, or how repressive our leaders can be. There are definitely writers like Yong Shu Hoong or the late Arthur Yap who helped me to awaken to the possibility of something more than a blinkered life as a Singaporean. Steering clear of anger or sentimentality, they showed me that more meaningful and ambiguous perspectives were ever-present, and that they could be found without having to dish out blame on either complacent politicians or rigid social structures.
What do you think of contemporary poetry in general, especially in places like the States of the U.K.?
I don’t know if I like the word “contemporary” anymore. I think anything that is still relevant today is “contemporary”—that includes a lot of things. That said, I find a lot of so-called “contemporary poetry” these days very irrelevant. They don’t tackle honest or heartfelt things enough. American poetry is becoming increasingly painful to read—all very referential, dense and stuffed with verbal quirks, the weirder the better, while poetry in the U.K. has too many plants and animals in it.
Maybe that is just what people want to read.
Maybe. I’m glad I’m not one of them though—does that make me arrogant?
Let’s move on. I heard that you sing too. Why have you never thought of writing lyrics or whole songs?
I love to cover other people’s songs; I turn these songs into damaged but hopeful and lyrical confessions. I like to think my poems are like that, in that I am “covering” real-life, carving personal events into something more.
What has changed in your writing over the last ten years?
On one hand, you could say that my writing is becoming less “confessional” over time; my earlier poems about family and intimate relationships have given way to more “wandering” poems about desire or the values of emptiness and beauty. On the other hand, I could argue that the confessional voice is still there, just slightly buried—it is all still going on from inside my mind with its perverse particularities or private details strung out for viewing along the lines of desperately-woven sentences.
What are you working on now?
Rants. It’s the way I think—whenever I bother to think about my life, or life around me—and I always reflect the way I think in how I write. Honesty is a corridor I’m lost in.
Can I add you on Facebook?
Sure, but these days you would only see Youtube-clips of music videos, live performances, or entire operatic scenes on my FB—they occupy my days when I need a distraction from rubbish-people (there are so many of them).
Cyril Wong (1977) is the author of nine collections of poetry in Singapore. Internationally, his poems have appeared in Atlanta Review, Fulcrum, Cider Press Review and Asheville Poetry Review. He received the Singapore Literature Prize in his country and has been a featured poet at the Edinburgh International Book Festival and the Hong Kong International Literary Festival; and is the founder of SOFTBLOW, an online international poetry journal.His Still Flight (2005) was first staged as a one-woman monologue in English.