Proust Questionnaire: 17 questions with Teng Qian Xi
By Yeow Kai Chai
Reading Teng Qian Xi's verse is to face a mirror – in the reflection is a familiar face with unexpected contours.
This is the main takeaway one gets from her poetry collection, They hear salt crystallising, which was shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize in 2012. It contains some of Singapore's most honest poems about the constant struggle between personal fulfilment and public demands, navigating achievements and sacrifices in the larger scheme of things.
Among works by Singaporean poets who deftly weave national discourse with personal confession, hers hits a nerve with its plainspoken calm. Whether appraising the country's language policy or interrogating her own privileged education, nothing is spared her astute, patient eye.
Born in Singapore, she graduated from Columbia University with a degree in Comparative Literature and Society. Her poetry has been featured in various platforms, ranging from anthologies such as Over There: Poems from Singapore and Australia, Language for a New Century, to physical venues such as the London Underground and the Singapore MRT. Her most recent work can be found in Prelude and the Transpacific Literary Project.
Her translations of Tan Chee Lay's poems have appeared in journals such as Some Kind of Beautiful Signal: Two Lines Writing in Translation Volume 17, as well as Asymptote. She has also written political criticism for Singaporean publications including Today, BigO, and s/pores. She primarily works as an educator focusing on English Literature.
1. What are you reading right now?
I've become interested in reading more politically-conscious film criticism, so I've started on The Dream Life by J. Hoberman. I also do a lot of rereading – recently I've been revisiting Open Letters by Václav Havel for a political piece and a play I'm working on. The climate of fear he talks about in 'The Power of the Powerless' is still so relevant to the increasing authoritarianism of the current Singapore government. I've also been rereading W. H. Auden's The Sea and the Mirror (it feels like a new read, since I read it for the first time more than a decade ago and have forgotten most of it) because I'll be teaching The Tempest to one of my students this year.
Over the last two months, I've found myself reaching for Partly by Rae Armantrout and Lorine Niedecker's collected poems and visiting the Los Angeles Review of Books and the Boston Review websites on a regular basis.
2. If you were a famous literary character in a novel, play, or poem, who would you be, and why?
I'd probably be Scripps from The History Boys, minus the religiosity – from my schooldays, I was never the one embroiled in the dramas happening around me, but stood on the sidelines trying to make sense of them, and writing it all down. In junior college (the last two years of high school), I was also in a programme that groomed a small group of students for Oxbridge, so I could identify a lot with the boys in the play.
3. What is the greatest misconception about you?
People think I'm extremely bilingual because I translate Chinese poetry, but my spoken and written Chinese isn't great. I find it much easier to read or listen to Mandarin Chinese. This means I can read most texts and go for fairly academic lectures, but I'd find it difficult to discuss them afterwards.
4. Name one living author and one dead author you identify with most, and tell us why.
I think the living author I identify with most is Alison Bechdel – the books I've read are one of the main frameworks I use to understand my past, and I've been journalling since I was six. I also share her fascination with the quotidian details of the past, including my own – what I wore, my routines, the objects I used on a regular basis, and so on. I can't think of any dead author I identify strongly with.
5. Do you believe in writer's block? If so, how do you overcome it?
I went for a good eight years without writing anything creative, so I certainly believe it exists. Other commitments consumed all my emotional and creative energy, so I didn't know what else to do besides wait it out. I think that if I hit another block, I'd try to get around it by stuffing my brain with the genres I'm blocked in, and use writing prompts.
6. What qualities do you admire most in a writer?
Caring that systemic inequalities permeate literature and literary infrastructures, a willingness to participate in civic life, being friendly to their readers, a readiness to admit to ignorance, and a willingness to leave their artistic comfort zone.
7. What is one trait you deplore most in writing or writers?
I can't stand writing that objectifies marginalised groups and relies on stereotypes. I was going to list a few examples of tropes I hate, but the list got too long. I can't stand writers who are preoccupied with accumulating publication credits, residencies, invitations to literary festivals, networking, etc.
8. Can you recite your favourite line from a literary work or a piece of advice from a writer?
I think you're really asking me what my favourite line is, and whether I can recite it? In any case, I can't really recite this quote from Louise Glück's long poem 'Landscape':
All your life you wait for the propitious time.
Then the propitious time
reveals itself as action taken.
I can, however, recite my favourite piece of advice from a writer – Maya Angelou once said, "Never make someone a priority when all you are to them is an option." This has helped me shed unequal relationships of all kinds.
9. Complete this sentence: Few people know this, but I…
love reading Harry Potter fanfiction. My favourite Harry Potter fanfic writers make the wizarding world's politics, culture, and main characters much more interesting than the originals.
10. At the movies, if you have to pick a comedy, a tragedy, or an action thriller to watch, which will you go for, and why?
A tragedy, because they make me interrogate how I live my life.
11. What is your favourite word, and what is your least favourite one?
Favourite: "nuanced." Least favourite: "nice."
12. Write a short-short story in three lines that include the following three words: "brine", "galaxy" and "eraser."
Nobody cared why he stopped declaring on Facebook that cheeses soaked in brine and kneaded erasers were the best and that galaxy prints were too mainstream, until a cousin posted that he had been found dead in his flat.
13. What object is indispensable to you when you write?
A pen. Sometimes the ability to edit what I write on my laptop makes it hard to catch my ideas, and it's easier to surround words with possible substitutes when writing in longhand.
14. What is the best time of the day for writing?
I get more ideas at night if I'm at home. If I'm out and about, my mind is most lively in the late morning or afternoon.
15. If you had a last supper, which three literary figures, real or fictional, would you invite to the soiree, and why?
I'd invite you, Philip Holden, and Jen Crawford. If it's my last meal, I'd rather invite writers who are also good friends!
16. Since your debut poetry collection They hear salt crystallising in 2010, you have done English translations of Chinese poetry, written verse which is more formally challenging, and are inching towards long-form commentary. Creatively, what fuels you these days?
I've actually been translating Chinese poetry since 2002, but I didn't submit my translations to journals until several years afterwards. Right now I'm very preoccupied with education and the power dynamics within academic institutions and (platonic) teacher-student relationships. I'm also attempting to raise new questions about structural inequality in some of my projects.
17. What would you write on your own tombstone?
Is it terribly narcissistic to quote from my own work? I think these lines from my poem 'Reconfigurations' reflect what I do when I read or engage with art and people, and what I hope my spirit will continue doing in my ideal afterlife:
Circling through worlds
QLRS Vol. 17 No. 1 Jan 2018
Gazing at glass years