Twiddling the seriousness of the present
Tse Hao Guang on creating 'calligraphic' poems and not repeating himself
By Yeow Kai Chai
At first, The International Left-Hand Calligraphy Association (Tinfish Press, forthcoming 2023) may come across as something of an outlier, quite unexpected from poet Tse Hao Guang, considering how formally restrained his full-length debut, Deeds of Light (Math Paper Press, 2015), was. In fact, a reviewer in Entropy magazine called Deeds "well written and aesthetically assembled."
In comparison, the follow-up to the Singapore Literature Prize-shortlisted title is miles away from such politesse: Calligraphy is beautifully unpredictable, risky, quizzical, open-ended, and definitely, absolutely, not assembled to some set perimeters.
Whereas Deeds is named after Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's theory that "colours are the deeds and sufferings of light" —Tse refutes my romantic suspicion that it was a riff on his Chinese name — Calligraphy is named after a little-known support group for southpaws who want to try their hand at Chinese penmanship.
Such lovely volte-faces appear to be a trend among his cohort from the Ten Year Series, an editorial imprint managed by Sing Lit Station (SLS) and published by Math Paper Press. Daryl Lim Wei Jie has already made a substantive artistic leap with his second book, Anything But Human (Landmark Books, 2021), and we are primed for the next wave of artistic revolution from their peers.
A 2016 fellow of the University of Iowa's International Writing Program, and the 2018 National Writer-in-Residence at Nanyang Technological University, Tse has been actively engaged with the literary scene here and overseas.
Since 2014, he has served as the co-editor of OF ZOOS, an exciting, theme-based, cross-genre, collaborative online literary journal founded by Kimberley Lim in 2012. Aside from being the consulting editor of the multimedia educational resource poetry.sg, he organised the intensive editorial programme Manuscript Bootcamp for SLS from 2017 to 2019. He curated the multilingual poetry broadside exhibition 'Anything Also Can' for The Art House's Textures programme in 2019, and guest-edited a special issue of Minarets, a New Zealand journal of poetry and poetics in 2021, which connects contemporary poetry from Aotearoa and Singapore.
YKC: The International Left-Hand Calligraphy Association is such an artistic departure from your first full-length collection, Deeds of Light (2015). What triggered the change?
THG: First off, Kai Chai, thank you for taking the time with my poems and giving me an opportunity to reflect on them, something I haven't done much of for a while. I hope my thoughts are worth your time!
This very question is something I used to ask myself — it's been six years since I started writing the poems that are in this book, I started the year after Deeds of Light was published. I remember feeling like I needed such a departure, feeling perhaps like I would be doing a disservice to my first book if I found that I hadn't actually exhausted its concerns, if my next book was merely a rewrite or an extension.
I remember saying that I'd never write like that again, and I feel the same way with this book. I don't think I'll ever write like this again.
YKC: In the epigraph for your new book, you say The International Left-Hand Calligraphy Association is "a real place." In fact, you told me it was a non-profit organisation located in Katong Shopping Centre (KSC), a sleepy mall in the east of Singapore. Can you tell us how you actually discovered the place, and how it has inspired you second collection?
THG: I pass by KSC often, so I can't remember when I discovered the place exactly. A secret: I've never been, it's always looked closed! I find it utterly fascinating that people think the very nature of Chinese characters makes them impossible to write with the left hand, leading to someone finding it needful to create such an organisation to prove otherwise. It made a wonderful poem title.
The decision to also make this the book's title came much later, after a large portion of the poems had already been written. Daryl Lim suggested it to me actually, and I agreed because if you think about it, the poems themselves are concerned with the interplay between text and space/image, like calligraphy. Like a left-handed Chinese calligrapher, the poems are also interested in unexpected beauty and reframing what tradition could look like. In my case, in our case, I suppose tradition is "always-already" complicated.
YKC: You've always struck me as a very intellectual poet. Tonally, this collection is something else. It has a rather relaxed vibe, revelling in the senses. I especially enjoy the poem 'a thousand faint sounds, breaths of wind, warmth of sun' with the line: "the quivering tree/calmed by an inch/of cow grass." Was there a Eureka moment when you felt like you could tap into the sensuality in a creative way?
THG: I find it so interesting that you consider me intellectual, and that you contrast the intellect against the sensual when really they should be inseparable, especially in art. Perhaps it is my failure as a poet, having thought I was writing lyrically and even confessionally in Deeds of Light and thereafter realising that some saw me primarily as a formalist, and probably in a mildly derogatory way. Perhaps I am making my own assumptions as to what intellectual and sensual mean and how they translate to poetry.
I think the biggest difference between the way I wrote my poems in Deeds and Calligraphy is that in the former, I had a sense of what the structure of the poems would be even before I started writing. In the latter, I didn't. I've let lines — mine and others' — that stayed with me mutate — sometimes through free-writing, sometimes through some kind of haphazard research — into poems. Behind the relaxedness and the sensuality that you're picking up lies a lot of uncertain exploration on one hand and deliberate shaping on the other.
By now I think I can "think like a Calligraphy poem" more easily than before, but it did take some effort. There's something to be said about practice, both in terms of habits of thinking as well as sheer time spent pencil in hand (keyboard under finger…), that reveals how you need all of yourself to get anything worthwhile done—the mind that feels and thinks always and at the same time, the body that does the same.
YKC: The poems are constantly in motion, happily referencing and quoting AlphaGo, viral bots, as well as Anne Carson interviews and Stephen Chow filmography. The results are unexpected, a kind of e. e. cummings updated for the digital age. Walk us through the process of deciding what to include, and what to leave out.
THG: There's no science to this but instinct, and even then instinct that developed after a lot of simply not knowing what it was I was doing. Certainly it helps to read widely, holding a wide definition of "read." I need to be charmed or at least puzzled by the things I reference or quote, and I always reconfigure the references or quotes to my ends, perhaps as a way of attempting to make sense of the charm or puzzlement. The truth is much of this is deeply personal in that I learnt to trust my instincts that had not been fully-formed, to the point that even I cannot stand outside myself to offer any stronger principles for why this magpie found those shiny things for its nest.
YKC: The concept of "realness," or "authenticity," is constantly being tested and reconfigured, predicated as it is on sensory perception. In 'I would not think to touch the sky w/ two arms—', you write: "every accuracy/has to be invented." Accuracy intimates the meaning of being precise to a fault. Can you talk about the role of representation versus imagination in your poetry?
THG: I believe representation and imagination are much more intertwined than many of us are comfortable believing. Re-presenting anything, even in mechanical photocopy or digital replication, introduces artifacts and other differences. The imagination, insofar as it is concerned with the image (not just visual but sensory), is always connected to something that I've already experienced, or perhaps could experience if I wished to. The interplay between the two is how I think meaning is made in poetry and maybe even elsewhere.
I find words like "real" or "authentic" insufficient to describe poetry. "Meaningful" poetry on the other hand probably allows the what-is and the what-if to collide in a powerful, present moment. And in reading poetry I want to feel like I'm constantly present.
The line you quote is Anne Carson's, the fullness of which goes: "we're talking about the struggle to drag a thought over from the mush of the unconscious into some kind of grammar, syntax, human sense; every attempt means starting over with language. starting over with accuracy. i mean, every thought starts over, so every expression of a thought has to do the same. every accuracy has to be invented. . . . i feel i am blundering in concepts too fine for me."
YKC: I may be over-reading this, but the first poem 'enclosing w/o blocking out it's still transparent' strikes me as a riff on your Chinese name, which roughly translates to "deeds of light," which also happens to be the title of your first full-length. The lines go: "sunlight on dragonfly/wing/moves me to wirework/begun inside/working inside/working on surfaces/of shells." Is this your artistic manifesto?
THG: Not intentionally! I don't even think I recognised the connection between my name (which does not translate to what you say it does (!!), but does contain the character for "light") and the title of Deeds of Light until the book had been published for awhile, and it took someone else to tell it to me. That title was intended to be a Goethe quote but it clearly, again, outran my intentions.
'Enclosing…', is largely an erasure of Ruth Asawa describing the process of creating her remarkable wire sculptures — it's from a documentary called Ruth Asawa: Of Forms and Growth, I believe. If the poem is a manifesto, it expresses a desire for my poems to even begin to approximate the way her sculptures are just as much light and space as they are wire, just as much inside as outside, where surface is depth.
YKC: Let's talk about the use of negative space in your poems. How do you ascertain on the distance between semantic units, between letters (kerning) and between lines (leading)?
THG: The free-writes that become my poems are, as I have mentioned, often mutated lines — long and disjointed, jumping from one thing to another. Only after I feel the line/thought is over do I start to give the poem space to breathe, and then I find the pauses, the length of the pauses, come quite naturally to me. I guess this translates into what you've called kerning.
The spaces between lines are a more complex issue, in that there is also some consideration to separate what I think are different "sub-thoughts" within the "main thought" that is the poem into different "stanzas," which I often do using line spaces, sometimes multiple line spaces. Yet, pauses still matter — often the more line spaces there are, the longer one is meant to pause before proceeding to the next "sub-thought."
There is at least one other dimension to this, I think, which is that sometimes allied or repeated thoughts across the poem are aligned vertically, which is my way of marking them without letting them chime too loudly.
I am being very un-academic about this. I'm sure someone who has studied prosody exhaustively will find all sorts of contradictions in what I've said and more accurate terms—or will be in a better position to invent them.
YKC: In the poem 'is short, inadequate &, except for a word, totally redundant', the reader is told from the offset that everything is unnecessary, except for one word. By default, the reader has to examine each and every word, and in doing so, can only arrive at his or her own conclusion. Do you actually have a word in mind?
THG: The title of this poem, like practically all my other poem titles, are from other texts. This particular one's from the end of the beautiful Arthur Yap poem 'your goodness', and I guess I thought to see what happened when the redundancy was disclosed at the start instead of the end.
The words of the poems are different of course, and Yap's is clearly the one that presents more possibilities for essential words, which perhaps is his point. His tenderness has been transmuted to something more upset in my poem, and looking back at it now, my essential word would be "enough." But of course another reader might know better.
YKC: I'd like to ask you about the role of the Painter, and of painting in general. In the same poem 'short, adequate…", you write: "The Painter/is inhuman/is in love/w/ geometry." In the title poem 'The International Left-Hand Calligraphy Exhibition', you write: seconds ago/you recall w/ vivid ache/the Painter/coaxing/tomorrow's orchids/to life." What do the Painter and painting mean to you? Is the Painter some godly figure, or a conduit for inspiration?
THG: This book is in debt to visual art and artists, as you can probably tell by now. In the way the poems care about space, but also because various artists (and artist-poets like Yap!) have left marks on them, lending words and images to them. A good swathe of poems were written in response to Ivan David Ng's art-making processes. Objections to abstract art are sometimes recycled to dismiss certain kinds of poetry, which was what I was thinking about in the first poem.
In their second appearance, the Painter has decided to make representational art instead, but there's a complication because these are tomorrow's orchids, not yesterday's, not orchids we've already seen except in painting. The paradox of reminiscing or being nostalgic with vivid ache for something you've first seen seconds ago, that represents something tomorrow, seems to describe one effect of art on people. I've already talked about the constant present, right?
YKC: The idea of "Chineseness" hangs over this collection in strange and curious ways. Whether it's the poetry of Chinese poet An Qi, or the game of go (or weiqi), or even Chinese dishes such as Buddha Jumps Over the Wall, you juxtapose all sorts of high and low cultural tropes and stereotypes. Yet, the exercise isn't tethered to an essentialist agenda. I chuckle in particular at the poem ''is Chinatown your burden? limitless like the universe?' Is that a fair reading?
THG: I think you may be on to something. Part of the strangeness maybe comes from simply allowing the magpie in my mind to also pick up shiny things from Chinese proverbs, films, and other texts I know.
Part of it is sometimes feeling dismay, even dread when reading poems that involve an "Anglicised" speaker speaking about their "Eastern" culture. I too am quite guilty of writing or wanting to write earnest poems that extol the imagistic nature of Chinese ideograms, or bemoan my disconnected roots, or praise stoic grandmothers, or explain some history to an imagined audience that is certainly not Chinese… Maybe I'm just sinical.
Come to think of it, those Stephen Chow films you alluded to also juxtaposed tropes and stereotypes in hilarious and inventive ways. "Mouleitau" is both deeply Chinese (a specific, not mystical kind of Chineseness) and undeniably contemporary, and it pays close attention to wordplay and image. Sharply political readings of mouleitau have also been made, of course.
YKC: I enjoy very much this line from 'not the mirror image but the reverse side of the mirror' where you end with: "don't/tie your shoes/don't/tidy your hat." Is this your act of defiance, of not toeing the line, and not behaving according to external expectations?
THG: Oh this one! The last and first lines ("melon field/under the plums") of this poem are an idiom that's been ripped apart. So: don't tie your shoelaces in a melon field, and don't tidy your hat under the plums (瓜田不納履，李下不整冠), that is, don't look like you're stealing; in biblical terms, abstain from all appearance of evil. But isn't it so interesting that straightening one's appearance can, in the wrong place, appear crooked?
YKC: In comparison, the last poem 'to what are we burning incense but a piece of brass?' is clearly a mission statement: "working against/myself/not to avoid but/to repeat any/& everywhere." You end the poem with a doozie: "I twiddle/the seriousness/of the present." It's a fantastic line. Can you elaborate on the "seriousness" that you see currently on the scene, and why, if it is, a problem?
THG: Seriousness in general is not a bad thing, though too much self-seriousness could lead to forgetting that being serious about something often means having to lower or get past the self. As you can probably tell, I think living in the present is better than living in the past or the future. But I should add that the present moment is made richer by knowing history and having hope: I don't mean yolo by any means. The present is reflected upon constantly as it emerges from the past and becomes the future. Its seriousness is twiddled.QLRS Vol. 21 No. 3 Jul 2022