Proust Questionnaire: 17 questions with Shawn Hoo
By Yeow Kai Chai
What's next for Singaporean Anglophone poetry? Judging by recent efforts in bridging the divide between linguistic groups in the literary scene, translation (and its cousins, transliteration and transcreation) have been helpful in enriching the poetic landscape.
One thinks of Joshua Ip's irreverent translations to the tanglish (Math Paper Press, 2021), which involves "dodgily translated" versions of poems from the Tang and Song dynasties; Daryl Lim Wei Jie's minimalist abstractions of Bai Juyi's lines (Anything But Human, 2021); and Clara Chow's Lousy Love Poems (Hermit Press/Math Paper Press, 2021), comprising poems written in Chinese and translated into English by the poet herself.
Shawn Hoo, similarly, mines liminal fields between languages. He's already made heads turn with Of the Florids (Diode Editions, 2022), an exquisite realisation of a chapbook which queries and unravels taxonomies of languages be them about power, history, and ecology. Awarded the 2021 Diode Editions Chapbook Prize, it includes a curio of a poem 'Deferred Sayings for the Next Century.' A playful riff on the Hokkien saying "Carrying the sand to fill the sea a fool's work," it borrows the dialectal syntax (and its gnomic punchline) to spin some campy, laugh-out-loud proclamations.
After graduating from Yale-NUS College majoring in literature in 2020, Hoo was a Global Writing and Speaking Fellow at NYU Shanghai from 2021 to 2022. Currently Assistant Editor at Asymptote, where he curates the Translation Tuesdays showcase, he has done translations for other platforms too, such as excerpts of a Lao She novel for the Journal of Practice, Research and Tangential Activities (PR&TA); and of a Wong Koi Tet story for Exchanges: Journal of Literary Translation.
His poems are anthologised in the forthcoming New Singapore Poetries (Gaudy Boy, 2022) and can be found in Diode Poetry Journal, New Delta Review, Queer Southeast Asia, Voice & Verse Poetry Magazine, and elsewhere.
1. What are you reading right now?
2. If you were a famous literary character in a novel, play or poem, what would you be and why?
3. What is the greatest misconception about you?
4. Name one living writer and one dead writer you most identify with, and tell us why.
5. Do you believe in writer's block? If so, how do you overcome it?
6. What qualities do you most admire in a writer?
7. What is one trait you most deplore in writing or writers?
8. Can you recite your favourite line from a literary work or a piece of advice from a writer?
Also: when discussing a poet's relationship to their audience, Lawrence Lacambra Ypil once advised not to worry about who one's audience is: instead, summon your audience. (Larry does not recall having said this, but when I recalled this advice, he says he agrees with the sentiment!)
9. Complete this sentence: Few people know this, but I
10. At the movies, if you have to pick a comedy, a tragedy or an action thriller to watch, which would you go for?
11. What is your favourite word, and what is your least favourite one?
Least favourite word: any word that is too wide in circulation is my least favourite word at that moment.
12. Please compose a rhyming couplet with the following words: unicorn, cycad, extant.
13. What object is indispensable to you when you write?
14. What is the best time of the day for writing?
15. If you have a last supper, which three literary figures, real or fictional, would you invite to the soiree, and why?
16. In a July 2022 interview with Yale-NUS, you spoke about your time in NYU Shanghai, sharing your observation that multilingualism and translation could be the norm for the future, with "deep implications" for the way we "write, read, talk, teach and live." What are some of these implications, and will this insight influence your full poetry collection?
In writing terms, I am interested in a poetics of the impure, idiosyncratic, unsystemetisable, excessive, opaque, and noisy. The writers who excite me now are the translingual poets, writers in creole languages, exophonic writers and translator-poets: Yoko Tawada, Jhumpa Lahiri, Amitav Ghosh, Hamid Roslan, Don Mee Choi, Eugene Ostashevsky, Sawako Nakayasu, and more. I think some of this spirit is already in Of the Florids, where different languages rub up against each other because different systems of representing the natural world rub up against one another. I picked up some basic Cantonese in a language school in Shanghai, and have been trying to introduce more Hokkien into my life. I suspect that the more time I spend with these writers, books, and languages, the more it will feed into what I write. It's marinating.
Perhaps as a provocation to your question about the "full poetry collection" I do consider Of the Florids as full, even if it is technically a chapbook by page count. Full in the sense that it does not need to find its raison d'κtre in a longer book. So what I write next, I hope will take the shape and length it needs. I would certainly love to see more poetry collections from Singapore take on the chapbook its brevity, concentration, portability as an aesthetic form in itself.
17. What would you write on your own tombstone?