By Alvin Pang
Felix Cheong is the author of three books of poetry: Temptations and Other Poems (1998), I Watch The Stars Go Out (1999) and most recently, Broken By the Rain (2003). The recipient of the NAC Young Artist of the Year Award for Literature in 2000, he is also active in promoting Singaporean literature abroad. In June 2002, he completed an MPhil in Creative Writing at the University of Queensland. In an email exchange, Alvin Pang got the opportunity to try his patience about his recent work and experiences abroad.
AP: For the benefit of QLRS readers, tell us a bit more about your time in Brisbane and how you spent your time there.
FC: I spent 16 months pursuing my masters in creative writing in Brisbane on an NAC bursary. My family was with me – my wife was also doing her post grad (in applied linguistics), on a scholarship from Temasek Polytechnic. So everything kind of came together. It was a wonderful experience, dipping our lives into a different country, waking up to a different bearing. I now call Brisbane my home away from home – I miss her so much I'd sometimes daydream I'm still walking her streets.
AP: You gave up quite a lucrative job in Singapore in order to do your MPhil in Creative Writing – a decision more pragmatic Singaporeans might balk at. Is that the proverbial price of art? Do you have your regrets?
FC: To say I have no regrets is being dishonest. There have been many times upon my return when I despaired at not finding a job and thought that it was not worth it. But then, I consider it a great heave up the learning curve. This book (Broken By the Rain) wouldn't have been possible if I hadn't devoted energy fulltime to reading, researching and writing. I grew as a writer but lost out (materially) as a man.
AP: And Broken By The Rain, your third volume of poetry, is the product of your labours. What is your secret deep ambition for the book?
FC: I guess at the heart of my new volume is the need to find a new voice, to tap into experiences not my own and to disappear from myself. I had grown increasingly tired of writing as myself, as Felix Cheong, and the only way to bypass the impasse is to take on personas, thus the title... the desire to be fragmented.
AP: It strikes me that the most apt description of your new work with dramatic monologues, is probably ventriloquism, the throwing of the voice. And you allude to puppetry in your afterword in Broken. It of course has a long and complicated association with cultural and poetic practice, from the Greek oracle to divination, spiritualism (you mention being a "medium" in your afterword), speaking in tongues, trances and so on. And of course you have had your Jungian dream of the suicide that became a key poem. Yet, whatever you claim to channel, you seem to gravitate, like any artist or writer, to a few core themes that recur in all three of your books. I'd like to hear from you what your pet obsessions and concerns are as a poet, and the extent to which Broken has helped you to deal with them.
FC: Pet themes: what it means to love, to write, and how it makes us human.
AP: It might be argued that your "voice", that of your poetic persona, has not really gone away, but has instead appropriated the masks of these new characters. For instance, your penchant for wordplay and punning still shows up prominently, and some tropes (middle-aged crisis, representation of public/private selves, the Catholic influence) echo those in your earlier volumes. How would you respond to the point that you are still just putting your words into other people's mouths, rendering them, in an ironic way, more voiceless than ever?
FC: I think there're three issues here – mimesis, appropriation and empathy – and people who ask this question often confuse the three.
Poetry, by its very nature, is heightened language. It's language distilled, filtered, purified, baptised by fire as it were. It's artificial, in a way. The same goes for the dramatic monologue; it cannot be anything more than a poetic rendition. It's not "true to life" the way a playwright or novelist can claim for the dialogue in his work.
My dramatic monologues are therefore not intended to be mimetic of how characters like strippers speak. But they do strive for an emotional truth at the heart of these characters. What is spelt out in "The Stripper" for instance – the fracture between the public and private selves – is exactly what strippers I'd befriended at the Showgirls club in Brisbane have told me, though in not such stark, poetic terms. Indeed, the strippers I'd shown the poem to were taken aback that I, as a guy, could capture their feelings so concisely. To get approval from the very people I was trying to represent is, to me, vindication – I'm not rendering them voiceless but am instead giving them voice.
A related issue here is empathy. The themes, as you rightly pointed out, echo those in my earlier volumes. But this was my only entry point into these characters' psyches. The point of contact between my world and theirs had to be something I could relate to, something I could empathise with. Otherwise, I'd be relying on mere caricatures or stereotypes. For instance, the disjunction between public and private selves in "The Stripper" was something I myself was grappling with – how to carve the poet from the man.
Yes, I appropriate their masks. Yes, they are my words, but the emotional truth that gives those words authenticity is not mine, but my characters'. I am nothing but their medium.
AP: What about the prose piece at the end of Broken?
FC: "Dancer from the Dance" actually started out as a series of short poems about what it meant for a writer to visit a strip club, for Showgirls, located right at the heart of the city, had become my "spiritual home", so to speak, where I spent many hours observing, chatting up the girls and writing. But none of these poems worked – they couldn't capture the mood, the atmosphere, the flirting, the subculture. So I decided eventually to just write it as prose. Some of the dialogue really did take place between this stripper Joanna and myself.
AP: You mentioned encountering an impasse and the desire to break away and "fragment". It's an uncommon want, as Byron might put it, although one suspects that you don't necessarily see this as a heroic enterprise. Could you elaborate on what you were escaping or bypassing, if escape is the appropriate metaphor here, and whether transposing yourself into a foreign setting (not just in terms of dramatis personae but also in terms of Brisbane vis-à-vis Singapore) was part of your strategy?
FC: Escape's the right word... one of the titles I was toying with at one point was "Escape is the Loneliest Word". (There but for the crap of god go I!)
I guess I was trying to escape from the style of my second book I Watch the Stars Go Out, in which a newspaper headline is a trigger for the poet's imagination. Even when I started my Creative Writing programme (at the University of Queensland) in February 2001, I was still writing stuff like that, scraping the bottom of the ideas barrel, because up to that point, my life experience hadn't caught up with my poetry and offered it ammunition. I guess you can say I was trying to escape from having nothing to say.
Yes, being away had everything to do with what goes on in this book. I don't think I could've written it otherwise. I had some idea what kind of book I'd wanted to write when I began my Masters, but within two months, I realised how shallow it was, how it was simply a sequel to I Watch the Stars.
But it wasn't "part of a strategy", as you put it; the process was more spontaneous and organic. There were two turning points: a conscious attempt to explode a strip club (partly to satisfy and arouse curiosity, partly to defy my Catholic upbringing), and a poem that came to me in a dream, which turned out to be "Notes for a Suicide".
AP: Why a strip club (versus, say, 3 months on a farm)? You landed in Brisbane and told yourself, "Ok I have to visit a strip club to be a better writer"? Was it due to the fact that it was a doubly extraneous experience for a married Singaporean? Or the lure of the exotic? Surely you're a man of the world...
FC: My analysis of the experience is really after-the-fact. At no point during those cafe latte afternoons at Showgirls was I conscious that (1) my writing was gonna improve by hanging around the club, or that (2) it would eventually help me open up vistas into characters and personalities like serial killers, etc.
I can't explain it, but being in the club simply opened up possibilities. I saw a side of human nature I wasn't privy to in strait-laced Singapore. Perhaps it's got to do with learning from the strippers how to take on personae. Perhaps it's got to do with identifying with the act of stripping – they on stage and I on the page.
Perhaps 3 months' farm stay might've produced a different lot of poems but I seriously doubt if anything good would've come of that! My poetry has always erred on the side of the urban and the urbane. It's got no affinity with nature.
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QLRS Vol. 2 No. 3 Apr 2003