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Vol. 2 No. 3 Apr 2003

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Sex and the City Poet
Page 2

AP: So your escape is a moral one at heart, apart from being an aesthetic one? Do you equate complexity and murkiness of experience with artistic depth? Does a writer have to get "down and dirty" at some point, in one way or another, in order to write well? What are the implications of this for the writer in straight-laced Singapore?

FC: I don't think all writers have to get "down and dirty" in order to write well. For instance, you don't need to attempt murder in order to get under the skin of a serial killer. Research oftentimes is your crutch, the hatch into which your imagination dives.

Having said that, "murky experience" does give your poem an edge which research cannot; it's all to do with the visceral, the telling details that impact on your imagination, that make the work more real. Take the prose piece "Dancer from the Dance". Details of what happens inside a strip club – the mirrors, music, swirling lights, how male customers look at each other, how much lap dances cost, etc. – these are things you cannot glean from a book. "No wisdom without dirt", as a line from the piece goes.

What this means for the writer in straight-laced Singapore? I don't intend to prescribe, nor do I pretend to know. You need to go as far as your morality allows you.

AP: You mentioned needing to expand your vistas but clearly you have no wish to stray too far over the brink. For instance, your work remains (perhaps has become even more) dominantly urban(e) in flavour. So apart from the pure kick of going to a strip club, the appeal was the lure of kinship then – transgression and performance? I also note an undercurrent of wistful eroticism in your poetry (your love poems for instance). I wonder if you'd agree that these are important threads in your work and what you'd like to say about them.

FC: You're right on the money. Transgression was what my creative writing supervisor asked me to research into when she read my first dramatic monologue. And the more I got into these monologues, the more I felt the need for performance, which was why at one stage, I was even reading up stuff like method acting and how puppeteers create characters.

My love poems have always carried that wistful quality about them... sentimental and yet not quite, ironic and yet not quite. Again, having met the strippers allowed me to try something new – taking my love poetry into eroticism, but not full on. There's always something about the way I write – I tend to pull back. I’ve always believed in pulling back... I go by the dictum "less is more".

AP: In "My Own Clearing, iii" you wrote, "But we know, you / more than I, it's the brink, / God, the brink // that deters, and determines / who we are / once we've chosen our bearings." I take that to mean a moral and emotional brinkmanship, but of course also the artistic one, that in a sense powers the book. Could you discuss what (literary) risks and gambles you chose to take in writing Broken, and how these have played out? Brinkmanship can be fertile ground for the writer...

FC: As I mentioned earlier, the risks and gambles took the form of the dramatic monologue, which I'd experimented with once or twice (in my second book) but never allowed to dictate my poetry. In my love poetry, letting the erotic take over... and in my religious poems ("Meditations"), admitting, for once, that I, as poet, am but His instrument.

AP: So the religious remains a key motivator in your work? Do you see any affinities in that regard between your poetry and Lee Tzu Pheng's?

FC: I was taken aback when Gwee Li Sui (author of Who Wants to Buy a Book of Poems?) told me that he felt Broken is probably the most Catholic of my 3 volumes. I guess I can run but I can't hide. My poetry is not so much religious as informed by Catholicism. It draws its mythology, allusions and bearing from Catholicism. And increasingly, I feel that poetry is a divine calling, that I'm gifted to write because I was meant to be His instrument. But not yet, not yet. I don't have the maturity, the strength of faith, to sing and praise.

I think my poetry began as an umbilical cord feeding from Lee Tzu Pheng's work, but with Broken, I've, well, broken that cord. I'd probably say that I come from the same lineage as Lee Tzu Pheng and Boey Kim Cheng.

AP: A more mundane question – has Broken been doing well, and do you think its subject matter (whores, suicides, serial killers) has helped moved copies?

FC: According to my publisher, Broken seems to be doing well. Thank God! He's already talking about doing a reprint. Perhaps the potentially sensationalist subject matter could've moved copies. Or perhaps it’s the fact that my by-line appears in various newspapers (I'm freelancing for Today, The Edge and, occasionally, The New Paper), so people might be curious to know more about my creative work. I don't know, but whatever it is, it's gratifying!

AP: Do you think your strategy of engaging professional performers to read your work has made a difference? Do you feel that the performative element of poetry is uniquely suited to your work (dramatic monologues) or do you feel it's something that has been generally neglected (and should be picked up) in the poetry scene here?

FC: Yes, hearing professional actors (for the launch of Broken) and amateur performers (my CJC students, for a reading each at Kinokuniya and The Book Cafe) read my latest poems has opened up possibilities to their performative aspect, probably because as dramatic monologues, they lend themselves naturally to being performed and staged. I picked up nuances I hadn't even noticed before.

Yes, I reckon we've lost sight (or hearing!) of the oral tradition behind poetry. Poetry seems to have become a genre so mysterious and rarefied that it's alienated the reading public. I believe if we keep working at it, throwing open doors, we could shepherd more people into poetry, reconnect with its roots. A case in point: Rebecca Edwards, a Queensland poet I had invited to do a series of readings here in February; one session at library@esplanade – plugged as poetry in performance – was one of the most well-attended readings I'd seen in a long time. People were genuinely interested to sit and listen, and that can only augur well for poetry.

AP: So what's your next book going to be about and have you started on it?

FC: I'm creatively depleted at the moment. What with trying to earn my keep writing freelance, I haven't had the energy and will for poetry since June; which is good, because poets, by the very finicky nature of their craft, require a longer time to recharge. But the downside is I haven't had time to read a book that's not work-related since my return from Brisbane. Every book I pore over is either for research, review or interview purposes. Sigh. It's not helped by the fact that I'm a horribly slow reader.

I've thought of trying my pen at a verse novel. It's every mother's, father's, poet's favourite form in Australia at the moment, no doubt sparked by the making of Dorothy Porter's landmark The Monkey's Mask into a film in 2000.

AP: On to some broader issues. What was your reception like in the Brisbane literary scene? What is the community there like compared to Singapore?

FC: The Brisbane writing scene offers an interesting parallel with ours, 'cos it's still very much a young, on-the-brink-of-becoming scene. (Needless to say, Melbourne and Sydney still thumb their noses at Brisbane writers.)

There're, of course, the similar gripes about funding, the backbiting and the fun stuff like hanging out and enjoying each other's literary banter. I was fortunate in that just a few months upon my immersion in Brisbane, I turned up at a reading and they warmly accepted me as one of their own. I've always been very grateful for that.

Despite their infighting, the Brisbane poets have gone one up on us in that they've been putting together their own Poetry Festival since 1997. This is something we need to learn from them.

AP: What in your opinion are the qualities, habits or attitudes that enable them to (1) be so generous to outsiders, and (2) put aside their differences and pull together to get something big up?

FC: (1) Partly because Brisbane still prides herself as a big, friendly country town, ever ready to welcome strangers. Partly because the number of Asians living there is staggering. Or perhaps they see my writing as exotic?

(2) From what I can gather – and this is strictly my take – Brisbane poets have always felt slighted by Sydney and Melbourne. More importantly, they've always felt ignored by their city's own writers' festival. So one thing led to another, and they got their own poetry festival off the ground, thanks to the vision and drive of one poet, Brett Dionysius. (Brett ran the festival as director for 5 years and stepped down in 2001. The Queensland Poetry Festival is now in the hands of a committee of poets comprising Bronwyn Lea, Jayne Fenton Keane, Rosanna Licari and Francis Boyle.)

AP: Tell us a little about your literary activism and where you are going with it. Do you have a mission/vision/5-year plan? Is it just something to pass the time? Or is there an implicit agenda of some sort?

FC: 1. I'd like to see the Singapore Writers' Festival run by writers. 2. I'd like to see big-name international writers think of ours as a must-stop festival. 3. I'd like to see Singapore writers invited regularly to festivals around the world. 4. I'd like to see Singapore writers studied in schools, here and abroad. 5. I'd like to see my generation of writers not break up into factions.

AP: "Break up into factions". Do you see this happening and what's your take on the motivations and forces behind it?

FC: It's early days yet, so I won't go so far as to describe them as "factions". But yes, there're cliques. It's not necessarily an unhealthy development and certainly an inevitable one, given that people tend to gravitate towards like-minded people. These are more social cliques rather than carved along political or ideological lines.

AP: Why do you consider festivals such an important feature of literary life?

FC: Well, a festival is probably the most visible sign that there IS a literary life, isn't it?

AP: But there are readings, journals, book launches, etc. E-zines in particular are quite active in Singapore (2ndrule, QLRS, etc.). If the purpose of that visibility is to attract more readers and writers, then surely the relative dearth of literary festivals in Singapore (excepting of course the biennial Singapore Writers’ Festival) has not quite prevented the emergence of a new generation of writers... such as yourself!

FC: Yes, it hasn't prevented the emergence of a new generation of poets, that's true. But how many people know that we exist, and that we have published? How many people outside Singapore know that we exist, and that we have published? Precious few.

So a festival is really as much a PR event for a city's writers as it is about bringing in foreign names.

AP: Do you feel that writers in Singapore have been "ignored by their city's own writers' festival"? What do you think is preventing local poets from putting something together like the Queenslanders do? Why not do one yourself?

FC: Let's do a comparison... and here, I'm only talking about poets.

In 2001, only 2 local English-language poets were featured at the Singapore Writers’ Festival. The same scenario at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival that year: 2 Brisbane-born poets.

Compare this to the number of Brisbane-based poets invited to the 2001 Queensland Poetry Festival: 15. And these are not poets who were called up merely to make up the numbers. They are all good writers in their own right.

Having said that, it's not such an easy affair getting a festival off the ground. Though I've put together reading tours and have some experience navigating the bureaucracy needed to secure funding, organising and, more importantly, sustaining a festival is in a different league of logistics altogether. It involves vision, administrative know-how and a certain business acumen, not forgetting the commitment to run it fulltime in the 3 to 4 months leading up to the festival. That's not easy!

AP: Do you see yourself as a key player in developing the local literary scene in future, since you see these inadequacies and have the experience of Brisbane? What are your specific future plans in this regard?

FC: I won't go so far as to call myself a "key player". I think that's presuming a lot. Everything's still up in the air at the moment... so watch this space!

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QLRS Vol. 2 No. 3 Apr 2003


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  Related Links

Review of Broken By The Rain

Felix Cheong profile
External link to the National Book Development Council of Singapore.

Felix Cheong overview
External link to NUS.

Broken By The Rain
External link to Select Books.

Felix Cheong poem

Felix Cheong essay on a poet's sense of the city
External link to M/C.

Young Artist Award Presentation 2000
External link to the Flying Inkpot.


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