THM: Yes, I’ve noticed that conflation occurring quite frequently in the poems, most starkly for me in ‘Esplanade Echoes’, where Sang Nila, Raffles, Lim Bo Seng and weekend sportsmen all appear in the space of two stanzas. Does this not sacrifice focus for breadth? Although I suppose it is also quite a Romantic thing to do. And what is the worth of wonder? How do you quantify it, or even qualify it, or is it just an esoteric religiosity?
KBS: To me, the worth of wonder means a few things. Most simply, it is retaining a child-like sense of awe, e.g. at the wonder of Nature. Not everyone has this ability, which is also why not everyone enjoys literature. I recall on a driving tour of Australia, driving my travelling companions right to the edge of a cliff to see a coastal blowhole we had driven hours to reach, and they would not even get out of the car because the view did not mean much to them. And there are people who travel to Hawaii to go only to shopping malls. Literature and the arts are about nurturing this sense of appreciation for the greatness of creation, trying to make sense of the myriad experiences available in the universe and to communicate it to others so that they may enrich their own sense of the world.
It also means creativity, innovation, freedom of expression, the insight not to take things at face value but to question surface reality, the courage to hold on to principles and articulate what is true literally and emotionally.
I don’t think it is sacrificing focus for breadth. Art allows us to put things together that are connected thematically or even spiritually. It’s like an MTV video with thousands of images flickering across the screen. How good the video is depends on how coherent the whole thing is, whether the end-product is greater than the sum of all the parts, and how fluid is the meshing of apparently disparate elements. Poetry is perfect for that too. It is the essence of metaphor, to juxtapose two or more apparently unconnected ideas and to produce meaning out of that interaction.
THM: You did say, as I recall, during the Q&A at the most recent subTEXT reading, that poetry is about taking one central image and developing it. Developing that metaphorical thread, as it were, that juxtaposition of two or more apparently unconnected ideas seems very often to produce observations that are not so much attributive as projective in scope. Some examples from your poems are “boardwalk of coexistence” (‘Sungei Buloh’) or “saliva of ambition” (‘Frogleap’). Sometimes there isn’t even any physical presence, as abstract concepts fuse into each other, as when you speak of “arithmetic of survival” and “geometry of community” (‘Close Quarters, Chinatown’). Can you describe how you arrive at these frogleaps?
KBS: In the Sungei Buloh poem, there really is a boardwalk at Sungei Buloh and the boardwalk is used as a metaphor for the way man modifies nature in order to come closer to it. ‘Frogleap’, like several other poems in The Worth Of Wonder, is actually a companion poem to a painting by the Singapore artist Thomas Yeo in his catalogue Moving Colours (1993). There is a streak of paint in the painting that looks like saliva, and for frogs, saliva represents their ambition, to slurp up delicious flies for supper. This operates as a metaphor for other kinds of ambition, which may be as messy or slimy.
A few of the other companion poems are from the book Twenty-Five Years Of Watercolour Painting In Singapore (1994). The poems were written in response to the paintings and what they evoke. I realise that readers may not be able to appreciate these poems without seeing the paintings. I hope the poems speak to them nonetheless.
For ‘Close Quarters, Chinatown’, one impression that has always fascinated me is how the shophouse buildings in Chinatown are so close to each other and people live in peaceful coexistence despite the tensions and inconveniences this may cause. It just struck me that mathematical references would be appropriate in describing and defining this. Overall, the aim is the same: to use language creatively, innovatively and hopefully uniquely, to define the human condition.
THM: So the methodology is associative then? I mean, I suppose all poetry is to some extent associative...
KBS: Yes, and the metaphor picked can come from a totally unexpected context, so long as it captures the right idea, feeling or mood. Some writers say they do not care if readers attach their own interpretations, which could be way off from what the writer intended. I try my best to be accurate in capturing what I want to say and the feeling and mood I want to convey.
In other words, I care about the writer’s intention. I disagree with the school of thought that dismisses all talk of the writer’s intention, as if it were irrelevant. I believe what the writer intended is absolutely crucial, and if we could, we should try our best to record it. Of course, this does not preclude other interpretations. The writer’s intention is one meaning, but it is a meaning that should carry more weight than all others.
THM: Are you dismayed by the directions literary theory has taken in the last half-century?
KBS: To some extent. I would have more to say about this topic if I had kept in touch. But I feel quite distant now from literary theory, not having engaged with it in any depth since my university days some 15 years ago now. So much of academia is so far removed from real, everyday life...
I still do the occasional book review, but have never applied any formal literary theories. I apply old-fashioned approaches to reading, making sense of the denotative and connotative meaning of words in their contexts, appreciating the use of literary techniques and testing possible meanings against our experience of life.
As a writer, one does not have to bother about theory, which is wonderful. One just has to remain true to one’s own instincts and principles. One of my main aims as a writer is to record experiences for posterity. In this way, writing is like a museum, storing valuable artifacts in words instead of display cases. This is why one of my favourite themes is to capture what is about to be lost, like old Chinatown or impressions of a place visited. All places change in the blink of an eye. In Singapore, that blink is fixed on permanent fast forward. Hence, all the more urgent the task, and responsibility, of art to record.
THM: One could, if one was inclined to, argue for Brief History and The Worth of Wonder being books of nostalgia. But I pick up that you said “one of [your] main aims as a writer...”. You’ve certainly extended that archival urgency beyond poetry, to Bugis Street: The Novel and the non-fiction Toa Payoh: Our Kind of Neighbourhood. How did those come about?
KBS: Bugis Street: The Novel was a novelisation of a theatre production that two of my friends put up at the Victoria Theatre in 1994. These were the early days when people in Singapore were becoming more adventurous in the arts and seeing greater value in art both as an integral and valuable part of life, as well as something holding potential as a business venture. They asked me to do the book based on the skeleton of a story they had already worked out for the stage musical. I wrote it in collaboration with another writer, Tan Hwee Hua.
I did the project mainly as an experimentation in trying out a new form of writing and also because I did not want to disappoint my friends. It was an interesting venture. Exploring the story of urban renewal and the destruction of Bugis Street allowed me to explore this favourite theme of mine – conflict between tradition and modernity, competing interests in society, loss and art’s role in making sense of loss and coming to terms with it.
The book has been given very serious academic study in Interlogue, a series of works of literary criticism published by Ethos Books.
Recently, a university student group put up the same musical using only the book as a basis. The amazing thing was, none of them had watched the musical in 1994 but the stage production was almost exactly like the one at the Victoria Theatre. This must have meant that the descriptions in the book were vivid, evocative and accurate enough for them to recreate the same atmosphere.
Toa Payoh: Our Kind Of Neighbourhood is a coffee-table corporate history of the Housing [Development]Board for its 40th anniversary for the year 2000. It was a commissioned book which the publishers Times Editions approached me to do, partly because I had published my earlier collection A Brief History Of Toa Payoh And Other Poems.
The HDB book is different from other corporate histories because it is written not from the perspective of the corporate HQ but from the grassroots, through the stories of five main characters drawn from residents representing the whole spectrum of race, religion, gender, income group, social background, etc. This was what attracted me to the project.
I recall thinking that this was a gathering of “representative people”, something a bit like Geoffrey Chaucer’s characters who reflect the life and concerns of a town, as in his Canterbury Tales. Of course, my interviewees were real people and this was non-fiction, so we presented them very much as they were, with little embellishment. I tried to be as true to them and the place as possible. There are some touches of poetry in the descriptions of scenes. Since the book was published, Toa Payoh has been transformed even further and is now a really modern and impressive town, which proves my point that literature and the arts have an urgent task to record, especially in a fast-changing place like Singapore.
This is a theme and concern that I have also voiced many times in my newspaper personal columns for The Straits Times, when I was with the paper from 1988 to 1999, and up till now, in my freelance book reviews.
Having said that, as I mature even more as a writer and social observer, I find myself feeling less agitated that so much of our heritage is being lost. This is due to two reasons. First, there has been a clear shift in official policy towards heritage conservation in Singapore in the last few years. The saving of Chek Jawa, the attention being paid to restoring and maintaining our museums, are just two examples of the greater attention being paid to this area. The other reason is that I have already expressed the primary concerns that I hold dearest, and so can take a broader view that change is inevitable and writers can still draw on memory to evoke the past if they want to.
QLRS Vol. 2 No. 2 Jan 2003