Proust Questionnaire: 17 questions with Koh Jee Leong
By Yong Shu Hoong
"All things poetic about Singapore," proudly touts the Singapore Poetry website. Its founder is Singapore poet and teacher, Jee Leong Koh, who has so far authored four books of poems, including Equal to the Earth (2009) and Seven Studies for a Self Portrait (2011), both published by Bench Press.
His latest collection, The Pillow Book (Math Paper Press, 2012), adopts a Japanese literary genre called zuihitsu, which can be loosely translated as "idle notes" reflective of the author's surroundings – in this case, observations, lists and anecdotes on life in his birth country of Singapore and adopted city of New York. The book will be translated into Japanese and published by Awai Books in 2014.
1. What are you reading right now?
Goh Poh Seng's Lines from Batu Ferringhi. I am re-reading this wonderful book-length poem in order to write an essay on it. I think it is one of the best poems written by a Singaporean, expansive, self-questioning, generous. I am also reading Scottish poet Rob A. Mackenzie's new book The Good News. It is remarkably assured in deploying a wide range of styles and techniques – erasure, cento, concrete poetry. The middle sequence about his autistic daughter is very moving.
2. If you were a famous literary character in a novel, play, or poem, who would you be, and why?
Can I cheat? I so badly want to be the talented Mr Ripley, but I have not read Patricia Highsmith's novel. I have only seen the movie. I totally identify with Tom Ripley and his desire for the good life, embodied in a beautiful man. However, I totally lack his talents for lying, forgery, doing impressions, and murder. Do you know that Matt Damon and I were born in the same year? That is where our similarities end, alas!
3. What is the greatest misconception about you?
That I am young. Americans, who are non-Asians, are often misled by my youthful good looks.
4. Name one living author and one dead author you identify with most, and tell us why.
The dead author is Thom Gunn, the English poet who migrated to the US when he found the love of his life, the American Mike Kitay. He wrote metrical verse, as I do. Imagine toting up your syllables and tuning your rhymes when other poets in San Francisco at the time were talking up Beats and open field poetics in a dopey haze. He must have felt hyper-English among the Americans. But he embraced his American life, and lived fully as an openly gay man and poet. That life was not possible for him in England.
I don't really identify with any living author. The closest is probably Cyril Wong. I sympathised deeply with his project of inner excavation.
5. Do you believe in writer's block? If so, how do you overcome it?
Writer's block is like porn. You know it when you have it. To overcome it, I switch to writing stuff other than poetry. Hence, the essay on Goh Poh Seng.
6. What qualities do you admire most in a writer?
The ability to take everything, and everyone, on its own terms. Shakespeare had it. Keats had it. It requires curiosity, humility, sensitivity and a childlike openness. The suspension of judgment. Negative capability. Goh Poh Seng had it too.
7. What is one trait you deplore most in writing or writers?
The opposite: egotism. All writers have gigantic egos. But the best writers subject their egos to the needs of their art. The worst don't. I struggle with mine all the time.
8. Can you recite your favourite line from a literary work or a piece of advice from a writer?
I'm going to cheat again and repeat here what I cannot really recite off the top of my head. But I love what J. Robert Oppenheimer wrote about style:
The problem of doing justice to the implicit, the imponderable, and the unknown is of course not unique in politics. It is always with us in science, it is with us in the most trivial of personal affairs, and it is one of the great problems of writing and of all forms of art. The means by which it is solved is sometimes called style. It is style which complements affirmation with limitation and with humility; it is style which makes it possible to act effectively, but not absolutely; it is style which, in the domain of foreign policy, enables us to find a harmony between the pursuit of ends essential to us, and the regard for the views, the sensibilities, the aspirations of those to whom the problem may appear in another light; it is style which is the deference that action pays to uncertainty; it is above all style through which power defers to reason.
9. Complete this sentence: Few people know this, but I…
suck at croquet. I found that out myself when I attended my boyfriend's parents' 65th wedding anniversary in a small town outside of Cincinnati.
10. At the movies, if you have to pick a comedy, a tragedy, or an action thriller to watch, which will you go for, and why?
Hands down, action thriller. I go to the movies for escapist fantasies. Bourne movies. Batman movies. Kungfu showdowns, preferably with special powers.
11. What is your favourite word, and what is your least favourite one?
12. Write a rhyming couplet that includes the following three items: musk, sage, amber.
The muskrat and the civet cat in Baltic amber
discourse as Chinese sages do in mid-November.
13. What object is indispensable to you when you write?
The wallpaper on my laptop, showing a changing roster of naked jocks. It is my equivalent of the Grecian urn: teasing me out of time and thought.
14. What is the best time of the day for writing?
The hour between dog and wolf (John Coates).
15. If you had a last supper, which three literary figures, real or fictional, would you invite to the soiree, and why?
The Buddha, for talk about the last and essential things. Michel Houellebecq, to debate the Buddha. And Murasaki Shikibu, to record it all with scintillating wit and unbearable pathos.
16. As a Singaporean living in New York, do you feel like a "legal alien" (quoting Sting's song, 'Englishman in New York')?
After living in New York for 10 years, I still feel like a "legal alien". I have great friends here, and my beloved is here too, but I moved here when I was 33. Too old for a dog to learn new tricks. Guy, my boyfriend, laughs at me when I slip again and say, "straightaway", instead of "right away". Right away or not, I don't think I will ever feel or think American, whatever "American" means.
17. What would you write on your own tombstone?
QLRS Vol. 12 No. 4 Oct 2013
I'm going for cremation, and my ashes will be strewn in the sea south of Singapore, near Telok Blangah, where I grew up, and where my parents still live. But if an inscription is needed somewhere, let it be: "He was not a poet who happened to be gay. He was a gay poet."