Proust Questionnaire: 17 Questions with Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé
By Yeow Kai Chai
Desmond Kon is a rapacious literary transformer. He first made his name as a brilliant scribe for the entertainment weekly 8 Days, but quickly proved he had bigger fish to hunt. He lectured at the School of Film & Media Studies at Ngee Ann Polytechnic, before jetting off to America where he garnered a theology masters (world religions) from Harvard University and a fine arts masters (creative writing) from the University of Notre Dame. To date, he has edited more than 15 books and co-produced three audio books. And, yes, he founded his own publishing house, Squircle Line Press.
Desmond Kon is a rapacious literary transformer. He first made his name as a brilliant scribe for the entertainment weekly 8 Days, but quickly proved he had bigger fish to hunt.
He lectured at the School of Film & Media Studies at Ngee Ann Polytechnic, before jetting off to America where he garnered a theology masters (world religions) from Harvard University and a fine arts masters (creative writing) from the University of Notre Dame. To date, he has edited more than 15 books and co-produced three audio books. And, yes, he founded his own publishing house, Squircle Line Press.
His own literary output has been prodigious, varied, playful, unapologetically intellectual, and out-there. He is the author of the epistolary novel, Singular Acts of Endearment, and four collections of poetry. He has made history by being the first-ever winner in both Poetry and Visionary Fiction categories at the Beverly Hills International Book Awards as well as having two collections tie for Poetry at the National Indie Excellence Book Awards. Singular Acts received the Independent Publisher Silver Book Award (Multicultural Fiction), and placed as a finalist at the Eric Hoffer Book Awards (General Fiction) and International Book Awards (Cross Genre Fiction).
His latest works include a poetry collection, The Wrong/Wrung Side of Love; and a new hybrid work, Babel Via Negativa, which will be published by Ethos Books in time for Singapore Writers Festival this year. He is finishing a poetry collection called Phat Planet Cometh and in the final stages of editing an anthology on the art of dying, titled Ars Moriendi.1. What are you reading right now?
Guillevic's Geometries. Each poem has a shape above it. I'm writing another book which alternates between alphabetised poem and graphic/geometric rendering – as I did with The Arbitrary Sign two years ago – so this helps me get into that headspace. Pierre Joris, one of my all-time favourite writers, calls Guillevic's poems "sexy moves from old Euclid's boxy shapes".
There is also Merrill Gilfillan's Undanceable, with its distilled sense of things. These poems are beautifully rendered – every enjambment, every turn of phrase seems deliberate yet effortless. Bedside, I have Kneller's Happy Campers by Etgar Keret. It's one book that always makes me laugh out loud, so that's a good thing to have near me.
As poetry editor of Kitaab.org, I get a steady stream of submissions to sift through. I'm also reading a book, Museum of Words: The Poetics of Ekphrasis from Homer to Ashbery, recommended by Robin Hemley when he invited me to be a guest speaker in his writing class at Yale-NUS College. This is research really, for this year's Eye/Feel/Write special programme at the Singapore Writers Festival. While we collaborated with Singapore Art Museum last year, we're working with National Gallery Singapore this year. All very exciting since it will be opening with a bang later this year. As editor and manager of the project, I've invited 10 distinguished writers – namely Alfian Sa'at, Chow Teck Seng, Divya Victor, Eric Tinsay Valles, Gwee Li Sui, Jerrold Yam, K Kanagalatha, Lee Tzu Pheng, Leong Liew Geok, and Yong Shu Hoong – to pen ekphrastic texts based on 10 very diverse artworks to be unveiled at The National Gallery. I'm totally thrilled to be working with the inspired texts of such fine writers.
There are also some books I bought from Salt months ago, which I haven't had time to get into. Kieran Devaney's Deaf at Spiral Park. Chris Emery's The Departure. Jonathan Taylor's Entertaining Strangers. From the awesome Ugly Duckling Press, there're Jacqueline Waters' One Sleeps The Other Doesn't, Maureen Thorson's Apples to Oranges, and Craig Foltz's We Used to Be Everywhere. Oh, and at Novena Square weeks ago, I got these titles for just $4 each, will you believe it? Jon McGregor's Even the Dogs. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's Heat and Dust. And Mo Yan's Red Sorghum. I remember watching the screen adaptation, my first Zhang Yimou film, more than 20 years ago. But I've never read the book proper. I swear in mid-life, life is just one huge catching up with everything you wanted to do but never had the time to.
2. If you were a famous literary character in a novel, play, or poem, who would you be, and why?
3. What is the greatest misconception about you?
From several students: That I have great passions that make me want life to go on forever. I'm really quite finished, and death seems like a happy ending. Maybe that's the recluse talking. Sometimes I can't tell. On my headstone will be inscribed: "Here lies a hermit, who rarely went out to meet people, even old and long-suffering friends."
4. Name one living author and one dead author you identify with most, and tell us why.
The other author would be Frank O'Hara of the New York School. Again, not because of the man, but the way he wrote. John Wilkinson recommended that I read his work, after having seen some of my poems. There was a freshness to O'Hara's voice. It was like walking into a room filled with every kind of flower. His language possessed that intense and natural air. A nice swagger, but not affected or pompous.
5. Do you believe in writer's block? If so, how do you overcome it?
6. What qualities do you admire most in a writer?
7. What is one trait you deplore most in writing or writers?
8. Can you recite your favourite line from a literary work or a piece of advice from a writer?
Here's another line. It's by Horace: "Many brave men lived before Agamemnon; but all are overwhelmed in eternal night, unwept, unknown, because they lack a sacred poet."
9. Complete this sentence: Few people know this, but…
I'm really a married man and my wife is a hotshot investment banker. Kidding.
I'm really into handcuffs and cilices and chainmail and leather and all that shit. Kidding.
I once almost starved to death because all I ate were Pringles and Diet Coke for three months.
I've fractured my hip twice. My left collar bone and pinkie too.
I've died once. When I was 26, a palmist told me it'd happen. She couldn't understand how or why two deaths were written into my palm. She hesitated to tell me. With my consent, that was the last thing she told me in the reading. And it actually happened when I was in my 30s. Yes, I've actually died once before. Well, it was a near-death experience, NDE for short.
We could get all Freudian and psychoanalytic about it – y'know, chalk it up to subconscious impressions – but, well, you weren't there.
Thus, I've seen angels. At least I thought they were angels. They were kind and patient. They're the happy upshot.
And yes, there's the tunnel of light. For me, it was more of a wide thoroughfare of light.
I have the original prop of the faux leather journal in Teaching Mrs Tingle. Such a wicked dark comedy. I also have movie replica swords hanging on my walls. Legolas' fighting knives from The Lord of the Rings. The catspaw dagger in Game of Thrones. Mithodrin's Valdris designed by the amazing Kit Rae, who's famous for his fantasy swords. So, yes, I definitely have a freak flag.
I've also spent half my life searching for the perfect leather tote. The one Matt Damon carried in The Talented Mr Ripley. I finally found it last December in Campomaggi. Campomaggi bags are unbelievable. The leather is natural cowhide from Tuscany. They soak and wash the leather in special tanks with vegetal colouring agents. The final colours are amazing, and each bag looks worn and weathered. Yes, my freak flag is made of leather.
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?
11. What is your favourite word, and what is your least favourite one?
My least favourite word could be "pulchritude". It just seems so overdone. If something's pretty, just say it's pretty. Oh and "LOL", simply because it keeps cropping up and there doesn't seem a better way to say it. Thanks to Hao Guang, who taught me how to use stickers on Facebook, I am now capable of expressing a whole range of emotions… LOL
12. Write a rhyming couplet that includes the following three items: pariah, prairie, cantaloupe.
13. What object is indispensable to you when you write?
14. What is the best time of the day for writing?
15. If you had a last supper, which three literary figures, real or fictional, would you invite to the soiree, and why?
Okay, let's get serious. T. S. Eliot and Hart Crane, so they can fight it out. Thomas Bernhard can join in, to chronicle the angst and the madness, and turn it into a novel about art. Oh no, let's make it Alberto Ríos, Simon Armitage, and Charles Wright. Oh no, there's Paul Celan and Christian Bök and Dan Beachy-Quick. Wait, there's John Keats, as played by Ben Whishaw in Bright Star. Because, OMG, Ben Whishaw is gorgeous.
16. Hanif Kureishi, who teaches creative writing, says such courses are a "waste of time", adding that "a lot of my students just can't tell a story". As someone who has a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing, do you agree?
Let me first say that I have a lot to say about this, and for the sake of my own weak heart, I'll try to restrain myself. I'm also not just responding to Kureishi's comment, but going on a spiel about why I totally root for the creative writing degree. Yes, I'm advocating.
First of all, I have seen unbelievable talent in my writing classes. Many students bring in pieces which are already interesting in the first workshop. In just 15 weeks, I find myself coaxing them to pursue English at the university level, and to continue involving themselves in reading groups and writing workshops.
Second, for many students – serious or not serious about becoming a writer – creative writing classes are often the most enjoyable classes in school. Many of my students have mentioned how they wished there were more of such classes, that their curricula requirements didn't limit the number of writing classes they could take. I think it's not ridiculous to say a paid education can also be a very pleasurable one. The MFA in Creative Writing is totally the most fun and challenging and gratifying kind of degree… that is, if you're serious about letting the entirety of the experience soak in, not just wash through or over you – if you're willing to let go. As someone who's been through the MFA programme, I have nothing but good things to say about it. It wasn't all a joyride, make no mistake. I found myself grappling with my own preconceived notions of what constitutes a good text or a good read – this, despite my having been a writer in some capacity for 15 years before. I found myself understanding my own neuroses, obsessions, delusions, ambitions, drives, limitations, and I came out a fuller human being. Not necessarily better, but fuller. And I realised the next half of my life would be to navigate this newness of self. I think I actually got a new lease of life, a new chance at forging a life of happiness for myself, on my own terms.
Third, on the matter of economics, prospective students can avoid getting into life-sucking student debt by first honing their craft on their own [a nod to Kureishi here], and producing a solid writing sample to get into a fine arts program with waived tuition and/or scholarship.
Fourth, the BFA or MFA focuses on the professionalisation of creative writing. It helps a serious writer understand what it means to try to fuel their writing passions while having to juggle everything else in their lives, whether it's being a first-time parent or working two jobs. It also gets them into a dialogue about different aspects of the publishing industry, like contracts, intellectual property rights, royalties, literary agents, journal submissions, etc.
Fifth, you get to interact with faculty who are usually published authors themselves. Each professor will have personal insights to share about their own writing habits, approaches to craft and criticism, landing a book contract, among other things. Some professors are generous, and will open doors for writers with huge promise. Then there are the readings you're invited to, and get to attend. Sometimes, there are great tie-ups with nonprofits to give back to the community through the arts. Sometimes, there are literary magazines, on which students may work as fiction/poetry/reviews/interviews editors, readers, copyeditors, even designers if they're into that. Then, there's the community. You don't quite get that sort of community commitment with a reading group that meets four times a year. And after watching each other make major strides in writing over weekly workshops – the intense listening, reading, writing, critiques, and all that needlework over metaphor and imagery and punctuation and lineation – you really do forge lifelong friendships. You do journey together as writers henceforth. There's an incredible feeling years later when you see a fellow writer you workshopped with get work accepted into a literary journal, or have their book published.
Sixth, had I known I could write a poetry collection for my book-length thesis, I would have done it as an undergrad. Hell, in my time – that's more than 20 years ago – the first degree programme in media studies had yet to commence. I did love majoring in sociology and mass communication, and I did love studying world religions in my theology masters years later. But that creative dissertation for my MFA? I didn't need any convincing to bust my big ass working on it – man, I was enjoying the process so much, I would be one of a dozen people staying in over winter break, cooped up in the library just to get every shift in syntax right.
Seventh, the creative writing programme is wildly popular in the US, with over 300 accredited creative writing schools, with even more offered courses. Here, in Singapore, the field is experiencing a great start. So, we're nowhere near a saturation point, or of having too many graduating students realising on hindsight that they didn't have the talent or stamina or interest or love of literature to take up the degree or pursue a writing career. In fact, we're probably ignoring a good many very talented writers, who would have benefited greatly from such an immersion. An immersion in a safe and creative space.
Eighth, you don't take eight weeks of violin – hell, make it eight years – and say I'm going to be a maestro. Whoever's listening will just stare at you, and simply burst out laughing. It's absurd. Yet, when it comes to the literary arts (as opposed to the many other wonderful fine art disciplines), there's this bizarre idea that just because one speaks the language – just because one is literate – one can be that literary master of letters. That said, there are many published writers (very successful, one might add) who have little or no training in literature or creative writing at the college level.
Also, let it be said that MFA degrees typically balance out the workshop classes with a good deal of theory and literature ones. This balance affords students a well-rounded sense of what it means to be a good, critical reader of texts, as well as a good, critical maker of texts. One may be able to critically analyse a text – through the apparatus of Structuralism, Russian Formalism, New Criticism, New Historicism, Archetypal Criticism, Myth Criticism, Genre Criticism, Psychoanalytic Criticism, Feminist Criticism, Queer Theory, Deconstruction, and what have you in the crazy, wonderful world of theory – but that does not necessarily (or always) translate into one learning to be a good writer of poems or fiction. That dedication of time and effort to structured practice is important – at least for me, especially in a world that leaves one with very little personal space, much less time to work on a book-length manuscript. Those few years offer a very precious time of incubation. Oh, and don't get me wrong, I'm not advocating the Creative Writing route over the Literature in English route. In some English programmes, there's the flexibility to take workshop classes, which is a wonderful thing. It just boils down to what kind of degree the student wants to have on that scroll when he or she walks across that stage. Just hearing anyone want to pursue studies in the literary arts makes me chipper, it doesn't matter which option they decide on.
The question of whether creative writing can in fact be taught is an age-old one, and it's quite a beaten-down question. There are as many people standing on either side of the fence. It's certainly a legitimate question. I'll take a leaf from the wonderful Wallace Stegner, who was there from the very beginning – in the 1940s, when the Iowa Writers Workshop was the only degree-granting go-to place in America (it's still the go-to place) – in the area championing the creation and recognition of creative writing as a bona fide academic discipline:
"Every book that anyone sets out on is a voyage of discovery that may discover nothing. Any voyager may be lost at sea, like John Cabot. Nobody can teach the geography of the undiscovered. All he can do is encourage the will to explore, plus impress upon the inexperienced a few of the dos and don'ts of voyaging. A teacher who has been on those seas can teach certain things – equivalents of the use of compass and sextant: the language and its uses, and certain tested literary tools and techniques and strategies and stances and ways of getting at the narrative essence of a story or novel or the dramatic force of a play or the memorableness of a poetically honed thought. Any teacher can discourage bad (meaning, unproductive or ineffective) habits and encourage those that work. He can lead a young talent to do what it is most capable of doing, and save it from some frustrating misdirections. He can communicate the necessary truth that good writing is an end in itself, that an honest writer is a member of a worthy guild. That may be the most important function of the teacher of writing."
I also like what Jeanette Winterson had to say, in disagreeing with Kureishi. I'm going to place here what she was quoted as saying in the Guardian article: "My job is not to teach my MA students to write; my job is to explode language in their faces. To show them that writing is both bomb and bomb disposal – a necessary shattering of cliché and assumption, and a powerful defusing of the soul-destroying messages of modern life (that nothing matters, nothing changes, money is everything, etc). Writing is a state of being as well as an act of doing. My job is to alter their relationship with language. The rest is up to them."
There's a great nobility in what Winterson said, and indeed, a real sense of what it means to be a teacher-as-mentor-and-guide rather than the teacher-as-I-have-a-big-box-of-formulas-to-teach-you-with-and-if-you-learn-this-you'll-be-able-to-pass-life-with-flying-flippin'-colours. I've never subscribed to the creative writing teacher's role as that kind of bizarre top-down construct. It can be an apprenticeship, but I'd like to think of it as an egalitarian one. It's an author put in dialogue with another author.
Wallace Stegner was asked another question in that tiny book, On the Teaching of Creative Writing: "To what extent should the teacher try to become internal to what students write, internal to their actual creative process of writing?"
Here's his answer: "The internal part is the student's own business. Only he or she knows what is intended; only he or she can perform or realise it. A teacher should understand that intention, but not try to control it. He doesn't have to invent this young writer, he only has to help train him. There are, of course, plenty of writing teachers who create cliques and coteries. I find them reprehensible – the wrong kind, bent on producing clones of themselves or their cult figures. Negative capability, a phrase that Keats used, is what is needed here: sympathy, empathy, a capacity to enter into another mind without dominating it. Strong-minded teachers with narrow views of their function are more likely to give a student attitudes he must live down, than help in assuming his own full stature."
Okay, I feel I could go on indefinitely. I just wrote all that in a jiffy, so apologies to any anti-MFA zealots. But I also feel like my heart is weeping. And that it's going to burst wide open. I think you've given me an aneurysm with your question. I feel like I've done the ten-mile run, and I'm going into cardiac arrest. I need a pint of whiskey, and you're paying…. [the most tragic of emoticons].
17. What would you write on your own tombstone?