Proust Questionnaire: 17 questions with Samuel Lee
By Yeow Kai Chai
Reading Samuel Lee's poetry on print, one cannot help but chuckle at his quizzical observations of human behaviour. Watching him read it out loud is another level of experience altogether. In a video shot in a supermarket, he read his poem 'On Winning the Award for Most Outstanding Shopper' in a drawl so deadpan, the effect is devastating. At times, his cinematic poems feel like captions to an Aki Kaurismäki film, limned with drollery and quiet emotion.
This combo of sociological insight and gently eviscerating humour served in an affectless manner is unusual among his peers, many of whom tend towards the performative spoken-word bent. This is perhaps one of the reasons why he won the 2018 Singapore Literature Prize for poetry in English for his debut book A Field Guide to Supermarkets in Singapore (Math Paper Press, 2016), which has The Manchester Review admirably comparing his work to that of Beat poet Allen Ginsberg. Lee's poems have also appeared in the Yale Literary Magazine, A Luxury We Cannot Afford (Math Paper Press, 2014), UnFree Verse (Ethos Books, 2017), and 11 x 9: Collaborative Poetry from the Philippines and Singapore (Math Paper Press, 2019).
An associate editor at poetry.sg, he studied literature at the National University of Singapore and Yale University. He is currently pursuing graduate work in art history at the University of Chicago, supported by a National Heritage Board postgraduate scholarship. His research focuses on 19th-century art and visuality. He takes on the Proust Questionnaire on a flight back to Chicago after a Christmas break at home.
1) What are you reading right now?
I tend to juggle many books at the same time because my attentions and appetites are as restless and unruly as this toddler kicking the back of my airplane seat right now. I'm reading, in no immediately logical order, A Forest of Symbols: Art, Science and Truth in the Long Nineteenth Century by Andrei Pop; Bernadine Evaristo's Girl, Woman, Other; The Interior Landscape, a volume of classical Tamil poetry discovered and translated by A. K. Ramanujan in the 1960s; Roy DeCarava and Langston Hughes's The Sweet Flypaper of Life of 1955, which had a reprint last year; Shazia Hafiz's poetry collection Port of Being; Yasmin Khan's new cookbook, Zaitoun; Arundhati Roy's new non-fiction collection, My Seditious Heart; Ann Radcliffe's gothic masterpiece The Italian; Prabda Yoon's Moving Parts, translated by Mui Poopoksakul. These days I read more blog posts and journal articles, things that are written about Southeast Asia in, for example, 'Object Lessons Space' and 'O For Other'. This week I've also been skimming recent issues from a variety of periodicals and journals: Glass Bead, Southeast of Now, Afterall and Critical Inquiry. I can't claim to completely finish any of these cover-to-cover, but I'd like to aspire to that kind of ambition.
2) If you were a famous literary character in a novel, play or poem, what would you be and why?
I would be a cross between a gothic heroine – perhaps Northanger Abbey's Catherine Morland or Villette's Lucy Snowe – and a tired urbanite from the early 21st century, maybe Liz Lemon of 30 Rock. Or the speech bubble that goes "aaack" from that newspaper comic strip, Cathy, which in my view has got to be its own character. I think there's something inherently gothic about putting up with today's multiple crises of knowledge and representation, the keen sense that we live in censorious times despite working and presenting in conditions of hypervisibility, and a weird, general feeling of the conspiratorial permeating the mediums and sources of our knowledge. It's simultaneously terrifying, absurd, and quite hysterical.
3) What is the greatest misconception about you?
I don't think I'm qualified to respond to this question… instead I'd say that all our experience is structured by a fundamental discrepancy between how others see us and the thing that we designate "self-knowledge."
4) Name one living writer and one dead writer you most identify with, and tell us why.
The living writer I most identify with: the collective authorship of everyone who has ever written media releases and social media copy, people who participate in this thankless vocation, which played no small part in my life as a twenty-something with a bachelor's degree in English literature, living in this specific period in the longue-durée history of language and human communication. Is there a masochism to the practice of submitting language to pure transparency, to wilfully live in this fantasy of perfect communicability? I think so, and it would be weird not to. A dead writer I most identify with: Tony Hoagland, who died in October 2018. If there ever was a writer who could mix tenderness and grim feeling with such practised indifference, it's him, and I miss his writing very much.
5) Do you believe in writer's block? If so, how do you overcome it?
Yes. Maybe "overcoming" is the wrong attitude to have – I don't think it's a problem. For me, it's a sign that I've gotten tired of my voice and it's time to pick up something else to read. Kind of like a forced intermission without any definite end, which can be quite delightful. When it does end, I shall expect another one to arrive ASAP. Sometimes a writer's block is caused by a dramatic and unreasonable increase in one's personal standards, which may require a gentle unblocking of a filter somewhere, or a begrudging acceptance of one's very real mediocrity.
6) What qualities do you most admire in a writer?
I like writers who are lazy and have the ability to conceive of non-productiveness as a kind of transformation. I have in my bathroom a text by the Croatian artist Mladen Stilinović, titled 'In Praise of Laziness' (1993), and in my private utopia everyone has a copy of this hanging in their bathrooms, lightly dampened and warped by steam. I like writers who see the common ground between work and non-work. I think that is what human flourishing should look like.
7) What is one trait you most deplore in writing or writers?
Okay, I'm not very into narcissism and the self-soliciting behaviour encouraged by social media, although I recognise that the former is sometimes a vital part of artistic production and indeed of authorship in general, and the latter is a function of how certain forms of writing find their audiences given the limitations of literary marketing far away from the centres of the Anglophone publishing world. I wouldn't deplore these habits – I think that would be unfair – but I consider them a little stifling.
8) Can you recite your favourite line from a literary work or a piece of advice from a writer?
It's a poem plastered across a mural in the neighbourhood I'm living in now. I'm pretty astounded that this gritty, wonderful James Agee poem would appear on a piece of public art. You have to imagine one giant scrolling cartouche, beneath which some hundred or so life-size human figures plod by in a kind of frieze, and all of this goes on for about 50 metres along a sunless tunnel while trains run on incessantly above: "Squealing under city stone/ The millions on the millions run, Every one a life alone, Every one a soul undone:/ / There all the poisons of the heart/ Branch and abound like whirling brooks/ And there through every useless art/ Like spoiled meats on a butcher's hooks/ / Pour forth upon their frightful kind/ The faces of each ruined child:/ The wrecked demeanours of the mind/ That now is tamed, and once was wild."
9) Complete this sentence: Few people know this, but I...
can't stop thinking about that one Britney Spears song from 1999, 'E-Mail My Heart'.
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?
If I go by myself, I'd definitely pick a comedy. Most of my favourite movies are comedies. White Chicks, Mean Girls, Bridesmaids, the Scary Movie franchise, Airplane!, all the Austin Powers movies, Shrek. Honestly, I'm eagerly waiting for their Criterion releases. This may come as a shock but I value a good laugh, and I think comedy is hard to do. I get visual whiplash from action thrillers, but I would go with friends if absolutely necessary. Also, aren't tragedies generally unpleasant to watch on screen? I just don't think cinema is a good form for tragedy. So fight me.
11) What is your favourite word, and what is your least favourite one?
Good words: "crabapple"; "volition"; "knave"; "polysaccharide"; "libation"; "pharmaceuticals." Bad word: "impactful." Ugly words: concepts with "-ity" as a suffix, e.g. materiality, conditionality, historicity, modernity, specificity. I don't think these are "bad," but they are very clunky, in that they contain a bit too many positions and ambivalences, more than a word ought to contain, and I hate that I have to use them frequently.
12) Compose a rhyming couplet that includes the following words: selfie, assemblage, trompe l'oeil.
your third-rate selfie-assemblage from the end of the world
slapped me like a trout thawed, boiled and trompe l'oeil…d
13) What object is indispensable to you when you write?
I guess I need my laptop the most. People in the past were just as precious about their typewriters, I'm sure. Which is not to say that writing is now some kind of immaterial thing; I've grown to conceive of writing as a mechanical activity with the fingers. It's a meeting of several machineries at once. I sometimes write in a notebook with a pencil, but I'm not fully committed to that practice. There's something to be said about moving away from the pencil (as a pointy, scribal extension of the hand or finger) towards the gesture of typing, which to my mind approximates a gentler touch, a caress, something closer to weaving or the scattering of oracle bones, divination, moulding and casting.
14) What is the best time of the day for writing?
At night between 1 and 4 am, with some kind of adult beverage in sight. I also like to do some writing at dawn, though I find that this encourages an annoying and sanctimonious moral tone, which may be associated with the virtuousness of waking up early and feeling like a healthful "morning person."
15) If you have a last supper, which three literary figures, real or fictional, would you invite to the soiree, and why?
It's a last supper, so I am assuming that someone will betray me in the morning. In that case, I will have no choice but to hold a murder mystery with Agatha Christie characters: Jane Marple, Hercule Poirot and Harley Quin.
16) According to your academic profile on the University of Chicago website, your research interests are 19th-century British painting, modern and contemporary art in Southeast Asia, imperialism and visual culture. How has studying art history in the United States informed your creative writing, and vice versa?
The great predicament that anyone doing anything art historical routinely faces, is the impossibility of adequately translating a visual (or other sensory) experience into a verbal or textual object before hermeneutical/analytical work can begin. It's a basic problem that structures what we can say and accept as forms of knowledge in this field, certainly, but I think the same problem is worked out and resolved in creative writing, especially in poetry. This is why, I think, a rather sizeable number of art historians and critics find affinities in poetry: T. J. Clark, Michael Fried, Subhashini Kaligotla, John Ashbery, are some examples. Arthur Yap, who was also an artist, constantly dealt with images and painting in his writing. He talked a lot about afterimages, subtractive operations, "pictures" that throw a wrench into the ontology of an art object. These cross-medium practices might appear obvious and commonplace, but what seems more important to me is that poetry is not just a medium of representation per se (a straightforward sort of "ut pictura poesis" understanding of ekphrasis). Rather, it's now also a medium for theorising representation, or a kind of instrument for re-calibrating thought. That is to say, it's a space for writers to work out what it means to look at something and to figure out, to a much more subjective degree, what the stakes of writing about visual objects really are.
So, all of this is a roundabout way of describing what I'm doing in an art history programme in Chicago. I think I'm lucky to live temporarily in a place with a different intellectual landscape, one that confirms my suspicions that knowledge production is a very site-specific activity. Also, one is still young and therefore still learning about the extent of one's ignorance (as usual), so those sweeping and passionate declarations of research commitments you dug up online must come with many caveats. To put it simply, I'm interested in how the act of visualising – for example: writing, or making some four-channel video installation as we're more wont to do these days – is basically ground zero for imagining a life with others. Of course, in history, this didn't always result in an egalitarian dream. But today we need to reclaim those imaginative or speculative modes of thinking as seriously as we can, as a starting point for making meaningful concrete decisions.
17) What would you write on your own tombstone?
QLRS Vol. 19 No. 1 Jan 2020
"Do not hurry; do not rest." A quote from Goethe that would surely be most amusing on a tombstone.