Sex and the City Poet
Felix Cheong bares all
By Alvin Pang
Felix Cheong is the author of three books of poetry: Temptations and Other Poems (1998), I Watch The Stars Go Out (1999) and most recently, Broken By the Rain (2003). The recipient of the NAC Young Artist of the Year Award for Literature in 2000, he is also active in promoting Singaporean literature abroad. In June 2002, he completed an MPhil in Creative Writing at the University of Queensland. In an email exchange, Alvin Pang got the opportunity to try his patience about his recent work and experiences abroad.
AP: For the benefit of QLRS readers, tell us a bit more about your time in Brisbane and how you spent your time there.
FC: I spent 16 months pursuing my masters in creative writing in Brisbane on an NAC bursary. My family was with me – my wife was also doing her post grad (in applied linguistics), on a scholarship from Temasek Polytechnic. So everything kind of came together. It was a wonderful experience, dipping our lives into a different country, waking up to a different bearing. I now call Brisbane my home away from home – I miss her so much I'd sometimes daydream I'm still walking her streets.
AP: You gave up quite a lucrative job in Singapore in order to do your MPhil in Creative Writing – a decision more pragmatic Singaporeans might balk at. Is that the proverbial price of art? Do you have your regrets?
FC: To say I have no regrets is being dishonest. There have been many times upon my return when I despaired at not finding a job and thought that it was not worth it. But then, I consider it a great heave up the learning curve. This book (Broken By the Rain) wouldn't have been possible if I hadn't devoted energy fulltime to reading, researching and writing. I grew as a writer but lost out (materially) as a man.
AP: And Broken By The Rain, your third volume of poetry, is the product of your labours. What is your secret deep ambition for the book?
FC: I guess at the heart of my new volume is the need to find a new voice, to tap into experiences not my own and to disappear from myself. I had grown increasingly tired of writing as myself, as Felix Cheong, and the only way to bypass the impasse is to take on personas, thus the title... the desire to be fragmented.
AP: It strikes me that the most apt description of your new work with dramatic monologues, is probably ventriloquism, the throwing of the voice. And you allude to puppetry in your afterword in Broken. It of course has a long and complicated association with cultural and poetic practice, from the Greek oracle to divination, spiritualism (you mention being a "medium" in your afterword), speaking in tongues, trances and so on. And of course you have had your Jungian dream of the suicide that became a key poem. Yet, whatever you claim to channel, you seem to gravitate, like any artist or writer, to a few core themes that recur in all three of your books. I'd like to hear from you what your pet obsessions and concerns are as a poet, and the extent to which Broken has helped you to deal with them.
FC: Pet themes: what it means to love, to write, and how it makes us human.
AP: It might be argued that your "voice", that of your poetic persona, has not really gone away, but has instead appropriated the masks of these new characters. For instance, your penchant for wordplay and punning still shows up prominently, and some tropes (middle-aged crisis, representation of public/private selves, the Catholic influence) echo those in your earlier volumes. How would you respond to the point that you are still just putting your words into other people's mouths, rendering them, in an ironic way, more voiceless than ever?
FC: I think there're three issues here – mimesis, appropriation and empathy – and people who ask this question often confuse the three.
Poetry, by its very nature, is heightened language. It's language distilled, filtered, purified, baptised by fire as it were. It's artificial, in a way. The same goes for the dramatic monologue; it cannot be anything more than a poetic rendition. It's not "true to life" the way a playwright or novelist can claim for the dialogue in his work.
My dramatic monologues are therefore not intended to be mimetic of how characters like strippers speak. But they do strive for an emotional truth at the heart of these characters. What is spelt out in "The Stripper" for instance – the fracture between the public and private selves – is exactly what strippers I'd befriended at the Showgirls club in Brisbane have told me, though in not such stark, poetic terms. Indeed, the strippers I'd shown the poem to were taken aback that I, as a guy, could capture their feelings so concisely. To get approval from the very people I was trying to represent is, to me, vindication – I'm not rendering them voiceless but am instead giving them voice.
A related issue here is empathy. The themes, as you rightly pointed out, echo those in my earlier volumes. But this was my only entry point into these characters' psyches. The point of contact between my world and theirs had to be something I could relate to, something I could empathise with. Otherwise, I'd be relying on mere caricatures or stereotypes. For instance, the disjunction between public and private selves in "The Stripper" was something I myself was grappling with – how to carve the poet from the man.
Yes, I appropriate their masks. Yes, they are my words, but the emotional truth that gives those words authenticity is not mine, but my characters'. I am nothing but their medium.
AP: What about the prose piece at the end of Broken?
FC: "Dancer from the Dance" actually started out as a series of short poems about what it meant for a writer to visit a strip club, for Showgirls, located right at the heart of the city, had become my "spiritual home", so to speak, where I spent many hours observing, chatting up the girls and writing. But none of these poems worked – they couldn't capture the mood, the atmosphere, the flirting, the subculture. So I decided eventually to just write it as prose. Some of the dialogue really did take place between this stripper Joanna and myself.
AP: You mentioned encountering an impasse and the desire to break away and "fragment". It's an uncommon want, as Byron might put it, although one suspects that you don't necessarily see this as a heroic enterprise. Could you elaborate on what you were escaping or bypassing, if escape is the appropriate metaphor here, and whether transposing yourself into a foreign setting (not just in terms of dramatis personae but also in terms of Brisbane vis-à-vis Singapore) was part of your strategy?
FC: Escape's the right word... one of the titles I was toying with at one point was "Escape is the Loneliest Word". (There but for the crap of god go I!)
I guess I was trying to escape from the style of my second book I Watch the Stars Go Out, in which a newspaper headline is a trigger for the poet's imagination. Even when I started my Creative Writing programme (at the University of Queensland) in February 2001, I was still writing stuff like that, scraping the bottom of the ideas barrel, because up to that point, my life experience hadn't caught up with my poetry and offered it ammunition. I guess you can say I was trying to escape from having nothing to say.
Yes, being away had everything to do with what goes on in this book. I don't think I could've written it otherwise. I had some idea what kind of book I'd wanted to write when I began my Masters, but within two months, I realised how shallow it was, how it was simply a sequel to I Watch the Stars.
But it wasn't "part of a strategy", as you put it; the process was more spontaneous and organic. There were two turning points: a conscious attempt to explode a strip club (partly to satisfy and arouse curiosity, partly to defy my Catholic upbringing), and a poem that came to me in a dream, which turned out to be "Notes for a Suicide".
AP: Why a strip club (versus, say, 3 months on a farm)? You landed in Brisbane and told yourself, "Ok I have to visit a strip club to be a better writer"? Was it due to the fact that it was a doubly extraneous experience for a married Singaporean? Or the lure of the exotic? Surely you're a man of the world...
FC: My analysis of the experience is really after-the-fact. At no point during those cafe latte afternoons at Showgirls was I conscious that (1) my writing was gonna improve by hanging around the club, or that (2) it would eventually help me open up vistas into characters and personalities like serial killers, etc.
I can't explain it, but being in the club simply opened up possibilities. I saw a side of human nature I wasn't privy to in strait-laced Singapore. Perhaps it's got to do with learning from the strippers how to take on personae. Perhaps it's got to do with identifying with the act of stripping – they on stage and I on the page.
Perhaps 3 months' farm stay might've produced a different lot of poems but I seriously doubt if anything good would've come of that! My poetry has always erred on the side of the urban and the urbane. It's got no affinity with nature.
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!QLRS Vol. 2 No. 3 Apr 2003