Proust Questionnaire: 17 questions with Boey Kim Cheng
By Yeow Kai Chai
Singapore's loss is Australia's gain: regarded as one of Singapore's best post-1965 English-language poets, Boey Kim Cheng packed his bags and emigrated Down Under with his family in 1996. Nevertheless, the themes of home and identity continue to inform his estimable body of work, which comprises four collections of poetry and a book of essays so far. Now teaching creative writing at the University of Newcastle in Callaghan, New South Waves, he also co-edits the bi-annual online journal Mascara Literary Review.
He takes time off from working on his next book of poems to answer QLRS' third Proust Questionnaire.
1) What are you reading right now?
A few books, moving between them. It's hard to be astonished and captivated by new writing these days, but The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal has me really hooked. It's very Proustian, about art collection, memory, fin-de-siècle Paris, all very deftly woven together. I am doing lots of re-reading. Middle age has that effect on you – you retrace the steps back to books that had made a difference in the way you read and live. One of them is Tristes Tropiques by Claude Lévi-Strauss. It's quite a mournful book actually, prophetic in the way it foresaw the onslaught of globalisation, how the last vestiges of primitive society would be swept away. Re-reading lots of travel books too – Chatwin and Theroux.
2) If you were a famous literary character in a novel, play or poem, what would you be and why?
I suppose that is the magic of reading, that it allows you to inhabit the character and the world of the story or poem so fully, that all else seems insignificant. There is no one character that I want to be. At different points in my reading life, I have wanted to be Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited, Sal Paradise in On the Road, the narrator-protagonist in Zorba the Greek, the traveller in In Patagonia and so on. With these books and writers, you feel lifted wholly out of your quotidian self and transported to a realm of heightened living, of a place and time so real that it eclipses your own world.
3) What is the greatest misconception about you?
Not sure. Maybe there was this perception that I was arrogant when I was younger. I was very shy and had a hermetic disposition and a dislike of any form of self-advertisement. So I turned down a few invitations and requests for interviews, which might have offended some well-meaning individuals.
4) Name one living author and one dead author you most identify with, and tell us why.
Hard to find any living but many dead ones I feel close to. I think it's difficult to know a living writer well, to know for certain he/she is who you think he/she is, through the writing. With the dead writers, you feel you possess the life and work in all its entirety, and through long apprenticeship and re-reading they have become part of you. Robert Lowell, Rilke, Edward Thomas, George Orwell. Keats and Du Fu have become an indispensable part of my life. Also, it's not possible to envy the dead writers, though you wish you could come close to them in your writing. They are past envy, whereas the living ones are not.
5) Do you believe in writer's block? If so, how do you overcome it?
No, I don't believe in it. It's just nature's way of saying "slow down, keep still" – there might be more important things than writing. I've never been a regular or disciplined writer who sits at the desk for eight hours or churns out a quota of words or pages a day. There are intervals, stretches when I do no writing, just teaching and reading my students' works. Or just idling and reading. I think idleness is important; it is a learning period and allows me to put some distance between books, between poems and stories, so that there is some movement, some change in form and direction. Otherwise you might repeat yourself or end up writing the same book over and over.
6) What qualities do you most admire in a writer?
Integrity, courage and humility.
7) What is one trait you most deplore in writing or writers?
Self-promotion. Grovelling and networking for favours.
8) Can you recite your favourite line from a literary work or a piece of advice from a writer?
From Cavafy's "The First Rung," quite encouraging advice to writers young and old:
Just to be on the first step
should make you happy and proud.
To have come this far is no small achievement:
what you have done is a glorious thing.
Even this first step
is a long way above the ordinary world.
To stand on this step
you must be in your own right
a member of the city of ideas.
And it is a hard, unusual thing
to be enrolled as a citizen of that city
9) Complete this sentence: Few people know this, but I...
love the art of loafing and the Carpenters.
10) Over easy, or hard boiled, which?
11) What is your favourite word, and what is your least favourite one?
The first is "heimat" (German for home) and the second is "nice".
12) Please compose a couplet with the following words: quiet, clock, knee.
In the dark room he sits, right hand quiet on the knee,
his left moving on the keys to the clock of memory.
13) What object is indispensable to you when you write?
Used to be cigarettes. Now incense, a sort of substitute, to kickstart the senses.
14) What is the best time of the day for writing?
9-12am and 2-4pm.
15) If you have a last supper, which three literary figures, real or fictional, would you invite to the soiree?
Du Fu, John Keats and Edward Thomas. Perhaps Wang Wei if Du Fu is not available.
16) What is a place or building in Singapore you miss most, and why?
Change Alley. I've written about it over and over again but have failed to bring back the presence of the place, the unique smell that I inhaled deeply whenever I went there, which was very frequent, since the British Council library was just next door. It's like a formula to a kind of happiness, a key to something I have lost.
17) What would you write on your own tombstone?
QLRS Vol. 11 No. 2 Apr 2012
Perhaps the line from Eliot: "For us there is only the trying."