In a slight change of pace and in collaboration with our Hong Kong and Chinese Literature section, we are delighted to feature an interview with poet and post-structuralist thinker, Desmond Kon. Author of nine poetry collections, three hybrid works and an epistolary novel, Kon has been widely anthologized and published in over 200 venues. He is the founding editor and publisher of Squircle Line Press.
The interview is conducted by Tammy Ho Lai Ming, founding co-editor of Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, and Jason Eng Hun Lee.
Tammy Ho Lai Ming and Jason Eng Hun Lee: In your opinion, how useful is poetry as a medium for expressing your personal experiences? How does it compare to the other genres you write in?
Desmond Kon: I’m not a confessional poet. Any rendering of my personal experience becomes so allusive, as to make an archaeology of true intent quite impossible. I adore working in poetry most because I feel meaning, and the way meaning is made, can be best interrogated in that genre. I feel nonfiction has the onerous task of reflecting truth, truth being such a complex idea. Truth is a mere construction, in my view of things, as subject to the beauties and vagaries of language.
THLM and JL: What aesthetic or poetic style would you say best characterises your work?
DK: My work is best read with a poststructuralist gaze. I love working in lyric compression, extended metaphor, irony, kitsch, absurdity, surrealism. The wide-ranging particularities in my work – the density often making for an opacity – are usually mere metaphorical pivots that may spiral into any number of readings. The more varied the interpretation, the more my writing gains reach and traction. Even when my work seems transparent and distilled, it can best be described as post-confessionalist.
I’m constantly querying myself as to what makes a good poem. There is no simple answer to this question. There are aspects one can look for in a poem, things that point to its development, and whether the poem has reached its completion. How the syntax works the poem’s drama, for instance. Whether a centre seems discoverable, and if not, how that obscurity functions on the page. What kind of performance – stage or page – do the words best lend themselves? Then there’s the matter of image and imagery. Diction. Line breaks and enjambment. Are the lines metered, and what other sonic effects are at play? How’s the rhythm working? Poems not only give us visual cues – we need to hear them too. The art of euphony. I have the habit of doing close readings, and keeping an eye out for any jostling between lyric and narrative. To see how the levels work out, how the tension is afforded a fine balance.
THLM and JL: How do you think a city is best narrated? Is there any particular aesthetic or poetic style that you use to represent your home city of Singapore?
DK: Cities are mere constructs, inhabited spaces with their own history, interactions, culture, socio-political underpinnings. These complexities evolve, and the engaged artist commonly can cut through surface impressions to unearth a particularity that provides insight into the heart of the city. This insight is relative, and emerges from the artist’s own experience of the city in his/her time. I like the critical, interrogative, generous, important questions an author may ask of a city, which help one to think more intelligently about it. To understand the city as artifice, even as the artist renders it into art.
My work is elliptical and allusive, though I have invented two poetic forms: the asingbol and the anima methodi (co-created with Eric Tinsay Valles). These new forms did spring from a kind of comfortable acceptance that I’m happy being a writer based in Singapore. I created the forms very intuitively, with some sense that they were structures that help articulate what it means to experience a bit of Singapore living.
THLM and JL: Are there any political, social or economic critiques about Singapore represented in your poetry, and has this sentiment grown or been reduced over time?
DK: Because my work is often postmodern, it questions the metanarrative, and usually assumes any story/history as a narrative of contingency. Through various tropic devices, these dominant discourses/narratives become untethered, and unravel into different arcs, however tangential or illusory. I like to cast a gaze at our consumerist, materialist culture – the national obsession with ownership/possession/acquisition of wealth, land, assets, qualifications, travel destinations, handbags, even culture. I like to ponder what such material obsessions do to the contemplative spirit, the inner life of an individual.
The well-known stresses of our educational system is also something I toy with in my latest collection, Apophenia: Forty-one Dada Dilemmas. Prefaced by an epigraph from Plato, this book comprises poem riddles, written up as impossible puzzles. Apophenia is used as a central technique, the term referring to the human tendency to perceive patterns and meaningfulness in random data and unrelated phenomena. Invoking an assortment of literary figures — a diverse spread, from Akhmatova, Bishop, DeLillo, Diogenes, Eliot, Hejinian, Murakami, Niedecker, Plath, Derrida, Deleuze, Stein, Tzara, to Yeats — the book revels in conflation and catachresis in generating its suite of absurdist poems.
THLM and JL: What is your reaction towards the expression ‘the Asian experience’? Do you think Asian cities tend to have more similarities than differences, and if so what are they?
DK: I think ‘the Asian experience’ is an artificial construct. It has its uses, as with any label, but it may unfortunately serve to essentialize or reduce a layered, diverse, heterogeneous experience into something static and defined. If I do depict aspects of ‘the Asian experience’, it’s usually with an awareness of how plastic and orchestrated my engagement remains.
I think cities share a likeness, as places of promise. Cities are places of opportunity. Cities are hubs, where great wealth (of ideas, culture and money) is exchanged. As economic centres, cities do attract dreamers of every kind. People gravitate to cities as places where they can realize their own ambitions. Because of this, cities tend to be places of great diversity, creativity and energy. However, this very quality – accompanied by a keen utilitarianism – can also make a city a terribly alienating place.
THLM and JL: Is there a particular place, area or scene in the city that you write about more often than others? If so, why?
DK: My own home, and the books within it. I like to reference other works and authors a great deal, and this is a Modernist Eliotic sensibility which I revel in. It lends my work its obscurity, but I’m happy with this effect. I allow my books to be anchors or openings from which I reach out to the world, through invocation and dispensation. I do listen to everyday conversations, and use dialogue to establish the speech acts of the city.
When my lyric is at its most compressed, that linguistic register reflects the manic pace of the city. When the lyric is deceptively accessible, it reflects the illusions – and sometimes illusory perceptions – of the city’s inhabitants.
THLM and JL: When writing about Singapore, do you predominantly use first, second or third-person narration? Why?
DK: All and none. I have a love affair with language, despite how language ultimately and sadly fails us – that I remain faceless, in spite of it all. Blame Foucault – that the language is no path or opening or dirt road to a defined biography of the author. That kind of solidity – often, a misguided archaeology – is disconcerting. The work of metaphor allows illusion to surface, buoyed by trope and absence within our tiny acts of meaning making. The illusion is an indictment of what it means to grasp at reality, the illusion itself something that can only be grasped at.
Language is ultimately merely a system of significations, and the relationships that exist between things and words are merely constructions, also largely arbitrary. I like to think of experience – both transcendental and worldly – as ineffable. I have no presumptions – no delusions of grandeur – about knowing the secrets of the universe. Hence, any language of my creation is but an utterance, scarcely a profession or categorical statement. There is nothing to be persuaded, and nothing that needs persuading. Life is quaintly ineffable, at least that’s the way I see it. Life beyond and around life remains inexpressible and unsayable.
I like to write about the impossibility of language. If in life, I’ve celebrated what remains beyond the limits of language, what more then in death when I’m no longer around to speak for my work? This is an irony that I hope will stay with perceptions and readings of my work. That there lies within the text a secret, and yet no secret lies within. This absence of definitive meaning offers a strange calm. It’s the soft rise and ebb of a distinct quiet – the steady movements of silence – one experiences before, during, and after the rain.
THLM and JL: Do you actively participate in the poetry community in Singapore? Do you think poets living in a city should identify themselves collectively?
DK: Yes, I’m very active within the Singapore literary scene. I’ve given readings, organized events, edited anthologies, spoken on panels, adjudicated in competitions, taught many classes, among other things. There are possibly no more than 100 poets who have published an English book of poems to date. If one is active in the scene, one would probably recognize all the other poets. In the last four years, there has been a huge interest in poetry in Singapore, with many new, emerging voices. This is wonderful to witness. I absolutely love it.
It can be a useful label to be called a Singapore poet, when one, for instance, is invited to read at an international festival. The label, however, is an artificial one. Every writer has a distinct voice, and a distinct perception of his/her reality. This distinct worldview translates into a particular expression in his/her art. If the collective label were applied, it wouldn’t necessarily reflect a singular identity or representation. I’m usually more interested in poets who form collectives or movements based on aesthetics, eg. the Black Mountain Poets, the Language Poets, the Beat Poets.
In Singapore, the community is intimate and small, which can be advantageous or disadvantageous to a budding writer. It can seem daunting to get one’s voice heard, to find like minds within the scene. Yet, I think the established writers here are welcoming and inclusive of different aesthetics. Many older writers have helped increase literary appreciation through various ways, helping to develop and grow the scene here.
Singapore is a young nation, which means there is a short history and a very small canon to speak of. Not many Singaporeans are aware of Singapore literature. Not many have even read a literary offering authored by a Singapore writer. This is sad to know. The interest in literature at secondary schools has also diminished over the last decade. There, however, seems increased interest in English literature at the university level. This is an interesting trend that has emerged in recent years. Unlike bigger countries with longer histories, Singapore has yet to develop a rich and complex enough literary tradition that can boast of literary movements or schools of poetry. Hopefully, the robust literary scene now will help create that kind of diversity and rigour.
Tammy Ho Lai-Ming is a founding co-editor of Cha: An Asian Literary Journal and the academic journal Hong Kong Studies (Chinese University Press), English Editor of Voice & Verse Poetry Magazine (聲韻詩刊), and Vice-President of PEN Hong Kong. She is the author of Hula Hooping (Chameleon Press, 2015), and co-editor of the following poetry anthologies: Desde Hong Kong: Poets in Conversation with Octavio Paz, Quixotica: Poems East of La Mancha, and Twin Cities: An Anthology of Twin Cinema from Singapore and Hong Kong. She is an Assistant Professor at Hong Kong Baptist University.
Jason Eng Hun Lee is a poet and academic at Hong Kong Baptist University. He has been published in Envoi, Acumen, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore and The Best New British and Irish Poets 2016. He is a recurring guest editor / judge / reviewer for Cha: An Asian Literary Journal and author of Beds in the East (Eyewear Press, 2018).