Nicholas Wong with Jee Leong Koh

Nicholas Wong and Jee Leong Koh
Nicholas Wong and Jee Leong Koh

Nicholas Wong: Let’s start by discussing the title of your latest poetry collection Steep Tea (Carcanet, 2015). How did you arrive at the title? In an interview published in Lantern Review, you mentioned how distance was necessary for you to write about Singapore, your country of birth. What about time? After having moved to the States for more than a decade, how has your view on poetry changed?

Jee Leong Koh: I named the book after an autumn kasen renga in the collection. The renga (Japanese linked verse) was written with R.A. Briggs, an American poet living in Brisbane then. That was in part what drew me to Ray, the fact that we were both living away from home, both writing to discover and inhabit our new environments. Ray wrote the hokku that started the renga:

maple, apple
steep the world in red
we drink jewel tea

It was a very hospitable beginning, as befits the start of a renga. It was also an image of passionate, sensual, and glittering immersion in the world of nature. I took two of its words and made them the title. “Steep Tea” speaks of total and prolonged immersion but it also alludes to the difficulties of doing so, as the pun on “steep” suggests. Migration from one country to another, in my case from Singapore to the US, is not easy, but it involves a form of total immersion, which I have found productive for my writing. Tea is now a drink enjoyed in both the East and West, but it is only so after a long, painful history of European colonialism. Tea is made, after all, not only from tea leaves, but also from boiling water. Similarly, the poems in my book are made from local materials steeped in the boil of British imperialism and Westward migration.

When I first moved to New York thirteen years ago, I wanted to think of myself as an international, even stateless, writer, so keen was I to break off ties with Singapore. Now I think of myself as a Singapore writer living in New York City. I have a stronger sense of my Singaporean identity while living away from Singapore. That does not mean my poetry is taken up with Singaporean subjects. On the contrary, I feel freer to write about anything because I feel surer of who I am. I don’t have to prove I am a Singapore writer by writing about the monsoon, the merlion, or the Man. Or prove I am not a Singapore writer by not writing about the monsoon, the merlion, or the Man. I don’t have to prove anything. Besides subject matter, I also feel freer to write in any way I wish. I’ve grown more and more interested in Japanese literary forms, having written a collection of zuihitsu called The Pillow Book in homage to Sei Shōnagon. I’m now working on a book of haiku about Central Park in New York. I may never become naturalized as an American, but I want to play a part in naturalizing the haiku in the American poetic tradition. After living here for so long, I feel liberated from my past adherence to British poetry.

Coming back to the renga in Steep Tea, I think of it also as a guide to reading the relationship between the poems and their epigraphs. All the poems in Steep Tea begin with a quotation of a woman poet. Just as the renga is a collaboration between R.A. Briggs and me, the poems are written, and to be read, in collaboration with the epigraphs. That does not mean all the collaborations are only or wholly friendly. Real collaborations involve negotiation, argument, even criticism, as well as admiration and imitation.

NW: Why female poets? How did the selection happen? Were there any other lines you also used, but were finally cut? The words of Eavan Boland start a good number of poems in Steep Tea. What about her work or life makes her your big muse in the book?

JLK: The book began when I was reading Eavan Boland’s Collected Poems in an on-line poetry group. I found myself writing poems in response to her work. In response to her use of Irish myth, as in her poem “Listen. This Is the Noise of Myth,” I wrote “You Know, Don’t You” about the stories we tell ourselves and the strangers we meet in a bar. In response to her floral poem on love “The Wild Spray,” I wrote a tribute to the early stages of a love affair called “The Wine Bottle Holder.” In response to her protest in “Marriage” against the historical oppression of the Irish, I wrote “A Whole History” in protest against the on-going oppression of gay people. And in response to her meditations on using English, the language of her oppressors, in poems such as “The Mother Tongue,” I wrote “Attribution” about the time I was caught for plagiarism at Oxford. Boland writes strenuous poems, poems that struggle against repression, falsehood, and oblivion. They live in the tension between myth and reality, passion and domesticity, oppression and freedom, using English and being Irish.

Reading her poems and essays about women writers, I realized how little I knew of the work of women poets. I searched it out in single-author volumes and in anthologies, such as Isabella Whitney, Mary Sidney and Aemilia Lanyer: Renaissance Women Poets, edited by Danielle Clarke, who also wrote the very insightful introduction; the groundbreaking Eighteenth Century Women Poets, edited by Roger Lonsdale; and A Book of Women Poets from Antiquity to Now, an enormous undertaking by Aliki Barnstone and Willis Barnstone. More recent anthologies include Modern Poetry of Pakistan, edited by Iftikhar Arif and Waqas Khwaja; and Japanese Women Poets: An Anthology, edited by Hiroaki Sato. I was so pleased to stumble on poetic traditions of which I knew nothing, reproduced in the collections Incantations: Songs, Spells and Images by Mayan Women, edited by Ámbar Past, with Xalik Guzmán Bakbolom and Xpetra Ernandes; and Effigies: An Anthology of New Indigenous Writing Pacific Rim, edited by Allison Adelle Hedge Coke. The effort of recovering and preserving women’s voices continues in the work of committed editors.

The selection of poets in my book ultimately depends on the quality of the poem I wrote in response. I admire Emily Dickinson, Mina Loy, Marianne Moore, Marina Tsvetaeva, Stevie Smith, Wisława Szymborska very much, but the poems I wrote were rubbish, so these poets do not appear in my book. I wish I could have included these terrific lines from H.D.’s “The Flowering of the Rod”: “I go to the things I love / with no thought of duty or pity,” but the poem I wrote did not make the cut. Still, when I was making the final decisions, I was glad that the book included seven quotations from Boland, five quotations from the Singaporean poet LEE Tzu Pheng, three quotations from Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, and two quotations from Elizabeth Bishop, for together they give an accurate idea of the book’s foremost concerns: myth, history, love, language, motherhood, and migration.

NW: As a poet myself, I find appropriation and textual borrowing more interesting than writing from scratch. I am not sure if this happens particularly to non-monolingual poets. At least, this is true for me. I am interested in knowing how the use of epigraphs liberates or constrains your creative process. For example, “Backache” starts with a quote by Kay Ryan. The shape of it also resembles a typical Kay Ryan poem: slim but filled with internal rhymes, lines being cut sometimes intentionally on the feminine rhyme. Are there any poems from the book that were deliberately written to go against or stretch the borrowed voice?

JLK: The most obvious example of a quarrel between epigraph and poem is my “Ashtrays as Big as Hubcaps” written in reply to Mary Oliver’s “Singapore.” I find Oliver’s poem insufferably condescending to the woman she saw cleaning ashtrays in a toilet bowl at the airport. My mother used to clean toilets to supplement our family income; she did whatever she could to make sure we had enough. Oliver’s airy wish for the woman to leave her dirty job and fly down to the leisurely river provoked me to write a rare angry poem.

Less obvious is my re-working of the sixteenth century English poet Aemilia Lanyer’s poem “Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum.” In the section “Eve’s Apology,” Lanyer defends Eve, “whose fault was only too much love.” The thought of Eve’s great love gave me the idea of making the Garden of Eden a paradise of free love, where Eve enjoys the attentions of God, the snake, and Adam. Terrified that I was staying in a relationship not because of love, but because of the other person’s need for me, I redefined Eve’s love for Adam as a great need for his need for her. In this manner, Eve becomes the mother of all those, men and women, who need to be needed, and so are exiled from the garden of love.

I was very excited to discover the early twentieth-century English poet Anna Wickham, and read her poetry and her biography by Jennifer Vaughan Jones avidly. Wickham had a colorful peripatetic early life. She then married a man who cared more for propriety than for her, and who sent her to the mental asylum for writing and reciting poetry aloud. There she made friends with a lesbian artist and helped the latter recover her sanity. After she herself was discharged, she kept house on her own and had romantic affairs with women. One evening, after World War II, she committed suicide by hanging herself. My “Found Poem” told her story in a narrative mode, using details and phrases from the biography. My hope was to restore some context to her work which is so powerfully lyrical, as in the poem “Prayer to Love,” from which I quoted: “Open your gates, and let me through to God.”

The same impulse to provide missing context animates my poem “Useless,” but this time I did not find the explanation, but invented it. LEE Tzu Pheng, in her poem “Neanderthal Bone Flute: A Discovery,” is concerned with the moment when prehistoric humans turned their attention from mere survival to artistic creation. I decided to make the inventor of the bone flute a Neanderthal woman who has just discovered something useless about a past relationship. The poem is also a statement of my poetics.

I found much inspiration for the form of my poems from the poems by women poets. The poem “Backache” is inspired, as you mentioned, by the form of Kay Ryan’s slim poems. Similarly, the villanelle “Novenary with Hens” is matched by a villanelle by Mimi Khalvati. I also performed what I thought of as a kind of translation of form. Kenneth Rexroth and Ling Chung translated Li Qingzhao’s poem of mourning for her dead husband “On Plum Blossoms” into American-style free verse. When writing my response-poem “Black Dragon Pool,” which addresses a colleague who has lost her daughter to a skiing accident, I chose short-lined couplets in order to give a sense of the strong parallelism in classical Chinese poetry.

Elsewhere, I took the form of the poem in a completely different direction from the original stimulus. I literalized LEE Tzu Pheng’s ambivalence about nationalism in her poem “My Country and My People” by making my poem “Recognition” a list of questions.  I took the word “turns” in her short lyric “Tough, Love” and elaborated it into a word-game, calling it “Reversi, Also Called Othello,” so as to lighten her earnest tone. An anonymous lyric in the Nyasa language gave rise to a haibun. In the Nyasa poem, a young girl asks her mother to take her to see the bird with the bright red beak, a request I interpret as a desire for sexual initiation. My haibun is about a son taking his mother back to the past, where she feels sexy once more.

I could go on, but the upshot is that there is no one relationship between epigraph and poem in my book. Every instance is different. If the form is similar, the argument is different. If the argument is complementary, the tone is changed. So the relationship between epigraph and poem is collaborative, but also dynamic.

NW: Going back to the theme of time, I discover that some of my favorite lines and poems in your book carry a temporal weight. For example, in “Portrait with Blue Shirt,” you write “[the] face knows/ its luck/ will not hold./ It waits/ for fate’s knuckles// but is not/ ready….” And in another poem called “Hong Kong,” the narrator struggles whether to get a memento from a Soho vintage shop. Do you see poetry as a way of retaining loss, or as a way of exploring what is lost?

JLK: William Wordsworth wrote that poetry takes its origin from “emotion recollected in tranquility.” We have an experience, say, buying a memento from a Soho vintage shop, and it is a part of a day’s agitation, of a day’s passing. Later, when we return home, we want to remember the experience, to recover what is gone, to discover how we really felt and what we really thought, to give shape to it, even if it means distorting the experience a little to make of it a poem. Writing a poem consoles us for the loss of the experience by bringing the experience back in our mind, what I call at the end of my poem keeping the past perfect. The memento may be just a factory-made terracotta soldier but it is imbued with emotions and memories, like a poem.

As for “Portrait with Blue Shirt,” a good friend, Valerie Mendelson, painted me and gave me the portrait. I was very curious to see the way she saw me. The poem is, of course, an interpretation of the portrait, a way of seeing the way she saw me, and so the poem is a kind of exploration. But the poem also preserves the past, the painting session, as the portrait does as well. I think exploration and preservation go hand-in-hand in a poem or a painting. Exploration without preservation remains a victim of time. Preservation without exploration produces a mummy.

NW: In the same Lantern Review interview, you also said that “[the] new social media reinforce the fragmentation of the self.” Meanwhile, I have noticed that you posted haikus on your Facebook, sometimes almost daily. Does writing haiku help you paste yourself together, or do you see the postings more as ‘the fragmentation of the self?’

In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche wrote, “And this is all my creating and striving, that I create and carry together into One what is fragment and riddle and dreadful accident.” I liked this quotation so much that I made it the epigraph to my third book Seven Studies for a Self Portrait. My main poetic mode, I have discovered, is the poetic sequence. It brings fragments together but preserves them as fragments. My first book Payday Loans is a collection of 30 sonnets based on the 30 days of April. It has an epigraph taken from Paul Goodman: “Poets who cope with everyday vicissitudes by saying them do not tend to produce fully formed, self-standing ‘poems.’…Rather, it is each one’s persistent attitude that is his poem; the whole book is a more objective poem than any of the poems.” So this feeling for the fragmentation of life and poetry goes all the way back to my first book. The only difference is a growth in confidence and ambition, from coping with everyday vicissitudes to creating and carrying into One. Steep Tea can be read as a book-length sequence, since it is so many reiterations on the use of epigraphs.

A haiku is a piece of now. It is a fragment but a fragment that draws attention away from the self to the natural world. It makes me think beyond myself and focus on my surroundings. It is a fragment of the natural world, but at the same time it is a fragment that suggests the wholeness of the world. Or to put it another way, we are compelled to find the whole in a fragment. I’m intrigued by this quality in haiku. When I post my haiku on Facebook, I am posting a fragment and a whole, and hoping that others will find the haiku to be so as well. So much of social media is partial, biased, incomplete, misleading, I think we need poetry that is honest about the world’s fragmentation, yet evocative of the world’s wholeness.

NW: What do you think the term “global poet and poetry” means? Do you believe it really exists?

JLK: I don’t know what it means, but it sounds painful! Does a poet become global when she is known all over the world? That kind of fame is so much a function of political, cultural, and linguistic dominance that it’s hard to wish for it, if one values diversity in the world. Shakespeare is a very great writer but he would not be as bardolized if he did not conquer the world on the back of British imperialism. Or does the term “global poet” refer to a poet who addresses global issues and concerns, such as global warming or the international refugee crises? But that definition would place too much emphasis on what a poet writes, at the expense of how he writes. There are poets I believe everyone should read, for the sheer beauty and humanity of their poems. Wisława Szymborska, for instance. But she is very much a Polish poet, not a global one, and an appreciation of her Polish background enhances our appreciation of her poetry.

NW: I have read a few poetry collections by contemporary Singaporean poets, such as Cyril Wong, Alvin Pang, and Joshua Ip. Can you talk about how these poets and others are changing the canon? And more importantly, how do you see your work as a fit or misfit to the change?

JLK: I suppose you mean the Singaporean canon since the poets you mentioned are still not widely known in the Anglophone world, although I think Cyril Wong, of the three, most deserves to be better known. Cyril has a strong lyrical gift and a powerful confessional bent. Almost single-handedly, he has introduced new subject matter into Singapore’s Anglophone poetry, such as casual sex, Chinese pop culture, and Indian mythology; new attitudes, such as contempt for one’s parents, and bitchiness towards past lovers; and new genres, such as political satire and spiritual meditation. Brutally honest in his poetry, he is not held back by the proprieties of his poetic elders, who still think Yeats is the best thing since sliced bread. He is, instead, an acolyte of Americans such as Sharon Olds, Louise Glück, and Marie Howe. Although he has won the Singapore Literature Prize twice, the academics still underestimate him because they think he publishes too much and because he does not hew to a national development narrative, but excavates the human heart. He is deeply influential on the younger poets, and so is changing the canon through his followers too.

Even more marginalized is the experimental poet YEOW Kai Chai who mashes up high and pop culture in terrifically imaginative ways and innovative forms. It’s a shame that his work is not included in the big academic anthology, Writing Singapore. His last book pretend i’m not here (Firstfruits Publications, 2006) will be seen in retrospect as one of the high points of Singapore literature. He looks to the American avant-garde for inspiration, to poets such as John Ashbery and John Yau, but his muse is promiscuous, tricking as often with filmmakers, TV writers, and rock bands.

The most vital poetry coming out of Singapore is written by women and queers: Tania De Rozario, Christine Chia, Grace Chia, Pooja Nansi, Cheryl Julia Lee, NG Yi-Sheng, Jerrold Yam, Desmond Kon. The straight male poets are stuck in the past. Many of them have gone to England for their studies and returned to a life of middle-class comfort and elite membership. With the honorable exception of GWEE Li Sui, they write a poetry of complacency, not of urgency. They write to impress. The women and queers write to survive in patriarchal and homophobic Singapore. They write so as not to be deleted.

Unlike Singapore fiction and theater, Singapore poetry has been slow to acknowledge the fact of race. The literary critic Shirley Geok-Lin Lim has shown how Edwin Thumboo, the unofficial poet laureate, downplays his race when revising his poems in order to become the public voice of Singapore’s national development. Younger poets from minoritized races, many of them emerging from the spoken word scene, have taken up the challenge of addressing this race gap in Singapore poetry. This development is crucial if Singapore poetry is not to fall behind the other literary and dramatic arts in dealing with contemporary realities. For too long, ethnic Chinese poets, like myself, enjoy the privilege of not having to address race critically, since we belong to the majority. Chinese privilege is deeply entrenched in Singapore. When the national broadsheet The Straits Times speculated about the ruling party’s succession plan, all six of the possible successors touted were straight (or closeted) Chinese men, three of whom rose through the military ranks. This is despite the fact that many think the most qualified candidate is the deputy prime minister, but he is Indian, you see.

NW: Do you think you have any social responsibilities as a gay Asian poet living in America? What are they?

JLK: I live in America as a permanent resident, with all the privileges, obligations, and limitations of that status. Not being a citizen, I consider myself an ally of gay and Asian Americans. This understanding is not only political but also personal, since I have been warmly welcomed into the LGBTQ and Asian American communities here, and have become close friends with many through the years. So far, my activism has been mainly in my school and the literary world. At my school, I was for five years the faculty advisor of the student diversity club and we held school-wide discussions based on a common book, such as Eboo Patel’s Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, or a film. I have also sought to introduce Asian and Asian American writers into the English curriculum.

In the sphere of arts organizing, I run the monthly Second Saturdays Reading Series and the biennial Singapore Literature Festival in New York. I’m proud that most of our features have been queer writers or writers of color. This year, for the second edition of the festival (Sep 28 – Oct 1), we had Jessica Hagedorn, Gina Apostol, Jason Koo, and Naomi Jackson from the US, and Alfian Sa’at, Ovidia Yu, and Jeremy Tiang from Singapore. We co-presented events with the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, Asia Society, and Hunter College’s Asian American Studies Program, among other partners. By bringing Singaporean and American writers together for in-depth conversations about literature and society, we hope to build dialogue and collaboration between Asia and Asian America, and between the different LGBTQ communities. Everyone is invited to attend.

Jee Leong Koh is the author of four books of poems and a book of zuihitsu. His latest book of poems Steep Tea (Carcanet) was named a Best Book of 2015 by UK’s Financial Times, and a Finalist by Lambda Literary. His work has been shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize, and translated into Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian, and Latvian. Originally from Singapore, Jee lives in New York City, where he edits the literature and arts blog Singapore Poetry, and runs the Second Saturdays Reading Series and the biennial Singapore Literature Festival in NYC.

Born and educated in Hong Kong, Nicholas Wong received his MFA from City University of Hong Kong. Described as a “firestarter” by Time Out: Hong Kong, he is on the teaching faculty of the Education University of Hong Kong, and a Vice President of PEN Hong Kong. He is the author of Crevasse (Kaya Press), winner of the 28th Lambda Literary Award in Gay Poetry.

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