Ronald D. Klein: What kind of background did you grow up in?
Cyril Wong: I came from a really, really…the word is not backward…but I came from neighbourhood schools. It was an environment which did not encourage you to do well in your studies. Everyone was either playing truant, smoking or taking drugs. I knew a schoolmate who stopped showing up for lessons because he was in jail for fighting or something. My only reprieve from that was to read horror novels. I had a huge obsession with Stephen King and all of that.
Ronald D. Klein: So your family members were not readers?
Cyril Wong: No, not at all. My father was a salesman and my mom a travel agent. The only thing my father read was the newspapers, which he read like an addict. So if I was going to care so much about reading, the only future they saw was either to become a teacher or an academic. I mean they were happy to see me reading, but I was glad they didn’t know what I was reading. Also there was church. I ended up being a catechism teacher for two years, because I was very much pressured to be a religious person.
Ronald D. Klein: In this tough neighbourhood, how did you fit in? Obviously you were bright and intelligent, and it must have shown in class. Did you have to pretend to be dumb?
Cyril Wong: I was a geek, which was still acceptable in the social fabric of the school. It’s OK to be a geek as long as you are not arrogant about it or ignore people. I also had to put on—I didn’t really put it on, it was kind of fun—being a little bit of an angsty person, really frivolous and effete. People made fun of me, and I just accepted it and went out with them when they asked me. If I wanted to hang out with them I could, but I could not give them a whiff that I was better than them. Once they smell that, you are in trouble. I ended up being really good friends with a lot of these people. They didn’t do very well in school, but I never really had to hide that I did. I was always bringing novels to school, so they all assumed that because I was always studying, always doing my work, always reading, I would be fine.
Ronald D. Klein: Then you went on to Temasek Junior College.
Cyril Wong: Which was a very interesting environment. I would call it a very Chinese school, meaning it was a very science-based school, with everyone doing maths and sciences. Everyone spoke mainly Chinese, so the arts faculty was very marginalised, in a sense.
Ronald D. Klein: Why did you go there?
Cyril Wong: It was near my home. And it was a much better school than the other junior college that was even nearer to my home. It was also a kind of prestige thing, too, and made my parents look good if I went to Temasek, which was like the number three college at the time.
Ronald D. Klein: When did you come out? Was it during this time?
Cyril Wong: No, earlier. I guess it was the second to last year of my high school, when I made a decision. I came out to one or two other people, and it was a huge step in my life. Another difficult part was that I was coming from a religious family. Then there was the pressure that I put on myself at that time to please my parents. So coming out was just something I guess I did semi-consciously.
Ronald D. Klein: When did you know?
Cyril Wong: Oh, I even knew since I was in primary school. Growing up, I developed a really nasty hatred for girls. I remember this one scene in kindergarten when I took this water bottle and squirted it at the girls because I just didn’t like them and thought they would go away. As I was growing up, maybe Primary Four or Five, I realised that when I was admiring other guys, it was because I wanted to be like them. I wanted to be with them in many, many ways. So that came as a shock.
I was already hanging out in the old Marine Parade library, reading fiction and non-fiction, and so the word gay was something I was familiar with. So I thought, OK, let’s find out what I am. I remember not being traumatised by that. I was very practical about it and read about all the difficulties of being gay. I realise now in retrospect that was a very crucial moment because I could have chosen to repress it like a lot of Singaporean Catholics and Christians did at the time. Or I could be really open about it with myself and live a life as a homosexual and actually know sex with men and not be afraid or ashamed by it. So that was a struggle that happened maybe in Primary Four or Primary Five, when I made a conscious decision that I would not repress myself in that way.
Ronald D. Klein: I didn’t think kids in Primary Four think about sex too much.
Cyril Wong: Oh gosh! You have to see the schools I came from. It was that kind of school, full of delinquents and troublemakers. We used to get this pamphlet in the void deck post boxes with all kinds of pornography that you could buy, and someone would deliver it to you in a plastic bag. We would bring this to school and talk about sex quite openly. That was where I discovered about sex in primary school. And I think people have made their choices already by that time.
Ronald D. Klein: Did that develop when you got older, in junior high school and high school?
Cyril Wong: Yes, definitely. I read more about being gay. But I was still struggling with Christianity and God. Was it possible to be a gay Catholic and be loved by my father and my mother? That drove me to a very severe depression, especially in Secondary Four. That was a very low point in my life growing up. I had lots of thoughts about suicide, and I had no one to turn to. I went to one counselling group run by the church that tried to turn gays to straights. It was all so retrogressive and so sad, and I really hated every moment of it. Everybody was trying to forge a form of happiness for themselves that didn’t quite belong to them. It was like they were trying to follow someone else’s idea of happiness. So that whole period was very, very bad.
Ronald D. Klein: How did you get though that low time?
Cyril Wong: Junior college was a breath of fresh air because I met people who were really out. They gave me a lot of strength, not just as friends to whom I could turn, but also they were people I could choose to be like in many ways. I realised I had an option. I could be as outspoken as them and see the consequences of being outspoken, or I could choose not to be. So it was a kind of self-formation period for me to decide what kind of gay person I wanted to be. It was also very ironic because my friends and I were this small group of English-speaking arts people in a very science-based, commerce-based junior college. Everyone was giving us strange looks, “Who is that bunch of arts people who just speak English and think they’re better than everyone else?” We became close friends during that period and have been friends every since, like fifteen years.
Ronald D. Klein: You were reading English literature, so obviously you were exposed to writers. Did you start to write in junior college?
Cyril Wong: Yeah. But I never liked poetry in junior college. I loved reading Shakespeare, and John Donne made a huge impression, but not the kind of impression that made me want to be a poet. I just wanted to read more John Donne. I wrote just one horrible poem about wanting to kill myself, one of those typical things we do, but I didn’t think much about it. At that time I really wanted to write horror stories, because the horror scene here was running out of ideas.
Ronald D. Klein: How about National Service?
Cyril Wong: National Service was another low point, a very depressing time for me. It was a crisis of self-formation, a very vulnerable time. I didn’t know how I would be able to face other men in that context and still be who I was. When I went to National Service I had to declare that I was officially gay.
Ronald D. Klein: Do you have to do that?
Cyril Wong: Oh yes, and it’s very humiliating. They strip you naked, and you have to do things like squat, cough, things like that. Then in the middle of this physical checkup, they have a form in which they ask you if you ever smoked, ever had sex with women, ever had sex with men. And I said I did. Then they were silent and immediately put me in a different place under different supervision. That was also very depressing because I had to talk to people I would never talk to in a million years. I had to work with them for three months and pretend that everyone was a friend. It was really really horrid. There were lots of lectures on how to use weapons and stuff like that, and they always made us carry around a little notebook, where we had to show that we were listening by taking down notes.
Ronald D. Klein: Did you do any writing then?
Cyril Wong: Yes. I used the notebook to write little prose pieces about how much I missed home, about what my life was like so far, where I was going, even about God. Then I realised that what I was writing was like semi-poems, just that they didn’t rhyme. I was using images. I was using metaphors. On the few weekends that I got to go out, I decided to explore if there were other people who wrote things like that as well. I was introduced straightaway to poets like Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Sharon Olds, a lot of these female poets. I was reading them realising that they obsessed like me about family, about relationships, about life, about sex. I was not alone in this. And that encouraged me to explore this way of writing further.
Ronald D. Klein: And then you went to university.
Cyril Wong: Right, N.U.S. (National University of Singapore). In my first year, there was a creative writing module that was very rare in the university. In this case, it was taught by Edwin Thumboo, and I joined it with four other friends not knowing what to expect. I’d never written a lot of poems and really didn’t know what I was doing, but I joined the class and got along quite well with the friends. And I was very surprised by how open Edwin Thumboo was to my poetry. He seemed to me to be very un-homophobic, very open to the way I wrote, actually very encouraging. As students we all loved him. He’d bring us on trips and we would meet other writers in Malaysia and it was wonderful.
Ronald D. Klein: What was the seminar like?
Cyril Wong: It was an amazing experience working with him. He’d plonk us on either side of him around a computer and just look into this one big screen. He’d comment, “You see this link break doesn’t work. Delete this. Don’t use this word. Don’t use that word.” We’d be fighting with each other, “No, I want that word in. I like that word.” But it was really fun. And now, after the whole process, I realise that when I’m editing my own work, I still have these multiple voices in my head going, “Oh, that doesn’t work. This might work. Don’t use that word lightly.” And it’s all because of that classroom setting that Edwin Thumboo created for me.
Ronald D. Klein: He must have appreciated your writing, because he wrote the foreword when your first book came out.
Cyril Wong: Yes, that was great, but the one downside to my relationship with him was when I fooled myself into thinking that he had accepted me for who I am. When I gave him my first book, he made this very strange statement to me, “You know, Cyril, you will not be gay for very long. It’s just a phase, you know, Cyril.” Then I realised that I didn’t want him to be sitting there waiting for me to write the kind of poetry of his eventual expectations. No! That was quite frightening for me.
Ronald D. Klein: Was that a professional assessment of your poetry, like you were writing primarily gay poetry that he thought you should move out of? Or was it a personal statement?
Cyril Wong: It was most definitely a personal statement. That was really the only downer in the whole experience.
Ronald D. Klein: What about his poetry? Obviously you must have read his poetry before the course started. Did that influence you at all in a positive or negative way?
Cyril Wong: Yeah. It definitely made me think how I wouldn’t want to write like that. I didn’t want that kind of post-Yeatsian kind of sensibility. There was a certain formality about it that I really did not appreciate. I felt it didn’t gel with what I wanted to say as a poet. I honestly liked his, and Arthur Yap’s and Lee Tzu Pheng’s poetry very much at that time. But reading them made me want to write in a way that was very different from them. It was a conscious choice, but the choice was not made because I didn’t like what they did. I just didn’t want to write like that. It just was not me.
Ronald D. Klein: Speaking of whom, your Honours thesis was on Arthur Yap. Did you meet him?
Cyril Wong: It’s very funny actually. He was truly a man of few words. I only met him twice, and I found it very difficult to start a conversation with him, because we were always passing each other at a function or on the street. He had no email address, so I ended up writing letters to him. And he wrote back, which was really nice. We were pen pals for a few months. We would talk about writing, my poetry, and life. Gradually the letters became small little cards, and smaller and smaller as he ran out of steam or time.
Ronald D. Klein: You wrote quite a long essay in QLRS about uncertainty and scepticism and his poetry. Did he agree with your thesis?
Cyril Wong: That was actually a spin-off from my Honours thesis. He died before he could respond. I don’t think he cared anymore. He wasn’t reading anything online. He wasn’t responding to what anyone on the scene was saying. There was a total absence on his side. Everyone was just writing about him and he wasn’t concerned.
Ronald D. Klein: Were you developing your own writing style at that point?
Cyril Wong: Yes, definitely! It was a very raw style at that time, which was the wonderful thing about Edwin Thumboo’s class. He saw what my style eventually was and said that I should never stop writing like that. At the start, I was seeing my own work as a stranger’s work. It was so different from everything else I’d ever done. So I thought, OK, maybe I should go on writing like that and see where it takes me. And it has taken me quite far.
Ronald D. Klein: Did you do a Masters degree there, too?
Cyril Wong: I’m currently pursuing it, actually. I am completing it this year, and then I’ll start my Ph.D. next year.
Ronald D. Klein: Why did you decide to go back to school?
Cyril Wong: Well, the honest and slightly dishonest truth is that I needed the money, and they give a really generous stipend, especially at the Ph.D. level. Another reason is that I wanted to have time for myself to think about things other than my writing. It has given me a lot of free time to think about what I am doing with my life.
Ronald D. Klein: Academic writing is very different from writing poetry. Has that stifled your own writing?
Cyril Wong: It is a very strange relationship because, on one hand, when I’m writing academic essays and criticism and responding to other people’s work, I find myself also immediately thinking about what I’m going to write in the next two or three days. Somehow there is this connection between what I was writing, on one hand, and what I was writing about, on the other. I could be writing about someone’s novels on the theme of globalisation, which would inspire me to write a poem about a city. It’s like the whole atmosphere of writing in school gives me a lot of impetus to write in different forms.
Ronald D. Klein: Are you saying that when you are writing about someone else’s work, that triggers something in you? Or writing about other people made you miss your own writing?
Cyril Wong: I think it’s both actually. When I write about someone else’s work, it makes me think about how I’ve never done this before. Maybe I’ll disagree with a writer, and I should write something of my own to go against this point of view.
Ronald D. Klein: What focus has your Masters taken? What are you reading?
Cyril Wong: American lyric poetry. It’s a little bit dry, but right now I’m doing an analysis of the last six collections of Louise Glück. For my Ph.D. I’ll be writing on J. M. Coetzee’s and Kazuo Ishiguro’s notions of globalisation.
Ronald D. Klein: Let’s move into the works. The first one was Squatting Quietly, for which Edwin Thumboo wrote a very long analysis of the poems. Did these poems come out of his class?
Cyril Wong: I wrote a lot of poems after Edwin Thumboo’s class. They were a bit repetitive, but I submitted them to publishers anyway, just to see where it would take me. And I had rejection letters from everyone until I found this publisher, Firstfruits, who I think had just launched Yong Shu Hoong’s book at the time.
Ronald D. Klein: So you, too, came under Enoch’s (your publisher’s) spell.
Cyril Wong: Yeah. Enoch said he liked my work but only six or seven poems out of like seventy. That was really hard for me to accept, but I figured that if this was going to be my only break, I was going to make it work. I looked at the seven poems that he liked and tried to see them from his point of view. I realised that he wanted a certain flow, a certain theme, a certain incisiveness, so I wrote enough poems like that to fill a whole book. Then, once I did that, he suggested that I get a blurb from someone. I’d just finished the class with Edwin Thumboo, so I asked him politely for a blurb, just two lines, three lines, but he insisted on writing an introduction for me. I think his introduction was almost longer than the book, but it made a difference and buffered my way into the publishing scene. Because I was writing in a way hat I didn’t think anyone would care about, I think that introduction helped to legitimise me.
Ronald D. Klein: What happened to your backlog of rejected poems?
Cyril Wong: Actually, after Squatting Quietly, I gave up almost three quarters of them, rewrote the last quarter, and some of them appeared in new form in The End of His Orbit. Enoch is really a dictator as well as an editor in a very good way. He would say that he liked only the first four line of this poem. And I said, “Oh God, really? But it’s a 40-line poem!” But after a while, I got used to that kind of pain and slowly began to write in a way that I really like now. During the process itself, I was a bit doubtful, a bit angry, a bit frustrated. But soon I kind of saw where Enoch wanted to take me and by the third book, he had much less input. He said to me, “I can see that you’re running on your own steam now. I don’t have to say another word.” And that is how I became who I am as a writer. Enoch really had a lot to do with my formation as a writer.
Ronald D. Klein: There are other fruitful editor-writer relationships, like Maxwell Perkins and Hemingway.
Cyril Wong: Yeah. He was definitely my editor as well as publisher. I know people who submit a manuscript to him but cannot swallow their pride. They are like, “What do you mean? How dare you tell me to cut off my last stanza?” He has turned out a lot of writers, and a lot of people have moved away from him because they don’t want to work in that way. But I found it most fruitful for myself. I respect his opinions because at that point in time, I had never head opinions like that. They made me think about my work in a very new way, as opposed to the very narrow and self-involved way that I used to look at my work. He threw me out of that position completely. He really made me think.
Ronald D. Klein: You’ve written seven books of poetry. That’s a lot.
Cyril Wong: Yeah, I didn’t expect that. Some of these published poems inspired more poems of the same theme. I was writing a hell of a lot of poems, and the first four books were all the best poems of this period. But I wrote them almost at the same time. I didn’t finish one book, write more poems, finish another book, write more poems. I had a huge backlog of stuff. Finally, I really have nothing left. I was also a little inspired by the poet, Sharon Olds, who also wrote that way. When people asked her where she got the time to write her next book, she’d say she didn’t. They were written together as a huge backlog of poems that she didn’t know where to put.
Ronald D. Klein: Could you collect the poems into thematic units?
Cyril Wong: The first two were in sections. It has gotten more and more thematic, actually. I wanted to deal with family in the first part and then with meditations on the act of writing in the second. I also dealt with a little bit of myth in part three, so it was like that. From Below: Absence onwards, I wanted to explore one thing throughout and just challenge myself to see how many ways I could explore this one idea and see if I could stumble upon a new revelation to close the book. In that sense, I wanted the book to reflect my own internal journey.
Ronald D. Klein: It has been said that the theme of Below: Absence is the angst of living.
Cyril Wong: Yeah, though that’s a bit general. It was a Derrida and Foucault period in my life, where I was reading them and thinking about absences—absences in language, absences in discourse, what discourse means, ideology. And so, absence in my own family, the complete emptiness in the way my parents spoke. They were very elliptical in the way they justified their fundamental beliefs. Then the truth that people kept forcing down my throat as a Singaporean gay child growing up. So I was very interested in absences in my life. And also the whole idea that without God, what else is there to live for? Do I make my own meaning or just…well, what do I do? It was like standing on the brink of my life and looking over and realising that once God had left, I was left with nothing below me. Do I go on standing there, or do I join the emptiness? Yeah, it has always been an issue with me, from secondary school all the way to the third book, always, always been.
Ronald D. Klein: Does Unmarked Treasure represent the answer?
Cyril Wong: I kind of got a result. I’m very fortunate in the sense that, for better or for worse, my books reflected how I grew up.
Ronald D. Klein: There is a definite progression. Unmarked Treasure also had a nice review by Robert Yeo.
Cyril Wong: Yes, but I am still not sure whether Robert really liked it enough. The review sounds a little bit neutral to me. The first thing he said to me when he read the book was why there was no contents page. I said that I didn’t want a contents page because a novel doesn’t have a contents page. For me it wasn’t a collection of poems. Unmarked Treasure was my entire life, and every poem was a little chapter. I wanted to make people cry, and people did cry. And I was very happy, because writing this book made me cry. It was really, really painful, kind of a summary of almost everything that I’d been going through before this, with the focus on Death as a ceremony. A lot of people used the text in performances.
Ronald D. Klein: Did you want people to cry over particular poems or at the end?
Cyril Wong: By the end of the book, I wanted that journey to end in tears of relief and also joy. I wanted to build this journey. I wanted to find a clear outcome. That’s where it was my most ambitious book in that way.
Ronald D. Klein: What direction did you move to in Like a Seed?
Cyril Wong: By the time Unmarked Treasure was over and I started writing again, I was working at The Substation, where I was exposed to a lot of performance art and political activism. I was also exposed to a lot of art theory, because my bosses wrote serious criticisms about visual art. So I was open to a very interdisciplinary world. I started to write poems that were my reactions to the things I saw at The Substation.
As a project manager at The Substation, I ended up seeing a side of the arts that people did not usually see, which is the mollycoddling of egos and the backstabbing. I was the person who took the tickets at the door but also the one who did the publicity and also the programming. I also had to go to IKEA to buy the chair that this actress wanted for this particular scene. Or buy paint just for that one pole because it wasn’t black enough. I was doing everything, but I grew a kind of prejudice against the visual arts.
One of the poems in the book was “the gallery that was like a warehouse”. I was kind of poking fun at certain visual artists who took themselves way too seriously when really they weren’t very interesting. So I had all these prejudices that I was negotiating with. I was also developing a multiplicity of writing styles. I was reading different things and I wanted to see where I could go with them. So Like a Seed was really an exploration of all these different things.
Ronald D. Klein: Now that you had mined the depths of your soul in Unmarked Treasure, was this more of an exploration of external things?
Cyril Wong: Not necessarily. Maybe the style seems more external, but I always make my own voice, my own personality, very clear in the poems. I refuse to extract myself. But I’m also questioning myself, not always identifying with what I’m saying. I always make it very clear that I’m not stating my point of view. It is not hit and run, I’m really here exploring this idea with you. I might be wrong, or I might be right. I don’t know. I’m just exploring this. This was also when I was reading a lot of Anne Carson and Mark Strand, rereading some Arthur Yap, as well. They kind of played a huge part in the way I was writing. I was also still very much obsessed with the idea of emptiness that was a big part of Below: Absence.
Ronald D. Klein: How did your experiences at The Substation affect your writing?
Cyril Wong: In a new way, I was contextualising it in visual arts, in music. I wrote a few poems about music and also language, hence the long poem “if…else” with all the “ifs.” I was dealing with emptiness in language but also using it to talk about the multiplicity of social contexts, of people that I’ve met, of society at large. But essentially it’s about my own idea of what emptiness is in everything. I wrote a poem about music, about emptiness as a kind of spirituality. I wrote about a gallery that was like a warehouse, a more down-to-earth form of emptiness, where the artist is extremely self-deluded and too self-important about her work, which causes her to create another form of emptiness which is the lack of love for her husband. And he feels an emptiness because of that too. Like a Seed was more of an exploratory stage, actually, but I liked the outcome, being stimulated by art, basically because of The Substation.
Ronald D. Klein: Then you did a detour, a three-month collaboration with an Australian poet. That’s quite a departure from the internal work of a solitary poet. How did that happen?
Cyril Wong: During all these books, I was travelling a lot to literary festivals. It’s just amazing. You actually get real audiences, people who read your work and respond to it in a very critical, intelligent way. And you meet other poets. I met poets like Robert Adamson and a lot of very cool poets that I’d been reading. Then someone at the Queensland Poetry Festival was saying that there was a gay poet there who was just like me, who loved opera, loved poetry, talked similarly to me. But I just never saw him when I was there.
Then, when I came back to Singapore, an Australian poet introduced me online to this guy, Terry Jaensch. We spoke by email and then he took a leap of faith and signed us up for Asialink to see what we could do together. I agreed and he came for three months and we got along pretty well. We fought a little bit, because he really did not like Singapore when he was here. It was a culture shock for him.
Ronald D. Klein: How did you approach your working together?
Cyril Wong: We used that culture shock to write poems. We used everything that we talked about, everything that we felt and turned it into poems. It was his idea to create two personalities that were contrary to our own. Terry is the upbeat optimistic one, whereas I’m more the self-loathing, melancholic one. So I wrote about someone who overcame personal anxieties, depression, and conflict in his life, whereas Terry wrote about someone who was depressed, spiralling down and full of self-pity. Ironically, most of his poems were written in Australia, because while he was here, he was just too depressed to write. But when he went back, he was more inspired. He wrote, I wrote, we emailed each other, we commented on each other’s poems. And then Terry collated everything and made a book, Excess Baggage & Claim.
Ronald D. Klein: Was there a narrative or just two sets of poems? Did the two characters ever interact?
Cyril Wong: It was basically two sub-plots. One was just about this Australian character trying to figure out why he’s still alive. Is his life worth it even though he has everything? Whereas mine was a Singaporean character who tries to find love and overcome his history of child abuse and being gay in Singapore. So it was a contrast—mine ended up happy, while Terry’s plot line ended up sad.
Ronald D. Klein: Was it an experiment to get out of yourself, like a fiction writer who creates a character and sets him in motion?
Cyril Wong: Yes and no. To put it another way, my character was the character I wanted to be, so it wasn’t so much different from me. That poetry took me to another level. I found my own centre. Those dark days of depression, where I couldn’t wake up, couldn’t shower for a day, those days seem really far away from me right now. I guess I have become the character I wrote about in a way, so it wasn’t that far away from me.
Ronald D. Klein: Poetry as therapy.
Cyril Wong: Yeah. In fact, poetry has been a great teacher for me. It taught me things about myself that I didn’t know. It showed me ways of looking at myself that I never agreed with at first, but because I was writing it, I eventually believed it. I don’t know whether that is the same case for other people, but poetry brought me to places that I’d never been before.
Ronald D. Klein: Your most recent book is Tilting Our Plates to Catch the Light. Is that coming from a different place, a more mature place?
Cyril Wong: I’ve never liked that word, “mature”. Maturity is so subjective. What does it mean to be mature? I mean, in Singapore, being mature just means having a job, having a stable income, having a religion and attending the National Day Parade. The idea of maturity, I don’t trust it. I definitely don’t trust it.
Ronald D. Klein: Fair enough. So how was Tilting a progression for your writing?
Cyril Wong: You know, sex and poetry are two of my greatest teachers. I have slept with so many people and met so many acquaintances. It was through my promiscuity that I really understood human psychology, especially male psychology, about a lot of things—how men look at life, what their desires are, what it means for them to be happy, how did they find this happiness, are they even thinking about it, or are they living someone else’s idea of happiness? I learned a lot, and also I met these sexual encounters, I met friends who were HIV-positive, and I heard so many stories about living with HIV.
Ronald D. Klein: HIV is a very real confrontation of death within life. Which one did you focus on?
Cyril Wong: At that time, for the first time in my life, I felt love, and finding love really helped me to find my centre. I was really happy, but because I’ve always been obsessive about notions of death and emptiness from a very young age, I didn’t want to give up these things even though I was happy. I just felt that they were my children. I raised them and I wanted to deal with them, but in a more positive way.
My first boyfriend told me that every day we should think about death at least once. It grounds us, makes us treasure the present more. I am happy and in love (with my present partner), but I was always already thinking about the end. I knew that I would be able to wake up with this person for the rest of my life. I knew that we would grow old together, and he also knew this. So this led to the question, “What would happen if we are really old and we realise that one of us has to go first. How would the other person live with that?” I wanted to talk about my partner and me and how happy we are, but I wanted to talk about death as well. It’s what I love to talk about, not because I’m morbid but because I treasure life a lot. That’s why every moment is very precious to me.
Ronald D. Klein: Was that the context for the poems?
Cyril Wong: That was the story I had in my head, but those stories of my friends helped to contextualise it in the whole problem of living with HIV/AIDS. So I used HIV as a kind of metaphor for just dying. It’s not really about the disease, it’s about when you’re old, you’re both in love and death comes, how do you deal with that? The tragedy of death underlies every important happiness. The whole story came to me in my head over a few days. I never wrote it up for a long time, because I was more obsessed with this Hindu myth of Vishnu and Shiva, and I wanted to write a series of poems about that, too. You know, it is such a classic gay story and no one in the Singapore religious scene has ever dealt with the “other” of a subculture within mythology. All these things ate into my brain. I really wanted to write this story about Vishnu and Shiva in verse. I wanted to write these poems about what would happen if my partner and I were old. And I wanted to write about these HIV stories. How was I going to create a verse narrative to combine it all?
Ronald D. Klein: Sustained verse narrative is not a very popular or contemporary form. What was your inspiration for that?
Cyril Wong: I did a lot of reading, especially Amos Oz, whose verse novel, The Same Sea, was definitely a big influence on me. I was completely blown away because there is a rawness about an entire verse novel. There was an informality that made it somehow more beautiful, more real, more cogent, more urgent, which I really loved. All these things inspired me to imagine two lovers confronting death. In every poem, I wrote about all the different ideas in my head, trying to fit it into these two lovers confronting death. I wrote the Indian story first, actually. And then I wrote about my partner and me, and the painful part came where I had to imagine one of us having HIV. It wasn’t difficult because we knew so many people and just recently had a friend who died from HIV. The sad and painful part about that for us was that he didn’t want to talk about it, and he died alone. I wanted to deal with that, too.
Ronald D. Klein: It sounds like a lot of disparate concerns to cover in one volume of poems.
Cyril Wong: Yes. There were so many concerns, and I basically wrote it in two or three months. I just sat there at my laptop until 4 a.m., sometimes just sitting there crying. Then the last part was just pure editing. Where does the Indian poem go? How does this fit? I created headings. I threw out the headings. I basically played around till I found something that fit. Then I showed it to a few friends and asked if it made any sense to them. Then I tweaked it again.
Ronald D. Klein: Obviously you are most well-known as a poet, but you write a lot of criticism of other books of poets as well as performances. Did that come from your time when you were at The Substation?
Cyril Wong: Yes, definitely. I guess the reviews of other books of poetry came first. I used to have a blog, where I would write little comments about books I’d read. It’s just something I like to do. I think what really started the whole reviewing thing going was when I was asked by The Straits Times to review books. They needed writers who wrote about the arts, and my first book had just come out. The sub-editor said that although I was a really serious poet and all that, would I be willing to write reviews about trashy books and stuff like that? So I would be reviewing strange things like Danielle Steel or Stephen King, and I guess that sparked off a lot of things in me. I didn’t just want to write about books, I wanted to write about performances and movies that I saw. But I just did it when I wasn’t writing poetry.
Ronald D. Klein: Let me quote from one of your reviews, “Each poem angles a restless torch at a dense metaphorical landscape where nature and the city frequently meet, locating unremembered intimacies and failures, understanding between people, exposing the shadows of our internal negotiations and shaping our sense of cultural and existential relevance and even casting fresh light on the meanings of colours.” For a review 1) it’s a long sentence, and 2) it’s almost a prose poem in itself!
Cyril Wong: I was summarising the whole book from the first poem to the last. And of course, when you write for The Straits Times, you should not write in such long sentences.
Ronald D. Klein: You started SOFTBLOW, an online journal, in your free time.
Cyril Wong: This sounds really terrible, but you must understand this—I don’t really take a lot of these things very seriously. It is just something that I do to fill my time. I can write a review in less than an hour. It just comes out of me like that. This whole blog thing is hardly any work at all. I just read submissions, and I can tell immediately whether I like them or not. Most of the time I spend rejecting people, so the three poems we accept in a month is not a lot of work.
Ronald D. Klein: In 2006, you won the Singapore Literature Prize. How do you feel about receiving the prize?
Cyril Wong: That was an amazing shocker. I never thought that would ever be possible. To be honest, even now I’m still very ambivalent about the prize. Not that I took the award very seriously in the first place. Paul Tan said in another interview how these awards seemed like a means of endorsing works that were more nationalistic, about how wonderful Singapore is. So I was actually quite surprised by it. But the prize was also very useful in endorsing that a gay poet could be successful in this scene, a poet who wasn’t writing about the country or nationalism, a poet who wasn’t afraid to talk about sex. I mean it’s all about celebrating certain things, celebrating the body, celebrating being gay, celebrating being different. I still get a lot of flack like, “It’s so immoral. It’s shameful. How can you endorse something like that?” But that speaks a lot about the prize. The prize was very much associated with a different form of writing, very stuffy. So when the prize was given to me, it signalled that the literary scene has either become more cosmopolitan or just different. It’s just not the same anymore, and I’m glad for that.
Ronald D. Klein: Besides your collaboration on the book of poems, you have collaborated with other artists. Your poetry has been set to music.
Cyril Wong: That again is all thanks to The Substation. Being there exposed me to a lot of different artists who, when they realised that I was not just the project manager, would ask to see what I had written, wanting to do something with it. It was like they were hungry to work with someone new, but in fact, a lot of these experimentations and performances did not work for me. Perhaps the text added something to the performance, but I thought they didn’t do any justice to the text.
Ronald D. Klein: What about your play, Existence?
Cyril Wong: That’s not my play. It wasn’t really even a play. It was a multimedia movement piece. It was just some guy who took my poems and strung them together. He brought a lot of my poems together and added a lot of strange dialogue between. That was a very surreal experience. I didn’t really like it, but I liked the artist. I liked his energy. I liked his attitude, which kind of gelled with my attitude at that time about how forms of art should talk to other forms of art. I felt that boundaries should collapse now and then and just let everything flow into each other. But the problem with the performance was that he had really horrid actors. You know, they were just good looking TV star actors. Other than that, I liked the attitude behind making the work.
Ronald D. Klein: You said you travel a lot to festivals to read your poetry. What’s the difference between someone reading your poem in book form and listening to you read a poem in a live performance? Are you writing to be read or are you writing to be performed?
Cyril Wong: When I write a poem, I always read it out loud to myself, and that plays a huge part in how I edit it. If it doesn’t sound right but it looks OK on the page, I still edit it just to make sure it sounds right when I say it, which is very subjective. When someone else reads it out loud, it might not be like that, but I cannot help that. Over the years, maybe starting with Below: Absence, I was more confident in my reading voice in public. Sometimes a lot of poets read like academics, but I didn’t want to sound too sincere in that American way of reading poetry, because sometimes it can sound too earnest, too breathy, too aching, too ebbing.
I didn’t want a throbbing heart in the voice kind of thing, so I was trying to strike a balance as I got more competent. And I’m sure that affected the way I wrote, because when I read it out loud to myself in the middle of the night, that voice is a huge part of how I say it, how I line-break, how I use punctuation even. I guess it’s also why I played more with rhymes in Tilting Our Plates to Catch the Light because I liked the way my voice sounded when I was using rhymes.
Ronald D. Klein: Do you use your real voice, or do you get dramatic?
Cyril Wong: I don’t sing them, that’s for sure. I read normally, meaning there is no theatrical element to it. I’m not a slam poet in that sense. It’s really straightforward. Sometimes the most outstanding feature would be my use of speed, my use of pacing.
Ronald D. Klein: Does a poem have a set pace and rhythm, or would you read it in a different way each time?
Cyril Wong: Oh, it’s definitely set. I know exactly how fast or slow I’m going to read a poem.
Ronald D. Klein: Can you talk about being an outsider? Does that term have any resonance anymore, or have you moved inside?
Cyril Wong: I always feel outside, and when I am inside I always feel like I’m an imposter. But I’ve grown to enjoy wearing the mask that I wear. I still feel like I don’t belong to this society, to this country. I’m only here because I’ve found strength through love, through friendship and through a community of writers that is in and outside of Singapore, who respond to my work and whose work I admire. That dialogue keeps me happy, and that’s the only way in which I can remain in this country.
Ronald D. Klein: But don’t you think that since the Singapore Literature Prize has embraced you, you don’t have to be an outsider anymore?
Cyril Wong: I still feel like that the Singapore Literature Prize was a bit of a fluke. It just happened to have the right judge who was championing my cause, and I was fortunate. But, you know, Singapore is such an accelerated society, it might be conservative now, and then it might be radical later. And it could just become this conservative society again, with the rising number of churches and Christian groups. I don’t know. That’s very frightening.
Ronald D. Klein: But you’ve been embraced. Edwin Thumboo wrote the introduction to your first book, Robert Yeo a very positive review to another book. You’ve won the Singapore Literature Prize. What more do you want to feel included and a part of the literary scene here?
Cyril Wong: I’m not saying I am not appreciative of all these things. I am. I’m talking more in terms of the reading audience. I don’t find my audience here. I have won the Singapore Literature Prize, and it does improve the relationship, but it doesn’t create a more intelligent readership. I can only talk about this in comparison. If I go to a festival in Australia, I feel as if everyone understood every word that I was saying and can ask me very intelligent answers about my work. I can have a whole discussion about my work with them. I don’t get that here.
All these things just feel as if it’s all a pretend game that we have a very credible literary scene that is embraced by everyone, but really it’s not. It’s just that certain institutions have manoeuvred in such a way that certain things keep happening. We have the Singapore Literature Prize, so in other words we have Singapore Literature. But it really doesn’t work that way, you know.
Ronald D. Klein: Poets and poetry seems to be the big wave in Singapore literature, in a way that fiction is not. Is this a positive development?
Cyril Wong: Yes, but the readership still comes mainly from kids and teachers. Most Singaporeans know who I am, but they have not read what I have written. It’s this disconnect that I’m talking about when I say I feel a bit marginalized. I feel a bit like an outsider, because everyone knows that I’m a poet or artist, but no one has read a single word I’ve written. I find it very strange here. I just want to be read. I want to be responded to in a more intelligent way than just, “Oh, he is a gay poet.”
Ronald D. Klein: When you sit down to write a poem, what forms in your mind—ideas, words, images?
Cyril Wong: It’s very much an imagined image, which comes from real life. For example, just seeing my partner falling asleep with the remote control still in his hand. The image will mean different things all at once, and it will stay with me for a while without being translated into words. Then I’ll suddenly feel I need to write something, though I don’t know about what yet. I just have this image in my head and that starts the whole process going. I start one word. I start the second word. OK, maybe I’ll start from here, and then the whole poem comes out.
Ronald D. Klein: You said you can write a review in an hour. What about your poetry? Does it take an hour to write a poem?
Cyril Wong: No. Poetry takes a lot longer, really a lot longer, because of the editing. I don’t edit reviews! I just write it and send it to the editor to edit. But for poetry, the easiest part is the writing of it. Once I get the image in my head, I translate it quickly into words.
Ronald D. Klein: What is good poetry?
Cyril Wong: It has to be self-conscious. It has to have a sense of critical questioning, and it has to have a very strong authentic revelation in the end. It has to give me a very deep sense of who the speaker is, where she or he is coming from. It has to have a kind of internal journey, a self-reflexive, self-critical journey that is reflected in the poem, even in the space of just a single page. It has to express the journey that the poet has been through, exploring various things; it must feel as if the poet has earned the right to say that final revelation. I have to feel that. And it has to be musical. In workshops in junior colleges these days, when I read students’ poems, they are just too geeky, too wordy, too clever. There needs to be a kind of oral beauty about it, some music. You cannot just live in a realm of ideas and explain them and call it a poem. It has to have a hypnotic quality about it when you hear it.
Ronald D. Klein: Who is your audience?
Cyril Wong: In Singapore, mainly women. Yeah! I know, shocking, right? All ages from junior college all the way up. I only know this through responses I get through email and in person when I got to festivals. It’s always the women who buy the books. It’s very strange, but only very rarely, once in three, four months, that I get an email from a gay male reader. He’s usually much older than me, has read every book and is a big fan of the works. But that’s very, very rare. Maybe men are more ashamed to admit that they read me.
Ronald D. Klein: What are these JC girls responding to?
Cyril Wong: Possibly to the intimacy of the work, to how private it is, to how introspective it is, and sometimes also how shameless it is. Of course, I hope for more, but I think that’s the main thing that they see in my work, which is kind of refreshing in a way.
Ronald D. Klein: You wrote that the gay culture in Singapore is retro-looking, and people don’t realise how much things have changed since before.
Cyril Wong: Yes. I feel sorry for the older gay activists, who feel that perhaps the younger gay people don’t see that the older ones suffered a lot paving the way for them to have so much fun now. Once upon a time, being gay meant you were also cultured, intelligent and well-read, which is not the case anymore. There is a certain uniformity to it that is very disturbing to me; even though I’m gay, I still feel like an outsider in that sense. I don’t go to the gym. I don’t care about looking good. I can’t sit at a coffee shop with lots of gay people and talk about Sex in the City, movies and clothes, and just be bitchy and campy all the time. I just don’t know how to do that. But I still do things to compensate for that. For example, I still feel that I should fight for gay rights whenever I can.
Ronald D. Klein: What has been the role of your partner? You said that your last book really was written considering him.
Cyril Wong: There are so many answers. I’m very much dependent on him in all aspects of my life. He makes me happy, that’s one. Second, financially, he gives me a place to stay and the space to be able to do what I want. I still pay rent, but it’s extremely subsidised. If I hadn’t met him, I would probably have to get a real job to take care of myself and not have time to go to festivals. He gives me time to be a real artist. And he keeps me in Singapore because he loves being here, and he’s probably the only reason why I’m still here. Otherwise, I would have been like Boey Kim Cheng. I would have gone.
Ronald D. Klein: How does your relationship appear in your poems?
Cyril Wong: Everywhere whenever it comes to talking about a “you” or a lover, there is always some aspect of my lover somewhere inside. If I’m talking about love in a way, I would have to remember something that my lover said to me or try to conjure up that emotional authenticity. I use that for the poem I’m writing, even though it might not be about him directly. I can use him that way because we have been through all things from arguments to fighting to crying fits. I have a lot of emotional arsenal that I can draw from that makes the poem more authentic.
Ronald D. Klein: I’m going to quote Edwin Thumboo, “The route to maturity is to create at the limits of developed capacity.” Let’s assume you are at the limits of your developed capacity now. Where do you think you are going in the future?
Cyril Wong: If I am at my limits, I wouldn’t really know, right? Actually, I am writing something new now, on new themes. I don’t think I’ll ever run away from talking about what life means. Is life meaningful without love? What is living? But right now I’m focusing on writing poems about dreams. What does it mean to dream? Different dreams that I’ve had. I use them as allegorical pieces. I’ve never explored dreams before, I guess it’s about time I did. If I were to talk about limits, I would probably talk about writing other things, but I don’t think I ever will. I’ll always stay in that comfort zone of poetry because there’s so much in poetry that I want to explore. There are so many ways of writing. There are so many things I have not covered. For example, I haven’t written in ungrammatical sentences before, and I would like to do that one day.
Ronald D. Klein: What do you mean?
Cyril Wong: My dream is to one day write nonsense well. To write nonsensical poems and get really dense and obscure. I’ve never been able to do that. I’ve never been able to trust myself to pull it off convincingly, just to see whether I can do it and make it authentic. That’s just my dream. I might not even get there. I might still be writing the same way for the rest of my life.
Ronald D. Klein: I don’t think we can go much farther than dreams. I think this is a good place to stop. Thank you for your time today.
Interlogue: Studies in Singapore Literature Volume 8: Interviews II
(Singapore: Ethos Books 2009, pp. 205-231)