Wednesday, May 30, 2007

In Conversation: Interviewed by Nicholas Wong

Q: Your solo show, Ochre As The Earth, is a pioneering event in the Kuala Lumpur arts scene. Do you see yourself as setting the standards for future solo spoken word events?
A: I don’t know about setting the standard. I’m not that presumptuous. But I think that it’s possible that other poets will start thinking about solo spoken word events. Here in KL, solo prose readings (from, say, a novel or collection of essays) are not uncommon. But poetry events so far don’t focus on individual bodies of work. I am the guinea pig for this format. I may not set the standard, but the show will certainly get other people thinking about whether they can do the same, if it is feasible for a local audience and milieu.

Q: Having lived in several countries, how do you think this multinational experience informs your writing?
A: Absolutely. I am a gypsy, you know? I can’t seem to settle down, my fate doesn’t allow me to. So my roots go exceptionally deep, I am not the kind of person to drift out of orbit because of this sense of exile. And I am always reaching deeper, all my work is a way of reaching deeper.

Q: Indran Amirthanayagam comments that your poetry encapsulates 'modernity flowering in tradition's gardens'. What do you think that means?
A: You’ll have to ask Indran what he means. :) But what I suppose that he means is that my work draws heavily from classical literature and culture, particularly classical Tamil literature and Hindu and other mythologies, yet it is contemporized in what I strive to have be a non-superficial, non-bastardizing and non-trivial way. I am one of the most traditional people I know. And I am also one of the least conservative. “Traditional” and “conservative” are not synonyms, as many people seem to believe. I believe that to be truly traditional, to truly be in touch with the fabric of one’s own cultural composition, one has to question, test boundaries, learn. The difference between a traditionalist and a conservative is that a conservative cannot defend their position with anything other than “That’s the way it is, that is society, that is our culture” – all narrow-minded and meaningless statements. A traditionalist, on the other hand, should be capable of expounding why they believe what they believe.

Q: Your poetry is known to be 'sensual'. Do you think such a stereotype delimits/ demarcates the style and content of your future works?
A: That’s an interesting question. I agree that stereotypes about my work do limit it in many ways, but this is something that all artists face, more so if one is prolific and certain over-riding themes surface continually. I have the most trouble with the “sensual” label. Other labels, like feminist or Indian, bother me less, although they can and have been restrictive in their own ways. What do they mean, “sensual”? My work is not erotic, I cringe at the thought. But I am a really decadent person – I live like a bohemian, but I am incurably bourgeois – and I love food, I love fashion, I experience things very intensely and a lot of drama comes to me unbidden (that’s the unfortunate part). Is that richness, that appetite for life, sensuality? By definition, it should be. If that’s what people think, then I don’t mind so much.

Q: Are there any difficulties faced in working on a novel and a collection of poems at the same time?
A: Yes, actually there are. A novel requires a very different kind of mental space. You are holding people’s entire lives in your head. A poem is a microcosm, you can turn it over and over in your palm and see different things, but it still fits right there. A novel is a labyrinth you wander in. It takes a different energy, a different discipline, a different frame of mind. Alternating between the two is difficult. I’ve found that I need to consciously demarcate the periods I work so that there is no spiritual sapping, which is what happens when I try to overlap the two. Stylistically, also, I have my concerns. My sensibilities as a poet inform my novel, and I am fully aware that my style is not necessarily going to appeal to a lot of people. A novel is about the fibre that links the beautiful passages, and that’s something I have to be very conscious of when I write, to keep that perspective, to not get lost in moment and emotion. The collection, called Witchcraft, is more or less complete, almost. The novel, Constellation of Scars, is some way away from completion. I am looking for a publisher for Witchcraft.

Q: Your biodata refers you as a writer, dancer, painter, actress, photographer, journalist and activist. Which few do you see yourself less of, and how important are they in complementing the other professional titles?
A: Most of all, I am a writer. But my first love was dancing. I was trained in Bharatnatyam, on and off, since I was four years old. Bharatnatyam is my big heartbreak, because in this country it is so sickly political. I never had the kind of bitchiness it takes to stay in that scene, and after one particularly horrible drama, I realized that it’s simply impossible for me to keep pursuing it for the time being. Which is fine. It’s deeply entrenched in my body, and it will never go away. I look to Rukmini Devi Arundale for inspiration; she did not even start learning how to dance until she was 32. I allowed for a period of mourning, a period of letting my body turn to flab, and then took up flamenco, something I had wanted to do for a long time. Bharatnatyam and flamenco are intimately linked to me, both in the movements and in their shared history – the gypsies were originally from India. I sincerely and selfishly hope it will never catch on here, that I can keep doing it in the tiny, agenda-less classes I do it in. There’s enough politics and vanity in dance here as it is. Acting, painting and photography are all things I love, but do less frequently. I paint in 12 hour stretches, and I need as much sleep as a toddler. I need a much better camera than the one I’m using for the time being. Acting requires loads of interaction with many people, as does activism – and for the time being I am also laying off the heavy politics of both. I’ve started having problems with the “activist” label; you may notice that it is no longer on my blog biodata. I am full of excuses. Heh. But seriously – I love everything I do, I am very very passionate, but the most important thing for me is to always, always do it on my terms.

Q: Your launch of Iyari, a hand-made, limited edition chapbook, in December 2006, was a huge success. Which three poems from the collection do you recommend someone new and interested in your work to read, and why?
A: “Poem”, because that’s my number one crowd-pleaser. “You Bring Out The Sri Lankan In Me”, because it is very definitive, very honest about the motivations that make me the person I am. “Karna Considers Yuanfen”, because it’s quite complex, actually. It’s biomythography, almost. Karna doesn’t end with that one poem. Karna will recur in my work again and again. She holds a key to something quite esoteric.

Q: A line from one of your poems has to been chosen for launch into space with the intention of preserving for humanity, which do you think it is?
A: “Sometimes I think you would have to be absolutely androgynous to not want to make love to me”, from “Poem”. I mean, what else could it be?! It’s the most recognizable poem – something which you yourself have tested out (Note: Nicholas Wong recently wrote and read a spoof of it, which garnered laughs immediately, with no introduction whatsoever. Tshiung Han See has also performed it, without any edits). No other line I single out would have the same effect.

Nicholas Wong Yoke Hin is a prize-winning poet, pianist and photographer.

No comments: