“I do nothing,” says Cyril Wong when his friends ask him what he does for a living. On paper, Wong is an award-winning poet, writer, editor, critic and musician, among other things. Behind these publicly defined shapes however, Wong’s trajectory looks more like stray lines on a canvas to the untrained eye — random, accidental and seemingly meaningless.
“I love it when people come up and tell me that what I’m doing is a complete and meaningless waste of time. It’s like, ‘Yeah, I can see how it can be seen that way.’” Wong’s navigational map to life can only be understood by those who take the time to dwell outside the lines. Fuelled by an inner compass of infinite curiosity and a growing wisdom, Wong has managed to carve out a path that treads the best of both worlds, by embracing both light and darkness, pleasure and pain, joy and suffering.
We sat down with Wong for an intimate conversation about the pleasures of poetry, confronting the darker layers of your subconscious mind and how the queer experience is always about going against the grain.
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How did poetry become your main mode of expression?
Pure chance. I actually wanted to be a musician for a long time, and music and making sounds in general were very instinctive to me from a very young age. I love making sounds; it doesn’t have to have words. Just perfecting the sounds is something that’s very primordial in a way. It comes before language and it doesn’t require words to define who we are. Sounds make me happy and my tendency was to become a musician. Later on when I joined the Singapore Youth Choir and an early baroque music group, I realised that I don’t really enjoy working with people because the majority of people in groups do tend to be really daft, political or toxic after a while. Communities fill me with great horror, small or large, whether in the arts or not in the arts. You end up having to politic your way and obeying someone’s rules, and if you don’t do it, everyone looks at you like, “What’s wrong with you?” So I realised that I needed to do something more solitary.
I happened to endeavour a bit in ghost stories — I like writing a lot of very violent horror stories — but I realised that I don’t have the energy to sustain writing a whole novel. Like I said, I’m not really a language person to begin with. I decided to try my hand at poems, got featured in some magazines and I thought, “Just try this la.” When my first book came out, I wasn’t expecting anything from it. I just compiled a manuscript and the publisher was interested. That got me a lot of publicity, which was very weird. You must see it from my point of view: I was coming to life thinking, “Okay, maybe I see on my horizon a sound artist or a musician” — something like that. Someone just in my own cave, making weird sounds and recording it for fun. But the publishing for the poetry took me in the whole other direction. Suddenly there were readings and talks, I was on panels and conferences, I travelled with some poets overseas and the whole time I kept thinking to myself, “Yeah, okay. Why not? Just do it.” Then I guess I eventually became a “poet”. Officially.
Poetry was my way of writing it out from a third person perspective, going, “Wait a minute. My experience isn’t really that special or personal to me. It’s an experience that anyone could have in this situation.”
You’ve mentioned before that poetry was like your therapist.
Everything [was my therapist]. Art, poetry — they were all my therapists. Sometimes doing domestic chores is a bit like that too. When you’re doing something completely other than dwelling on your problems, your problems become clearer, more logical and you gain a lot of distance from it. Poetry was my way of writing it out from a third person perspective, going, “Wait a minute. My experience isn’t really that special or personal to me. It’s an experience that anyone could have in this situation.” And that gave me a lot of strength. As a third person, how would I counsel this person that is me?
It gives you clarity.
Yeah. I always say that my poetry is more intelligent than me because my poetry is writing itself through me. It’s basically teaching me something new and the final result is, I guess, you can say a better me. But it’s not really me. Eventually, my poetry takes me to a new place and I become on the same level as the poetry.
You grew up in a religious family and now you identify as non-religious. Is there a part of you that feels like your parents in some way?
Oh yes. It was my partner that pointed this out to me very ironically. He has met my father and he said that the two of us are really the same person. When I look back, that’s actually true because I have my father’s severe stubbornness and I have my mother’s more physical illnesses like hypertension and a tendency to panic over everything. I inherited all of that, both physical and mental.
Your partner met your dad?
I thought you weren’t on speaking terms with your dad.
It’s a very complicated story. You see, when all these Singaporeans leave Singapore, they always have this weird inclination to try and save Singapore even when they’re not here. It’s like the people in Singapore don’t even care anymore. My sister is a bit like that; she wants to rescue my family and make everything better. She migrated to Melbourne and got married, but because of my mom and my dad, she wanted to get married like the traditional Chinese wedding style in Singapore. I immediately told her, “I don’t have to be there, I don’t have to go. You don’t have to invite me or my partner.” My sister, of course, was completely appalled. “No you have to be there.” I said, “Are you kidding me? Have you met our parents?” Of course my father said no, I and my partner are not supposed to be there. I wasn’t angry about it, I was like, yeah, it’s just a fact. Why are you insisting on this family drama that doesn’t need to happen? So she insisted that if I’m not invited, there will be no wedding. The compromise was that they put me and my partner at the table closest to the door instead of the family table. I’m like, whatever makes you happy la, because I do care for my sister even though she’s quite a bimbo.
So the wedding happened and you know the whole yam seng thing where they all have to take photographs [with each table]? At my last table, my father disappeared. He didn’t want to come to the table. I couldn’t wait to go. I was like eat already, I show face already. But my partner wouldn’t have it. On the way out — the parents, family and friends would be lined up outside to shake hands — my partner immediately went up to my father, like “Hi!” My father was in a shock. [My partner] was like “Congrats, congrats”, then left. I told my partner, you cheap thrill right. That’s really a cheap thrill.
Was it difficult when your dad didn’t accept you?
I was already dealing with a lot of crap, so the whole “parents not accepting you” thing was kind of the icing on the cake. It’s the straw that broke the camel’s back because before that I was already very depressed. I was struggling with my spirituality and struggling with life in general. When my parents decided that who I am is fundamentally wrong, that was like, of course they would. I mean, life sucks anyway. Of course this would happen. It’s so predictable that I initially laughed it off. It wasn’t the main feature of my life, but it made things easier in a way. It was a great catalyst for me to find my own way and to leave home.
What was the main issue that you were struggling with?
I think my main issue was, to put it more bluntly, wondering why I was alive every second of the day. Why am I still here? There were so many times when I was growing up that I thought that it doesn’t take much. I live in a point block, I can just jump out. There’s no issue. It’s like who cares, why bother, what’s the point of any of this? But every day that I didn’t do it was a day that I could do something interesting with my life, which is very fascinating to me. Of course, being young and naive and innocent, you struggle with this fear of not belonging anywhere. No one cares about you. No one loves you. You’re ugly. You’re stupid. You’re gay. You’re going to hell. Are you going to hell? All of these things are a lot to deal with when you’re below the age of 15. I’m always surprised that I managed to outlive my early teens.
How long did it take you to be at peace with your inner darkness?
Of course I can’t speak for everybody, but I will say that there’s a different kind of timeline for when a gay person comes out of the closet. And the closet can mean anything. It’s not just about being gay. The closet can mean just being different from other people, when you realise that your thoughts are just your own and has nothing to do with everyone else’s thoughts, and that fills you with a sense of dread. So being in the closet in this case means hiding your thoughts, hiding who you are from other people. The moment you come out of the closet, whether sexually or intellectually, when you face the conflict that you have to endure with other people because of these unique traits of yours, that’s when you really start to grow up because that fighting really wises you up in many ways.
The self has no real value. It has no absolute intrinsic meaning to the self, or to the ego, or to anything. All you have is a mind that observes. A mind that is full of potential. Anything can happen with that mind.
I came out very early, when I was like 14 years old. I was doing all kinds of terrible things, a lot of illegal shit, but I learnt so much from it and I realised that the more people I slept with, the more alone I felt. And the loneliness was actually very educational for me. I realised that I can be with three guys in the same bed doing things and I’m completely alone in my own head. And then I realised, “Hm, maybe I don’t need you people?” (laughs) It’s fun sexually but it doesn’t quell the loneliness inside, and that taught me from an early age how to really deal with the loneliness. It takes time to learn how to deal with it, to understand what it is, how to come to terms with it and to eventually transcend it. I realised that the self is meaningless — that’s my ultimate conclusion. The self has no real value. It has no absolute intrinsic meaning to the self, or to the ego, or to anything. All you have is a mind that observes. A mind that is full of potential. Anything can happen with that mind. I learnt that you can just remain in that state of openness. No self, no mind, no ego. Just open. And that took me a long time, maybe in my mid early 30s.
You also spent time as a creative writing instructor at the Singapore Association for Mental Health.
Oh yeah, that was six very painful months.
Why was it painful?
(sighs) I like challenging myself in this way, and the real sign was the fact that nobody wanted to do it. The Arts House at that time wanted to work with the Association for Mental Health to do a creative writing workshop and they asked for poets. Everyone was like, “No, I have no interest.” And I was thinking, “Why not?” It sounds fascinating right? I’ve never actually been inside a mental institution to engage with participants. It was difficult and in a way I am glad I did it, but if you were to ask me to do it again, I would never do it again.
It was six months of just me dealing with forty to fifty very aged men. The youngest was probably about 36; everyone else was around their 50s to 70s. But that wasn’t the issue. They all had bipolar disorder, they all had schizophrenia, they all suffered from depression, they all had ADHD, and also, they were heavily medicated when they saw me. The problem with having all of these conditions is that they were all talking at the same time during the workshop. I had to act as if I was talking to you specifically, one on one, and I had to ignore everyone else. It was a very difficult job to do because I had to do that with forty people at the same time. It was a performance of my life. It was very tiring and the kind of stories that came out of them was so heartbreaking.
These are people who had been abandoned by their families. Some old man would have been left at the playground and he would have dementia at the same time, wouldn’t know where or who he is, and the police will lock him up and put him at this institution. The institution is a little bit like a prison, although it’s a huge difference — it’s way more comfortable. It’s like a prison because they take away your IC. You can’t leave. And they say that they prime you to try and eventually be sane enough to take your medication when you’re outside and to get a job, but when you’re in your 60s and 70s, you have no hope already. A lot of people just give up and die there.
He looked at me and said, “I’ve lost everything. What do I know about love now?” And then he was silent for the next two hours and he never came back to the workshop. That really broke me.
I had all these stories that were coming up and people were telling me that you have to be very sensitive about what you ask them to write about because you don’t want to dredge up painful memories. So I thought, okay, let’s write about food, let’s write about parks. I arranged a bus trip to go to the beach and on the way there, everyone was so happy because they hadn’t seen the outside world for so long. One guy just said to me at the beach, “I have not seen the water for forty years.” It just broke my heart. I guess my biggest boo-boo was one time — I hiao la, I was getting a bit cocky — I asked, “Let’s write a poem about love.” I thought it would be harmless right? No. One guy went into a kind of mental coma. He looked at me and said, “I’ve lost everything. What do I know about love now?” And then he was silent for the next two hours and he never came back to the workshop. That really broke me. I remember just going to the coffee shop afterwards — this is my ritual, after every workshop I go to the coffee shop for about an hour to have my fishball noodles and just zen there because I feel so much, I was trying to digest all these things — that particular day when that happened, I just felt like crying when I was at the coffee shop. Sitting there, I was like, “What did I do? What did I do to this man by just asking such a stupid question?” So that was six months of just pure that.
Did you delve into deeper topics?
I think love was the deepest, but I never dared to do it again. I realised that my aim there was more to give them an outlet to write about anything they wanted. And because they’re nearing the end of their lives, all of them were writing about Islam, Christianity, Buddhism. All about religion, finding God and finding the divine, which is fine. I mean that’s a real telltale sign that it’s like, “I think I’m nearing death already.” Regardless of how mentally disturbed you are, you know that your end is coming so you better find some kind of foothold of what your life is worth, right? There was a lot of that, but my role was just to give them an outlet and basically arrange for trips to bring them out. “Oh you mean I can just hire a bus and bring you out? Let’s go out!” The maximum was three times, so I brought them out three times.
Three times a week?
Three times for the six months. That’s all they could afford.
Do you think they came away better after the workshop?
I don’t want to give myself credit like that. I don’t know whether I did any good or not. I felt like I gave them a little bit of a holiday from their own problems because they don’t have anyone to talk to. With me, I could talk to them as if we were equals in a way. It’s a tiring job, but the problem with being a facilitator in a mental institution is that you end up treating the people living there like children. So everyone talked to them [in exaggerated tones] like, “Hello! Good morning, Mr. Wong! How are you!” It’s like a kindergarten from hell.
Did you talk like that too?
No, I refused to. I mean, you’re old enough to be my ah gong, you know? I don’t want to do that. [The participants] actually said to me, “I’m glad that we are having this conversation. I’ve not had a proper adult conversation in a really long time.”
So they’re actually very much aware?
I was very firmly corrected about this. They said, “Yeah, they have moments of lucidity but a lot of them won’t remember it.” In six months you learn a lot of things. By the fifth month, I realised that I was having repeat conversations, three or four times. I’ve said all of this before but I have to pretend like this is new. In a way I was also pretending a little bit, but I made sure that my tone was that I didn’t talk to them like children.
Were you ever emotionally involved with any of the students?
I think every time I was there, I was emotionally involved. When I was compiling the anthology for The Arts House of all their poems, that’s my keepsake for the kind of emotional investment that I put in. Whether that actually leads to anything beneficial, I will never truly know.
People like to see themselves as tortured artists sometimes, right? That you need to be tortured in order to produce genius work. That kind of stereotype can be harmful sometimes.
Yeah. Anne Sexton killed herself. Sylvia Plath killed herself. A lot of people killed themselves.
But it’s still very much romanticised in our society.
It’s romanticised because there is a real lack of understanding about it. You see, it’s about the possibility of failure when it comes to dealing with who you are, which is always full of challenging emotions and thoughts and feelings. That’s where the sense of being tortured comes from. It’s the willingness to just give in and say, “Okay, I have all this messiness to deal with. Can I deal with it?” It’s either that or you adopt the corporate lifestyle and you don’t do anything.
When you mentioned communities overwhelming you, was it heightened at your time at The Substation [as an arts administrator]?
I’ve always felt that, starting from the family unit, to the church, to friends growing up and not thinking about who they are when they’re growing up, all the way to the arts groups. The Substation was really a mind-blowing experience because I got to meet artistic communities and artists from everywhere. All kinds of artists, all kinds of art, all kinds of different languages and different countries. As an arts administrator, I do a lot of funding and front-of-house work. I bring pamphlets and brochures, do publicity, update websites — all of this sai kang la. And I [dealt with] all of these different kinds of artists.
I see so many people that I want to be like; I see a lot of people that I don’t want to be like. It gave me an option: what do I want to be? What kind of artist do I want to be in Singapore?
In Singapore especially, all the different kinds of artists have their own stories of being marginalised and victimised, and they always take it out on the first person they meet, which is the arts administrator. So I got to see a lot of ego, I got to see a lot of people always feeling like I’m not giving them enough attention. I saw a lot of neediness that translated into really ugly politics. After a while in The Substation, I learned how to — I think all of us arts administrators in Singapore tend to do this — only work with artists who are sane, intelligent, caring, kind, compassionate. The main problem with all of this is that Singapore is a very claustrophobic environment that creates a lot of self-indulgent victim mindsets. “I’m the victim, you all don’t understand, fuck off.” There’s a lot of that that I had to deal with as an arts administrator.
But once you’re able to sift all of that out, the artists that are really worth supporting and helping are the ones that I will always remember. For example, meeting people from The Observatory for the first time, meeting some visual artists who were very very wise, who’ve seen everything and are very laid-back. They just want to be artists and there’s no complex about being an artist. I got to see all these different dynamics and it made me wonder about my own place as an artist. I see so many people that I want to be like; I see a lot of people that I don’t want to be like. It gave me an option: what do I want to be? What kind of artist do I want to be in Singapore? I guess that also helped me accept my place as being an introspective quiet poet just doing my own thing.
One would assume that poetry is a more difficult art form to get into compared to other forms of writing, which is contrary to you saying that you’re not a language person.
Yeah, I chose the art form that challenges me the most. Language really challenged me to understand myself, my world and my reality through words. That’s very challenging for me because all the words become objects of art to me. There’s a real distance between me and words. Not like a lot of people who naturally have a facility for language. They think in words, they think in English, they dream in English. For me, there’s a real divide between me and language, but I love that divide because language is always teaching me something new about the world because of the distance.
You also have a doctorate in English.
The doctorate was different because I was very interested in literary criticism, which is separate from poetry. Literary criticism is about how people read. What are your assumptions when you’re reading a text? Where do your assumptions come from? Who conditioned you? Who brainwashed you to say that this is good and this is bad? I was very interested in that and I was hoping that that would fit into the way that I would look at my own poetry. I think in a very unconscious way it did, because I realised that a lot of literary criticism is founded on subjective bullshit. It all depends on which period of history you’re in, which clique you belong to, which cause you want to be a part of. Ultimately, it’s all subjective. If you want to produce an artwork that will be liked by the most number of people, you just need to play a discursive game. It applies to all forms. You have to tick all of the right boxes — the reviewer will like your play, your dance, stuff like that, because you tick all the boxes. It’s scarier if you do something completely out of the box where no one understands. I was very interested in that dynamic. I wanted to see the history of that through my PhD and now, with a PhD, I can safely say that I know it’s bullshit. I have the certification to say that it is all subjective rubbish. It’s all subjective.
For me, there’s a real divide between me and language, but I love that divide because language is always teaching me something new about the world because of the distance.
You write confessional poetry which makes you feel like an open book to the audience. Were you ever afraid of your own vulnerability?
I think I was never afraid because ever since I was very young, I was always very angry when people were constantly asking me to shut up. So that anger filled me in many ways. No, I’m not going to shut up. I wouldn’t say I was brave, I would say that I had no fear of saying what I wanted to say because I was so pissed off that I would just say it anyway, just to annoy people. I knew that it would annoy them enough to tell me to shut up and that would only make me say it even more.
Are there certain parts of yourself that you refuse to reveal in your poetry?
I don’t know, I never really thought about that. I guess the things that I leave out are redundant on a more artistic point of view. I even talk about gay sex a lot, but how many penises can you have in a poem? After a while it’s like, let’s not be so specific, it doesn’t add anything of artistic value to the poem. So that’s the only reason for taking it out, not because I was shy about it.
When people read your poems, they take in different things. Does it change the meaning of the poem for you?
Actually, I look forward to it. That’s why I love poetry. Poetry is one of those things which always invites different interpretations. I love ambiguity because there’s a certain openness about it, and it’s an openness that I want to remain in forever. I refuse to be boxed in and I refuse to subscribe to an absolute point of view about anything. I think the only absolute is that there isn’t one. In poetry, it’s the perfect way for me to always access that space of potential and openness.
You’ve mentioned before that living an open-ended life is one of the most difficult things to do.
Yeah, because you have to deal with the closed-mindedness of other people.
Does [open-endedness] come naturally to you?
I think it does. In the early part of my life, there was a lot of pressure to deal with the expectations of others who want to close you off, or get you to subscribe to a very specific point of view and to stay on that point of view forever. So that was that initial struggle. But growing up, the source of all my pain was the open-endedness because you always have to deal with other people.
So it’s not that you don’t know yourself but it’s about other people’s expectations of you.
Yeah. For me, growing older is about learning to cultivate your own space in which you can basically avoid people. I always say avoidance is an art form and I think I’m learning to do it exceptionally well with time.
Writing is a very solitary experience and [solitude] is something that you’ve mentioned that you enjoy. Do you experience pockets of loneliness sometimes?
Definitely. You can’t run away from the loneliness when it’s connected to the whole queer experience. I think being a gay man, a gay boy growing up, you cannot help but want to be loved and not just in a conceptual level. It’s really about sex, it’s about intimacy, it’s about touching. All of these things make a difference in how you feel love and how you feel at peace. I guess that was the only real loneliness I really wanted to vanquish — that kind of physical ache.
So it’s more physical than emotional?
Yeah. I think, emotionally, I was able to be alone. My partner and I, we’ve been together for about sixteen years and counting, and the reason why we’re able to stay together for so long is because we provide space for each other to be alone with our thoughts. He always says, “As long as I wake up in the morning and I see your face, it’s okay.” So it’s very literal, that kind of “not alone”. But spiritually and emotionally, it’s okay to be alone.
It’s easier for queer people to come out now. Do you feel, in that sense, less of a loneliness with that growing community?
I don’t know, sometimes I think it’s a chicken and egg thing. Some of the younger millennials would say, “Yeah, it is easier to come out now.” It is easier to be more open with the internet, with social media and all that. But at the same time, there will be people — millennials — who will also say that, “No, it’s still quite difficult because society or the world in general is also becoming more conservative.” The lines in the sand are becoming more entrenched and if you don’t belong to one side, you also feel a little ostracised in a way. I guess the millennials have their own issues that I am still trying to understand.
I mean, there are also those new gays who are very conservative, which I don’t understand. For example, in Australia with the whole gay marriage thing recently, there were actually very young conservative gays who were against gay marriage. Um, do you know what all your forefathers and foremothers were fighting for? Do you have no sense of the pain people went through just so that you can get the freedom that you have now? To even get politicians to say the word “gay” in parliamentary debates was such an uphill battle. Lives were lost. Do you have no sense of respect about it? Even in Singapore, I see it sometimes too. I meet gay millennials who say like, “Aiya, why bother fighting? Just belong la, just fit in la.” No, being queer is to be different. It’s to always go against some kind of rules. As long we’re not given equal rights, as long as we’re not given the ability to be married, to be accepted like straight people, it is something that we have to fight against. You don’t just give in and accept it.
You’ve travelled with poets from other countries. How similar or different is their [poetry scene] compared to Singapore?
I’ve always said that my parallel life is to be a hippie Australian poet. I love the Australian poetry scene because they are all able to live in their own caves. I’ve met so many poets in Byron Bay, Sydney and Melbourne who are basically doing their own thing. They come up with one book every three to four years and they don’t care because they’re busy doing yoga, hanging out, gossiping about sex and love, stuff like that. They have this outlet where they can withdraw into their own little caves and just paint, do yoga, dance or write poetry. And I call it a very hippie culture that I wish I could belong to as well. It’s just very nice because when we occasionally meet each other during festivals, I feel a real kinship. There are no issues; people are just artists in their own right. We’re all just coming together and listening to each other, appreciating each other’s poetry, and then fucking off to do our own stuff.
The pie is generally shrinking for everybody. Sometimes you are one of the victims of it. It’s not because you are less important or more important than before. It’s not about that.
In Singapore, it’s never just that. Singapore is very complicated. Sometimes the government cares about the art, sometimes it doesn’t. There’s censorship. All of this makes people crazy and the funding pie is so small, sometimes it shrinks and expands and shrinks. When people don’t get funding, they get resentful and they take out their resentment on other people and it gets ugly very quickly. For example, I know this Cultural Medallion winner who, if he doesn’t get the grant, will say things like, “I have the Cultural Medallion. Am I being forgotten? Does no one care about me anymore?” Then he gets so upset and angry. I will want to tell him that it’s not about you. The pie is generally shrinking for everybody. Sometimes you are one of the victims of it. It’s not because you are less important or more important than before. It’s not about that. In Singapore, there’s a whole mass of other factors. People take things so seriously and personally here.
Do you feel more overwhelmed the longer you stay here?
I guess I’ve cultivated my own little batu cave where I can just be myself and have fun playing with my artistic practices.
So that’s how it keeps you —
Sane. You see, for me, there’s no difference between past and present. Past, present, future, people will always be people. It’s just that in Singapore, we feel it so acutely here because we’re so small and intense. But people will always be people, in the sense that there will always be people who form a majority, and as long as you are kind of your own person, you will always be faced with this monolithic majority, and you have to deal with it. You can either deal with it or you can find a way to run and hide. And I guess I’m somewhere in between.
It’s something that you’ve struggled with since you were young and now you’ve learnt how to build yourself up.
Yeah, I have the skills now to deal with other people that I’ve developed over time. That’s the one thing in my life, not so much the poet or the artist part of me, that I’m the most proud of. Because [these skills] have kept me going. It has taught me wisdom and given me a lot of insight into my place in the world, more so than any other artistic venture actually. Because it’s either develop the skills and develop the wisdom, or be dead by 19. You know what I mean? I’m glad I’m still alive. I have friends who didn’t even make it past 25 or 35. I just figured that if they had still been alive, they would have realised that there is still so much to learn.
You’ve been a poet, writer, musician, teacher. How does one inform the other for you?
I guess it’s a sense of playfulness that connects all of them. In art, you have to be playful. You have to throw away all your past assumptions, open a notebook and look at a fresh page like, what now? With every workshop, it’s a bit like that — what now? Sometimes you get the worst workshops in the world where everyone is bored to death and indifferent or even slightly homophobic. But sometimes you get workshops where people are asking very incisive questions. It’s always the strangest schools that surprise me. For example, Nanyang Girls’ High School. I thought, okay, how challenging can this be? High school, secondary school girls, it’s only a one hour talk. But the questions that came at me from all the girls were really intellectually profound and very rich, and some of the questions even had three or four parts. And I said, “Okay this is going to be longer than 1 hour.” And they all laughed. I just said to all of them, “I don’t remember being this intelligent at this age.” I was such an airhead in secondary school, oh my god. I was very impressed. It’s a kind of playfulness and openness that involves everything that I do. If I’m open enough, miracles like this can happen where you go to a talk and you’re just surprised by people. It’s very rewarding. Of course, that doesn’t happen regularly.
You’ve mentioned before that you have a preference towards endings. What about beginnings?
It’s like opening a notebook and seeing a blank page. That kind of beginning excites me, not so much beginnings in relation to relationships or people. I think people don’t really surprise me that much anymore. Of course my partner always surprises me, plus the people that I occasionally meet at readings or workshops, which is why I still continue doing them. Occasionally, one person will come to you and ask the weirdest question. And you’ll go, “Okay. This person’s different.”
Everyone was asking me technical questions about poetry and this Malay girl in a tudung came up to me very quietly and humbly asked, “How do you carry on?”
What kind of questions?
I remember one time after a workshop, everyone was asking me technical questions about poetry and this Malay girl in a tudung came up to me very quietly and humbly asked, “How do you carry on?” Then I said, “That’s a very big question, let’s talk after the workshop.” Because everyone was talking about metaphors and similes. We had a discussion about existence, conservatism, belonging and not belonging. I realised that she’s only, what, 21? And she’s already asking all these things? I just hope that I was able to help her feel a little less alone in asking such questions. It’s very difficult when you’re at a vulnerable age and you’re asking these questions all by yourself.
That was what happened to you too, right? Asking these questions at a young age by yourself.
Yeah, my solace was books to feel less alone. I guess that’s why I decided to publish my poems, because I want to be able to give that kind of solace to someone like me in the future. Someone can pick [the book] up and go, “Oh, this person is like me.” It makes all the difference in the world, it really does. Whether you agree with the poet or the writer, it doesn’t matter. There are just some similarities that make you feel in a very intangible way less alone, less isolated by everything, and that’s very comforting.
It’s interesting because there’s a rise in the number of people who are reading, but a lot of them don’t really read past whatever literature texts they have [in school]. How can we encourage people to read beyond that?
I don’t know, sometimes I think we’re reaching an age of even greater stupidity now with the whole Instagram poetry, Lang Leav and all that. It’s really an age of Stupid. And the reason I say that is not out of some kind of weird aesthetic snobbishness. It’s a fact that we read a lot of Instagram poets and a lot of the language doesn’t make sense, but people are saying wonderful things about it as if it makes complete sense. It’s a global pandemic of The Emperor’s New Clothes. It doesn’t make sense. But you have people in their 40s and 50s coming up to me like, “Oh my god, this poet is amazing.” But then you read the poetry and you’re like, “It doesn’t make sense. Let me explain to you why it doesn’t make sense: the syntax is off, there’s a weird pronoun here that doesn’t refer to anything that this poet suddenly introduces. Do you see why it doesn’t make sense?” Then they’re like, “Oh. But I like it leh.” So there’s a global insanity happening here. I mean, okay, if you like it, you like it la. But it means that reading will be a problem for a lot of writers because they will not be appreciated if they put in the energy to be complex, to be aesthetically rich, to be profound, because it will be lost on a whole new generation of people.
I mean, I feel torn. I’m wondering if I’m being snobbish. I don’t want to be elitist, but I also don’t feel like this should be encouraged.
I guess one could also say that initially, there was some level of elitism in the arts where there would be people who would say that if you don’t understand what I’m doing, you must be stupid, right? There’s always some kind of snobbery in the arts. Trust me, I worked at The Substation — I know what that snobbery looks like. So I guess that it’s generating its own negative karma now where people are going, “Let’s keep things as simple, as pat down, as simplistic, as bare bones as possible, to achieve this sense of greater universality.” But that also becomes a problem because people just become very bad readers. When you have even more bad readers than before, I think the future of the world doesn’t look good. I mean, people are not even willing to read a sentence in more than two or three ways anymore. That’s very problematic for the intelligence of the world in general.
I think modern people tend to confuse quantity with quality.
With that said, I’m not even sure if that was… see, I am also two minds about it. Sometimes I think that has always been the case where that stupidity has always been around and right now with social media, it seems more pronounced. The thing about social media, technology and the post-post-post modern world is that everyone is all about living in the now. The next new thing, the next new model of the phone the next thing. No one ever lingers in the process that happens before the new thing. No one waits anymore. No one contemplates. No one does nothing anymore. People are wanting to be distracted all the time and to pounce on something because it’s new and fresh without even thinking too much about it. They don’t want to think, they want to move on to the next new thing. I think modern people tend to confuse quantity with quality. With Instagram poetry, there’s a lot of different poems, but the problem is that they don’t really get into it. They just scan it one time and they move on quickly to the next one. There’s no space and time for contemplation and that’s very dangerous.
Our attention span has also shrunk dramatically. Is that the same case for you?
No. I’m very lucky in a certain sense because I really have created my own little cave where I don’t get distracted about all of these things. You see, everything is produced by people. People are the problem and people don’t think, so if you just avoid the products of these people, you’re also avoiding the people themselves. So for me, it’s not a problem. I know writers who are absolute recluses who don’t want to interact with anybody. Every month or every two months, they maybe meet only one or two people. I try not to be like that but I have that potential. I really, really do.
By closing yourself off, you are closing off the opportunity to reach out to a human being in a meaningful way.
Is that a bad thing to you?
I don’t know, I don’t want to feel like I’m not trying. I’m always afraid that if I don’t go out and meet people or do the talks, workshops and the occasional guest lectures, you never know whose heart you can really reach out to. By closing yourself off, you are closing off the opportunity to reach out to a human being in a meaningful way. And because I have done that in the past, I feel — I don’t want to say moral responsibility — it will be such a waste if I don’t create opportunities for that to happen again in the future.
So that’s what really fuels you — impacting someone else in a meaningful way and not focusing on yourself.
Yeah, because like I said, I really don’t need the talks. I am a pre-language self-indulgent narcissistic artist. I can do things on my own and not care. But having made that impact, I realised that I’m addicted to wanting to help other people in this way.
I love being with people who think that the arts is a waste of time. It really grounds me. I always tell them, “Yes, it is a waste of time.”
Do you think that writing is an innate talent?
No, it’s a fundamental sense of curiosity that you have to bang out on your own in the darkness of your own self that no one else can. It’s like learning how to sing. I had a very interesting argument with my best friend because he’s absolutely tone-deaf. He’s so tone-deaf it’s hilarious. But he said, “How can you say I’m tone-deaf? Then you teach me la.” It was a very unique argument that we had because, can you teach a tone-deaf person to sing? I came to the conclusion that the reason why you will always be tone-deaf is that you fundamentally don’t really want to know how to sing. You’re not really interested in music. Every time you go for karaoke, you make a mess of the song and you’re okay with that and I’m fine with that too — okay I’m going to judge you la, I’m going to make bitchy remarks and make fun of you like hell. But fundamentally, you don’t really care. If you really, really care and are curious about music and melody making, you would transcend that obstacle within yourself and learn how to sing. But if you don’t really care, you don’t really care. No matter how many times I sit you at a piano and bang up notes, if you don’t care enough, you won’t be able to sing.
What I love about my own coterie of friends is that they’re all not in the arts. So I’m always this weird person in my group, which makes me feel very good about it because I don’t have to deal with the politics in the arts. I love being with people who think that the arts is a waste of time. It really grounds me. I always tell them, “Yes, it is a waste of time.” I’m perfectly okay that the arts is a complete waste of time.
Is it a waste of time?
Yes, there is time to waste. You only have time to waste. Life is time. By wasting that time, you learn things. That time doesn’t have to be filled with anything if you don’t want to fill it, but since you’re here, since you have nothing else better to do, write something and see where that takes you. Ultimately, that is a waste of time.
But there is that burden, especially in Singapore, where you have to consider your finances before you can do anything.
I guess I’m very blessed and lucky because I’m fundamentally, physically, very lazy. The whole idea of struggling and putting in energy just so I can feed myself or own a better house or a better car has never appealed to me, because it’s just too much work. That amount of work just to get that? That object? That thing? You see, a lot of people are just in the corporate sphere. They don’t understand metaphors. They don’t understand symbolism. What you’re craving for is really just a symbol. It doesn’t translate into actual happiness and meaning. It’s just a metaphor for something and it’s not even your metaphor. I had one professor in NUS who said this about people who are obsessed with cars — this was in the 90s — do you own the car or does the car own you? These symbols of status are not symbols that you created. You are subscribing to someone else’s creation of that symbol. Why don’t you create your own symbols of happiness? Why are you leading someone else’s life? That’s what I always say about religious people. You read the Bible, right? Why are you following the story? You didn’t write this story. Why is it all important to you that you cannot even question it? Why don’t you write your own story and see where that takes you? Because this original story was written by somebody else to begin with and it’s their unique story. How about your own unique story? Of course, if you say this in workshops people will be like, “controversy!” Nobody wants to be original; people just want to fit in and belong.
These symbols of status are not symbols that you created. You are subscribing to someone else’s creation of that symbol. Why don’t you create your own symbols of happiness? Why are you leading someone else’s life?
You’ve mentioned the idea of wanting to experiment between different disciplines and also having fun on Instagram. Do you see that moving into more professional territory in the future?
There was a period of time in my life — and I kind of miss that period — when people in Singapore, especially my annoying friends before they became my friends, were asking me, “So what do you do for a living?” My answer was always, “I do nothing.” I really, really do nothing. Because it’s nothing that can be commodified, nothing that can be translated into some ridiculous KPI, or some kind of outcome that you can put on a poster somewhere. I’m not doing anything, I’m just learning more and more about myself and I refuse to see that in any kind of professional context. So anything I do is just to feed into my own building of insight.
Sometimes the professional part is necessary. I always say the moment you publish and put your work out there, you immediately become responsible to other stakeholders, your publisher, your readers and schools. After a while, that becomes the professional part of it. Once you say yes to it, I believe in seeing it all the way and try to be of benefit to all of these different people, because I kind of owe it to them now.
Doesn’t that get aggravating when you constantly need to account to so many people?
It is aggravating. Everything has a good and bad. But when things got too bad, I would do my own little weird shows in other countries or do weird collaborations with people that no one has ever heard of or no one will ever hear of. This was before Instagram. There was one time I was doing this very bizarre series of performances called “Love Songs”. I started at The Substation; they were very nice to me and they said, “Why don’t you do something? You artist also what.” I’m like, “Aiya, but it’s a lot of work. Because I’m the admin person right? Then I have to do double admin for myself also, damn sian lor.” “Don’t know la, we have a free slot in june, do something la.” Then I said, “Anything ah?” So I did a one hour performance art event where I just sang 80s love songs in a very depressing way with very little musical accompaniment. I only performed for about thirty to forty people for two nights. It was a self-indulgent thing and it was very fun to do. I loved just showing up at the theatre and rehearsing, and then the technicians would be like, “Huh, what light you want ah? Purple ah, purple ah.” It was very fun. And that show actually travelled a little bit. I did it at the Hong Kong Fringe Club for two nights; it was very bizarre. Their black box is so lan okay. All the seats are like Mcdonald’s seats leh. And I was performing for a random ten, fifteen tourists each night. But it was very fascinating and I took it as a chance to travel. Then someone saw the show and invited me to do it at the Seoul Fringe Festival in Korea. So that was interesting.
I had one friend who was an investment banker at that time who said, “Eh, you very lonely one hor?” (laughs)
All the love songs I sang were very light, upbeat songs. In the 80s, these love songs didn’t sound like sad songs but if you actually hear the lyrics, it’s very heartbreaking. I thought, let’s sing it as it should be really sung. It was very cathartic for me because I really got to emo my childhood out of it. All my loneliness as a young gay boy were poured into the expression of the songs. The main word I got from this was that it was very heartbreaking to hear [me] perform this song. Also, I had one friend who was an investment banker at that time who said, “Eh, you very lonely one hor?” (laughs)
Another time, my partner brought some friends to a contemporary dance performance that I was managing and it was hilarious because — I mean, I was secretly laughing — but it was a performance that I really enjoyed. It really moved me and it was very beautiful. But after the show, my three friends and my partner looked at me and went, “That was so stupid. So retarded and stupid, what the fuck was that? It’s a waste of taxpayers’ money. Anything also can lor. Anything can be dance lor.” At that time I didn’t know what to say to them. Yeah, anything can be dance. That’s a way more profound statement than you realise. Anything can be dance. Anything can be art. But that took a few more years for me to explain that to my partner.
Does [your partner] understand it now?
Yes. My partner used to say that poetry is just a waste of paper. All that blank space, for what? But I love it, this kind of thing. It grounds me. You cannot keep talking to people who say yes to you. You need to talk to people who say no to you all the time. It matures you in a very surprising way, but of course you must develop the thick skin to deal with it.
You see, that’s the thing about being alone with your thoughts and feelings and really analysing yourself. It’s okay to come to terms with the fact that your life is a waste of time. That’s fine. It’s absolutely okay. Since it’s a waste of time, how should I better spend it then? Oh okay, then maybe I should have expressed love for other people or helped other people. You know, make the world a better place in some way because your life is a waste of time anyway. The negative will always lead to a positive but people don’t even want to deal with the negative first.
There’s the whole “positive thinking” movement that’s happening right now.
It’s putting the cart before the horse. The mind has more layers than you realise. If you only think positive, that only means that you’re dealing with a lot of parts in your brain that will always come back to bite you. The unconscious is way richer than you realise, which is why you always have to contemplate, meditate, write a poem, paint a picture, because it taps into your understanding of what you’re really like on the inside. “Oh wow, I didn’t know I had that in me. Oh my god, I’m quite dark actually hor.” And then coming to terms with all these things like, okay, how do I navigate all these aspects of myself which I didn’t think were there? If you don’t go through all of that and you just deal with the superficial layer of positivity, all of these things will somehow manifest in some weird, disastrous way, especially when you have families, when you get married, when you get children. You’re just selfish because you just don’t know yourself.
What’s your biggest fear?
I’m afraid of physical pain, generally. Also, I guess I’m very afraid of the physical pain of others. I don’t want the people that I love to die painfully. That’s my biggest fear. If it happens to me, it’s fine. I’m ready for it. But if it happens to people I care about, that’s just wrong.
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Photographs, images & videos courtesy of Cyril Wong