A conversation with Cyril Wong, poet

27 July 2017 - Interviews

“What is most personal is most universal.” – Carl Rogers

Brutally candid. Tender and meditative. Evocative and sensual. The most sensitive, articulate probing into the nature of one’s self. These are some of the ways Cyril Wong’s poems have been described.

One of Singapore’s most popular contemporary poets, Cyril is often seen as the poet who carved a space for confessional poetry in Singapore. But as The Oxford Companion to Modern Poetry in English writes, “the label [confessional poet] understates his constant evolution”. Distinctly introspective and personal, his poems skillfully take apart the human psyche—the self and society, family, love, sexuality, hope and loss are themes that run through most of his work. The raw humanity of it all has unsurprisingly intrigued and resonated with many around the world.

Cyril started writing poetry while he was serving Singapore’s mandatory National Service. He felt “isolated and alone”, which led him to “write notes that [he] later discovered were actually poems. He has since published several works of poetry and prose locally and internationally.

“[Writing] meant trying to recover from a soul in shambles,” he says of his recently republished second and third collection of poems, The End of His Orbit (2001) and Below: Absence (2002). “In this regard, I don’t think my reason for writing has changed.”

His successful writing career has seen him win the Singapore Literature Prize twice, first in 2006 for Unmarked Treasure and again in 2016 for The Lover’s Inventory. But to Cyril, success means “having made someone else feel less alone in the world with what [he’s] written, said, or sung”.

We speak to him about how writing has influenced his life and the advice he has for budding poets.

The Mindful Company (TMC): What did you want to be when you were a child?

Cyril Wong (CW): A ghost-story writer, a singer, or a Catholic priest.

TMC: What do you do every morning to start your day right?

CW: I dwell on "nothingness" for 45 minutes.

TMC: What gives you energy?

CW: Love—and a meditative state of mind guarded against judgement and rigid thought.

TMC: What are 3 things that impress you?

CW: Kindness and openness in others; compassionate atheism; knowing when to shut up.

TMC: What trait do you most value in others?

CW: An affectionate nature, regardless of differences in fundamental beliefs.

TMC: What’s your go-to pick-me-up when you encounter self-doubt?

CW: Housework (doing it well and completing it).

TMC: What would you tell your 20-year-old self that you wish you knew then?

CW: Don't spiral into cynicism and anger, even when everyone around you breaks your heart—your mind is more capable of forgiveness and love than you think, even in the midst of all this pain.

TMC: When was the last time you felt you failed and how did you overcome it?

CW: I buried myself inside my partner's embrace until equanimity was restored.

TMC: What makes you laugh?

CW: Bad puns and corny jokes (but only when articulated by egoless individuals unafraid of appearing ridiculous).

TMC: Name a fear that keeps you up at night.

CW: That I'd forget how to complete a half-finished poem by morning.

TMC: Share a quote that gives you strength or peace.

CW: "Hell is other people" by Jean-Paul Sartre.

TMC: Name a book that changed your life.

CW: The Ending of Time by J. Krishnamurti and David Bohm.

TMC: What are 3 things you do to lead a meaningful life?

CW: Meditation; expressing tenderness whenever possible; slowing down for every meal or sip of my daily teh-ping.

TMC: What’s a piece of advice you’re glad you ignored?

CW: Never write about too-personal things.

TMC: What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your writing career and how did you overcome it?

CW: The conservatism of certain readers, even fellow writers (past and present). I've simply ignored them while continuing to write and publish what I want.

TMC: How does writing influence your life?

CW: Writing always provides me with order (such order extends from the mental to the physical) and encourages me to remain sane.

TMC: How would you describe the poetry scene in Singapore and where it's heading over the next 5 years?

CW: It's growing at an accelerated pace and can only become more diverse and more inclusive—even more "multidisciplinary"—over time.

TMC: Who is your favourite poet?

CW: There are too many favourites to choose from: Raymond Carver, Mani Rao, Linda Pastan are poets I keep returning to, for mental and artistic nourishment.

TMC: What is your favourite poem?

CW: Again, there are just too many, but two poems shuffle quietly to mind: Linda Pastan's "An Early Afterlife" and Louise Glück's "Celestial Music".

TMC: What should someone thinking of pursuing a similar path consider?

CW: Get ready to make sacrifices, even some that you mightn't expect to make. People might isolate you for being "different", "unpredictable", even "unpractical" as an artist. As a poet, a life of frugality might be necessary (the corollary self-discipline could make you a better or more resilient artist). Just be ready for anything. Make sure you're truly passionate about what you want to do or what you hope to write about, or else you'll eventually stop being a writer. Always be ready to defend your work; wolves are permanently waiting to tear into your self-belief. Never be afraid to branch out from writing into other art forms—you never know what you may learn or how your writing might be enriched. Guide and mentor younger writers; they might end up teaching you something new, too.

You can get Cyril’s books here. Enter our giveaway to win free copies of The End of His Orbit and Below: Absence.

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