Alvin Pang Interview
By: PP Wong
lvin Pang’s thoughtful, reflective poems have touched readers across the globe. His award winning poems have been translated into over fifteen language and featured in publications such as The Wolf (UK), English Review (UK), Salt (Australia), Paper Tiger (Australia), Australian Poetry Journal and Washington Square Review (USA). In 2005, he was Singapore’s Young Artist of the Year for Literature. Through his passion for encouraging new writers, he created The Literary Centre (Singapore), a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to literary development and positive social change. His publications include City of Rain (2003), Over There: Poems from Singapore and Australia (co-edited with John Kinsella, 2008) and Tumasik: Contemporary Writing from Singapore (USA, 2009). His latest book is When the Barbarians Arrive, a volume of new and selected poems, published by Arc (UK).
B is for...book. What is your favourite childhood book?
Enid Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree
A is for… animal. If you could transform into one animal for one week, what would you be?
Cat (love them). Or else a bird of some sort, just to experience flight. A flying cat (!!) would be awesome.
N is for… necessary. If you were banished to a desert island and could only bring two items, what would they be?
A solar-powered charger, and a smartphone or tablet, loaded with eBooks.
A is for… authentic. How would you describe yourself in three words?
“Wants it all.” (I’m terribly restless and easily distracted by novelty and variety)
N is for… novelist. Which writer do you most admire?
It changes from book to book. I like Murakami for his ability to capture a sense of the contemporary Asian urban male psyche (messed up as it is), but I also admire Jim Crace for his ability to write very different books, all of which are good in their own unique way.
A is for… appetite. Would you like a Banana milkshake? Banana fritter? Banana cake? Or just a plain banana?
A banana smoothie! But I also like the plain fruit.
How did you first get involved in writing poetry?
I grew up with my grandparents and with Rediffusion (a shortwave radio service) so the musicality of Chinese dialects: oral stories, opera, nursery rhymes etc. was always a backdrop to my childhood. At the same time I read a lot, being an only child till I was 9. So I’d been scribbling short stories for as long as I can remember. I first encountered formal poetry in my very first secondary school literature class at age 12-13 we were asked to compare two poems about the sea. One was “Break, break, break” by Alfred Lord Tennyson, and the other was some anonymous piece about how wonderful it is to live in the tropics, fishing all day and lying under coconut trees as balmy breezes blew in. Something fed to students from former colonies on the theory that they can better relate to the material no doubt.
So anyway, I remember thinking: so this is poetry. I could also do that! And I went back home to my parents’ typewriter and banged out my first metrically consistent, rhyming verse. I still have that poem, “The Sea”!
Later on, indie music (The Smiths, U2) became a huge influence – socially and politically aware songs that were also intelligent, poetic, and not the usual puerile romances. Again, I thought I could also do that sort of thing myself. And I suppose I did.
Your poems are so varied - from fishing to gardens to your father.
How do you choose which poems to create or which to put aside?
I am deeply restless and want to write about everything that moves me to write – which tends to be subjects that intrigue, move, disturb or surprise me. There’s plenty of things in the world that you have to write out (or paint out, or vocalise) to even understand what you’re feeling and thinking inside.
So my writing is a sort of thinking aloud. The ones where my thinking isn’t clear are the ones that prompt me most to carry on – because I have a question nagging at one. The ones that perhaps come out too neatly, too much like what I already know from elsewhere or have said before: bore me to a standstill.
Sometimes there are questions I cannot answer, and keeping it in a drawer helps. I once finished a poem 5 years after I started. I had no idea how to end it back then, but it seemed obvious after.
You have mentioned your family several times in your poems. Did your parents support or understand your decision to become a poet?
I think they left me mostly alone. I was always quite good in school so I can see how this could be seen as just an extension of that bookish boy doing his thing. I was never without a book. I think they were rather more wary of me writing about family or personal things in public – but at the same time, these are the things that I most need to get out of my system. I had a few early run ins with my mum because I wrote about her and her mother (my grandmother) in ways that aren’t the usual kind, cutesy, heartwarming verses that one expects of family writing.
I have to say that nowadays I am extremely reluctant to show my family my published books. They see me in the papers and are proud in an abstract fashion, but they don’t really know what I do. My mum once asked me for my latest book, and I said: “What for? You don’t really follow my work.” Mum said: “I do, I have both your other books!” Me: “Mum, I have 12 by now.” In a sense, my writing is the part of me that I can (and want to) keep to myself. Yes it is very public, but it is an identity that is all my own, and which I keep sacred and apart from the other selves I operate with family and home. I don’t want to have to explain myself to anybody.
Also I had to take pains to make sure I could feed myself (so they wanted me to take up a Law degree, but I insisted on a Literature degree overseas – and as a scholarship holder, I could be certain of having a job afterwards). I think that is a huge concern for most parents. In some ways it still is, but I’d like to think I am my own man now, and have shown that I can thrive even while keeping up a literary career. Nobody quite believes I’ve pulled it off, myself included.
Tell us about how you succeeded in attracting your first publisher and the journey you took in getting your poems read internationally.
I scouted. I looked for people putting out books of the sort I wanted to read and maybe to write, called them up, pitched them my books. There was a bunch of us, schoolmates, who first pulled this off when we were 19 and fresh out of school, with a book called IN SEARCH OF WORDS (VJ Times, 1991). The publisher had mostly done pulp horror books but had tried on occasion to publish more thoughtful work, and he took us on as a way to move ahead with that. Later on, some of us came across a design house in Singapore that had put out an attractively designed volume of poetry that had sold 6000 copies. We hit it off with the Managing Director and together we started what we considered to be a new movement to put out quality books that were well written, attractively designed, and readily available to a wider audience (not just academia). Ethos Books was born in 1996/7, and many other small presses followed – they are still publishing and have since become the mainstay of literary publishing in Singapore.
Part of our efforts were aimed at finding a wider audience for poetry – we curated material for anthologies meant to introduce our writing to other English-using communities. We started touring, presenting and performing our work: Malaysia, Philippines, Australia… the response was always encouraging, we learnt from what other territories were doing, we made new friends along the way, word of mouth got around, and one thing led to another. This was around the time that the internet became widely available, which made it even easier to share good writing anywhere – our best literary journal, QLRS.com, has been going strong for over a decade, reaching readers all around the world. Over the years, we’ve been invited to festivals around the world by people who have seen us in action and like what we do, and one has always led to a few others. These things snowball.
So I’d say it’s a combination of keeping up quality (in terms of the written content as well as the design and production of the books), making information available (the internet is great for that), and the necessary groundwork: face –to-face encounters, performances, publicity, talks etc. to grow one’s readership. But it’s not particularly difficult nowadays to have an international reach. The hardest part is getting started at all, so why not aim high?
Singapore recently came 149th in the 2013 World Press Freedom Index (below Russia, Afghanistan and the Republic of the Congo). How do you think censorship in Singapore has affected the Arts scene in Singapore?
I think the relationship is subtle. Many of the most censorious societies in recent history have also produced the most startling work: one thinks of Poland, Eastern Europe and other countries under former Soviet influence, and nearer to home: Burma/Myanmar. Writers always find a way out from under repression, and the effort often obliges them to take on new creative shapes.
That said, I don’t think censorship in Singapore is quite as dire as all that – we’re not talking about people being put in jail to rot for their beautiful but politically incorrect poems. If anything, the impact has mostly been on issues of sexual or religious or political identity, trying to push back against social conservatism but with hands tied behind their backs (because, for instance, of restrictions against “promoting unnatural lifestyles” in public). Nevertheless, one only has to look at the arts scene in Singapore to see that these are precisely the issues in which there has been the most dynamic activity – where the cat and mouse game (of withholding of grants, sales bans, requested rewrites, satire etc.) is played. If anything, other issues of importance are being neglected disproportionately as a result. Whereas I’ve always liked to look into things that no one is already paying attention to. I avoid where the crowd is gathering. I’ve not had a problem with censorship so far in my own writing (I’ve encountered it when working with other people), but then maybe I’m less invested in the few areas that would attract concern.
Most of the Press Freedom ranking has to do with the fact that our media scene is very limited for a city of our size: only one English broadsheet, for example, published by a commercial media conglomerate with strong ties to the state. But there are relatively few restrictions on independent publishing, which is thriving and active. If anything, it’s been much more open in the past 10 years than in the preceding decades. And in the era of the internet, I’m not so worried about censorship: the real problem is attention.
What advice would you give someone who has never written a poem before and would like to try?
If you don’t know where to start, try listening to songs that you like and writing your own lyrics. Or even nursery rhymes. Then try to sing it back to yourself. If it sounds awkward, tweak it until it seems to fit smoothly. Poetry is NOT just about rhyming at the end (alas, many public songs sound like that’s all they know). The American poet Emily Dickinson often wrote poems that sounded like they could be sung to “Amazing Grace”, for example, because her ear was probably tuned to the hymns of her time. But her words… they were something else entirely!
Read a lot. A LOT. There is a tremendous variety of poetry out there, since it’s perhaps our oldest literary form – there’s thousands of years to catch up, but you don’t have to read it all. Sample here and there. Anthologies, such as The Rattle Bag by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes, are a great way to start. There is poetry everywhere if you care to look. A lot of it has moved into song (read/listen to Leonard Cohen), or into advertising.
Try to surprise yourself. Put something in your poem that you did not already know before you wrote the poem. Learn about something by writing about it.
Observe everything around you. A lot of good poetry is about noticing things around you that you’d never paid attention to before. Anywhere will do. You’ll find bizarre patterns of dust, strange maps of cracks on your walls, the precise sound of a washing machine or the feel of wood under your fingertips. Make a list – it can often make a good poem in itself!
Keep your writing as concrete as possible. Avoid abstractions. Offer real pieces of your world to your readers. Don’t tell me love hurts. Show me how, where, in what way exactly. Even if you have to make it up.
What happens next in the life of Alvin Pang poet extraordinaire?
More touring for poetry – Malaysia and Philippines, possibly Trieste later in the year. I love new places, new people, new foods – they are always a great way to refresh my heart and mind. And something always adds itself to the “rag and bone shop of the heart”, which the Irish poet Yeats says all poetry comes from. I collect, I squirrel away, and some day it will tell me something I need to know. BW
What is the difference between a poem and a paragraph of random words bunched together?
You can tell music from noise can’t you? But the idea of what counts as music has changed dramatically with time. What they have in common is a set of rules and intentions that are more or less consistent across many samples of work: in other words, jazz sounds nothing like Mozart but each has its own characteristic form and structure, perhaps audience. Even techno music, which I can’t stand, has a consistency that tells you what it is. This consistency becomes a genre when it is given meaning.
In other words, if enough people can see the value in the way a text is put together, if the patterns themselves are meaningful to them, then I think they can call it what they like. Meaning in language is constructed communally because its basic building blocks are shared. I don’t think there can be a poem (or any text) with one reader.
So without defining it too narrowly, I’d say that poetry is language that has been designed so that the precise choice of words and their relative positions are central to what is being conveyed; there is usually some attention paid to structure, pause, length, repetition (of which rhyme is one form), diction, sound etc. in ways that deliberately distinguish the text from common prose (which also varies). Random text is not designed, so it is not poetry – unless it’s a work that allows random input to convey a certain message (but then the overall concept still has to be designed). And then there is good poetry and bad poetry – which has to do with the intention and ambition of the writing, and the degree to which it is achieved.
Alvin Pang's latest book When the Barbarians Arrive is available to purchase on Amazon and is published by Arc:
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