Time: A Passionate Poet from Straitlaced Singapore (Nov 28)

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2007
A Passionate Poet from Straitlaced Singapore
By Ishaan Tharoor

It is one of the more delicious workings of karma that Singapore, which criminalizes homosexuality, should have as its leading young poet an openly gay man. But while Cyril Wong relishes waving "a purple flag" in socially conservative faces, his work expands beyond simple sexuality — being "just a gay poet," as he puts it — to embrace themes of love, alienation and human relationships of all kinds. His latest volume of verse, Tilting Our Plates to Catch the Light, is due to be published this month, hopefully to burnish further the international reputation that the previous five collections have established for him.

Wong, 30, burst onto the scene in 2000, with Squatting Quietly. It was, like many debut collections, a document of rebellion — in this case, against the values of his Christian, middle-class Chinese upbringing, and the social alienation that his sexuality entailed. Much of the latter had been brought into stark relief during 21/2 years of national military service, during which, he jokes, he was "too campy in the camp." His natural levity masks the loneliness and vulnerability he felt in the barracks. But ultimately it was poetry, rather than humor, that gave Wong a means of working through the frustrations driving him, at times, to a suicidal state of mind. "It helped me wash my dirty linen in public," he says.

In this respect, Wong's poetry differs from that of older Singaporean poets such as Edwin Thumboo and Lee Tzu Pheng, who typically concerned themselves with questions of national and cultural identity (indeed, Thumboo has spoken of Wong's "remarkable inwardness"). Wong worries less about his cultural provenance and more about his own isolation amid the boom and bustle of the cityscape. In one poem, he bemoans his distance from his mother: she "sits in front/ of the television every day,/ afloat in a dress too large/ for her body, fanning herself/ with a magazine, feigning contentment." He compares his father, who has refused to accept Wong's sexuality, to a cockroach hiding in a chair. "We are furniture to each other," says Wong. (The two men still don't speak.)

Some of Wong's rawness was tempered in Unmarked Treasure (2004) and Like a Seed with Its Singular Purpose (2006) — two volumes praised for their probing, reflective study of love and desire. In the poem "Practical Aim" from Like a Seed, Wong asks: "After deep loss, what does the heart/ learn that it has not already understood/ about regret? When all light finally/ forsakes a room, do we take the time/ to interrogate the dark, and to what end?" Other poems simmer with sexual energy; an aircraft landing on the tarmac becomes heady foreplay with the "slow lick of its wheels/ against the runway's/ belly."

Wong ran afoul of Singapore's censors when they threatened to pull National Arts Council funding from his second volume due to the gay content of some poems. But he learned to cope with the restrictions, and they haven't prevented him from attaining mainstream acceptance, represented by his winning the Singapore Literary Prize in 2006. If he's proud, Wong doesn't show it. Self-deprecating and mirthful, he describes himself as lazy, living off his partner's patience and generosity. Though he cites the succinct, confessional styles of American poets Sharon Olds and Raymond Carver as his most direct influences, he feels little in common with contemporary American poetry, which he sees as solipsistic. "There's a boring sameness to it all," he says. "I wish they would stop harping on about their penises and their nose hairs."

Not that Wong has been above some of that in the past. But his recent work strikes boldly into new territory. Tilting the Plates emphasizes the musicality of poetry rather more than his previous collections, while taking as its core a love story between two shape-shifting Hindu deities. Like those beings, the poet also enjoys inhabiting different avatars. At literary festivals from Adelaide to Edinburgh, Wong, a trained opera singer, has been known to "invoke Whitney Houston," belting out renditions of I Will Always Love You that leave stunned fellow authors wondering how they are going to follow on. If straitlaced Singapore is unhappy about being represented by charming camp like that, well, you could call it poetic justice.