05 September 2005

The Pleasure Principle

Did Mr Wang ever mention that he likes poetry? The Singapore Writers Festival is currently on, and one particular poetry event has caught Mr Wang's eye. No, he didn't attend it, but he read about it at the festival's official blog. "The Pleasure Principle" was a poetry reading featuring Cyril Wong and was unusual (in Singapore) for its explicit gay theme.

First, a little about Cyril's background. He is the author of four books of poetry, most recently Unmarked Treasure. He was a featured poet at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the Hong Kong International Literary Festival and the Queensland Poetry Festival and his poetry has been adapted to dance, drama, film and music in interdisciplinary projects that have been presented in Malaysia, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Australia, Germany and France. Cyril is also Singapore's Young Artist of the Year for Literature (for 2005).

Cyril is gay, and writes about it openly in his poetry. That makes him somewhat controversial (in Singapore, and to some people, at least). Mr Wang exchanged emails with Cyril over the weekend, and with Cyril's permission, reproduces excerpts here.

On whether Mr Wang can blog about him:
"Yes, sure you can feature me. I am very openly gay. And I think it is possibly immoral to even hide the fact when I am not exactly living in a place like Iran, where I would get killed for something like this. So with regard to being seen as gay very publicly, I do not mind at all. In fact, I kind of encourage myself to be as open as possible – it's my one-man ideological war."
About the Pleasure Principle:
"1 Sep at Pan Pacific Hotel, 10pm, The Pleasure Principle. I was the only featured poet for one and a half hours. Very tiring, but people liked me, so that was great. There were about thirty people who came, which was good for such an odd hour, and anyway it was a very intimate affair with me on a four-poster bed and loads of champagne and strawberries." [Mr Wang's note: Photo available at the official SWF blog].
How has the gay theme in Cyril's works affected his literary career?
"I started being incidentally explicit about the homosexual theme from the start, and NAC has written a letter to my publisher saying certain poems were to be taken out from my first manuscript. I was able to squeeze in more poems with the gay theme later on when I became more established. My publisher is the most intelligent, literary and open-minded publisher in this country, so he did not even bat an eyelid when he registered the gay themes in my work. But I still feel that it remains generally difficult to get my gay poems printed, unless I am very implicit about it. This does not bother me, however, as my 'gayer' poems get heard a lot in overseas festivals, performances and journals."
Is Cyril pushing a public agenda, or just being himself? What does he think about recent gay issues in Singapore?
"I am really first and foremost expressing myself as an individual. The gay agenda is just a bonus. It doesn't worry me if the agenda is successful or not. I care more about myself than about whether the world will be a better place if I were a semi-activist.

About gay issues, IndigNation, the Health Minister, Nation Party, or Yi Sheng's book project [on gays], well, I am glad things are happening, that's all. At least there are still gay men fighting this ideological war in one way or the other, and that's good. Most gay men are just plain complacent. The health minister...well, he makes no real difference really. Like one of the people behind Fridae said, if we cannot do Nation party here, we do in Phuket lor. Big deal."
Mr Wang asked Cyril to say something non-gay-related about poetry in Singapore:
"About non-gay things…you make it sound like it is such a conscious and deliberate thing, being gay. It’s a part of everything I do, in the same way one cannot help but be influenced by the fact that one is Indian or Chinese, Christian or atheistic…it’s part of the whole mental makeup. I have plenty of poems that do not have two men kissing or having sex, if that is what one means by non-gay poetry. This reminds me of how Thumboo tends to be misunderstood as just a political poet, when he is really very personal and even confessional in his poetry too."
On Singapore writers:
"There is a lack of urgency or edginess in local writings in general. When you read a lot of local poetry, for example, you tend to feel like nothing was at stake in putting the words to paper. Of course, there are exceptions. A lot of these exceptions do not win awards or get published. For these exceptions, I urge the poets to get out of Singapore."
About the recent Golden Point Awards:
"If you want to win the GPA, I do believe that the poetry to submit needs to be a little banal, because the judges are usually a little banal. Of course, Alfian Sa’at’s winning poems were the exception, but also they hinted at a lot of local/social issues, which is one of the key ingredients to winning the GPA. [Mr Wang's note: Alfian Saat won the GPA in 2001]

The kind of personal poetry that I admire deals with the self to the extent that anybody can relate to what is being expressed in the poem. For competitions, you will have to add more layers to the poem, layers that would surely make the poem look more ambitious but which may undermine the singular emotionality and vulnerability in the speaker’s voice. It’s like the difference between listening to Mariah Carey and listening to Stina Nordenstam. The former is full of vocal fireworks and bravado while the latter sings so intimately and quietly it is almost a whisper. A lot of people like to listen to Mariah Carey. I much prefer Stina Nordenstam."
Cyril is a classically trained singer and has been experimenting with combinations of music and poetry:
"I am very proud that I have been singing a lot recently. Chong Li-Chuan, a sound-artist, is working on certain melodies that I sung using text from my poetry. We hope to do a little album together. I am also performing LOVE SONGS at the Hong Kong Fringe Club in Feb next year. I will be covering popular songs and giving them a personal history that they did not possess before. I did this concert at The Substation in June this year and I was very proud of it. I even made some people cry, which was important. More at http://cyrilwong.com/lovesongs.htm."
Cyril Wong performed at the recent memorial concert for Shanmugam Murugesu, the man whose death sentence provoked much public soul-searching this year over the rights and wrongs of capital punishment:
"About Shanmugam's memorial concert, I sang for it for two reasons – I do not believe in capital punishment, and I hate the idea that you cannot speak in such events without needing to provide the police with your IC number. So I went up and sang a Chinese lullaby, a strategy to offer a very momentary reprieve in the midst of all that grief, all the political and personal frustrations, but also it is a gentle fuck-you to the ones who do not believe in free-speech."

With Cyril's permission, Mr Wang has reproduced one of the explicitly gay poems (The Neighbour) that Cyril read during the Pleasure Principle event. Mr Wang has kept this poem off his current main page so as to avoid alarming, offending or upsetting his more conservative readers. Please do not click here if you do not want to read Cyril's poem.


Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

One reader has just informed Mr Wang that the formatting of the above post has gone awry (funny symbols are appearing where punctuation marks should be).

The post looks fine on Mr Wang's screen though. Can readers please let me know if the post looks ok to them, on their own screens?

Han said...

Good interview Mr Wang (even though I know its not exactly an interview).

Anthony said...

Thanks, Mr Wang.

Would I be wrong making the observation that well-known male poets in Singapore tend to be gay? I know of at least two - Alfian and Cyril.

Anonymous said...

There's also Arthur Yap, Anthony.

But... on the non-gay side, there are Edwin Thumboo. And Gilbert Koh too. ;) Neither is Nicholas Liu gay.


Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

Somehow I think that gays always seem to be numerically overrepresented in the arts circles, especially in dance & drama.

In Singapore poetry too, there are more than a few of them but I shall not name names (unlike Cyril, they may not be so open about it).

But some male, married and presumably non-gay Singaporean poets are Aaron Lee, Alvin Pang, Felix Cheong, Gilbert Koh, Daren Shiau and Robert Yeo.

And yes, Molly, I recall that Nicholas Liu has written some nice romantic love poems addressed to a female, so presumably he's not gay either.

merf said...

Impressive post!

Anonymous said...

I'm Singaporean and I'm wondering if its anomalous that I do NOT find Cyril Wong controversial, though I sense very much that he enjoys making a statement. He may in fact be disappointed that most Singaporeans are not likely to make a hoo-ha over gays. (I can't speak for the religious Singaporeans, I speak for the heartlanders)

Come on, our older generation are fans of openly gay celebs like Lesli Cheung and Roman Tam.

Our official stand on homosexuality may be tending towards conservativeness, but really, no one bats an eyelid at gay couples in the mrts or streets. Today there was a lesbian couple next to me on the mrt, and they started touching each others' faces and murmuring sweet nothings to each other loudly. I noticed this very vocal and public display of affection and guess what? I didn't find it "alarming, offending or upsetting"!! Me, a stodgy old Singaporean!

- Serenity

bez said...

Very intimate poem which strangely(?) I actually find enjoyable. Nice interview. This definitely made me more aware of the poetry scene in Singapore.

fey said...

Nicholas Liu is established?

Anonymous said...

There are more gays in the arts, fashion, media industry. It's the same whole world round. Lots of gays in the teaching discipline too i was told. But they can't be openly gay for obvious reasons.

Anonymous said...

How many gay writers get funding in Singapore even though they are openly gay?
It is not about making a statement or being controversial.
Cyril has made a diffference.
What people accept on one hand and what they actually do to help a cause is another.
Enough said.

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

Cyril's books are interesting to read in chronological order. The first one has many poems about the tensions and unhappinesses in his family relationships. But the homosexual theme is quite implicit and people could be forgiven for completely missing it.

In Book 2, the homosexual theme becomes more obvious and it also becomes clear that a lot of the tension in the family relationships arise from the fact that Cyril's father cannot (completely, if at all) accept his homosexuality.

As you go to Books 3 and 4, the poems become more "outward-looking"; the focus on self & family relationship weakens somewhat as the poet increasingly turns his attention to other things; eg friends etc. At the same time, more overtly sexual.

At the same time, I have to say that Cyril's poems do get a bit too graphically sexual for me once in a while. It's not the homosexuality, it's the sex.

If a heterosexual poet wrote about heterosexual sex as much as Cyril writes about homosexual sex - I think I would say the same about the heterosexual poet.

Like, "Can you write more about something else? That's not about sex?"

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...


It's all relative, I should say. I don't think you can really pinpoint a definite time when a poet (or writer, or singer, or actor or whatever) becomes "established".

Anonymous said...

How many poets in Singapore publish poems about sex? So 'too much' can become 'not enough' in an instant when seen from another perspective.

Unknown said...

hi, what about yeow kai chai and paul tan ? are they gay too ?