A Sense of Questing: Kim Cheng Boey on Poetry

Kim Cheng Boey
PHOTO COURTESY OF THE AUTHOR

Born in Singapore, KIM CHENG BOEY is one of Singapore’s post-1965 English language poets whose lyrical writings explore thematical images of homeland, identity, nostalgia, and exile. After reading English Literature at the National University of Singapore, Boey pursued German Studies in Murnau and attended the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa in 1994. Two years later, he moved to Australia with his wife, where he completed his PhD at the University of Macquarie.

His debut collection, Somewhere-Bound (1989), won the National Book Development Council’s Book Award for Poetry; Another Place (1992) received the commendation award, while Days Of No Name (1995) was awarded a merit at the Singapore Literature Prize. A recipient of the National Arts Council’s Young Artist Award, he presently teaches creative writing at the University of Newcastle in Australia. Last year, Giramondo published his book of personal essays, Between Stations. In this interview, Boey speaks with Kon about his collection of poems, After the Fire (2006).


I like how Judith Beveridge cites Rilke’s warning of the “unlived life, of which one may die,” then goes on to describe how struck she was by your new work, of “how connected the poems are both to the breath and to lived experience.” How do you think your lived experience has connected with your poetry?

I have mostly written in response to the pressure/promptings of experiences, whether recent or distant in time. It’s the need to understand, to sift through the events/memories, discover some kind of pattern and order, and achieve through that some semblance of meaning. Eliot says, “We have had the experience, but missed the meaning” and the poetry of memory allows you to summon back those moments and inhabit them again, more fully and imaginatively this time. It’s something beyond language, the feeling you get from being able to relive those moments at a deeper level. You get the sense that these experiences or memories are not finished and are still travelling with you.It may not be Wordsworth’s recollections in tranquility, but remembering it through writing, framing it all in words, can provide what Frost calls “a momentary stay against confusion.”

I remember the deep sense of quiet joy as I wrote the poems in Another Place, the sense of arrival, as though the real travels, the journeys I made in India and elsewhere, were being done or completed in writing. It’s something beyond language, the feeling you get from being able to relive those moments at a deeper level. You get the sense that these experiences or memories are not finished and are still travelling with you. I like the etymology of the word “experience” — it comes from the Latin experientia — to try. So all that you have lived through, it is unfinished business, still waiting for you to come back to it one day and give it a story.

While there are autobiographical elements in my work, I don’t think of myself as an autobiographical poet. There isn’t a continuous thread or trajectory through the collections, as there is in Robert Lowell. What the poems offer are sundered moments, some sunlit, some dark, clouded. I do, however, see each collection as marking out a stage or phase in my life. Perhaps that is why they emerged, to help chart a particular terrain, make bearable and comprehensible a stretch of the journey. But straight autobiography it isn’t. Besides, as Lowell says of his own work, there is a great deal of tinkering with fact. You are recasting the experiences, shaping, editing, selecting a few particulars and leaving out others, drafting, revising, to get to the heart of the matter. Somewhere along the way you have to trust memory to find its voice, trust imagination to step in and not distort or exaggerate, but to help memory achieve the form, the body for what has happened.


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