A Sense of Questing: Kim Cheng Boey on Poetry

Kim Cheng Boey

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.

After the Fire BY Kim Cheng Boey

After the Fire
BY Boey Kim Cheng
(Singapore: FirstFruits, 2006)

Somewhere Bound

Somewhere Bound
BY Boey Kim Cheng
(Singapore: Time Books
International, 1989)

Another Place

Another Place
BY Kim Cheng Boey
(Singapore: Time Books
International, 1992)

Some of these poems deal with loss and absence. Could you tell us more about your relationship with your father and grandmother?

It is hard to go into it again, after having presented so much of my father in my book of essays Between Stations. It’s something I resisted for a few years after his death. Writing about him. Perhaps it’s an awareness that I would be exploiting him, something I talk a great deal about in my writing classes — the ethics of writing about a dead person. I did write a poem about him before After the Fire, in Another Place. It was about meeting under very difficult circumstances after a long separation. In that poem, there is a lot of unresolved anger. He had a terrible life, ruled by oneiric urges. Always in debt, in trouble. I think part of me wanted him dead, so that the trouble would disappear for good.

And when he went, it was too late. I discovered how much I missed him. So perhaps the poems in After the Fire are a kind of atonement, wanting him back, and also connecting him with my children, with our story here in Sydney.

Between Stations has an essay devoted to my grandmother. She looked after me and my sister after my dad left, and my mother had to fend for herself. She was a nourishing presence, comforting, always there to sort out family problems, and always cooking, feeding us. A rather sad life but I will always remember the comfort of being close to her, her unstinting, untiring love for us and all her children. We forget what the earlier generations went through, the Japanese Occupation, the hardships before and after it if you didn’t belong to the moneyed classes. There is tremendous strength, and spirit of endurance, to take what Fate dealt out. Shakespeare sums it up beautifully at the end of King Lear: “The old hath borne most. We that are young/Shall never see so much, nor live so long.” I guess the poems commemorate that. They also stem from the guilt of not being there, in her final days.

The poems about my father and grandmother are attempts to memorialize them, to deal with their disappearance. It’s like giving myself a second chance, for me to see them, and they to see me, in the light of what has passed. With forgiveness. And love. You are afraid to lose them, the images, the very sense of who they are.

Let me quote from your poem “Change Alley”: “Only an echo / remains, the man haunting and sniffing / where the Alley had been, measuring / its absence till the spirit of place returns, / till a door yields at the end and he walks / out free, changed beyond all changes.” In mid-decade, you left Singapore and moved to Sydney. What was the local writing scene like during that time, and how do you view things now, from afar?

I don’t feel qualified enough to comment on the writing scene at that time or now. I have never been part of, active or visible in literary circles. When Somewhere-Bound came out, I turned down a few requests for interviews. At that time, poetry and spirituality were inextricable for me. I had to protect my solitude, and practise in poetry the self-renunciation that I admired in Hopkins, Merton, etc. Perhaps it was a bit of youthful arrogance too, that I could better forge my way, apart from the crowds. Besides, there wasn’t much that I was drawn to. Rilke, Heaney, Edward Thomas, Katzantzakis were stronger voices and I listened. There is a marked difference now, of course. Much more being published, more of a scene, as they say. I think you worked mostly alone, if you were a poet in the ’80s or early ’90s, but now there is more of a community, networks of voices, publishing opportunities, grants, prizes. I wonder if poets these days are not looking for that aloneness that was in abundance back then.

Kim Cheng Boey

How does such displacement inform or alter your writing?

Displacement has always been there in my work. The feeling of not-being-at-home. The quarrel with the self and where one is. In a sense, displacement is what makes writing possible and necessary. Moving from one place to another, adopting different positions of seeing and being. In hindsight, the move to Sydney was an inevitable step. It was like many other things I have done, a leap into the dark, a throw of the dice, but I couldn’t bear to see the way the places I loved in Singapore disappear, the thoughtlessness, the carelessness with which the country discards its past.

But as the cliché goes, you leave home in order to come back to it. I have come home, in a way, through the essays in Between Stations. It’s about resurrecting the old Singapore, the Singapore of my imagination and memory. Till I wrote these essays, I had no idea how much I loved what I saw, the Singapore of my childhood and youth, how much I miss them now. Change Alley. The old Raffles Place. The unrenovated Chinatown. And my father walking me through these lost landscapes.

When reading your poems, I thought of Pseudo-Dionysius of Areopagite, The Desert Fathers, of John of the Cross, even Jacob Boehme, but contemporarised into something immediate, relevant and determined. Does Muse exist for you? How does it manifest and translate into poetry?

Inspiration is something that is rarer as you age. Maybe I never had it, but what I possessed, or rather what possessed me was a restlessness, a sense of questing, journeying, driven by something that I have yet to find a name for. You are carried by it and feel lifted out of yourself, carried by something numinous to the brink of clarity and grace. Looking back, I find myself longing for the fervour of the young man who wrote those poems, his energy, openness and availability to the moment. These are highly flawed poems, some embarrassing now, but I can understand why they were written. I can still feel that intensity, that delirium or state of possession as the poems rushed out, one after the other, in a two or three-week period. Especially when the poem for Chatwin came and “Requiem for a Mountaineer;” it was close to a religious experience. I haven’t felt anything like that since, writing those poems in Another Place and Somewhere-Bound, that fever, that sustained lift into something beyond. Hopkins calls it “the roll, the rise, the carol, the creation.” It was good to have travelled on it, to have been buoyed, transported.

As a writer who works with religious tropes from across different world religions, I’m intrigued by how you frame your own spirituality, against your own writing.

I am no longer the fervent seeker/pilgrim I think I was, a young man inspired by an eclectic mix of voices — Hesse, Rilke, Katzantzakis, Dostoevsky, Merton, Zen… but where and what I am is because of the fumblings, the strayings, the wayfaring of that young man. Once I thought I would make an ultimate sacrifice — renounce poetry. Choose silence. We write because we don’t know the answers. And to paraphrase Rilke again, it is sometimes sufficient to be able to frame the right questions.The idea of monkhood was quite attractive, especially after reading Merton’s Elected Silence, till I realized it was just a romantic notion, not different from wanting to be a poet. Besides, I made three attempts at catechism but couldn’t bring myself to take the last steps. Reading Simone Weil didn’t help. I don’t think I was conscious of engaging with spiritual themes in any of the collections. There were a few poems that were influenced by R.S. Thomas or Elizabeth Jennings, in Somewhere-Bound. It was the uncertainties, the doubts, the questions that nudged the poetry into being. We write because we don’t know the answers. And to paraphrase Rilke again, it is sometimes sufficient to be able to frame the right questions. It was also the very lonely years, just before going into the army, of reading Kierkegaard, Kafka, Nietzsche, listening to Mahler, that perhaps changed my life irrevocably, and made me aware of the existential disquiet, the sense of the tragic. I don’t know how that equates with spirituality but it started a journey, a kind of quest that hasn’t yielded any answers yet.

On the topic of living poets, who are you reading now?

I find myself reading more prose these days. Maybe it’s to do with middle age. You want something more expansive, something more elastic and accommodating. More narrative than lyrical distillation. I love the short story, the way it reads and stays in your mind like a poem. Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolff — I admire them more than a lot of poets. Something about the compression, the warmth and depth and beguiling ease of the storytelling voice. Switching to prose, to the essay form in Between Stations, I found the room that I didn’t have in poetry, the space to let the thought and image grow. Reading Chatwin, Updike, all the wonderful prose stylists have helped in fusing the lyrical, expositional and narrative in the essays.

I have not turned away from poetry but I tend to re-read, go back to the staples rather than sample new poets. I go back, again and again, to Heaney, Yeats, Keats, Rilke, Larkin, Neruda, Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop. There is such deep music in their poems; they have smuggled the ineffable essence of experience into their poetry, something that cannot be paraphrased or put in discursive terms. You get the feeling that they wrote because they had no choice, that they have answered the question Rilke posed to his young poet — Can you not live without writing? — and have gone on to write.

In each poet, you can see something pressing, something that demands to be given expression in a poem. Someone once said that all that a writer needs for his/her entire career is just one theme. Keats and Stevens meditating on the imagination and beauty, Rilke on the spiritual power of poetry, Larkin on “the solving emptiness” under it all, Heaney on place and displacement, Bishop on questions of travel. These poets have tracked the theme to the furthest reaches of their lives and imagination, and fetched back the unsayable, something so profoundly beautiful, joyous or tragic that it can’t be explained. In the end, it’s a state close to music that the poem discovers and inhabits and through that, the experience is being communicated or embodied. I can read the ending of Larkin’s “The Whitsun Weddings” over and over — “there swelled/ A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower/ Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain” — and get a sense of solace from its rhythm, from what it is gesturing to. There are others I love — Cavafy, Du Fu, Mark Strand, William Matthews, poets whose work resonates with a sense of a lived life. You are not just reading the poem and admiring its craftedness, but encountering a person, a human being trying to make sense of a particular situation.

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