The Monthly interviews Tse Hao Guang – Part 2 – Interrogating ideas

part one is here

What are the key themes in your writing?

The answer really depends on the book. I see my books as different projects looking at different themes and ideas.

In the first book “Deeds of Light”, I was trying to understand the question of writing in the city, in this case Singapore, although I don’t really mention Singapore by name in the book. How does a city inform or shape what it is you write about? It was also looking at the way someone lives in a city; how you move in a city and again how your life shapes your thoughts and ideas.

I have a new book which is going to be published next year and that is titled “The International Left Hand Calligraphy Association” and that book is looking at taking simple everyday experiences and looking at them through a dream-like lens. It is also investigating the connection or the intersection between creative writing and visual art. I am trying to look at that intersection, not superficially, but aiming for a deeper understanding.

Do you examine the contradictions within Singaporean society?

I do have a poem which grew out of an introductory exercise at a writing group. This was at the International University where I used to work. There was a group of us who were new to each other and the prompt was a series of statements which started from the notion of introducing yourself to other people. The prompt was “I am from…..” and the idea was to be playful with that prompt. You could interpret that starting point any way that you wished to.

I realised that I am from many things or areas, a little bit from Singapore, Malaysia, from Canada and then beyond that there are the values that emerge from the places you live and the experiences you have.

I raise the question in that poem about Asian Values, the idea that the East is a little more collectivist compared to the West, and for a period people here bought into this idea, that the East was a lot less individualistic than the West. This was particularly true when you looked at politicians. And this idea was used to justify particular policies which were put forward as things Singaporeans would want because they had these particular values.

When you are writing are you aiming to produce a narrative style?

I think in the first book that was true. When I was writing that book I think I was looking at particular imagery which lent itself to a narrative structure.

The poems are little snatches in time and there are throughout the poems, little moments, a beginning moment, a middle moment and an end moment, which, when put together, I think form a narrative.

I don’t wouldn’t say that is necessarily my approach for everything I write and I wouldn’t say that it is intentional.

What about structure. Is it important to you?

Structure is important to me and it manifests in different ways in my work. I do think it might be dictated by the form of writing or the ideas I am looking into. In “Deeds of Light” I was struggling to understand the contradictions within Singapore, and also the contradictions that emerge when writing about Singapore. For example, it is quite an orderly city and yet poetry is meant to be quite free and creative, and I ended up being interested in how I could use metrical forms, but not in such a way that it was completely obvious.

I ended up using a lot of half rhymes, I used elements of sonnets, not fully conforming to any particular structures, but using a light touch rather than a formalistic approach.

Would there be a good example of that approach in Deeds of Light?

There are two poems, Mateka and Richmond Hill which would show my approach. Those poems face each other on the page and one poem is named after my mother’s home town and the other is the suburb where I would visit my father’s side of the family in Canada.

They have interesting structures in that they have three regular lines and one short line, and one of the poems has the short line at the end, the fourth line, and another has a short line at the beginning, the first line.  They are meant to fit together visually in some way.

There is also a very long poem on the Philippines, which is looking at the idea of travel as a pilgrimage, and each section of the poem has a slightly different rhyme scheme and each last line of each section is repeated, maybe not exactly, as the first line of the next section. The last line of the poem refers back to the first line of the poem.

It wasn’t just form for form’s sake but rather I had an idea how the words should read and worked from that idea.

Do you have any influences?

I think when I was writing my earlier work my influences weren’t front and centre. But now as I continue my poetic writing, I find myself being able to say that I am drawn to American women poets. Marianne Moore is a huge influence; I studied her work and was so taken by her writing that I wrote my undergraduate thesis on her work.

She has very delicate structures and these may not be apparent at first glance. She doesn’t use metrical forms, rather she uses syllabic forms which leads to these amazing stanzas where every line has a specific number of syllables. If you count them you might come up with a sequence, 11, 13, 8, 5, 3 and that sequence will be repeated, and it feels very organic. She also uses imagery very well; very precisely.

I love Emily Dickinson as well; I love the way she expresses very deep and profound thoughts but in a very light, almost light-hearted, manner.

Where to now?

The book, “The International Left Hand Calligraphy Association” will be published next year and the poems in that book are meant to look like Chinese Calligraphy on the page. I am hoping they look interesting on the page and I hope they read that way as well.

It is being published by a Hawaiian publisher, Tinfish Press and they specialise in experimental poetry and I think that suits my work at the moment.

If you would like to connect with more of Tse Hao Guang’s work see the following link –

artist forms link
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