A conversation with Malaysian poet Wong Phui Nam (part 1)

By Lawrence Pettener

I was lucky enough to get a couple of interviews with national treasure, poet Wong Phui Nam in September 2019, just before our world was co-opted by COVID.

Wong is not only a poet, having served also as an economist (for example, working with the Malaysian Industrial Development Finance Berhad at one time). Kuala Lumpur born and bred, Wong studied at the prestigious Victoria Institution (V.I), the oldest secondary school in the city.

He has had many collections of poems published, including How the Hills are Distant (1968), Remembering Grandma and Other Rumours (1989) and Ways of Exile (1993).

(His former school has put up a more detailed biography on their website if you’re interested).

Those Days (a bit of background) 

Up to the age of 14 I didn’t know English at all; my environment was totally Cantonese. My mother was from China; she was Cantonese. My father was from Melaka; he was Peranakan. I think somewhere up the family tree we had a Malay Portuguese great-grandmother somewhere! But you don’t see that in my features.

The Peranakan community is dispersing; all marrying outside, intermarrying with the other Chinese;  but then I think there are still some core ones who want to preserve it.

Actually, among Malaysian poets writing in English, there are three main ones who first started writing – a Peranakan trio, you know. The first, the oldest among us, he’s passed away now, Ee Tiang Hong.

LP: He was the first one who came across to me strongly.

WPN: Ee Tiang Hong’s family was the oldest settlers in Melaka. His family line went up to the seventh generation, probably at the time of the Ming dynasty and Admiral Chin Ho. There’s still a temple with a well, the Chin Ho well. He felt very frustrated and actually was very angry with the Malays. Because why do you have the brand Bumiputera and all that? His family was here much longer before any of the Malays. So, he just pulled up sticks and emigrated to Australia. He died around 1990.

LP: He was only around fifty-five, wasn’t he?

Well, he’d just retired. Now it’s raised to I think sixty. When I retired I was fifty-five. If you ask me to go back to an office and work, I can do it (WPN is eighty four).

LP: I totally imagine you can, yes. You were young when you lost both parents, weren’t you?

WPN: Yeah, my mother died when I was even younger; she died in 1940, when I was four going onto  five. So, I didn’t really know my parents, especially there were so many older siblings – if I’d been the first born, probably I would have been the centre of attention, I would have known them better. So, it was one of the servants who looked after me. I was more attached to her than to my mother (laughter)!

LP: You wrote a poem about a stepmother – so that was her. It’s confusing, because your father also married your mother’s niece.

WPN: My stepmother. I mean, those were the kind of – well, you could say morals or whatever. You see, my grandmother – my mother’s mother lived with us; my father supported her – actually quite generous with his allowances, and even had a personal rickshaw for her to travel around.

LP: It could have been quite difficult for him.

WPN: Yes. And my mother died of kidney failure, because of the strain of so many births – I am the no. eight in the family.

Even after my father died, up to the time I went to school, my environment was totally Cantonese; we spoke Cantonese, and although we had Indian neighbours, we thought they were very strange – eating beans and… even Hokkiens were regarded as foreigners! If my mother had been alive when my sisters married, she would not have agreed to them even marrying somebody from Fujian or Canton. That was what it was like. I didn’t even know the Malay language existed (laughter)!

Speaking at a cafe in town.

On poetry:

LP: But all that must have been there in the back of your mind somewhere – for you to become effectively the Poet Laureate; there is no such post, is there?

WPN: Well, if you’re writing in English, don’t dream! If you want prizes, don’t dream (laughs). We consider ourselves lucky; at least they leave us alone in benign neglect; they don’t persecute us. But other than that, anything else, no way! 

LP: But is their not censoring you some sort of insult – like you don’t matter?

WPN: Well, they did say that, one or two of their so-called scholars: “trivial literature”. I had a big quarrel with them, I used to write a column for the New Straits Times in the nineties. In most of the columns I attacked their writings, because they’re just too insular. They’re not aware of developments around the world, and what literature has gone through. So, they still write their own Malay way, and in a Malay that is structured on English syntax. The Malay they write is not the classical Malay at all.

LP: So, they’re not writing pantuns [poems]?

Well, the best Malay I’ve ever read is the Sejarah Malayu, the Malay Annals; it tells the story of the founding of Malacca and so on. The Sultan there is supposed to have descended from Alexander the Great.

LP: I was thinking about you losing your parents so young, then giving up writing for fifteen years. Your feeling of having no language – it must have felt like losing your parents in some way.

WPN: Yes. Even now, even though English has been a benefit, linguistically I still feel like a displaced person. I mean, I can’t claim Malay, even though I live here – it’s not my heritage, and I can’t claim Chinese either, because my lineage has been cut off from China so many years ago, so where do I stand? (Laughs) So I just take the practical view that this is my working language, English – I speak it, I work in it, and when I worked I was using English; maybe I even dreamed in it. What other language can I use?

LP: And you used English with your family?

WPN: Yes, because my wife is Malay. And at the time I married her I knew little Malay, so actually when we dated we used English; even after our children were born we were speaking English to them. That’s why they know their English, unlike a lot of these other fellows. 

WPN:  There was an Anthology edited by Harold Bloom, a supposedly eminent critic, the best of the best in the nineties; I was sorely disappointed. Except Elizabeth Bishop, WS Merwin and one or two others. These are the older generation; but the young upstarts, I’m not impressed. Because I think they now think that it is the way to write – just like in the nineteenth century the way to write was to give a sermon. So now the way to write is to be as flat as possible from the tables and chairs and the kitchen sink and all that, right?

LP: Much of your poetry sweeps forward with grand proclamations…

WPN: I’m a bit old fashioned, that’s me!

LP: But you do it so well. If you ask a hundred poets to write in that way…

WPN: Now, when you write about love, you go something like: I buttered a toast for you, but…  (laughter)!

Even now, even though English has been a benefit, linguistically I still feel like a displaced person … I can’t claim Malay, even though I live here – it’s not my heritage, and I can’t claim Chinese either, because my lineage has been cut off from China so many years ago, so where do I stand? So I just take the practical view that this is my working language, English.

Wong Phui Nam

LP: Yeah. The cherries are in the fridge.

Yeah, that kinda stuff nowadays. And that’s why the poets themselves are to blame for poetry not being popular. I don’t think Penguin are doing contemporary anthologies any more: contemporary British poetry, modern British poetry, Ted Hughes and all that. 

The one poet I do admire is Geoffrey Hill; maybe you can explain his work to me?

LP: I can’t say I’ve read enough of his. He’s like you – big topics.

WPN: You can see the surge and power in his language; although I’m baffled by most of it! Every night I look at a poem and try to figure it out; maybe I’m reading it the wrong way, or what?

LP: I feel that way about a lot of poetry, and I think that’s what holds me to it. Did you ever use rhyme?

WPN: When I was at school I used to. Then I thought: there’s too much of the genes of English poetry in it. My feeling about rhyme is, you must use certain words and then the rational mind comes into play; that ruins the poem. You are not going to use a word you want to use; you have to use some other word because you have to rhyme. You know the Australian poet AD Hope? All his poems are in heroic couplets. I find it very boring after a while.

My favourite is Judith Wright, a woman poet. I think she died, I think she was in NSW. She was born in 1917.

LP: What was her poetry like?

WPN: Something like mine! I came to her poetry quite late; but I find it very congenial.

LP: None of it rhymes, I suppose?

WPN: I don’t remember, because I’m not conscious of rhymes! I read somewhere that Shakespeare and Milton were against rhyme. I don’t know the source. That’s why he wrote Paradise Lost in blank verse.

LP: And you like Keats a lot?

Yes, but my favourite romantic poet is Shelley – all air and fire! But the estimation of him is gone now; people say he was too airy fairy. The idea was that everything is in the poem – that’s not true. It has something to do with the poet’s biography as well. Leavis propagated that idea, that a poem is an object standing alone, nothing to do with the poet; how can that be?

There’s another American poet, John Ashbery. But unlike Geoffrey Hill, I feel that his poetry’s like a spoof; I get that feeling. He just dashes everything down. Whereas with Geoffrey Hill you know that comes from the poet’s subconscious, and it’s constructed some way I don’t understand.

LP: Ashbery’s inspired a lot of poets.

WPN: Maybe in New York.  This sort of writing reminds me of a statement by one linguist, Steven Pinker: You can write a sentence syntactically correct, but semantically it’s nonsense; like: ‘I had a curious green dream’. It sounds like poetry, but it’s nonsense. John Ashbery’s poetry seems to me to be like that. Although I may be wrong. 

To me it must come from the subconscious, but the mind must be there also to give it some structure. It comes from your actual experience of something. That’s why I don’t think much of performance poetry and anything that comes from it.  

About Lawrence Pettener

Originally from Liverpool, Lawrence Pettener works full-time in the Klang Valley as copy-editor, proofreader and writer, specialising in helping solo authors (including mentoring poets). He facilitates poetry-writing workshops, the most recent of which was for LevelUp. As Kwailo Lumpur, he writes comic material about Malaysian life, food especially. Find him at: https://www.facebook.com/lawrencepettenerwriter/
and http://www.lawrencepettener.com