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

By Lawrence Pettener

(For the first part of the interview, click here).

Lawrence Pettener You give us a lot of a persona in your poetry, or maybe the real you – like Western poets you give us your feelings. There is not much of that even interpersonally in Asia, I find.

Wong Phui Nam: Well, I’m not conscious of it! It’s not so much about the family as such; I just wanted to say something about the spiritual climate we were living in, the kinds of conditions. That is why they behave in that way. It’s not that I wanted to show my family off, or to ‘confess’. That is not my intention.

You notice in my first book there are no people in it – just landscapes and impressions of things I have seen. It is only in my Grandma book onwards that almost every poem I wrote had somebody speaking the poem – not me – except maybe the Grandma poem itself. Especially the later poems – they’re all spoken by somebody else. And I find that easier, so I don’t have the pressure: “Shall I say this, or shall I not say that?”

That’s why I have to use the Egyptian priestess – then I’m free to say whatever I like! In fact, after the first book I was wondering how to get people into what I say – and now it’s all people. That’s why I’ve gone into writing plays – in a way it’s a challenge to write in another medium, because then you are imagining an actor standing on a stage speaking to an audience rather than you ruminating by yourself. I wrote all the drafts which I think I’ve got to amend to loosen up the speech, because I wrote a load of plays as if they were lyrics – you know, very tight; and these have to be made more conversational.

Because the first thing they will say: This is not how Malaysians speak (laughs)! You know Shirley Lim? She’d say, Why don’t you write using Malaysian English? So why don’t you tell John Keats to write in Cockney? You write the way you yourself speak.  

Shirley Lim, I think in the handling of language she’s the finest poet, both in Malaysia and Singapore; very sensitive to the use of language. Better quality; I admire her words. 

LP: What about other Malaysian women poets?

WPN: They’re not as good poets as Shirley Lim.

LP: Who do you rate among the men?

Well, you have Arthur Yap; Boey Kim Cheng; and then the Malay poet Alfian Sa’at – the earlier works; the later poems I don’t know. Very inventive; he’s taken to writing plays also.

In Singapore writing poetry in English has come of age; so many of them. These are all Singapore poets. Malaysian, you have only Ee Tiang Hong, has gone away; Shirley Lim is not here. So you have Indian guy, Malachi Edwin – deceptively simple but I think there’s something more profound in this apparent simplicity. Bernice Chauly. I can’t think of any other, which is rather sad.

LP: Well of course you’ve got KS Maniam [deceased since this interview].

WPN: KS Maniam – his fiction is good, but I don’t think he’s a poet.

LP: And you’ve got Salleh Ben Joned [also deceased since this interview].

WPN: Ah yes, he’s got a handful of good poems. 

LP: He’s like a protest poet, isn’t he?

WPN: Or rather he is socially incorrect. Some of his poems there’s too hard a surface; I find it difficult to penetrate emotionally.                              

LP: Your own ‘At the Mosque’ seems a remarkable poem.

WPN: Actually it’s a translation of the Indonesian poet Chairil Anwar. He’s the best of the Indonesians. His poems are very short but exposing.

LP: How did you approach translating it?

WPN: Well, I tend to get the main feel and the tone of the poem, and imagine how would I say the same thing. That’s why my Chinese translations are not word for word – it’s impossible. You can’t imitate the syntax.  In a Chinese classical poem, you don’t have subordinate clauses, or personal pronouns. If you try to write like that, it’s nothing English at all; if you try to follow the sound scheme and all that – impossible.

But the strange thing is, all the Chinese poems are mainly 8-liners. And it’s to go in the form of the sonnet! But it felt natural to see it as a fourteen-liner.

LP: So Chinese is more compact?

WPN: Yes, because if you have a character there’s no such thing as an accent, or a long or short measure. And so-called modern poems, the Tang era ones, are very tricky, balancing tones. You have a tone in one line, the other tone must be something else. And the strange thing about the Chinese poetry was, in English, all the old forms are very strict; in Chinese, the ancient forms are all free. Everything the Chinese do, is just the opposite of English. The compass is pointing North; the Chinese one is pointing south. In English, time moves forwards; whereas in Chinese, time moves backwards. Until recently, Chinese read right to left, but nowadays of course it’s left to right.

LP: Time moves backwards? Have you got that in one of your poems?

WPN: In many things, it’s just the exact opposite. ‘The day before yesterday’— we have one word for that.

Was it Tennyson who said: fifty years in England is worth a cycle in Cathay. That reminds me of my schooldays, about colonialism. We had science classes, and after the experiment, the English teacher told us to line the jars up nicely, in straight lines. But there were one or two slightly displaced. The teacher went to the board: In England (he drew a straight line) we call this straight; in China (he drew a wavy line) you call that straight. It’s true, ‘cause the old Chinese bridges would go like that (wavy), whereas Western bridges go straight across. The belief is that spirits travel only in a straight line; so if you build a crooked bridge you foil the spirits, so you can’t follow it.

LP: Did people follow feng shui as you grew up?

WPN: I think there’s something in it. I believe chi is the connection between consciousness and the body. I’ve been having chest pains. If I put my right hand here, I don’t need medicines. Then you go home and in the night you point your finger in the dark; you see chi – a little flame, like a Bunsen burner (demonstrates with hands) You feel your resistance; that’s your chi, your energy. 

Chinese writing is so visual; that’s why the poetry seems so terse, but if you know the characters, they give rise to many other things. If you see it in Pinyin, it’s not right; it’s too simplified. You have to see it in Chinese with the Chinese characters.

LP: I suppose Pinyin’s just good to help people get into it.

WPN: You get used to the Chinese characters, there’s some beauty and some rationality in there. 

LP: I think I’d find Chinese languages difficult.

WPN: Especially if you try to speak Cantonese. You must be very careful of your intonation; if it’s wrong, it becomes the bad word! You would say Hi; and then Hai would be something totally different! It all depends on context. The combinations are confusing.

LP: One of your poems surprised me. You write a lot about bleak situations, and then your ‘I’ character comes out as Nataraj, the Lord of the dance. 

WPN: Yes, it’s about stamping out evil. It’s a meditation on the god – actually Siva, dancing on the skull.

LP: You dedicated that one to KS Maniam – did he like it?

WPN: I don’t know! He didn’t complain!

LP: It’s very striking, the idea that colonisation has encouraged Malaysians to turn everything into a wilderness.

WPN: It’s not just colonisation, it’s commercialism; of course, it came with colonisation. I think it’s a materialistic society. I see the word ‘dream’ in ‘American dream’ in a different light! I think now it’s terrible in the States; you fall sick you can go bankrupt – can you imagine? And then your child is afraid to go to school. Even the income tax, they want to make things difficult for themselves.

I mean, this idea of independence – you don’t want a handout from the government – why not? I welcome it, the government give me all that – what is there to be ashamed of? But they say oh no, no, no. You must work for it yourself – stupid. They don’t want handouts; socialism, they think. People must be self-reliant. They think they’re still cowboys, you know.

Now all the popular songs are from the US, isn’t it?

LP: Yeah, US and Britain. That’s cultural colonialism.

WPN: Even in the old days – all those musicians came from the States. Solzhenitsyn – he didn’t want to go to the States. Even despite all the harsh conditions in Russia, he still didn’t want to go to the US. Auden, I think, deteriorated when he went there – don’t you think so? I only like his early poems – before he left England. 

I think they also spoiled Dylan Thomas. I used to be very excited by his poems, but not any more – a lot of clever use of words, but signifying nothing in most of his poems.

And one poet who died in the war – only at the age of twenty or something: Sydney Keyes. The other one is Keith Douglas.

And earlier, John Keats – if he’d lived on, he’d have been even as great as Shakespeare. 

LP: Do you have some favourite modern or contemporary poets?

WPN: Geoffrey Hill! Strangely enough, although my Chinese is imperfect, I’m finding it easier to memorise Tang classical poems than English poems – it must be my genes!

LP: And you got into Eliot as well.

WPN: Ah yes – the earlier – everything except the Four Quartets. Too much intellectual stuff. Too much philosophy and theology. The Wasteland is very good. At first I was puzzled, but once I got the hang of it…and the Love Song of Prufrock.  

LP: You write about nature a lot, but in the tropics nature could easily be something like an enemy.

WPN: The way I see it, in England you see flowers everywhere, but here it’s all green. And our national flower is very rude. It has a beauty of sorts; but’s a kind of rude beauty. So that’s how it is; and the trees simply grow out of it.

Even Chinese poetry, at least classical poetry, it’s all about nature, everything is said, expressing the emotions all in terms of nature.

LP: It’s all metaphor.

WPN: To the extent that it gets boring!

LP: I find a lot of older poetry boring, especially compulsive rhyming: some of the Romantics, even. 

WPN: Wordsworth didn’t rhyme, I mean the longer poems. But he grew wordy – too many words! His earlier poems about immortality and that sort of thing – those were great poems. Of course,  there was Shakespeare and John Donne.

LP: Spoken Word seems very big over here.

WPN: There’s a restaurant called Gas-

LP: Gaslight – yes, that’s where I went. Have you done readings there?

WPN: I was invited there, but I didn’t want to go. I’m too snobby for it! (big laugh) I cannot stand all this so-called performance poetry. I think the psychology is also different; you just can’t get in that crowd, hmm. They wanted me to read there, but then I thought that I would be out of place. Hardly anyone would pay attention.

LP: I think they would. I went along one time, and when people find connections, they click their fingers to encourage the poet. Sounds like a cult, but it works.

WPN: I think just a discreet hand-clap would be enough.       

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