The Singapore Literature Prize winner is on a roll, winning award after award for his poems and fiction.
12 years ago, Desmond Kon wrote down 3 wishes on a napkin. One of them read: Win a literary prize.
His wish has since come true – not once, but many times.
At the recently-held Singapore Literature Prize (SLP), the 45-year-old journalist-turned-author, scored a nod in the English Poetry category, sharing the coveted prize with another homegrown poet Cyril Wong. His award-winning work, I Didn’t Know Mani Was a Conceptualist, is a collection of poems revolving around Dadaism, an anti-war artistic and literary movement that started in Switzerland in the early 1900s.
In April last year, Desmond was the first-ever double winner (Poetry and Visionary Fiction) at the Beverly Hills International Book Award. In the same month this year, he also won a Gold at the Benjamin Franklin Book Awards, given out by the US Independent Book Publishers Association. In March, he made an unprecedented sweep at the USA Regional Excellence Book Awards when his works came up tops in 7 categories.
And the list of accolades goes on.
The prolific writer, curator and multi-disciplinary artist is also a lecturer at Ngee Ann Polytechnic. He now helms the Creative Writing elective in the School of Film and Media Studies. The UrbanWire caught up with the wordsmith to dig deeper into his life.
UrbanWire: You’re the recipient of this year’s Singapore Literature Prize for English Poetry and many other writing awards. How important are these awards to writers?
Desmond Kon: I can’t speak for others, but I don’t imagine any writer not being mildly delighted – or tickled – at receiving an accolade. Unless you’re Sartre, who made it a bit of a mantra to decline such awards, including the Nobel in 1964. Some writers simply don’t care for awards, and that’s a totally respectable position to take. I grew up with very little validation for my art and writing, so nowadays, I’m happy with whatever little I can get.
1 of my professors told me she approached the matter of journal or awards submissions as casual and innocuous. She treated it all as a game, a gamble – that winning anything was the luck of the draw. That helped take the anxiety and pressure off, she said.
For me, it all started in 2004 at a small farewell supper before I left for the States. There were 4 of us, good friends at different stations in our lives. Around midnight, we made a pact that we would meet 12 years later, at the same spot and regale each other with our life adventures. We decided to pen 3 things we hoped to accomplish in the 12 years – our bucket list. We wrote our small desires on napkins, and passed it only to the person on our right – for safekeeping. My first wish was to author a poetry collection, on my own aesthetic terms. The second was to bag some literary prize, for a lark. I remember writing that second wish down, thinking it near impossible.
UrbanWire: As an editor of numerous books and poetry collections, what do you think differentiates a good poem from an award-winning poem?
Desmond Kon: The important distinction to be made here is what makes a good poem. There is no simple answer to this question. There are aspects one can look for in a poem, things that point to its development, and whether the poem has reached its completion. How the syntax works the poem’s drama, for instance. Whether a center seems discoverable, and if not, how that obscurity functions on the page. What kind of performance – stage or page – do the words best lend themselves? Then there’s the matter of image and imagery. Diction. Line breaks and enjambment. Are the lines metered, and what other sonic effects are at play? How’s the rhythm working? Poems not only give us visual cues – we need to hear them too. The art of euphony. I have the habit of doing close readings, and keeping an eye out for any jostling between lyric and narrative. To see how the levels work out, how the tension is afforded a fine balance.
Writing poetry is such a beautifully free practice, precisely because the tradition has consistently evolved itself to allow for almost any kind of aesthetic and artifice. There are the Georgian Poets, and the Lake Poets. There are the Metaphysical Poets. The War Poets. The French Symbolists. The Imagists. The Objectivists. The Black Mountain Poets. The Language Poets. The Beat Poets. The Conceptual Poets. Even though a writer may not subscribe to any particular literary movement or school, one may be able to tease out commonalities or influences. With regard to what poems make the cut in awards adjudication, that’s really another kind of serendipity. Who’s sitting on the judging panel that particular year, and what are their aesthetic preferences? It’s all fair game, and clinching a win is as much kismet as blessing, in my sense of things.
UrbanWire: In a review of your prize-winning book, I Didn’t Know Mani Was a Conceptualist, Kirpal Singh stated, “Here is a book few of us think a Singaporean could write!” What do you think about this statement?
Desmond Kon: I was thrilled that Kirpal had read the book, and was open to penning some cover praise for it. I remain deeply grateful for his very generous reception of my work. I was trying out new things – I was gunning for something eclectic and innovative. Perhaps Kirpal thought the work was refreshing, that it brought a different voice to the table. I was, of course, ecstatic at the affirmation of my work, especially because it trekked so far left of center.
Given my own love for Derridean and Deleuzean ideas, my writing is often playful and experimental. It is at once a serious and unserious interrogation of the workings of language. What are the relationships that form between thought and speech and writing, and what structures best attend to them?
Mine is unapologetically a life-long oeuvre. All my books dialogue with one another, each but a singular artifact within a larger narrative puzzle. This puzzle might never reveal its secrets, and that is perfectly all right. The story that remains at once coherent and cryptic seems more honest about the human condition.
UrbanWire: Would you rather have your poems be seen as difficult or easy to comprehend?
Desmond Kon: My poetry is known to be opaque. Impenetrable is the word associated with my work, which is by and large the point of my poetic project really. I’m simply bringing to surface the brick walls inherent in language making, something people tend to forget in our fast-paced world of light-speed communication. I’m simply making the nuts and bolts of language creation – and its vagaries – apparent. I’m holding a mirror up to many mirrors.
That said, my work is starting to ease up on the compression and density. I have many unpublished poems, which possess more of that transparent, liquid quality readers seem to like. I think I’m more prepared now to share some of this work, and they’re being pulled together for a new collection.
UrbanWire: What’s the best decision you’ve made as a poet?
Desmond Kon: To make my art practice the center of my life – this has also helped center me spiritually, which is the real gravy. I have that third wish on a napkin still. It’s such a huge undertaking that it’s likely to take the entirety of my lifetime to work towards.
UrbanWire: What is a subject that you’d like to see addressed more by Singapore poets?
Desmond Kon: What it’s like to gaze at your own toilet excrement – literal or metaphorical – for an inordinate amount of time. I’d love to read more raw, gritty stuff, the weird stuff – the more bizarre, the more absurd, the better – transgressions that push against the limits of language and its possibilities. I know many people tire of self-referential work, writing that is acutely aware of itself, but I adore it. I love the meta-sensibility, and the kind of critical intelligence needed to muster that kind of narrative.
UrbanWire: During your Creative Writing classes, you regularly hold workshops for your students’ poems to be critiqued by yourself and their peers. Who are the writers, dead or alive, that’d be in your dream workshop?
Desmond Kon: That’s a great question. I’d be spoilt for choice because I’m in love with many writers, and would invite them over for any reason at all. The names that come to mind are: Frank O’Hara, Allen Ginsberg, Harold Bloom, John Wilkinson, Charles Bernstein, Hart Crane, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Yehuda Amichai, Fernando Pessoa, Mark Strand, Charles Simic, Stephen Dunn, Billy Collins, Robert Creeley, Albert Goldbarth, Andrew Duncan, Orlando Menes, Ranjit Hoskote, Hemant Divate, Brian Barker, Franz Wright, Forrest Gander, Christian Bök, Andrew Zawacki, Steven Cramer, John Ashbery, John Taggart, Noah Eli Gordon, Michael Ryan, Mark Doty, and Shanxing Wang. Oh, and we must have Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Julia Kristeva, and Judith Butler.
We need more women, so there’d be Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Lorine Niedecker, Amy Gerstler, Hannah Weiner, Louise Glück, Cate Marvin, Noelle Kocot, Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, Rae Armantrout, Joyelle McSweeney, Lily Hoang, Paisley Rekdal, Karen Solie, Lyn Hejinian, Susan Blackwell Ramsey, and Matthea Harvey, among others.
Of course, we must have people based here in Singapore. I’ll invite wonderful people like Edwin Thumboo, Chandran Nair, Robert Yeo, Lee Tzu Pheng, Leong Liew Geok, Shirley Geok-lin Lim, Koh Tai Ann, Yeow Kai Chai, Alvin Pang, Paul Tan, Daren Shiau, Kirpal Singh, Gwee Li Sui, Robin Hemley, Boey Kim Cheng, Neil Murphy, Barrie Sherwood, Divya Victor, Eric Tinsay Valles, Aaron Lee, Chris Mooney-Singh, Joshua Ip, Tse Hao Guang, Samuel Caleb Wee, Jerrold Yam, Daryl W. J. Lim, Ng Yi-Sheng, Christine Chia, Pooja Nansi, Zafar Anjum, Yong Shu Hoong, and then some.
I must have missed out many people I adore – apologies all around. Heck, let’s invite everybody. It’d be a real party. Not a workshop, but the most awesome reading ever. There’d be free flow of booze. And the pantry would be a feast, a spread that had everyone’s favorite food. We’ll order grub from all the restaurants and stalls that just got Michelin-starred here. Wooohooo!!!
UrbanWire: What do you want the world to remember about you and your poetry?
Desmond Kon: That I had a love affair with language, despite how language ultimately and sadly fails us – that I remain faceless, in spite of it all. Blame Foucault – that the language is no path or opening or dirt road to a defined biography of the author. That kind of solidity – often, a misguided archaeology – is disconcerting. The work of metaphor allows illusion to surface, buoyed by trope and absence within our tiny acts of meaning making. The illusion is an indictment of what it means to grasp at reality, the illusion itself something that can only be grasped at.
Language is ultimately merely a system of significations, and the relationships that exist between things and words are merely constructions, also largely arbitrary. I like to think of experience – both transcendental and worldly – as ineffable. I have no presumptions – no delusions of grandeur – about knowing the secrets of the universe. Hence, any language of my creation is but an utterance, scarcely a profession or categorical statement. There is nothing to be persuaded, and nothing that needs persuading. Life is quaintly ineffable, at least that’s the way I see it. Life beyond and around life remains inexpressible and unsayable.
If in life, I’ve celebrated what remains beyond the limits of language, what more then in death when I’m no longer around to speak for my work? This is an irony that I hope will stay with perceptions and readings of my work. That there lies within the text a secret, and yet no secret lies within. This absence of definitive meaning offers a strange calm. It’s the soft rise and ebb of a distinct quiet – the steady movements of silence – one experiences before, during, and after the rain. That is the contemplation that would make for a good remembrance.