Born and raised in Singapore, Eileen Chong now lives and works in Sydney, Australia. Her latest book of poems Painting Red Orchids (Sydney: Pitt Street Poetry, 2016) has been shortlisted for the Victorian Premier's Literary Awards 2017. Below are five poems from the collection, followed by an interview with the poet.
Painting Red Orchids
Last night, red orchids in the thatched hut burst into blossom.
Worrying about the wind and rain, unable to sleep.
‘Red Orchid’, Huang Shen
My brushes hang in stillness on polished rosewood.
Weasel hair, wolf tail, mink fur. This one, an eyelash
from a leopard. The inkstone was my father’s: slate
quarried from the lake where my great-grandfather
drowned himself one spring night. I scoop well-water
onto the stone and grind the inkstick back and forth.
Pine oils diffuse into the room. My wife has made
this paper with mulberry from our gardens. I lift
my brush, pull back my sleeve and saturate the hairs.
One stroke, one breath: leaves give way to blossom.
More water – rain and cloud above the trees.
Cochineal paste, jade seal – red orchids bloom on white.
Then there was the mussel man –
he was at the fish shop, counting out
his change. How many mussels can I have
for two-fifty? His close-shaven scalp
showing grey fuzz against black skin,
back of hands dark, startling light palms.
I like mussels myself: steamed
in a cast-iron pot with chilli, garlic,
ginger, lemongrass and coconut cream.
I don’t know how he would have
cooked them. I saw him, years later,
on the street next to the fountain,
singing what might have been a sea
shanty. I don’t know if he remembers
that I made up the difference; I nodded
at the fishmonger as he picked out
the blue-green shells. The mussel man
clutched the paper-wrapped package
to his chest and said, Bless you, lady.
I need all the blessings I can get –
I am adrift, far from rock and shore.
A Walk with Phil Levine
In my dream I am walking with Phil Levine
in Brooklyn. The trees are in flower, creamy
magnolias open and bruised. He is showing me
his hands: they are soft, a writer’s hands,
but peel back the layers and there are the calluses,
remnants from days and nights in the factories.
Phil is wearing white tennis shoes. One of his laces
has come undone and he bends, limber, to tie it again.
His fingers are nimble and have not forgotten how
it is to turn, bend, fold, pass under, tighten.
A knot in my stomach grows as I realise
this must be a dream, because Phil is dead.
Now that he is dead you can read his diaries
in the New York Public Library. In the 1970s
he stopped in London en route to Spain.
He bought a Burberry coat. He was very fond
of whiskey, yoghurt and ice cream, as detailed
in his expense reports. A scrap of paper fell out
of a file: filled with his scratchy handwriting
on lurid-yellow lined paper. I can’t read what it says
even though I know it is important – in my dream
my eyes will not focus and the paper disappears
like a curled-up leaf swallowed by the river. He wrote
in a letter that he loved music, books and chocolate.
As do I, Phil. We arrive at the foot of his brownstone.
Next to his apartment number it says P. and F. Levine.
He goes up the narrow stairway and tells me to call
anytime. The doorbell is shiny brass and in my dream
I reach out and press the button. Something rings
in the distance, rings unanswered, and keeps on ringing.
My grandmother stands on the balcony, her face open
to the harbour. She starts to talk of Tanjong Rhu,
of her childhood by the water and the docks.
With a bent spoon she levers the lid open on a tin
as tall as herself. She picks out her favourite biscuits –
cream, lemon, chocolate – and wraps them carefully
in her handkerchief. She walks down to the edge
where the waves scud in, removes her shoes, and dangles
her feet in the wet. You remember, she says to me,
we were there every weekend. I open my mouth to reply,
then shut it, the words caught in my throat. I hadn’t
been born yet, grandmother. I break a biscuit in two
and give one half to her. She bites into it, feels it break
then dissolve into sweetness, and smiles absently.
She starts to sing: ‘Zi lang zi puah, gam ceng buay suah’ –
half for you and half for me. Nothing then will crumble.
for Sharon Olds
I don’t know what it means to die, although
I have written that I do. I lay there in the bed
and thought, I want to live. And so I lived:
I left, I got well, I kept on. This evening,
when you were reading to the crowd,
I realised I might never see you again –
you or I might die before another meeting
took place: here in Australia, there in America,
the upside-down, inside-out places we inhabit.
Then I thought of the other people I love –
my poetry teacher, full of gentleness,
her husband, also a poet, and of how they, too,
would die one day, perhaps before I would.
And I wept, knowing of their deaths and
of my loneliness even as I held on to
my lover’s hand, your voice sounding
in my ears, my teacher and her husband
three rows behind us… Now in your poem
the plane flies silently over the Pacific and you cry
as you think of the man you love, desire no match
for engines that pull you further away from him.
Bless you. Bless all the ones we love,
the ones we once loved and will come to love,
even as we learn what it means to die and live again.
Poems reprinted by the author's permission.
SP. You were born and grew up in Singapore, but have since migrated to Australia. What prompted you to migrate to Australia? You wrote in an interview elsewhere that Australia made you a poet. How has Australia affected your development as a poet?
EC. I moved to Australia for love. I had met my partner, who is Australian, in Singapore. When the relationship got serious, we discussed our options and decided to return to Sydney together, rather than live overseas where I would become a ‘trailing spouse’. I was an English and Literature teacher in Singapore, and thought I would continue my teaching work here in Australia. When I arrived, I realized I needed two months’ more teaching experience for my qualifications to be valid. So I decided to enroll in a Masters of Letters at the University of Sydney, and return to teaching afterwards. It was there that I met the poet Judith Beveridge, who unlocked the door to my own poetry.
I think it was absolutely essential for me to move away from Singapore in order to write about it. The physical, mental and emotional space allowed for gaps in my experience, which my memories and imagination sprang to fill. I wrote to make sense of my place in the world; in the processes of looking back, examining the present, and constructing the future, the poetry came into being. Living in Australia as a new immigrant also pushed me to more closely examine the notion of being an in-betweener; of existing in a liminal space that constantly shifts and reshapes itself. Poetry is an act of negotiation between the self and the environment, be it internal or without.
I was very surprised and delighted that Australia was and continues to be very supportive of my work as a poet; to an extent, I feel like I was able to start completely afresh. I don’t think of my work as only Asian-Australian. I think the trap of essentialism is very real; some people within and outside the literary circles think you must be a certain version of yourself. I write because I must, not because I have an agenda to push.
SP. Some of the most moving poems in your book Painting Red Orchids concern the break-up of a marriage. It's hard to write about such an experience without sliding into sentimentalism, narcissism, and accusations. Could you describe how you found a way, or several ways, of approaching this subject and maintaining your balance while walking along the precipice?
EC. I didn’t set out to write a book about my break-up. The ending of that relationship happened very quickly. One day, it was life as usual, and the next, I had my possessions in my car, and no house keys on my key-ring. I had no family in Sydney; I was very fortunate that some friends took me into their home for a couple of weeks while I found my feet.
To this day, I am still unsure how I managed to keep going. I was terrified and bereft. But in a series of temporary homes over the next few months, I would set up my books and my computer, and get on with the business of living. The poetry anchored me. I couldn’t sleep much, and would wake before dawn. I could lie there in bed, or I could get on with the day. I lost a lot of weight in those few months, because I couldn’t eat, either. But I could read, and I could write. I had lost everything in a matter of days, but the poetry was something no one could take from me.
The first poem I wrote that directly addressed the relationship breakdown was extremely difficult for me. I was terrified of writing it. But it had to come; and when the world didn’t end when I wrote it, I wrote some more. My ex-husband had said that he didn’t want to read about himself in my work, and I had agreed to respect his privacy. I think I had that in mind when writing a lot of the poems, that I wanted to respect what we had, while still being honest to the trauma of the breakup and to my own feelings.
The ending of the relationship was extremely traumatic for both of us but in different ways. We were together for ten years, and the relationship, while it didn’t work out, had many things that were good about it. We are both extremely driven and passionate people who couldn’t make it work. We no longer speak, and the wound runs deep.
SP. Many of your poems took inspiration from Chinese literature and culture. The title poem "Painting Red Orchids," for instance, speaks in the voice of 18th-century Chinese painter Huang Shen, whose album Birds and flowers lends a detail to your cover. You also re-create the voice of the woman warrior Hua Mu Lan in your poem "Magnolia." How do you conceive of your relationship to Chinese culture? Has migration influenced that conception in any way?
EC. Growing up in Singapore, identifying as a person of Chinese descent, you are part of the mainstream, and you have access to a world of everyday privilege that you don’t question. Of course, the party line in Singapore is that there is no racism, that it is a model of effective and cohesive multiculturalism. Ask any brown person in Singapore if there is racism, and they’ll tell you yes, racism is present in everyday, casual ways.
When I moved to Australia, I realized I was visibly different, because of how I looked. People try to place you: there are group identifiers such as ‘Asian’, ‘Chinese’, ‘migrant’, and so on. In a way, moving to Australia freed me from my comfort zone, of knowing who and what I was, and sent me off on a journey of exploring what it means to be the Other, and to occupy a space on a sliding scale of Otherness.
The language in my childhood household was a mix of Hokkien, Mandarin, and Singlish. The language in my head when I’m reading and writing is standard English. When I first moved away from Singapore, I realized how much I missed Singaporean, Asian and Chinese culture. Sometimes I would turn on a TV channel with Chinese news just to hear the language. I don’t read Chinese, having never been very good at it at school, but I found myself searching out Chinese writing in translation.
I met the poet Boey Kim Cheng here, and we became friends. I talked about my homesickness, and he told me to read the Tang poets. I also found myself very drawn to Chinese art. So much of what informs my work is the previously unquestioned cultural backdrop I grew up against; long afternoons with Taiwanese soap operas dramatizing Chinese myth. I suppose what I’m doing with my ‘Chinese’ or ‘Asian’ poems is revisiting, reframing, and rewriting.
SP. You quote many poets as epigraphs to your poems. They include Du Fu, Sylvia Plath, Eavan Boland, Mindy Nettiffee, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Pablo Neruda (twice), Toby Davidson, Martin Harrison, Anna Kerdjik Nicholson, Jason Dunne, Li Young-Lee (twice), and Adrienne Rich. You also dedicate two poems to poets, one to the late Philip Levine, the other to Sharon Olds. What do these poets share in common that appeals to you? Are there vital differences among them that matter to you?
EC. I’ve always been a reader. I learnt how to read on my own, seemingly, around the age of six. One day the words on the page just started to make sense to me. I had what I would say was a lonely childhood. I don’t remember too many playmates. My books, the characters in them, and later, the writers themselves, were my friends.
I view my poetry as part of an ongoing conversation with poets, poems, ideas, and the world around us. I find it incredible that we can read a poet such as Li Qingzhao, who was writing centuries ago, and have the words resonate with us like they were written for us, just yesterday. This, I think, is the mark of good writing. By ‘good’, I mean the eternal, which for me is characterized by deep emotional engagement and honesty, coupled with fine poetic craftsmanship.
Some of these poets I have met in person, some are friends, some I have never met except on the page and in dreams. All of them mean a great deal to me, and have shown me kindness and understanding, whether in real life, or through their writing. I started, but never completed, a Doctorate on the poetry of Philip Levine and Li-Young Lee. I couldn’t move past an emotional response to their work. All I wanted to say was ‘Read the poetry’, which doesn’t get you very far with a Doctorate.
I’m interested in poetry that is not afraid to be of the heart, from the heart; also, poetry that doesn’t pull any punches, that demands from their readers a deep intellectual and emotional engagement and commitment. The best poetry, for me, doesn’t try to tell the reader how to think or feel. It just is.
I am drawn to poetry that shows you what can be done in a poem – to transcend time, boundaries, borders. I believe the act of reading poetry is an act of co-creation. When I place an epigraph from a poem in my work, I view my poem as both a gift from and to the poet; a continuation in the great conversation readers and writers as human beings can partake of.
I had the good fortune of meeting and reading with Sharon Olds at the Mildura Writers’ Festival in 2015, and I think she showed me that there is a way to live joyfully, honestly, confrontationally, as a woman, as a poet, as a teacher and a lover. For me, poetry is everything. It’s life. And I mean to live it everyday, until the day I die.
SP. I understand you visit Singapore regularly, and hold readings and events there. How would you describe your relationship to Singapore writers? to Singapore literature?
EC. My parents have moved to Sydney, and I am feeling the ties that bind me to Singapore thin. My maternal grandmother, who is my sole surviving grandparent, is still in Singapore, and I try to visit her as much as I can afford to.
I try to hold readings when I return to Singapore, because I feel like it’s a part of giving back and engaging with the literary scene there. I don’t have many links to Singaporean writers, because I wasn’t a writer when I left Singapore. I feel like more of an Australian writer; in fact, my new book, Another Language, will be published by George Braziller as part of the Australian poets series.
Some of my poems have been anthologized in Singapore anthologies; and several of my poems were shown at the Arts House a few years ago. Kenny Leck at BooksActually has been very supportive of my work, hosting me for readings at his bookstore twice. Kinokuniya in Singapore has always stocked my books at my request. I have also made a new connection with the good people at SingLit Station, who will be hosting me for a reading in June 2017.
I feel connections in the poetry of Boey Kim Cheng, Ee Tiang Hong, Arthur Yap, Lee Tzu Pheng, and Alvin Pang. I feel little connection to the contemporary Singaporean poetry I was reading ten, twenty years ago. I’m not sure why; it felt like a world I couldn’t access and didn’t belong to. I would like to read more contemporary Singaporean poetry.
I made some enquiries a few years ago about visiting Singapore as a writer at the literary festival, and was told that they had enough local writers and they needed more international writers. This was very perplexing for me, as I’m no longer Singaporean. I’ve been away for ten years. I get lost on the streets in Singapore because so much has physically changed. I think geopolitical definitions of identity are not very useful when it comes to writing and writers, or indeed, to art and artists.
I would like my work to be more widely read in Singapore, because I write so much about its culture and history. I am a product of Singapore; it has left its indelible stamp on me. I suppose I’m no longer part of the future of Singapore, being Australian now. Ironically, my first book is on the Higher School Certificate Syllabus for English in New South Wales for 2019-2023, which means a generation of Australian schoolchildren will be familiar with my work in a way that Singaporean readers won’t be. I find this wondrous, and also sad.
SP. What are you working on right now?
EC. Every time I finish a collection, I feel like there is nothing left in me. Painting Red Orchids, which was published in 2016, took so much out of me – emotionally, I think I held nothing back in the work. I really did think about quitting writing and getting a ‘real job’.
But slowly, the poems came back. The work is changing; the new work is surprising to me. The syntax in my poems are at once more pared back at the same time I experiment with longer forms. I’m not sure what the collection is about, yet, but when it is ready, it will reveal itself. I am sure of that, at least.
In 2016, I also started a project with my partner, Colin, who is an artist and designer. Potts Point Press produces letterpressed poetry broadsides, taking inspiration from the wonderful Copper Canyon Press. So far we have produced only one (‘Painting Red Orchids’, in a limited edition signed run of 100) but are hoping to produce four more soon, with four Australian poets on board with the project. Arts funding in Australia was drastically cut over the last few years, and poetry hardly pays the bills.
Still, I think of what Philip Levine once said in an interview, and I paraphrase here: If you don’t have to write, don’t write. But if you must write, write. Sharon Olds said: ‘Do what you have to do, and I will tell about it.’ My work is the seeing, the feeling, and the telling of it. Of bearing witness to life, to the deep, everyday work of loving and of being human. To make poetry out of it. To be the poem.
Eileen Chong was born in Singapore, and lives and works in Sydney, Australia. Her books are Burning Rice (2012), Peony (2014) and Painting Red Orchids (2016), all from Pitt Street Poetry. Her work has been shortlisted for the Anne Elder Award 2012 for a first book, the richest literary prize in Australia; the Prime Minister's Literary Award 2013; and the Victorian Premier's Literary Award 2017, among others. Burning Rice is on the Higher School Certificate English syllabus for 2019-2023 as a prescribed text in New South Wales, Australia. Another Language (2017) is forthcoming from George Braziller, NYC, in the prestigious Braziller Series of Australian Poets. www.eileenchong.com.au