+ strange past
As Kristina Tom puts it, Ng Yi-Sheng has but simply arrived. He has certainly come a long way since his primary six days of "gruesome reinventions of nursery rhymes": his poems - which Lee Tzu Pheng hails as "a romp through the enticing playground of language" - have been published in the poetry anthologies First Words, onewinged and Love Gathers All, as well as in online journals like the2ndRule, QLRS and softblow.
Having worked under the Theatreworks' Greenhouse Project and The Necessary Stage's Playwright's Cove, this Columbia University alumnus is also an accomplished playwright: his performed plays include Snake (Stage Right), Redhill Blues (Creative Arts Programme Alumni, Republic Polytechnic), Hungry (Theatreworks, Singapore Polytechnic, Anderson Secondary School and International Islamic University, Malaysia) and most recently Serve (The Oridnary Theatre).
+ in conversation
Well...to betray my privilege, I was in GEP, so the teachers were trying all these educational experiments on us. They were always giving us little assignments - write a poem about something, let's learn how to write a haiku, or a tanka, or a cinquain or a diamante. I remember a period in P6 where I was writing a poem a day...mostly gruesome reinventions of nursery rhymes. Then in secondary school, I was encouraged to join the Creative Arts Programme, and I met all these more professional writers, and I started to take my writing more seriously.
How about playwriting?
Well I always loved acting... I was in drama club throughout secondary school, and I did write a couple of amusing scenes for a musical in Sec 3. But I only really wrote a play in JC1, when RJC was having its drama feste. I'd just acted in a CAP production, so I was very into this vibe of sensing what other young Singaporeans were capable of writing for the stage. My first play, "One", which was published in Eye on the World 1998, was really an amalgamation of the three plays that CAP staged in 1997. So I guess my direct ancestors are Wang Meiyin, Bryan Tan and Alfian Sa'at. My big break of course came in JC2 when I won the SPH-Theatreworks 24-hour playwriting competition.
Do you think there is enough exposure, resources, mentorships and programmes for young Singaporean writers and playwrights today?
I think the problem has to do a lot more with networking. It's been very easy for me to find people who're willing to support me because I've been in the right places at the right time - I was placed in camps and workshops and competitions with writers and directors where I was able to tell them, "I want to be a writer", and they helped me. I think what holds a lot of people back is not knowing who to approach. it's much easier for writers to find lobangs than for directors, actors, etc. of which there's a surfeit. I should say that's in the case of playwrights though. Literary writers can easily get published online with the local literary mags, but to develop themselves further they'll have to get the courage to find a writer who's willing to read their stuff.
They really ought to restore the MAP (NAC Mentorship Access Programme) for writers. Because you know what? I think it probably is very difficult for a guy who's not sure how good he is to just run up to a writer and ask for help. Most good writers are actually quite busy people, so it's necessary for a structure like MAP to create structures for writers and aspiring writers to connect. The Arts House does run a few programmes like writers connect, though. And there are poetry sharing sites online. The problem is that there are just so many bad poets out there: people who don't even realise that originality of imagery and variation of language are key to good poetry. So a more systematic, professional setup could be really helpful for someone who actually shows promise to develop their skills.
To tell the truth though, I think that aside from publishing and performance, most of a writer's development is a matter of discipline i.e. a mentor is mostly there to exert pressure on the writer. To force the writer to enforce guidelines he already knows upon his writing.
We’ve very often heard about good poetry, never bad poetry. What do you think constitutes bad poetry? What irritates you the most about bad writing?
One of the really irrational things that get to me is people who do not understand rhyme. I'm one of the few poets here who've had extensive experience in rhyme (most of my poetry was once structured rhyming verse, including a number of sonnets). So I'm outraged when I ask someone, "what's a rhyme for purple?" and they say, "table" or something. Things don't frickin' rhyme unless they have end with a common stress, muthafucka! But of course near rhyme does have its uses.
Other pet peeves would be bad grammar (there's deliberately bad grammar and there's stupidly bad grammar - and I know it's due to social stratification, but it still rides up my butt). And unoriginality of language. Oh yeah... and I wish more poets were good at performing their work. Poetry readings are so often torture when the poet doesn't even open his or her mouth wide enough to emit properly constructed words. And that's a big problem in Singapore. Many of our good poets give bad poetry readings. I wish they'd put a little more effort into it.
So, your poetry collection is entitled “last boy” – I’m sure there’s a story to that title.
I do prefer to spell that in lower case (last boy). I've been accused of having a Peter Pan complex - of wanting to be a mischievous, irresponsible boy forever. So of course I can identify with the image of the lost boys in the novel. But I've also felt a lot of loneliness in my life... I was quite a misfit in school, I had to hide my sexuality for many years, and by the time I went to america and was able to flaunt it, everyone else who was gay was much more experienced with dating than I was. I was an emotional wreck for a lot of the time in New York... love just tore me up, and most of the time I could tell, even while I was experiencing that anguish, that I was the one being immature, that I was the one who'd been left behind in a dark world while everyone else had blossomed into a sexual neverland. So I called the book "last boy". The last boy as the last bastion of innocence left behind when everyone else has grown up.
One thing is that the lost boys in peter pan are incredibly masculine little creatures, wearing animal skins and hunting and trying to kill Wendy. At one point I was compiling my poetry in New York for a chapbook competition. Alot of the poems turned out to be love poems to boys, so I called it "last boys"... sort of a tribute to the last boys I'd slept with. But then I realised the book was really about myself. So the title became "last boy". Okay, next question.
Your poetry subverts alot of popular myths and legends, and deals with fantastical imagery and landscapes. Do you see a future for such fantasy in writing - or the arts, for that matter - in Singapore, where perhaps reality is so often pushed as the only dimension to live and believe in?
Hell yeah. In fact, I can't speak of myself as an individual in pursuing the mythopoeic frame of mind. Everyone was doing it in my generation. Alot of RGS girls especially - Teng Qian Xi and Grace Chua both excel at their Anne Sexton/Carol Ann Duffyesque reimaginings of myths and fairy tales to describe where we are today. I'm not sure what caused it - maybe it was a meme in our syllabus that spread. And come on, in Singapore, there are multiple realities. There are different Singaporean experiences depending on your social class, and 10 officially represented religions in the interreligious society, each of which carries its own myths. Plus the commercial legends of the present, both in terms of celebrity pop (pantheons of the TV screen), exotic fad (see salsa dancing and cosplaying) and growing virtual worlds (DOTA, anyone? Or just the blogosphere)? Trust me. You do not need peyote in this country. Although a little couldn’t hurt.
Homosexuality is obviously a huge part of your writing. Do you see yourself as a queer artist – or an artist who just happens to be queer?
Dude, that's such an old question! i.e. I see myself as either as it suits me. This year, both my books - last boy and sq21 - have been very queer-centric. But the poems I'm doing now are much less homofabulous. Plus I've never had a play put up in Singapore with a gay character in it. I'm a queer artist when I want to say things about being queer. Otherwise, I'm an artist.
You've once said that something you struggle with in your writing is obscurity. Tell us more about that.
Hmm, okay. I remember as young poet reading the works of some Singapore poets (who shall not be named) that seemed so incredibly stuffy and highbrow and ivorytowerish that I couldn't believe anyone could enjoy reading their work. You could appreciate it, yes. But enjoy? Um, no. So I was hoping to be a populist poet, writing in plain speech. And although I got some good responses for my early work, especially the comic stuff, I found that what really tickled my balls - what really made my poetry seem elevated - was the use of vibrant, original words and images (I know I'm being repetitive here). I wanted to be William Blake I guess, and now I've found that by resorting to strange places to get my language and references, such as the American space programme, Ashanti myth and Aztec history, it's become harder for readers to relate to me. I'm not speaking to the broad base that prose does. Sigh.
Do reviews bother you?
Yeah, they do. Like I said, I have a desire of external approbation. Classic middle child syndrome. I'm even disturbed by an overwhelmingly positive review if it doesn't sound like it's been measuredly critical, because then I think the reviewer's just being nice. And a negative one does upset me – though I do get over it. Recently I found myself experiencing very mixed feelings when a friend who liked the book gave me a very strange review - it dwelt for a long time on the difficulty of the book, and only mentioned good bits in the middle of paragraphs where an idle eye would skim over it – skim over them I mean. And that really upset me, because I felt like my friend had betrayed me by writing a shoddily thought-out article. Not with bad intention - just with carelessness. And I can't even be sure if I'm correct to be upset because not everyone thinks the review came out badly.
You do a fair bit of criticism yourself. And one of the greatest critics of all time, Vladimir Nabakov, once said, "In order to bask in that magic a wise reader reads the book of genius not with his heart, not so much with his brain, but with his spine." Your thoughts?
Heh. That sounds like he's trying to worm his way out of a mind/body dichotomy by conjuring up a new organ whose meaning is up to us to guess. But yes, I do think a write-up that's all heart or all mind is not a review - it's an academic paper or it's a gush. If I like the work, I try and review based on first impressions (heart), tempered with analysis (mind). If I don't like it, I try and be as impartial as possible (mind), but the heart inevitably slips in. Of course, most reviews occupy a grey zone between delight and disgust.
Who has had influence on your writing?
Wislawa Szymborska and Alfian Sa'at in my poetry, definitely, but I find my roots rather hard to locate. In my playwriting, I think Haresh Sharma's a big influence.
Which local artists are you more impressed with?
Writers, or artists in general?
Artists, be it writers, playwrights, filmmakers or visual artists, etc.
Writing: Alvin Pang and Cyril Wong because they've given a lot of themselves to promoting poetry. Alfian of course, for his non-fiction and ideas as much as his plays and poems. Visual arts: Brian Gothong Tan of course. I'm also very impressed by the photography of Ming, and the video/conceptual/performance work of Ming Wong and Lynn Lu. Theatre practitioners: Haresh Sharma and Alvin Tan of The Necessary Stage for determinedly mining the Singapore experience for new ideas. Ivan Heng and Glen Goei for showing us how local theatre can be quality theatre, Ong Keng Sen for expanding horizons geographically and experimentally. And in terms of curatorship, Lee Weng Choy for consistently speaking sense and demanding justice in the singapore arts scene. Oh wait, I forgot to mention Chong Tze Chien and Natalie Hennedige - they're revitalising experimental theatre in really weird, cool ways. I like.
+ strange work
+ what's next?
"Tomorrow I have the first draft of a play entitled "251" due - it's about Annabel Chong as an icon and it'll be going up in April. I'm also working on a musical about Georgette Chen, scored by Clement Yang. I'm very interested in Singapore historical icons. Have also got a play about Raffles in the works. I might be publishing my university memoirs, they're rather scandalous. I think they'd sell well, it's just a question of whether my family could outlive the experience - and if the revelations would hurt the gay community."