I have a treat for all you poetry and culture lovers. My poetry guest blogger is Chris. Chris lives in Australia and Singapore and has a list of writing accomplishments.
“His newest collection: ‘The Bearded Chameleon’ explores cultural adoption as a convert to Sikhism. ‘The Laughing Buddha Cab Company’ (2007) looks at Asia through a series of taxi rides. Mooney-Singh’s fiction has appeared in ‘The Best of South-East Asian Erotica’, ‘The Best of Singapore Erotica’, ‘Love and Lust in Singapore’ and ‘Crime Search: Singapore’. Has several guest appearances at festivals. “Two short plays were produced for the Singapore Short and Sweet festival in 2008 and 2009. He was a guest at the Austin International Poetry Festival (2003), the Man Hong Kong International Literary Festival (2004) and the Kuala Lumpur International Literary Festival (2007), the Salt of the Tongue Festival and the Melbourne Overload Poetry Festival in 2010.”
Chris was kind enough to answer some questions for me and share his knowledge, experience and one of his poems. Enjoy.
1) Chris, you are currently attending Monash University, Melbourne as a post-graduate research scholar. Could you please explain in detail what exactly you do for your post-graduate studies?
A PhD on the Emergence of Asia in Australian poetry. My basic research explores how Australian poetry bears the influence of orientalism from the early 19th Century. Yet these influences internally found in the literature have not been accorded more significance, perhaps due to Anglo-European fears of Asia still felt up to the time of Australia’s White Australian policy which formally ended only as late as the late 1970s when the first Vietnamese refugees flooded into Australia after the end of the Vietname War. Since then, there has been a rising increase of poets engaged with traveling to and writing about Asia and also now Asian diasporic writing within Australia itself. This is a significant trend I believe. Now more than 10 percent of Australia’s population is of Asian origin and within 3-4 generations we may be in part a Eurasian society, perhaps the first of its kind in the world due to our small population and the reality of demographic mixing now occurring here.
2) You state that you travel between Singapore and Australia. It must be very interesting to experience two different cultures. Since I’m not familiar with either culture, could you name a few cultural differences between Singapore and Australia?
One is predominately a huge island continent western in outlook, but geo-economic realities are I believe pushing it to create closer cultural ties with the Asian region as it has economically done already. China is Australia largest trading partner for example. Singapore is the 3rd biggest banking hub in the world, and although only a tiny island of mixed Chinese, Malay, Indian and Eurasian population is for its size one of the richest and most progressive countries in the world. Meanwhile, other than its indignenous tradition, Australian literary history dates from 1788, the beginning of the creation of the first British colony. Singapore formally a part of Malaysia has a modern history of less than 50 years. Both have English language literatures of contemporary sophistication, equal to other world literatures in English, despite the fact of domination by London and New York publishers do not work in their international favour. As Asia rises in economic importance and dominance, I believe these things will balance out. For example, Asian e-publishing alternatives are developing quickly and although Amazon is a huge monster dominating the web, it may not always be so.
3) Along with your writing endeavors, you’ve been involved in many festivals in Singapore and Australia? Could you explain the differences between Singapore and Australian Literary Festivals?
Basically all literary festivals, especially officially government funded ones are the same all over the world, except that each country emphasizes different literary agendas according to its national and cultural interests. I am also the co-director of an emerging writers’ festival in Singapore http://litup.sg which annually celebrates and supports the expression of new writing and performance. This is organized under The Writers Centre Singapore which is a body I and my co-directors set up as a non-profit arts organization. http://thewriterscentre.org
4) “The Laughing Buddha Cab Company” expresses the excitement of culture shock, which teaches us many lessons as well as shakes up our realization. Much of the book focuses on your experiences traveling in cabs from different perspectives. This is definitely something many people would love to hear about. Can you recall the most interesting perspective you encountered while gathering this book together and what was the subject matter?
The taxi cab poems are set mainly in Singapore and India. The taxi is both a real experience and a metaphor for what I see as intense capsule moments in time, not unlike the slowed down movement of the speeding bullet of a poem, looking at that moment’s human experience against an urban or developing world backdrop. Ours is moving so fast, and, in a sense human experience is the soft target that is a fragile and profound thing ironically under threat, given the global pace of things. I am interested in looking at core human experience and inherent spiritual poignancy in the world, asking the fundamental questions of who we are and why we are here, but in a contemporary and engaging time and way. Just like climate change issues, we are being pushed by globalization to ask the hard questions even more dramatically. A developing country like India throws up dualities and things in opposition again forcing us back on our existential selves. Many choose to ignore or block it out though. I have taken a lot of taxis in Singapore where I don’t own a car and never fail to learn something interesting about the driver, the place where we are driving, the relationship with myself and my co-passengers. Just as Blake says to cleanse the window of perception, being inside a taxi cab’s like being inside an all seeing eye. It’s a detached space moving from moment to moment and one can look through and see what is really happening. Catch a cab next time and become a ‘passenger’ in a life moment, become detached as a Buddha in the backseat and learn.
5) Below is your poem, The Bearded Chameleon, which I love, love, love. The way you describe a chameleon is fantastic, “Prehistoric, spiky, punk”. I also enjoyed the way you worked in the way you took shape in another place and time. These are great lines: “as I feel my oddness avalanche / into a vast primordial past / where man and lizard were one caste.”
When you sit down to write such a poem, do you already know how you’ll write it, lines and rhyme, or does this occur over edits?
The title poem of my new book was born from an actual experience in a Punjabi compound, but it evolved over several years (coming back to it several times) out of strongly cadenced verse into metical 4 beat tetrameter verse with rhyming couplets. The short metre and strong rhymes helped accentuate something of the lightly worn understanding and expressed with a sense of humour. Writing about spirituality and religious themes is risky and this helped to make this approachable for myself and I believe the general reader. It was a kind of watershed poem where I addressed for the first time my conversion to Sikhism and also the long practice of metrical and formalist poetry skills I worked hard at improving from 2002. I put myself back into self-study to understand prosody and scansion, believing that a good poet should know the rules he or she might then break knowingly when writing open or free verse. I place as much importance on skill, technique and craft as I do on having original subject matter and thinking and now write in a mixture of open and formal ways according to inclination and occasion. If the message of Eliot and Pound is that we live in a wasteland of broken traditions, ie camping at ground zero between the ruins, we also have built modern skyscrapers and brick veneer suburbs there. Old and new coexist and my aesthetic view is that post modern poets can use it all, just we are forced to live lives through various changing identities like colour-shifting chameleons.
The Bearded Chameleon
A sci-fi thing, you shoot a tongue
above the compound, floored with dung.
Your sucker feet were born to grip.
Prehensile tail, a coiled whip
is clinging to the pipal trunk.
Prehistoric, spiky, punk
with membrane beard (a he or she?)
you blend in with the Buddha tree.
My sun-cracked soles have drawn some sap from green Punjab. An Aussie chap,
I chew on sugarcane each week
and sport this beard—a convert Sikh.
Now turbaned like a maharajah,
I‘d pass for Ranjit Singh, the Padshah—
a bit like you, chameleon—
a colour-shifting charlatan.
Yes, since I came in my blue jeans
to do write-ups for magazines
your form has been my best touchstone
on how to live here in The Zone.
A decade later, more or less
I still reside at your address
with farmers, trades-folk, holy men
who can‘t read books, or use a pen.
Neighbours greet me in the lane
from buffalo cart, stacked with cane
or two old uncles call: ‗Come, sit
beside the hand pump.‘ There we spit
and chat of wheat and sugar‘s price
or winter‘s crop—basmati rice.
I wet my tongue, pretend what‘s best
and they are kind, pretend the rest.
A mascot white-man, or crackpot,
I walk to view the chilli plot.
You are a comfort on the branch
as I feel my oddness avalanche
into a vast primordial past
where man and lizard were one caste.
I‘ve learned to stand, chameleon.
My feet, like yours can now stick on.
I‘m changing colours far from home:
here nothing‘s shot in monochrome.
Suburbia was a dumb cartoon:
here, typhoid sweats through each monsoon;
and though dung-fires choke the breath
I feel alive as I breathe death.
A beard‘s the symbol of the sage.
In lizard-time—mine‘s under-age.
Sun-bathing is the reptile‘s art.
Daily, I make a clean, fresh start:
lather hair and beard with soap,
then wring it out as one wet rope;
next, oil and comb and wind the bun
and check my topknot in the sun;
I tie a turban, high with grace,
chameleon-ness—all now in place.
Our artery is the market lane—
village life is one food chain.
Strolling here, I bear the heat—
my adaptation seems complete.
I‘ve learned your culture-blending knack.
Have I moved up, or ten lives back?
After a walk, I will sit and stare—
I am king of an old cane chair.
My pen is like your sticky tongue.
I snatch my image-flies among
the geckoes, birds on tree or plant,
or dogs and pigs in excrement.
If I could train my mind or hand
not just to write, but understand
your stance and poise upon the tree,
chameleon, I might step free.
Dear dinosaur in miniature
who blends in well with any weather
yes, you have mastered with sharp eyes
the yogic art of catching flies.
Perhaps, I will, one-day, be free
to blend in with the Buddha tree.
I bow, pranam, dear bearded friend—
my weird barometer till the end.
Sent with Writer.