Ask the Author: Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdao

Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdao has work in the April issue and forthcoming in PANK 5. He talks with us about construction materials for a poem, hotstepping and brands to avoid.

1. What would you make a poem out of?

Memory, fantasy, history, myth. Sound and story, the fictive, the surreal. Angst. Archaeology. Trivia, sepia photographs, movies, textures, palettes, technical jargon, lithographs, road signs, sculpture, buildings, food labels, old maps, old stamps, and theories I’ve loved that I’ve thought-tossed and now desire a determined/indeterminate presence on the page. What I saw of the horizon and ocean from a cliff on Cheju Island. How the hours turn into vertigo mornings, how I need a new contour pillow and a graphic nano-novelette on discourse analysis. Contemplation and warm sentiment, because I’m really a good boy most days. For “Prat-a-Porter”, it was the romantic idea of living in an artist colony with prefab galleries open to the public 24/7, the artists given free lodging in their own work studios, good home-cooked meals, happy to create our art the way we envisioned it, are moved to manner and colour it, and share our inspirations/aspirations with others when the work seems important enough. I wish I had in person as exciting a personality as my characters, but nope, my days are rather unimaginative, straight from the shoulder. “The sheer pleasure of telling a story,” Gabriel Garcia Marquez said, “may be the human condition that most resembles levitation.”

As for my love for art in all its forms, I’ll let you in on one of my favourite quotes, by Stephen Sondheim: “Our lives aren’t scripted, they’re chaotic. That’s why people enjoy art, not just narrative, but paintings and music, too. It’s about giving order to what everybody knows does not have order at all.” Tomorrow, I’ll wear the plumed fedora of Dionysius and Apollo — Sam Worthington delivered a great Perseus in Clash of the Titans — and muster a major ekphrastic installation in my lift lobby. It’ll be made from standees of all my leading men in their hottest roles. In no particular ordered montage of merit, there’ll be: Peter Mullan in Miss Julie. Gabriel Macht in A Love Song For Bobby Long. James McAvoy in The Last Station. Linus Roache in The Wings of the Dove. Maybe Meryl Streep — I’m her biggest fan in Asia, I’m sure — could help me with this effort at Monumentalism. Here’s a Twitter poem to help underscore this moment: “I am Apollodionysinaqueue. I am Apollodionysinaqueue. I am a day apple. I’m Apollodionys — thank you, come again. The eleventh time a charm.”

2. What supermodel do you verb like?

I [nadjaauermann] deadpan eyes like Bette Davis. I wish I could [irinapantaeva] my cheekbones or [jennyshimizu] Calvin Klein denim in that gorgeous squatting pose without my love handles spilling over. I [giselebundchen] emo glasses the way she pulled off geek chic in The Devil Wears Prada. And I [annawintour] a poem like it’s the September issue, open submission season for us struggling troubadours. When I interviewed Daniela Pestova in the mid-90s, she said this to me: “Super is such a big word. It’s for someone who’s been around a long time and is still there, someone who’s recognised in the industry and the public. To me, it’s Lauren Hutton.” I agree, so let me [laurenhutton] into old age, and hopefully with some measure of grace. Enter John Hersey whom I cite here, this being another favourite quote of mine: “Journalism allows readers to witness history; fiction gives its readers the opportunity to live it.” Above all, I think I’m most at ease [desmondkonzhicheng-mingdaoing] the unstressed/stressed heterometer into a half-conscious verseform.

In his book on creative writing, Wallace Stegner — whose birth centennial was celebrated last year, and I didn’t have enough time to sculpt a piece for — shared this observation: “People have to know how far to trust a metaphor. Trust it too far, and it can break under you — and teach you the perils of analogy.” I’m usually of the mind that it’s not possible to deplete a metaphor — not about excess or the ebullient or burlesque here, but rather allowing the tropic topspin to open doors to new worlds, of sound and picture, cinema on the page. That Stegner statement helps me remember that even metaphor has its limits — this, in contrapuntal motion and stark contrast to the Derridean idea of “aporia”, and a metaphor’s rhapsodic motility — which intrigues and interests me because it’s a constant reminder of the Platonic question of what wise restraints there might be that help make men free.

3. Are you the Hotstepper?  If not, then who is?

Me, the lyrical gangster? I totes mcgoats wish I possessed the energetic snap and syncopation of the skilful metrist, could sport a rapper’s bandana and not look completely “ch-ch-chang-chang”, at every turn pyrrhic, anapestic and epistemic as if one were riffing, after an All-Guys-Night-Out-With-Housepours-Dixie-Dew-And-Jack-Daniels-Plus-Writer’s-Tears. The truth is I totally adore Reginald Shepherd’s anthology Lyric Postmodernisms which features a staggering literary ensemble/pantheon that would humble readers to attend to mezzo-soprano and baritone clefs. Let me quote Shepherd from the book’s introduction: “My hope is thereby to reveal a new constellation of contemporary American poetry, one formed by the continuation, expansion, and self-questioning of the Modernist project into the postmodern era, which sometimes seems hostile to the lyric and its ever-renewed and ever-renewing possibilities. None of these writers has given up a faith in the lyric, however broken or transfigured. All seek to discover and/or recover, in the words of a perhaps unlikely forebear, what can be made of a diminished thing, or even if that thing (if it really is a single thing) is actually diminished at all.” Cut to fade is me. Fade to cut is he. No, no, we don’t die. Yes, yes, we multiply, like one iamb over another, never mind the world’s what’s-in-and-what’s-out pentabarometer.

I’m a pacifist, so putting the lyric to sleep — to say let’s forget the music of language ever happened — just seems unconscionable to me. I’m less persuaded by the presence of a discernible speaker within the poem, or of there being an intimation of feeling, of the epiphanic. Because of these questions, I’ve actually gone back to reread Reuven Tsur’s chapter “How Do Sound Patterns Know They Are Expressive? The Poetic Mode of Speech Perception”. About our intuitions with regard to sonics, Tsur discusses “the double — hushing as well as harsh — quality of the sibilants, the relative height and brightness of front vowels as compared to back vowels, the relative hardness of voiceless consonants”, among many other things. Great interpretive reading of Rimbaud’s “Voyelles”. Awesome stuff, just all-around scholastic awesomeness, to adopt PANK parlance.

4. What brands of products are off limits to you?

Things queer-queasy. Anything beyond my means, which is a whole lot. Thingamajigs that without irony, pronounce an irascible, misguidedly insular indefatigability or a terrifying and tedious sense of narrow-mindedness. I hope to always remain open to listening and learning. I can scarcely comprehend my self, much less have the answers to life’s mysteries. I really make the effort to be curious and respectful towards everything — the perceived highbrow, middle and endnotes of any other brow, the unibrow, the strange but saddening accord between Albert Finney and Greta Scacchi’s characters in The Browning Version. Sometimes I think I’m an aesthetic relativist, and perhaps irrelevantly so — I’d see something pretty in a cuppa noodles, counting veggie bits bobbing on the soup surface, a bit like scoring verse libre, rhythmic and unmetered. Maybe it’s a happy handicap, maybe it’s a different/altered gaze, maybe I’m just getting old with there-to-stay-please-stay-that-way-don’t-go-away liver spots, maybe it’s that difficulty with needing to define things and put them in special hat boxes, of propriety for grandeur’s sake. I have extra sets of the same black tee and black pants, so I don’t have to decide/undecide what to wear in the morning. Three years ago, I gave away most of the colour in my wardrobe and too many good books in a mid-life resolution to declutter and simplify. But I’d be fooling myself if I said I didn’t love Yohji Yamamoto and Dolce & Gabbana and Dave King and Dave Eggers and David Berman’s Actual Air. Because they’re just stunning constructions, solid architecture. I wish though I had learnt a long time ago that the art I make ends up as gratifying as tomes and togs I handpick for myself at the store.

That said, there are ceramic artists I wish could design a library: Rain Harris and Forrest Snyder and Jeanne Opgenhaffen to do the walls, Firth MacMillan to do the ceiling, Brian Harper and Kristen L. Morgin for partitions, Denise Pelletier for lights, Roderick Bamford for board games, floor cushions by Mika Negishi Laidlaw, Adriana Hartley and Warren Smith for the rooftop garden where catwalk meets sidewalk, and collectibles standing tall everywhere from Veronique Maria to Kylli Kaµiv to Jason Bige Burnett to Gina Quadrone, among so many others. And hundreds of Edmund de Waal’s pots on shelves, on benches, in corridors, illuminated by natural light from bay windows, building their own reflective murals on his ceramic surfaces.

Only in my dreams: to be able to endear so many brands to beam such creative birr under one roof, like [brandonstoughtoning] that swagger and stare in that Britney Spears’ vid. Unfortunately, I’m seated here in draping humidity, digging into my Peranakan lunch of ayam buah keluak and nonya chap chye, over a plate of steaming jasmine rice baked in pandan leaf. I like the beige pleather chairs. I like feeling like an urban anthropologist in the field of euphonic echoes, carb-happy and lightheaded.

I’ll also [davidcaplan] the glittering world of the literati, and vote for world peace. Here, an abstract from Caplan’s Questions of Possibility: Contemporary Poetry and Poetic Form: “Prosody after the “poetry wars” demands a less antagonistic, more nuanced model of creativity, one capable of acknowledging how writers echo even the ideas they dispute. Unless we wish to repeat what the poet Greg Williamson calls “a hundred years of bickering” about poetic form, we need a critical vocabulary that clarifies the era’s most interesting poetry, instead of ignoring it. I propose we discuss “contemporaries” who “share the language,” not partisans who wage “wars.” Neat. Nobel-worthy. Just all-around, surround-sound niceness.

5. Are there any defined movements in art and literature today?  Does having a definition enhance or devalue movements?

If there are any, their recognition will no doubt cement in some published work on art history or literary theory two centuries from now. Or one could inspire a libretto. Not that such validation is necessarily defining or authoritative or precious or unmistaken. From anecdote to resilience seems to define a movement’s rite of passage. Movements can sometimes come across so post facto and monolithic to me, although I like to use isms in my work, as an inflection or a decorative motif, propping as stanchion and scantling. They shouldn’t engulf or swallow a poem, nor as a poet, have I ever thought myself to have internalised any particular aesthetic, for better or worse. Some movements are beautiful ideas in themselves, of course. Like Ron Silliman whom everyone should love, and allow to love back. The conception of a movement seems as simple as any other act of naming, clearly important to be said and made, and yet is it not but another uttered referential frame to talk about the world, its artifice that surrounds us? Some movements reflect trends in a culture within a period of time, some are shaped by a specific group or artist, some are only applied retrospectively as if to cluster various like-looking or like-minded things together, sometimes ambiguously. They have their purchase within civilisation’s grand narratives, if one can still talk about these mythic creatures of comfort. Sometimes, a story or poem or aphorism may be as resonant, if not more so, more life-changing than any abstraction. That said, working within an ism is good practice and disciplined exercise towards more healthy textual experimentation, if only to look beyond. I’m so busy just trying to get the writing out and down, I don’t find myself always having the time to reflect, to situate my pieces within a larger familial atmosphere, of rhetoric, of significance, of belonging.

Enter my recent grappling with Giuseppe Stellardi’s book, Heidegger and Derrida on Philosophy and Metaphor: Imperfect Thought. On philosophy’s awkward rapport with metaphor. Symbiotic. Wrought. Wrung. Controversies aside, is it true the “metaphor cannot be avoided”? And yet, that “the solidification of metaphor is necessary to a certain extent, because there is no intellectual understanding without representation, without image”? And yet, that “beyond this uncertain limit, any metaphor becomes an obstacle, not to some superior or deeper truth, but simply to other metaphors, to more possibilities, and to the final, inconceivable peace of the accomplished exhaustion of the possible, which remains the mortal aim of theory”?

A breathtaking reading, compelling. So, for laughs, here’s a single-poet, quasi-literary aesthetic, up close and personal, like Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert Redford reprising Broadcast News, in which Holly Hunter and William Hurt were stellar, with comparable performances only by Russell Crowe and Helen Mirren in State of Play more than twenty years later. The Aesthetic: I’ll call it Ante-Meta Dressage, with a shelf life of the next two minutes. No herding, just off-the-rack. High style and free style merging as a matter of course. It’ll be the poem as a never-before-seen little black dress, the way Chanel established the look, glint of mettle flashing beneath dusky-velvet exterior. I’d also affectionately call it by its middle name, “Schmetterling” after David Helfgott’s rendition, something with the hyperbolic gravitas of dark matter but put to good use, like producing a table spread that can levitate post-dinner, lift itself to the pantry and empty the dishes into the sink, turn on the tap, and finish up with the drying too. It’ll be Readymade Ready-to-wear, as a throwback to Duchamp and frisbee to Donna Karan, who in an uber-cool interview all those years ago, shared with me what remained the best thing about being Donna Karan: “I can make clothes for myself. And I don’t have to shop.” Cool-beans cool, cool as the other side of my microfibre pillow.

In the background, there’d be Sophie Ellis-Bextor with “Take Me Home” and Aaron Neville crooning “I Can’t Imagine”. And Bananarama going “Na Na, Hey Hey”. And in another life, May Sarton reciting what has become another one of my fave quips: “In the novel you get the journey. In a poem you get the arrival.” I’d like to think that both — and more — happen in both. Then, maybe Matt Seigel can save me his sweat-drenched “I Heart [PANK]” tee, which I’m positive was all he was wearing in that scrumptiouslicious picture, and give it to me, signed and sealed with a pink rubber ducky. Now, that would move me as much as Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s “New Form”. Love how her essay from twenty years back still speaks to her poetics now, both “topological” and “holographic”. That quest to intuit and deliberate new language helps define me, I’ve come to realise for myself — that ultimately, I am about the love, and quiet admiration. And sheer joy. So maybe, the lyric can fist pound the narrative and give discursive birth to the new ontological-epistemological-phenomenological-deontological reality we call chow mein with egg rolls and a side of Singapore’s chilli crab. No need to supersize the metasemiotics, just something to get me through to my fruit salad for supper, and my next best friend: the weekend proem of compressed speech about speech. And the prose poem, of course — buttoned up, winsome, purchased, an aching idiolect, an entelechy still lost but easygoing. Vanilla in an oven-toasty choux pastry.

  • ilovestringtheory

    Thanks, J. Bradley, for your awesomely bizarre questions, which made me slow down and ruminate and be thoughtful about contemporary poetics. And happy belated birthday!