Interview: Boey Kim Cheng

Many Shells in a Windy Place: An Interview with Boey Kim Cheng

In the virtual meeting room, my face is the only one on the screen: a digital mirror, a projection of my physical self, translated into pixels and data. I am waiting for the poet Boey Kim Cheng to join me – somewhere between Sydney, Australia, where I am, and Mount Sinai, Singapore, where he is. It is perhaps fitting that we are communing in this liminal space, for Boey has made a career, of sorts, exploring in-betweenness and the shades of grey in human existence.


Between pages, books, stations, between one life
and the next the list of the disappeared grows

‘The Disappearing Suite’, Clear Brightness

Boey Kim Cheng was born in 1965 in Singapore, the year of the nation’s independence. In 1997, he left with his wife, Wah Fong, to make a life in Australia, only to move back again to Singapore in 2016, this time as an expatriate academic. Yet ‘home’, for him, is in Berowra, NSW, where he longs to return.

This peripatetic life is echoed in his literary output over a 40-year career: five books of poems, a collection of travel essays, as well as a novel, a fictionalised biography of the Tang dynasty poet Du Fu. Boey has also edited two collections of Asian diasporic poetry: Contemporary Asian Australian Poets, with Michelle Cahill and Adam Aitken, and To Gather Your Leaving: Asian Diaspora Poetry from America, Australia, the United Kingdom, and Europe, with Arin Fong and Justin Chia.

I, too, was born in Singapore. Like Boey, I left Singapore permanently for Australia. I first came across Boey’s poems as a teenager. I had started to read poetry as a 16-year old, and I found three collections of Boey’s poems on the shelf in a bookshop – Somewhere-Bound (1989), Another Place (1992), and Days of No Name (1996).

I wasn’t to meet the poet himself until 2006, albeit briefly, when he visited a school in Singapore where I was a teacher, for a reading to students from his then-new book of poems, After the Fire (2006). A second meeting eventuated years later, in 2010, in Sydney, following a poetry reading at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, and our collegial friendship began in earnest.

My first collection of poetry, Burning Rice, was published by Australian Poetry in 2012. I had asked Boey to launch the collection, which he did in the now-defunct Macleay Street Bookshop in Kings Cross. He then published the launch speech – the very first review of my work ever.  I thanked him, and said that I wish I had more robust opinions about books, and that I could not see myself as a critic the way he was. He told me that it was less about criticism, and more about engaging with a work on the page, and that it was an act of service to the writer to respond in this manner. Boey would go on to review every one of my poetry collections to come, in such prescient, seeing ways, it almost felt like he was unpicking my poems strand by strand in the precise ways in which they had been written.

For me, this exemplifies Boey’s approach towards literature, and in particular, towards diasporic literary works – his critical responses to diasporic literature have situated them in a broader framework of more mainstream, canonical works, and examined their place in British, Australian, as well as American contexts, and created new spaces that connect diasporic writing in a community of their own.

Boey’s other books comprise a collection of essays, Between Stations (2009), another book of poems, Clear Brightness (2012), and the novel, Gull Between Heaven and Earth (2017). By the time his novel was published, Boey had returned to Singapore, and our meetings had become few and far between.


Our meetings in person, that is. We continued to commune on the page, and my poems have, variously over the years, responded to his poems, in direct and indirect ways. One example of our conversation in poetry: a poem of mine, ‘Winter Meeting’, from the collection Burning Rice, sprung forth, like a poem from the same wellspring, in response to hearing Boey read his poem, ‘La Mian In Melbourne’ from the collection Clear Brightness, and from our subsequent shared lunch in Chinatown in Sydney that rainy winter afternoon.

La Mian In Melbourne

On Little Bourke Street it’s the bewitching hour
of winter dusk’s last riffs playing
long mauve shadows down the blocks,
waking the neon calligraphy, its quavering script
mirrored on the warm sheen of the Noodle King

where a man slaps and pummels the dough
into a pliant wad. He takes a fist-sized ball
and starts his noodle magic, stretching the bands,
the sleight-of-hand plain for you to see,
weaving a stave of floury silent music.

You stand islanded from the passage
of bodies and cars, the art of la mian
reeling you in to a music deep beneath
the murmur of traffic, beyond the fusillade
of a siren down the street. Between here

and wherever home is the noodles stretch,
sinuous, continuous, edible songlines multiplying
into a cat’s cradle of memories, the loom-work
of hands calling to the half-forgotten hum,
hunger for what is gone, the lost noodle-makers

of the country left behind:
the wanton mee hawker in Tiong Bahru,
the mee rebus man on Stamford Road,
and Grandmother serving long life
noodles for each birthday, her deft hands

pulling three generations under one roof.
The noodles were slightly sweetened to ensure
the long years came happy, not like Grandmother’s
difficult eight decades, the family dispersed
at the end, the ritual of birthday noodles lost.

Now you watch the handful of hand-pulled
noodles dunked in a boiling pot, then scooped
with a mesh ladle onto a waiting bowl of broth.
You sit before it, enveloped in steam,
chopsticks ready to seize the ends
or beginnings, and start pulling them in.


Winter Meeting

for Boey Kim Cheng

In the tepid winter sun we walk briskly
to catch a bus to Chinatown, my footfall
ten years behind yours. I’d closed
my eyes—a defence against a wellspring

of wet—when you spoke of la mian
in Melbourne that made you homesick.
We head for the promise of mee goreng
at Mamak’s—conjuring late nights

of oil-sheened woks at Newton,
of flames in rings the size of giant plates
that lick at this Malay-named marriage
of Chinese noodle and Indian spice. Before

we arrive, the Sydney skies release rain
like the monsoon. We stand on a corner
under tin awnings, peppered by spray, watching
this familiar rain. The drains have had their fill

and creeks run like poetry escaping the page.
Unlike children, we skip puddles and try not to splash.
We are still strangers: under my small umbrella
you are half-drenched. An old song surfaces: Wa neng nang…

Inside, surrounded by smells of home, my tongue loosens
then slips into the cadences of Singlish. I tell you of the afternoons
my grandmother fried sambal belachan in the house. You wrinkle
your nose: these memories need neither grammar

nor elaboration. You offer me an antidote for sadness:
recite Wang Wei, Du Fu, Meng Haoran. But where you go
I cannot follow—I lost the language years ago. Outside,
the rain has stopped. We drink our tea and split the bill.


Three book covers for works by Boey Kim Cheng: Somewhere Bound, Another Place, Days of No Name.

A man must place himself on the map
to see how big he is.

‘For Chatwin’, Somewhere-Bound

My face shrinks to a small rectangle in the right-hand corner as Boey joins me online. I am startled by how much grey is in his hair – in my mind, I think of Boey at age 40, the age he was when we first met in person. Then I see my own visage, also at age 40, and remember that time passes, even as we attempt to hold on to it in our poems and on the page.

I ask Boey about the genesis of his life as a poet. ‘I wish I could have been more prolific,’ Boey laughs, in response to my opening list of his oeuvre, ‘but that’s the kind of writer I am. I’ve never been a full-time writer, in the sense of sitting down at a desk for eight hours a day. I’ve always written in sporadic fits, and that’s all I’ve got to show for it: five books of poetry, a novel, and a book of essays.’ Yet for me, the fact that Boey exists as a poet at all, and that he continues to write poetry, is a miracle altogether – in a country where there existed almost no support for the arts in the 1980s and 1990s, where there was no literary community to speak of.

‘It was hard starting out in those days,’ Boey concedes. ‘Singapore was a cultural desert then, compared to now. I started out very much alone, and it was mostly through instinct, and through browsing the shelves in libraries, that I found my mentors and my influences. I think you invent your exemplars, you invent your influences, you invent your ancestors, as you start out.

I spent a lot of time in the library – there was no internet then – and I found Keats, I found Eliot, I found Rilke. That sense of discovery was very real, and that changed me irrevocably. Keats was my first love, and he has remained my touchstone – with all the profound insights about life, about art that I gleaned from his letters, from his poems: ‘Ode to Autumn’, especially. They have stayed with me all these years.’

I ask Boey why he decided to write all those years ago, for not all readers necessarily become writers. Boey pauses. ‘It became a mission to be a poet, to write. But it’s still a mystery, why I write. Part of me wants to keep it shrouded in mystery, as a superstition. There was definitely also the influence of the Irish poets Seamus Heaney and Derek Mahon in my early work. I even learned German for a number of years so I could read Rilke properly.’ He continues, ‘I think of George Orwell’s “egotism of the self” – I suppose I write out of a desire, not so much for fame, but out of a desire to be read, to leave a trace of yourself, of something that will be of use, and of value.


They have the means.
They have it all so it will not hurt,
so history is new again.
The piling will not stop.

‘The Planners’, Another Place

I ask Boey what his first poems were about. He talks about his time spent in the Singapore Armed Forces – every male citizen of the country has to undertake two-and-a-half years of compulsory military service – and how he viewed poetry as an act of transmutation of time, place, and events. ‘The poems opened up new terrain for me, in making sense of what happened to me. And I felt the thrill of discovery – there was a sense of what poetry could do for me.’

To many readers and scholars, Boey’s writing exemplifies a poetics of forgetting, of palimpsestic memory, and of grief, or as he puts it, ‘a profound sense of translation, of being translated. Writing is a way of opening up doors of perception within me, of surrendering myself to those moments of insight, of knowledge.’

‘It’s a kind of self-forgetfulness that you seek when you write, an opiate. Seamus Heaney captures that wonderfully in his poem, “St. Kevin and the Blackbird”, where he writes about this saint who holds out his hand from the window of the cell, and this bird lands in his palm. The saint is afraid to move his hand, because the bird is nesting, and the saint forgets himself. And this is what happens to us poets, us writers, too.’ I find myself agreeing. There are times when I am unable to distinguish Boey, the person, from Boey the poet, the writer, the scholar, the weary traveller.


Perhaps the plum will flourish
on this soil, like the white plum
in our yard, and transplanted

‘Plum Blossom or Quong Tart at the QVB’, After the Fire

In making a new life in Australia, Boey speaks of a settling down, an easing of his restless spirit. By 2002, Boey and Wah Fong had two young children, and they made a home in Berowra, NSW, on the edge of the Berowra Valley National Park. One day, he is told by a neighbour that ‘Berowra’ is an Aboriginal word for ‘a place of many winds’. My own research shows that in Dharug, ‘Berowra’ also means ‘a place of many shells’ – a veritable midden of histories, memory, and unmarked time.

In moving away from Singapore, Boey rediscovered a love for his left-behind country, a kind of resolution of an internal quarrel with the land of his birth that had begun with his discovery of poetry, of his anger at himself around his seeming inability to conform, to fit into what Singapore seemed to demand of him. ‘The poems became a way of dealing with those feelings, of negotiating that quarrel.’

Boey quotes Yeats: ‘Out of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric; out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry.’, and says that ‘the poems were a way of assuaging the feelings of being an outsider, and learning to be comfortable with that. The poems became a way of coming to terms, with dealing with that. Post-migration, the rift and the quarrel with ceased with distance and time, and I rediscovered my love for the country. My post-migration work is an expression of my love of the Singapore I knew. Before that, it was a quest for elsewhere: the poems arose from a desire to escape, to India, to the US, but after settling down in Sydney, and not writing for a long time, when the poems came, they all gravitated towards Singapore.’

He continues: ‘I was an adult migrant to Australia. As an adult migrant, you carry a heavy cargo of memories, your lived experiences of half your lifespan. All those memories – it wasn’t so much a sense of clinging to the past, but learning to read the memories again so you could move forward, to rewrite yourself, and to reinvent yourself, to understand why and how you ended up where you are, who you are. I became a sort of revisionist. The word “revise” comes from “revisit”, from the Latin, and I started to revisit, in time, and in a very real space. Time became spatialised for me, especially in the process of writing the essays in Between Stations – you learn to time travel in the act of writing, to shuttle back and forth in time to manoevre, which becomes space. As Li-Young Lee says, “Memory revises me.”, and so you become changed, too, in the process of writing, of revisioning, and you, too, become revised.’

In Australia, Boey found himself looking towards a different group of literary forebears, such as the Singaporean poet Arthur Yap, and the Malaysian-Australian poet Ee Tiang Hong. ‘I didn’t begin to read them in earnest until I settled down in Australia. I first met Tiang Hong in the late 80s when he was a visiting writer to the University of Singapore. We met on a couple of occasions, and he was very encouraging of my work. But I wasn’t familiar with his work at the time, I was still very immersed in Irish poetry. It wasn’t until I moved to Australia, and I was looking for Asian Australian poets that I could draw on as I started to reinvent myself as an Asian Australian poet, that I realised he had moved to Perth. I think his work is underrated and neglected. His work wasn’t published by any Australian press, and mention his name to any Australian scholar and they wouldn’t know him. I started to read his work, and found a kindred soul.’

‘As a migrant poet, he wrote about Malaccca, the place of his birth. It was at the centre of all his work. He became a sort of exemplar to me, and he showed me what I could do with my poems, what my work could become, as a project of recovery and reconciliation between my adopted home and the country left behind. His poems are profoundly moving, and are also about his home in Perth, and how difficult it was for him to slip into this new role. In a sense, he never settled down: he didn’t have much time. He had less than a decade as a new citizen [before he passed away from a brain tumour]. The honesty of his work, the tentative voice, and the love for his home, I think that spoke to me strongly.’

‘Arthur [Yap] was my linguistics tutor at the National University of Singapore. We didn’t become friends until I left university. Again, I didn’t read much of Arthur’s work until I came to Australia. What drew me to his work was the idea of him as a poet-painter – it was quite unusual. He was a wonderful painter, his canvases were of mostly abstract works, which went together with his poetry: very spare, very controlled, beautiful lines. Every word, every line, every colour counted. It was more his aesthetics, his poetics, rather than the poetry itself that helped me, spoke to me. He was a gentleman, like Tiang Hong, and he shunned publicity and fame, preferring to be a hermit of sorts. That was inspirational to me, that I didn’t need all that – I don’t need that sort of publicity or reputation. Arthur reinforced my sense of seclusion, of wanting to be not part of any literary community. He was a very encouraging mentor and friend to me, and I really appreciate how he brought the two forms of art together, of poetry and painting.’

Boey also found himself looking further back in time for inspiration, returning to his diasporic Chinese roots. ‘I was from a primary school where the medium of instruction was Chinese, and I was made to recite Tang dynasty poems, but then I strayed from that. It wasn’t until I emigrated to Australia that I started re-reading the Tang poets, partly out of homesickness and nostalgia. There was an imperative to reconnect with my lineage, with my roots.’ Over a number of years, Boey travelled to China, visiting places mentioned within Du Fu’s thousand-odd poem repertoire.

‘When I started re-reading Du Fu, I found out, to my shock, that there wasn’t any full-length biography of his life: not even in Chinese. I think it was just too remote in time, and very few verifiable facts. There were too many gaps, too many blanks. There didn’t seem to be a practice of writing literary biographies. There have been sketches here and there, but compared to say, Shakespeare, which has spawned an entire industry, there was very little done by way of literary biographies for these Chinese literary figures.’

‘I picked Du Fu because of his sense of compassion – unlike Li Bai, who was mostly immersed in his wine-drinking poems, who was seeking the elixir of immortality in his poetry and on very real quests in the mountains, or Wang Wei, who wrote Buddhist poems on detachment and liberation from suffering, Du Fu wrote about real suffering, real event, mostly started by the An Lu Shan rebellion in 755 AD. He was an eyewitness to the famine and displacement that was taking place, as his countrymen were thrown into dire straits by the rebellion.’

‘When I read a poem he wrote describing a gale that destroyed a cottage he built in Chengdu, and I marvelled at the fact that instead of self-pity, the poem moved to a kind of understanding and concern at the homelessness he saw around him. He was well ahead of Shakespeare in that regard, in terms of say, the notion of homelessness explored in King Lear. Du Fu writes about being unroofed, unhoused, without a single shred of self-pity, but instead thinks of his neighbours, who too, have been rendered homeless, but by political winds. That great poem convinced me that he was the greatest of the Tang poets. His sense of displacement, of not-belonging, spoke to me strongly in the years after my migration from Singapore, that he too, took his family on a quest for home.’

Boey’s research eventually fed into the writing of a fictionalised biography of the poet, because of his need to present a sustained narrative that, for him, only prose could contain and communicate. ‘It was a deep sense of homecoming. I felt at home in the words, in the images and sounds, in the compactness of the quatrain (jueju), in the language. That was quite a pivotal moment in my career as a poet: the moment of reconnection.’



we wrote ensemble, the voice between our faded
voices like a hand on the shoulder, saying
“We were and still are one.”

‘Strangely Coupled’, Days of No Name

Boey has always felt like an outsider, and considers that poets are in way banished to hover on the edges of society, consigned to look through a glass darkly. Even as he reiterates the notion of how he began as a poet-hermit, and will end up as a poet-hermit, I recall his work as one of the founding editors of Mascara Literary Review in 2007, and also remind him of the two ground-breaking anthologies of poetry that he co-edited.

In the early 2010s, Boey, along with his co-editors, conceived of the idea of an Asian Australian anthology of poetry, and pitched the idea to a publisher suggesting that a book like it might one day be studied in Australian high schools. And indeed, Contemporary Asian Australian Poets is now on the NSW English syllabus for 2019-2023. To Boey, it was the realisation of a long-held dream. For me, then a beginning Asian Australian poet, to be included in this anthology was to be located in a literary family of other Asian Australian poets, and to be welcomed into a place of belonging and connection.

The second anthology, of Asian diasporic poets across the English-speaking world, connects poets such as Li-Young Lee, Sarah Howe, Ocean Vuong, Victoria Chang, Arthur Yap, Ouyang Yu, Merlinda Bobis (to name a few) across generations and countries, populating ‘an imaginary homeland’ (Boey quotes Rushdie here) of poets connected to Asia in multiple, diverse ways, who are working and writing in an increasingly borderless, transnational landscape.

Boey says that these anthologies are ‘acts of mapping, of charting a new terrain, a floating, nebulous, liminal country’ that has opened up with the phenomenon of transnationalism and the fluidity of migration.’ It connects, in his own words, ‘a floating community of poets who engage with very similar concerns: of belonging, identity, and heritage. In a way, along with someone like Ee Tiang Hong, I feel very different from the younger generations of poets writing today, especially Asian American poets, who are quite comfortable with being in between places. The anthology is an attempt to connect, and map the changes between generations of Asian diasporic poets, to give what we all address in our writing a kind of narrative, a kind of connection.’

These anthologies are both the first of their kind in the global literary landscape: the first Asian Australian anthology of poetry, and the first Asian diasporic anthology of poetry across national borders.  This work undertaken by Boey demonstrates yet another dimension of his motivations in his literary life: to make sense of the world through words, to connect others by means of shared lineages, and to leave an enduring legacy. It is also a marker of Boey’s self-effacing nature, and demonstrates his commitment to supporting the poetry of others, that he omitted his own poems in the second anthology in a bid to include more poetry by other Asian diasporic poets.


In media res, you are walking halfway into a story of your life,
of these streets of loss, these alleys of change, turning pages that read
your steps, write your way through this city, an open book.

‘Sydney Dreaming’, The Singer and Other Poems

Boey, in his fifth decade, will publish his sixth book of poems, The Singer and Other Poems  next year.  ‘It’s been ten years since my last collection of poetry. The poems in this new collection have been slowly written over the last decade or so. The key poem is the title poem, which I wrote for my mother. My mother’s failing health was a reason why I returned to Singapore, and I wrote the key poem a few months after her death. It is an elegy, and a milestone, a landmark in my life.’

The new book also features a number of prose poems, which as a form, is a concrete manifestation of the liminal space Boey has dwelled in for so many years. He expects it will be his last book, as he prepares to retire from his academic career, and return from his home in Singapore, to his home in Australia. ‘As Wallace Stevens says, “Death is the mother of beauty”. My last book is a farewell, of sorts, an elegiac farewell, to another stage in my life.’ And even as the curtains begin to draw on what the poet anticipates to be a final, public act, we, as spectators and fellow players, cannot help but be moved to heartfelt appreciation of a life deeply committed to poetry and writing, and applaud this endeavour.



Boey Kim Cheng bibliography

Poetry

1989 – Somewhere-bound. Singapore: Times Books International.

1992 – Another Place. 1st Ed. Singapore: Times Books International. 2nd Ed. Singapore, Times Editions, 2004.

1996 – Days of No Name. Singapore: EPB Publishers Pte. Ltd.

2006 – After the Fire: New and Selected Poems. Singapore: Firstfruits Publications.

2012 – Clear Brightness: New Poems. Singapore: Epigram Books; Australia: Puncher & Wattman.

Fiction

2017 – Gull Between Heaven and Earth. Singapore: Epigram Books.

Non-Fiction

2009 – Between Stations: Essays. 1st Ed. Australia: Giramondo. 2nd Ed. Singapore: Epigram Books, 2017.

Editorial

2013 – Contemporary Asian Australian Poets. Eds. Aitken, Adam, Boey Kim Cheng, and Michelle Cahill. Australia: Puncher & Wattmann.

2019To Gather Your Leaving: Asian Diaspora Poetry from America, UK, Australia and Europe. Eds. Boey Kim Cheng, Arin Alycia Fong, Justin Chia. Singapore: Ethos Books.


This essay was written on the lands of the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation. This is Aboriginal land which was never ceded – always was, and always will be.


This interview is from Diversity Arts Australia’s Pacesetters Creative Archives project, a chronicle of the histories of creative practice of migrant, refugee and culturally diverse communities in Australia. Support for Stage 1 is from Create NSW. Find out more at www.iamnotavirusaustralia.org.au and www.diversityarts.org.au