2015 Writer-in-Residence: Ong Szu Yoong

The Singapore literary scene has certainly blossomed in the recent few decades, growing from a small but robust group to a diverse, multi-genre collection of writers. Prominent figures in the literary scene include established writers like our very own Emeritus Professor Edwin Thumboo, even as the literary landscape is expanding to include newer writers.

This has also resulted in the development of many programmes for writers to develop and hone their skills as well as to nurture a new generation of writers. The Singapore Creative Writing Residency is one such programme. Jointly organised by the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) University Scholars’ Programme (USP) and the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS), and The Arts House (TAH), the programme offers time and space for writers to complete their work as well as provide opportunities for student writers to learn from the writers-in-residence.

In 2015, USP and FASS welcomed its new writer-in-residence, Ong Szu Yoong. In an interview with him, he discussed his thoughts on writing poetry, his thoughts on his favourite poets and poems, and imparted some advice for new writers.

Q: What prompted you to start writing poetry?
A: Reading Kafka as a 13-year-old.

Q: What do you think is the hardest part of writing?
A: Everything else.

Q: How important do you think is accessibility of meaning? (How important is it that the reader has to work hard to understand the poem?)
A: A poem has no meaning that it hides or hides behind. To quote Barthes: There is no other information in it but its immediate saying: no reservoir, no armoury of meaning.

Q: What do you think makes a poem “good”?
A: A good poem is what it is. That is to say, it refuses to be anything else.

Q: Who are some of your favourite poets, and what are some of your favourite poems? What is it about these poems that draw you to them?
A: Off the top of my head: Anne Carson, Arthur Yap, Rae Armantrout, Elizabeth Bishop. I like complex and pathetic poems whose complexity and pathos are inextricable. My favourite Carson, Yap, and Armantrout poems are like that. Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee, which I’ve just finished re-reading, is like that as well. Bishop belongs to another category – I admire her for her discipline, and her attention to objects as they are.

Q: Which of your poems do you think is your favourite, and why?
A: The one I’m working on.

Q: What advice would you give young poets and budding writers?
A: Read as much as possible. Write as much as is necessary. Sometimes it is necessary not to write. Most of all, don’t take just anyone’s advice. Nothing works for everyone.

Ong Szu Yoong will be staying at USP’s Cinnamon College and working as a writer-in-residence until the end of January next year. He is currently conducting creative writing seminars with interested students, hoping for the participants to “come out of it with a better idea of how they want to write and what poetry is for them–a better sense of their own poetics.” These sessions will be held weekly, and participating students can look forward to presenting their work at the conclusion of the series of seminars. (Contributed by undergraduate Deanna Lim)