Interview with Leonard Ng

The cover of Changes and Chances is a difficult one to miss; it boasts a daring play of defined monochromatic lines that work to illustrate a cattle egret by the sea, and not much else. Strong and silent, it is a subtle contrast to Leonard Ng’s charming presence, and a suitable introduction to what lies inside for readers.

Ng’s latest collection of poetry is a collection of sequences that celebrate love, sorrow, time, nature, and humanity. It breaks and mends hearts at every turn, and often, one is left parched, wanting for more and drawn to the sea of emotions it exhibits. Breathing seems even more so crucial, and yet all the more natural.

We talk to the writer to find out more.

Your work frequently revolves around birds; they appear on both covers of This Mortal World and Changes and Chances, as well as in many of your poems. Tell us more about this.

I like birds. They’re fun to watch, and I can now identify some three dozen or so local species at a glance. (That’s not actually much—Singapore has a LOT of wild birds!) I don’t go birdwatching, though, not with binoculars and other paraphernalia. Rather, I try to pay attention to my immediate environment and let the birds surprise me when they’re there.

Symbolically, birds represent for me a spiritual connection to the non-human world, to the earth and its forces.

What is your favourite poem out of Changes and Chances?

“Blessed Be”. My first long poem, and a challenge to compose. I know what the whole thing means intellectually, but the effect I was striving for was that of classical music—an orchestral piece in multiple movements built up from motifs, images, allusions to take the reader on a complex emotional journey. Mahler’s symphonies were a big influence, as was the Song of Songs (which I rendered into English as a musical libretto some years ago).

What emotions would you like to invoke in your readers after reading Changes and Chances?

That depends which poems they’re reading. But I would like my readers to find themselves breathing a little deeper.

How is your writing process like?

Poetry is the result of deep emotional and intellectual engagement with yourself and with your environment. Watching and listening. The key mental state is reverie—a focused receptive awareness partway between vigilance and meditation. Then you can be truly attentive to both what is outside you (external stimuli) and what is within (subconscious promptings). It makes space for inspiration to enter. This is how I do everything, from conceptualizing sequences to polishing lines.

What are your favourite places to write in?

Any streets, rooms, apartments without people in them (machines and animals are fine). I am a highly aural poet and often compose by reciting aloud, so I need enough privacy and quiet to literally hear myself think.

You are given the chance to ask a question to any writer, dead or live. Who would it be, and what is the question?

I generally don’t ask questions—I learn by watching, listening, doing. But I would gladly spend time in the presence of my forebears—Sappho and Homer, Tao Yuanming, Jia Dao, Wang Anshi, Yeats, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Issa, Basho, Buson, Garcia Lorca, Neruda, Ted Hughes, Yehuda Amichai.

Changes and Chances is available for purchase at BooksActually, Booktique, Books Kinokuniya, MPH, and here.