Interview with Yong Shu Hoong

A precise concoction of death and cinema, The Viewing Party offers a crisp, clinical voice that shines in every one of these 100-word prose poems and micro fiction. We are invited to this party to witness everyday observations that are crafted and weaved into scenes—some of them as breathtaking as our favourite stills from favourite movies combined.

We talk to Yong Shu Hoong, the Singapore Literature Prize co-winner (along with Math Paper Press’ Sonnets from the Singlish by Joshua Ip) about writing these poems.  

How is The Viewing Party different from your previous poetry collections?

The Viewing Party is different in several ways. First of all, it is my first book not edited and published by my long-time collaborator, Enoch Ng, of Firstfruits Publications, which had over the years released my previous four collections of poetry.

At 127 pages, The Viewing Party is also the most ambitious book in terms of its length. This might be consciously, or subconsciously, spurred by a friend’s comment about my last book, From within the Marrow (2010), being quite thin (at 54 pages), but I think the new book also became quite thick because of my idea of wanting to present different facets of my life as a writer. I wanted to have different sections conveying the contrasting types of writing I have been doing or am venturing into – from short fiction and micro-fiction, to poetry in various forms.

Which brings me to the next point: This is the first time that a short story has appeared in my book.

The Viewing Party is obviously a structured work, although the content varies in form. What are the six sections, or scene selections, supposed to convey experientially to the reader?

Originally, I had wanted to collaborate with another writer, Phan Ming Yen, to do an entire book of 100 100-word micro-fiction. It would have been literally a 50-50 collaboration, in that I’d contribute 50 pieces, and he would match my contribution. I’d even thought of a working title, The Storytellers Bazaar.

It wasn’t so much a decision to cut my collaborator off because he was lagging behind in his output of the texts (since I was churning out more of these pieces than he did). But at some point, we came to realise the difference in styles and themes between our writings, and we had to reassess whether a coherent narrative could emerge from the interplay of ideas. I actually don’t remember how I had “officially” broken off the “relationship” – and whether I had approached the task tactfully or even tenderly, or I’d carried it out with cruel decisiveness. But once the partnership was off, I could surge ahead. I remember the pieces came very quickly – some more like prose poems than micro-fiction – either from reworking past works, or from penning new texts that got first airing on Facebook (as status updates) to test readers’ responses.

Eventually, I did complete around 50 100-word pieces – which was ironically what I had intended to achieve under the original plan. I later picked 40 of the best pieces for my new book.

As evidence that our friendship wasn’t harmed in any way, Ming Yen remained a collaborator in his role of an unofficial editor, giving advice on how my book could be shaped and sequenced. My original idea was to include a Culture Vulture column I’d written for The Straits Times, and a film review of the Canadian film Incendies (2010), to represent the non-fiction aspect of my writing, but eventually, Ming Yen and I felt that the non-fiction pieces didn’t quite fit in.

Slowly, the book took its form. Taking centrestage is ‘The Great Dying’, a short story I’d written for the Balik Kampung anthology (Math Paper Press, 2012), edited by Verena Tay. With the story at the core of the book, the other sections fan out from there. “Dragonflies”, a poem in nine parts about the passing of my grandfather, was not used in From within the Marrow but found a fit within The Viewing Party as its opening section. This is followed by “The Viewing Party, Part 1”, which consists of 20 of the 100-word pieces. Next up is another section that was left out of From within the Marrow: “The Cutting Room”, made up of texts excerpted from a manuscript I produced in 2007 as part of a project to transform Singapore films into novels. In my case, the film was Royston Tan’s 4:30 (2005). “The Viewing Party, Part 2”, consisting another 20 100-word pieces, is the section that follows “The Great Dying”. And to round up the book, there’s a final section of poems called “Searching to Get Lost”. In a way, The Viewing Party allows me to do some spring cleaning, clearing out stuff which was left out of previous collections but has somehow found a new home here, in a strangely apt way.

In the contents page, I use the header “Scene Selection” in place of “Contents” to further instil the book’s film-related theme. I hope the six sections do provide a way of reading the different pieces presented in a way in which ideas flow from one place to another, and meld together as a whole.

I’ve said during launches and reading events that The Viewing Party is about death and cinema, which may seem like a rather crude way of summing up the book. But what is the viewing party? To me, I recall reading about the listening party in a magazine, which speaks of how a new CD is launched with a party where every track is played out for the audience without the musicians in the house. Likewise, we can have a viewing party involving a favourite drama or sitcom on TV, or the broadcast of a sports event. As a film critic, I’d attended many viewing parties, except that they are not usually called parties but media screenings or gala premieres. But I like how the word “viewing party” can also encompass a voyeuristic element. When you use the term in a similar way as “third party”, the viewing party could refer to the observers watching events unfolding – which is pretty much what I do, as a poet, keeping an eye on things happening around me, sniffing out the next subject to write about.

Somehow the poems about death fit within the company of poems about cinemas, films, and life as a film critic. In death, during funeral wakes, the dead are put up on display. But if you believe in the afterlife, then the question is: are we watching the dead, or are we the living being watched by the spirits? So it’s not out of context to have a short story “The Great Dying” that is told from the perspective of a dead young woman, who has transformed into a wandering ghost witnessing her own funeral. Ghost stories, after all, is a popular film genre too.

How does the “cinematic” figure in your work?

When we say “cinematic”, sometimes we’re referring to a kind of narrative quality of a piece of writing that allows us to envision a story as a film. In that sense, “The Great Dying” is cinematic – I suppose, if I were to take on the role of a director to adapt it into the medium of film, I’d use a roving camera to gain a first-hand perspective of the protagonist as she flits from place to place, with a voice-over to communicate her thoughts to the audience.

For this book, a lot of the poems touch on the world of films, so it is cinematic in the sense of drawing inspiration from the cinema. But “cinematic” can also be about the atmosphere of film – whether it’s the brash blockbuster laden with special effects or the subtler art-house film. Since it’s poetry we’re talking about, I’d like to compare my writing to the latter. If one can say that certain art-house films are poetic, then perhaps the feelings evoked by that film genre wouldn’t be so different from the feelings evoked by well-crafted poetry collections.

What is personally your favourite poem in the book and why?

It’s hard to pick a favourite poem, since every one of them is my own creation. But when push comes to shove, I’ll pick “Dragonflies”, particularly parts 2, 3 and 6. One reason is that this poem has been with me long enough, so I feel that I know it more intimately. It is a more intimate poem too, since it touches on the passing of my grandfather.

Some people, after hearing me read the poem, had come up to me to say how the poem had moved them on some personal level. One had commented specifically about part 6, and how she loves the way it ends: “Still I regret I couldn’t wring out more woe / As if there should be only one prescribed response / for a filial grandson: A raging sadness enough / to rattle the petals off the wreaths. Not ambling / after the departing cortege on steady feet.” It’s an ending that I myself am quite proud of.

There is oftentimes a detached, sometimes even a scientific voice in your poems. How does this detachment allow you to speak about certain topics, like death, differently?

When you mention “scientific”, I’m wondering if it’s an allusion to the fact that I had graduated from the National University of Singapore with a Computer Science degree. It could well be true that a scientific voice might have sometimes crept into my lines – though if I really ponder about it, I would be hard-pressed to define what that “scientific voice” is exactly. Clean? Clinical? Or it could be in the sense of logic that links one idea with another, and another, as the first line of a poem meanders its way towards the end.

On the other hand, that sense of detachment could reflect who I am as a person, rather than my education background. Stoicism as an emotional preference. Not wanting to rant and rave in a melodramatic manner.

Death is not an easy thing to write about. When my grandmother passed away, I had to wait for a period before being able to write about the event in a series of poems published in my first book, Isaac (1997). When my grandfather passed away, the poems came out quite quickly – it could just be the fact that, this time around, I didn’t have to deal with the trauma of witnessing the first death in the family. 

But there’s no right or wrong way to write about death. My chosen way was a more detached rendering, instead of letting my poems holler with a “raging sadness”. It’s the same, I guess, in the way films portray deaths – either with lots of wailing and weeping, or a more restrained kind of grief. For me, I’d pick the quieter death-scene that speaks far louder.

The Viewing Party is available for purchase at BooksActually, Booktique, Books Kinokuniya, and here.