Theophilus Kwek on the influence of living in the UK on his writing — Singapore Lit Prize Feature
This July 2018, in light of the biennial Singapore Literature Prize (SLP), we’ll be featuring our writers who’ve had their works shortlisted for the SLP 2018! Ethos is proud to have five titles on the shortlist this year—Phedra, 17A Keong Saik Road, Bitter Punch, The Magic Circle and Giving Ground—and beyond the SLP, we’re most interested to find out what went into the creative process behind these books.
In our final SLP feature with Theophilus Kwek, author of Giving Ground, we hear from him about the first time he cried in Oxford and how Calvino's Invisible Cities influenced his collection.
Listen to Theophilus' reading of his poem, The Weaver.
In late May we find the weaver’s nest
fist-sized, and lifted up to heaven
from our hardwood floor by the laundry wires.
We watch from a room. How each day’s increase
adds to that growing world some sense
of time, like a loom’s unknown design,
choice threads, a parent’s full recompense
found and fostered in an evening’s fire.
turn clamorous, feed with long beaks.
We become used to their house of thatch,
loud voices, the way she comes in flying low
as if suspended, or treading air
heavy with gift: a mantis clasped in prayer
and twine, a morning’s hard hunting.
Nothing prepares us for the mystery.
to bind the ones they love. I think again
of that first January’s encircling cold,
the boy with the hat his mother made,
dark wool wound tight, a woven thing.
The night he leaves without it from The Crown
it is a full hour before he names his loss,
walks adrift along the city’s fault,
till he buys another, which weighs different
though the fabric is the same. Later he learns
it is a matter of technique, doubling
the lines for consistency, the cinch of yarn,
but believes there must be something to do
with the weeks each takes for completion,
those sprigs in the string, time’s ingredient.
Tell us more about this poem! Why is it your favourite and what is its significance? Do you remember how you felt when you wrote it?
This poem is perhaps the most personal in this volume, and is significant to me because it tells of the first time I cried in Oxford—a city that would come to hold, and still occupies, an important place in my emotional geography. The incident described in the poem, where I lost a woollen hat my mother had knitted for me, happened just after I returned to Oxford from my first winter break. It was January and below freezing, and I'd worn the hat out for dinner only to leave without it from the warm pub. This was in 2014, and four years later I still remember the heartbreak of realising my loss.
The poem itself, though, is based on a conversation with my parents a few months later, when they sent me pictures (over WhatsApp) of a weaver bird that had built its bower on the balcony of our HDB flat. This took place just before my birthday—the first one I was spending abroad—and as I thought about the parallels between the bird's painstaking work and my own mother's, this poem fell into place. It’s still one of the favourite poems I’ve ever written.
The poems in Giving Ground are framed in settings all over the world! Have you been to all these beautiful places that you write about?
Yes! One of my favourite books in the world is Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, set in the court of the great Kublai Khan where Marco Polo is recounting his journey to the emperor. In Calvino's telling, Polo describes one fantastic city after another, but at the end of his monologue Kublai Khan says that he has glimpsed, through all of these descriptions, none other than Polo's native Venice.
Working on the poems in this volume, I wanted to create a poetic (and Singaporean) equivalent to Invisible Cities: a book that would capture both the wonder of a nineteen-year-old exploring these marvelous places for the first time, but also a sense of how I saw all these places through the lens of home—through eyes accustomed to the streets and perspectives of a city I love. This is why the book itself is structured as a journey, with the poems starting and ending in contemporary Singapore, and journeys to different places, and times, in the middle.
You’ve lived in the UK for a while. Do you think the experience living there has influenced the way or what you write?
The four years I spent in the UK were utterly transformative, and having experienced them, there’s no way I would write the same book today. Giving Ground was put together in 2015 (my second year at Oxford) and published in early 2016. The book is very much a product of my travels, but also the energy and idealism with which I embarked on them, eager to ‘see the world’. Since then—thanks to what I’ve studied, and causes I've been part of—my concerns have changed a lot, and today I think I'm less likely to write in descriptive terms about my own adventuring, than in critical (or at least more reflective) terms about the histories, inequalities, and anxieties that I encounter.
During this time, I’ve also ventured into translation, criticism, and creative non-fiction: different genres which have broadened my writerly toolbox with more ways to say what I want to say to different audiences. So I now write in a range of forms and platforms, and have learned to be comfortable switching between them!
What was the hardest thing about writing this collection and why?
While writing these poems, I was immensely privileged to have not only the resources to explore (thanks to a generous scholarship, and affordable travel options), but also a flexible university timetable, which made it easy for me to impose discipline on my writing schedule. I would set aside a morning every other week (usually Thursday), settle myself in my favourite café with a view of Turl Street, and not leave till I had a decent draft of a poem. Since graduating, it’s been much harder to maintain that pace.
I suppose the most difficult thing about this collection was the long wait—through the final stages of editing, sequencing, and production. I tend to be fairly impatient, but learned through the process of putting this book together to trust the wisdom of my editors and publishers, and to let the poems continue growing as a set, even after each individual piece is finished. Without that wait, the shape of the book would not have fallen into place, and neither would I have Alvin's gorgeous cover!
If you had to recommend an ideal location to read Giving Ground, where would it be?
A fairly nondescript place, where you can lose yourself easily. During those years of travel, I was heavily influenced by books like Robert Macfarlane's The Old Ways, Julian Hoffman's The Small Heart of Things, and fragments of Rebecca Solnit's A Field Guide to Getting Lost, which I've only recently re-read in full. These and countless other books of landscape and nature writing reminded me to tune in to the natural and human histories of the places I encountered, and if possible, to lose myself in them. I hope Giving Ground takes you on a journey too, even if you never leave your seat. Every time we lose ourselves, I think we come back with more.
Lastly, any plans for a new book, and if so, what would it be about?
I actually have a book-length manuscript of poems sitting in my computer, full of poems that are quite different from those in Giving Ground—these are a lot more playful with form, more contemporary in tone and much more urgent in their concerns, politically and otherwise. I'll have to sit myself down soon and work on sequencing and editing them! But yes, I also have dreams of another book, perhaps a cross-genre one bringing together some of my writing about National Service… or yet another, an edited cross-border anthology on migrant labour… These are just ideas at the moment, but the more ideas one has, one can usually be confident that at least some of them will come through!
Giving Ground is available on our webstore, and in all good bookstores.
P.S. For the first time and in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of Singapore Book Council, the public is invited to attend the SLP awards ceremony. Come meet your favourite authors! Free registration here.