Apart from looking for the funny-sexy-tragic-epic in all manner of texts, Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé loves working with amazingly talented artists and writers as an editor. Pictured below with one of his favourite projects, he has edited more than ten books and co-produced three audio books, several pro bono for non-profit organizations such as Sok Sabay Cambodia, Riding For the Disabled Association and the National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre. He used to cover entertainment and lifestyle journalism, now happy to be steeped in what he calls “literary journal[ism]”. He also works in clay, sculpting commemorative ceramic pieces which have found their homes in private collections and museums in India, the Netherlands, the UK, and the US. Based in Singapore, Desmond talks to Metazen about infra-hypotheticals, and how the world might be a more reflective place if people took the time to ask themselves these questions.
Metazen: This is the morning of 24 Ifs. Here’s your first: If you were an oceanographer on an oil rig, what would be the first thing you’d do?
Desmond: Take in the sunrise. Write a poem for the hair boom philanthropists for their heartfelt effort at helping contain the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Fur and hair in pantyhose. If I could design an Annie Leibovitz photo shoot, I’d use the remaining booms as props for a Diane Arbus homage. With Nicole Kidman as the on-set stylist, in a resplendent Vivienne Westwood ball gown reading Denis de Rougemont’s Love in the Western World, translated by Montgomery Belgion.
Metazen: If you could Twitter a poem to Calliope, what would it be?
Desmond: A tweeting sonnet, in exactly 140 characters including spaces, over 14 lines in a twitter universe that allows and prizes line breaks:
on one oar
and a boat
in 1517 of
Metazen: If it was between the sonnet and the ghazal, which of the two would win out?
Desmond: Difficult choice. Both are superb constructions. The sonnet seems to have become the form-of-choice to represent entire nations. Beyond the Petrarchan and Shakespearean and Occitan variations, there’s Tomaz Salamun’s “Sonnet to a Slovenian” and Billy Collins’ “American Sonnet”. I only ever keep within the notion of requiring 14 lines, and allow the line to explore its own navigations, not really attending to the iambic pentameter or predictable rhymes. The ghazal is firmly Persian, and I find alluring its prizing of repetition through the refrain or radif, and the pining love for a beloved other, and that inclusion of poetic presence within the poem. I once wrote one out, replete with couplets, but pulled back the lines to form a single-stanza poem, long and meandering, a different kind of precision. I’d throw in the sestina too, which was wonderfully contemporarised in Noelle Kocot’s “Brooklyn Sestina: June, 1975”. Add to that Carol Muske-Duke’s “Villanelle”. James Merrill’s “Two Double Dactyls”. Peter Davison’s “A Ballad”. It’s amazing how contemporary poetics has returned to traditional forms, and injected it with an invigorating newness. “A true poet does not bother to be poetical,” Jean Cocteau said, “nor does a nursery gardener scent his roses.” I disagree. There’s a lot to be said for the poet as craftsman. I think a poet needs to let out the potpourri from under the porcelain pomander, drop some sandalwood oil into it, and bring the flowers back to life.
Metazen: If you could choose ten writers to win the Pulitzer, who would make your list?
Desmond: So many people come to mind, all so deserving. More than ten, more like two hundred. I’m so tempted to share my suggestions but I’ll keep those to myself until they win. Then, I’ll throw a roll-your-own-temakizushi after-party.
Metazen: If Stephen Dunn or David Gascoyne or Daniil Kharms asked you out for tennis, who would you hit the rye grass running with?
Desmond: All three – we’ll do doubles – because I’ve gained much wisdom from their writing. I’ll whip up my 7-minute pan-Asian drunken noodles. My quick-and-easy recipe: fantail king prawns or ground beef, mee pok or some other flat noodle, oyster sauce, mushroom-flavoured dark soy sauce, broccoli, red capsicum, carrots, onions, garlic, water chestnut, and whatever wine or liquor from the nice neighbour who owns the wine bar across the street. Even eggs at the very end, broken over the wok. Fried shallots and bean sprouts as garnish. Replace meat with dried beancurd to make it vegetarian-friendly. Served on Royal Copenhagen’s Blue Flute dinnerware. Not an imperial meal but hearty. Here’s another Stephen Dunn gem that I adore, three couplets from a poem within The Insistence of Beauty: “Now I wanted to go inside where it was lamplit, / warm, everything artificial and mine. // I took off my muddy shoes, turned the burner on / under the teapot, waited for it to call me // as if it were something hurt or wild. It did. / With just a touch, I made it subside.”
Metazen: If there were three anecdotes you could have made into tattoos, what would they be?
Desmond: Only henna tattoos please, so I can get new looks with different typography. 1. On my wrist (by Virginia Woolf): “This diary writing has greatly helped my style; loosened the ligatures.” 2. Across my back (by Lyn Hejinian): “Music is very complete. I do not suppose I really am a consolation – very complete, when each link is directly abob.” 3. Below the ridge of my left clavicle, above my heart (by Michelangelo): “I saw an angel in the marble and I just chiselled till I set him free.” Unlike sculptors who have a slab of marble or clay to work with, writers start with the blank page – we have to create our own materiality, what rawness “the unconscious creates”, according to Stanley Kunitz, after which comes the hewing whereby “the ego edits”. Down the road, I could have a whole leather chaise longue hand-tattooed with “Instructions for Practical Living” by the Neo-Confucian scholar Wang Yang Ming.
Metazen: If you had a puzzle box, what would you keep in it?
Desmond: What I’d keep in my little black book: moleskine-turned-iPad poems. As Belinda Carlisle warbled and purred so fortuitously in the 80s: “In my little black book / You’re always there to remind me.” As a writer, I enjoy noticing subtle shifts in narrative culture, what built up to the rise of the novel, for example. While I used to pay attention to such pushing and pulling and yawing vectors in high fashion and commercial film, I am nowadays more interested in the collective literary consciousness, and its bearings. In Singapore, there has recently been a bridging of writers from across generations, a celebration of local writing, a greater willingness to demystify the strict genres of poetry and prose, a propulsive and modish questioning of what next, of what’s to come.
Metazen: If there were good and bad writing days for you, describe them for us?
Desmond: I’d like to think of them as just days – that involve reading, thinking, writing, more thinking. Neither good nor bad, just moments, of process and imagination, and in between, time to complete the urgent but not necessarily very important things, of life’s demands. Like getting my first meal at five in the afternoon. Even when the downpours become terribly grey – and I live in the tropics where monsoon season is de rigueur every year – I’ve noticed the strange and bizarre yet alluring tenor of work that has come from fast rain. Or snow in deep winter. And there are definite shifts, of a deepening of metaphor, of a faint light yet density. I’ve stopped badgering myself over the creative lulls – these being not so much gulf, but respite actually – because I know when the writing comes, it arrives in astonishing volumes, tide and surge, and I can yield forty poems in one sitting, the way Al Alvarez describes it: “I know from my own experience as a poet that it is sometimes possible to hear a poem before you know what it is about, to get the movement before you get the words, as though the movement were a dimly heard wake-up call or the first faint stirring of something waiting to be expressed.” With that sort of internal compression released, I’ll take the next few days to revise, reread, do the polishing the way I’d use kitchen scouring pads to sand down my ceramic pieces. That, for me, is when my Capote-Aristotelian grab-the-text-by-the-reins journalistic training kicks in, full gear.
Metazen: If you could change one thing about yourself, what would that be?
Desmond: Too many things, since I’m a sadly flawed person. One would be how flippant I sound even when sometimes I’m trying to say something invested and important. Too many graphic novels as a teen. I also get tired too easily now that I’m on the cusp of the big 4-0. I’m sure my body is buckling under itself slowly. From bad cholesterol. And a weaker heart from so much heartache.
Metazen: If you had to choose between American and British conventions, which would you prefer?
Desmond: I was educated in British English as a first language, and primarily work in it, understanding its dry wit, accompaniment like a sherry glass of Merlot. Because of television, I was exposed to American sitcom humour. My postgraduate education was all in America, which meant I had to do the switchblade code switching – fun and effortless. Now, based back in Singapore, where the multicultural cosmopolitanism jams together such plurality – we have our own hybrid lingua franca called Singlish – I’ve become less attentive to sticking by a single convention, even for consistency’s sake. Especially since I’m so attuned to what drifts and strays through translation (read: free translation versus faithful translation versus adaptation versus intertemporal translation versus interlingual translation versus another about-turn, etc) in my understanding of hermeneutics, it seems so much less important to be a form sentinel. Sometimes, my fine-toothed Hermes comb simply glazes over the difference because my lens has become multifocal – which, I suspect, in the Derridean glossosphere of différance, might really not matter much at all. In those instances, it’s entirely my own ill discipline. Maybe I should just do a Cathy Park Hong, and invent a whole new language for a whole new fictive social system – that would do it, be my naughty atonement. Maybe every creative writing workshop should have one exercise where we take an English translation of some paragraph and translate it into Spanish into French into Italian into gobbledygook into Mandarin into Bengali into Japanese into Northern Yukaghir into Pongyong, then into English again. Just to compare notes and see where the meaning went – probably to the flea market, to look for a used Marc Jacobs Delancey tote.
Metazen: If you did a genealogy into your family history, what would you like to find?
Desmond: That somewhere in China, one of my ancestors really cared about poetry. And to discover in one of his/her poems the notion of the chariot, a trope which has permeated so much of my own work.
Metazen: If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be?
Desmond: Malice. For it to disappear, with wrinkle-free linen in its place.
Metazen: If you had to choose between batik and plaid, which would it be?
Desmond: Both, just for the coarse fun of it. And because conflation and the syncretic are like fusion cuisine – invention through combination works when the accents are afforded in their right proportions and elements. Like Sean Connery riding a bicycle in Manhattan in Finding Forrester. Shouldn’t apply to work-life boundaries though.
Metazen: If you could only keep 14 books within your personal collection?
Desmond: The ones I’m reading/rereading right now, and here they are, in a jumble:
- Sylvia Legris’ Nerve Squall [keeps me introspective, expansive, attentive]
- Lorenzo Camusso & Sandro Bortone’s Ceramics of the World: From 4000 B.C. to the Present [keeps me visual, grounded, primal]
- David F. Krell’s Purest of Bastards: Works of Mourning, Art, and Affirmation in the Thought of Jacques Derrida [keeps me questioning, bewildered, more reasonable]
- Agnes Petocz’s Freud, Psychoanalysis and Symbolism, followed by Laurence M. Porter’s The Crisis of French Symbolism [keeps me dreamy, unfailingly, ontogenesis of symbols forever soapy and awkward]
- F. H. Buckley’s The Morality of Laughter: A Serious Look at the Meaning of Laughter [keeps me in balance, the way “laughter directs us to a middle way of comic virtue between extremes of comic vice”]
- Jerome McGann’s The Scholar’s Art: Literary Studies in a Managed World [keeps me real – as they say, in but not of this increasingly surreal world]
- Adalaide Morris’ Sound States: Innovative Poetics and Acoustical Technologies [keeps me calibrated, amazed at how new media will further transform our already unremittingly generative soundscapes]
- Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies [keeps me believing in the short story as gravitational lens into the novel]
- Dan Chiasson’s Natural History [keeps me pining for more gilded invention because it’s lustre, pure gold]
- Charles Wright’s Scar Tissue [keeps me at my desk on weekends, quiet, faithful, writing]
- Martín Espada’s The Republic of Poetry [keeps me honest, all ears, hopeful]
- Grace Schulman’s The Paintings of Our Lives [keeps me on the lyric, its story enduring, on winged shoes, the way Gerald L. Bruns cites Levinas: “While in vision a form espouses a content and soothes it, sound is like the sensible quality overflowing its limits, the incapacity of form to hold its content – a true rent in the fabric of the world – that by which the world that is here prolongs a dimension inconvertible into vision.”]
- Pierre Joris’ A Nomad Poetics [keeps me returning to its pages – I’ll go back to it even when I’m decrepit and old, to see how all my re/readings of its texts altered themselves]
Since we’re at it, let’s throw in some Kate Spade stationery as well.
Metazen: If you could recall the first book you read?
Desmond: Must have been Dr. Seuss, and then lots of Enid Blyton, whose The Secret Island still remains something of an early lesson in escapism and pragmatism. Althea Braithwaite’s Desmond the Dinosaur, which I loved immeasurably. I just rediscovered it online although it seems it’s no longer in print. I remember how asked to pick a book to read when I was six or seven, I overzealously and half-wittedly chose Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. I couldn’t muster the chapter-by-chapter synopsis asked of me, even if it was just a passing reflection – never got past the first chapter, perhaps experiencing an early jouissance with the impossibility of language pre//post-acquisition, in the way Bruce Fink describes in Reading Seminar XX: Lacan’s Major Work on Love that “there is no harmonious, totalizing relationship between signifier and signified”. I only returned to the book in 2004 to read it properly for the first time, and to see what I had missed. Steinbeck = Genius, definitely.
Metazen: If a singer/musician agreed to shoot the breeze with you, who would you like it to be?
Desmond: I can’t believe Lena Horne just passed on. Off the top of my head, I think of Shawn Colvin, Eric Clapton, Natalie Imbruglia, Pat Benatar, Laura Pausini, Natalie Merchant, Lauryn Hill, Dido, Moby, Maroon 5, Oleta Adams, Peter Gabriel, Gavin DeGraw, Roberta Flack, Sade, Sophie B. Hawkins, Swing Out Sister, Jann Arden, Sting, Texas, Dinah Washington, Elton John, Wet Wet Wet, Lighthouse Family. All the divas. I know, I know, I haven’t really kept up with the newer musicians. In Chinese pop, there’s Faye Wong, Sandy Lam, Stefanie Sun, Xin Xiaoqi, Shirley Kwan, Liang Jin Ru. Tanya Chua, whose live gig I first reviewed all those years ago, saying I’d give my last pubbing dollar to watch her sing. She’s since gone on to release more than ten albums, recording both in English and Mandarin, and bagged much deserved critical acclaim. On instrumentals, I have a penchant for film scores, especially work by Harry Gregson-Williams, Jeff Beal, Gabriel Yared, Jan A. P. Kaczmarek, Craig Armstrong, Dave Grusin, Ennio Morricone, Trevor Jones, Eric Serra, Luis E. Bacalov. If I had to choose only one, my all-time favourite would be John Ashbery, particularly his reading of “My Philosophy of Life”.
Metazen: If it was between Meta or Zen, which please?
Desmond: Both. Because both have successfully addressed ineffability – and the unsayable – in their history. I recommend this book, Silence: Lectures and Writings by John Cage.
Metazen: If you could be any historical or mythic figure, who would you be?
Desmond: A sort of transhistorical albeit transcoded Narcissus with an anamorphic mirror, so I’d see Aristophanes in it, and freeze this inward-looking navel-gazing. Or someone who gets Leonardo Sbaraglia or Jeremy Irons or Eva Green or Charlotte Rampling or Monica Bellucci or Benoît Magimel their coffee. And an easy chair. Seems timely to cite something from Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse: “The atopia of Socrates is linked to Eros (Socrates is courted by Alcibiades) and to the numbfish (Socrates electrifies and benumbs Meno). The other whom I love and who fascinates me is atopos. I cannot classify the other, for the other is, precisely, Unique, the singular Image which has miraculously come to correspond to the specialty of my desire. The other is the figure of my truth, and cannot be imprisoned in any stereotype (which is the truth of others).”
Metazen: If it was either love or sex, what would it be?
Desmond: You can always make sure the lovemaking – or intimacy – is good. And safe. Love, for all its palpable beauty, always seems so weighted. My theory is love comes with some heavy historical baggage, of being bundled up with expectations of permanence. That’s a huge order, to wager personal happiness on something as abstract and unknowable as time. That said, when love has been good, I’ve felt completely connected with the universe, my partner (who’s mooted snuggling right now) not withstanding. That said, in the interest of offhand metatainment-cum-meditainment – as opposed to infotainment or edutainment – here’s an entry I sent to Urban Dictionary about a kind of no-nonsense, hyperreal-worldly love more self-conscious than glassy-eyed. It didn’t make it to publication, but oh well. I’m placing an improved version here as a lark:
True love premised on Jacques Lacan’s idea that artifice plays a significant role in all kinds of love. Premised on the French thinker’s dictum in The Seminar (Book XI): “As a specular mirage, love is essentially deception.” RT(Full-On)M: Kristin Scott Thomas and Robert Redford in The Horse Whisperer. RT(Friendly)M: Sophistry. RT(Freaking)M: Chafe Saussure and watch a deconstructionist bleed. RT(Field)M: Her lover left him for that spa magnate. “Love the Lamborghini,” the yoga instructor said, peeling off his boardshorts, jump rope unravelled on parquet. This, a romantic comedy.
1. “It’s not speculuv when I say you lost weight. I like your Remy hair extensions too.”
2. “Maybe if you didn’t have her number on your Blackberry, I wouldn’t see what we got as speculuv!”
3. “Honey, let’s speculuv tonite. I brought home my lab coat and hard hat. You be Judi Dench, queening in Shakespeare In Love.”
4. “All the world’s a speculuvish stage. If you’re a Pyrrhonian skeptic. Not. Not.”
5. “Her wedding planner counselled me that speculuv is as real as it gets. I told her to please go away, to please go very very far away.”
6. “Has love too been reduced to language? Love is Love is Love.” ~ Diotima, rather responsibly, to Gertrude Stein in Pixar’s version of The Symposium
Metazen: If it was between fullness or length, which would you kayak the Yangtze for?
Desmond: Opt for the good journey. The beauty in the story. And this would include, necessarily, elements of dialogue, diction, exposition, foregrounding, conflict, complication, irony, climax, character rhythm, figurative language, all inside or outside the narrator’s voice, among many other things.
Metazen: If you could sculpt one of your ceramic works for any special occasion?
Desmond: While I wouldn’t consider myself a traditional potter by any stretch of the imagination, I really liked the opening epigraph from Gerry Williams’ essay on such potters’ roles in contemporary society: “Juanita tells me why she makes pottery. ‘It’s just a happy feeling,’ she says. ‘We don’t judge our potteries with others, just ourselves. We just want to do it and be alone.’ ” I’m very happy working on my present project, three commemorative pieces to commemorate the birth centennials of Robert Fitzgerald, José Lezama Lima and Charles Olson, with an addendum piece for William James’ death centennial to be honored this year as well. All of them are based on Lacan’s exposition on the moebius strip. Interested in Lacan’s ideas for their relevance in literary theory, I discovered how he had used the figure of the moebius strip to help one rethink our usual and staid ways of representing space – that instead of two sides, the moebius strip in fact has only one side and one edge. In his use of topology, Lacan used it to illustrate how seemingly opposing terms like “inside” and “outside” may not be separate and distinct but indeed be continuous with each other. Imagine my ecstasy when I discovered Olson had written a poem titled “The Moebius Strip”, from which I sculpted his ceramic piece, the lines taken from the first two stanzas, as follows: “Upon a Moebius strip / materials and the weights of pain / their harmony // A man within himself upon an empty ground. / His head lay heavy on a huge right hand / itself a leopard on / his left and angled shoulder. / His back a stave, his side a hole into the bosom of a sphere.” The difficulty subsequently was looking for equal premises for the other three authors, texts which would jar, yet become seamless with this origination. After this project’s research, I think I’ve had enough of Lacan. For a lifetime.
Enter an extract from George Steiner’s Language & Silence where he discusses Whitman’s own assertion that the change observable between the composition of the Iliad and Odyssey corresponds to an aesthetic change in Greek ceramics: “In contrast to the geometric, the proto-Attic style is ‘breezy, open and slightly orientalising.’ The proto-Attic vase painter handles his subjects as a series of fluid episodes, as does the Odyssey. We are no longer in the rigid, concentric world of the Iliad. Many scholars have rejected Whitman’s entire thesis, arguing that poetry and ceramics cannot be compared.” An awesome book, no less. Steiner goes on to highlight one of Whitman’s observations as a counterpoint. As a working artist, I agree that an archaeology of such cross-disciplinary work from a critical gaze is always in and of itself an imagined work, of artifice that owns its own narrative place. Even on reflection, when I have attempted to articulate how lines from a poem sculpt themselves and translate into my ceramic work, I astonish myself with how much meaning has been distilled, and lost – a condition of artistic self-inquiry that I have come to terms with, and learnt to accept. Gracefully. As an act of letting go.
Metazen: If you could choose to retire anywhere, would you go for nature or tarmac?
Desmond: Anywhere where the people are nice. I really liked Cambridge, Massachusetts. Amazingly diverse scholarship in one place. And San Francisco, when I visited my sister years ago. Brooklyn, Provincetown, Chicago. London, from what I remember but that was so long ago. The small town high up on a mountain in Malaga, Spain, was beautiful. Tom Sawyer’s tree house at Disneyland Anaheim because it reminds me of good times as a child, the magic I still felt about such a melodramatic world, of construct and feel-good narratives, however maudlin and simpering that may seem. The rolling hills in Dunedin, New Zealand. Breathtaking. And who can resist Prague? I hear Vancouver and Guilin and Vienna and Melbourne are awesome, although I’ve yet to visit these places. Most likely right here in Singapore, where it’s clean and safe and the moisture keeps the wrinkles at bay. Or Mars, because it’ll be like living in the world of Paloma Picasso, which would in turn be like living within the landscape of a poem. As Blackmur described it, and astutely so: “Poetry is life at the remove of form and meaning; not life lived but life framed and identified.”
Metazen: If you had to choose between unintelligibility or floundering in the sea of doubt or certainty, which would give you greater pleasure?
Desmond: Right this moment, certainty. Of focus and enactment. Because I’m one question away from this becoming a caudate sonnet, the first volta undergoing rhetorical metastasis to issue this metaview’s coda.
Metazen: If you could choose a historical pen name, what would you settle on?
Desmond: Any of Basho’s haigo. Because I’ve always wished my writing could contain the moment as a concrete abstraction, singular but poignant. In a serif font, in italics, because I’m a bit of a bore, and a romantic at heart. For me, it was always “Desmond Kon” as a journalist and editor, in the world of print, before the world nudged me into cyberspace. Yes, I’m a fossil. I retrieved my two given Chinese names for the literary arts. I also use various heteronyms – the way Fernando Pessoa did – to allow me to experiment with different writing styles as varying authorial presences, all hopefully to dialogue with each other in a lifelong ars poetica project. I started allowing the heteronyms to feature themselves in my poems. The parenthetical Chinese idiom “máng wú tóu xù”, for instance, refers to how one does not know how or where to begin, while “páng guān zhě qīng” means the observer has clarity of mind. These loose definitions, however, unravel because I commonly remove half or more of the inflections of these pictographic characters, thereby issuing a variety of homonymic possibilities and interpretations. This is a small effort at underscoring the notion of the speaker and character and persona as distinct from the authorial self – an idea that hits home with anyone who’s sat through a creative writing workshop. Then I discovered Michael Martone had already created stunning work with his fabulous “Contributor Notes” project. Not to mention Cate Blanchett doing a wonderful Dylan in I’m Not There.
Beyond the circus of all this hoop-jumping, I’m really altogether an easy bloke, low maintenance, completely at bliss with my books around me. I watch movies, meet friends, enjoy family dinners, check out the theatre and museums when I can, and crave lobster bisque and a decent steak. And crème brûlée. And Szechuan cuisine. I try to steer clear of highhanded posturing and icky situations. And try to remember to say my prayers before I hit the sheets. I try not to get bothered by whether people view me as unimpressive as an individual or thinker. Or if they think me altogether silly. I’m really so boring, it’s ridiculous. That’s the writer’s life – all the interesting narratives are usually lost to the story, the scene-chewing page, devoted to it, and there it resides and exists. Backtrack to the henna tattoo question, here’s one more for posterity. “In literature, as in love,” André Maurois said, “we are astonished at what is chosen by others.” On the nape of my neck, just below the pinstriped collar.
Metazen: Thank you, Desmond, for the interview.