Cyril Wong (b. 1977)
Written by Cyril Wong
Dated 4 Nov 2015
Cyril Wong, a Singaporean, was born on 27 June 1977. He has been called his country’s first confessional poet. According to The Oxford Companion to Modern Poetry, such a categorisation has mainly been “on the basis of the brutally candid sexuality in his poetry, along with a barely submerged anxiety over the fragility of human connection and a relentless self-querying; but the label understates Wong’s constant evolution” (Toh 662). By turns “acerbic and tender, ironic and meditative” (Cheong 45), the poet has “many styles, all of them limber, which combine the anecdotal and the confessional with the intuitive and the empathetic,” although he also “suffers from over-exposure within a small society fairly repressive about its gay minority, and the tendency [ . . . ] to share more of his personal life with readers than the latter might want or stand to profit from” (Patke and Holden 185).
His poems are also known for their “lyrical intensity” and for “training an almost anthropologically curious eye on the laws and customs of his own family: their strange taciturn ways, their gnomic references to disappointment and guilt, and their penchant for self-delusion” (Holden, Poon, Lim 370). In a way that makes him particularly distinctive in the Singaporean literary scene, his poetic orbit possesses “a heightened awareness of the physical body, and a desire to probe its visceral materiality for emotional truths” (Holden, Poon and Lim 370-71). Edwin Thumboo has praised Cyril’s poems for their “remarkable inwardness” and how “they leave us with the feeling of subjects—occasion, non-happening, an especially poignant experience—explored to unusual limits” (“Introduction” 9).
An initial love for horror fiction and childhood struggles with conservative religiosity, aspects of which are tackled in his poetry, have been hinted at in the poet’s own revelations about his private experiences growing up:
I came from neighbourhood schools. It was an environment which did not encourage you to do well in your studies. Everyone was either playing truant, smoking or taking drugs [ . . . ] My only reprieve from that was to read horror novels. I had a huge obsession with Stephen King and all of that [ . . . . ] My father was a salesman and my mom a travel agent. The only thing my father read was the newspapers, which he read like an addict. So if I was going to care so much about reading, the only future they saw was either to become a teacher or an academic. I mean they were happy to see me reading, but I was glad they didn’t know what I was reading. Also there was church. I ended up being a catechism teacher for two years, because I was very much pressured to be a religious person. (Klein 205)
In an interview with TODAY newspaper, Cyril relates that he has chosen to negotiate with such pressures through poetry by tackling people’s irrationally established principles using the trope of absences: “People tend to repeat certain ‘truths’ to themselves that ring hollow [ . . . . ] Absence can be a kind of focus; it’s how we create meaning out of the nothingness in everyday life” (Yong 52). With regard to Cyril’s third collection and its play of presence and absence in the context of Singapore’s urbanity and cultural memory, John Phillips described his poetry as offering “an affirmation of emptiness in a time and place where this is barely possible” (“The Future of the Past: Archiving Singapore” 160).
Cyril has also been popularly acknowledged as a homosexual poet:
A condition about which he has written much and of which he takes complete and total ownership; that is, he refuses to blame this on biology or some other mis-alignment, taking, rather, full responsibility for being gay. (Singh 108)
TIME magazine has written that “his work expands beyond simple sexuality [ . . . ] to embrace themes of love, alienation and human relationships of all kinds” (Tharoor 48). In the same article, Cyril “cites the succinct, confessional styles of American poets Sharon Olds and Raymond Carver as his most direct influences” (Tharoor 48). For the poet, “the lyricism he offers is a unique aria that laments but ultimately gives voice to one who chooses to detach himself from the ebb and flow of routinary urban experience” (Lizada 179). In a review by the Southeast Asian Review of English, Cyril’s poetry has been called
an art that works simply from a personal plane, and from within such a plane we have some of the most sensitive, articulate probings into the nature of one’s self that have never been seen before in all of contemporary Singaporean verse. (Jeyam 99)
Cyril has acknowledged that although his earlier confessional poems contained a sense of “edginess due to the near-hysteria of the emotions expressed within them,” it is nonetheless a quality he appreciates because “it makes the poem more palpable and exciting to read”; he has suggested that he would relent to being “as calm and compassionately distant as Linda Pastan or Lee Tzu Pheng” in verse-writing only upon becoming as old as the latter poets (2004: 109).
Poetic choices regarding a focus on the personal and the introspective may find their indirect justification in the poet’s own comments regarding poetry published before he came out into the Singaporean literary scene. Responding to Lee Tzu Pheng’s comment about how poetry in the 1980s was “in the doldrums,” Cyril has written that this was due to a general lack of “interiority and critical self-awareness” in the scene and that poetry in any society should graduate, as Edwin Thumboo himself suggested, from a nationalistic phase to a final stage when poets are secure enough to be “discovering poems both in their surroundings and in themselves” (2009: 233). However, Lim Lee Ching has argued that a poet like Cyril could, in fact, demonstrate a return to a previous pre-occupation with identity that dominated Singaporean literary-critical discourse: “this takes various forms but is most noticeable in his treatment of gay identity issues within the larger framework of a possibly intolerant world” (“Transcending Second Tongue Poetry with First World Poetics”). Nonetheless, Gwee Li Sui has stressed that readers need not perceive the poet’s persona in terms of gay exceptionality, “his qualities of spaciousness and morphing images also manifesting an interest in a kind of New-Age irreligious spirituality” (“The New Poetry” 250).
Other poets who have responded to his work include Timothy Liu who has called Cyril’s “transpacific sensibility a fine refreshment” (Liu 7); Lewis Warsh with his description of his poems as “evocative and sensual” and “untainted by bitterness” (Warsh 6); Margot Schilpp who has pointed out that his poetry shows “how great the divide between expectations and outcomes can be” (Schilpp 6); Robert Yeo who has commented on the framing devices in his work that “deliberately blur distinctions between the real (Cyril Wong) and the persona,” a result that makes the poems “more fraught and complex and encourages, indeed demands, repeated reading” (“Death is a Ceremony”); and Toh Hsien Min who has called his long poem, Satori Blues, “a sustained meditation that recalls turn-of-the-century Geoffrey Hill in its intricately patterned probing” (Toh 663).
Regarding his exposure as a poet locally and abroad, Cyril has been a featured poet at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the inaugural Singapore Literature Festival in New York, the Hong Kong International Literary Festival, the Sydney, Melbourne and Byron Bay Writers Festivals, Castlemaine State Festival, Vietnam’s first Asia-Pacific Poetry Festival, Utan Kayu International Literary Biennale, Ubud Readers and Writers Festival, CausewayEXchange Festival, and Singapore Writers Festival. Theatre companies, dancers, visual artists and musicians have adapted his work in different countries. His poems were performed at the 2004 Queensland Poetry Festival and his verse monologue, Still Flight, was presented at the 2005 Magdalena International Festival of Women in Contemporary Theatre (USA).
Cyril has served as a mentor under the Creative Arts Programme and the Mentor Access Project, as well as a judge for the Golden Point Awards and a creative-writing instructor at Pelangi Village in Singapore. His works have appeared in Atlanta Review, Fulcrum, Poetry International, Best of Asheville Poetry Review (1994-2004), Prairie Schooner, Drunken Boat, Poetry New Zealand, Kunapipi, Ideya, Asia Literary Review,MĀNOA, Die Horen (German Translation), La traductière (English and French translation), The Bungeishichoo (Japanese translation), Force Majeure (English and Indonesian translation) and SARE, among many journals and magazines.
Anthologies featuring his work include The Epigram Books Collection of Best New Singaporean Short Stories: Volume One, Collective Brightness (Sibling Rivalry Press 2011), ALIA storie—l’arcipelago del fantastico (CS_libri 2011), GASPP (The Literary Centre 2010),Tumasik (AHB & IWP 2009), Double Skin (Ethos Books 2009), Fifty on 50 (NAC 2009), Writing Singapore: An Historical Anthology of Singapore Literature (NUS Press 2009), Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia and Beyond (W. W. Norton 2008), Chinese Erotic Poems(Everyman’s Library 2007), Singapore: Sedici racconti dall’Asia estrema (Isbn Edizioni 2005) and Dance the Guns to Silence (Flipped Eye Publishing 2005).
A past recipient of the National Arts Council’s Young Artist Award (2005) and the Singapore Literature Prize (2006), Cyril completed his doctoral degree in English literature at the National University of Singapore under a Research Scholarship in 2012, and founded the poetry webjournal, SOFTBLOW. Upon the banning and pulping of books by Singapore’s National Library Board in 2014, he announced his decision in TODAY to retreat from writing come 2015:
As a queer writer, I think I have reached a limit of some sort, in the light or dark of recent events. I don’t know why I’m bothering anymore. By sometime next year, I’m just going to stop; yes, stop publishing, stop working with governmental organisations, even stop writing.
Cheong, Felix. “Out in the City.” The Edge, Singapore. Jul. 28, 2003.
Gwee Li Sui, ed. “The New Poetry of Singapore.” Sharing Borders: Studies in Contemporary Singaporean-Malaysian Literature II. Singapore: National Library Board and National Arts Council, 2009.
Holden, Philip, Angelia Poon and Shirley Geok-lin Lim, eds. “Section 2 (1965-1990): Introduction.” Writing Singapore: An Historical Anthology of Singapore Literature. Singapore: NUS Press and National Arts Council, 2009.
Jeyam, Leonard. “The Poetry of Personal Revelation: Reviewing Cyril Wong’s Unmarked Treasure.” Southeast Asian Review of English 47 (2006/07).
Klein, Ronald D. Interlogue: Studies in Singapore Literature. Volume 8: Interviews II. Singapore: Ethos Books, 2009.
Lim Lee Ching. “Transcending Second Tongue Poetry with First World Poetics: the Examples of Alfian Sa’at and Cyril Wong as Southeast Asian Anglophone Writing”. Journal of English and American Studies 9 (2010). Web.
Liu, Timothy. “Praise for previous collections” in Cyril Wong’s like a seed with its singular purpose. Singapore: Firstfruits Publications, 2006.
Lizada, Miguel. “Reading the Works of Cyril Wong and Lawrence Ypil as City Poems”. Kritik/Critique: Essays from the J. Elizalde Navarro National Workshop in the Criticism of the Arts and Humanities, 2009-2012. Ed. Campomanes, Oscar V. Manila: UST Publishing House, 2014.
Martin, Mayo. “S’pore writers not happy over NLB controversy.” TODAY 11 Jul 2014.
Patke, Rajeev S. and Philip Holden. “Contemporary poetry 1990-2008: Singapore.” The Routledge Concise History of Southeast Asian Writing in English. New York: Taylor & Francis, 2010.
Phillips, John. “The Future of the Past: Archiving Singapore.” Urban Memory: History and Amnesia in the Modern City. Ed. Crinson, Mark. London and New York: Routledge, 2005.
Schilpp, Margot. “Praise for previous collections” in Cyril Wong’s like a seed with its singular purpose. Singapore: Firstfruits Publications, 2006.
Singh, Kirpal. “Poetic Meditations: Two Singaporean Poets and A Personal Reflection.” Kunapipi 32.1. (2010). Web.
Tharoor, Ishaan. “Merlion Heart.” TIME (Asia Edition) 10 Dec 2007.
Thumboo, Edwin. “Introduction.” Squatting Quietly. By Cyril Wong. Singapore: Firstfruits Publications, 2000.
Toh Hsien Min. “Wong, Cyril (1977–).” The Oxford Companion to Modern Poetry in English. Ed. Noel-Tod, Jeremy and Ian Hamilton. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.
Warsh, Lewis. “Praise for previous collections” in Cyril Wong’s like a seed with its singular purpose. Singapore: Firstfruits Publications, 2006.
Wong, Cyril. “Beyond the Particular.” Idea to Ideal: 12 Singaporean Poets on the Writing of their Poems. Ed. Cheong, Felix. Singapore: Firstfruits Publications, 2004.
—. “Nationalism and Interiority: Reflections on Singaporean Poetry from 1980s to 1990s.” Sharing Borders: Studies in Contemporary Singaporean-Malaysian Literature II. Ed. Gwee Li Sui. Singapore: National Library Board and National Arts Council, 2009.
Yeo, Robert. “Death is a Ceremony.” Quarterly Literary Review Singapore 3.3. (2004). Web.
Yong Shu Chiang. “Take the red pill.” TODAY 1 Nov 2002.