Wong May (b. 1944)
Written by Richard Angus Whitehead
Dated 4 Nov 2015
Wong May was born in Chungking, China, in November 1944. She and her mother arrived in Singapore in 1950. In a 2014 interview she recalls evenings on the home balcony in Singapore, listening to her mother, Wang Mei Chuang, an accomplished Chinese poet and short story writer, reciting Tang dynasty and other classical Chinese poems to her as well as reading together modern Chinese translations of Hans Christian Anderson and Grimm’s fairy tales, and short stories by her mother’s beloved Chekhov. All of these early literary encounters remain visible influences throughout her poetry. Her description of her mother is telling: “My mother always held me in her mouth, like a fiercely maternal animal—but just so that she won’t, can’t swallow me entire; nor let me go”. Indeed motherhood in the forms of Wong May’s own mother, her mother-in-law [i], and even herself as mother are a theme in her work [ii].
Wong May attended St Nicholas’ Chinese Girls’ School for Senior High, after being educated in Chinese-medium schools for Primary and Junior High. She then “attended Pre-University classes conducted by the University of Singapore in 1961, for students from Chinese medium schools [iii],” before pursuing undergraduate studies at the University of Singapore, c. 1963-6. During this time, she established herself as a distinctive voice in the milieu of poetry emanating from the University of Singapore, nurtured by the Literary Society presided over by the then-head of the English Department, ‘Movement’ poet D J Enright, who appears to have been initially a significant influence. Her belated, but rapid mastery of English recalls Arthur Yap’s experience with the language, and foreshadows her even more rapid and dextrous mastery of American language and culture.
Wong May left Singapore in 1966 to pursue an MFA at the University of Iowa, participating in the university’s long established Writer’s Programme. Over a decade later, a steady stream of other Singaporean writers, including Robert Yeo, Ovidia Yu, Boey Kim Cheng, Suchen Christine Lim and Alvin Pang, would also pursue writer’s fellowships at Iowa. While her poems up to her departure in 1966 remained an approximation of what was expected by Singapore’s literary circle during the first decades of the nation-state (accessible with some local and/or social reference), her literary encounters with cutting edge modern American poets in Iowa, New York City and subsequently at the MacDowell writers’ colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire about 1968, initiated rapid growth and a dramatic change in the subject matter, but perhaps even more significantly in the forms of her poetry. Her encounter with American modern poetry and life transformed her poetic style, making her one of the most distinctive, experimental and (especially during the period c. 1969-73) globally recognised poets to emerge from Singapore, drawing critical admiration from American writers and poets such as George Starbuck, Wilfred R Trask, Robert Creeley, John Unterecker, Norman Rosten and British poet Michael Hamburger, who praises her poems’
extraordinary range—not only a horizontal (and topographical) range of perception and curiosity, that of a person who seems to be perpetually on the move without losing her concentration or availability, but a vertical range too, from a surface always vividly rendered to a depth, more often than not concealed, that unifies her apparently casual, momentary or whimsical particulars.
During her period at the Macdowell colony in 1968 Wong May formed an important mutually influential relationship with an older American poet, Hilda Morley. While Morley remained a key mentor figure, Wong May was responsible for persuading Morley to take on a far freer verse form in her revising of earlier poems and creation of new ones: more openly constructed, and using spacing and breaks for expressive effect, resembling the poetry Wong May herself was experimenting with in her first two collections, A Bad Girl’s Book of Poetry (1969) and Reports (1972). As Morley herself later wrote, “The poem of organic form molds its phrasing and spacing to conform to the pressures of the poetic content”. Wong May and Morely’s relationship signals a perhaps unique moment in literary history in which a Singaporean writer has contributed significantly to the development of modern American poetry. The relationship and friendship between the two poets seems to have been an enduring two way street. Wong’s most recent collection contains the elegy, “To Hilda Morley 1919-1998” (78), which ends:
Now that we do not write or meet—
Here on earth
It has happened,
A tree deserving of your poetry
In 1970 Wong May left the US to take up a position as visiting writer at the Literarisches Colloquium, Berlin. Here she wrote her series of ‘Wannsee Poems’. These were, curiously, first published in German translation by her friend, the novelist Nicholas Born (1975). Wong May herself would publish these poems (in significantly reworked form) three years later in her third collection, Superstitions (1978). Another result of her time in Berlin was a selection of the essays of early twentieth Century Chinese writer Lu Hsűn, translated into German (in collaboration with Hans Christoph Buch, 1973). Around 1971 she must have returned to Singapore, as she edited and rigorously pruned Robert Yeo and Arthur Yap’s first collections of poetry Coming home, Baby and only lines respectively, for publication with the Malaysian publisher Federal Publications. Her key advice, at least to Yeo, seems to have been “Will the reader be interested?”.
By late 1971 Wong May was living in Grenoble, teaching Chinese. She married the Irish physicist and postgraduate fellow at Trinity College Michael Coey, there in 1973. By 1978 she, Coey, and their first son moved to Dublin, where she remains to this day. However, her occasional accompanying of her husband on academic fellowships worldwide meant a continuation of her peripatetic travelling and poetic composition during the period 1966-78. Even after three decades, Wong May regards herself as an ‘alien’ in Dublin. Indeed in a very recent poem “The Making of Guernica” she tentatively describes herself as an exile not of Singapore but of America:
When asked from which country are you an exile I’ll always answer, with little hesitation “America”.
While China is alluded to elsewhere as her “country of origin” (as if she herself were a piece of fruit), Singapore is “where I grew up”.
After the publication of her third collection, Superstitions (1978), little was heard from her. By the 1990s she seemed largely forgotten globally, or if remembered in Singapore, still through her relatively simpler, recognisably Singaporean university poems of the mid-1960s. However, US poet and manager of Octopus Books Zachary Schomberg’s vocal enthusiasm for her poetry led to the 2014 publication of a fourth generous collection of particularly striking poetry, spanning over thirty years, and containing some of her most experimental and controversial work to date.
Collections of poetry: A Bad Girl’s Book of Animals (1969), Reports (1972), Wannsee-Gedichte (in German, trans. Nicholas Born, 1975), Superstitions (1978), Picasso’s Tears (2014).
In the first half of the 1970s, American poets and critics gave positive reviews to Wong May’s first two collections, and forty years later, have been responsible for rediscovering her old work and distributing and supporting her new work. By contrast, in Singapore, at least until very recently, Wong continues to be either remembered for her early, relatively more accessible, Singapore-based and related poems, or almost completely forgotten. David Ormerod, writing in 1967, was full of high praise, observing that while the majority of local writers remained heavily influenced by Eliot, ‘[As] Derek Walcott and Edward Braithwaite have given West Indian poetry a powerful and local voice [ . . . ] Wong May perhaps will do this for English-language poetry in Malaysia and Singapore.’ (9-10). While Ormerod’s prophecy regarding a local voice has turned out to be way off mark, his remark about her powerful voice may still be ahead of its time, at least here in Singapore.
Of the limited local critical attention given to her work, from the late 1960s into the 1980s, primarily written by Edwin Thumboo, there seemed to be minimal attention given to her complex, experimental work written after she left Singapore in 1966, while her earlier poetry was cautiously praised, often in gendered terms. I have discovered no local reviews of her published volumes of poetry apart from a violent and poorly informed attack on her third collection, Superstitions, by Valerie Barth. However, more recently her work (c. 1962-1978) has received a sustained careful and sympathetic reading from Joanne Leow in her NUS MA thesis on Wong May and Boey Kim Cheng (2010), who describes her work as “Cosmopolitan and transnational” (18), “a balance of political engagements with cultural detachment” (55), enabling us to “look into a universal space devoid of a cultural compass—an almost liberating experience”. (18). At the same time a younger, more cosmopolitan minded generation of Singapore poets including Gwee Li Sui, Alvin Pang, Joshua Ip, and Tse Hao Guang have rediscovered her work, praising its satisfying complexity, daring, wit, and sense of fun.
Even Wong May’s early poetry—subsequently comfortably embraced by Singaporean writers and critics (she represents Singapore in Howard Sergeant’s anthology New Voices of the Commonwealth (1968))—remains quite distinct from other Singapore poetry of the period. For example, in “The Saw-dust,” first published in Focus 1964: together with the punning wordplay of the title there is a fusion of raw confessional and complex-abstract as a grieving sister becomes a flight of stairs slowly ground to dust by the feet of the past, the ghost of a brother:
Ah, last night, once again I heard
Your familiar foot steps.
Ah, brother, you are dust now,
I am the stairs—
After 1966, influenced by highly accomplished US free verse poets such as the Black Mountain poets and Paul Blackburn and Hilda Morley (almost wholly unknown in Singapore at the time), Wong May began to write poetry evincing something of a quantum leap in both style and form.
Her post-1966 work, hardly ever anthologised or discussed in Singapore, must constitute some of the most distinctive poetry ever to emanate from Singapore. Daring, inspiring and exciting, it challenges and expands our sense of what Singapore poetry might be. In other ways Wong May might be said to prefigure a contemporary poet like Pooja Nansi: a more recent Singaporean female poet with a wider global vision, experimenting playfully but committedly with the liberating complexities of modern American free verse, notably the longer poems of William Carlos Williams. What is distinctive about Wong May’s poetry is its ability to successfully draw simultaneously, juxtaposingly, tellingly, on both modern American and ancient Chinese poetic content and form. Her imagery, as well as the endings of her poems [iv] are unique, arresting, haunting: “The lake is a rabbit shot in the back” (Superstitions, 3). She can find poetry in dog excrement on a shoe (see Superstitions, 22), testicles, the suspicious smell of an optometrist’s fingers. Since 1966 she seems to have embraced an American liberal lens, which has remained uncompromised, presented in angrier relief as much of the post-seventies world around her steadily veered towards a more conservative-capitalist position.
As evidenced in the recent 2014 collection, Picasso’s Tears, Wong May’s poetry continues to develop in new and unexpected directions. After the almost imagist elliptical brevity of the poems in A Bad Girls’ Book of Animals, who would have expected an over 70 page long poem pyrotechnically interfusing Picasso’s 1937 painting Guernica with the Tsarnaev brothers’ bombing of the 2013 Boston Marathon? In a poem that seems to hybridise metaphysical conceit and epic, she confidently engages with the contemporary-political on a very large canvas; indeed for at least one American reviewer, too large (Schwabsky).
It is difficult to determine whether it is surprising or telling that Wong May, such an accomplished, fascinating poet, should remain so neglected in Singapore. Being so experimental, arguably odd, hardly ever engaging with Singapore, and not having lived in Singapore for half a century are not necessarily factors to wholly exclude her from the canon of the land in which she grew up, and indeed wrote a number of indisputably significant poems in. Her increasingly political libertarianism, and mediated crafted polemic in poems such as “East Bengal,” “The Pure Products of America,” “To Victor Jara from Dahlem,” “Franco is Dead,” “Remembering Pasolini,” “The Making of Guernica,” and “The Girl from Delhi” might perhaps be problematic for a local audience. ‘Middle period’ poems such as “Kampung Bahru, 1975,” “1944-1976,” and “The Rule” engage with Singapore in challenging ways, fascinating from a unique, equivocal, multifaceted lens [v].
Like her contemporary Arthur Yap, Wong May did not promote herself in Singapore as aggressively as many of her contemporaries. As she observes, “friendliness / is not my quality” (Superstitions, 47). Her getting away from Singapore may have resulted in resentment or amnesia back home. Today the majority of her work remains hard to access, being either out of print or (as in the case of her latest volume) only available through online international order to a modest publishing company. Nevertheless, her work gestures to the kind of poetry and informed cultural scene in general Singapore might have had from the 1960s onwards if both had been permitted to evolve more openly and inclusively, less hardwired to political developments.
It would be gratifying to see all of Wong May’s work gathered and easily available in one volume. Hopefully this would include discussed but as yet inaccessible poems: a definitive and complete variorum reading of the Wannsee-Gedichte, and as yet unpublished material: her 1980s verse play concerning the Irish troubles, “The Passion & Death of Mrs Anne Maguire,” and the third part of her recent ‘triptych’: “The Girl from Delhi,” exploring the 2012 gang rape in Delhi. According to Schomberg a large amount of her poetry—hundreds of poems—remain in manuscript. At least in Singapore, Wong May still awaits the informed, careful readers she deserves. As the jacket notes accompanying Superstitions suggest, “From the poet’s acute and idiosyncratic way of seeing things, from her multiple levels of being, we gain a new awareness of the world”.
[i] See Superstitions, 45.
[ii] Wong May’s (absent) father seems a far more rarely referenced figure, see Superstitions, 75.
[iii] Seven Poets, 225-6.
[iv] See especially “East Bengal”.
[v] Wong May, years after leaving Singapore, seems occasionally to deploy Singlish. See for example, Superstitions, 116.
Barth, Valerie. Rev. of Superstitions. Commentary 4.2. (1980), 97-100.
Leow, Joanne. “Towards a Cosmopolitan Poetics: The Poetry of Wong May and Boey Kim Cheng”. National University of Singapore. Thesis, 2010.
Ormerod, David ed. A Private Landscape. Kuala Lumpur: University of Malaya Library, 1967.
Schwabsky, Barry. “Language as Maternal,” Hyperallergic (January 2015). Web.
Thumboo, Edwin ed. Seven Poets. Singapore: University of Singapore Press, 1973.
Tse Hao Guang. Email correspondence. Jun 2015.
Wong May. A Bad Girl’s Book of Animals. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World Inc, 1969.
—. Picasso’s Tears. Portland: Octopus Books, 2014.
—. Reports. New York: Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich Inc, 1972.
—. Superstitions. New York: Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich Inc, 1978.
—. Wannsee-Gedichte. Trans. Nicholas Born. Berlin: Literarisches Colloquium, Berliner Kunstlerprogramm des DAAD, 1975.
Robert Yeo, Routes: A Singaporean Memoir, 1940-75 (Singapore: Ethos Books, 2011)
—. Email correspondence.