Yeow Kai Chai

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 October, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 October, 2005, 12:00am

Writers from China's diaspora

A postcard much cherished by Yeow Kai Chai offers the wisdom of Pablo Picasso: 'If you know exactly what you are going to do, what is the point of doing it?'

That, for the 37-year-old Singaporean poet, sums up what poetry is all about: tapping the unknown and appreciating what isn't readily understood.

Somewhat lengthy and laden with pop-culture catchphrases, Yeow's second book, Pretend I'm Not Here, can hardly be called accessible. But that's precisely the challenge he wants his readers to embrace.

'You don't have to understand every single thing in my poems,' he says. 'I certainly don't. So, just go with the flow. The pop-culture references can be understood as such, or they can be appreciated for their linguistic nature, even if you have no clue what they allude to.' Yeow also says that it's each poet's responsibility to probe 'the sacred cow of accessibility' in order to move ahead.

'The task itself is life-changing, not dishing out competent, mellifluously wrought poems that say nothing new and are self-fulfilling and smug in their own empathy. John Ashbery describes his own poetry as 'walking in the dark, but then getting used to the dark'. That's such a liberating insight.'

Yeow counts Ashbery and another American poet, John Yau, as major influences.

'They are both art critics, too, and are thoroughly modern, unsentimental yet incredibly brave when employing traditional forms. I like the fact that they aren't afraid to erase the line between classicism and pop, high art and street. They forge new languages, new ways of communication - which I

hope to do, too.'

Aside from poetry, Yeow's writing is informed by such diverse influences as music videos, academic texts, journalism, art and instruction manuals, and songs by Brazilian artiste Caetano

Veloso and American singer-songwriters Devendra Banhart and Sufjan Stevens.

Of poetic styles, he says that 'one should try anything once - sometimes in the same poem. From free verse to traditional forms like villanelle or pantoum, there shouldn't be any prejudice.'

A sense of Yeow's Chinese origins permeates his first book, Secret Manta, intertwined with ruminations on family.

'Poems like My Father, The Icon and Remote talk about silences between family members, parents and children. But I don't really like to make them too polemical or outright.

'A poem like Reflector, about going to the loo in the wee hours of the morning, ends simply with the line, 'Remember ma says don't look in the mirror after midnight,' which alludes to the Chinese belief in the supernatural, but doesn't make a judgment about it.'

Yeow is deputy editor of Singapore newspaper The Straits Times, for which he also writes music reviews. Not surprisingly, his reviews sometimes cross unconsciously into poetic terrain when he critiques music using vivid, inter-media terms - perhaps comparing a song to a scene from a film.

Likewise, musical and cinematic elements have a habit of stealing into Yeow's linguistic exploration in Pretend I'm Not Here, to be published in November. In a poem called Memento Mori X: A Chinese Mystery, he mines the Chinese wuxia film genre with depictions of monsters and assassins in the night.

'It's fantastical, yet very real to those of us who grow up watching these sometimes kitschy, often beautiful films,' he says. 'Basically, I'm not interested in retelling a nation's history, investing local colour or becoming a cultural spokes-man. I'd rather create an alternate universe on paper, which is another way of looking at the outside world.'