IT'S TEMPTING TO IMAGINE that should one decide to be a writer, he simply steps forward and declares himself a poet or a novelist. While identities exist as solid, tangible constructs, the journeys of their becoming are ones that tend to go unnoticed. We look at our heroes and through the distortion of distance, we enjoy the idea that there was neither pursuit nor struggle towards that elevated status of “artist” or “celebrity”. They simply decided to be, and so they were. Yet true progress is such that today’s painter may decide tomorrow that form, colour and perspective no longer articulate adequately the nuances of the human condition. And should this happen, it then becomes a story as important as that of the artists who are drawn to singular pursuits from which they are fortunate enough to be never distracted from.
When Desiree gave her first poetry reading a few years ago at the Substation, she did so to the verdict (declared by one of our own established homegrown poets) that her work was “predictable”. A harmless word, no doubt, yet positively crippling for many a growing artist who lives in the shadow of his or her personal inspirations. Even though closure and resolution were not possibilities until she was invited by that very same poet to be featured on Softblow, it is an episode that has faded into having little or no bearing on her present reality. It was along with the erosion of this particular event’s significance that the charisma and exhilaration that poetry once possessed eventually followed.
I’m not completely unattractive; I have a set of perfect teeth. Though I’ve never had braces, at least five women have commented on how straight they are. I feel powerful when I’m biting into a tough steak or a particularly robust baguette, like I’m finally realising my potential.
But she was wrong, because I was never alone, and if I never left the country, it wasn’t the work of a dreadful, inexorable force that crashed taxis and crumpled up plane tickets, tossing them into the bin, but because Stephanie and I were glued to the television, each other, or both. I lost faith in the system and wondered if I should revisit astrology, Chinese astrology, or palmistry. Stephanie offered to read my face because “you can do that”. You can read anything, but we collapsed into laughter as she stared searchingly into my eyes.
The confessional nature that Desiree associates with poetry is something she has deliberately distanced herself from. While conceding that all writing is to some extent autobiographical, she also points out that for her, the stanza form is simply a medium that exists for more personal material. And she simply isn’t interested in that. She speaks of the tension that most writers experience, that of separating words from real life. It becomes a problem when for instance, something catastrophic happens and instead of asking ourselves, “How do I fix this?” we ask instead, “How do I turn this into a good story?”
For a majority of writers for whom imagination and the word form are central to their identity, boundaries often make their exits without notice. It is an ultimately self-destructive temperament, since the dynamics of human experience isn’t a straightforward condition where it is always our grounded realities that inform our fictional worlds. Sometimes, personal narratives and the overzealous endeavour to create can end up influencing our perspectives of real people and real things. This is what results in the often romanticised image of the isolated writer, condemned to be misunderstood and for whom stable, genuine relationships will never be within reach. If kindness and human intimacy are necessary sacrifices for artistic productivity, then it is simply too high a price.
Last Monday I was a seasoned golfer. I wore a polo shirt and a blue cap, squinting in the afternoon sun, but maintaining an air of intense concentration. I did it to prove that Vitamin C capsules make you healthy and sportive. And tomorrow I will be a trustworthy insurance agent with a leather briefcase, smiling with my eyes. My photograph, on the back of buses, will remind you that you’re covered. Always.
Abandoning the narrative of the poetic I for the prosaic “I” isn’t then merely an artistic decision. It is a personal one too. With prose and the creation of characters that exist outside of one’s personal reality, the danger of mistaking fiction for material authenticity is less present. It indulges the need to write, while demanding one’s ingenuity with distorting the imaginary possibilities of real life.
Accompanying Desiree’s foray into the universe of paragraphs is John & Pierre, the fictitious manifestation of the attempts of two passionate, outspoken individuals to engineer social and political change in our Singaporean heartlands. The highbrow, pedantic slinging of ideological vernacular (psychobabble-gibberish to many of us) pokes fun at the attitude of the metaphorical armchair critic, seeking security and self-assurance from behind of laptop screens and speculative discourse. But it is as much a self-parody as it is a parody that is aimed at such individuals in our society. After all, we are all occasionally guilty of such cowardice and moral superiority. In this case, the amateurish undertakings of John and Pierre are comical blunders at best, and the amusement we derive ends up being directed inwards as much as outwards. John & Pierre is not excessively serious or dogmatic, and neither is it unduly callous or ignorant. As such, oddly enough, it is with the very human-ness of these characters that we end up empathising.
Desiree has described her growing up as a process of constant disillusionment, whether with regards to her personal views of the world or the various literary forms. But it is also a process that can be seen as moving forward, and we need to acknowledge that sometimes it takes a long time before one eventually discovers what is truly important. With the hunger and impatience of youth, there is often the fear that if one doesn’t find it now, one never will. That said, Desiree’s latest experiments with new modes of articulating ideas continue to possess plenty of promise, and in a way, she has already achieved a kind of success by having the courage to let go of verse and meter in the midst of this local literary landscape where one might lament that as it is, we already have too many poets.