An Interview With Poet Cheryl Julia Lee
Tell us a little bit about yourself, and what have you been up to recently?
I’m a graduate student in English literature and I’m just finishing up my studies. I write sometimes, and I've been working on my second poetry collection for the last four years.
Your debut poetry collection, We Were Always Eating Expired Things, has a confessional theme throughout. How did the collection come about? Was it a case of writing what came most naturally to you?
I suppose, yes. Most of it was written for a school assignment and the most straightforward way of writing for me is to put my thoughts down on paper. And that was a time when I was starting to become a Real Person—before that, I was a tuition-attending, tutorial-doing, exam-taking entity—so most of my thoughts revolved around who I might be and the immediate context for that.
Did writing the poems, and eventually publishing it make you feel a sense of vulnerability with your readers? Or instead, was it a cathartic empowerment of sorts?
Not empowerment, not really catharsis either. Definitely a sense of vulnerability but not always in the good Brené Brown way. I felt a little exposed, I think. Not all the poems are based on real events but they are all rooted in some emotional experience I had, so it felt a bit like I had thrown open the door to my life. I’m a fairly private person so that was a bit unsettling. Also, you open yourself up to judgment, which isn’t always fun. I’m talking about being published. Writing the poems was, and is, intellectually gratifying. It is an exercise in honesty. It is publishing that makes you vulnerable, in the good and less-great sense of the word.
The state of SingLit. Discuss (feel free to dissect it in the most cruelest detail because it deserves, or at least from POV of this interviewer).
I haven’t been around for about five years so I couldn’t give you an accurate or useful critical assessment; and besides, I only really started to read local literature fairly recently. Broadly speaking, the parameters of SingLit are expanding to cover a variety of genres, forms, and issues, and that’s a sign of a healthy scene, I think. Amorphousness. Part of this is moving past the imperative to Define a National Identity. I reckon that there is an understanding that any sense of self develops from dialogue, with our peers, with our Influences, with our society, with the world-at-large. We don’t write to an Identity; the identity of our national literature, of SingLit, is derived from the works. I get a stronger sense of this in more recent local writing. In any case, any category or label is only useful for criticism, and even then, only nominally. The notion of difference is, after all, essential to art; and there is a move towards embracing difference in local literature. It’s a great start.
How has writing poetry helped you?
It gives me intellectual gratification, which is a very trivial thing in the big scheme of things. Reading poetry has helped me more. I come across a perfect line and it’s like in that Chinese myth where someone fills in the eyes of a dragon on a painting and gives it life. I feel articulated, and understood, and complete. But of course, the self changes all the time and any sense of completeness is momentary and probably illusory, so you keep reading and keep chasing that high.
Your 1st collection is easily considered as one of the strongest SG poetry debut in recent memory. And if I might add, both yours and Samuel Lee's A Field Guide to Supermarkets in Singapore qualifies as so. Has that made the writing towards the 2nd collection easier or harder?
That’s very generous of you to say and I'm grateful for the kindness the community has extended to the first collection.
I’ve always been terrible with expectations of any kind: they stress me out and intensify my self-doubts, which are already substantial. They can also create a lot of unhelpful noise, I think. So I work to divorce myself and my work from them, but I'm not always successful. I try to separate myself from expectations also because working with them in mind can sometimes hinder development. And, like most people, I think, I want my work to grow with me. The work won’t be drastically different — I believe in the idea of a core self (at the moment, anyway) — but it won’t be more of the same because I’m not the same.
The second collection is difficult to write mostly because of different reasons. I am, naturally, asking more of myself: more honesty, more consideration, more questioning; which are all especially important to me because I’m trying to deal with the topic of loneliness. And that’s so difficult to articulate. When I think about loneliness, or when I feel loneliness, I go back to that Patrick McCabe image of a hole in the stomach. It’s a hole in the stomach from not being able to cry out. How do you give form to something that is a failure of form? And also because there’s a lot of amazing storytelling going on right now, not just in books but TV (so much good TV!) and video games, etc. It’s all very distracting. I just want to absorb it all.
Last but not least, the cliche question rears its head. Who would you cite as your poetic influences? And why?
Everyone I read leaves his or her mark. I go back a lot to Cyril Wong, Lee Li-Young, Carol Ann Duffy, Ocean Vuong, Ali Oswald, Richard Siken, and Jacques J. Rancourt’s “The Ordained,” to name a few. And also Ingmar Bergman’s cinema, which is pure poetry.
(Image credits: Cheryl Julia Lee)