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"I WANTED TO BE SINGAPORE'S ANSWER TO JUDY BLUME" : AN INTERVIEW WITH STEPHANIE CHAN

Posted on March 07 2019

 

"I am actually grateful for my past rejections and I am happy that I waited until now to publish a collection because I think I have a more interesting perspective on life now than I did in my 20s."                                                               

 

 

 

Tell us a little about yourself

My name is Stephanie. I like to say that my pen name is Stephanie Chan and my stage name is Stephanie Dogfoot (Dogfoot is the titular character of a favourite children’s book. It started as a Facebook pseudonym but one day someone referred to me as Stephanie Dogfoot at an open mic and I realised I could use a stage name and it kind of stuck).

I teach, write, perform poetry, stand up comedy and stories and I organize live arts events. I organize and host a monthly poetry night that I started called Spoke & Bird. I also run a monthly stand up comedy night called Siao Char Bors Comedy, which I founded with my friend Marie Wong.  I am also a co-organizer for Indignation, Singapore’s annual LGBTQ pride festival which turns 15 this year. 

You have been writing and performing poetry for a while, what made you want to publish a book of poetry now?

Spoken word poetry is a funny business: because it’s a live art form, many people are still divided about whether it can be fully contained and enjoyed in books. 


For a long time after I started performing poetry, getting published was not a priority for me. I thought that my work did not ‘work’ well on the page so I did not think my poems were good enough to be published in a book.

However, letting people read my poems has always been a priority for me. I started off writing for the page, and as much as I enjoy performance poetry, my first love is still reading poems on my own time and I sometimes feel the need to read poems to connect with them. I started self-publishing my poems in my own homemade chapbook-zines and sold them or gave them away at gigs.

At some point a few years later after returning to Singapore, I gained more confidence in myself and decided I wanted to try to publish a book of my poems. I eventually got frustrated that getting a book of poetry published was more competitive than I thought it would be and gave up.

At the end of 2017, my friend and fellow poet Melizarani T. Selva told me that she really liked my zines-chapbook things and wanted to see me get published. She pushed me to send a manuscript out again, so I decided to give it another try and here we are. 

I realise now that going between the feeling like you’re not good enough and the feeling of entitlement after achieving a few things is something that many people (especially writers and artists) go through, and something I still struggle with.

 I am actually grateful for my past rejections and I am happy that I waited until now to publish a collection because I think I have a more interesting perspective on life now than I did in my 20s. 

 

What pushed you towards poetry as opposed to other literary mediums?

The short answer is, I have a somewhat short attention span and poems do not take as long to write or digest as prose. 

The longer answer: When I was growing up in the 90s my dream was to write YA novels, because I could not find any that took place in Singapore, or involved queer protagonists. I wanted to be Singapore’s answer to Judy Blume.

In my teens, I wrote several plans for novels (including a school series based on my secondary school life but set in the future after dogs had taken over Singapore) but ended up writing more poetry in the margins of my notes and textbooks and found a sense of satisfaction from being able to vent through my poems.

What made me realise I wanted to focus on poetry was going to poetry slams and seeing how the experience of sharing and watching poetry could bring so many people together. I was also taken by how a poetry stage allowed people to talk about deeply personal, sometimes embarrassing, issues, while being highly entertaining and getting applauded for their raw honesty.

 

You’ve lived in many places around the world, do you find that this process made you more adaptable or did it amplify the feeling of being an outsider?

I think my experiences have definitely made me more adaptable to many things.

I always felt like a bit of an outsider growing up in Singapore because I was awkward and shy at school and had a strange accent which made people distrust me (I don’t blame them: I wouldn’t have trusted me either). So in many ways, moving away felt like a slightly different type of discomfort. I think at some point I grew comfortable with being uncomfortable and grew to enjoy falling into strange new situations.

Moving around has helped me to feel more accepting of myself and more okay about feeling like an outsider sometimes. In that sense, it’s made me more adaptable to new places and situations.

I am still self-conscious and quiet around new groups of people but I’ve accepted that it’s part of who I am no matter where I go and I don’t have to hate myself for it (at least not all the time).

 

How did that affect your work?

I think a lot of my book is about this discomfort: journeying from one place to another, being driven by idealism and isolation to find communities to be a part of and trying to fit into them.

I like to think this outsider-ness has made me a better (maybe more critical, hopefully not too judgmental!) observer of people and communities/scenes, the things that happen between and within them, and the ideas that emerge from them.  

Moving back to Singapore in 2013 after being away for eight years actually taught me as much, if not more than, as moving away, and knowing about myself and my own privilege has made me more critical of myself and a more humble, (hopefully better!) writer.

 

In your poetry you describe yourself as a fairly shy person growing up, what led to this passion for performing poetry?

I am very lucky I had the chance to try my hand at performing poetry in a city where I didn’t know anyone (Vancouver), in front of audiences of strangers I might never see again, which gave me the courage to take the risk of signing up to perform.

I still remember the first time I performed a poem at the poetry slam’s open mic. Hearing strangers laugh and clap with words I had written/agonized over for weeks gave me a strange sense of confidence, power and joy I had never felt before. I felt like I had the permission to be myself, and that there were people out there who appreciated me for who I was and what I had to say. I have been chasing that feeling ever since.

What was actually scarier to me than stage fright was running into people I knew at the open mics, then later on taking the the step to invite friends to come and watch me perform, not knowing how they would react. I am much less scared of that now, but I still have a love-hate relationship with compliments and self-promotion. And I still feel more comfortable speaking to large groups of people from a stage than speaking to strangers and acquaintances one-on-one.

 

In Roadkill for beginners you mention the relationship between you and your mother a few times, is that a bond that you thought was important to explore through your writing?

There are probably more poems about my mother that did not make it into the book!

The first poem that appears in the book is about her because I wanted to honour her. 

That poem is very much about wanting to be independent from her and from my connections in Singapore while I was away. I remember I refused to download Skype or Whatsapp until I moved home because I wanted to be hard to contact. The poem is also about feeling guilty about it while also becoming more aware of her strength and her sacrifices as I became an adult.

She and our evolving relationship are definitely in the background of many poems in the book. Our relationship is not perfect (whose is?) but I like to think think the older closer we get to one another. She is an amazing woman and we support one another as much as we can, and the book would not have been possible without her.

  

What should we be expecting from you in the future?

My next big solo project will be a performance lecture about forests, colonialism and Alfred Russel Wallace at this arts festival-symposium in a chalet in Changi in the first weekend of June called A Weekend Affair. Its an independently-run event and their Indiegogo campaign is still ongoing so if you have cash to spare! 

Comedy-wise, I’m taking part in a Comedy Roast Battle on 15 March at the Merry Lion Comedy Café & Bar, so you should come if you want to see me get insulted in a funny manner, and see me insult people back. I am also performing at the Magners International Comedy Festival on March 22nd. 

In the poetry world, I am excited to be involved as a moderator in Singapore Poetry Writing Month (SingPoWriMo) 2019, which is happening in April and I would highly recommend anyone with even a passing interest in poetry to join the Facebook group. 

You can also expect some exciting features at Spoke & Bird in the coming months, including Pooja Nansi, Topaz Winters and Australian slam legend Luka Lesson. 

Looking further ahead, I’m involved in the 2nd SingLit Body Slam this November, where poets collaborate with pro wrestlers to create a night of poetry-wrestling battles. This may or may not involved poets wrestling with wrestlers, but keep an eye out for it! 

 

Interviewed by: Andrea Pozo, March 2019

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