Natalie Wang On Sing Lit, Millennial Poets And Influences
Tell us a little bit about yourself, what have you been up to recently, and how long have you been writing / involved in the SingLit scene?
My name is Natalie, I have a few 100000 things in my ‘Incomplete Writing’ folder and I keep procrastinating instead of finishing them. For Singapore Poetry Writing Month 2019, I was a senior moderator and will be an editor in the upcoming anthology turned digital magazine because book sales are poor and publishers need to eat. (You should really buy the old SPWM anthologies - they’re now like collector’s items and have really good poetry in them.) We just finished up a meeting discussing the future of SPWM and I'm just going to say first that we have exciting things in store.
I've been involved in the SingLit scene since about 2014, when I started going for open mics because it was exam season and my CCA group had stopped training, added/got added by some local poets on Facebook and then stumbled across the inaugural Singapore Poetry Writing Month. I've since interned and worked in various capacities as a saikang warrior (really, much of my life is just do anything and everything and everyone should have this experience) with Sing Lit Station and BooksActually which has given me a solid appreciation for all the work that goes behind the events and publications.
I initially thought last year that I knew what my second book was going to be about, but after reading a lot I realise I have no idea. It’s not back to square zero though, I’m taking the time now experimenting more with voice and subject. I’ve also been reading a lot of different novels, short stories and playing a lot lore-heavy video games to figure out different ways to do world building. So yes, even my procrastination is productive, or that’s what I keep telling myself.
Your debut poetry collection, The Woman Who Turned Into A Vending Machine is very personal, and at times, cuts to the core of who you are. How long was this collection in the making?
There are poems in this collection that were about four years old around the time I started putting it together. But the bulk of the writing probably occurred between 2016-2017. At that point, without any thought about putting things together into a book, I started writing a series of speculative fiction prose poems that centred around mythology. I then realised that I had a better understanding of what my voice was, and a vision of what my book could be beyond sad girl breakup poems (which I do very badly because I’m not very good at talking about relationships or feelings).
I put together the manuscript between July-August 2017 and then submitted it to poets who I admired who were kind enough to read it, as well as Math Paper Press (MPP). MPP gave the green light, but there was still a frantic five months or so when one esteemed poet got back to me and basically told me that I needed an editor and badly. After some brainstorming with Kenny from MPP we decided to ask Tania De Rozario to be my editor, without whose advice the book would look completely different. I also owe my writing group, The Atom Collective, for basically putting together the order of the book for me during one of our sessions.
A friend of mine finished reading the book and said that it was such a sad book - and I can’t deny that it is. A lot of the poems are, without sounding melodramatic, about the inevitability of pain. I guess I was in a really sad place while writing it. I don’t think I am that person anymore, and I definitely don’t write like that anymore (though I still write a lot about mythology).
In the past two years, there has been a huge push towards promoting SingLit, and of course, there has been steady publishing output of SingLit titles from the Singapore publishers. Has it really gotten easier in terms of publishing, specifically in the area of poetry?
It's really difficult for me to say whether things have gotten "easier" because I don't have anything much to compare to. When I blundered onto the scene in 2014 and 2015 I remember there were many calls for submissions to anthologies like A Luxury We Cannot Afford and This Is How You Walk the Moon. There were also all these journals like Softblow, and Quarterly Literary Review Singapore and LONTAR that I had never heard of before. At that point, I remember being stunned at the almost overwhelming number of Math Paper Press titles on display at BooksActually. Of course, there were still all the other titles from Epigram, Ethos, Landmark, Red Wheelbarrow, and the spoken word poets hawking their chapbooks at open mics. It looked like publishing was very possible and I never really doubted that someone would one day take in my work as long as it was "good enough" - the difficulty was really getting my standard there.
So I do think opportunities exist, the difficulty might be finding out about them to begin with and then going through the actual process of creating the manuscript. I was lucky enough to have seen all the backstage parts of putting a book together before I started on mine and thus I was able to have some idea of the rough process.
The state of SingLit. Discuss.
I was going through the longlist for SingPoWriMo 2019 and trying to figure out who to give out daily prizes to on the days I had senior moderator duties and it was painfully difficult. There were so many good poems each day and I wish I could have given an award or affirmed everyone. There are so many workshops and festivals and events and it’s not just limited to the Creative Arts Programme (the only thing I knew existed when I was in JC) for students anymore.
There is an issue of space - as much as digital spaces are great for introverted poets to post and discuss things, there’s nothing like events held in physical spaces. The loss of BluJazz’s open mics was a big blow to many who have been congregating there for years. But DestinationINK is still happening monthly at Miss Chinatown, the monthly Singapore Poetry Slam has migrated to a bar in Southbridge Hotel. I think there is still demand for poetry so these events will still continue - it’s just about making known the information that they’re still happening.
Being labelled a Millennial Poet, is that considered a slight as one can be easily lumped together with the writings of the bestselling poets such as Rupi Kaur? And at the same time, in almost every generation of poets, there have been instances where some were grouped and labelled. Examples would be the Beat Generation, and Misty Poets in China. What are your thoughts on this.
I think people will always want to label poets the way they want and it’s very human to want to categorise things to make it easy. Compared to the Beat Generation and Misty Poets, "Millennial” feels like such a lazy catch-all phrase because it’s a time period as opposed to describing an actual movement or ideology that a group of poets are following. There are so many things going on right now in different scenes - the different spoken word circuits in the US, Australia, UK, and of course Singapore has her own style and speaks about very different kinds of social issues. Samuel Lee’s A Field Guide to Supermarkets is technically millennial poetry but it is so different from Cheryl Julia Wee’s We Were Always Eating Expired Things even though both poets are about the same age.
Even if you compare poets who have written on similar topics about female issues and experiences, such as Marylyn Tan’s Gaze Back, Amanda Chong’s Professions, and my own book, which all touch on issues like the body and sex, we explore them all in very different ways. I would like to think that because Singapore is so small, you’re seeing all these different movements. There are writers who approach poetry from a more academic perspective and there are ones who started in music or the spoken word scene. These groups generally occupy very different spaces in bigger countries like the US as they interact, appreciate and borrow from each other a lot. We are all just trying to make something that is our own.
Seriously though, if I could earn as much money as Rupi Kaur does from her writing, I really wouldn’t mind being put in the same category as her.
The need to write to live, or live to write?
I really don’t know how to answer this question. Could I go without writing forever? Possibly, given the way I’ve spent the last few months playing my Nintendo Switch instead of writing. However I find that I pay less attention to things if I don’t write - I don’t stop to think about my feelings, or really look at my surroundings. I feel like life is less meaningful if I do not attempt to record it in some way - whether through essays or diary entries or poetry or even Facebook posts.
Last but not least, the cliché question rears its head. Who would you cite as your poetic influence? And why.
Urk. This changes every few months and is heavily dependent on whatever I am reading at that point in time. But here are some books/writers who have made me change the way I have thought of poetry:
Everything I have ever read by Carol Ann Duffy, who I first read when I was studying literature for A Levels and learnt for the first time that just because poetry spoke plainly did not make it any less urgent
I don’t think Neil Gaiman is the best poet, but his narrative poem The Day The Saucers Came is one of the first poems I have enjoyed. I loved that it told such a fantastical story and how that was all smoke and mirrors for the ending
Sarah Kay was the first spoken word poet who I listened to that taught me that spoken word poetry did not mean angry or indignant. Her poem The Type is one that I listen to at least three times a year
Crush by Richard Siken - for showing me that you can write an entire book about obsession without being cliche or losing fanatical energy
Stag’s Leap by Sharon Olds - for showing me how grief is like a lost animal that climbs into your bed even though you keep taking it out night after night
A lot of Olivia Gatwood’s spoken word poetry which can be found on Button Poetry that mix pop culture and female rage
Gaze Back by Marylyn Tan - which showed me what experimenting and shattering taboos can really look like
Last Boy and Loud Poems for a Very Obliging Audience by Ng Yi-Sheng’s which taught (and I am also enthralled by his short story collection Lion City!) which has taught me so much about writing Asian folklore and fantasy
Everything Tania De Rozario has written about ghosts - which you can find in her collection Tender Delirium and her website
(Cover Photo Credit: Tanvi Dutta Gupta)