Going the Distance: A Conversation with Theophilus Kwek

Theophilus Kwek is a writer, editor and translator based in Singapore. Two of his previous collections of poetry were shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize, while his pamphlet, The First Five Storms, won the inaugural New Poets’ Prize in 2016. Other awards include the Jane Martin Poetry Prize, the Berfrois Poetry Prize, and the Stephen Spender Prize for poetry in translation. A former president of the Oxford University Poetry Society, he now serves as co-editor of Oxford Poetry and The Kindling, and has also edited several volumes of Singaporean writing. His poems, essays and translations have been published in The GuardianTimes Literary SupplementThe Irish Examiner, and the Mekong Review. His most recent poetry collection is Moving House (Carcanet, 2020). 


Eliza Browning: Tell me about your process for deciding which poems to include in Moving House. I know you’ve had some of these in the works for years. For example, “Occurrence” was a runner-up for the Adroit Prizes back in 2016. Were they based around specific thematic content, or were they a collection of poems you ultimately decided worked well together?

Theophilus Kwek: For a little bit of background, my last collection came out in 2016 with Ethos Books in Singapore, called Giving Ground. Two years later, I sent off the manuscript for Moving Housethis was the end of 2018and it was accepted last year, for the 2019-2020 season. At the point when I sent off my manuscript, it contained every satisfactory poem that I had in the drawer at the timeI must confess I didn’t go through a very long process of whittling down what I had, but I think the real work came out of working with the editors at Carcanet to turn the collection into what it is right now. That process involved first sequencing the poems, then based on the feedback from the team at Carcanet, making editorial and stylistic changes and also crafting a kind of overarching story that flows through the collection. 

EB: Over the course of the past couple years, how do you feel you’ve grown and changed as a writer? How do you think the poems in this collection reflect that change?

TK: The most recent poem in this book is “Lucky.” As with many of the other poems in the book, it’s based on an event, quite a tragic one that happened near the end of last year. There was a traffic accident that happened outside a mall in Singapore called Lucky Plaza, where Filipino domestic helpers hang out on their rest days. A driver lost control of his car and killed two women, who were sitting with their friends on the sidewalk outside the mall. This poem is for them, and it’s called “Lucky,” reflecting on what is in one sense a deeply unlucky incident at the tragically named Lucky Plaza. But at the same time, it reflects on the practices of luck and hope that are attached to every journey a migrant makes, leaving home to pursue something in another country. So that’s the most recent poem in this book. 

To answer your question, how did I go from some of the oldest poems in this book, which are quite different, to ones like “Lucky”? While more recent poems deal with very present circumstances, many of the earlier poems reflect on the landscape or an episode in history at one remove. Over time, I think I learned to be a little more deliberate about that, trying to close the loop between the particulars of an event (if I’m writing about the past), and where I imagine or believe the reader is today, and what I want to say to them. That’s how I think about much of my writing nowhow do I make each poem go the distance, between where I am and where the reader is, by quite deliberately drawing something out of an event or circumstance and reflecting on and expressing it in such a way that the reader can take something away for themselves?

EB: You studied history and politics at Oxford, and your engagement with this really informs this collectionso many of these poems focus on either current events or historical moments. What value do you think the past and the global political climate hold for poetry today? 

TK: The fantastic thing about a poem is that it’s not an op-ed, right? Poetry can be devastatingly current. It can speak to the heart of what’s happening in the moment. But at the same time, poetry doesn’t age. It’s “news that stays news.” And because of that, poetry has a staying power that goes beyond any news anchor’s snap verdict. Poetry draws something that is universal out of a singular event, time or place. And I think this is especially important in today’s political climate, not just because the news cycle moves on so quickly from any one incident, but also because in our current climate we are all the more inclined to see ourselves as a narrow category, bound to one place or identity. We think in smaller and smaller terms when really what’s needed to face the challenges of our time is to think as bigger, more inclusive, and more expansive collectives. Poetry is one of the art forms that can help us do that. The poet can transcend where we think we are at this point in time and speak across boundaries to people whom, we might otherwise think, are quite different from who we are. Poetry can embody what it means to build bigger, wider communities at a time where, because of the fragmentation of our political scene, as well as the speed of our news cycle, we are becoming more and more narrow in our thinking. 

EB: The title of Moving House, which shares its name with a Wong Yoon Wah poem for which you won the Stephen Spender translation prize a few years ago and is also the final poem in the collection, seems to have dual meanings—the actual process of moving and the transitory sense of place so many of these poems seem to have as they navigate the temporal and spatial effects of different eras and time zones. How do you think your personal experience with moving has impacted these poems?

TK: I wrote many of these poems when I was in the U.K., a migrant—but obviously a very privileged one. I was very grateful to be on a student scholarship and hence did not have to face many of the economic prejudices that many migrants around the world do face. And yet I think it’s precisely because of that position I was able to recognize the vast inequality between many different groups of migrants in the world today. In the book, some of the poems reflect on the refugee experience in different contexts, such as refugees displaced by the Vietnam War or more recent circumstances. But beyond that, even among migrants who might not have been forcefully displaced, many of them face vast inequalities in terms of their circumstances. So while my experience as a migrant did help me to think about some of these dynamics of distance and time, I think also recognizing where I stood as a privileged migrant then helped me to see the differences. 

During the time I was working on Moving House, I was doing a master’s in refugee and forced migration studies. Working on the master’s gave me an opportunity to think about migration and displacement through many academic disciplinary perspectives. At the same time, writing poems about movement and displacement allowed me to connect with the issues I was thinking about in a less overtly cerebral way. A lot of the research that went into these poems happened at the same time as the research that went into the master’s. But what comes out of the research for a poem is a more intuitive or emotive connection with the issues you’re writing about, or the characters and subjects of your poem. And without the platform of poetry to make that connection on, I think the academic perspective alone would have been quite a detached one. Poetry allowed me to have a different lens on some issues I wanted to know more deeply about, and also helped me when I returned to Singapore, a place that I now call home, to start building community and working with migrants here. 

EB: Can you tell me about the work you’ve been doing recently with the literary scene in Singapore, and how this has resonated with this collection?

TK: Some of these poems were written after I returned to Singapore as well as in the U.K. Since coming back to Singapore in the second half of 2017, I’ve been quite involved in a volunteer capacity with the migrant community here, conducting workshops, writing mentorships, and helping out with organizing events like last year’s Migrant Literature Festival. Much of what I do in these capacities is in a supportive role, because the whole point of these events is to foreground the voices and experiences of migrants and to use that process to shift the discourse here in Singapore: to recognize migrants’ voices as part of the mainstream, recognize migrants’ experiences as part of what it means to be in the Singaporean community today. I have been very privileged to have been afforded, through all these events and involvements, a kind of window into migrants’ experiences here in Singapore. I don’t think it’s right for any writers who find themselves (like I do) within the majority in a community to speak of “giving” someone else a voice because I don’t think we can do that, but I think we have been able to slowly create space in the mainstream for the voices of others. Many of the characters who appear in these poems have voices who are otherwise lost to history, either due to the power dynamics of recorded history or because we as a society have been forgetful. Throughout these poems I’ve been trying not to insert my own voice but to add light and color to their stories in order that we might hear their experience echoing down to us many years in the future.

EB: The dedication in Moving House is “For those who build our houses and those who believe in keeping them open.” So much of the global climate today seems particularly divisive, so this feels quite prescient. What role do you think poetry plays in contributing to a more open and equitable society?

TK: Where I live in Singapore, many of the male low-wage migrants work in the construction industry, and this was the most immediate thing I was thinking about with that dedication. But elsewhere in the world as well, so many migrants in our metropolitan cities provide essential yet undervalued labor. The dedication refers immediately to Singapore but also migrants everywhere who build the houses of others, or —in a more personal sense—because they had to make a life in a different country, have had to build their own home as they go along. I suppose the second half of the dedication, “for those who believe in keeping them open,” refers even more broadly to those of us who continue to advocate for more open and inclusive homes and communities. I was part of a panel discussion a couple weeks ago where we were reflecting on domestic migrant labor in Singapore. In Singapore, many female low-wage migrants work as domestic helpers in people’s homes and are required to live in the homes of their employers. And yet, as one of my fellow panelists was saying, there is a huge gulf even within the home, between the employer and the employee. I think it speaks to whether we can look into our own families and homes, examine the dynamics that are there, and think about whether we do truly practice what we preach, keeping our houses and communities open not just to migrants but to people who are “different” in any sense of the word.

EB: I want to ask you about the work you were doing at Oxford because obviously it’s such a prestigious university with a rich history of its own, and these poems brought a diverse cultural background to the institution. They brought together so many of the currents underlying this collection, whether in the relation of your personal history to the Ashmolean Museum in “Blue,” the early religious history of Oxford in “H.,” and how “Monologues for Noh Masks” was written for the Pitt Rivers.

TK:Monologues for Noh Masks” was written the morning of Trump’s election. I had stayed up the night before with a bunch of friends, watching the results as they came in, and about 4 a.m. U.K. time, when the result was confirmed, we kind of wandered onto the street outside and the city was deathly quiet. The next morning, too, the city was silent. Cafes were closed, and everyone who was out and about looked incredibly glum, even more so than British people already usually do. And there was just such a feeling of dejection in the air, the feeling that somewhere across the Atlantic a light had gone out. Around that time, I had been commissioned as part of a festival at the Pitt Rivers to write a poem reflecting on the collections there. The Pitt Rivers is an anthropological museum so it houses artifacts from many different cultures across the world, and it’s a collection that has its own internal power dynamics and complications. I noticed a wall display of Japanese masks, where each one (as the subtitles of this poem go) was intended to represent a very specific character: “A god who has taken the form of an old man” or “An aging woman who cannot enter the next life.” And yet, because masks travel across different stages and performances, the same character could embody many different feelings across time and space. That gave me the idea for this poem, because it was a moment in history that was experienced so differently by people around the world. I myself was experiencing it half the world away. I wanted to give voice to the many conflicting emotions I felt around the election. 

You’re right about the rest of the Oxford poems, too. During the time I was at Oxford, there was a movement started by some of my fellow students called “Rhodes Must Fall” to protest against the power structures that were written into the curriculum and the physical landscape of Oxford itself. This took form in protests against the statue of Cecil Rhodes, whose legacy of colonialism is still a big part of Oxford University today. It was against the backdrop of these protests that I started to think more critically about the place of the university in the world and the rest of British society. The poems in this book set in Oxford kind of have their roots in this process of thinking critically about where I was.

EB: I feel like Oxford occupies a place at the intersection of so many of these currents you discuss. Knowing what you just said about “Monologues for Noh Masks,” it’s fascinating that those Japanese masks were resonating with you at the same time an election on the other side of the world was having an impact. That says so much about how the global political climate works and how it intersects in so many different ways at the same time.

TK: Oxford’s place in colonial history, its place in world history… I think it gave me kind of a troubling but productive vantage point for all these other developments that were going on. 

EB: Moving House is very grounded in its rich descriptions of landscape. Imagery revolving around the sea and sailing is also endemic to this collection and throughout your poetry. Is this a purposeful theme you’ve been exploring, and do you think the ocean functions as a universal image of transience and movement?

TK: I don’t think I was thinking too consciously about the choice of the sea as an image, but Singapore is an island state, and I’m surrounded by the sea here, and that’s one of the things I missed the most when I went to Oxford, because Oxford is about as far away from the sea as you can get in England. The sea itself is an image of the unknown and represents the distance anyone has to cross when they’re migrating. The idea of the open sea is also contrasted with the much more comforting and reassuring image of the sheltered harbor, and there are some poems that allude more directly to that contrast. “Operation Thunderstorm” is about an episode in Singapore’s history where the country tried to detain or deter refugees from Vietnam, which to me contrasted very sharply with Singapore’s own identity as an immigrant nation formed around trade routes and imperial conquest. I think both of these images, of the open sea and the closed harbor, are found very strongly in that poem. I don’t think this was a conscious process, but I suppose the sea surfaced as an appropriate image. 

EB: A major theme of this collection is home and family, as well as genealogical history and the important role of relatives. How do you think family members help to provide a more temporal sense of home and belonging when geography is more subject to change?

TK: In the course of writing this book, I lost both of my paternal grandparents and there are poems dedicated to both of them. “Requiem” is dedicated to my grandad, and “Nocturnal” is dedicated to my grandma. I experienced the loss of my grandad when I was back home in Singapore for the summer one year and the loss of my grandmother several years later. I think the whole process of moving abroad and coming back around the same time added some interesting layers to the process of grief, where there were periods I felt that there was a grief my family was going through and a grief I was going through, and because of the geographical distance, we couldn’t always connect in that sense of shared grief. In other times, the family connection holds true or becomes even more meaningful precisely because you are separated by physical distance. Especially over Skype or WhatsApp, it’s precisely because your connection with family seems so fragile and contingent that you treasure every moment of conversation. 

The very last poem of the book, the title poem, is based on one of these conversations. I’ve written elsewhere as well, about how my parents decided to move from the place where we lived for10 years prior to the place where we live now, while I was abroad. I first encountered this place, where I now live, over Skype. Even though the new house was in the same neighborhood as the old place, I still felt a tiny sense of displacement, just a fraction of what so many migrants feel to a much greater and deeper degree. I think it really brought home all the contradictions of being together and apart that define this collection and in the poem that lent its name to the book.


Eliza Browning

Eliza Browning is studying for a master’s degree in modern and contemporary literature at the University of Oxford. Her poetry and fiction appears in The Adroit Journal, Salamander Magazine, Contrary Magazine, Up the Staircase Quarterly and the Oxford-Cambridge Mays Anthology, among others. She edits The Oxonian Review and the COUNTERCLOCK Journal.

No Comments Yet

Leave a Reply