Author Showcase: Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé
July 27, 2010
Hello wonderful readers!
Firstly, I would like to thank you all again for reading this little zine and for loving micro fiction :)
Secondly, because I believe twitter fiction doesn’t have enough press, I have decided to dedicate the last Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday of each month to one of our writers.
Without further ado, we end July with Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé!
Based in Singapore, Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé has edited more than ten books and co-produced three audio books. He also works in clay.
tm: Tell us more about yourself. When did you start writing?
D: I’ve always been a visual person, and approach texts with that breadth of ken and sensibility. My mother recounts how I could, at an early age, complete puzzles intuitively and quickly, even when she had turned them upside down. Never got the point of titration or dissection in lab. Never mastered vectors or complex numbers in math. A school chum chastised me for not being able to substitute the variables in as elementary an equation as e=mc2. Strangely, I totally understand why Mariah Carey titled her album like so two years ago. It seems that in the natural inland of a poem, numbers and jargon suddenly come to life, to make complete sense to me, thank goodness for Kristeva’s Language The Unknown: An Initiation Into Linguistics.
I wrote and illustrated a great deal, adopting different editorial capacities – from secondary school right through university – before I started writing features for magazines as a journalist. I was always a voracious zine reader. Details, Esquire, National Geographic, Newsweek, Time, Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar – all of which, those days in Singapore, had to be purchased in person at the store. There’s also the breathtaking Ray Gun, a trailblazer in the mid-90s for experimenting with design and typography in a mainstream glossy. My later work as an editor of books and audio books gave me invaluable experience, engaging with astonishing writers, designers, sound engineers, musicians, all unbelievably talented.
For a laugh, I think my early disinclination towards learning the keyboard has translated into full-blown technophobia in after-school computing classes in the early days of floppy disk drives and dot matrix printers. I’m still traumatised, hence my peculiar marvel at the Twitter phenomenon, despite so many people telling me how ridiculous I am, how prepaleolithic. My first poem was something about a pomfret, which sneaked its way into a poem I wrote in 2003 about the Ratha Yatra or Chariot Festival celebrated every year in Puri, India, the town also well known for its pomfret.
tm: What are some of the things that inspire you?
D: I try to be all eyes and ears towards my surroundings, even if I drift in and out of scenes, between attentive awareness and spacey rumination. With regard to what inspires me, I’ve talked about this in other interviews. How I’d put it now is afflatus/inflatus lies somewhere between these four writerly remarks:
“A poet is someone who stands outside in the rain hoping to get struck by lightning.”
~ James Dickey
“True ease in writing comes from art, not chance, / As those move easiest who have learned to dance.”
~ Alexander Pope
“If you’re silent for a long time, people just arrive in your mind.”
~ Alice Walker
“Inspiration is to work every day.”
~ Charles Baudelaire
I do try to be disciplined about writing something at least every other day, even if it’s just a line. Below is an assortment of my journals, many gifts and some leather, which may not be the coolest or most socially acceptable thing to keep these days. Boy does James Kaelan – and his Zero Emission Book Project, a thoroughly beautiful idea in my opinion – look hot on the cover of Poets & Writers.
I like how the Italian journal up front and centre brings out Heraclitus – as if as a historian – in the foreground, with a frowning Diogenes on the right, displacing what should have been the focal figures of Plato and Aristotle carrying their own tomes. In this wrap-around cover of Raphael’s School of Athens, Socrates has been sequestered in the book’s spine, Epicurus barely makes it into the back cover, Zeno of Citium doesn’t at all, and the woman philosopher Hypatia is the only remaining figure who gazes out of the fresco, directly at the spectating viewer.
tm: How did you discover twitter fiction?
D: I had been using Twitter’s 140-character requirement to write what I viewed as bite-sized tracts – artist Chuck Close said that “to work with limitations frees intuition” – when I stumbled onto Ben White’s Nanoism. Through Twitter, a lyric poet might be compelled to write a prose poem. Such manner of formal constraint thrills me. And because of the absence of line breaks, the ways in which the caesura is attended to in twitter lit seem more urgent. Restraint occasionally nurtures a veering and whirl towards freedom.
I remember thinking how fabulous to harness the medium for its literary possibilities, with Ben calling the emergent form microfiction, twiction, tweetfic, etc. It triggered in my mind Eric Baus’ The To Sound, and I remember going through a number of book boxes before finally locating it (I’m the sort who tosses in bed if I can’t recall an author or a film or some etymological trivia). Here are lines from Baus’ closing poem within his book, which I feel encapsulate my understanding of twitter lit: “You are the you and. The to sound. The utter the. // If I have to spit out all my teeth to stay in the. // The. Is it all to say the weight of the? // If I could stay lost to sound. If a single eye could say two. // To breathe glass. To unwind a wing.” Ben just organised the splendid Nanofiction Contest for Haiti which enlisted Ethan Canin as a judge, Canin being the fiction counterpart to doctor-poet Rafael Campo. A really wonderful project there.
Ben has kindly published one of my twitter pieces, as did Rose Auslander at unFold. I’ve also recently placed twitter work with Metazen and Nervous Breakdown, with a four-piece suite forthcoming in Cricket Online Review. That trapeze magazine is now open to twitter lit that experiments with the surreal, speculative and absurd, is one more indication of the increasing sophistication and evolution of the form. Never thought twitter lit would possess the capacity for such range given its forced brevity. But here’s my characterisation of twitter lit, in similitudes of the other:
Enactment of Likeness #1: As determined as Ben Whishaw as Keats in Bright Star.
Enactment of Likeness #2: As thrusting and chameleonic as Milla Jovovich in Ultraviolet.
Enactment of Likeness #3: As soil-of-the-earth assured as Joan Allen in Georgia O’Keefe.
Enactment of Likeness #4: Tender as Kevin Spacey in The Shipping News.
Enactment of Likeness #5: And as unforgivingly and unforgivably charming as Russell Crowe and Marion Cotillard in A Good Year.
tm: What made you decide to start writing twitter lit?
D: I’ve never found the divide between poetry and prose to be very clear, all the more because I’ve worked in the genres of journalism, ethnography and creative nonfiction, over and above poetry and fiction. That said, these categories are well-entrenched in the publishing business, and one has to be aware of how a text defines or situates itself to be able to find a good home for it. Small presses allow a great sense of inclusion in aid of such creative reimagination and revisioning of boundaries and limits. Last year, I discovered beautiful new offerings by Milkweed Editions, Ahsahta Press, Fairy Tale Review Press from which I discovered Lily Hoang’s amazing take on the I Ching in her book, Changing.
In early 2009 – and I remember this well – I seemed to have tired of working with the long line and long poem, needing to go back to the poignancy, the gravitas of the small poem. I told Cornelius Eady this. I discovered that I sat with a poem longer when the poems kept in a minimalist energy, which is not to say they weren’t appressed, packed with as rich imagery or lyricism as a winding poem of layered artifice. Some wonderful books that I felt had this effect on me: Jon Woodward’s Rain, Michael O’Brien’s Sleeping and Waking, Dan Machlin’s Dear Body, Jen Bervin’s under what is not under. Alan Brilliant’s Five Prose Poems of Escape, which was published by Unicorn Press on January 1, 1980, in 250 copies, all handset, handprinted and handbound by the author. James Hoff’s Ten More Poems. Surprisingly Albert Goldbarth’s “The Red Shift”, with its seven couplets, in his book Beyond. Even more surprisingly, Derrida’s Monolingualism of the Other; or, The Prosthesis of Origin, translated by Patrick Mensah. And heartwarmingly, Thomas Keating’s The Human Condition: Contemplation and Transformation, a lovely treatise of a book given to me by a cherished friend and house mate when I stayed in Somerville, Massachusetts. All these books share the concentrated and intense energy of what twitter lit represents for me.
I just read John Metcalfe’s New York Times article on Twetiquette, how guardian grammarians seem to be up in arms regarding non-words and full capitalisation, both making me think of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and Daniel Bailey’s The Drunk Sonnets respectively. Both books are stellar creations. Offbeat, grand, undaunted. I wonder how these twitter wardens would feel about the freedoms creative writers take with the form. What might their views be on the freestanding materiality of language, of a language made strange and acutely self-aware of that strangeness?
In the spirit of creating something fitful and quirky, I’m going to humour myself now, and create a distinctly Singaporean poetic form (perhaps the first ever), much like how the four-lined dodoitsu remains quintessentially Japanese. Paradiddle and drum roll please, here’s welcoming the world’s first “asingbol” in its own showboat pageantry:
the asingbol is a dry lick, not peanut or lard or mere printed music – a canzone flying, face half-lit like a tiger bittern, limber barline.
It is composed of exactly 140 characters including spaces. Written as a single clause, all the words are not capitalised, with the sentence always end-stopping on a period to emphasise its statement of exposition and assertion. The asingbol attempts the near impossible – to be completely literal, at the points of its making and its subsequent reading, devoid of irony or metaphor as if to make disappear the hyperbole altogether. It is written like a dictionary entry espousing a single definition. It is also incapable of being read as symbolic. It celebrates the text as pure object.
tm: Tell us about your twitter writing process. How do your stories happen?
D: I have reams of scribbling in my journals that haven’t been typed up, much less properly crafted into poems or stories for publication. Some of my twitter pieces have come from such excavation, an intimate process of small discoveries much like opening an old, strapping Chinese apothecary chest of drawers. These are revisits, reconstructions. Working in twitter lit has sometimes felt like the delicate work of cartography – always having to weigh ideas of scale, proportion, theme, narrative as direction or rhythm, detail, signposting, proper naming, which twitter with which to begin the story arc. All wonderful and time-consuming. Makes me think of my dream home, one that economises space through its transformation and multifunctionality.
Check out just such an architectural work of genius. Also makes me feel like Louis Streitmatter’s A New Map of America, which I just received from awesome PANK editors Matt Seigel and Roxane Gay.
Can every trope be a retelling and morning coat of another? I feel my narratives speak to each other because they tend to reckon and gather something from each other, even if only subconsciously, as if one were Orpheus and the other, one of the nine Muses. Here are two stunning renderings of Orpheus in paint (the one of Orpheus with Eurydice by Michael Putz-Richard, and the other in the middle, whose artist escapes me). On the right: my rough sketch of Paul Celan as Orpheus, a preparatory drawing for what would have been a ceramic sculpture, hand-built and glazed in varying browns and yellows. I illustrated it in my favourite hand-made leather journal from Selkie Bindery in New Hampshire.
I, however, haven’t been able to find the time to sculpt this piece no matter how much I adore Celan’s work (and I truly do). So, as a replacement, I’ve inked the succedaneum image below, done to commemorate Paul Celan’s 90th birth anniversary + 40th death anniversary in 2010 + 10 words isolated from his poem “The Jars” (“COUNT the almonds, / count what was… and kept you awake”) = this twitter penmanship I created, an excerpt of 140 characters from Celan’s poem “The Syllable Pain”. I hope everyone enjoys this little retrogression to see what twitter looks like when returned to ink on the page.
The contributions of Twitter to news is already being discussed seriously as with James Poniewozik’s Time article “Twitter Lit: A New Creative Outlet”, which mentions the book Twitterature reducing literary classics into digestible tweets the way that stippled puffin on its cover tweedles through Penguin bubbles. A leaf from Poniewozik: “Because Twitter lit is immediate and telegraphic, it’s suited to social commentary. Because it’s first-person, it’s a natural for parody; fittingly for a service named for a bird noise, Twitter attracts mimics and mockingbirds.”
Then all there would be left for Twitter to truly be a force of nature is for the art world to fully embrace it. Can Twitter be seen through its sfumato – how colour alters within a canvas – or better yet, as kinetic art as if one could only properly appreciate tweet as lit when it exists in movement, across differential narratives borne of disparate vocal registers, from beyond the dialogue? In its simplicity, is Twitter merely Minimalism like Dan Flavin’s repetitive fluorescent tubes? In its milking of mass media, is it derivative of Sensationalism? And will it ever have the mega-wattage of a Damien Hirst?
When James Taylor starts singing “How Tweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)”, you know Twitter might have arrived, somewhat penetrating popular levels of social consciousness. Other great cover possibilities: “Bittersweet Faith” by Bitter : Sweet. “Tweet Surrender” by Sarah McLachlan. “Tweet Thing” by Mary J. Blige. Wouldn’t work as “Swing Low Tweet Chariot” but what a kick if Alvin and The Chipmunks trilled and shrilled a cover of “Tweet Tweet Smile” by The Carpenters. Along with that, let’s see more nano calories and nano egos in the world.
After that, all Twitter would have to do is become a bit like the Greek “pharmakon”, which harbours as varied meanings as poison and cure, the way Derrida noticed in his reading of Plato’s Phaedrus. If the word “Twitter”, without the crutch of prefixes or the portmanteau or intertextuality, can liberate not just opposing, but multifarious yet inexplicable meanings, it will imagine from within itself a lattice of cantilevers, like a thrash and waggle about a fulcrum, enough to give it some longevity. And maybe a bit of literary history.
tm: Thank you so much for your time.