Q&A interview with madeleine lee – a conversation on select poems

two balloons (the size of azuki beans)

a. What was the inspiration behind this poem? What about the writing process?

I wrote this piece after seeing my younger son, then aged two, playing with two balloons I had just bought for him. There was such unadulterated joy in his eyes and in his smile upon seeing the simple toy. And then I thought how fleeting, how impermanent things and moments are.

b. This poem wonderfully encapsulates the feeling of a parent watching their child grow up far too fast; the two balloons’ connotations of childhood, the metaphorical parallel of rushing water to growing up enforce this. How do you find the connections between fleeting observations and more universal themes, as you did in this poem?

I used the imagery of water and air to try to get the idea across. This has turned out to be one of the most cited works!

brackets (synesthesia)

The triplet of the subsections ‘gold’, ‘silver’ and ‘ebony’ upon first reading seem to focus on the growth and decay of fungi; yet, the poems’ strong ambiguity suggest there are more and deeper meanings underneath. Could you tell us more about them, and your inspirations behind this work?

I was bemused by the small ‘civilisations’ of fungi occurring during on a long walk in the rainforest. There is growth because there is decay (of fallen tree trunks). That’s quite deep enough! The rest of it is just a telling of the different types of fungi I found and the imagery they triggered – pencil shavings, persimmons, old buried coins…

monogamy (one point six one eight)

a. Two things I noticed in this poem: the interesting use of words, and the drastic shift from observation to philosophical wonderings. From words such as “ill-monikered”, as well as the stark contrast between “jet black plume” and “dried mud” when describing the male and female ostrich, I sense there might be some humour. Is this your intent?

b. What is the link between the observations of the ostrich couple and the last two lines of the poem – “how often do we lie in the dark / waiting for our lives to change”?

c. Why did you decide to title the collection this poem is in “one point six one eight”?

1.618 is a collection written from observations on a Tanzania safari, when we went to see the Serengeti migration of the wildebeests. Highly recommended! I came away realising that the human being is so very tiny in the scheme of things on this earth. We are really nothing, but we consume almost everything. On the trip, we learnt about the habits of birds and animals and it occurred to me the irony that while, as a species, we dominate the animals, the animals have ways and logic which keep them in pace with nature. Like the colours on the ostriches, the one who hatches at night has dark feathers ( the male), mud colour for female who sits in the day, for camouflage. And then it occurred to me how sometimes we are so cowardly we simply lie in the dark waiting for things to change but do nothing about it.

regarding (poetry collection)

a. There are so many artworks in the National Gallery’s exhibitions. How do you decide which works to write poems for? Do you feel you view the artworks differently through the lens of a poet searching for inspiration than the layman?

I first wrote about the special exhibitions of Yayoi Kusama and Chua Ek Kay. Then NGS asked me to write more about the permanent collections so people can still see the painting!

b. Do you have a specific goal when writing your poetic responses to the artworks? Do you intend to encapsulate, interpret, adapt, etc? How would you say the message or meaning of a creative work differs with different mediums?

I wrote in long arcs around each gallery/show. Each arc has a theme hanging over the pieces, so the work can be read singly or in a group. Different effects happen when read singly or by the arc.

c. On the back of the book, it says the Words on Art series are “books dedicated to articulating the intersections between visual and literary art”. How did you take this aim and bring it to life in your poetry? Did you perhaps feel pressured to reach the goal, or did writing your poetic responses come naturally?

Actually, NGS put those words on the back cover – not my idea, nor was I consulted. I suppose the editors had to do something!

d. Two paintings you have written responses to, “National Language Class” by Chua Mia Tee and “Here They Come” by Koeh Sia Yong both depict a scene with many people. However, your response to the former contains detailed descriptions of each figure, and is your longest poem in the collection, while your response to the latter is one of the shortest, with single-word stanzas such as “unspoken”, “coded”, “admonished”. Both are incredibly impactful: could you tell us more about the significance of the artworks and your thought process behind writing the responses to both?

National Language – it was almost impossible to write meaningfully about our National Language. But it was a very powerful painting, so I decided to put myself in the place of each student in the class, and what might have been going through their minds during the class. Turns out to be an effective ensemble!

It turns out to be a stand-alone poem although also having the theme of self-identity.

Here they come – when I was little I used to go to Chinatown street market with my granny. And the scene was indeed like the painting. People would hurriedly pack their wares up and scurry off when they hear “tegur, tegur!” being shouted in the streets. I imagined the fear and the panic. It was a time of transition in Singapore into self-government and many rules were being enacted where previously absent. Street hawking is one.

This poem is in a long arc of 9 poems which tries to capture the awakening of the nation and our self-identity.

This is a written version of an online interview with Madeleine Lee on 29 July, 2020.

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