Monday, March 17, 2014

LIFE OF A POET - CHEONG LEE SAN

As we make our trek around the globe, it is my privilege to visit  poets in their home locations. Though I do it through my screen and keyboard, each visit is almost like being there. This time, my friends, we are going to Singapore, to meet with Lee San, whom you likely recognize online as dsnake. He can be found at urban poems. We have been trying to manage this visit since summer, so I am thrilled to bring our conversation to you today.




Sherry: Lee San, I visited around your site to try to find some clues for this interview, and gather you are a young urban poet, so your site is aptly named. Tell us a little bit about your life: ......anything you’d like to share so we can know you better.


Me and bike




Lee San: Thank you, Sherry, for taking the time to talk to me. You are right about the “urban” but a bit off on the “young” part. I am sixty, but then again, age is just a number.  I live and work in sunny Singapore. I work in a telco, dealing with maintenance of telephone lines and complaints.  You should see the aggressive emails I send occasionally. It’s a funny industry to be in, writing poetry, isn’t it?


My apartment block

Home is an apartment unit in a town called Tampines. It’s quite a nice place, fairly quiet, okay neighbours, I have written about this place in my poetry. In our land scarce country, 80% of the population live in such apartments built by the government.


the Singapore skyline

I am living here with my wife and daughter. This is my second marriage. My first wife passed away about twenty years ago, when she was in her early thirties. Cancer took her away. We were trying to build a home and this happened, and I was feeling bitter and angry. You can sense it in some of my writings. Time heals, and I have put my life back on course again.

Sherry: I am so sorry for your loss, Lee San. That must have been such a hard time for you. I am glad you were able to move forward and rebuild your life. I must say, Singapore is very beautiful.

Lee San: If you google Singapore, you will find that it is a safe place, a boring and a “fine” city. Our streets are pretty safe and clean but it’s quite expensive living here.  Everyone seems to be complaining about the cost of living. You should see the cost of cars here. We just love to complain. The “fine” refers to the fines one can get for committing some offences here, which may seem weird to foreigners.

I don’t have much things in the fridge, maybe some beer, but if you do drop by, I‘ll be glad to share it with you.

Singapore's Chinatown
It doesnt look too crowded during the day.
It's more alive at night.

Sherry: We thank you for your hospitality, Lee San, and for inviting us into your home. Have you always lived in the city? What do you love about it? What is your favourite thing to do on a day off?

Lee San: Most of my life, I have lived in the city.  In my teens, it was in the inner city, where my parents were renting an apartment unit, and where the schools my siblings and I were attending. It was dusty and noisy, and right smack in the middle of many back-yard industries. But I guess it was the only few places where my parents can afford the rent. Later on, after my military service, I moved out to live on my own, in another part of town.


Devotees at a Chinese Temple in Loyang,
a very popular temple in Singapore. These temples are where
most traditional Chinese worshipers 
go to pray for health and wealth.

In the course of my work, sometimes I work odd hours. But I still have my days off. On those days, I try to catch up on some beauty sleep, do some long overdue chores around the house. And I love my video games, great for de-stressing. But my favourite thing to do is to take out my mountain bike for a spin around the neighbourhood or to my favourite bike trail. Yes, in this mostly concrete jungle, there are still forests and scrubland.


Tampines bike park

Sherry: It is wonderful  you have green places to go to. Those trails look wonderful. Is there a childhood memory, story, or someone significant from your childhood you’d like to tell us about?

Lee San: When I was a small child, we, our family, lived in a squatter colony, in a house my father and grandfather built. We were dirt poor, there was no electricity or running water in the house. I wrote about this in a poem called “The Light”.  But us kids were very happy and carefree because we had loads of friends, there was a forest nearby to explore, the beach and quays were nearby.  There was an old man who lived in a pillbox who told us stories about the War. 

All in all, it was an interesting place. Once when it rained heavily and the nearby canal overflowed, a crocodile wandered down the main road. When I was about eleven or twelve, my family moved to the inner city, to an apartment unit above a shop house.  I missed the place, and the friends I left behind.



Clarke Quay
A popular entertainment and dining hub

Sherry: Wow, what a story! This is why I love doing interviews. I can see that crocodile, ambling along the road. When did you discover poetry? Was there a poet whose work impacted you and turned you on to poetry? And when did you begin writing your own poems?

Lee San: When I was in secondary school, we studied poetry in Literature class.  We discussed most of the major English poets. Shakespeare scared the hell out of me because it was examination material. Frankly, I wasn’t too hot on poetry then. Would you believe that it was the lyrics of rock songs that really made me take a closer look at poetry? I was listening to those while in the military.  They were writing about stuff that I like to hear. Things like identity, freedom, politics, the sad state of the world. 

I was writing since my late teens, but the stuff was really not readable, mostly rants and such. Then in the late Eighties, I won a poetry contest organised by the national newspaper, with a poem about a river. Well, I said to myself, I ain’t that bad! I guess that was the spark that kept the fire going.



Picture of Me, much younger, and with a better mop of hair

I think there was not any particular poet who had a big influence in turning me to poetry. I read a lot of stuff, and not just poetry. I think my craft evolved over the years, in a flavour-of-the month kind of situation. You know, like, I will read a lot of the Beat poets, then Harlan Ellison (fantasy writer), then listen to Neil Young (yes, I consider him a poet) and those progressive rock bands.  Lately it’s Bukowski.  I think it was Stephen King who saidyou are like that carton of milk in the fridge, it takes on whatever flavour that’s around it.  

Sherry: I love that! It's so true. What is it about poetry that makes you want to write? What keeps you at it?

Lee San: I know it sounds clichéd, but poetry can be therapeutic. A lot of things interest me, like sketching, reading, cycling, and video games. But poetry is the thing I go to when I need to calm down. I think you will know how it feels when you wrote a poem and be very satisfied with it. I can bash villains in a video game to de-stress. But I need something else to calm the inner demons, and that is poetry.


Recent Chinese New Year light-up, at Chinatown,
to celebrate the Lunar New Year

Some writers stop writing after a while. Because they lost interest, or didn’t have the time anymore, career or family took over.  There were a number of years I didn’t write a word, because I was blissful, I was building a family.

And of course, the internet changes the way we write. It provides a convenient (and free) platform for a writer to let readers view their works.

Sherry: Yes, thankfully we have the internet to provide us with a forum! You write haiku as well, especially on your second site. What do you love about it?





Lee San: Yes, I write haiku. I really love haiku. There’s so much to say in 17 syllables, or less. It’s not easy, really, to write a good one.  I may be a newbie at it, I started to write haiku when I started blogging.  I write too is dedicated to shorter verses like haiku. Nowadays, I write mostly in free verse, as I find it gives me the freedom that structured poetry may not. This is not to say that structured poetry is passé or out-dated.  On the contrary, structured poetry is still relevant, it is the foundation on which poetry is built.

I think my style of poetry is what we called Confessional poetry. Most of what I write, and have written, is based on my own experiences in life. Some people shy away from writing this style of poetry, because they may be uncomfortable with it.

Sherry: Are there any poetry forms you find difficult, or tend to avoid – whether reading or writing?

Lee San: I admire people who write a good sonnet. I can never do it well. It’s strange, I find it difficult to write, but I enjoy reading it.

Sherry: I love your poem Why I Was Thinking of a Lighthouse and would love to include it here.



because one night i woke up wanting to feed you

but baby, your face, like a moon in the cradle

your skin glowed like stardust in the moonlight
your breathing was the song of the stars
a faint scent of talc as the stand fan oscillated
i was holding a bottle of milk not wanting to wake you
just sitting on the cold tiles, looking at you
thinking you are the beacon in our lives, our lighthouse
your eyes were closed, there was a faint smile
your lips moved slightly, and i said i love you too
but baby, you do not yet know about the ways of this world
and it is better to keep it this way.

30/04/2013
**********

Sherry: Breathtakingly beautiful, my friend.

Lee San: Thank you, Sherry. I wrote this for NaPoWriMo 2013. It was about my daughter when she was a baby. She’s a big girl now, as you can see from her photo.


Picture of me and my daughter 
at a recent performance of  The Phantom of the Opera

Sherry: And still beautiful. I also am very impressed by your poem The Hills, and hope our readers will follow the link and check it out. Is there another poem you think you have written especially well, or one you feel describes who you are, that you might like to include?



The Esplanade area-the distinctively-shaped
Theatres 
on the Bay - (We call it The Durians)
In the foreground is Singapore River

Lee San: The Hills was written for NaPoWriMo this year, about my experiences in the military. If I have to find a poem to share here, it will be this following poem. I wrote this for a national poetry competition. It’s a snippet about life in a housing estate.


in the half light that is the dawn over
the blocks of flats, when the night wind
gently slaps discarded papers and dead leaves
along the long expanse of corridor of our block,

i leave for work, my cigarette smoke mingling
with the perfumed incense my old neighbour lighted
to the God of Heaven, praying for safe passage
through the day for her and her loved ones.

then i walk past doors protected by talismans,
baguas, even crucifixes, past homes guarded by waifs
of pomeranians that snarl from behind locked gates,
their barks, shrill and indignant, in the cool air,

go past flowerpots with plants badly in need
of watering, down the stairs through the coffeeshop,
through harsh fluorescent lights and whiffs of toast,
past grizzled old men drinking coffee from saucers,

then meet the hordes of sleepy-eyed children
sleepwalking to schools, the grandmothers
shuffling to the wet market to haggle over
fishes and vegetables.

the same gods are watching over us all.

Sherry: Sigh. I love this poem very much. I can see every person mentioned so clearly. How has blogging impacted your writing? What is your take on the internet and poetry?

Lee San: I must say blogging does have a big influence in my writing.  I think the impact is, you can reach a bigger audience on-line. Before that, maybe there wasn’t any audience to start with.  So you tend to write more, knowing that you have a readership. In the past, I did the writings in old journals, the old-fashioned way, with pen or pencil on paper. I still do, I like the freedom, the flow of thoughts when holding a pencil, but now most of the editing is done on the computer.

I think the internet gives us a platform that takes us to greater heights than ever before.  Not only does it allow you to showcase your work to a wider audience, it allows you to know more like-minded people, make friends, have your work commented on.  Oh, yes, just look at the number of websites and blogs dedicated to poetry.


Shoppes at the Marina Bay Sands, a luxury shopping mall.
Well, you can always blow a fortune and not buy anything -
a casino is nearby :)

Sherry: The internet is a wonderful venue! I notice on your blog that you submit your poems and have had many accepted for publication. That is impressive, considering you live in an urban center and there must be a lot of competition. Good for you. Do you have any advice for other poets about submitting for publication?

Lee San: Yes, I do submit some of my poems to online poetry magazines for consideration, and some were accepted.  A few are in a printed anthology.  In my country, poetry is not so hot an activity. Shopping, dining and English Premier League Football is.

I think for a writer or poet, it is good to send some of your better works for publication in poetry magazines on-line. Just to boost your confidence, or have a gauge of what your works are like. There may be rejections, of course, but if there are too many, then it’s time to do a rethink. Just kidding! 

Poetry is very subjective, so if one is really serious about publication, try to figure out what is wrong or missing in the submissions, take a look at the sites to see what interests the editors.

Sherry: Great advice! What goals do you have for your poetry over the coming years?

Lee San: I do not make my living from writing, I work in the telecommunication industry, most of the writings are in reports and logs and threatening emails, so there’s really no pressure. Perhaps, if I am retired, in a couple of years’ time, I may push myself to write a book and try to hawk it to a publisher. Or, well, there may be an email in the inbox now : Hi Mr. Cheong, we would like to talk to you about our interest to publish…” Haha!

Sherry: Smiles. We live in hope! Would you say there has been one person in your life who has had a significant influence on your writing? A mentor, a teacher, a relative: someone who really believes in you?

Lee San: I won’t say there’s any single person who  influenced my writing.  But if I am to think of one, it should be my Primary 3 form teacher, a Miss Wee, who pointed me in the direction. She made the English language fun, she read to us poetry, encouraged us to write, treated our scrawls as pieces of art. And I was fortunate to have other good teachers later on.  Teachers who read my (and also others') essays to the class and held it as good work.  This inspires and spurs one to produce better writing.

I read a bit on my own. I read almost anything, but science fiction and poetry are the main staples. I also watch movies and listen to music, and these do help in your poetry.

Sherry: Do you also write in other genres? Any goals or plans in this direction?

Lee San: I write short stories from time to time, but my main interest is still in poetry.  I have a few poems in a printed anthology, but I really would like  to have my own printed book of poetry.  I was introduced to a publisher at a fellow poet’s book launch some time back, but nothing yet comes out of it. Maybe the dark themes scared them off, ha ha!

Sherry: Check out self-publishing, kiddo. It is easy and affordable these days, thanks to online venues. Many of us  take this route to holding our own book in our hands. Do you pursue any other creative outlets? 

Lee San: Art is my first love in the creative arts. In primary school, my water colour and poster colour paintings were always exhibited.  In secondary school, I painted in oils and plaka paint. One of my oils, an abstract, even won first prize in a competition.  I was shocked that it won. I have not painted in oil or colours in many years, the lack of space and time being one of the factors.  However I still do pencil and pen sketching, some of which I posted on my blogs to accompany my poems.  Also, the internet made it possible for me to explore digital art. It was all self-taught. I did not attend any formal classes. I guess I am lucky to have this God-given gift.




 Picture of A pencil sketch 
I did for one of my poems, "Jasmine" 

Sherry: Wow! This is the surprise in the interview. I find one every week! You are a very gifted illustrator, Lee San.  Is there anything else you’d like to say to Poets United?

Lee San: Thank you, Sherry, and Mary and Rosemary and Kim and Susan for maintaining this wonderful site. I admire your passion, and thank you for the time and effort you all put into it. I get to know so many talented and interesting writers and their works from this place. I love this community, and will try to make a visit whenever I am free.

Without community, writing can be a lonely journey.

Sherry: You are so right, my friend. It was , for me, before I found Poets United! Thank you for this wonderful visit, and for showing us around your beautiful city! We look forward to reading more of your wonderful poems.


Well, kids, there you have it, another poetry pilgrim on the path. I do feel like such a globe-trotter, zipping from country to country without ever leaving home. Come back and see where we go and who we talk to next. Who knows? It might be you!




28 comments:

  1. I enjoy getting to know you Lee San and enjoy all three of the poems above, but especially "The Gods . . . ." with its phrases like "gently slaps" where all dichotomies are watched over by the same Gods.. I think I like boring cities, especially if they have theatre and poetry and parks. Thank you for bringing Lee San here today, Sherry.

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    1. Glad to know you too, Susan. I loved this poem too, one of my favourites. It was inspired by my living in a rough neighbourhood in the city.
      Maybe a boring city is better than one that is too "happening". Too much for the heart to take in the latter case. :)
      And I appreciate what you are doing on Midweek Motif.

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  2. It's nice to know more about you Lee San...you are such a gifted artist both in lines and words...'why i was thinking of a lighthouse' is a beauty....and thank you Sherry for another interesting conversation...I'm the first one to comment?..:yay..

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    1. Sumana, I am always looking forward to reading your elegant poetry.
      eh, about being the first one to comment, I think Susan beat you to it. :)

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  3. What a pleasure to read. Thank you.

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    1. Thank you, Iulia Flame. You have an interesting blog too. :)

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  4. So nice to meet you Lee San..I enjoyed the interview, lovely pictures and poems. I agree writing poetry does bring a sense of calm. Thank you for sharing your story.

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    1. Thank you, Truedessa. Nice to meet you too!
      That's why poets can see deeper. :)

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  5. Lee San, I am so glad to get to know you better. I have been following your work a long time. As I think I must have mentioned one time or another, I was in Singapore a few days. One thing I remember was how very CLEAN it was. Another thing I remember is that we were warned never to throw chewing gum in the streets....ha, you mentioned the fines that people get! (Smiles) I enjoyed reading about the history of your poetry writing, and I do hope that sometime you get around to writing your own poetry book....as I do think you have something to offer. I am not surprised that you are a visual artist as well. So often, it seems, poets also paint or sketch as well. Beautiful sketch you shared here. I am glad that you are in the poetry blogosphere. I think you are the ONLY poet from Singapore I know. I am always glad when I find your work in the Poetry Pantry on Sunday, as I know I will be in for a reading treat. Sherry, great interview.

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    1. Mary, thank you for the kind comment.
      Yes, you wrote about visiting Singapore some time back, and shared some photos. For a first time visitor, the impression is of a very clean country. This is because perhaps the locals are afraid of the littering fines, and the community service of sweeping the streets for a few hours. It is still illegal to sell chewing gum here, but not illegal to consume it. Just watch where you throw the gum. :)
      I think most poets are also good visual artists. There is much evidence here at Poets United.

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  6. Thank you Lee San for sharing so much of your life with us. I enjoyed reading your poems, seeing your photos and your art. I agree that the poetry blogosphere is a very supportive community and that it has impacted my writing too.
    Thank you Sherry for this interview!

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    1. Gabriella, indeed it is. I am glad I found this community. At first, I was very hesitant to come in, but I am happy I did. If not, I won't be writing so much, and spending more time with the video games. :)

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  7. ah now this is a treat...when i first saw the name i was like...who is that...because i know you by dsnake....as much as mary, you are the reason i started linking in over here at PU....you were visiting me once a week usually after you posted your PU poem...i def appreciate not only you as a person but you verse as well....was so cool to learn about your art...it does not surprise me....ha, how interesting on the croc as well...we used to get gators all the time when i lived in florida....thank you for sharing the behind the scenes with us...and for being you...

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    1. hey Brian, I was pretty much hooked by your poetry when I first came across it. It has a very distinctive voice, and you were writing about stuff that is gritty and real-world.
      And really, do "dsnake" has a sinister ring to it? The reason I settled for this monicker is much more mundane. (it's a long story) :)
      Thankfully, the only crocs we find here nowadays are on the feet. But I have come across monitor lizards while out on the bike trails.

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  8. Sigh. I do so love coming in here on interview days and reading all the lovely supportive and appreciative comments. Lee San, you are truly a gentleman, a lovely soul, and I so enjoyed our visit. It was your poem to your baby daughter that first enraptured me. Such a beautiful image: her face shining in the moonlight. I look forward to reading many more of your poems.

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    1. Sherry, thank you for this interview, and bearing with me throughout the process. Some days, I think you must have felt that I have totally forgotten about it. :)
      I appreciate the work and passion you have given in doing these interviews. Thanks, kiddo! (I couldn't help quoting you.)

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    2. It was totally worth the wait, my friend. I always say, doing these interviews is the best job in the world. I meet the most wonderful people! Now I know a little bit about Singapore. My adorable daughter-in-law, who is from the Phillippines, came through Singapore, I believe, on her way to Canada.

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  9. Enjoyable interview. I like an inside peek of the artist/poet life.

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    1. Thanks, Gail! Aren't these interviews fun? :)

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  10. Dear Lee San,
    I knew you were from Singapore for quite a while now…and reading your poetry is almost like reading a poem written by a friend from the neighborhood. I smiled to read, "past grizzled old men drinking coffee from saucers" and haggling grandmothers. Your poetry brings to mind all that is most precious in life - memories of the days of our lives.

    I love your frankness, it is great how you embrace life. And like Sherry, I thought you are in your forties at the most!

    Well done and great interview. Loved that bit and tribute to your teacher. Where would we be without our English teachers…

    I do venture down south to Singapore once or twice a year, for work or with the family. And I will be giving a talk at ISEAS in April! Always a pleasure to visit your lovely city-state. Even my kids are automatically on better behavior in Singapore :-)

    Cheers!

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  11. Hello neighbour! Always good to hear from someone from across the causeway.
    It's hard to find old men drinking coffee from saucers anymore, but occasionally we may come across one in some old coffee shop. :)
    I am glad I had very good English teachers (I can't say that for my other subjects, haha) and the pace of study was not that stressful, which suited me fine. See, I can even write some decent poetry.
    And wow! you are giving a talk at ISEAS. That's really something! :)

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  12. Oh, I am a bit late getting here, but so glad to read this interview and get to know even better one of my favourite people in the online poetic world, dsnake, whose lovely poetry and warm comments always delight me. Thank you Sherry, and thank youLee San.

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    1. Thank you, Rosemary! I am so glad to come across you and your poetry at Poets United too. I enjoyed what you are doing every Friday on "I Wish I'd Written This", excellent articles that are so well delivered. :)

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  13. Good to be able to put a face to dsnake. I really enjoyed hearing about your life Lee San. Have not been to Singapore for many years . It seems to have become so modern. A thank you to Sherry as well for conducting such a great interview.

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    1. ah, the little red avatar is a tad too sinister? :)
      Singapore has changed a lot, and is still changing. Construction is going on almost everywhere, building roads, train tunnels, malls and homes.
      It's always a pleasure to visit your blog, rallentanda, for its fresh and witty contents.

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  14. another delightful interview,
    sherry I love hearng about those who live so far away, geographically. Lee San rights speaks of diuranl sounds and sights much like those of us in this arc of the the world yet our ears our eyes our smells our touch are so similar when seemingly so different. I like that he expressed his journey from impoverishment to the present. I like his use of free verse with simple phrasing in lieu of metaphorical glitter. Gracias Lee San, Gracias mi amiga.

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  15. Thank you, Marcoantonio! We may have lived on opposite parts of the world, yet what we liked to do, reading and writing poetry, has brought us all together here. :)

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  16. Hi dsnake1, my blogging friend for a very long time. I just left a comment on your blog after many months of being away from blogging. I tried to find you on facebook which led me here. This is a delightful interview to read even more of your life than I had gleaned from reading your poetry and viewing your art regularly. I am so pleased to see your face and those of your family! I am proud of you.

    With warmth across the sea,

    Gel

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