Cyril Wong

Cyril Wong

A Candid, Earnest Poet, and We Are Proud

While young camouflaged National Servicemen were training under the scorching sun or in the shadows of the forest, Cyril Wong was probably thinking about his new poem. Fulfilling a desire to express his feelings and opinions about life, love and identity, he overcame intense disapproval from his friends on his manuscript and proceeded to publish Squatting Quietly in 2000. It was a hit and the rest is  history.

How far would you go for passion? Would you be brave enough to have an open-self personality? It is not easy for many of us, including prolific writers. Many writers choose to write in the third person just so that they can reveal less about themselves while retaining that air of mystery. On the contrary, Cyril is an open book. Known as the ‘confessional poet’, Cyril would very much prefer to be labelled as just another poet. Yet, in our predominantly conservative society, being as very candid invites controversy. There are reasons to applaud Cyril for his conviction in paving the way for like-minded writers.

From Insecure to being Purposeful

One of Cyril’s fears is pain. He cannot imagine how he could deal with the pain that his loved ones will suffer one day. Having a difficult past where he struggled to cope with his father’s acceptance of his sexual identity did not make things easier. He was plunged into a state of depression. He depicts all his struggles with intensity in his poems. Soon, his poems became an outlet for him to express his pent-up emotions. It is precisely this approach of dealing with his emotions that benefits readers and writers alike —- today, Cyril is an influential and  accomplished writer.  He has been completely transformed from being a naïve and insecure teen to being a valuable source of advice on how one can deal with rejection, doubt and pain.

 “Don’t spiral into cynicism and anger, even when everyone around you breaks your heart – your mind is more capable of forgiveness and love than you think, even in the midst of all this pain.”

Cyril Wong

It isn’t easy to be Cyril Wong. To do so will require a combination of earnesty and  boldness to challenge the conventions of what it takes to be a true poet.

The Value of being Authentic

‘Authenticity requires vulnerability, transparency and integrity.’

~ Janet Louis Stephenson

In an increasingly digitized world where the literary scene is now dominated by instapoets and amateurs, the line between quantity and quality is blurred. On the surface, this is probably a good sign. But it opens the doors of legacy and legitimacy to those who emphasise less on their craft but on instant fame, aesthetics and likes. Chiara Giovanni of Buzzfeed puts it, “(Rupi Kaur[1]) is going against the hostile gatekeepers of literary prestige” by creating poems that are free of rhythm and structure although they tell stories that are simple and supported by prints and graphic art. Although the themes presented by Rupi Kaur on racism and sexism are important, some beg to know if she is a worthy example of a true poet that her 3.7 million followers support.

On the contrary, Cyril Wong, who is also an expressive poet, handles his subject matter with more depth. Loneliness, for example, is an easy concept. Yet to Cyril, he sees and describes it profoundly as a struggle, a hurdle and a opportunity to prove our worth by transcending it.

Confessional poetry, in Cyril’s terms, is never a way to gain popularity. It would be an oxymoron and completely hilarious to say that he enjoys being famous by portraying himself as a homosexual or a man with an angsty childhood. Cyril would very much prefer to withdraw into his ‘little Batu cave’ and just do yoga or write poems. We compare him to insta poets such as Lang Leav who skims the concept of love and writes simple poems whose meanings can be easily interpreted by taking her words in their usual or most basic sense without metaphor or exaggeration.

In one of his poems, Cyril connects with all of us by sharing his secret – his opinion on death and how he thought of its triviality. Brief but intense, this poem will no doubt appeal to many appreciative readers while it may be lost to a new generation of insta poet fans. It is sad, if not tragic, that elitism in the arts is now considered heavy, snobbish and outdated. Cyril once pointed out that the world now comprises ‘bad’ and impatient readers who no longer appreciate meaning that is finely buried between the lines.

‘With Instagram poetry, there’s a lot of different poems, but the problem is that they don’t really get into it. They just scan it one time and they move on quickly to the next one. There’s no space and time for contemplation and that’s very dangerous.’

Cyril Wong

Author Katrin Schenk[2] once said, “A true genius, which a true poet is, has to believe in his own thoughts and he has to trust in himself.” A good poet is akin to a thought leader. It is with this position that Cyril asserts a power over his readers by convincing them to believe in his concepts, and encourages them to contemplate more deeply to understand his insights.

An Ideal Singapore for harvesting New Poets

If there is one consolation we have for the literary scene here in Singapore, it shall be that Cyril Wong is not considering a migration. Singapore still works best for him. In fact, he is taking on many hats to ensure that he paves the way for the next generation of local poets.

As critic, Hayden Church, puts it, ‘(Many modern poets) are creating vacuous poems. They have scrubbed their poems clean of themselves, leaving only sanitized journal entries.’

It is also sad to observe that many short poems that our children are exposed to have now become a filtered output. We are left with mere morsels, without the opportunity to taste what poetry really is.

Cyril Wong is the author of poetry collections such as Unmarked Treasure (2012), Tilting Our Plates to Catch the Light (2012), The Dictator’s Eyebrow (2013), After You (2013), and The Lover’s Inventory (2015). A recipient of the 2005 National Arts Council’s Young Artist Award and the 2006 and 2016 Singapore Literature Prize, he studied at St. Patrick’s School and Temasek Junior College, and completed his doctoral degree in English Literature at the National University of Singapore in 2012.

Carean L. Oh is a writer and language teacher. She travels extensively to interview people and gather information on a variety of topics. She has written about the comeback of dialects in post-Franco Spain, climatic impact on Svalbard and the history of Suomenlinna. She enjoys canyoneering, sky and sea dives.

[1] Social-media poet, Rupi Kaur, uses Instagram as a marketing tool. She primarily earns money through publications and live events, but sharing her work on Instagram is now what opens up the possibility for both. 

[2] Katrin Schenk (Author), 2008, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s concept of poetry and the poet, Munich, GRIN Verlag

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