Photo: Stephen Black (2009)
CYRIL WONG has been called Singapore's first confessional poet, mainly "on the basis of the brutally candid sexuality in his poetry, along with a barely submerged anxiety over the fragility of human connection and a relentless self-querying; but the label understates Wong's constant evolution" (Toh 662). By turns "acerbic and tender, ironic and meditative" (Cheong 45), he has "many styles, all of them limber, which combine the anecdotal and the confessional with the intuitive and the empathetic" (Patke and Holden 185). Author of twelve volumes of poetry, a novel, two short-story collections and editor of two anthologies, his poems are known for their "lyrical intensity" and for "training an almost anthropologically curious eye on the laws and customs of his own family: their strange taciturn ways, their gnomic references to disappointment and guilt, and their penchant for self-delusion" (Holden, Poon, Lim 370). In a way that makes him particularly distinctive in the Singaporean literary scene, his poetic orbit possesses "a heightened awareness of the physical body, and a desire to probe its visceral materiality for emotional truths" (Holden, Poon and Lim 370-71). Edwin Thumboo has praised Cyril's poems for their "remarkable inwardness" and how "they leave us with the feeling of subjects occasion, non-happening, an especially poignant experience explored to unusual limits" ("Introduction" 9). With regard to Cyril's third collection and its play of presence and absence in the context of Singapore's urbanity and cultural memory, John Phillips described his poetry as offering "an affirmation of emptiness in a time and place where this is barely possible" ("The Future of the Past: Archiving Singapore" 160).
Cyril is popularly known as a homosexual poet "a condition about which he has written much and of which he takes complete and total ownership; that is, he refuses to blame this on biology or some other mis-alignment, taking, rather, full responsibility for being gay" (Singh 108). TIME magazine (Dec. 10, 2007) has also written that "his work expands beyond simple sexuality...to embrace themes of love, alienation and human relationships of all kinds" (Tharoor 48). Singaporean critic Gwee Li Sui has stressed that readers need not perceive the poet's persona in terms of gay exceptionality, "his qualities of spaciousness and morphing images also manifesting an interest in a kind of New-Age irreligious spirituality" ("The New Poetry" 250). For Cyril, "the lyricism he offers is a unique aria that laments but ultimately gives voice to one who chooses to detach himself from the ebb and flow of routinary urban experience" (Lizada 179). In a review by the Southeast Asian Review of English, his poetry has been called "an art that works simply from a personal plane, and from within such a plane we have some of the most sensitive, articulate probings into the nature of one's self that have never been seen before in all of contemporary Singaporean verse" (Jeyam 99).
Cyril has been a featured poet at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the inaugural Singapore Literature Festival in New York, the Hong Kong International Literary Festival, the Sydney, Melbourne and Byron Bay Writers Festivals, Castlemaine State Festival, Vietnam's first Asia-Pacific Poetry Festival, Utan Kayu International Literary Biennale, Ubud Readers and Writers Festival, CausewayEXchange Festival, and Singapore Writers Festival. Theatre companies, dancers, visual artists and musicians have adapted his work. His poems were performed at the 2004 Queensland Poetry Festival and his verse monologue, Still Flight, was presented at the 2005 Magdalena International Festival of Women in Contemporary Theatre (USA). Cyril served as a mentor under the Creative Arts Programme and the Mentor Access Project, as well as a judge for the Golden Point Awards and a creative-writing instructor at Pelangi Village in Singapore. His works have appeared in Atlanta Review, Fulcrum, Poetry International, Prairie Schooner, Best of Asheville Poetry Review (1994-2004), MĀNOA, Poetry New Zealand, Kunapipi, Ideya, Asia Literary Review, Die Horen (German Translation), La traductière (English and French translation), The Bungeishichoo (Japanese translation), Force Majeure (English and Indonesian translation) and SARE, among various journals and magazines. Anthologies featuring his work include The Epigram Books Collection of Best New Singaporean Short Stories: Volume One, This Assignment is So Gay (Sibling Rivalry Press 2013), Little Things (Ethos Books 2013), Eastern Heathens (Ethos Books 2013), Collective Brightness (Sibling Rivalry Press 2011), ALIA storie l'arcipelago del fantastico (CS_libri 2011), GASPP (The Literary Centre 2010), Tumasik (AHB & IWP 2009), Double Skin (Ethos Books 2009), Fifty on 50 (NAC 2009), Writing Singapore: An Historical Anthology of Singapore Literature (NUS Press 2009), Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia and Beyond (W. W. Norton 2008), Chinese Erotic Poems (Everyman's Library 2007), Singapore: Sedici racconti dall'Asia estrema (Isbn Edizioni 2005) and Dance the Guns to Silence (Flipped Eye Publishing 2005).
A past recipient of the National Arts Council's Young Artist Award (2005) and the Singapore Literature Prize (2006), Cyril completed his doctoral degree in English literature at the National University of Singapore under a Research Scholarship in 2012, and founded the poetry webjournal, SOFTBLOW. Upon the banning and pulping of books by Singapore's National Library Board in 2014, he announced his decision in TODAY to retreat from writing come 2015: "As a queer writer, I think I have reached a limit of some sort, in the light or dark of recent events. I don't know why I'm bothering anymore. By sometime next year, I'm just going to stop; yes, stop publishing, stop working with governmental organisations, even stop writing."
Photo: Nguyen Vu Hung (2012)
R E F E R E N C E S
Cheong, Felix. "Out in the City." The Edge, Singapore. Jul. 28, 2003.
Toh Hsien Min. "Wong, Cyril (1977— )." The Oxford Companion to Modern Poetry in English. Ed. Jeremy Noel-Tod and Ian Hamilton. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.
Gwee Li Sui, ed. "The New Poetry of Singapore." Sharing Borders: Studies in Contemporary Singaporean-Malaysian Literature II. Singapore: NLB/NAC 2009.
Holden, Philip, Angelia Poon and Shirley Geok-lin Lim, eds. "Section 2 (1965-1990): Introduction." Writing Singapore: An Historical Anthology of Singapore Literature. Singapore: NUS Press/NAC, 2009.
Jeyam, Leonard. "The Poetry of Personal Revelation: Reviewing Cyril Wong's Unmarked Treasure." Southeast Asian Review of English. No. 47 Apr. 2006/07.
Lizada, Miguel. "Reading the Works of Cyril Wong and Lawrence Ypil as City Poems". Kritik/Critique: Essays from the J. Elizalde Navarro National Workshop in the Criticism of the Arts and Humanities, 2009-2012. Ed. Oscar V. Campomanes. Manila: UST Publishing House, 2014.
Patke, Rajeev S. and Philip Holden. "Contemporary poetry 1990-2008: Singapore." The Routledge Concise History of Southeast Asian Writing in English. New York: Taylor & Francis, 2010.
Phillips, John. "The Future of the Past: Archiving Singapore." Urban Memory: History and Amnesia in the Modern City. Ed. Mark Crinson. London and New York: Routledge, 2005.
Singh, Kirpal. "Poetic Meditations: Two Singaporean Poets and a Personal Reflection." Kunapipi. Vol. XXXII No. 1-2 Dec. 2010.
Tharoor, Ishaan. "Merlion Heart." TIME (Asia Edition). Dec. 10, 2007.
Thumboo, Edwin. "Introduction." Squatting Quietly. By Cyril Wong. Singapore: Firstfruits, 2000.
Martin, Mayo. "Sípore writers not happy over NLB controversy." TODAY. Jul. 11, 2014.