AN INTERVIEW WITH ESTHER VINCENT XUEMING
What was your first piece of writing that you were really proud of and satisfied to have written?
That would have to be “Excuse me, what is your race?”, a poem I wrote in 2011 as I was inspired by a postcolonial literature module I was taking then. This poem critiques one of Singapore’s colonial hang-ups, the issue of race and race relations in a country that professes to be founded upon democracy “regardless of race”. I was and still am proud of this poem as it is bold, personal yet political, and tackles a taboo topic in Singapore, dealing with an issue close to my heart as I myself come from a multi-racial ancestry and cannot be defined by my ‘race’ on my identity card. “Excuse me, what is your race?” was also one of my first poems to be published and performed at the Singapore Writers Festival 2011, so it is a special poem for me.
Tell us about your writing practice. Do you follow a specific routine? Do you have a favorite place or setting to write?
Over time, I have found that my mind is a receptacle holding on to experiences, thoughts and feelings that, to take Seamus Heaney’s words, have been incubating, waiting for an external stimulus to trigger the right moment for the poem to come into being. An article I read about capital punishment, a crushed snail by the pavement, a road accident on the way home, a story of two siblings torn from each other by war, an old photograph, a tiger moth that lands on my window, a poem I read about two lovers during the Great Famine, memories of places I have travelled to. Anything that I can connect with and relate to, has the potential to trigger a response from me.
I don’t have a routine, but I do have creative spurts that come to me at random moments. For instance, some nights, I cannot sleep, but instead, lines come to my mind as beginnings of poems. It’s then that I get out of bed and start to write these words down until I discover a draft of a poem. I enjoy working on my laptop, at my living room table which overlooks the street. It’s an open, airy spot and usually, I accompany my writing with some coffee or tea, and silence, so that I can focus better on my thoughts.
Is there a single image that lingers in your writing (or in your mind while you write)—one that you keep returning to?
At present, in the poems I am currently working on for my Master’s thesis and first collection, I find that rather than a single image lingering in my writing, I tend to return to concrete objects from nature like stones, sand, the earth and roots even as I examine memories, time, places and relationships. I suppose this has to do with my desire to find some kind of grounding in my writing, to concretise intangibles, to make sense of my experiences as a woman and urban dweller in an ecology of nature, time and existence. The aim of my poetry is to remember, as the earth remembers through her shifting landscapes.
Where is your favorite place? In what ways has place or the environment influenced your writing?
In speaking about place, I refer to both the physical and symbolic value of a space. The same space holds different meanings for different people. It could also hold contradictory meanings for the same person. The physical space and my experiences and memories of that place play a strong role in my writing, as reading my poems will reveal. We first experience our environment through our senses, and for that reason, my poetry will always be a poetry of place, as much as it is a poetry of memory and of time.
That said, the physical entering of a space happens usually not more than once for me. It is the symbolic value of that space where most of my poetry happens. The re-entering of a space through the mind, the re-creation and re-imagining of that space, its meanings, the way that space changes, evolves and morphs each time I re-visit the poem, which can also be read as a third space of fiction. That to me is my favourite place, for it is within the murky rivers of the symbolic where I can begin to discover what my poem needs to say.
Recently, you founded The Tiger Moth Review. Please tell us a little bit about TMR. What is the journal’s mission? What inspired you to create it?
I founded The Tiger Moth Review because I found that there was not a single journal in Singapore where two important art forms, literature and visual art, were dedicated to nature. There also seemed to be little literary work here engaging with such themes, and I hoped to change that with The Tiger Moth Review. How ambitious! Having just come from teaching at an Arts school, I also found the interdisciplinary approach one that was crucial in providing different ways of seeing, hence the journal’s focus on publishing both literary and visual work.
I began with a clear mission, to create a platform whereby I could curate literary and visual art that engaged with the themes of nature, culture, the environment and ecology, in the hopes of encouraging such conversations, especially in Singapore, where I come from. Here, the urban landscape is defined by constant and continual change. Many Singaporeans, myself included, grow up in an environment whereby we are alienated from nature, and we are desensitised to change. Majority of the citizens live is high-rise apartments, and for many of us, apart from trips to the zoo or interactions with house pets, our only other encounters with animals are as meat on our plates. Trees are cut and another expressway or shopping mall or train station is built. I was not satisfied with the way we were treating our land, and I wanted to do something about it.
What are the rewards and challenges of operating and publishing TMR?
A real challenge is getting word about the journal out there, and receiving submissions from writers and artists from Singapore! I suppose that’s why nothing like The Tiger Moth Review existed before. Perhaps there simply isn’t enough concern or desire with people to engage with nature. Perhaps there needs to be more publicity about the journal. Perhaps I will need to be patient. And perhaps I will have to acknowledge that while I may have wanted to encourage and promote writing from Singapore about the environment, I might have to cast my nets to more distant shores simply because there is a lack of fish here.
Another challenge was developing a platform for the journal, which started out humbly as a WordPress site hosting the pdf version of each issue, to a new and improved website that now contains both downloadable e-journal formats and online posts of the issues. I have worked with what little knowledge and skills I have of website creation, and in the process, learnt and discovered myself anew.
Because The Tiger Moth Review is a one-woman passion project, I manage and operate all aspects of the journal, from website development, to publicity and communications, reading submissions, curation, editing and publication. It is both challenging and riveting, and I thrive on the challenge. When readers tell me that they enjoyed an issue or loved a particular piece, I am encouraged and motivated to continue the good work. I’ve also discovered the power of community, as I’ve received kindness and support in the form of encouragements, publicity and contributions from the literary community in Singapore and abroad. That has been uplifting.
What writerly advice would you like to share with our readers?
As my mentor tells me: read, read, and read. I cannot stress the value of reading widely, as this will be the way you find your voice as a writer. Nothing can come out of nothing, and so to write well, one needs to read well.
If you were venturing into the wilderness for a month, which three books would you bring?
Joy Harjo’s She Had Some Horses, Boey Kim Cheng’s Between Stations, and Seamus Heaney’s Preoccupations.
Esther Vincent Xueming is the founder and editor of The Tiger Moth Review, co-editor of two poetry anthologies, and poetry reader for Frontier Poetry. Her poems are forthcoming or have been published in Contour: A Lyric Cartography of Singapore, The Stinging Fly, About Place Journal, Split Rock Review, Ghost City Review, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Eastlit, New Asian Writing, Into the Void, Ceriph and elsewhere. Currently, Esther is pursuing her MA in Creative Writing in Nanyang Technological University. Follow her on Twitter @EstherVincentXM.