An interview with local poet Gwee Li Sui: what drew him to poetry and guides his work

An interview with local poet Gwee Li Sui: what drew him to poetry and guides his work

Writing prompts have long been used by people as a way to hone their writing skills and inspire curiosity about various topics. They are exercised in many writing forms, such as short stories, journaling, and poetry. It’s particularly useful for writers who are looking for inspiration or experiencing a bout of writer’s block.

Local poet Gwee Li Sui, however, has found another way around this common affliction. For him, the inspiration comes from within – committing to moments of self-reflection to figure out what he can and should write about next. “Poetry is a journey for (me) to listen more deeply to (myself),” Gwee says.

Taking stock of his writing journey, it’s safe to say that poetry has many lives for him. Debuting as a graphic novelist almost 30 years ago, his first graphic novel Myth of the Stone also featured poetry. Since then, he has written over 20 poetry, fiction, non-fiction books, and graphic novels.

The A List spoke to Gwee about what drew him to poetry, what guides his work, and why reading poetry is an art.

gwee li swee poet
In addition to being one of Singapore’s most successful poets, Gwee is also a graphic artist, editor, and literary critic. (Photo: Gwee Li Sui)

You spent 10 years working in academia. How did your poetry evolve over this period?

I started out doing freelance drawing and had a graphic novel Myth of the Stone and a poetry book Who Wants to Buy a Book of Poems? before I entered academia full-time. After a decade, I felt a stronger moral urgency to go back to what I used to do.

If there is something I took away, it is that my poetry needs to breathe. Every poet’s poetry is different, and mine needs me to step out of systems enough to understand my relationship with society. So I still end up with a life that more or less resembles academic solitude but without the nice office.

Myth of the Stone 1993 gwee li sui
Gwee’s first graphic novel Myth of the Stone was published in 1993. (Photo: Gwee Li Sui)

Was poetry in any way a driving force in your decision to leave academia?

Poetry comes to me according to the choice I made. It is the gift of this life I chose, which is the result of sensing something I wasn’t able to do within academia. Academic freedom and artistic freedom aren’t freedoms with the same modus operandi. They are as different as breathing while on a treadmill and while walking. I prefer to walk.

Who Wants To Buy a Book of Poems gwee li sui
Gwee’s first poetry book Who Wants to Buy a Book of Poems? was published in 1998. (Photo: Gwee Li Sui)

Why are you drawn to poetry over other literary forms?

I came to poetry quite by accident when my first book, a graphic novel, was not understood critically. Despairing, I could not give up drawing and yet was only starting to embrace my poetic voice. So my first poetry book had that combination of art and verse because each lent strength to the other.

Poetry is a patient form in that it does not disclose all its meanings at once. Some poems can talk for years, and my goal is to create layers that hopefully unfold with time (or age). I guess, from the beginning, I have been brought to value personal clarity and not care too much for what immediate readers think.

You add a dose of humour to your poems on your Instagram account that you call Crisis Time Poems, and it’s about the pandemic situation in Singapore. What’s the story behind this personal project?

When the COVID-19 outbreak went global, the only certainty was the future’s uncertainty. I had experimented with Instagram poetry for eight years by then. You can see what I did in my two haiku books Haikuku and This Floating World. But, suddenly, I could not do that anymore as the world had changed.

Haikuku gwee li sui
Haikuku features 120 haikus about Singaporean topics such as community cats, Joseph Schooling, and hawker centres. (Photo: Gwee Li Sui)

So I began writing Crisis Time Poems if only to help me and others see ourselves in this remarkable period. The seeing is an existential guide for chaotic times. I put out my poems online because I simply cannot tell what tomorrow will bring. If I did not live to see them in print, why not share them freely?

Also, given the nature of these poems, something will be lost by the time they appear post-pandemic. They will all but exist as mere documents. I cannot know whether my thoughts and emotions at each twist in time will survive or be understood well. I would have missed a chance for these to do some good for someone, whatever it may be.

Gwee's Crisis Time Poem
12 Mar 2020 – the first time Gwee posted a Crisis Time Poem on Instagram when the pandemic started gaining momentum in Singapore. (Photo: @gweezilla on Instagram)

What are some topics you’d like to discuss in your poetry but haven’t had the chance to do so yet?

I tend to let the subject matters find me. I do not sit down every day and make myself write about XYZ. I keep myself open to what I need to learn and make enough time for the learning of that lesson. So some poems take a long time to write while others follow one after another. If I need prompts, then I am not listening to myself.

Gwee's Crisis Time Poem
Another one of Gwee’s Crisis Time Poem, where he adds a humorous touch to the importance of doing the Antigen Rapid Test (ART). (Photo: @gweezilla on Instagram)

Do you have advice for those who are drawn to poetry but feel intimidated at the thought of writing it?

It is okay to read poetry and not write. In fact, reading is the higher duty to self. It just is not true that everyone has to write poetry. We do not assume that every TV drama lover should go out and make a series. We do not assume that everyone who eats knows how to cook. Why do we assume differently for poetry lovers?

All this seems a rather wrong-headed understanding of how poetry works. Poetry is enjoyed in the reading. The writing of poetry is gut-wrenching work to render this enjoyment possible. But, when there is truly something to express, poetry will find in you a vessel. That urge will solve whatever inadequacy you feel about writing.

Find out more about Gwee and his work here.

Replies were edited and condensed for clarity.

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