Deciding where you stand: Interview with Stephanie Dogfoot

Stephanie Dogfoot! We are very excited about your upcoming visit to the Melbourne Spoken Word and Poetry Festival 2019, especially in the festival opening night but also you’re feature at Mother Tongue. What else have you planned on your visit?

I am going to Brisbane to visit friends, and also to check out this Melbourne based sketch group I am obsessed with, called Aunty Donna. Of course I am also excited to check out MSWPF19.  I’m also really looking forward to doing some hiking around Melbourne.

Before Melbourne, I’m going to Malaysia for a show there.  I’m going to be bringing my new book there, they actually have a very big spoken word scene in KL, with a number of spoken word events.  The scene is buzzing and exciting.

Can you tell me more about the spoken word scene in this region?

That’s something I am hoping to talk about a bit in my workshop. I’d like to draw on my own knowledge and experience, the history of spoken word in this region (including the English language slam poetry scene), and explore if there’s anything poets can draw from the history and stories of the region.  I also plan to explore political spoken word, as it has emerged from the political context of this area. This includes drawing on the examples of poets I admire from this region.

There is a long history of spoken word poetry in Singapore.  It started in various languages, especially Malay, and forms like sung poetry were practised extensively.

As for the history of English language spoken word, well I was on a panel a year ago where the panelists tried to trace the history of spoken word and open mics in Singapore from the sixties.  There were open mics organised by university students, featuring visiting artists and professors.  In the nineties, Borders (an international bookstore chain) came to Singapore and people used that space for open mics or spoken word poetry events.  Legendary Singapore artists like Ng Yi-Sheng got their start from performing spoken word and experimental poetry at these very early open mics.

I was always very curious about spoken word.  In 2007, I attended a book launch for three spoken word poets who had gotten their start in the slam scene.  They included Mark Nair, Pooja Nansi, Bani Haikal  both of whom were pioneers in the spoken word scene, in that they built their writing and subsequent artistic careers initially on the back of their reputations as spoken word artists.  Both are now established artists in their own right.  Pooja Nansi is running the Singapore Writer’s Festival next year.  She also ran an amazing festival last year called “Other Voices” that highlights brown writers and creators in Singapore; a much needed event.  Marc is an accomplished, performer, musician and photographer.  They put out their books which were probably Singapore’s first spoken word collection.

Slam poetry was introduced in 2003 by the Singaporean Australian poet, Chris Mooney-Singh.  He started a company, “Word Forward” to, among other things, introduce poetry slam to schools, nurture and develop young slam poets. It was probably through that influence that slam poetry also was nurtured in Malaysia.

Word Forward also ran a national poetry slam and the Singapore Slam Championship – the first ever winner was Marc Nair in 2009, and I won in 2010.  We were both lucky enough to then get to compete in the Indian Ocean slam held on Reunion Island.  It was a huge inspiration for me, it was the first time I won anything and I’d only been doing poetry for a year and a half.

In 2012, three people got together to open Singapore’s first poetry and open mic night, destination: Ink.  I was in London at the time and one of my friends in London and introduced me to Nabilah Husna who was visiting for a year, and she returned to Singapore inspired by London’s spoken word and opened destination: Ink with Charlene Sheperdson and Vanessa Victoria.  This included art exhibition and came together to start this thing at a place called BlueJaz cafe. It is now in it’s seventh’ year and it’s a monthly open mic night. Joshua has since set up a literary charity called Sing Lit station – to fund writing and bigger inter-disciplinary projects including spoken word, and the which is an online archive.

The next big development was Singapore Poetry Writing Month (SingPoWriMo).  It’s first membership wasn’t all poets, but Singapore is so small, there is a huge bleeding into of different art forms, more so than other places, as everyone knows every body else. As it is the Singaporean style, SingPoWriMo has become quite a competitive space, where it has been gamefied with things like challenges and daily bonuses. That started with like a hundred or 200 people in 2014 and is now at something like 5000 participants.

What’s your take on the spoken word versus page poetry dichotomy?  Do you think there’s a difference, and if so, which do you identify as?

My love for poetry is rooted in reading poetry on the page.  I almost feel hypocritical about this, but I feel my capacity for enjoying poetry is larger through reading.  It takes a lot more for spoken word to impress me than poetry on a page – perhaps I’ve consumed too much. As a kid, I was obsessed with reading books, my love of poetry comes from being on my own, with a book.

There’s a huge value in spoken word, in the art form as well as the scene and the community.  I do identify as a spoken word artist, but I also write for the page. 

The process for writing both is the same for me.  But I do prefer to perform and express my art on the stage, instead of something like submitting to a journal. 

As a medium to consume, I prefer the page. As a medium for producing work, I prefer spoken word. I first started writing poetry and identifying or thinking of myself as a poet in a poetry workshop during my degree in the US.  I still see it as my primary art.  At some point when the workshops were over, I found we’d created three months of work, made our small chapbooks, gotten to know each other and to rely on our critiques… in ended and there was no support other than submitting to journals and waiting and waiting for them to come back to you.

Then I did an internship in Vancouver and stumbled onto a poetry slam. It was way more rewarding than submitting and waiting. You get immediate feedback, connect with people, create a community around the work.

So you said you got into poetry as a young person on the page. What was your first influences?

I loved nursery rhymes.  My parents got me lots of story tapes and I could recite the stories out by memory and it looked like I could read but I was really retelling the stories.  When I went to school they were surprised to discover I didn’t actually know how to read.  But an early favourite was a book called “Poetry for Pleasure”.

In my late teens, one of my very early influences is Ng Yi-Sheng which I mentioned earlier. When I was eighteen, Singapore had it’s very first queer poetry reading, which I somehow found out about it on the internet.  It was the only queer event in Singapore at the time.  In 2006, I got Yi-Sheng’s first poetry book and it was his poetry about coming out. It was a huge revelation and a huge influence for me:  open and blatant in it’s sexuality. At another point, I found another writer Justin Chin, a Malaysian poet who went to the University of Hawaii and then San Francisco, was quite big in the slam scene there in the 90s. He would write really transgressive and graphic work about being gay, being Asian American, about his mum who was living in small town in Malaysia. It was mind blowing that this guy existed. He wrote a great essay about slam and why he left it. He just had a lot of issues with people telling him he only won because he was gay and Asian.

I saw you doing a really interesting poem from this perspective, “Foreigner go home with me”.  Where do you sit on this issue of having identity being imposed upon you?

In Singapore, Chinese people are the ones with privilege. People can refuse you housing if you aren’t Chinese, can be refused jobs if you aren’t Chinese speaking – some of it is systemic and some of it cultural. Indian and Malay people, are still very underrepresented in a lot of areas, even in poetry. Now, these groups are organising, getting online, and events are giving a platform. They are vocal but still very much a minority.

I never felt really comfortable writing about race or oppression too explicitly.  Foreigner go home is probably as explicit as I’ve gone.  I think it’s because (1) I feel there are people who do it much better than me, people actually from cultures and backgrounds with a violent history of oppression.  In Singapore, there is this narrative about going overseas and being treated worse, to quote my father, “You are going to go from first, to second class citizen,” which is a really fucked up thing to say.  So when I first went to the US to study, I decided I’m really not going to sweat this.

I specifically chose a school with very few Singaporeans, because at the time I wanted to assimilate as much as possible, because I was young and didn’t know any better.  When I got there I found out what it meant: that I was in a very white place, that not only this is what it feels like to be a minority, but to be surrounded by people who are very ignorant about my context and culture, people uninterested in where I was from.  This is fine, but on one hand, I had people who were angry if I assumed they didn’t know where Singapore was, “Do you think I’m an ignorant American?” And on the other hand, people were offended when I wrote a story set in Singapore, “Why is everyone Asian and why do they have Asian names?”

When I first was in US, I wrote a lot about Singapore, the trees, nature.  Someone described my poetry as very exotic sounding, so one hand — WTF?  And on the other hand I realise now maybe I was exoticising myself and my background.  And in the early to mid 2000’s, we didn’t necessarily have the language to talk about race.

It was only when I left that I knew how fucked up it was.  When I went to UK, I found that on one hand, the culture was more diverse and international, but on the other hand, racism was more blatant.  In most spaces I was in, I was the only Asian or East Asian person there, which was interesting. In many spaces, I was more comfortable with this. The one time I wasn’t, we got mistaken for each other.

I think also, I really wanted to reject Singaporean culture – I saw it as intrinsically linked with capitalism, greed, self centred ness and very archaic values.  My mother hated Singaporean culture and she linked Westernisation with thinking for ourselves or thinking outside the box.  Of course now all that seems like rubbish.  It was when I was in London that I started hearing about a growing poetry scene and growing activism. I’ve had enough of the West, I was tired of having to explain myself and people getting my name wrong. I took the option to return to Singapore, to see how I can contribute to this growing sub-culture that was very different.

Looking back, I realise now that I did put up with more microaggressions and discrimination within the predominantly white poetry and activist scenes than I was aware of at the time. I could have internalised a lot of it

There are so many layers to this thing, But it sounds like at least for you, the spoken word scene and activism goes very closely hand in hand.

I don’t actually feel like I do enough political activism to call myself an activist (though I wish I had more time to). I organize events and try to create spaces for people, especially young LGBTQ folks, to make sense of and/or try to cope with living in a what can be a horrifically oppressive society and hope it helps in some way. 

On another note, what I want to talk about in the workshop is how spoken word poets in this part of the world navigate the relationship between writing and politics. In my experience, many artists in Singapore end up deciding where they stand early on, because of structures and restrictions. Many people who aren’t from Singapore often assume we must be either getting arrested for talking about the government at poetry nights or have total freedom of speech. The reality is more complicated than that. For example, ticketed poetry and other arts events events get rated the way movies do, so we have to submit our scripts to a board in advance. Queerness, inequality and politicians are a few of the topics which can be considered unsuitable for a general audience. 

So the very act of choosing to practice art here is a political statement.

In some ways. Even if you don’t mean for it to be, even if you consider your writing to be apolitical it can still be politicised and subject to restrictions. I guess you could infer how this means even putting on things like queer events is some kind of act of resistance. There are more barriers to navigate, we also learn to play by the rules and self-censor.

But I would not say that all art here is inherently political, especially since so much of it is created by people in comfortable socio-economic positions, for people in positions of power and comfort, and often gets co-opted to make the country look cool and friendly.

You have a recent collection, “Roadkill for Beginners”. Can you talk about that?

Roadkill for Beginners is a collection of poems, some written for performance and some written to be read (though at this point I have performed almost all of them) and they span 2009 to 2017. It’s sort of a chronological and geographic journey from growing up in Singapore to elsewhere and back again. Somewhere in between there’s a cabin and birds and trying to assimilate in an intentional community in the American Midwest and painting banners and cycling through in London while imagining myself in a cyberpunk dystopia novel.

When I returned to Singapore, there was sort of a a poetry publication renaissance. A wonderful independent bookshop called Books Actually and its publishing arm, Math Paper Press (you should visit it!), created some very beautifully and slickly designed poetry collections by both new and established poets and increased the popularity of buying poetry books among people in Singapore, so the idea of publishing a collection of my poems suddenly became a possibility in my mind.

I submitted manuscripts around without much success for a few years, and people kept telling me that it was getting harder to publish and eventually I became quite bitter about the whole thing. But I was speaking to Melizarani T. Selva one night, and she asked, why don’t you have a book out yet?  Meliza said, just submit your manuscript. Get it in order and submit it to everyone one more time. And finally I got a bite. In hindsight, I realise it’s important not to listen to the naysayers, and just get on with it.

What’s your next big project?

At some point, I would like to do a show on the book, maybe collaborate with musicians. It’s still I thinking stage. I am going to be part of this event called Sing Lit body slam – a collaboration with spoken word poets and wrestlers, Meliza and I are going to team up, we did it two years ago, and Joshua Ip one of his schoolmates started his own wrestling school, and the way it works there will be poetry battles and each poetry will have it’s own avatar – and this year we think the poet’s will also learn to wrestle.

Thank you Stephanie for a great interview! Be sure to check her out when she’s in Melbourne for MSWPF 2019, at the festival opening night, Mother Tongue Women of Fire, Going Down Swinging’s Spoken Like A Champion or check out her workshop.

Waffle Irongirl