Meet local poet Felix Cheong and his melancholic process of looking back to look forward

Most writers’ first drafts never see the light of day. Felix Cheong, on the other hand, turned the drafts of his early poems into an entire book. It turns out one man’s trash can also be his own treasure.

Published by Math Paper Press, B-Sides and Backslides: 1986-2018 is in essence the 53-year-old Singaporean poet’s chronological memoirs. Stretching from his first foray into writing till today, they include the early “outtakes” that never made it into any of his 12 other books, as well as more recent poems written with a now seasoned hand.

“The book was kind of an accident—it was a baby I didn’t know I had till it came out,” joked Cheong, who currently teaches creative writing and Literature part-time at a handful of local private universities. “It started because in January this year I was going through all my files; I usually keep all the drafts of my poems dating back to 1990s. I was trying to get hold of a few my old drafts to show my creative writing students, to enlighten them to the crafting process—how it doesn’t happen in just one draft, you need to keep writing and rewriting.”

“So as I was going through the drafts I noticed that actually a lot of the old poems do work to some extent, because I saw some value in the lines—just that at that point of time when I was writing them I didn’t have the maturity to finish them,” he added.

The title was inspired by the lesser-known B-side of a vinyl—a window of opportunity for artists and musicians in the past to experiment with their craft without risking commercial success. “The Beatles used the B-sides to monkey around with different techniques and rhythms,” said Cheong. “Things that were not hits—so they weren’t under pressure to produce a hit single.”

Among the stories included that chart his life, some hint at his crush on a much younger intern when he was working as a studio director at CNBC in the ‘90s; others offer tongue-in-cheek comment on local politics and religion. Satirical poems like Confessions of a Siam King, Headmaster Lee and the Impossible Door, and This Is What Meritocracy Tastes Like are so imbued with an effortless sense of national identity they will likely sit best with Singaporean readers. In the second half, Cheong shares deeply personal moments about the breakdown of his first marriage, through clipped but heart-wrenching verses.

, Meet local poet Felix Cheong and his melancholic process of looking back to look forward
The aerial view of Pearl Bank Apartments on the book’s cover mirrors Cheong’s own “helicopter view” of his life

The book comes nine years after his last anthology of poems. In 2009, the poet announced he would be retiring his main form; distress from his personal life had taken a toll on him.

“At the point in time when I claimed retirement, I thought I had done everything I could with the poetic form. I was also going through my divorce,” he shared.

“I remember one particular incident where I was trying to write a poem to my son, trying to explain to him why I had to leave. I was sitting in a coffeeshop in East Coast Park and I was crying; I was drafting it and I was crying, and wasn’t sure how to explain to him. And I thought: Poetry shouldn’t be so hard; poetry shouldn’t be so heart-wrenching. I wanted to give up writing altogether.”

But he soon realized he was meant to be a writer. Newly heartened, he made a trip to Roxy Square in Marine Parade, and for $300 and three hours got a typewriter inked permanently onto his forearm. A romantic at heart, Cheong started writing his first stories on his father’s old typewriter, back in secondary school in the ‘70s. Today, the black lines of the nostalgic machine remain just as defined on his skin—a “painful and physical reminder to keep writing”, said Cheong.

Poetry then was still too painful for him to return to, so he branched out into other genres—short stories and humorous fiction that would culminate in two successful editions of Singapore Siu Dai, children’s books, and even poetic drama scripts.

This November, he will be participating in the Singapore Writers Festival to perform an experimental classical music cum poetry set, alongside young musicians Mervin Wong and Natalie Ng. Wong and Ng will rework classical musical pieces, to which Cheong will write and recite lines of poetry. Describing it as ambient music with influences from classical music, Cheong called it another chance to extend himself as a writer.

, Meet local poet Felix Cheong and his melancholic process of looking back to look forward
Cheong with his art collective Osmosis, comprising Natalie Ng and Mervin Wong, at the launch of B-Sides

“(Poetry) was hard because it was digging too much into myself; trying to bring out the raw emotions over the breakdown of my first marriage,” he said. “It was also paradoxically too easy—I felt like I was repeating myself; I didn’t have anything new to say. I just had this bag of tricks that I kept using and reusing.”

“But now I realize that bag of tricks is what makes me unique as a writer. I suppose every writer has his own bag of tricks—some writing habits, quirks or expressions that are uniquely yours; so I shouldn’t be ashamed of it,” he added. Dipping back into this bag to rework old pieces for B-Sides, then, gave him the confidence to re-embrace poetry once more. “It was an opportunity for me to look back on my work— because as you grow older and mature as a writer, you also need to look back; to see where you’ve come and where you think you’re going. To understand why you’re here.”

It seems that no matter how hard he tries, he won’t ever be able to completely shake the genre. Poetry, he admitted, comes most naturally to him. So does he think he will ever retire from both poetry and writing (again)?

“No,” he laughed. “You can when you run out of things to talk about or run out of ideas; but you can always find ways to rejuvenate yourself. Like giving yourself a Botox jab.”

“I think after foolishly claiming retirement in 2009, I shall refrain from doing another Rebecca Lim,” he smiled.