I’ve never released an official statement. I’m told it’s helpful for all sorts of things. How children see you. How adults see you. How your fellow artists see you. How historians and theorists and The Internet see you, one day when you are gone. (The Internet will outlive us all). It’s all us and our signals. Then, just out signals.
And I want to answer the buzzing in my head.
The hive made out of all these voices and their questions. I answer in my head and not in the real world where these voices really are – not often enough. Answering in the real world and not your head takes more courage and thought.
So here is my statement.
It might change over time. It answers serious things and silly things, and to the best of my ability, answers honestly.
Who are you? What do you do?
My name is Jennifer Anne Champion. I am a writer.
Let me break the fairytale of the writer as a precocious child writer for you reader, by saying I wrote my first poem when I was 23.
I had no great romantic ambition to be a writer. The choice surprises me everyday.
How did you come to do what you do?
I started in 2010, taking part in slam poetry competitions while in university. Like most college students, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life.
I wrote and performed my first poem, not knowing how to write one.
Somehow it was embraced by Singapore’s live poetry scene – a warm, generous scene, like no where else in this city. I was invited to come back by generous collectives like spacer.gif and SPEAK. It was in this way that I began, what I would consider my apprenticeship to poetry and performance. Through trying and bombing on slam stages and laughing at the end of the night. Pints of beer and high fives at the end of the night. My earliest ‘poems’ were obfuscated with big, strange words that tried to hide the content I spoke about. I have been careful of making sure no public records of these poems exist because I am perplexed by their rudimentary form. I remember doing a very early version of the poem ‘Butterfly’ and coming off stage and Nabilah Husna saying, “Cool poem. What was that about?” “Rape.” I answered. I didn’t quite expect her face to turn that much with shock. It’s still one of those pieces that older me looks at too, thinking: Yah horh… where did I hide it?
In retrospect I would say, the content of my pain was hidden under a deep mistrust I had for people I read my poetry to.
I hid my feeling in words and began to enjoy the process of a blind articulating of sorts. The stakes weren’t high enough for me to make myself comprehensible to the crowds at Blu Jaz Bar and Cafe (where Singapore’s longest-running poetry open-mic still runs), until I was offered by Marc Nair to do a full one-hour performance of poetry with what would become the poetry collective, Sekaliwags. I wrote a fairly straight-forward, narrative account of my childhood called “Ballet Class”. The story was simple:
Mixed-raced child has problems integrating within government kindergarten and subsequent public schools. Scars are left in adulthood. Various aspects considered. Racism. Childhood bullying, with particular garnishes of girlish pettiness. The role of education and our institutions…
(I’m stripping it down to the basics. You can find the actual poem in my first collection, A History of Clocks, published by Redwheelbarrow Books.)
… And this poem made me a writer.
Not because of its skill or beauty, but because I had cracked open an honesty in me and also for the first time, learnt to be detached enough to say what I meant. “Ballet Class” is not a technically brilliant poem, but a personal best; that happened to touch enough people to encourage me to keep writing more.
Changes started happening.
At first it was superficial. People started noticing and stopping me in the street. Or if I worked a part-time job somewhere behind a counter or doing anything un-writerly, they’d be like: Aren’t you the writer? Why are you working here?
After awhile it felt more comfortable working on art projects to sustain myself than anything else. After awhile, people call you a writer so much, that you accept it with grace and great gratitude.
Aiyoh. Why this part of the story so long? I sleep liao. Zzz…
I’ll cut to the point then. The personal truth I revealed in “Ballet Class” outside the wider ideas of discrimination and social tension was that I was denied access to language at a formative age, prior to entering primary school.
My teacher in kindergarten felt more comfortable instructing in Chinese and as the only non-Chinese child present in that particular class, perhaps she felt there was no harm in excluding just the one child in lessons.
My mother discovered I had a problem with language and communication just before I entered Primary School. I was taught to read and write by a private tutor who lived in our neighbourhood named Mrs. Teo, who had a British accent.
I subsequently have one.
It has had both wonderful and terrible consequences for my personal and professional life.
Is this why it annoys you to death that everyday, someone asks you to confirm if you are Singaporean?
Posed by everyone I’ve ever met, musings of which went into the first article I ever wrote for Esquire Magazine, Singapore.
I am also still actively using poetry as a way of untangling my emotions regarding identity, acceptance and integration in my place of birth. I have always been insecure about my personal abilities in writing and expression. I think it is for this reason that I have been so romantically and cheerfully lost within the world of the literary arts.
So Miss, you don’t mind me asking ah, what mix are you?
It’s hard to answer. The state’s method of identifying race for Singaporeans is still too inadequate to give you or me an answer.
But I promise you Unker, I know who I am. I’m very sure I’m not from America/Eurasia/whatever. Help me, help you, help me, see me as Singaporean, can?
I was born here, raised here, went to school here, got excited about going on a plane to Mother England for the first time when I was in JC here, but otherwise, I have not called any other place but Singapore, my home.
So it puzzles me how often I have to prove I belong here. I am still formulating my thoughts on the wider implications of identity, belonging and nationhood. In the mean time, let’s say I’m a unicorn.
So are you a writer ‘idealistically’, ‘professionally’, ‘occupationally’? Are you one of those privileged people who just doesn’t need to live on anything, or like um… how do you live? You’re not also a plumber/civil servant/etc. on the side are you?
Posed to me once by the partner of one of the great poet doyens of Singapore, himself not a poet.
I am a full-time, independent writer.
I have written a bunch of things, taught a bunch of stuff, bunched together bits of things in books, shows, archives. You name it.
I have worked independently as well as collaborated with collectives and institutions in Singapore and abroad. I have a long way to go before reaching my prime.
My parents were very skeptical, but I have bullied them into accepting this. Also because they are teachers and on the conservative side, they often remind me how lucky I am that they purchased my health and life insurance policies at a very young age. In my most filial dreams, they lovingly threaten to charge me rent. In my waking days, they tell me as long as I can provide for myself, they’re happy. Not all of us are this lucky.
My mother once asked me if I was worried working in such an unconventional profession.
But I told her that I don’t intend to retire. Idealists don’t retire. They starve and die. Why do you think I’m so skinny? (Note to self: Edit this paragraph. My mother will both understand my humour and be disappointed. Tough choices.)
Why is your hair not silver anymore,
and how many rabbits do you actually have?
Posed this year to me during the Words Go Round 2016 by students of Singapore School of Technology, German European school, and my dear colleague Mr. Alfian Sa’at.
Answer: I have bleached me hair on and off since I was 20. Sometimes, hair just needs to rest and you may occasionally see dark hair. But I believe my true spirit animal hair colour is silver. And I cannot wait for the day when this will naturally be so.
As of February 2016, I have two rabbits. Polo ‘Limpeh’ Champion who is 8 years old. The vet recently said he is surprised Polo is still alive. The other is President Snow Panda. Nick has left us for a better place.
I also now take care of a beautiful boy cat named Orfeu Ngero.
I play pool less frequently, and drink double the caffeine I used to. As the students of Dunman High School in this year’s Words Go Round programme will know, I drink at least 6 cups of coffee/tea per day.
Okay. Who do you vote for?
Posed to me by a peer, shortly before my last collaboration with Sekaliwags in 2014.
You are asking the wrong question. It’s what I vote for.
My dream, as soppy as it sounds, is for every Singaporean to be equipped to write poetry in the language of their choice. I vote for any project direct or ambigous that supports this goal. Yes. I genuinely believe creative writing, particularly poetry, should be as basic and necessary a skill to everyone as simple math.
The argument for poetry in our daily lives and schools has often been made thus:
Increased capabilities in abstract and critical thought. We are making out citizens smarter/more culturally-enriched/etc. etc. etc.
I see it from this point of view:
We speak in poetry. We articulate in art. There are some of us who form meaning very literally. Some of us who deftly switch codes. Then, there are some of us who can only convey meaning, make themselves understood through art. And not all of them will be recognised as artists. I’m thinking of the little child in my past, unable to command words. When there is no language, there is art.
Once in that kindergarten, I remember vividly that I was unable to convey to the instructor in Chinese that I needed to go outside and use the bathroom. So I vomit a little in my mouth and opened it to show her so she could understand what I needed.
In kindness and retrospect, I think that incident was my first performance art piece.
I am open to any plan that allows all individuals access, positive validation and prospect to improve their ability of expression and communication.
In this way we shall achieve world peace.
(Maybe. Probably not. But it would make for a substantially better world.)
So back to artistic purpose. What are you doing now?
Currently I balance my duties as an independent administrator and my art.
I archive and manage poetry and poetic activity in Singapore as Multimedia Editor at poetry.sg. And I am a fucking army. (Sorry reader, but it really does feel like Band of Brothers sometimes, what I do in this capacity. But I honestly love it).
I am looking into establishing my own professional space of work. i.e. I will be the writer-in-residence of my own office. I once told my fellow poet Paul Tan about this necessary infrastructure for writers compared to other artists (dancers with their dance studios, concert halls, etc.). He said (and I paraphrase so don’t trust my veracity): Writers don’t need much what, can sit in Macdonalds and write. To which I said: Aiyoh! Cannot lah!
In retrospect, I would extend my reasoning further.
If one has writers sit in Macdonalds to write poetry, you get poetry about MacDonalds. Hello Kitty. Queues. Army boy stench. Lovely very Singaporean things. Generally focussed on the local. Trite. Repetitive. A little greasy. Slowly decaying into cliche.
But imagine if you put our writers in a quiet blank room.
In another room they have access to all the literary culture their peers have produced. The finest of Singapore’s MacDonalds poetry for reference. And not only that. But a full library dedicated to Singapore Literature. An easily accessible pool of our local traditions. Never again will writers claim ignorance of what their other fellow writers have produced. They just wouldn’t dare because it would be truly, professionally disrespectful. They’ll be forced to push their limits further. The public and the pundits will know where to find our local Jane Austens and Enid Blytons and other [insert post-colonial hangover choice heres] and more importantly, writers will know where to find themselves.
Imagine what these writers could write under such circumstances. This is one of many long-term visions I puzzle over. (LOGISTICZZZ!)
I am also working on my poetry collection Caterwaul.
I have been working on Caterwaul, from the moment Kenny Leck of Math Paper Press proposed to publish a solo collection of my work to me in 2014 to now.
That’s two years. Which leads me to the last question to answer.
Why are you writing this now?
Because it’s been two years.
And I want to complete my book, Caterwaul.
I can smell it. Hear the ink, pleading as blood would, at the printers. It will take all my energy to do it. It means answering all the voices, even the trivial ones, so that I can finally listen to the blank wall office of my head and give that final push.
I hope that what I’ve written will tell you everything you could possibly want to know of me, at a time where professionally and personally, my life is perhaps a little too eventful for me to answer in any other way than a broad-spectrum fantasy interview.
Don’t worry poet friends of everywhere, I will get to you soon one by one. And I committed to the
Caterwaul is my artistic contribution to Art with capital A. I still want to work on all the other projects I have lined up, but I will be on light duty at present until the end of April 2016 – the deadline I have given myself to send the manuscript the wonderful offices of Sarah & Schooling.
How will we hear about your shows and appearances then?
Facebook. Instagram. Etc. etc. I am Jennifer Anne Champion. Not a hard person to find. But I shouldn’t be on social media. I should be writing!