Friday 17 April 2020

Stephanie Chan aka Stephanie Dogfoot talks about her stirring collection Roadkill for Beginners, slam poetry, and her different performing hats.

Courtesy of Author

Stephanie Chan’s poetry has been described as “conjuring a kind of matter-of-fact magic, full of warm, everyday rhythms and rhymes – aspects of life exaggerated or distilled to their most joyous, beautiful and/or ridiculous.” A former national poetry slam champion in Singapore and the UK, Stephanie currently produces poetry and stand up comedy nights in Singapore. She has been invited to perform on stages across five continents, including the Glastonbury Festival, Ubud Writer’s and Readers’ Festival and the George Town Literary Festival and has toured Australia, Germany and North America with her poetry. 


Roadkill for Beginners is Stephanie Chan’s first collection of poetry. It’s part scrapbook of love letters to places, part field guide to the people in them. It’s a messy celebration of open mics, bonfires, and poetry stages around the world, the connections that grow up around them and the adventures that happen after. It explores desire, moving, belonging, and everything in between. It’s got apocalyptic hawker centres, magical night bus rides, and hungry turkey vultures. It’s about growing up, and not. For you, it hopes to feel like the lyrical equivalent of spooning in strange buildings then flying at full speed down a steep empty road on a bike at two in the morning.

EC: Welcome to Asian Books Blog, Stephanie. Congratulations on the publication of your superb poem collection. A collection of livewire prose; sometimes I read a poem and it feels like I’ve been bitten.  What was the first poem in this collection, and which the last, how did this project begin and how long did it take to put together?  

SC: First of all, thank you featuring me on this blog, and taking the time to read my book. I’m glad you enjoyed it! This collection consists of poems written between 2010 and 2019, between the ages of 22 and 3. 

The latest poem is God Is a DJ with an American Accent—that one is almost pure nostalgia for early 2000s pop music and being a teenager in a time when the radio provided almost more community than the internet. 

The earliest poem I wrote, I think, is Back Again. I wrote it in 2010 when I was back in Singapore from the UK for around 2 months, the longest period of time I had been in Singapore in several years. I was listening to a lot of Bob Dylan at the time and the poem was written to the beat/tune of the song ‘I Want You’. I imagined Singapore as a person I loved but had also outgrown. I spent several months at home writing it, and it was probably cathartic because I was sorting out a lot of complicated feelings about having to change the person I had become while adapting to living at home again.

I think the project began when I finally moved back to Singapore permanently in 2014 and realised, actually, maybe I am ready to put together a book. It took a few years and several rejections, as well as a lot of refining and polishing my manuscript and maturing as a writer and figuring out what I wanted the collection to say before it was actually ready for publishing.

EC: Quite several of the poems reference political events such as UK riots, witch-hunting, queer politics, UK immigration detention centres where horrific abuse goes on, and more locally, Singapore’s exploitation of foreign domestic workers. Would you consider yourself a political poet?

SC: This is a good question! I would say yes and no. Yes, in the sense that I am a person who cares a lot about social justice, politics, and radical, systemic change, and I try to get involved in activism when I can. My politics and worldview do influence my poems, even if it’s not always obvious. One of my major motivations to write is to give people a taste of my worldview and what informs it, and to challenge the way they currently see the world. I also write about activism as a way of honouring and encouraging other activists.

However, I do think the label ‘political poet’ is limiting. I think we urgently need poetry about politics, justice, environmental and socio-political issues, but I could not make that the only thing I write about. I do not really write to raise awareness or convince people that they should believe something. I often do not feel comfortable writing about political issues unless I can add something new and nuanced to the conversation. I think many problems can be better tackled by activism and concrete action than by writing poems about them. I think the role of poetry should be to, first, make people stop and think, and second, a bit further down, to make them believe and change.

What I’m saying is, if the revolution happens, I would be more interested in writing about the everyday lives, misadventures and small hypocrisies of the revolutionaries and their friends, rather than about how great or terrible the revolution is. 

EC: I particularly enjoyed – if you allow me to metaphorise – the ‘flipping coin’ effect of the collection: Heads, I’m in Singapore, reading about local culture like the Orang Minyak and Singaporean DJ celeb Jean Danker; Tails, I’m reading about Granville, Ohio or the 29 Bus from Wood Green. Did the large geographical spread bother you in terms of pulling it together as a collection? Are you a child of diaspora? 

SC: That’s a really interesting way of seeing it! The geographical spread was never something that bothered me, though it may have concerned my editor at first! In fact, I would say it is a hallmark of my collection, which is about how we all can find and create homes and community in wildly different places, with wildly different groups of people. So the book has a section for Ohio, London and two sections for Singapore, because I have felt equally at home in each of these places, and each has made me who I am.

What I was trying to do was locate homes not in different countries per se, but within different communities and subcultures in these countries, for example, among the roommates I have chopped wood with in Ohio, the activists I have painted banners with at midnight in London, and the queer classmates and poets I have moaned and dreamed with in Singapore. And the mythology that surrounds each location.

I still feel equally at home talking about Orang Minyaks as I do talking about Ohio wildlife and London buses.

I have never really identified with the term ‘diaspora’. Especially not now when I live in Singapore. I toyed with the term when I lived in the UK but it never really felt like it fit, maybe because I never really felt like either country (or any country for that matter) was that important a part of my identity.

Courtesy of Author
EC: ‘Mid-climax hair puller’ from Satellites and the Granville Ohio poem, where ‘rasa’ is the name of a four-star holiday resort, made me laugh. What is the role/place for humour in your poems?

SC: I try not to take myself too seriously in poems, and am always second-guessing the way I think and behave in my poems. I prefer to be an unreliable but entertaining narrator. Humour and irony are my own ways of reminding people that the world is not black and white.

I learnt to write funny poems because of my background in poetry slams, where having punchlines is extremely important to keep an audience’s attention (and score points). My experience in slams has trained me to find humour in painfully relatable things. I like it when and audience laughs when I name a very specific, embarrassing thing that I have done, thought, and we know it’s because we have all done or experienced it at some point. To me, humour and vulnerability go hand in hand.

An example: you mentioned my poem We Found a Sign in a Dumpster that said ‘Granville, Ohio. Population 500. Centre of Everything’ I write about a white American friend explaining to me the meaning of the Sanskrit word ‘rasa’ and South Asian spiritual concept which she had learnt from her white music teacher. The rest of the poem is a collection of small stories about micro-aggressions that I have experienced in Ohio. But I also felt the world did not need another poem with the message ‘racism-is-bad-because-I-experienced-it-for-the first-time-in-America-even-though-Singapore-is-also-super-racist’ (though I have been guilty of this line of thinking when I was younger).

So I use humour and made fun of myself throughout the poem to show that my experiences were actually more complex than that. I ended the poem with the realisation that even as I was beginning to judge (and inviting readers to judge) my friend, I only knew the word ‘rasa’ because of a holiday resort to point out that maybe people in Singapore, including myself, are equally guilty of cultural appropriation, exoticisation and commodification.

EC: Your last poem, Why This, appears to be drawn directly from your experience as a spoken word performer. Honestly, all that sweating and nervousness before going on stage, I can’t tell you how much I relate. What’s that leap from page to stage like, and what are some different aesthetic considerations with regards to each?

SC: So I first discovered poetry slams in Vancouver while living there for a summer in 2008 and was very inspired by the range of things people were writing and performing about, as well as the supportive community. Still, when I performed my first poem there, I was not prepared for the amount of encouragement I received, and for a while kept writing poems that were meant to be performed.

My poems started having more punchlines, more stories, less description, and in some senses it felt a lot more freeing and I felt I could be myself more. My writing became more focussed on rhythm and rhyme, and how I could keep an audience’s attention, and less about experimenting with form and technical skill. For me creating poetry for the stage is about looking for new angles all the time and performing work in new ways that make you memorable, and able to connect emotionally with your audience in a matter of seconds. I really enjoyed transitioning to performing poetry on the stage because it was a place where I could get immediate feedback (= gratification?). 

However, my first love is still reading and creating poetry that is meant to be read on a page (though I also believe that most poems can reside on both the stage and the page). On the page, you have to think about how the poem looks, and what kinds of patterns it contains, what ideas you want to hide and how, it’s almost like building a puzzle, and you can be as subtle as you like. In some ways, it is easier to be experimental on the page because you aren’t worrying as much about keeping anyone’s attention. 

EC: Do tell us all the different hats you wear, and how those efforts cross-fertilise (or not) your creativity.

SC: Aside from poetry, I also do stand up comedy, drag and burlesque. I also run a poetry night called Spoke & Bird and a stand up comedy night called Siao Char Bor Comedy, and host stand up comedy shows. Doing stand up has made me much more comfortable onstage and bantering while performing poetry. Poetry has taught me to find the patterns in joke-structures for stand up (I have been told that my spoken word poetry contains better-structured jokes than my stand-up!). Drag and burlesque have shown me ways to connect with audiences in a huge range of ways that do not involve my own writing, and remind me that I still have a lot to learn as a performer.

Producing events, especially open mics, keeps me grounded and connected to the poetry and stand up scenes, and gives me a taste of new work being created by new and experienced poets and comics. They give me a space to test out my own writing, and also remind me to stay humble and to keep writing. There is something creatively very satisfying about bringing writers and artists you know and love into the same room, and seeing them get inspired by one another.

EC:  How has the pandemic affected you either in (1) book promotions or (2) your daily writing practice or career, and what ways are you finding to cope?

SC: As a comic and events producer, I have lost most of my gigs for the rest of the year.

I was planning on turning my book Roadkill For Beginners into a live solo show called An Intermediate Guide to Roadkill, that would include a slideshow and a bunch of stories about the poems. I was going to perform at the end of April, but the live show been put on hold. I may find a way to perform to it online though.

I do think that as creative people, we can find ways to keep collaborating and producing work and getting paid in the midst of global lockdowns. I have not gotten around to organising things yet (I am enjoying not having to worry about my own events for the first time in years!), but there are many poets and stand up comics who are organising online shows and livestreams on a weekly, if not daily basis. I have been coping by trying to perform as much as I can. In the past week I have been part of a KL-based poetry fundraiser, a KL-based storytelling night, a live talk show based in Melbourne and performed drag to a bunch of strangers and friends who have never seen me perform before on Instagram Live. And people keep organising new things all the time.

It’s not a perfect alternative and people are still figuring what works and what doesn’t, but I think we may start to see the way we organise and produce live events evolve in all kinds of exciting ways. Producing open mics and events online also gives us a huge opportunity to connect internationally as well.

One other way I have been coping/keeping up my writing practice has been taking part in Singapore Poetry Writing Month (SingPoWriMo), a Facebook group and annual event where people posts daily prompts, where you can share your poems with the 6000+ strong community and get feedback on them. I am making a commitment to myself to write one poem a day from April 1st to April 30th. I am also a Junior Moderator in the group, which means I’ve volunteered to leave feedback on poems, and ensures we provide feedback on as many poems as possible (as long as the poets want it).  It’s been a great way to connect with fellow poet friends every day (sometimes for several hours each day) and a good way to keep writing and fight off writers’ block.  

NB: Roadkill for Beginners may be purchased from BooksActually. A special appeal from Stephanie: "They are a small, independent bookshop that is hugely supportive of new writers, and especially Singapore-based writers, and are struggling in the midst of Singapore’s circuit breaker, so do order books from them!"

Stephanie's website: