ME! ME! ME! @ “THE WORD’S A STAGE” 2/8/13

London can be a dead dull place on a hot summer’s Friday evening in Bethnal Green, but never fear!

UPDATE: a trailer!

STEPHANIE DOGFOOT vs. JASON PILLEY, ROUND TWO: DING DING DING!

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INTERVIEW WITH STEPHANIE DOGFOOT

The best way to be a poet is to be poetry: lead a sufficiently magical life and the hard work tends to take care of itself. Here’s Stephanie Chan a.k.a. Stephanie Dogfoot whom Pope Benedict XVI himself was moved to describe as “…a poet of the moments, the devil in the details, a person of colours: Stephanie has lead and continues to lead a supremely rich life and her pen is gifted with the instinct to capture that richness.” She’s been all over the place, she’s done things you wish you’d done, she’s won titles like “UK Poetry Slam Champion,” she co-runs one of the best regular poetry-nights in London, “Forget What You Heard…” – I could say a whole lot more but what does Stephanie have to say?

* What does poetry mean to you? I was told I should write and that I would make a good writer since I was very young. I was also told I would be excellent at running because a thyroid doctor found I had a very low heart rate which would make me good at long-distance running, and my grandparents said I had long legs. I did go into running by believing I was naturally talented, even though I hated it at first, just because they said I should. And I won some things. I used to count my days by whether or not I ran somewhere new, and I saw it as something almost spiritual. Now, running and I have a more distant relationship, but an understanding that I will go back to being a runner one day, just not in this point in my life.

So, um… writing is a bit like that but not really. I think I would have done it anyway even if I didn’t think I was good at it. I was always making up situations and stories and got inspired by everything, I just didn’t know the word for inspiration. I was always obsessed with reading but for some reason didn’t like literature classes very much until we did a close line-by-line analysis of a poem. Maybe since then I have found fiction a bit long and frustrating, considering how much meaning you can pack into a poem.

I took a poetry writing class once and liked how it felt. Then I discovered performing poetry onstage and found I liked how that felt as well.

So while I like all kinds of forms of writing I just happen to have found poetry to be the best (most efficient? urgent?) outlet at this point in time to get ideas out into the world. You don’t have to read it or listen to it for ages to figure out if it’s really good or really bad, or get things out of it unlike with the other forms.

* You’ve performed in Canada, Singapore, and England. What do you specifically like/dislike about the London poetry-scene? And about London itself? Crap I have spent too long on the first question. I will try and be more concise.

London: diversity that we take for granted, so many different nights, many different voices, huge, varied, many people, possible to find a niche for yourself no matter what you do, people always go home too early after gigs, introduced me to some of the best people I know. Dislikes: in spite of diversity people often copy styles and traditions they like, you see very similar topics, not enough female poets, not enough water guns.

Vancouver: can’t really comment because it was my first experience with performance poetry, but it was amazing, surreal, a lot of weird poems, very queer friendly, very loud, people cheered a lot in between poems. Dislikes: was only 21 and still painfully shy so made no friends there.

Singapore: again, can’t really comment because I haven’t really been back enough, but I have met some of the most interesting Singaporeans through it, which is my one glimmer hope for when I go back, lots of links to activist communities, my friend Nabilah Husna, I can use whatever Singaporean references I want and people will get it. Also, they sent me to the Indian Ocean! Dislikes: they won’t understand some of my London references.

* Many of your poems deal with autobiographical material, and in listening to you one learns a lot about your past, your family, your life: so in that vein,

How would you choose to die? I would choose not to die. I would rather not know, but if I could choose, somewhere beautiful, like one of those places you’re supposed to see before you die. It would be where I was JUST before I die. Ideally, painlessly and in my sleep. Or maybe spectacular like on the edge of a volcano. I would choose NOT TO DIE on my bike in the middle of London while running a red light.

When were you happiest? Can’t remember specific moments, but holidays with my family when I was a kid rank quite high. When a single song we listened to on the journey could sum up an entire week of excitement. I still have a version of Big Rock Candy Mountain stuck in my head, and it still brings to mind excited memories of exciting things about to happen, even if I can’t remember what they were.

When were you saddest? Don’t know if I can remember. A period or a moment? Apparently there was time when I was eight and I would cry for no reason. Also, a time when I first moved to the US for college and could not get along with anyone there, and my roommate had just disappeared because her parents believed she had anorexia and had taken her away without warning, and had a constant hollow feeling that I would never make any friends.

What are a few of your favourite things? Being around good people, the kind of friends in whom you can ignite hysterical laughter with a single word or glance, bodies of water, clothes without sleeves, sunshine when I am wearing contact lenses, the face of a sleeping gerbil, salamanders, building fires realising I still have the skills to build fires, riding bicycles, rainforests, riding bicycles IN rainforests, the moment you reach somewhere new, and think, Wow. I am Somewhere Else (whether it’s a new country or a tube station you’ve never been to before). Books. Swimming outdoors. Places with fireflies.

What makes you angry? Frustration, occasionally from my own lack of understanding, occasionally from other people’s lack of understanding. Strangers who disrespect me. Most newspapers and chick flicks. The advertisements you see in Singapore for slimming centres. There are probably many more but it’s not worth thinking up them because it’s not worth getting angry just thinking about them.

* If Freud had to sum you up in no more than fifteen words, what do you think he’d say? I don’t know that much about Freud but what I do I know is he is someone I don’t want to sum me up.

* There are also political themes running through your work: could you say a bit about your politics? I grew up believing everything the Singapore government did was right, even though we knew they were tossers, that human rights were an evil scheme created by the West to keep Asia down, having your own opinion was a nice thing but a bit silly, and that as someone who was a girl who never defended my country in National Service I didn’t really have a right to complain about anything. Then I stopped going on the same online forums as my dad, and the rest of my life has been a slow unlearning of that, with brief practical introductions to feminism, colonial history, post-colonial thought, movements of movements, left-wing politics, bourgeois adventurism/lifestylism, anarchist politics, student politics, etc. I go back and forth on the human rights thing.

* One of my favourite pieces of yours is “Two Years,” a docu-poem about visiting what is effectively a concentration-camp in England. Do you think poetry should be doing more to engage with the world, to raise awareness, to challenge and change the sort of things that need to be challenged and changed? If so, how? I think poetry should do what it wants, and it will do what it wants. It should engage with the world, but how it does isn’t really any of my business. People will do what they want with them. I used to like the idea of poetry being ‘conscious’ of the world and engaging with it but I’m not so sure what that means any more. I think all poetry can change people. I think all poetry can be powerful. I don’t really believe in the phrase that left-wing poetry is ‘preaching to the converted’, because even in the most progressive of spaces you are bound to find prejudices and disagreements within people, and most of us are hypocrites to some extent.

However, for poetry to change the world, I think what the world needs is more well-thought out, logical arguments in poems (or maybe that’s the bloody lawyer in me speaking): poems that say, is this really what you think? Really? REALLY? That challenge the audience, that make people less comfortable, not more comfortable, and offer a new way to see things, new, scary ideas.

* Where do you see humanity one hundred years from now? On space colonies. Then we can write poems about our guilt oppressing aliens and damaging other planets. But seriously, I think it will be about the same. With more nonsensical technology that doesn’t really do much but sometimes helps us be more creative in new ways. A couple more wars. Ideally, people will look back on now and say, ‘oh god that was so embarrassing how our ancestors tried kicking out other ancestors because they had the wrong slips of paper’. But I’m not a huge optimist.

* Another theme you’re interested in is race. I liked your poem “Foreigner Go Home (With Me)” but I found myself wondering to what extent you were exaggerating for effect, and whether you might possibly be projecting certain insecurities outward (e.g. “I’m… your token Oriental girl for hire to make your subculture look diverse!”) Ultimately though I can never have any real idea of what it’s like to be a foreigner living in England, so can you please tell me a bit about that? I do have many insecurities that have to do with race and culture, eg. is my accent too English/American/Singaporean/ middle-class to be taken seriously? Should I mention I’m from Singapore at the start of this set or will I sound like an idiot? Is my accent ‘Singaporean’ enough? Am I being self-hating or betraying my cultural heritage when I made the conscious decision to stop carrying around a digital camera so I wouldn’t look like every other East Asian? Will I be judged for being a Chinese girl walking around with a white man (oh wait, no one’s actually watching phew…)? However, being a token is not something I feel insecure about. For the most part, though, I don’t really like writing ranty slam pieces about it unless I can think of a brand new, personal angle because it has been done so many times before, and I do find it too complex, with too many shades to talk about to fit into a single poem.

However that particular line you chose ‘I’m… your token Oriental girl for hire to make your subculture look diverse!’ comes from an actual experience of being a token for a TV show. Someone once asked me to be an ‘extra’ in a squat for a TV documentary about squatting, because they thought it would be a good thing to show the British public that not all squatters were white. I was not at all offended, but it did seem amusing and something I thought needed to be said aloud. On a stage. Why am I the only Oriental girl in the room and why do I not mind/feel comfortable with this? Should we all keep being comfortable with this? I don’t really think about or care about being the only person of my ethnicity at most places, whether poetry events or squats, having lived in a mostly-white village in Ohio for four years, but sometimes it does feel a bit like the elephant in the room, so I think rather than insecurity, I think guilt is the right word. Guilt for fitting into predominantly-white subcultures so well and feeling less and less comfortable with Singaporean culture. There is a weird competition I feel when I go home or when I’m around Singaporeans, when people ask ‘so do you mix with Singaporeans or locals’, or ‘do you have a white boyfriend yet?’ So people know whether to categorise you as a Winner Who Has Integrated. I have learnt to laugh at such questions.

I generally believe all people are mostly the same and sometimes wonder why can’t every other Singaporean in the UK just stop complaining about homesickness and be well-adjusted like me with loads of cool British friends and adventures. Then I remember I had a specific set of circumstances which led me to these subcultures in the first place that most Singaporeans won’t have and feel guilty for being lucky for enjoying this.

There is another part of the poem which goes ‘just another middle-class asshole corrupted by the West’ which I think says a lot more about my insecurities. I don’t know if that’s an exaggeration.

Anyway, the gist of the ‘Foreigner Go Home With Me’ poem is NOT, ‘actually I’m afraid all English people are secretly xenophobic and hate me because I use chopsticks and I’m not very Aryan’. It’s more like, ‘it is all good fun to blend into another culture but it does require playing by some rules… ARRGH NO MAYBE I HATE PASSING SO MUCH BAGGAGE SO MUCH BAGGAGE.’

Being a foreigner living in England is a bit like being an English person in any country that is not England, sometimes easier, sometimes not. You worry a lot about losing your passport. I lost my passport once when I left Singapore for three days and someone stole it from the X-ray machine at the immigration checkpoint on the Malaysian border. It was not pleasant.

I think it’s a good thing that not everyone can agree on the message behind this poem, though.

* I have heard two female poets I admire – Catherine Labiran and Jess Green – talk about gender-bias within the spoken-word scene. Catherine complained about the discrimination she’s received for “not being a male poet,” while Jess sneered that “not enough women win slams.” In both cases my reaction was, “I call bullshit on that!” but again, I have no way of knowing for sure. Do you think it’s harder to be a woman than a man in the dog-eat-dog poetry-world? I don’t know, I’ve never been a man so I can’t really compare. Let’s say neither of us can quantify difficulty, and I will not agree nor disagree with whether or not it’s ‘harder’ to be a female poet. I will say it is scarier to be a woman.

What I understand is this: I think it is scarier IN GENERAL to be a woman and go up onstage than to be a man and go up onstage. Because women IN GENERAL are trained from young, but especially from puberty, are trained to be conscious at all times of what the outside world thinks of them, how they appear to the outside world and to fear making a fool of themselves in public. I think if you went around a room and asked random people if they wanted to step onto the stage and say something, a lot more men would say yes because, while it is shit to make a fool of yourself no matter who you are, it is a lot less worth it to make a fool of yourself onstage as a female if you’re going to be judged anyway even while sitting in the audience.

Translated into the poetry slam world, there ARE a lot fewer women taking part than men because we are terrified of making fools of ourselves onstage. We are being judged for how we look and sound every time we leave the house, even if we’re not, we are aware that we might be. Consider how many unattractive women you see in adverts and on TV, compared to average-looking men. It just makes more sense to avoid being in the centre of attention whenever we can, and it just makes sense avoid going onto a stage where you will be encouraging everyone to judge you harshly for how you look or sound, even before you start your poem.

The upside of this, however, is that maybe there is almost an onus on women to be at the top of their game, and be super-confident that they have a good poem when they do go up and perform. I’m not saying this means female performance poets are necessarily always of higher quality, objectively speaking, but I think we do end up making ourselves work very hard at ensuring we have good stuff to perform before we step onto the stage. For me, at least, when I first started reading poems at open mics, I saw the stage as a privilege, and the centre of attention as somewhere I didn’t deserve to be.

Then you can go into the whole thing about styles, how loud shout-y political styles of poetry are more likely to get audience to remember you and win in slams. One argument could be that women are less likely to do this kind of style than men, because women have been socialized not to shout enraged things at people (unless they can’t help it), and people in general prefer not to hear high-pitched screaming from women. Or do they? Maybe loud shouty rants are a niche something I could go into? STEPHANIE DOGFOOT: SHE WILL SHOUT AT YOU ABOUT COLONIAL BAGGAGE AND COLONIALLY-OPPRESSED WOMEN FOR AN HOUR FOR ONLY A FIVER…. Maybe?

Also, studies have shown that in universities and in the professional world, the reason why men end up doing better and going up in the world more than women is because they are socialized to be better at ‘blagging’ and bigging up themselves than women. Women are generally taught to be modest and again, not draw attention to themselves or ask for too much. I have found myself guilty of this a lot: not daring to ask for gigs or tell people I do poetry because I believe I don’t deserve more gigs, or even I think I deserve them don’t feel it is my place to boast or ask for anything. I could probably put this down to my strict upbringing, but I think it may have something to do with the fact that having been raised as a girl, I was taught the importance of modesty, being quiet and obedient, not asking for things from superiors.

Or maybe it’s me. Perhaps I am the one who makes it harder for women to win slams. When looking for random poetry slam youtube videos, I have found myself occasionally preferring to click on male slam poets than female ones. Why? Because there are more of them, and while I do occasionally appreciate a feminist rant, I believe men are generally more likely to be funny and surreal and more likely to surprise me with unexpected poems and in general cover a wider range of topics. Is this bullshit? I don’t know. Maybe if there were more female poets they would be able to cover a wider range of topics, one day. But for now, I support that women need to speak about the most urgent things that need to be said in slam poetry by women, about personal female experiences and our own subjugation. And yes, I’m sickeningly biased and I know there are many funny, surreal female slam poets out there somewhere. Just not enough.

* You told me one fine night outside Lyrically Challenged where the name “Dogfoot” comes from. Care to briefly recap that story and to say why that misfit animal resonates with you? The story with the pig born with dog’s paws. See below. Isn’t it ridiculously cute? It doesn’t actually resonate, it’s a random name from a book I once read. I had a list of random names. It sounded better than ‘Catfoot.’ I just wanted to be more anonymous on the internet and then it migrated to someone calling me it when they called me up to stage.

daggie

IF YOU LOOK CLOSELY YOU CAN SEE ITS FRONT FEET ARE PAWS!

* One last question: if you were me, what one last question would you ask you? And what would the answer be? I would give me four questions to answer, only one would be the right question. I would inevitably pick the wrong question.

1.Which post-colonial theorists influenced the themes in your work?
2.What were you doing on New Year’s Eve 2007/2008?
3.Why are you so repressed?
4.What experience do you think most impacted your view on writing about the world?
My roommates and I who lived in cabins in Ohio were once the subject of an intro-to-anthropology research project/ethnography. Several, actually. They wanted to know what it was like to be one of us. They came to dinner, did some interviews and wrote 1500 words about what they had learnt about us. This was around the time I was writing my own anthropology thesis about forests in India. We read what they had written about our community and it was ridiculous and was nowhere near how we saw ourselves, they couldn’t even get our cats’ names right, had a good laugh and I realised that most knowledge of other people is subjective and that you can never expect to truly KNOW what it is like to be someone else, or the full story of a situation. This is why a lot of my writing is very personal, and comes from very precise things and I try and look to tell new, untold sides of situations when I can.

THE WORD’S A STAGE 2/8/13

“For four years now, The Word’s A Stage has been encouraging poets to leap madly out of their comfort zones, all syllables blazing. Tonight’s session features new work from Dean McCaffrey and Jason Pilley, with WAS mentor Niall O’Sullivan performing a taster for his own forthcoming show ‘Now Is Not The Time For Politics.’ And special guests Keith Jarrett and Esther Poyer will be revisiting their greatest hits from WAS nights gone by.”