First published at Singapore Unbound's SP Blog.
The energy of Roadkill for Beginners, Stephanie Chan’s debut poetry collection, arrives like a shock, like a high-speed train bound for you-don’t-know-where, rushing past your bedroom window. Chan, also know as Stephanie Dogfoot, is a writer, editor, and spoken-word performer from Singapore. She has performed her poetry in more than eleven countries and was the winner of Singapore’s 2nd National Poetry Slam Championship in 2010. Animated by questions of modernity and early adulthood, and by articulations of political consciousness, Chan’s writing maintains a light tone while addressing hard questions. The result is a translation of tough topics into accessible verse.
Chronologically structured in four sections, Chan’s collection transports readers from her childhood in Singapore, her college experience in America, her activist awakening in London, to her return to Singapore finally, where she explores with greater depth her sexuality, writing career, and adulthood. The Bildungsroman convention, typically employed in novels, is successful here, because Chan’s collection is capacious enough for us to see and feel her formations and changes.
The first section pays tribute to the narrator’s strong relationship with her family, while also detailing her student life in a religious high school. In the prose poem “Maybe All We Wanted Was Somebody Who Cared,” Chan begins examining her sexuality and what it means to be gendered. The first stanza details the advice from her mother’s Australian parenting book, which explains that lesbianism is “just a phase.” This explanation is refuted by Chan in the eleventh stanza, where she writes, “At some point between SARs and the O-levels, I realized I didn’t believe in phases.” When she travels abroad for school (first to the United States and then the United Kingdom), dating and queer culture are more deeply considered. This new beginning is both a freedom and a challenge.
Section II begins with “We Found a Sign in a Dumpster that said ‘Granville, Ohio: Centre of Everything’.” In it, Chan confronts the reality that Singapore is “a really small / place on a world map and really hard to explain … to a cute drunk 20-year-old girl / from Tennessee who had never seen the ocean.” Chan’s verses evoke the late 1990s and the aughts with references to music (“Sk8ter Boi”), fashion (“spaghetti strap top”), and technology (“CD-burners”).
What brings this collection together is how her poems seem to exist on an endless spinning top, where place and time move very fast and where past and future whirl within the uncertain present.
This morning, Kong Kong’s hands are too shaky to put drops in his eyes.
As I put them in for him, he reminds me of one thing: never to feel any pity.
“Remember,” he tells me, “one day you too will end up like this.”
So it goes in “The Kong Kong Poem,” one of many poems that coalesce the personal and the political, and in which Chan searches for what she should do after her encounters with pain and injustice. Focusing on her grandfather, Chan faithfully narrates how her childhood self is taught a simplified narrative of grief. In another poem, “You Are Six Years Old And She Is Teaching You How To Ride A Bicycle,” Chan writes: “there are no hungry people in the world any more: you know this / because last Sunday you put three coins into that box at church / marked ‘rice for the poor’.” Chan looks back on these moments with both tenderness and cynicism. Instead of offering a palliative, Chan’s poems question the individual’s responsibility and guilt for complex issues such as global poverty. As the collection gains momentum, it is an understanding amid incertitude that the narrator desires more than anything else.
In “Senior Year,” which according to Chan’s endnotes, borrows and alters language from Talvikki Ansel’s poem “In Fragments, In Streams,” Chan writes, “A skunk died / by the dirt path / between the road / and where we lived.” The skunk’s smell is then vividly described: “this mixture of rot, piss, marijuana / got us all paranoid for a moment: / rabies? poison? bubonic plague? / swineflu? Nobody would touch it.” It is easy to see this piece of roadkill as an extended metaphor for our troubled world, and furthermore, to see this collection as Chan’s unswerving hurl into messy adulthood. That said, Ansel’s poem is part of a larger sonnet sequence that details the long-lasting transformation that the poet underwent while working in a Brazilian rain forest. “Senior Year,” in contrast, is a microscopic, diary-like poem detailing the end of Chan’s American college experience and start of her post-graduate life. By alluding to Ansel, Chan is making clear the transformative nature of her college years. Furthermore, by organizing her stanzas into a recognizable calendar sequence, Chan alters the fragmentary nature of Ansel’s piece with clear verse markers, such as “May (Senior Week)” and “July (late).” Chan’s poetic strategies speak to her need for structure and narrative wholeness in our postmodern epoch, where multiple narratives and physical dislocation are commonplace.
The world of Chan’s writing is troubled, but not enamored with seriousness. Chan also explores the tension between the state and the individual with her signature humor and fast-talking irreverence. In one of the book’s strongest poems, “Ho Chi Minh Used to Live on This Road,” she writes, “if we’ll grow up to be revolutionaries, too,”
Then our house will be famous and it won’t
matter how often we wash our dishes—
the image of filth will only add to the romance
of us being here. Future history students
will walk past it, think of us then sigh, wishing
they could be half as cool and a quarter as radical.
Just like that, Chan wryly subsumes in her poem the preoccupations of her generation: political discontent, fame, and repugnance for menial tasks. In “Ho Chi Minh,” the speaker’s topic shifts between intimate conversations and world affairs. Like a Zadie Smith novel or Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” this poem is chock-full of characters from David Cameron to Bolsheviks to Mickey Mouse. There’s something familiar and exciting about the poem’s late-night college chats about revolution and protests at Trafalgar Square, but the speaker and her counterparts seem unable to gather the stamina for a larger revolutionary struggle. Just six lines after claiming that they are “on the verge of revolution,” the speaker excuses the failure of action: “it is too cold to stay and wait, so we all go home.” This short attention span seems both the cause and effect of the overwhelming bemusement and cynicism of the late 2000’s. This is for good reason; recent history shows us that there are reasons to be skeptical of the efficacy of mass movements. At the end, the speaker is half-heartedly grasping for some hope. She suggests, “but think of Mickey Mouse” and her roommate counters, “ah, but Disney was a Nazi sympathizer.” No matter where the speaker searches, she finds realities that dash her hopes and cancel her inspiration.
Another scorching millennial writer, Jia Tolentino, sings a threnody that sounds like Chan’s. In Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self Delusion, Tolentino writes, “I found that I could hardly trust anything I was thinking … that whatever conclusions I might reach about myself, my life, and my environment are just as likely to be diametrically wrong as they are to be right.” In Roadkill for Beginners, uncertainty pulses through the language of the text. Chan’s verses give the reader opportunities for exploring the kinds of sexual and cultural tropes that the poet is interrogating. This is done well in poems such as “You Throw A Party And Every Body You Have Ever Been Attracted To Is There” and “Maybe All We Wanted Was Somebody Who Cared.” Yet Chen misses the opportunity to control her expressions of uncertainty and humor through visual poetics, such as word spacing, line length, and line breaks. For example, in poems such as “Diogenes was Right,” the spacing and breaks feel more attuned to a spoken-word performance than a visual reading. In this poem, Chan writes,
He asked me, are you political at all? I said, I’m Singaporean.
As a reader, you can see the punch line before you finish reading the question. There’s no visual hesitation from the speaker, which replaces Chan’s compelling uncertainty with uncharacteristic jadedness. In contrast, her use of uncertainty shines brilliantly in her poems exploring the trials of sexuality and gender. In “New Words for ‘Never’,” Chan writes,
Wendy has a secret.
There’s a kid who comes to her room every night.
She can’t really say if they’re a boy or a girl.
The kid says I’m both, or maybe I’m neither,
climbs through her window, calls themself Peter.
Appearing later in the collection, “New Words for ‘Never’” is one of the most memorable poems in Roadkill for Beginners. It is a powerful reworking of the Peter Pan and Wendy story. J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, the boy who would never grow up, is re-imagined as a non-binary person (“I’m both, or maybe I’m neither”). In the poem, Chan captures the recklessness and imagination of young love. When Wendy and Peter’s relationship comes to an end, the poem isn’t over: “Wendy is on her fourth and last time home from / Far Far Away” and Peter’s married “Some straight guy she’d met in the church she had joined.” This poem manages to be both funny and dark as it explores the mundane, less-discussed disappointments of adulthood and aging. As Chan writes, “flying girls get too heavy to float at some point.”
In the book’s final section, Chan is back in Singapore. She is thinking about what it means to move away and return home. In “Scissors Paper Stone,” when Chan first returns, she is a “baby queer,” but by year two, she is in “one too many [Whatsapp] groups with girls / you’ve slept with.” This section sizzles with contemporary references to social media and Facebook in the same way that the early sections talked about music and fashion. After a forceful romp through early adulthood, Chan ends with two poems: the first paying homage to a favorite noodle dish, Hokkien mee, and the second taking us with her onto the performance stage (“Why This”). She ends with the line: “But always, always the adrenaline.” This line is as affirming and as circular a return as Molly Bloom’s “and yes I said yes I will Yes” at the end of Ulysses. Adrenaline and fearlessness define and propel this collection forward… and forward.
by Samantha Neugebauer
Samantha Neugebauer is an American writer based in Dubai. She teaches at NYU Abu Dhabi, serves as an editor for The Painted Bride Quarterly, and is a co-producer for the podcast Slush Pile. Her work can be found in The Offing, Ploughshares, and Columbia Journal, among others. Samantha has presented on experiential learning, English monolingualism in higher education, and first-year student experiences throughout the world, most recently in Beirut, Lebanon. She holds degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and NYU. You can find Samantha’s stories, poems, and reviews online or connect with her via social media: https://samanthaneugebauer.com/.