It could pass as a good analogy for the way the poet and musician Stanford Cheung sees the world; a world where artists are the fossils, the archaeological mirrors of humankind. While some moonlight as a writer amidst their day jobs and practices, Stanford’s endeavors as a professional pianist, provides that of an additional musicianship to his verse, leading others to be just as inspired as the individuality he provokes.
Class and elegance, Stanford exudes these qualities beneath a quiet demeanor. Yet to those who know him, would believe the contrary. Nothing is ever quite silent after all. In the undercurrents lies the rarer atmosphere; a grounded intensity beneath.
With the pandemic restrictions modestly lifted, we privately met up for afternoon tea where I discuss with Stanford his forthcoming release Demonstrator and his creative process.
AW:So, being in the pandemic, you were home-bound but you were still close to the places that brought forth your previous work. Has that relationship changed? or perhaps the area affected by the pandemic brought some new insights?
SC:It has been more or less the same, except grittier. Bamburgh Park, just by the suburbs between the Markham and Toronto districts, is where I have frequented for years. It is a place for fieldwork, to let myself think and observe before returning to my studio to work. It is a place to draw conclusions, to conclude your thoughts. Bamburgh’s distinct soundscape consists of airplanes above fuel dumping, the buzz of transmission towers, jeering cicadas, and distant chimes of children.
AW:Yes, fieldwork is an integral part of any artist’s work be it text, sound or visual. One can suppose as the moments one connects their work to the world at large. How might you describe that role in poetry?
SC:Poetry in fieldwork is plunderphonics. A mass subjective hypothesis that can never really be confirmed. It is almost as if you are living in the surreal but grasping the environment by the neck to what exists. Then it is translated to words and redefined universally. A poet in fact is not just a stagnant identity itself, nor is it a made identity. Anyone can be a poet as long as one holds firm to expressing and understanding something. I feel there is no label.
"Poetry in fieldwork is plunderphonics. A mass subjective hypothesis that can never really be confirmed."
AW:That’s a pretty interesting way to put it. plunderphonics almost as if the poem is a kind of montage. it must be quite an experience to weave it all together. being a very sensory focused writer myself, that tends to be hard part.
SC:It does feel like having synesthesia perhaps. Though the beauty in poetry is that anything can happen. Be it from an internal projection towards a subject, or a subject that solicits your demands to attend to the subject.
AW:On that topic, I also heard you picked up sound art as well.
SC:I have been experimenting with microphones, synths, field recording and sampling techniques over the pandemic. Dundas Square is a place where I like to do collect my sounds. These days, I plug most of my recordings in a digital audio workstation to play with noise. Well, there is always more than one way to understand your art.
AW:Speaking of rhythm and sound, how do these influence your most recent collection Demonstrator?
SC:Sound and rhythm function as unity within variety in Demonstrator- rhythm alluding to unity, and sound to variety. The “rhythm” is my drone. It is terse, anthem like, compressed, the cradle to step around. My “sound” on the other hand, is free like the wind It is the ambassador for the unseen world, the possible, the what if. To put things more concretely, “rhythm” is my synthesizer to create “sounds.” In the world of sounds, nothing pleases me more than the restlessness of vowels, the cacophony of consonants, the compression of diphthongs.
Perhaps one artist that would allude to such notion is the Finnish electronic artist Vladislav Delay’s 2014 album ‘Visa.’ Except for his work, I feel “rhythm” is his variety. “Sound” is his drone.
"The “rhythm” is my drone. It is terse, anthem like, compressed, the cradle to step around. My “sound” on the other hand, is free like the wind"
AW:Could you give us a phrase of your favorite “sound” in Demonstrator?
SC: “The city of cities” [laughs]
AW:Indeed, a poet within cities — Is this how you document yourself?
SC:I’ve always enjoyed the feeling of being “anonymous.” Oftentimes, I am most comfortable standing in a massive crowd, you know, like the busy intersections of Shibuya Crosswalk in Tokyo or St. Catherine’s street in Montreal. There is something very fascinating with cityscapes, the very idea that a hundred or thousand different lives from different experiences and upbringings just converge into a singular moment on one single intersection or street. We are all going towards somewhere, headed towards something. This call and response, this restlessness, I crave.
"a hundred or thousand different lives from different experiences and upbringings just converge into a singular moment on one single intersection or street. We are all going towards somewhere, headed towards something."
AW:Yes it is quite fascinating with the kind of convergence each place in an urban area brings
SC:Yes. How one conducts and navigates themselves in urban areas is rather unique. Any city for me, is like an art installation. A city is a fascinating medium. It’s like humanity’s bloodstream I jokingly always say. It’s a medium of co-existence between many things from people to nature to architecture. Nothing is more impressive than that. In any city, all sorts of things happen, the good and bad. A shared reaction. A sign of life.
AW:Almost like a film I must say
SC:Oh yes. I love collage styled films. Turn anywhere and you get a scene or different story. Perhaps this is what translates into Demonstrator. I always wanted to create poems that focus on a particular subject, but at the same time, suggest towards something irrelevant or unexpected. Poems are like human beings you will take a lifetime to understand. Similar to your daily interactions with people, you will connect with someone deeply, or understand someone on a level-headed manner but you will never understand someone completely for who they are. Sometimes, a person falls out of character and it surprises you somewhat. It is your interpretation of them that matters most.
In this manner, I enjoy my poems if they feel cadential, yet disorienting. There is a film technique called the “Pillow shot” coined by the filmmaker Yasujiru Ozu. A “pillow shot” is a cutaway, for no obvious narrative reason, to a visual element, often a landscape or an empty room, that is held for a significant time. This technique is rarely seen in films presently. The Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky also employs this.
"Poems are like human beings you will take a lifetime to understand. Similar to your daily interactions with people, you will connect with someone deeply, or understand someone on a level-headed manner but you will never understand someone completely for who they are. Sometimes, a person falls out of character and it surprises you somewhat."
AW:So Demonstrator, you might say is both a visual and sonic journey isn’t it?
SC:I think it is, or I wish it to be very musical to the senses.
AW:You mention Ozu’s hold with the pillow shot, film has an interesting relationship to the concept of time. I can guess the pillow shot is a way of bringing that subjectivity of experience, slowing down time as it were. Do you find this kind of time applicable to your poems?
SC:Yes, there are so many different ways of playing with time and angle shots. In the literary sense, there are ample of techniques to engineer a poem or group of poems. Some “literary camera shots” I often use would be self-interruption, direct address, narration and associative leap. Each “shot” has its own unique way of reframing optics of a given subject or thing. Sometimes, certain “camera shots” function like fictional characters with a personality of their own and prevail over my writing for writings sake. “Direct address” is a really flamboyant type for me. All in all, these ways of playing with perception allows for the unity within variety to take place.
AW:So your poems breathe I suppose!
SC:I just hope by making it personal yet disorienting, I’ll have a reader’s attention span extended much longer [laughs]
"there are so many different ways of playing with time and angle shots. In the literary sense, there are ample of techniques to engineer a poem or group of poems. Some “literary camera shots” I often use would be self-interruption, direct address, narration and associative leap."
The book itself you’ve mentioned has been influenced by the East, particularly in Fukuoka hasn’t it? How has that landscape influenced the work?
SC:In 2019, I participated in a Japanese artist residency in Fukuoka. “Architecture as the new nature (Junya Ishigami),” is something that reminds me fondly of Fukuoka. Nothing ever seemed out of place whether by the city or countryside. The people there are very warm, honest individuals. The place also seemed like a hub for many international artists to base themselves in. It was almost nonchalant, idealistic in a sense. In terms of the landscape with Demonstrator, Fukuoka brought about an extroversion to the once, restrained and guarded poems in the collection.
AW:It must be quite the journey there
SC:It is so far, the best times of my life. I still dream of Fukuoka to this day.
AW:[Laughs] Speaking of Japan, I’m also aware you’re a big admirer of the composer Ryuichi Sakamoto and poet Sayaka Osaki. Any points of Demonstrator that has been influenced by them?
SC:Both Ryuichi Sakamoto and Sayaka Osaki have the ability to make any of their work deeply personal, yet socially relevant. In the case of Sakamoto, I am influenced how he carries himself as a world’s citizen of citizens. In his state of what he refers to as “nothingness,” comes about a broad palate of musical output that challenges the very notions of why creation is boundless to the human condition. Take for example his album “Async” where he uses a piano that survived the Fukushima tsunami. The piano is out of tune and for us ordinary humans, we would call it “out of tune.” For Sakamoto, it is simply nature trying to reclaim the instrument back to its original state. It is humanity’s defiance to bend the wood and strings against their doing.
In Sayaka Osaki, if there is one particular poem that changed my life profoundly, it would be her poem “Rice Steamer.” Osaki emerged as a poet during the nuclear meltdown and tsunami disaster at Fukushima which prompted her personal nickname called “Noisy Animal.” My take on her creative philosophy that instincts, especially that of survival instincts during any midst of disaster, is what articulates language in it’s most raw and critical nature. I can never forget the line “You say it’s like we’re picnicking under the cherry blossoms/ And as you do, you live”
AW:Not just Japan but Chinese poets too. Migrant poets too.
SC:Since 2018, I have been reading much into the poetry of Chinese migrant workers. How they leave their countryside, their village, their families and travel to the city for low wages/strenuous labour just to support their loved ones. Many migrant workers post poems on their own personal blogs depicting the harsh work environments they are subject to. I’m sure you’re aware of one migrant poet named Xu Li Zhi who committed suicide at the Foxconn Factory back in 2014. Most recently, there has been a documentary titled “Iron Moon” directed by Xiaoyu Qin and Feiyue Wu that focuses on worker poets in China. I have watched the documentary countless number of times. I’m also an avid reader of Misty poetry.
Sometimes, I try my hand to translate these poems into English. See what I can dish around.
"'nothingness,' comes about a broad palate of musical output that challenges the very notions of why creation is boundless to the human condition."
AW:Looking at the recipe of Demonstrator, it seems quite the complex dish
SC:Socially relevant, personal, romantic, narrative, disorienting, restrained, extraverted, and concerned… yet none of the above [laughs] I am still learning about myself.
AW:We had this running joke about you being quite Sakamoto-like. Can you confirm or deny such a claim?
SC:[Laughs] No comment!
AW:You’ve had an interesting way of getting into writing. Rather than some who go read books and then go through writing programs, you somehow gravitated towards it without much prior inclination. Particularly as I wasn’t much of a book child back in the day
SC:Ever since I was a child, the last thing I ever wanted to become was an author, and even more so, a writer who wrote poetry. English was one of my poorest subjects during elementary and high school. In fact, I despised writing at all. One day, I took a class in my final year of high school on world religion studies. One of our projects, we were told to keep a journal entry. I decided to jot small stanzas, phrases and I guess I somehow figured what I was doing was poetry in freeform, and things snowballed from there.
I think my ability to work without methodology is a blessing.
AW:I believe quite the artists nowadays are self-taught. Is there any advantage to not having a methodology?
SC:I think to understand methodology(s) is important. It is like one’s foundation. On the contrary, having a methodology when it comes to creating, would be confining. In the end, “to create is a strange thing to do (Sakamoto).” In respect to writing, I try to read as many things from books, to interviews to literary criticism as I can. I treat these books like the news. The news informs me but it’s up to me, to form my own individual opinions. So bringing this tie to writing, I am informed of many methods/techniques to write, but I will always find my own individuality/opinion to my own writing.
"I think to understand methodology(s) is important. It is like one’s foundation."
AW:Can you share one of your own individual ways?
SC:Step 1: write a poem
Step 2: read your poem starting from the bottom concluding at the top
AW:With piano performance and writing, you must be a very busy person. How do you juggle this (unless you do the sakamoto thing and cut fruit off a plate jks)
SC:It’s manageable. It’s rather being strict with myself and sticking to a set routine that is difficult. To be a musician is crazy business and a very misunderstood field. Similar to actors, interpreting a composer’s intentions, doing analysis and making a piece of music part of you takes up alot of you. As for poetry, it is something that keeps me grounded. Also.. tea helps [laughs].
AW:This may be personal but how much do you usually practice?
SC:I don’t count.
AW:Your favorite classical composer?
SC: Arvo Pärt and Mozart
AW:What compels you to write in this present moment?
SC:I would say when I write, it’s always in the spectrums of “to search” or “to process.” Presently, I write more to process things. My philosophy with writing is about creating language as imperatives for landscaping. When I say “landscaping”, I emphasize the archaeological sites of language as an architectural canvas, can preserve in an object, place, or thing. When writing, I remind myself that we must think of poetry freely, and to never be scared to innovate beyond our status quo. Afterall, we are contemporaries of each other and in the end, reflections of ourselves and others.
ALVIN WONG is a poet and actor from Toronto. He holds degrees in creative writing and theatre studies from York University. A Best of the Net Poetry nominee, his work appears in journals such as Ricepaper, Temz Review and Half a Grapefruit Magazine. He co-authored a chapbook with the poet/musician Stanford Cheung and photographer Scott Hunter titled We Could Be Anything (Crevasse Books, Tokyo 2019). He has held numerous professional positions as an editor at Guernica Editions, Existere Literary Journal, and Inspiritus Press. Among literary festivals he has performed in include the Toronto Festival of Authors, Slackline Creative Arts Series, the Art Bar Poetry Series and Shab e’ Sher. Presently, he is the creative director of the multimodal arts collective and publisher Andata Express.
STANFORD CHEUNG is a poet and musician from Toronto. A Pushcart Prize nominee, his work appears in anthologies and magazines such as the Tokyo Poetry Journal, Nomadic Journal, Otoliths, Center for Contemporary Arts Kitakyushu, Ricepaper and elsewhere. Among his collaborative works of poetry include Salvage (Tokyo Journal, Shibuya 2019) with Queen’s former keyboardist Morgan Fisher, We Could Be Anything (Crevasse Books, Tokyo 2019) with poet Alvin Wong and photographer Scott Hunter, Comfort of Malice with photographer JC Bouchard (Inspiritus, Toronto 2018), and Any Seam or Needlework (The Operating System, New York, 2016) with quilt artist Daphne Taylor. Stanford is also active as a pianist and holds degrees in music from the University of Toronto and McGill University.