To say that Deborah Emmanuel is a woman of many facets is hardly an exaggeration. The Singaporean poet and performance artist has written three books – including When I Giggle in My Sleep (2015) and Rebel Rites (2016) – and makes music with Wobology, Mantravine, The Ditha Project, and the producer Kiat. She’s also a four-time TEDx speaker who facilitates workshops, creates illustrations, and devises independent theatre projects that have seen Melbourne, Berlin, London, Bali, and Kathmandu. And what more beautiful than someone who shares her knowledge to help people heal and explore their inner worlds?
Hi Deborah. Would you consider yourself an ‘eye candy’? What is beauty to you?
I would much rather be some kind of raw cacao treat for the eyes. I am an earth brown, not the synthetic sugar rainbow symptomatic of destructive pop culture. If someone considers me candy for their eyes, I am happy that my appearance alone can bring positive feelings. But perhaps that someone will have a rude shock when they try to find out how much I am like ‘candy’ on the inside. Beauty for me is a radiance from within. A glow of curiosity. The light of a bright mind. The shine of respectful wonder at this world and all other people. This luminosity I am talking about does not come from makeup or funky fashion. It comes from the spirit. It transcends the physical body.
Tell us a bit about yourself. What was your childhood like?
It was a combination of light and dark. There was lots of time in front of the television, lots of religious talk and time in church, lots of books read under my classroom desk, lots of cuddles from my mother and father, lots of financial instability and eviction from the last place we lived in, lots of sadness and violence between my parents and learned helplessness from my mother, sister and I. We all overcame the learned helplessness eventually. My sister and I overcame it a thousandfold when my mother died 5 years ago. Our childhood was hard at times but necessary for us to evolve into who we are today.
How’d you begin writing and performing?
This is very much related to my childhood. Nobody taught me how to write poems. It was something I did ever since I can remember in order to get the blackness out. There were books I filled with lists and poems and journal entries as a kid and teenager. Then at 13 my best friend convinced me to join the drama club with her. When secondary school was over I enrolled in LASALLE arts college to study theatre, then acting. Strangely, it took me until my 20s to realise that my performance abilities and my closet writing were meant to intersect.
I understand that you also sing. What kind of music do you do?
So far there has been reggae and dub with Wobology, funk, soul and jazz with The Ditha Project, organic world electronic with Mantravine, bass-heavy beats with the producer Kiat, one techno track with The Beat Usagi, completely improvised loop sets with Randolf Arriola, and most recently I’ve started rapping but I’m not really sure where that will go yet. Collaboration with local rapper Subhas is in the cards soon.
What’s different about writing a poem and writing lyrics for a song?
With a poem, the rhythm is in the words. With a song, the lyrics add another layer of intricacy to a pre-existing rhythm.
Can you make a living as a professional poet and performer?
What does it mean to ‘make a living’? We have been fed sparkling lies about what we need in order to have a life. It is only the people in the pits of society who know what we ACTUALLY need to live. Only a small fraction of you reading this thing understand the true meaning of the word ‘need’. There are days when I live in surplus and days when I am counting dollars for the week. Sometimes I am frustrated that even though I am working harder than I’ve ever worked, I still struggle but this is what I’ve chosen and I know that it is the right path. I learn to be grateful even for the difficulty. If you want to live as a professional poet and performer you won’t be asking this question. You will just fucking do it.
How do you know when a poem you write is good?
I feel it in my heart when I say it out loud. It answers a question that I asked myself. And the way it answers the question is in some way raw and beautiful. The most powerful poems are not clouded in unnecessary complexity.
What’s the most fulfilling thing about being an educator?
Being able to offer the knowledge and experience I have been gifted to other people. As an educator I serve. In my life, I want to always serve. Ego is a demon.
Tell us about your latest show, Alien Flower In Fundamentalist Fields. Where will we be able to see it?
The show just premiered at Story-Fest 18′ in Sydney in October! It’s my second one-woman show and it has properly pushed the boundaries of my craft so I’m quite pleased. It uses poetry, dramatic dialogue, film art that I learned to make myself, movement choreographed through a poetry process called Body Poetry, and soundscapes made with Randolf Arriola. The show is about a flower called Alien who wakes up in a government rehabilitation centre. She is there to be treated for her non-compliance and insanity. The two characters are her (me) and Field Patrol Officer 98V2C (also me).
I did a closed door showing on 1st December and am talking to potential venues about staging in 2019. Updates will be on social media!
You’re throwing an intimate dinner party and you invite your favourite poets. Who’s on the list?
Dr Clarissa Pinkola Estes who wrote Women Who Run With the Wolves, an amazing UK poet I met a few months ago called Joelle Taylor, my friend who I constantly fangirl over Tania De Rozario, Audre Lorde (thanks to Chloe Chotrani for introducing me to her work), and the ghost of Maya Angelou.
Top Image: Courtesy of Kelly Fan