Jee Leong Koh is the author of four books of poems, including Seven Studies for a Self Portrait (Bench Press). The Japanese translation of his most recent volume The Pillow Book (Math Paper Press) will be published by Awai Books in August 2014. He has a new collection forthcoming from Carcanet Press in 2015. The curator of the website Singapore Poetry, he is organizing the first Singapore Literature Festival in New York City, to be held in October 2014.
New Poems by Ten Singapore Poets: A Postscript
A new poem is a cause for celebration. These 27 poems, by ten poets from Singapore writing in English, give 27 causes. Responding to a direct invitation, Leong Liew Geok [i], Yeow Kai Chai, Grace Chia, Alvin Pang, Christine Chia, Cyril Wong, Pooja Nansi, Aaron Maniam, Tania De Rozario and Joshua Ip kindly offered their most recent work, written in the last year or two. I deliberately asked an equal number of male and female poets, in order to avoid an imbalance sometimes seen in selections of Singapore poetry. I also asked writers of different races, whose work interests me.
In gathering the poems here, it is not my aim, however, to represent the growing body of Singapore poetry. Such an aim is simply beyond my means, and perhaps not entirely desirable. The country gained its independence from Great Britain as part of the Federation of Malaysia in 1963. It left the federation two years later. Poetry had been written, however, even before independence. Furthermore, Singapore poetry speaks in many tongues: English, Malay, Chinese, Tamil, and other languages of a society infused and changed, even now, by immigration. The efflorescence of literary writing in Singapore since the 1990s also makes the task of selection extremely daunting.
Finally, I must own up to a theoretical concern. Presenting a selection as representative promotes the false idea that one can consume such a selection at one sitting and be conversant with a foreign culture. One can know what the deal is with Singapore. Ideally, a good selection should kindle the desire to read these poets, and their compatriots, more deeply. This ideal result is not what usually happens. We are under tremendous pressure to make up for our ignorance of the world, pressure that is technological, cultural, even ethical. Such pressure tempts us to search for and consume knowledge alluringly packaged as Essential, Comprehensive, Latest, Representative. To resist the temptation, we could learn to value individual qualities, not illustrative ones. In this essay, composed not as an introduction, for poems need no introduction, but as a postscript, I provide no overarching narrative about Singapore poetry but only a series of micro-contexts and mini-juxtapositions that I hope are suggestive, but not complacent.
Back in 1802, the English Romantic poet William Wordsworth, feeling even then the pressures of commercialization, wrote his great sonnet “The world is too much with us.” In 2014, Leong Liew Geok revises the sonnet to show the pressures on a woman whose world has shrunk to a house. In Leong’s “After Wordsworth,” a woman’s work is never done, a theme shared with her poem “CNY,” or Chinese New Year, which Leong (b. 1947) renames, in bitter self-mockery, “Annual Ritual for the Enslavement of Women.” In adapting Wordsworth, Leong goes one better by shortening the English poet’s verse line from pentameter to tetrameter, and so achieves an even greater force. By delaying Wordsworth’s delayed turn and interjection (“Great God!”) to her last line (“Great Grief!”), she conveys memorably, because finally, the tragedy of time “already lost.” The pointed pastiche of a male poet is again deployed in Leong’s “Soliloquy,” in which Hamlet’s existential question “to be or not to be” is transformed into a woman’s indecision about dyeing her hair.
While Leong, a retired university lecturer, tussles with the tradition of British literature that Singapore has inherited, Yeow Kai Chai (b. 1968) works with the tropes of film and music, predominantly American. He is an editor and music critic of Singapore’a main daily broadsheet. Influenced by American avant-gardists such as John Ashbery and John Yau, Yeow’s poems are fascinated by the world as refracted through allusive cultural fragments. “The Ghost Writer,” also the title of Roman Polanski’s Hitchcockian film, mashes up the images of noir, sci-fi, horror and dance movies. Looking away from the self and to the world-at-large, “From Z to A, a Zoetrope with Spiracles” observes a world devolving through self-destruction. Joe is both Everyman and the American G.I.; he is also, as the writer confirmed in an email, a personal friend. Yeow’s final contribution to this issue is more light-hearted. He makes fun of Singapore’s love of hype in “From A to Z, a Glamorous Zoetrope Names Parts of Singapore’s Latest New Town via Gemstones, Female Singers and Outer Space Phenomena.” As these three poems attest, Yeow is as concerned with poetic form as Leong is; he is interested in form as generative formulas.
Known for her unapologetic depictions of female sexuality and rage, Grace Chia (b. 1973) contributes three quieter, though no less devastating, poems. What is observed with urbane wit by Yeow becomes in G. Chia’s vision a cause for existential crisis. The returning ghost in “Swallow” cannot recognize her former home. It has been changed not only by the old culprits of urban redevelopment and technological advancement, but also by the recent flood of immigration, both from Europe (“Parsley, rosemary, thyme”) and Asia (“green” curry, “stinky tofu” and “kimchi”). The ghost expresses the disquiet of many Singaporeans over being displaced in their own country, but the poem is more complicated than a complaint. G. Chia herself returned to Singapore after living abroad for many years. She is figured in her own poem as the returning ghost looking for her old haunts. The recent migrants are figured, however, as the “swallow,” a living creature obeying its blood-instinct to “find its own nook.” A similar ambivalence characterizes the poem “Tingle,” in which the confined space of a lift, or elevator, engenders an erotic attraction and climaxes in an extraordinarily extravagant image typical of G. Chia’s work.
It is interesting to compare the two poems about daughters by G. Chia and her almost-exact contemporary Alvin Pang (b. 1972). In the poems, both daughters are at the age when drawing with crayon still possesses magic and gives delight. In G. Chia’s poem “Decal Duplex,” the daughter draws houses and discovers they are “paper-thin.” She has been duped by her own drawings into thinking that homes are solid and permanent affairs. Pang’s daughter has probably drawn houses too, but in Pang’s poem “Karung Guni Daughter” she saves up, like the rag-and-bone man of the poem’s title, “crayon portraits.” Confronting the destruction wrought by time and thoughtlessness, Pang not only proposes a conservationist ethic, but also a poetics of heritage. “She seems to have inherited my hoarding habits,” the poet observes wryly in his double portrait, that of himself and his daughter. His poem “Obituary” is also concerned with legacies, here the ambiguous legacy of an unnamed public figure, who resembles Singapore’s aged strongman, Lee Kuan Yew. Pang himself is, I think, the clearest heir of Edwin Thumboo, who is popularly considered the father of Singapore poetry. Like Thumboo, Pang has made himself an ambassador for the country’s literature through his participation and advocacy in literary festivals around the world. He has also edited several anthologies of Singapore literature. Like Thumboo, he diagnoses his society’s ills and foibles by examining character types. And like Thumboo, he displays considerable lyrical gifts, as his Beatles-inspired poem “Liverpool Easter” shows.
In Christine Chia’s three poems, the daughter writes back, not in her own voice, but in the voice of the father. C. Chia’s father died when she was ten years old. The poems resurrect the voice at the point when it is about to leave C. Chia (b. 1979). Dying gives the voice not only its urgency, but also its irony. In the efficient hands of nurses, everything, including one’s body, is changed from before. Forgiveness is a hallucination that one entertains knowingly. There will be no reconciliation in these poems, as there is no reconciliation between life and death. What redeems the horror is the small contemplative space offered by these short poems. In poetry, one can still observe, anticipate and fantasize. This is the saving grace of the writing of C. Chia, as fellow confessional poet Cyril Wong points out in his preface to the second edition of C. Chia’s best-selling book The Law of Second Marriages [ii].
Given the bad rep of confessional poetry, it took Cyril Wong (b. 1977) some time to embrace fully the label for his writing. In the abovementioned preface, however, he defends the stance stoutly against the willful attempt to insert oneself into some big national narrative. Too many Singapore poets try to make their writing important by exploiting national icons such as the Merlion, an invention of the Singapore Tourism Board. Wong argues otherwise, “A far more resonant and believable sense of the universal, when achieved through a paradoxical process of self-excavation, becomes possible” [iii]. That is the stern test that Wong sets for his poetry. His three poems for this issue excavate the self and the past for new insights into the universal subjects of sex, love and family. If these poems are set at a melancholic pitch, they are also full of an assured lyricism. The verse, mostly uniform in line length, unlike C. Chia’s surgical line breaks, is composed to a musical measure. It is not unrelated to Wong’s passion for singing.
Performance has always been a part of the tradition of Singapore poetry, as Ng Yi-Sheng shows in his essay “Unwritten: An Anecdotal History of Performance Poetry in Singapore” [iv]. The early writers, concentrated at the University of Singapore in the 1960s, organized evenings of poetry and music on their college campus. Slam poetry hit the shores of the island-state in the aughts of the new century. Pooja Nansi (b. 1981) won her poetic spurs in the spoken word scene, as is evident in her poems “Watching my man polish his shoes” and “Exile” with their deft use of anaphora. Now the curator of the reading series Speakeasy at Artistry Café, Pooja Nansi blends poetry and music in her performances and events. Unabashed in its full-throttle lyricism, her letter-poem “Dear Alvin” to her literary mentor Alvin Pang highlights what lies in the background of the other two poems: a willingness, perhaps a will, to be saved by “good men,” the lover, brother or teacher. In this respect, Pooja Nansi’s female voice contrasts sharply with those of the other women in this selection.
Love is also a major theme of the poetry of Aaron Maniam (b. 1979), but it is love recalled in memory. The near misses of love are given potent poignancy by the gap between past happening and present recollection. The voice of the poems is thus appropriately hesitant. Nothing happened, and yet something did. Reality cannot be distinguished from remembrance, The evocation of atmosphere—“the white light of time,” “a Spring day”—contributes to the effect of these poems, an effect at once palpable and ungraspable. When the speaker imagines a kind of consummation—“I start to run my hands through your hair”—it takes place in an alternate universe. “Unbeen chances” is Aaron Maniam’s suggestive neologism for such encounters.
But the power of poets to name things is not unlimited. Singapore poets, like poets elsewhere, have to work from within cultural and linguistic codes in order to communicate to their readers. The new poems of Tania De Rozario (b. 1981) and Joshua Ip (b. 1982) work with and against these codes. A feminist and lesbian activist, Tania De Rozario is acutely aware that if she does not name herself, others will name her. Her poem “Red” questions how the mainstream media portrays the joint suicides of a lesbian couple. Even in death, the couple’s love suffers the “indignity” of not being recognized as such. In rejecting the lies of the media as “myth,” however, De Rozario resorts to mythologizing the couple as revenging ghosts in order to give the dead women a powerful agency denied them in life. How haunting the poem’s ending proves depends very much on the reader’s complicity in that myth.
Joshua Ip’s poem “put down the phone” reveals, in a serio-comic mode, that the most ordinary talk turns on the questions of authority and control. The shooting of a photograph with a phone-camera becomes a hostage situation. The tropes of film, which give Yeow Kai Chai’s poetry its suave charm, wail through Ip’s poem like a police siren. The feeling of a ceaseless emergency is even more pronounced in his poem “buzzed,” unscrolling on the screen in one long but jittery sentence. All of us are bombarded by social media with thrilling bursts of information. The media is less interested now in the manufacture of consent than in the manufacture of crisis. The casualties are personal relationships and literature, or as Ip has it, “a trio of ex-lovers pricking my thumb.” William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, a school text studied commonly in sec 4, or Secondary Four, in Singapore, is an aptly ironic counterpoint. The play is the shortest of Shakespeare’s mature tragedies, but its brevity, unlike that of text messages, is a product of masterful construction. It can teach us how to read for tone, but, alas, in the academic race to the top, “they don’t teach / literature in schools anymore these days,” Ip laments.
Though literature is leaving schools in Singapore, it has taken to small bookshops, funky cafés, and the Internet. As a small instance of the literary activity, the first Singapore Poetry Writing Month, or SingPoWriMo, organized this last April by Joshua Ip, gathered an on-line community of 400 people. 30 writers, experienced and new, posted poems daily to the Facebook group and received comments from others. Grassroots efforts such as SingPoWriMo are vital in cultivating general interest in poetry. Another initiative by volunteers is the organization of the first Singapore Literature Festival in New York City in October this year. Singapore writers, including a number based in the United States, will engage their audience in a series of readings and discussions. The energy of these and many other ventures reminds me of the genius with which Singaporeans have built a country for themselves.
In Salman Rushdie’s postcolonial novel Midnight’s Children, the minor character Dr. Narlikar pursues a fantasy of reclaiming land from the sea through the use of tetrapods. He is ultimately unsuccessful and dies of his obsession. Singapore, with characteristic vision and patience, completed recently a massive land reclamation project south of the island and built on the new land a casino. The country’s poets are engaged in a similar venture. True, instead of a casino, they are building a parliament of the imagination. They are, however, also raising land from the sea.
Jee Leong Koh
August 09, 2014
[i] Transliterated Chinese names will be given in their Singaporean order, surname first, personal name next. In the case of Leong Liew Geok, for instance, Leong is the surname, and Liew Geok is the personal name.
[ii] Cyril Wong, “Preface to Christine Chia’s The Law of Second Marriages (Math Paper Press 2014, Forthcoming),” May 2014, http://www.cyrilwong.org/tlosm.html.
[iv] Ng Yi-Sheng, “Unwritten: An Anecdotal History of Performance Poetry in Singapore,” May 2014, http://singaporepoetry.com/2014/02/20/unwritten-history.