Saturday, March 25, 2017

Being 17

"Being 17" ("Quand on a 17 ans") (2016) is a study of two very different families, whose 17-year-old boys discover, in a stumbling and aggressive fashion, their love for one another. Directed by André Téchiné, the film is beautifully shot, alternating between the snowy mountains of Thoma's farm and the rooms of Damien's suburban house. Sandrine Kiberlain is wonderful as Damien's doctor mother, Marianne. Kacey Mottet Klein (Damien) and Corentin Fila (Thomas) both put in persuasive performances.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Viet Thanh Nguyen's "The Refugees"

SW lent me this collection of short stories before we heard Nguyen read at 92Y last Thursday. I had read his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Sympathizer and admired it very much. At the Y, Nguyen read an excerpt from his novel, an opinion piece on refugees, and the beginning of the first story from The Refugees. The juxtaposition of fiction and non-fiction was canny, prompting persistent questions about genre from the moderator Alexander Chee afterwards. It was also canny in a more commercial sense: a good way of enticing the audience to buy both of his books.

The first story "Black-Eyed Women" blew me away. It was a complexly layered narrative about ghosts and ghostwriting, a powerful meditation on what the living tries to forget in order to go on living. One of the two epigraphs for the book is a quotation from James Fenton's "A German Requiem":

It is not your memories which haunt you.
It is not what you have written down.
It is what you have forgotten, what you must forget.
What you must go on forgetting all your life.

The second story "The Other Man" about the coming to consciousness of his sexuality of a gay Vietnamese refugee offers interesting portraits of gay expatriate couple (one from Hong Kong, the other from England) but lacks drive in its plot. The next three stories "War Years" (the Vietnamese living on the West Coast rally support for the overthrow of the Communists back home), "The Transplant" (a man receives a liver transplant from a dead Vietnamese), "I'd Love You to Want Me" (an elderly Vietnamese man grows senile and calls his wife by another name) may lack the power of the first story but are very poignant in their effect. The next three stories are less strong but only by comparison with the strength of the earlier stories. They highlight the heroic stature of flawed fathers who had not only survived the flight from Vietnam but brought their family with them, as the earlier stories highlighted the heroism of obdurate mothers. Together the stories in this collection offer piercing insights into the condition of having been a refugee.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Contemporary Art and Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin's library card

With Y, I saw the show "The Arcades: Contemporary Art and Walter Benjamin" at the Jewish Museum today. A few of the contemporary works were well worth seeing, but the show as a whole was disappointing. Benjamin's unfinished project The Arcades assembled a miscellany of quotations and commentaries based on a principle and a purpose. The principle was represented by these iron and glass vaulted shopping malls in Paris, the cultural capital of the nineteenth century. The purpose was to mount a critique of capitalism through an examination of the materiality of experience. Both gave Benjamin's project its coherence and interest. The principle of the museum show was Benjamin's text. Its purpose was to put up a museum show. As such, the selection of contemporary art works, from various times, places, and artistic practices, failed to illuminate any particular time, place, or practice. Worse, they failed to illuminate Benjamin's text, using it merely as a convenient way of organizing a show. The wall signs included Kenneth Goldsmith's annotations of the artworks with appropriated texts that purportedly extended Benjamin's reflections on Paris to New York, the capital of the twentieth century. As the TLS reviewer of Goldsmith's book remarked, the poet's collage speaks ultimately about ... the poet. There is a whole chapter devoted to Robert Mapplethorpe, Goldsmith's archetypal avant gardist artist. Such self-regard, in Goldsmith's work and in the museum show, restricts the potency of Benjamin's work and of art and poetry in general. Still, I'm very glad to have seen, among other works, Andrea Bowers' "The Triumph of Labor" (2016), a work of marker on cardboard reproducing a woodcut that celebrated Labor Day. It gives to labor the dignity and beauty of an arras. The Pierre Charaeu show on the ground floor was beautifully and tastefully designed by Diller Scofidio and Renfro.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Am I a Chinese poet?

"Growing up in Singapore, I was teased by Chinese schoolmates for being a banana, yellow on the outside, white on the inside. They were mocking my love for the English language and my apathy towards Mandarin Chinese. At home my family spoke a mixture of English and Cantonese. Mandarin was for me a school language. The schoolyard teasing turned me off from learning it properly. Now, as if in belated protest against those ancient taunts, I’d like to think of myself as a Chinese writer who writes in English, if only to expand the notion of what a Chinese writer is." Read the interview. Thanks, Jennifer Wong, for interviewing me, and Peter LaBerge, for publishing the interview.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Ode to Billy Joel

This 1976 film attempts to provide the answers to the questions raised in the haunting 1967 Bobbie Gentry song of the same title. Why did Billy Joel McAllister kill himself by jumping off the Tallahachee Bridge? Set in the Mississippi Delta, in a time before the boondocks had seen television and indoor plumbing, the film apparently shows how eighteen-year-old Billy Joel persists in his courtship of beautiful sixteen-year-old Bobbie Lee, forbidden by her father to receive gentleman-callers. The end turns suddenly tragic when at the county fair, instead of helping himself to the hired whores, a drunk Billy Joel gives in to his desires and has sex with a man. Robby Benson is terrific as Billy Joel, as is Glynnis O'Connor as Bobbie Lee Hartley. They carry the film on their slim young shoulders, helped by a very watchable supporting cast. Directed by Max Baer, Jr..

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Complication as a Form of Explication

My proposal has been accepted! I will be speaking about my hybrid creative and critical work-in-progress "Does grass sweat" at Oxford University, Rothermere American Institute, on May 19, for the symposium "Special Relationships: Poetry Across the Atlantic Since 2000." Abstract below. I've read parts of the work at Rutgers at the invitation of Patrick Rosal. So excited to read more of it at Oxford! Thanks for publishing parts of it, H.L. Hix, Bryan Borland, Vivek Narayanan, Eric Thomas Norris, Cindy Arrieu-King, Ryan Wilson, Bry Hos, Cy Rai, Haikuist Network, Rattle, Gulf Coast, Hayden's Ferry, Dusie, Almost Island, Queer Southeast Asia, From Walden to Woodlands, Alba, Assaracus, Literary Matters, Kin, Ten Thirty, The Capilano Review.

Abstract: Complication as a Form of Explication 
by Jee Leong Koh

My work-in-progress "Does grass sweat: translations of an insignificant Japanese poet" deploys the tropes of literary translation and critical commentary to question the boundaries of nation, culture, language, race, and sexuality. Ostensibly written in Japanese by an unknown poet and translated into English by a queer Singaporean writer, student of British poetry, and permanent resident of the USA, the cycle of haiku represents New York City’s Central Park as an expatriate’s daily walk to work. 50 years after its acclaimed publication, in a New York utterly changed by radical conservatism, a queer American of Japanese, Jewish, and German heritage sets forth his own commentary on the haiku “as a way of preserving the park as a public commons, if not in actuality, then in the imagination,” as he puts it. The commentary historicizes the supposedly timeless poems while personalizing them in a highly idiosyncratic manner by referring to a diverse American poetic tradition. By practicing explication as a form of complication, I wish to give voice to the many folds of poetic identity and to the varied contingencies of poetic influence. If my proposal is accepted, I will read the Translator’s Note by Jee Leong Koh and the Commentator’s Preface by Sam Fujimoto-Mayer, before presenting some haiku and their accompanying commentaries.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Revolution Books

Friday night GH and I walked into Revolution Books and whom did I see? Ngugi wa Thiong'o! Waiyaki, Nyambura, and Muthoni all flashed back like daffodils. We had dinner at Yatenga and then I went back to the bookstore to hear Ngugi read from the third volume of his memoir Birth of a Dream Weaver. His son Mukoma wa Ngugi, who is Assistant Professor of English at Cornell University, read from his latest poetry collection Logotherapy. The third Kenyan author Peter Kimani read from his novel Dance of the Jakaranda. The train, called "the iron snake" in Kenya, was a powerful symbol of colonial and neo-colonial exploitation.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Social Maternalism

TLS January 27, 2017.

From the article "The New Pragmatism: How to save capitalism from itself, by cutting across traditional political divides and making the state active in the right areas" by Paul Collier, Professor of Economics and Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford:

Social democracy can justly be accused of social paternalism: the state is assumed to know best, but unfortunately it didn't. For want of a better term, I think of the pragmatic policies I have suggested as social maternalism. In this model the state would be active in both the economic and social spheres, but it would not overtly empower itself. Its tax policies would restrain the powerful from appropriating rents, rather than stripping income from the rich to help the poor. Its regulations would empower those who suffer from creative destruction to claim compensation, rather than attempting to frustrate the very process that gives capitalism its astonishing dynamic. Its inclusive nationalism would be a force for binding together, replacing the emphasis on the fragmented identities of grievances. Its social interventions would aim to sustain those families that are stressed, rather than assuming for itself the role of parents.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Reading Richard Rorty

I've always wondered how to reconcile Nietzschean self-creation with liberal politics, and so it is with a tremendous sense of excitement, and relief, that I learn from Richard Rorty that it is not necessary to reconcile the two, that in fact it is a mistake to try for some kind of synthesis. One has to be contented with their separation, to be a liberal ironist, as Rorty calls it. The irony is directed at all final vocabularies, one's own as well as others', understanding that there is no final vocabulary that is not contingent and not formed by one's historical and social contingencies. Discourse and socialization goes all the way down, and the best one can hope for is to re-write a small part of one's inherited script. The geniuses among us re-write a bigger part. That is the self-creation advocated by Nietzsche. It retains his perspectivism but relinquishes his essentializing move of making "the will to power" a commonality in all human beings. "The will to power" may be a useful description of people some of the time, but it is nonetheless merely a description. We cannot step out of our language to judge whether it corresponds to a truth out there in reality or a truth in here in us.

As for the "liberal" part of being a liberal ironist, Rorty repeats Judith Shklar's useful definition: liberals are people for whom "cruelty is the worst thing they do." There is no non-tautological way of defending this definition, just as there are no non-tautological ways of defending other definitions. The test of the pudding is in the eating. Is it a useful way to bring about the progressive changes that liberals have traditionally wish to see happen in society? To my mind, it is. It highlights the desire to avoid pain, which we share with animals, and by extension, the desire to avoid humiliation, which we don't share with animals because we have selves that are constituted by language and therefore capable of being humiliated. The avoidance of pain seems sufficiently "basic." This definition of liberalism also seems broad enough to encompass a wide range of politics, and narrow enough to exclude the politics of exploitation and intolerance.

Contingency, irony, and solidarity consists of three parts. Part I titled "Contingency" argues for the contingency of language, selfhood, and a liberal community. Part II titled "Ironism and Theory" re-examines the roles of private irony and liberal hope in the writings of Proust, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Derrida. Part III titled "Cruelty and Solidarity" shows how the pursuit of self-creation (Nabokov) and of community (Orwell) could be cruel to others. There are books, as Rorty argues, that we read for re-creating ourselves, by becoming more sensitive to others' pain, for instance, and there are books, different ones, that we read for re-creating our communities. Narratives, more than philosophies, are useful in describing or re-describing others' pain, and so are more useful in sensitizing us to it.

In Rorty's liberal utopia, we are free to pursue our private dreams of self-perfection, as long as we don't cause hurt to others or use more than our fair share of resources. The goal of such a utopia is the increase of Freedom, and not any approximation to Truth.

In his short book Achieving Our Country Rorty argues that the American Left has veered off-course from action into theory, from politics into culture, from participation into spectatorship. He praises the achievements of the cultural Left in elevating the status of women, gay and other minorities, but points out also the dark side of the achievements. The Left has no answer to the economic upheaval of globalization. Rorty: "Globalization is producing a world economy in which an attempt by any one country to prevent the immiseration of its workers may result only in depriving them of employment. This world economy will soon be owned by a cosmopolitan upper class which has no more sense of community with any workers anywhere than the great American capitalists of the year 1900 had with the immigrants who manned their enterprises." This economic elite maintains a cultural elite either to justify the former's existence or to give the appearance of contest by engaging in cultural politics. The general populace, sensing the sympathetic class interests between the economic and the cultural elites, will then revolt against constitutional democracy and elect a strongman. We now have Trump on our hands, as Rorty predicted back in 1998.

Are his suggestions for change already useless? To deal with the consequences of globalization, "the present cultural Left would have to transform itself by opening relations with the residue of the old reformist Left, and in particular with the labor unions. It would have to talk much more about money, even at the cost of talking less about stigma." To effect this transformation, the Left should put a moratorium on theory and mobilize what remains of national pride. "It should ask the public to consider how the country of Lincoln and Whitman might be achieved." Although we should be international-minded, the only real change we can effect is through the current nation-state. We have to subordinate our differences to a common dream. Putting so starkly an approach that Rorty describes in a much more sophisticated and elegant fashion has this advantage at least: it makes clear the difficulty of such a transformation of the American Left.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

To be an ironic liberal

To be inscribed on my forehead and in my heart: "If we are ironic enough about our final vocabularies, and curious enough about everyone else's, we do not have to worry about whether we are in direct contact with moral reality, or whether we are blinded by ideology, or whether we are being weakly "relativistic"." - Richard Rorty in "Orwell on Cruelty" in his book CONTINGENCY, IRONY, AND SOLIDARITY.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Judo vs Jujitsu

Sanshiro Sugata (a.k.a. Judo Saga) is Akira Kurosawa's first film (1943), based on the novel by Tsuneo Tomita. Sanshiro (Susumu Fujita) learns judo from master Yano (Denjirô Ôkôchi) but also learns to grow up. The moment of enlightenment comes while he is hanging to a stake in a muddy pond. He sees a glowing lotus rising from the mud. What does it mean? A calm acceptance of Nature's law? A awakening to the shitty roots of life? Later he almost fails to vanquish an old master from the jujitsu school because the master's daughter is praying with a pure devotion for her father to win. To overcome his inner doublts, Sanshiro remembers the lotus again, so the flower could also represent a kind of selfless innocence. Not surprisingly, he defeats the implacable jujitsu master Gennosuke Higaki (Ryûnosuke Tsukigata) in the end. Not a terribly profound film, but well-paced and shot. It is very much a young man's film.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Organize, Organize, Organize

Feb 7, 2017: An informative and inspiring meeting organized by the Asian American Federation. Panel speakers representing different civic organizations spoke about making Asian Americans visible and their voices heard; the need for language access in govt proclamations; organizing protests and call-ins (New York Immigration Coalition); the impact of Trumpism on social policies (Coalition for Asian American Children & Families) and on-the-ground social services, especially elderly and mental services (Hamilton-Madison House); teaching students to stand up for one another in schools against bullying (Sikh Coalition); the building of alliances between mainstream Asian America and marginalized communities such as the LGBTQAPI (National Queer API Alliance). Participate. Support. Donate. Above all, organize, organize, organize.

Friday, January 27, 2017


The round clock
above the pump house
ducks sleeping

That's it, folks. The last one. Thanks for following and liking the haiku. We move to Harlem today.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Wednesday, January 25, 2017


High winds
the reservoir gathers a sea
the night a black hut


Hanging from a nail
in the wall of the study
an Olympic gymnast


Two more. We move on Friday.

Monday, January 23, 2017


Last five haiku before we move away from Central Park:

Number written
on the FedEx door tag—
a strong headwind

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Women's March on Washington

Guardian headline: "Over 20 countries see protests on the first day of Trump's presidency." Where were you, Singapore? Hungary, Ghana, South Africa, India, Thailand, Korea held protests. Where were you, Singapore? I look in vain for your pictures. If you can't protest and march freely in your own country, you are living in a police state. The largest march ever held in Washington (more than 500 000) and not a single arrest made, giving the lie to the security and unrest argument. The unity among marchers was incredible. When the women chanted, "My body, my choice," the men replied in unison, "Her body, her choice." When my students shouted, "Show me what democracy looks like," we responded, looking around us at the tremendous diversity of people, including babies in prams and a disabled woman on crutches, "This is what democracy looks like."

I posted the above on Facebook and the result was a rather lively discussion thread about forms of political protest and about the women's movement. 

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Politics in Singapore poetry?

Whatever happened to politics in Singapore's English-language poetry? An enlightening essay by the inimitable Gwee Li Sui, who discusses poems by Gilbert Koh, Felix Cheong, Boey Kim Cheng, Cyril Wong, Grace Chia, Aaron Lee, Yeow Kai Chai, and me. Here's the spoiler: politics has never gone away. Essay published as part of a Singapore issue, by Zurich University of the Arts.

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Numbers Game

This summary in Today newspaper is symptomatic of what's wrong with the current direction of Singapore arts: it's all about numbers, institutions, infrastructure, international recognition, markets, and nothing about the artists and their work. Even when naysayers such as Khairuddin Hori and I are quoted, our words are taken to support the same themes. I am not "agreeing" with Joshua Ip, but saying something very different instead. Even increasing arts appreciation among Singaporeans is couched in terms of attendance numbers. Nothing is mentioned about how a certain segment of Singaporeans has worked to censor the arts, and so betrays how backwards we are still in terms of our understanding of art. None of this is a surprise, but it is very sad. All the investments of money, time, and energy in the arts only go to creating a spirit that is anti-art. This must have a corrupting effect on art-making in Singapore. As artists, we must resist this corruption, and hope that our work will not be too distorted by the necessary resistance. If you are an artist/writer working in Singapore, how would you summarize your past year? What progress in your work, or even breakthrough, did you experience? What setbacks? Where are you drawing strength and encouragement?

Saturday, January 07, 2017

No to MOE

I've just turned down a request to include a poem of mine in an anthology of Singapore poetry to be used in Singapore schools. I admire the work of the publisher and the editors involved, but the project is initiated (and presumably funded) by the Ministry of Education, and I refuse to allow the state to represent my work in its books while discriminating against my queer person and community through its maintenance of the anti-sodomy law. I ask only to be treated equally as any other Singaporean, that's all. To publish my work and deny me my rights is not equality.

My decision is consistent with my refusal to allow my books to be considered for the state-funded Singapore Literature Prize. I also see it as consistent with my refusal to apply for state funding for my books, projects, and the Singapore Lit Fest in NYC, as a form of protest against state censorship of the arts. Freedom for the arts and equality for all.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Keith Wiltshire

Keith Wiltshire, a wonderful English teacher to me and my RJC classmates, died yesterday morning, January 3. Grace, his daughter, wrote, "He was at home and Pauline and I were with him which is what he would have wanted. He had lived for two years after his stroke and we are very grateful to all our wonderful NHS staff and all the carers who looked after him." Keith had enjoyed being read to in the last year or so. A few days before he died, Grace read to him three of his favorite Matthew Arnold poems, "Growing Old," "Dover Beach," and "The Last Word." If you'd like to write to the family, send me a private message.

I will always remember Keith for being an inspiring teacher and human being. His literary and moral passions were both tremendous, and, together with my history teacher Rodney Cole, he was my entire education at junior college. Confronted by our intellectual lethargy and moral turpitude, he would strive to provoke us into thinking and acting. I still remember how he would constantly inveigh against the uselessness of mathematics as a subject of study, an opinion I was secretly pleased to endorse, until a classmate (was it Malini?) stood up to him in defense of math, and then he broke into a smile and said, "Finally, someone contradicted me!" He did not want our agreement, but our growth, in having the courage of our convictions.

Years after he was let go by the Ministry Of Education for criticizing Singapore's educational system, he wrote to his students regularly from his home in Bristol. I visited him once with two classmates, and we had a salad from the vegetables grown in his garden, and a walking tour of the city, accompanied by his commentary. He switched from Labor to the Green Party and marched in protests on behalf of the environment. To thank him for his letters, and much else besides, I wrote a poem for him. Among its many infelicities is an omission of the girls in that junior-college class: I couldn't fit them into the meter. But the poem may give a sense of what I owe to this best of representatives of Great Britain.

The Far Ships 
for Keith Wiltshire, my teacher 

Your yearly letters make me smile.
Hammered on an old processor,
they slash with slanted lines of bile
the madness of all car-owners,

the British stock of nuclear shells,
how Singapore Immigration stopped
you at the airport, bade farewell
to future visits, and then dropped

you on the next flight home, without
giving a reason. Youth protection?
Your letters sound so free of doubts,
the years a seamless flight connection.

You are as constant as your letters.
With equal passion, you taught us boys
Shakespeare: how not to heed our betters
as Hamlet heeds the ghostly voice,

and why, in Pride and Prejudice,
prejudice is the mate of pride.
You read us Larkin’s poem “Next Please”
and the far ships came alongside

and then sailed on, leaving no goods,
giving no reason. Wide awake,
we saw from where we sat or stood
waters that neither breed nor break.

Do you remember those good years
as good? I do, with thankfulness,
for though your letters do not bear
good news of the wide world, they bless.

Saturday, December 31, 2016


Thinking of Basho and Thoreau on this last day of the year.

At the heart
of the American elm
an old pond

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Ruth Ozeki's "A Tale for the Time Being"

Utterly absorbing. The somewhat annoying voice of Nao Yasutani--an ethnic Japanese teenager raised in California and returned to Japan after her father lost his job in the crash--took a little time to get used to but her horrific experience of bullying at school and her pure love for her great-grandmother Jiko, an anarchist-feminist writer turned Zen nun, soon render her more sympathetic. In contrast, the other narrative about Ruth, closely based on the author, is probing, stubborn, and tender in depicting her dislocation from New York City to a tiny island (Land of the Dead) off the coast of British Columbia and her loss of her mother first to Alzheimer's and then to death. The myriad ways in which the two stories interact to become one tale cast a brilliant light and a wonderful play of shadows on the gift of storytelling.  The invention of Haruki #1, the reluctant kamikaze pilot, shows the noble ideals that the author holds dear.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Writing the South Seas

Brian Bernards' Writing the South Seas: Imagining the Nanyang in Chinese and Southeast Asian Postcolonial Literature is an exciting study of the archipelagic trope and the activity of creolization in the context of postcolonial literature in Southeast Asia. Drawing on Frantz Fanon, Stuart Hall, and Edouard Glissant, Bernards distinguishes the archipelagic imagination from the continental one, as the former prioritizes "contact, exchange, heterogeneity, and creolization instead of racial, ethnic, or linguistic uniformity and singularity." Drawing on Benedict Anderson, Thomas Eriksen, and the Cuban poet Nancy Morejon, Bernards distinguishes creolization from both hybridity and multiculturalism. Creolization "recognizes culture as an ongoing process that cannot be reduced to a singular outcome, offering neither a finished product (hybridity) nor a composite portrait of separate, immutable entities (multiculturalism)."

Chapter 1 looks at "Modern Chinese Impressions of the South Seas Other" through the lives and works of Chinese Sinophone writers Xu Zhimo (1897-1931) and Xi Dishan (1893-1941). It concludes that "The South Seas color of New Literature, representing a quest for enlightenment, follows a discrepant cosmopolitan itinerary that challenges some basic assumptions about modern China's literary history," namely Chinese ethocentrism and the ideal of "national salvation" in New Literature.

Chapter 2 "Transcolonial Challenges to Diasporic Ethno-Nationalism" looks at Lao She's fiction and Yu Dafu (1896-1945)'s editorial and organizing work for a strong critique of the ways "in which diasporic nationalism slipped into an ethnocentrism that reinforced the divide-and-rule strategies that Western colonizers [and national governments] used to legitimize their exploitative presence.

Chapter 3 "Creolizing the Sinophone from Malaysia to Taiwan" follows the influx of Malaysian students to Taiwan after the 1969 Kuala Lumpur ethnic riots and their political consequences. Bernards' exhibit A is Ng Kim Chew (1967- ), whose "creolized aesthetics of Malaysianness and his transnational rewriting of the Nanyang imagination offer insights into how Sinophone Malaysian literature also functions as a Taiwan-based practice." According to Bernards, "Malaysian recuperations of creolization reverberate in analogous post-martial law treatments of Taiwan's complex history of colonialism, multiculturalism, multilingualism, and settler-indigenous politics.

In Chapter 4 "An Ecopoetics of the Borneo Rainforest" Bernards examine the fictions of Pan Yutong and Chang Kuei-hsing. In their ecopoetics, "Malaysia and Taiwan are no longer the margins of China and continental Chineseness, but rather island and peninsular centers of creolized Sinophone cultures formed from interactions with non-Sinophone cultures and native ecologies in a South Sea network."

Chapter 5 "De-Racializing Cultural Legibility in Postcolonial Singapore" looks at Sinophone writer Yeng Pway Ngon and Anglophone writer Christine Suchen Lim for the ways in which they challenge the state-authorized framework of multiculturalism.

Chapter 6 "Popular Sino-Thai Integration Narratives" teases out the tensions in the exemplar of Chinese integration that Thailand is supposed to represent.

In his concluding chapter, Bernards frankly admits that there is more work to be done on the archipelagic imagination in the region's literature, in particular, the Malay-language writers of both Malaysia and Indonesia, as well as the writers of the Philippines. His study has focused mainly on fiction, and so has little to say about the region's poetry. After learning so much from this book, I look forward eagerly to his new work on East Asian and Southeast Asian cinema.


December drizzle
nothing beats
eating an orange

Saying good-bye
with a chaste hug
moon behind the cloud

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Neil Mukherjee's "A Life Apart"

Alienated from his new country, the literary immigrant wants to prove that he belongs, how else, but by credibly, and thus, creditably, narrating a story from the point of view of a native informant. In Mukherjee's debut novel, the protagonst Rikwit brings to life the bit character of Miss Gilby, an Englishwoman in Raj India, from the Rabindranath Tagore story "Bimala's autobiography." The story about how Miss Gilby becomes the tutor of Bimala, the wife of an enlightened zamindar, and subsequently falls victim to inter-religious conflict in Bengal is expertly told. The expertise is the point, for Rikwit who is anything but an expert in navigating the life of a queer Indian scholarship student at Oxford and then that of an undocumented immigrant. In fact, his life is a mess. He spends his Oxford career cruising for men in an underground public bathroom and goes down to prostitution in a very dark corner of London. He is most certainly not a model immigrant. I find most interesting the first part of the novel which depicts the growing-up years in Bengal and the last part which brings to the light the life and plight of "floating" workers looking for temporary farming or construction jobs. The middle part about Oxford I find rather tedious since I cannot bring myself to care for any of the students, not even Rikwit himself. Rikwit's realization at Oxford that his mother's harsh discipline is considered child abuse in the new country leads nowhere. It reinforces the motif of violence running through the novel but does not develop into fundamental insight into cultural relativism.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Smaller Is Better

Smaller is Better: Japan's Mastery of the Miniature by O-Young Lee
Japan is too often seen in opposition to the West, and so hides some of its peculiarities. This take on Japanese culture by a Korean writer, critic, and scholar capitalizes on his knowledge of the differences between Japanese and Korean cultures, so that what is truly distinctive about Japan-its penchant for making things smaller-comes thrillingly into focus.

Kokoro by Natsume Soseki, translated by Edwin McClellan
In his study Two-Timing Modernity: Homosocial Narrative in Modern Japanese Fiction, J. Keith Vincent explains very well the different camps of interpretation of Soseki's novel: a patriarchal-imperialist view that focuses mainly on the third section of the novel, Sansei's testament; a subversive view that argues for the narrator's betrayal of his Sansei, to the extent that he may have married Sansei's wife after the teacher died; and a gay affirmative reading that highlights Sansei's undying love for his male companion. Vincent's own interpretation is most nuanced, taking into account the novel's tripartite structure. For him, Kokoro is an exemplar par excellence of the homosocial narrative in modern Japanese fiction. It embeds feudalistic same-sex desire in amber in order to bring modern heteronormativity to light. In doing so, it both cherishes the past while firmly consigning it to the past. Gay love becomes not so much the love that cannot be named, as the love that must be narrated.

Botchan by Natsume Soseki, translated by Glenn Anderson
The protagonist is endearing. The irony is multi-directional, and at many points, I cannot be sure whether the satire is directed at Bochan or his society. It does not help that this edition contains many typographical errors.

Monday, December 05, 2016

Reading Frantz Fanon

The weekend was spent read Frantz Fanon. Yes, I'm late for the party.

Black Skin, White Masks (1952)
A penetrating study of colonized Martinique society and the colonized young man who thought of himself as French, only to go to the metropole of France and realized that he was black. A daring attempt to synthesize psycho- and social analyses.

A Dying Colonialism (1959) or The Fifth Year of the Algerian Revolution
Fanon's account of the Algerian War of independence. In the war the women learned to instrumentalize their veils as revolutionary soldiers and agents. Fanon shows why the rural Algerians first rejected the radio because it was perceived as the voice of the enemy, the colonial authorities and culture, and later embraced it when it broadcast the Voice of the revolution. In like manner Fanon argued for why Algerians first rejected and then embraced Western medicine. (After reading this chapter, I understand better now my own position on female circumcision.) In the chapter on the European minority, Fanon welcomed all Europeans who aided the revolutionaries to be part of the new Algeria, which was to be an inclusive society. The chapter included two testimonies from Europeans who found themselves ultimately to be Algerians. Charles Geromini: "It is a year now since I have joined the Algerian Revolution. Remembering the difficult and ambiguous contacts I had had at the outset of the Revolution, I had some fear that I might not be welcomed. My fear was unfounded. I was welcomed like any other Algerian. For the Algerian I am no longer an ally. I am a brother, simply a brother, like the others.

The Wretched of the Earth (1961)

"Decolonization, therefore, implies the urgent need to thoroughly challenge the colonial situation. Its definition can, if we want to describe it accurately, be summed up in the well-known words: "The last shall be first." (2)

"The colonized world is a world divided into two. The dividing line, the border, is represented by the barracks and the police stations." (3)

"If you think you can perfectly govern a country without involving the people, if you think that by their very presence the people confuse the issue, that they are a hindrance or, through their inherent unconsciousness, an undermining factor, then there should be no hesitation: The people must be excluded. Yet when the people are asked to participate in the government, instead of being a hindrance they are a driving force. We Algerians during the course of this war have had the opportunity, the good fortune, of fully grasping the reality of a number of things. (Reality is action, not mere thought.)

"As President Sékou Touréso aptly reminded us in his address to the Second Congress of African Writers: "In the realm of thought, man can claim to be the brain of the world, but in reality, where every action affects spiritual and physical being, the world is still the brain of mankind for it is here that are concentrated the totalization of power and elements of thought, the dynamic forces of development and improvement, and it is here too that energies are merged and the sum total of man's intellectual values is finally inscribed." (140)

"Each generation must discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it, in relative opacity." (145)

"The colonized intellectual, at the very moment when he undertakes a work of art, fails to realize he is using techniques and a language borrowed from the occupier. He is content to cloak these instruments in a style that is meant to be national but which is strangely reminiscent of exoticism. The colonized intellectual who returns to his people through works of art behaves in fact like a foreigner. Sometimes he will not hesitate to use the local dialects to demonstrate his desire to be as close to the people as possible, but the ideas he expresses, the preoccupations that haunt him are in no way related to the daily lot of the men and women of his country. The culture with which the intellectual is preoccupied is very often nothing but an inventory of particularisms. Seeking to cling close to the people, he clings merely to a visible veneer. This veneer, however, is merely a reflection of a dense, subterranean life in perpetual renewal. This reification, which seems all too obvious and characteristic of the people is in fact but the inert, already invalidated outcome of the many, and not always coherent, adaptations of a more fundamental substance beset with radical changes. Instead of seeking out this substance, the intellectual lets himself be mesmerized by these mummified fragments which, now, consolidated, signify, on the contrary, negation, obsolescence, and fabrication. Culture never has the transparency of custom, which is always a deterioration of culture. Seeking to stick to tradition or reviving neglected tradition is not only going against history, but against one's people. When a people support armed or even political struggle against a merciless colonialism, tradition changes meaning. What was a technique of passive resistance may, in this phase, be radically doomed. Traditions in an underdeveloped country undergoing armed struggle are fundamentally unstable and crisscrossed by centrifugal forces. This is why the intellectual often risks being out of step. The peoples who have waged the struggle are increasingly impermeable to demagoguery, and by seeking to follow them too closely, the intellectual turns out to be nothing better than a vulgar opportunist, even behind the times." (160-161)

"After the assimilation period of rhyming verse, the beat of the poetic drum bursts upon the scene. Poetry of revolt, but which is also analytical and descriptive. The poet must, however, understand that nothing can replace the rational and irreversible commitment on the side of the people in arms. Let us quote Depestre again:

The lady was not alone
She had a husband
A husband who knew everything
But to tell the truth knew nothing
Because culture does not come without making concessions
Without conceding your flesh and blood
Without conceding yourself to others
A concession worth as much as
Classicism or Romanticism
And all that nurtures out soul.

[English translation of "Face a la nuit" by René Depestre, in footnote of book]

The colonized poet who is concerned with creating a work of national significance, who insists on describing his people, misses his mark, because before setting pen to paper he is in no fit state to make that fundamental concession which Depestre mentions." (162)

"When the colonized intellectual writing for his people uses the past he must do so with the intention of opening up the future, of spurring them into action and fostering hope. But in order to secure hope, in order to give it substance, he must take part in the action and commit himself body and soul to the national struggle. You can talk about anything you like, but when it comes to talking about that one thing in a man's life that involves opening up new horizons, enlightening your country, and standing tall alongside your own people, then muscle power is required." (167)

"Far from distancing it from other nations, it is the national liberation that puts the nation on the stage of history. It is at the heart of national consciousness that international consciousness establishes itself and thrives. And this dual emergence, in fact, is the unique focus of all culture."

Sunday, December 04, 2016

More an American than Ever

My longest, and last, interview about Steep Tea, with some thoughts on global literature, Singapore Poetry, and the political obligations of a Permanent Resident of the USA. Thanks, Nicholas Wong, for the interview, and Ching-In Chen, for publishing it.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Partial Accounting

I've not been keeping up with the recording of my reading that I wish to remember. So here is a very partial accounting of the books read in the period from July to now:

1. Basho and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentary edited by Makoto Ueda

2. Walden by Haiku by Ian Marshall
-interesting project of extracting haiku from Thoreau's prose, but finally unconvincing

3.  Two-Timing Modernity: Homosocial Narrative in Modern Japanese Fiction by J. Keith Vincent
-subtle and persuasive study of how the Japanese texts betray both the feudal past and the longed-for modernity. Insightful analysis of Natsume Soseki's Kokoro and its critical reception.

4. Kokoro by Natsume Soseki
- a most subtle tripartite structure: like a haiku?

5. Botchan by Natsume Soseki
-witty, a light work

6. State of War by Ninotchka Rosca
-too much exposition but memorable characters.

7. After You by Cyril Wong
-he does survival in different voices

8. Map: Collected and Last Poems by Wislawa Szymborska
-Why do I not feel the same frisson as before?

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Thursday, November 17, 2016

"Master Harold" ... and the Boys

Watched this Athol Fugard play last night with my XI's at the Signature Theater. A powerful play and a powerful production, directed by the playwright himself. Set in a tea room in the provincial South African town of Port Elizabeth in 1950, the presentation modulated subtly throughout until it closed in a painful act of disavowal. Hard-hitting performances by Leon Addison Brown (Sam), Sahr Ngaujah (Willie), and Noah Robbins (Hally).

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Recurring Motifs

JH's memorial was held last Saturday, November 12, at 150w83. PB managed to get through his speech without breaking down. It was a fine speech, loving, modest, and gently humorous. "Jin loved me but he also loved Anderson Cooper and Brazilian ballet dancer Thiago Soares." JH's mom spoke of JH's hospitalization in Fukuoka and PB's care for him in his last days. She too was puzzled by JH's sudden death and speculated that it was due to radiation as JH volunteered at the Fukushima prefecture in the last two or three years he visited Japan. In his speech JH's brother asked himself why JH moved to NYC, and thought it was because the city gave JH the freedom to be himself, freedom he could not find in Japan. He ended by asking us to keep NYC free, to which call many in the audience stood up and applauded. I could not help relating this to the election of Trump. The moment made a deep impression on me. I am committed to New York City and do not intend to leave in the next four years of what looks like a most harrowing term for minorities in America.


Glad that I went for Ho Tzu Nyen's talk at the Asian Art Archive in America. Met him having a smoke outside the brownstone that housed the American satellite of the large Hong Kong arts institute. I liked him. No airs. Just himself. He said he was returning to Singapore after two years or so in Berlin. He seemed ambivalent about the decision. Y was at the talk too. HTN talked about four works: Utama: Every Name in History Is I (2003), Earth (2009), The Cloud of Unknowing (2011), and Ten Thousand Tigers (2014). All the works attended to recurring motifs in art history, mythology, ritual. I asked him how he decided on the sequence of focus in the large-scale works. He said that he aimed for maximum resonance between two consecutive segments. Y was probably right when she said afterwards that he had a poetics. Instead of a logic, I added. Or a grammar, I thought when I left.


Haiku written yesterday morning:

Cold November sun
breadcrumbs all over
my black jacket

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Thursday, November 10, 2016

The Dinner

Watched last night the terrific move The Dinner (2014), based on a novel by Herman Koch. Directed by Ivano de Matteo, the movie demonstrated, almost inexorably, the fragile foundations of our morality. Great acting from an all-star Italian cast: Alessandro Gassman, Giovanna Mezzogiorno, Luigi Lo Cascio, and Barbora Bobulova.

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Sunday, November 06, 2016

"Attribution" in Vietnamese

So pleased that my poem "Attribution" from STEEP TEA has been translated into Vietnamese and published by AJAR Press in ABRACADABRA, the publication of A-festival in Hanoi in August 2016. Thank you, Nha Thuyen, and congratulations on the successful inaugural festival!

Immortality and Revolution

TLS Aug 19 and 16 2016

from Hal Jensen's review of H. J. Jackson's Those Who Write for Immortality:

At the end of his third collection of Odes, right at the "back" of the bookroll, Horace placed a poem which, for 2,500 years, has remained the locus classicus of poetry's unique powers: "exegi monumentum aere perennius" (I have completed a monument more lasting than bronze - although every word requires a scholar's note). More durable than bronze, higher than the pyramids, immune to time and the elements. Horace's poetry guarantees that he will not wholly die ("non omnis moriar").

How quick we all were to buy into that one. How quick to forget what we found at the back of Horace's next bookroll, the Epistles, which appeared in 20 BC, just three years after the Odes. Here, the concluding poem is addressed to the very book (liber) in our hands. It warns of the realities of public life: once out in the world, there is no coming back; you'll be dumped on a shelf when the next big thing comes along; your pristine (pumiced) look will be soiled by grubby fingers; if the moths don't get you, you'll end up in some poky outpost being used to teach kids their elementary lessons.


Her main finding is that merit is far from being the primary determinant of long-term literary fame; it is just one among many contributing factors. What counts, above all, is the ability to attract multiple varying audiences. Jackson divides this feature into celebrity, popularity, critical appeal and influence: get all four, like Wordsworth, and hit the jackpot.


from Maria Golia's review of Rachel Aspden's Generation Revolution: On the front line between tradition and change in the Middle East:

People are willing to relinquish freedoms and uphold paternalist tradition not least because doing so has, for generations, enabled their survival and cultural continuity, where culture itself is the vehicle for reiterating and reinforcing tradition. The degree to which their leaders' actions to ensure stability and security have lately only generated greater fear, injustice and violence, here as elsewhere, remain unacknowledged. Only by holding these mechanisms to the light with close questioning can society begin to break with them.

Friday, November 04, 2016

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

ALSCW Conference at Catholic University of America

Thursday evening, Oct 27, it was lovely to hear George Kalogeris read his poetry again.

Friday, Oct 28, bright and early at 8 am a thought-provoking seminar "Poetry and Translation": Marco Antolin's "Overcoming the Abysm of Creative Stagnation: Philip Levine on Translating Antonio Machado, Garcis Lorca, and Cesar Vallejo"; Mary Maxwell's "Correspondences: Baudelaire's Fleurs du mal and the Translation Tasks of Richard Howard and Walter Benjamin"; Diana Senechal's "Translating an Understanding of Poetry Itself: Tomas Venclova's 'Pestel Street'"; Nicholas Pesques' "Translating: Acting".

Followed by an exciting plenary panel "Literature in Painting, Painting in Literature": Deborah Epstein Nord's "George Eliot and John Everett Millais: The Ethics of Ugliness"; Rebecca Ranof's "The Occluded Portraits of Dickens and Van Goh"; Ruth Bernard Yeazell's "Henry James's Portrait-Envy"

In the afternoon, a seminar on "Irish Poetry Since 1950": Richard Russell's "'An Enormous Yes': Philip Larkin and Michael Longley"; George Lensing's "'The Ghost' of Yeats in Seamus Heaney's 'Casualty'"; Meg Tyler's "The Unseen 'Shine': from Image to Word in Heaney's Later Work".

On Saturday, Oct 29, the early morning panel was exciting. "Representing Contemporary American Fiction": Lee Konstantinou's "The Age of High Mass Culture"; Michael W. Clune's "The Source"; Amy Hungerford's "Make Literature Now"; Aida Levy-Hussen's "Theorizing the Contemporary in Black Literary Studies"; Christopher Coffman's "Global Literature and Anglophone Fiction after Postmodernism"

In the afternoon, the plenary panel IV "American Literature Across the Borders": Edward Larkin's "The Temporal Geography of Early American Empire"; Travis Snyder's "Helena Viramontes and the Borderlands Logic of Capitalism"; Sara Faradji's "Cosmopression: A Closed Mind in an Open City".

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Art Censorship (Again) in Singapore

"Artist cuts himself, takes blood oath, after his performance piece was cut from Singapore Biennale"

Religious sensitivities be damned if religious sensitivities do not, or will not, understand the intent and context of a work of art. I wonder, however, if more is at work than what is stated by the authorities. Could it be that the real concern is not religious, but political sensitivities? That Chandrasekaran's performance piece about the harsh lives of Indian convict workers in 19th-century Singapore will provoke powerful resonances and raise important questions in the present day about the way we treat our guest workers, most of whom come from the Indian continent?

It's interesting that the reporter mentions that Chandrasekaran had spent 6 years abroad in Australia before returning to Singapore and responding in this defiant manner to the act of art vandalism by the authorities. Apparently, the audience at his Q&A, "most of whom were from the local arts community," questioned Chandrasekaran "whether there was a way to step away and approach the subject from a less dramatic angle." The question betrays not only an ignorance of how an artist works, but also a cowardice in trying so hard not to give offence. It takes a foreign artist, Sri Lankan Niranjan Rajah, to point out that the audience responses “seem to be missing the point." What is important is the integrity of Chandrasekaran’s work. We should be asking, instead, why the work is being censored, and what the censorship says about us as a society.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

An Open Letter to NBDCS and My Fellow Shortlisted Authors

My book Steep Tea was not submitted for the 2016 Singapore Literature Prize because of a mistake made by my publisher. Not knowing the mistake, I had reasonably expected my book to be shortlisted in the English poetry category, and so was prepared to withdraw it from consideration in protest against Singapore’s anti-sodomy law. Now that the heat around this year’s prize has cooled down, I wish to address some of the larger issues around a state-sponsored literary prize by publishing my planned letter of withdrawal. My hope is that the letter will contribute to the debate about the role of a writer when confronted with legalized injustice.

An Open Letter to NBDCS and My Fellow Shortlisted Authors 

 I wish to withdraw my book Steep Tea from consideration for the 2016 Singapore Literature Prize in protest against Section 377A of the Penal Code of Singapore, which criminalizes sex between mutually consenting adult men. My action is not directed against the National Book Development Council of Singapore, the non-profit awarding the Prize. I have great respect for its efforts over the years to promote Singapore literature, and warm regard for its helpful and professional staff. My action is compelled instead by the Singapore government’s recent defense of its discriminatory law during the United Nations’ Universal Periodic Review in January this year. I am dismayed by the continuation of unequal treatment of LGBT citizens, the cause of my leaving Singapore, and the theme of my book.

The United Nations’ Universal Periodic Review provides for “a periodic review of the human rights records of all 193 UN Member States,” according to its website. It is designed to “prompt, support, and expand the promotion and protection of human rights on the ground.” In accordance with the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Review considers the rights of LGBT persons to equal treatment under the law as human rights. The first cycle reviewed all UN Member States. The second cycle, begun in May 2012, requires all Member States “to provide information on what they have been doing to implement the recommendations made during the first review.”

Representing the Singapore government at the review, Ambassador-at-Large Chan Heng Chee repeated the same excuses given by the government for retaining Section 377A in the 2007 parliamentary debate. Her speech showed that the government has not changed its legal position one iota in the last nine years. A baby born in 2007 would be in Primary Three this year, having cut its first teeth, taken its first steps, cried on its first day at school, grown in its love of others. The Singapore government has not brought forth real change. It has killed the baby in the crib. Ambassador Chan justified the legal discrimination by capitalizing on the improvements wrought mainly by the LGBT community itself. According to her, LGBT persons are “free to lead their lives in Singapore” since they are permitted to work in the Civil Service, hold an annual rally, stage plays about LGBT issues, and frequent bars. Her idea of freedom would be laughable, if it is not so sad. In intention, this idea of freedom is cynical. It uses limited, and demeaning, concessions to justify larger discriminations. It seeks to contain legitimate aspirations while presenting a benign face abroad.

I refuse to conspire with the government in my own oppression. Although the Singapore Literature Prize is administered by NBDCS, it is funded mainly by the National Arts Council, the government’s arts agency. The government cannot properly acknowledge my contribution to the arts if it does not acknowledge my person in the world. It cannot genuinely commend my poetry if it proscribes what the poetry is about: love. I left Singapore 13 years ago because I was afraid to come out as a gay man in my own country. In Singapore, I had to hide who I was or risk being fired from teaching, even though my work record was unimpeachable. 13 years later, the legal situation remains unchanged. I was 33 years old when I left Singapore, and now I am 46, and still no change in the law. If not now, when? In the poem “In Death As In Life” from my shortlisted book, I expressed a wish to have my ashes scattered in the sea south of Singapore. After hearing the government’s deeply disappointing response to the Universal Periodic Review, I am having second thoughts. Many Singaporeans have left the country for reasons similar to mine, and many will stay in permanent self-exile for those reasons.

Our situation is, however, still better than that of many in Singapore who live in fear and uncertainty, subject to suspicion, hostility, and violence, through no fault of theirs but for the fact that they are queer. Teens, transgender persons, and the elderly are particularly vulnerable populations. Even children’s books are not spared. In 2014, the National Library Board banned and threatened to pulp And Tango Makes Three and two other children’s books for depicting non-traditional families. Under fire from many quarters, including the judges of the Singapore Literature Prize who resigned in protest, the Board returned the books, not to the children’s library but to the adult’s section. As a country, we cannot properly protect our vulnerable citizens and books as long as Section 377A stands in the way. Striking down Section 377A will open the way for a more equal and caring society. The government must grow up, take the lead, and not hide behind its excuses any longer, if it truly “treasure[s] every Singaporean,” as Ambassador Chan put it.

I humbly ask my fellow shortlisted authors to withdraw their books from consideration for the Singapore Literature Prize too. As an author myself, I understand the sacrifices made to create a work of literature, and the natural desire for recognition. But for the sake of your queer grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, siblings, cousins, children, nephews, nieces, grandchildren, childhood friends, best friends, neighbors, colleagues, teachers, students, classmates, and fellow citizens, would you consider withdrawing your books to protest against the injustice of Section 377A? We cannot have business as usual. We have labored long and hard to bring Singapore literature into the light, but once it is in the light, what will it stand for?

Jee Leong Koh
 New York City
30 May 2016

Sunday, October 09, 2016

Third Annual IAAC Literary Festival

On Gopika Jadeja's invitation, I attended the third IAAC Literary festival yesterday. The 3-day festival, organized by the Indo-American Arts Council, was attended mainly by South Asian Americans. It was a fascinating glimpse into the relationship between them and Indians from India. The Americans were intensely interested in social and political developments in India. They were also captivated by celebrity culture, that of Bollywood and of nationalist politics. The panels on the the first biography of film legend Shashi Kapoor and on the secret diary of Kasturba Gandhi were very well attended.

I particularly enjoyed the panel "This Unquiet Land," also the title of the debut work of non-fiction by award-winning broadcast journalist Barkha Dutt. She has reported on a wide range of issues, famously on the disputed region of Kashmir. She was impressively sharp and articulate, and was well-matched by the nimble acuity of her interlocutor Suketu Mehta, the New York-based author of Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found and an associate professor of journalism at NYU.

Gopika's panel on art and activism was also well-received. She spoke about her translation of poetry in the minority languages of the state of Gujerat into English, including the poetry of the Dalit. Her fellow panelist Priyanka Dasgupta spoke about her investigation into the phenomenon of passing, not of blacks passing as whites, but of Indians passing as Blacks and Latinos in the late nineteenth century because of the Asian Exclusion Act. She mentioned a book about this phenomenon happening in Harlem, when Indian sailors docked in New York ran away from British imperalism and hid from American racism.

Saturday, October 08, 2016

Queer Southeast Asia

An important project, a queer Southeast Asia lit journal. Thank you, Bry Hos and Cy Rai, for including me in the inaugural issue, together with Nuril Basri, John H. McGlynn, Khairani Barokka, Lawrence Ypil, Alwynn C. Javier, Paul Dominic B. Olinares, Gino Dizon, Jeffrey Pascual Yap, Vina Jie-Min Prasad, Leon Wing, Danton Remoto, Nimruz De Castro, and Wilfredo Pascual. The journal is now on-line for your reading pleasure.

Thursday, October 06, 2016

Dusie's issue of Asian Anglophone poetry

Proud to be included in this rich and varied anthology of Asian Anglophone poetry, edited by the very fine poet Cindy Arrieu-King. I first heard Cindy read at the Asian American Writers' Workshop literary festival called Page Turner, and I was immediately drawn to the delicate and resilient layering of stories and images in her poetry.

She took an earlier iteration of my on-going project "Does Grass Sweat: Translations of an Insignificant Japanese Poet." In this iteration, dated January 10, 2016, I appended commentary to the haiku translations. You may have read the haiku on Facebook, and so may be interested in reading the commentary. There is also a translator's preface that conveys the earliest inspiration for the work. The project is still evolving, so I'd be happy to hear what you think.

Monday, October 03, 2016

2nd Singapore Literature Festival in NYC (Sep 28 - Oct 1)

2nd Singapore Lit Fest ended on a high note on Saturday, with scholarly and passionate talks about Sonny Liew's The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye. I hope the panel is the first of many, many to come because the graphic novel rewards close analysis and open discussion. A favorite moment was when two panelists, Ying Sze Pek and Matt Humphreys, disagreed with one another. Is the depiction of Lim Chin Siong and Lee Kuan Yew as hero and villian an instance of the novel's oversimplification of complex people, or is it part of the novel's sentimentalist structure? Is it, in other words, a fault or a a strength? Another favorite moment in the festival is less of a clash and more of a clarification, when Alfian Sa'at asks Jason Koo whether he means "mean as fuck" or "mean ASS fuck" in a discussion about the depiction of race and sexuality in literature. Ha, ha, literature is full of double entendres. Then there was that awkward moment in the "Fictionalizing Southeast Asia" panel when Jessica Hagedorn turned to Alfian, whose "Malay Sketches" she read and loved, to say that all the panelists, since they are writers, find themselves confronting the human crises around the world, but Alfian must feel the urgency more than they, and Alfian asked, "You mean, because I am Muslim?" And then there was that moment when Jason Koo admitted with disarming honesty that he had not been into Asian women until he visited Korea and found himself surrounded by Korean women. Yet another favorite moment came when Sheela Jane Menon, whose own presentation on Malaysian literature in "Contexts and Texts" was praised by Winston Lin as one of the best talks on any topic that he has ever heard, asked the playwrights and directors at the talkback in "Outside the Lines" how they treated time in their work, and Ovidia Yu said, and I paraphrase, that she saw both past and future through the present, for there was only the present, and I was reminded of Octavio Paz's Nobel lecture "In Search of the Present." Another favorite moment, and I really got a kick out of it, was when I was caricatured in Marcus Yi's musical "When the Merlion Returned Home" as a gay party boy, complete with black tank top and sashay, who was going to organize a Singapore literary festival without NAC funding. Well, there was no NAC since the premise was that Singapore had sunk beneath the waves. Another favorite moment happened not on stage but at rehearsal when the director Mei Ann Teo and her cast discussed with great earnestness a line from Alfian's "Hotel." In NEW YORK, people! I had a favorite moment when Alfian read the Malay Sketch "Hole," when Naomi Jackson read from her Barbados novel The Star Side of Bird Hill, when Gina Apostol read with superb irony from Gundealers' Daughter, when Jeremy Tiang read with disguised irony from "Sophia's Aunt," when Ovidia read with dramatic irony from "Hitting (On) Women," when Jessica Hagedorn read without irony from Dogeaters. Another favorite moment was when a regular attendee of events at the Asian American Writers' Workshop came up to me to tell me this was the best event she had ever attended, when the Singaporean blog editor at Asia Society came up to me to tell me this was one of the best events ever at Asia Society, and when my Department Head left the event with books by all four writer-panelists. Ah, that moment when I saw R.A. Briggs, who had flown in from Stanford to be at the festival--priceless. The moment I finally met Patsey Yeo-Ramaker, whose youthful spirit made her a tireless festival volunteer--unforgettable. What is your favorite moment?

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Monday, September 12, 2016

Saturday, September 10, 2016


The long summer
has led the bee astray...
the cherries will bloom again

in memory of Jin Hirata

Thursday, September 08, 2016


The sadness
of scraggy fields
where we sat

Bettering American Poetry 2015

Proud to have my poem "A Whole History" (from Steep Tea) included in the groundbreaking anthology Bettering American Poetry 2015.

From my interview: "I knew people back home would be pleased and proud that a Singaporean was being published by the esteemed UK publisher Carcanet Press. I wanted people to know, even if they don’t open the book, that this Singaporean is proudly gay. The anti-sodomy law, an inheritance from the British, is still on the books, and the LGBT community in Singapore still faces all kinds of discrimination and prejudice. If the country wishes to embrace my book, it will have to embrace my sexuality. I also self-identify as postcolonial for political reasons. Not only do I wish to assert my independence against the British empire of letters, I also want to protest the neo-colonial apparatuses of oppression inherited and exercised by the Singaporean state. These apparatuses include not only the anti-sodomy law, but also state control of the press, and detention without trial. Formal colonialism is over but its tutelage remains strong in the minds of the governing class. Singaporeans are still struggling against the long shadow of colonialism. This is not to mention our vulnerability to American political and cultural imperialism."

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Saturday, September 03, 2016

Translations and Haiku

"In His Other House" and "Singapore Buses Are Very Reliable" have been translated into Russian by Dmitry Kuzmin. I feel very honored.


What's holding up
the clouds
in the treeless sky?

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Monday, August 29, 2016


Everyone’s here
but someone’s missing
maybe the moon…

for Tara Safronoff

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Haiku and Vietnamese Attribution

August evening
an anonymous music review
of a June night


Very pleased to have my poem "Attribution" (from STEEP TEA) translated into Vietnamese and published in the festival pamphlet of the A-Festival in Hanoi. Thank you, Nha Thuyen, for the translation/publication and for your love of poetry from different places and languages. I hope to join you in Hanoi some day.

Title: ABRACADABRA (poetry collection of A-festival)
First published by AJAR press, Hanoi, 2016.
Language: Multi-languages: Vietnamese, English, Chinese, Thai, Tamil
Product Dimensions: 12x 20.5 cm
168 pages
ISBN 978-1536829075

And thanks, William Phuan, for the image.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Cambodia Diary

Wed, Aug 10 - Arrived in Phnom Penh. First tuk tuk ride from airport into city. Stayed at Patio Hotel., just off 51 Street, also called Foreigners' Street. Construction booming in the city. The skyline is blocked by buildings clad in green netting. Visited gay bars in the evening. The best one was Space Hair, which doubled as an hair salon in the day. The servers, tall and hunky, unlike most Khmers, were trained to sit and chat with customers. Ours moved to Phnom Penh from a village on the border with Thailand.

Thu, Aug 11 - Walked along the promenade adjacent to the brown Tonle Sap River and around the palace area. Had a gin and tonic at the Elephant Bar at Raffles Hotel. Had a nice massage in Patio the day before, and had another one, two hours, that day. Stress relieved!

Fri, Aug 12 - Van to Sihanoukville, where we took the boat to Koh Rong. Rough ride. It lasted an eternity. A skiff greeted us, and we finally arrived at the Lonely Beach, run by a Frenchman called Danny, who had lived in Asia longer than he had lived in Europe. Guy's birthday.

Sat, Aug 13 - Had the beach all to ourselves as other guests left in the morning. Beautiful clear water. Sandy beach. Startd reading War and Peace, and finished reading Book One of Volume One.

Sun, Aug 14 - Boat back to Sihanoukville, then tuk tuk to airport. We landed in Siem Reap and was picked up by hotel transfer. The Rambutan was a lovely hotel, just behind the Siem Reap River. It was opened by the same guy who opened the first gay hotel in Siem Reap, The Golden Banana nearby.

Mon, Aug 15 - Saw the sun rise over the Angkor Wat. Nietzsche: "The sage as astronomer.—As long as you still experience the stars as something "above you" you lack the eye of knowledge." Angkor Wat is within, not out there. The wall bas reliefs were astonishingly alive in the rhythm of marching legs and threatening spears. Angkor Wat was a fighting temple. Then we went over to Angkor Thom. Walked by Bayon. Baphuon is my favorite temple of this trip, with the poetic door frames at its peak, facing the four cardinal directions, and showing--what? Nothing. We were suitably impressed by the tree roots clutching the temple at Ta Prohm. Too many tourists, and so it was hard to meditate on the sight of nature holding the man-made structure together. Back from the temple tour, we had a very good massage at Sokka Spa, then light dinner at Miss Wong's, and then drinks at the oldest gay bar in Siem Reap, Linga Bar. Met two young guys there who persuaded us to go to Barcode, where we saw a drag cabaraet.

Tue, Aug 16 - Lazy day. Breakfast and lunch in. Did a spot of shopping in the afternoon and saw the Park Hyatt. Then off to a so-called sunset tour, stopping at the very symmetrical temple Pre Rup. We did not stay for sunset, but our driver brought us to Prasat Kravan, where a party was in preparation, not a wedding party, but a party for a political party, our driver said.

Wed, Aug 17 - We made full use of our three-day temple pass by touring Banteay Samre and Banteay Srei. The latter, also known as the women's temple, was a kind of miniature model of other temples we had seen. Intricate carving remained on the stone panels, and the clay monkeys were also amusing. It was far away but worth the visit. A good end to the temple visiting.

Into Russian now. What next?

Russian poet, critic and publisher Dmitry Kuzmin has just translated my poem "To a Young Poet" into Russian. He has previously translated my poem "Brother" from the Best New Poets anthology. The Russian translation of "To a Young Poet" comes hot on the heels of the Latvian translation. This poem has legs! Thanks, Dmitry!

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Into Latvian

My poem "To a Young Poet" has been translated into Latvian and published in Satori. Thank you, Atdzejojis Ilmārs Šlāpins! You can read the English version here.

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Magma reviews "Steep Tea"

"Both entertaining and thought-provoking, this book is also a serious conversation between poets and cultures, and an education." Thanks, Rob A. Mackenzie (editor), Jane Routh (reviewer), and Magma, for the glowing review of Steep Tea in Magma 63.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Putting Down "Taproot"

Thanks, Michael Broder of Indolent Books, for publishing my essay on my writing and revision of the poem "Taproot."

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Singapore Arts Diary

Mudflats at Batam. Guy's photo. My poem.


Sun, July 17: Watched Helmi Yusof's play "My Mother Buys Condoms." A skilfully crafted play, the dialogue reminiscent of Singaporean English TV comedies. Then it sprang its "ambush," with its nice analogy between our unreasonable disgust with both elderly passion and same-sex love. Part of the Wild Rice Theater Festival at Lasalle.

Wed, July 20: Singapore Unbound: the Transgressions Reading, at Booktique, with me, Ovidia Yu, Cyril Wong, and Tania De Rozario. Good turnout. Festival alums Jason Erik Lundberg and Pooja Nansi came. Other writers too, including Leong Liew Geok, Robert Yeo, Ng Yi-Sheng, and Toh Hsien Min.

Thu, Jul 21: coffee with Dan Feng certainly counts as a cultural event. Great library in his place, with books on translation, politics, and philosophy, and rare Singapore books, including fake translations. Must make time to consult the last.

Sat, July 23: Watched The Obs: A Singapore Story at the Projector. Directed by Yeo Siew Hua, and produced by Adeline Setiawan and Dan Koh, the documentary traces the history of Singapore's most important independent band through seven increasingly dark albums, climaxing with Catacombs. The evolution from easy listening to the discovery of its own unique sound parallels, to my mind, the organic local development of devised theater as practiced by The Necessary Stage. Both groups were very open to outside influences but worked with a growing sense of artistic independence and mission. Leslie Low, the songwriter and singer, is clearly the creative force behind the band, whereas Vivian Wang, the synth player, takes charge of business. They formed the original band with Dharma, Victor Low, and Evan Tan.

In the evening we held the Justin Chin memorial reading at Artistry Cafe. For an intro, I read part of my essay on Justin. Then the readings, by Christian Chia (Bite Hard), Desmond Kon (Shampoo), Yeow Kai Chai (Mongrel), Cyril Wong (Harmless Medicine), O Thiam Chin (98 Wounds), Stephanie Dogfoot and Tse Hao Guang (Gutted), and Jason Wee reading a poem written in tribute to the Malaysian-born, Singapore-raised San Francisco poet, essayist, memoirist, and performance artist. Three of his ACS friends came, including Hossan Leong.

Sun, July 24: Watched Alfian Sa'at's 5-hour epic play Hotel with Sam Ng. A scene from each decade of Singapore's history, from 1910s to 2010s, all taking place in the same hotel room. The earlier (colonial) scenes were, in part, critiques of the current neo-colonial regime. The shooting of the Indian sepoy mutineers, for instance, evoked unpleasant echoes of the current discrimination against Indian and Bangladeshi guest workers. Characters and objects returned in later scenes, often to moving effect. There was a wonderful attempt to encompass the diversity of characters in the cast of Singapore history, from the English planter's wife to the mainland Chinese worker in the housekeeping department, from the Indian bellboy of yesterday year to the Brazilian chambermaid of today. The play was truly multi-layered and invited repeated watching and closer analysis.

Wed, July 27. Went to the National Gallery with Stewart Derwent. Most of the works were only of historical interest to me, but the works of Chen Wen Hsi and Georgette Chen were an exception. Pan Shou's calligraphy on display was magnificent.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Singapore Art Diary

Wed, July 6: Brought parents to watch BOO Junfeng's The Apprentice at Vivo City's Golden Village. I was probably too tired because I kept falling asleep, waking up only whenever FIRDAUS Rahman (who played the apprentice hangman) stripped, which was not a few times. My impression, in between shut-eye, was a powerfully shot film with an inchoate character at the heart of it.

Fri, July 8: Read my work at Thomas HENG's gathering at Caffe Pralet.

Sat, July 9: Attended Written Country panel with speakers GWEE Li Sui, ALFIAN Sa'at, and a Singaporean historian (Chee Kin?), moderated by Landmark publisher GOH Eck Keng. The event was held in Enabling Village, Lengkok Bahru. Some interesting discussion about the relationship between history and fiction.

Wed, July 13: Attended Epigram's Fiction Panel "The Great Singaporean Novel: Fantasy or Reality." My first visit to the Projector. Met O Thiam Chin for the first time. Bought his book and that of WONG Souk Yee. Edmund WEE, the publisher, announced a doubling of the prize money. He wants the Singapore-born expatriate from overseas to submit too. Epigram is opening a London office so that they can submit the award winner to the Man Booker Prize.

Sat, July 16: Dropped in on the National Schools Literature Festival at CHIK Katong Convent School. Organized by Sharon QUEK and team of teachers. The festival enlisted student participation through various competitions: choral recitation, book trailers, book parades, debates on set and unseen texts. The books hewed closely to school and examination syllabi. Only two tables in the Lower Secondary book parade featured local lit: Stella KON's plays, and an assortment of local poems to do with social justice. A couple of Singapore texts (Jean Tay's play Everything but the Brain and Cyril WONG's edition of short stories Here and Beyond) provided the topics for the Upper School set text debate, but the syllabus was still dominated by the old warhorses such as Cry, the Beloved Country, Lord of the Flies, Julius Caesar, and Death of a Salesman, One of the four unseen debate topics involved poems by Singaporeans.

Sat, July 16: Watched "Fundamentally Happy" the movie, directed by TAN Bee Thiam and LEI Yuan Bin. Enjoyed their adaptation of the play by Haresh SHARMA and Alvin TAN. Strong blue-green color palette, and visual framing and symbolism. Good of Bee Thiam to encourage other filmmakers to adapt stories and plays by Singaporean writers. I think it's a great temptation for a very good director to think that he can write well too. The two talents are found very rarely in the same person.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Emigres and Outsiders

TLS May 13, 2016

from Commentary, introduction by Luke Parker to "On Generalities," a talk by Vladimir Nabokov:

This condition--what we might call a poetics of future perfect--treats the present as it will have been remembered or memorialized. In the story "A Guide to Berlin" (1925), Nabokov's narrator imagines "some eccentric Berlin writer in the twenties of the twenty-first century, wish to portray our time", for whom "everything, every trifle, will be valuable and meaningful". For Russian emigres of the 1920s, tipped by Trotsky into the dustbins of history, the notion of an eventual vindication was comforting. After all, a posthumous critical redemption had long been the imagined asylum of under-appreciated artists, gifted and talentless alike. 
In "A Guide to Berlin", one émigré tells another: "I think that here lies the sense of literary creation: to portray ordinary objects as they will be reflected in the kindly mirrors of future times; to find in the objects around us the fragrant tenderness that only posterity will discern and appreciate in the far-off times when every trifle of our plain everyday life will become exquisite and festive in its own right: the times when a man who might put on the most ordinary jacket of today will be dressed up for an elegant masquerade".


from Freelance by Bryan Cheyette:

To use Zygmunt Bauman's distinction, rather than heterophobia (the hatred of difference) it was "proteophobia" (anxiety caused by uncategorizability) that turned "the Jew" into a heady mixture of fear and desire.


TLS April 29, 2016

from Emily Wilson's review of Beyond Greek: The beginnings of Latin Literature by Denis Feeney:

The traditions of oral epic, and later (from the eighth century onwards) the creation of Greek literary texts, allowed people who spoke different dialects and were vastly dispersed in space to identify with a common heritage. Feeney argues that literature did much the same thing for the Romans .... Roman literature allowed the diverse citizens of what was eventually a vast empire to maintain a sense of "connected identity". Feeney refers to this process as participation in "the worldwide web"; the internet analogy is not pursued in any depth, but hints at the globalizing consequences of making literature for the Romans. 
The Tim Berners-Lee of Roman literature was one Livius Andronicus. The story, as told both by Feeney and by the Romans themselves, begins in 240 BC, when Livius Andronicus created a Latin play translated from an Athenian drama, which was performed at the official games to celebrate Roman military victories--the Ludi Romani.... [Feeney] emphasizes that 240 was, "so far as we know", the first time that a translation of any Athenian dramatic script had been staged. Many other ancient cultures were heavily influenced by the Greeks and aware of their literature, including the Romans themselves for many generations. But nobody, until Livius Andronicus, had translated it. The Ludi Romani had been held for generations, and nobody before 240 seems to have felt that the occasion demanded Latin drama in the Athenian mould. So why did it happen, and why then?... 
The answer must have to do with Rome's extraordinary rapid and very recent military success.... For the first time, the Romans had control over the whole of the Italian peninsula. Feeney argues that they used the Roman Games as part of a "new international dialogue", asserting their power and cultural credibility to the rest of the Mediterranean world.... 
Feeney points out that it took the Russians at least three generations to turn their awareness of French, german and Italian literature into a thriving native literary tradition. The Romans managed it much faster, because of some rather unusual cultural conditions.
Perhaps the most important of these is the existence in Rome, already in the third century BC, of a tradition of bilingual education. Elite Romans read Greek literature in the original language, unlike the elites of many other ancient cultures.... 
Roman elite men hired Greek men, often enslaved but highly educated immigrants, to tutor their sons. These Greek immigrants were in fact the first Roman authors, and the inventors of Roman literature. Livius Andronicus himself may have been originally a slave, and was certainly a tutor in an elite Roman family. It used to be commonly argued that he produced his translation of the Odyssey as a crib, to help his boys struggle through the original.... Livius Andronicus' own mode of translation in the Odyssey ... suggests a lively domesticating style, using a native Italian metre (Saturnians), rather than adapting the Greek hexameter, and converting the Greek "Muse" into the native equivalent (Camena). Feeney argues that it is essential to remember that Livius himself was not a Roman insider, "Hellenizing" Roman traditions; as a Greek living in Rome, he straddled two traditions, and if anything, he should be seen as Romanizing his own literary heritage, rather than writing as an insider to Rome. All the early Roman writers/translators had complex national and ethnic identities: Naevius spoke Oscan, Greek and Latin; Ennius, the first great poet in Latin, claimed to have "three hearts" for his three languages (Oscan, Latin and Greek), but he was probably also a native speaker of Messapic. The choice to convert Greek literary forms into Latin was a way for these cosmopolitan outsiders to straddle at least two of their own linguistic identities, and to find a place for themselves within the dominant culture. It is no coincident that classical Latin literature, unlike Greek literature, is almost entirely composed in the standardized language of the Roman metropolis-elite, rather than a mash-up of local dialects. This global language, and this literature, was manufactured by people from outside the system. 

Monday, June 27, 2016

Difficult decision made esay

Eric Valles, the director of Singapore's National Poetry Festival, invited me to contribute a poem to the festival's ekphrastic-poetry exhibit. Since the festival is partly funded by the National Arts Council, I had to turn down the kind invitation because I have decided not to work with the NAC since its withdrawal of funding from Sonny Liew's political novel "The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye," followed by public statements from NAC CEO Kathy Lai and NAC Chairman Chan Heng Chee supporting the continued censorship of the arts. (For the thinking behind my decision, you could see I have also had to turn down a request to include my poems in a major formal poetry anthology, UnFree Verse, because the editors are, not unusually, seeking an NAC grant for publication. These decisions are taken not against the festival organizers or the anthology editors, but in protest of NAC's politicization of arts funding. Until the NAC returns its funding to Sonny's book and gives an unequivocal statement of support for the freedom of artistic expression, I will continue not to work with it.

Kok Heng Leun, Nominated Member of Parliament for the Arts, has organized two focus-group discussions and will hold a Town Hall session on June 30 on arts funding. This initiative is necessary and praiseworthy. But, judging from the Facebook page, the agenda for these discussions is limited to the NAC Funding Framework. . There is no discussion about how the state can be prodded to diversify and decentralize arts funding in the country. Such diversification and decentralization is crucial to the health and success of American arts, as economist Tyler Cowen argues in his excellent book "Good and Plenty," an approach very different from the Europeans' state sponsorship of the arts. Diverse funders will have diverse ideas about art, and together they create a competitive and entrepreneurial art-making environment, which has a greater chance of throwing up true innovations. Why do we want to subject funding applications to NAC panels comprising established artists, who may very well not recognize artistic innovations because these new ideas are, by definition, different from what the arts establishment expects? Why does the state, through NAC, want to play arts arbiter? The really arts-friendly role that the state should play is to develop a diversified and decentralized arts funding environment, and not to crowd out other funders by massively giving out direct grants in pursuit of a policy that inevitably instrumentalizes the arts. For the state has an obligation to explain to taxpayers why it is investing so heavily in the arts: this explanation will always revolve around costs and benefits. But true art has no use beyond itself.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Four Poets

Smart, inventive, observant, the poems of Kay Ryan are a genuine delight. The lesser poems in this New and Selected are the fallouts of her strengths. When the love for epigram trumps the fire of imagination. When the final rhyming pair clicks shut but the box is empty. The Best of It allows through too much. Thin poems are best collected in a thin volume. "Things Shouldn't Be So Hard" affords a rare glimpse into the private life. It leaves me wanting more, not for the sake of voyeurism, but for the sake of the complete victory.

Brian Turner's book of poems Here, Bullet is about miscomprehensions as much as it is about the misadventures of war. The book foregrounds the Arabic language in the prelude poem, and in the titles of many poems thereafter. It is the book's contention that the poet has the right and the authority to deploy the language because he, and his fellow soldiers, has paid for it in blood. Turner was there fighting the war as an infantry team leader with the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team in Iraq. The book does not, however, sufficiently interrogate the weaponization of translation, how the learning of Arabic enabled the American military to invade and conquer. The poem "What Every Soldier Should Know" begins to do so, with its acknowledgement of the Other, the misspelled graffiti sprayed on the overpasses that says, "I will kell you, American." To speak to the Other, to threaten and to kill, one has to speak in the other's tongue. But the poem ends with American fears instead, that the child or woman chatting amiably with you one moment would dance over your corpse in the next. Some poems in this volume are insufficiently transformed from incident and detail. The pressure to record, to memorialize, was simply too strong. Some of the best poems are erotic in their inspiration, when desire is powerfully mixed with fear and hatred, in a power keg.

I deeply admire Glück's refusal to repeat herself. This new volume Faithful and Virtuous Night works with long poems (the title poem is 10 pages long, and gripping), prose poems, a new persona, that of a male painter who was orphaned as a boy when his parents and sister died in a car accident. Romantic medievalism is at stake in the volume: the boy sees his brother, and other redemptive figures, as a a heroic knight, but he is up against Glück's refusal of redemption. We understand this refusal as Glück's, but why is it the boy's, and then the adult painter's? Tragedy and trauma is insufficient to explain it. For me, the persona remains, at the end of the book, a glove puppet. Glorious poems, but also niggling doubt. The opening poem "Parable" is tremendous. It should be read and reread in our era of postmodern dogmatism.

Intellectually challenging, Gregory Pardlo's Digest gives no quarter to the reader not up to scratch on Western philosophy, African American history, and popular culture. The music of the poems very often carries me through seas of incomprehension. It is a wry, knowing, and, yes, tragic voice. The last because it understands the situation of loneliness. Despite family, communal, and intellectual ties, the speaker feels his loneliness in the marrow. He makes me feel again mine.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Complete Headrush

I've been trying to catch up with myself. Classes were over by June 10, but the very next week I taught my first summer poetry writing workshop for high school students, titled brashly The Complete Poet. It was/is open to students from my school and elsewhere, but as it turned out, only two students from my school signed up, both of whom had studied with me. Although the enrollment was tiny, I went ahead with the course. Better to get the ball rolling than to wait at the start line, to mix my metaphors. I'm so glad I did. We had a great time reading a poet a day, writing poems inspired by the poet, and workshopping the poems. First day, we read Kay Ryan's New and Selected called The Best of It. We discussed her use of nature for metaphor and commentary, and her spin on common idioms. Second day, we read Brian Turner's Here Bullet, about his experience fighting as an American soldier in the Iraq war. Here we focused on his use of Arabic as a way of understanding and misunderstanding his stressful environment. We then wrote poems that took a foreign expression as a launchpad. Third day, we read Louise Gluck's Faithful and Virtuous Night for her use of a male persona to talk about family, and her deployment of the prose poem. The students found her long poems a strong inspiration to write their own long poem about family, but through a mask. Fourth Day, we read Gregory Pardlo's Digest. We talked about his mixture of lyrical imagery and pop references. The students imitated one of his poems by beginning and repeating "I was born...." That exercise gave them a template on which they enjoyed improvising. Fifth and last day, we read Tara Bergin's This Is Yarrow, and discussed her use of folklore, song, and hands imagery.

While the workshop was going on, I was frantically preparing for the benefit for the 2nd Singapore Literature Festival in NYC. Fortunately I had the assistance of an excellent team of volunteers. The benefit was held on Thursday, 06/16/16, at the National Opera Center. Cef Kian Lam Kho, the winner of the Julia Child First Book Award for his Phoenix Claws and Jade Trees: Traditional Techniques of Chinese Cooking, crafted the menu for the occasion. Gina Apostol, a festival author, read from her PEN Open Award-winng novel Gundealers' Daughter. Jakarta-born, California-raised Angky Budiardjono, accompanied by pianist Peiharn Chen, sang a serenade from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Pierrot’s “Tanzlied” from Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt, and, finally, “Love in the Thirties” by American composer William Bolcom. We also held an art auction of works donated by Singaporean artists: Hong-Ling Wee, Jason Wee, Colin Goh, and Melinda Lauw. Ken Chen, the Executive Director of the Asian American Writers' Workshop, was the guest-of-honor. The turnout was excellent and everyone had a good time. I was especially heartened by the presence of many festival benefactors, supporters, and partners.

This week I've been busy confirming the festival program with authors and hosts. At the same time, I am looking forward to events in Singapore. "Singapore Unbound" is the theme of this year's Singapore Literature Festival in NYC.

1. Meet the Poet at Caffe Pralet 
Friday, 8 July, 6:30 pm, Caffe Pralet, 17 Eng Hoon Street, #01-04, Eng Hoon Mansions, Singapore 169767

On this Friday evening, connect with poet Jee Leong Koh and experience culinary delights in a cosy environment -- any blues are sure to subside by the end of this event! Whether you're an aspiring author, corporate executive, or home-maker, you're welcome to join us with colleagues, friends and loved ones to enjoy an informal exchange about "Steep Tea", a unique collection of insights that blend traditional and contemporary poetic styles. During the session, Jee Leong will share his life experience, and how he got to down to writing and publishing the book in the UK. For details and directions:

2. Singapore Unbound: Writing, Reading, and Publishing Overseas 
Saturday, 9 July, 7:00 pm, National Gallery, The Glass Room (Level 4 Mezzanine, Supreme Court Wing)
Alfian Sa'at, Ovidia Yu, and Koh Jee Leong

Three prominent Singaporean writers, Alfian Sa'at, Ovidia Yu, and Koh Jee Leong, read from their works and share their experiences with overseas readers, editors, and publishers. Between them, the writers cover multiple genres, including fiction, poetry, drama, essays, crime stories, and children's writing. They will discuss the impact of Singapore literature beyond the boundaries of the country, and how their writing is, in turn, changed by the encounter. They will also speak about the upcoming 2nd Singapore Literature Festival in New York City, to be held from September 28 - 30, 2016, and their hopes for the future of Singaporean writing. This event is organized by & Co, the National Gallery's museum store.

3. Singapore Unbound: The Transgressions Reading 
Wednesday, 20 July, 7:30 pm, Booktique, CityLink Mall
Cyril Wong, Ovidia Yu, Tania De Rozario, and Koh Jee Leong

Forbidden love. Broken promises. Criminal acts. Blasphemy. Cyril Wong, Ovidia Yu, Tania De Rozario, and Koh Jee Leong read their transgressive writings in the heart of sanitized Singapore, and go unpunished. Or punish them, if you're into it. Proudly presented by the Singapore Literature Festival in NYC.

4. Justin Chin Memorial Reading 
Saturday, 23 July, 7:30 pm, Artistry Cafe, 17 Jalan Pinang

Justin Chin died last December but not before writing some terrific poetry, stories, essays, and performance pieces, and achieving prominence in the San Francisco arts scene. Born in Klang, Malaysia, Justin was educated in Singapore, in ACS and ACJC. His writings will be celebrated at this memorial reading by a line-up of local authors, including Christine Chia, Desmond Kon, Cyril Wong, Yeow Kai Chai, Raksha Mahtani, O Thiam Chin, and Tse Hao Guang, who's co-organizing the event with me.

There is also supposed to be a reading for the writing program at Nanyang Technological University, to be held on Tue, Aug 23, 12:30 pm. Perhaps I will finally meet the reclusive Boey Kim Cheng there.