Saturday, April 18, 2015

Friday, April 17, 2015


forsythia in bloom
very soon i will have forgotten writing
forsythia in bloom

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Union and Haiku

Four poems in the Union folio of Singaporean and American poetry, published by Drunken Boat. Thanks, Ravi Shankar and Alvin Pang. Good reading for the weekend!


Minneapolis haiku

morning headache—
the insistence of birds
in loring park

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Antonio Tabucchi's "Time Ages in a Hurry"

I am grateful to translators Martha Cooley and Antonio Romani for introducing me to the short fiction of Antonio Tabucchi. Time Ages in a Hurry collects nine stories: "The Circle," "Drip, Drop, Drippity-Drop," "Clouds," "The Dead at the Table," "Between Generals," "Yo me enamore del aire," "Festival," "Bucharest Hasn't Changed a Bit" and "Against Time." The stories are closely observed, often revolving around two people in conversation. The late Italian writer is profoundly concerned with the passing of time and its effects on memory, desire and fantasy. In the very poignant "Drip, Drop," a man waits beside his dying aunt, who has taken custody of not only him as a young boy, but also the childhood memories that he was too young to remember.

The stories do not stay in Italy but range across Europe and beyond. "The Circle" is narrated from the perspective of a woman from the Maghreb who grew up in Paris, and is now married into a rich and illustrious family of Germans, possibly Jewish, living in Geneva. "Between Generals" tell the story of the Soviet invasion of Hungary through the point of view of an Hungarian general who spent "the best days of [his] life" in Moscow with the Russian general he fought against. In "Bucharest Hasn't Changed a Bit," a son, who still lives and works in Europe, visits his senile father in Tel Aviv, who cannot forget the old family home in Bucharest.

The last story "Against Time" is, at least in part, an ars poetica, as the translators said during the book launch at the Center for Fiction, New York City. The narrator becomes a character in his own story, following the trail of his protagonist from Italy to Athens and then to Crete, to an old monastery. In an epiphany at the end, the narrator understands:

Everything changed perspective, in a flash he felt the euphoria of discovery, a subtle nausea, a mortal melancholy. But also a sense of infinite liberation, as when we finally understand something we'd known all along and didn't want to know: it wasn't the already-seen that was swallowing him a never-lived past, he instead was capturing it in a future yet to be lived. 

To write down what is first conceived in the mind is not to be sucked back into an imaginary past, but to render the story into a human future to come.



Minneapolis haiku

through the lock and dam
paper boats


to the sun for a day
no extra charges

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Minneapolis haiku

I don't want to spread a false scare, so the following Minneapolis haiku is only a metaphor.

snow again
a bridge collapsed here

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Minneapolis Haiku

This Pisces, two fish knotted by the mouth, is going to one of the Twin Cities today. Which city will it be? Pain or Pleasure? Upriver or Down? Will he know which one even after he has been?

in minneapolis
a city made of water
release the fish

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Tomorrow AWP

Flying tomorrow to Minneapolis for my first AWP conference - Association of Writing Programs. I avoided it for the past 10 years, because a conference this size would overwhelm me. This year, I am going mainly because I will be speaking and reading at two events, Union: Singapore's 50th Anniversary Reflected through American Literature, and Starry Island: New Writing from Singapore. If I can strengthen the bridge and widen the road between Singapore and the USA, I will. It's not about marketing, but about mission, born out of living between two places at once.

I'm also eager to look around the city, having never been there. I will be heading to two bars, The Nicolette, for a reading hosted by Kundiman, Kore and Kaya Presses, and Honey, for a reading hosted by Drunken Boat. I want to explore the Walker Art Center and the Weisman Art Museum. I want to roam the old Mill District, taking in the Open Book artspace, and cross back and forth the Mississippi on foot. I want to dance at the dance clubs on Friday and Saturday nights. To live in what I see and hear and taste and smell and touch, for who knows if I'd ever be back?


used toothpick
as apple cores

Monday, April 06, 2015

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Cooper Hewitt Haiku

After years of refurbishment, the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum opens its doors to the public, but its garden is still a churn of red soil.

No lilacs bloom
in the ever-returning spring
for Abe’s black pall

Saturday, April 04, 2015


The Brazilian movie last night has many simple but effective scenes. In one, slipping his schoolfriend’s red hoodie over his bare skin, Leonardo lies down in bed, sniffs the inside of the hood, and reaches for himself. In another, stealing out after curfew, Gabriel takes Leo on his bike to a special park.

an eclipse of the moon
to the blind


The movie was The Way He Looks (2014), directed by Daniel Ribeiro. Ghilherme Lobo plays the blind Leonardo. Fabio Audi plays Gabriel.

Friday, April 03, 2015

Vassar Reading and Haiku

I read at Vassar College yesterday, at the invitation of the Southeast Asian Student Alliance. The Vice President Suzie Shin was given my Pillow Book by a friend before she left Singapore for Vassar. She has lived in Singapore since she was four, when her parents migrated from Korea for her dad to take up a professorship at the National University of Singapore. Her mum is an artist and writer, who has just been published by Kenny Leck. The reading, co-sponsored by Wordsmiths, a student poetry group, and the Asian Studies Department, was well-attended. There were close to 40 people. I read a 40-minute set, the longest that I have ever done, and brought the audience along with me on my personal journey. Four stages, corresponding to my four books: (1) from Singapore to Sarah Lawrence College, (2) from Sarah Lawrence to New York, but also back to Singapore, (3) from New York to Self-Invention and Its Limits, and (4) from Self-Invention to Self-Understanding. The questions afterwards revolved around being gay and a writer in illiberal Singapore. It was lovely to chat with the students over food. A couple major in English, one in Asian Studies. A number are budding political scientists, one of whom is researching the situation of migrant workers in Singapore. SEASA is hoping to invite Tan Pin Pin next to show her documentary To Singapore, With Love.

I arrived early so that I would have the time to explore the campus. Walking around, I had the same feeling that I felt in my first weeks at Sarah Lawrence, that I didn't belong. The campus itself could not be more welcoming. No one stopped me to ask who I was or what I was doing in the quad. No electronic doors or barriers prevented me from wandering into the art gallery, chapel and library. But, as I told the audience at the reading later, I was still highly conscious of not-belonging. The library, the heart of learning, was built on the basic plan of a cruciform. The valuable first editions on display were all by Victorian writers such as John Ruskin, Lewis Carroll and Sara Coleridge. George Meredith's "Arab entertainment" The Shaving of Shagpat acknowledged on its title page that it followed the style of the Arabian Nights, but still claimed that it was an original work. If an Asian author writing in English was influenced by a Western author, however, the Asian would be seen as imitative, not original.

These appurtenances were, however, a valuable and integral part of Vassar's identity. They made Vassar Vassar. So every strong identity, no matter how open and friendly, must alienate those trying to get in. This was a tension that I had always inhabited. I had no doubt that if I stayed in Vassar for a few weeks, that I'd be welcomed and made to feel at home. But I valued this feeling of not-belonging, I told the room, even though it was not a comfortable feeling. My poetry comes from this feeling of not-belonging, and so I want to hold on to that feeling as long as possible.

the hudson line
barrels past the hudson--
hare and tortoises

Thursday, April 02, 2015

NaPo Haiku

Yes, I'm doing NaPo with PFFA again. Second day effort.

big dog sniffing
by the veiny tulip stalks
straining to pop

Wednesday, April 01, 2015


two weeks into spring
this tree holds up its leaves
traffic signal yellow

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Two Films and a Haiku

Last two nights we watched movies borrowed from the library. The Jane Austen Book Club (2007), directed by Robin Swicord, could have been wittier and more literary, but it was watchable. Kevin Zegers plays a student who hits on his uptight French teacher, Prudie (Emily Blunt). Hugh Dancy is so immensely likable as Grigg, a computer geek. The women, drawn in very broad strokes, learn about courtship, heartbreak and second chances from Austen. No discussion about class, please. We are Americans.

At the age of 11, Li Cunxin was taken from his parents and poor village by Madam Mao's cultural delegates to Beijing to train as a ballet dancer. On a cultural exchange with Houston Ballet, he falls in love with an American woman and defects. Mao's Last Dancer, directed by Bruce Beresford, and based on Li's autobiography, is tightly plotted and beautifully shot. Unsurprisingly, it hews to the story of individual freedom so beloved by the West, and the story of poor boy made good so beloved by Americans. The film shows Li in some anguish over the fate of his parents in China, but it also proves the rightness of his decision by having his parents attend Li's performance in The Rites of Spring in an emotional reunion at the end. The film does not ask really hard questions, such as, should Li have defected knowing that his defection may endanger the lives of his parents? The film puts the blame wholly on the Communist government. That is correct but it is surely not the whole ethical problem. Li remains a cipher in the film, and perhaps in his own autobiography too.


liable labial
the wind is writing this hour
in half-rhymes

Monday, March 30, 2015


printed in the tarmac
a branch with five points
alternative hollywood

Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky

Fabulous exhibition at the Met. Beautiful Indian artefacts from pre-contact to present time. Headdresses made from crow and eagle feathers, one feather for every notable victory in battle. Saddle bags, called parfleche envelopes, ornamented with porcupine quills and glass beads. Buffalo skins drawn with stories of war and hunting or with abstract patterns involving the Thunderbird, a guardian spirit. Pipes carved in the form of human effigies. A long courting whistle in the shape of a snipe. Graceful and concise wooden sculptures of buffalos small enough to be held in the hand. Horse masks. A long cherry wood branch transformed miraculously into a snorting galloping horse. A drawing with the silhouettes of more than 80 species of animals, birds and fish that made up the living environment of a people. A winter count chart, on which the the tribal historian drew a picture representing each year, and so provided the storyteller with a mnemonic: the 80th winter shows the lynching of three Native Americans. Hypnotic, creative, spiritual, tragic: the remnants of a lost world.

Image from Met website

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Boyhood and Haiku

Watched Boyhood, directed by Richard Linklater, last night. I admire it for its technical mastery (filmed over 12 years) and for the performance of the main cast. Ellar Coltane, as Mason Junior, grows up before our eyes, with the kind of acting that never seems like acting. Ethan Hawke as dad and Patricia Arquette as mum turn in utterly convincing performances. And here's the but - the story is conventional and some of the minor characters are stereotypical. The Texan grandparents give Ellar a Bible and a gun for his birthday. The veteran husband turns to drinking. The Mexican worker goes to school, on Ellar's mum's advice, and makes good as a restaurant manager. The token Asian appears in the form of Ellar's sister's college dorm-mate. The children--both Ellar and his older sister--are remarkably unscarred by the abusive husbands their mother married. Throughout it all, Ellar retains a heart of gold and an air of innocence. He is dreamy, introspective and wee bit alienated - just enough to gain our trust and liking. He is even artistic - he has a talent for photography. I'd feel less antagonistic towards the film if it was titled Texan Boyhood or White Boyhood, or even American Boyhood--some qualifier--and not with its universal moniker.


first up
high wind
what was the dream

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Sunday, March 22, 2015

A Memorial for Elise Partridge

Elise Partridge told me that she had met Goh Poh Seng. A brief encounter between two naturalized Canadian poets. I did not quiz her about it and now will never get a chance. She died of colon cancer in January. A memorial service was held yesterday in the Ceremonial Hall of the New York Society for Ethical Culture. The windows looked out at Central Park, still in the grip of snow. Did the meeting take place in Toronto or Vancouver? I don't remember.

transfixed by the thorns
of the short-lived honey locust
the second day of spring

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Turning 45 and a Haiku

Grateful to my well-wishers on Facebook:

Thank you for your birthday wishes! I had a terrific Day. Guy gave me a special breakfast treat - pastry and special coffee - and presented me with a chic striped shirt and neat blue jacket. Better still, he went in late for work! Then I worked on new posts for my arts website Singapore Poetry, before having a simple lunch of soup and cheese sandwich. After lunch, I started reading THE NEW VILLAGE, a collection of poems by Chinese-language poet Wong Yoon Wah, translated by Ho Lian Geok and Ng Yi-sheng. So much to learn about Singapore! For dinner, Guy took me to one of my favorite restaurants in New York, Commerce, on, you guess it, Commerce Street. I had a tasty Toscana and Guy an even tastier Rhone wine. My duck was delicious, just two thick slices, cooked just right, pink and crispy in the right places. Guy had a very flavorful curry with root vegetables. Then we had a couple of drinks at Monster Bar, before heading home. I feel very lucky.


In The New Village, Wong Yoon Wah mythologizes the struggle of the wild yam, the pitcher plant, and the mangrove to survive in a landscape dredged by British tin-mining operations and then abandoned. I am reminded of the restoration work now going on around the reservoir in Central Park.

each time the bridle path
receives a season of gravel
it grows potholes

Friday, March 20, 2015

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Boey Kim Cheng's "Clear Brightness"

These are poems of an assured mastery, of a voice arriving at itself, even as it speaks of loss. Although Boey has migrated to Australia and become an Australian citizen there, he cannot help but speak of Singapore--its loss due to time, urban redevelopment, deaths in the family, and migration. Poems such as "Dinky's House of Russian Goods" and "The National Theatre, Singapore" bring lost places back to the life. Sequences such as "To Markets" and "Chinatowns" are rich with details and associations, recalled in memory. Most impressive, to my mind, is "The Disappearing Suite," which produces from a very particular life a universal music. It touches the depths sounded in Eliot's "The Four Quartets," though without the latter's religious angst. Who said that a poet's task is to make of his or her life a symbol? In "The Disappearing Suite," and more generally in Clear Brightness, Boey has succeeded in doing so.


looking out of place
at the beginning of spring
ice leavens the sod

Monday, March 16, 2015

Joseph H. Carens's "The Ethics of Immigration"

I read the TLS review of the book and knew I had to read it. I'm so glad I did. The book is obviously a culmination of many years of thinking and research on immigration. It is comprehensive in its scope, persuasive in its argument, and lucid in its exposition. Working on the basis of our common intuitions about our democratic commitments, Carens shows how the present immigration system is or is not compatible with what we profess. From the ground up, he builds up a theory of social membership that is humane and logical. The second part of the book is devoted to an argument for open borders. I find the argument utterly convincing, although others will find its claims too radical. Carens's most effective tactic is to compare closed borders to feudalism, both of which privilege birth unfairly, whether it is birth into a class (as in feudalism) or birth into a country (as in the present closed order). Human brings have a right to move wherever they wish. The curtailment of that human right requires very serious justifications. I know The Ethics of Immigration will be my go-to resource for many years to come.


As Bashō longed for Kyoto when he heard a cuckoo in Kyoto, I long for the city where I live.

wiping spurts of mud
off my old leather shoes--
even in new york…

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Featured in Singapore's Straits Times

Thanks, Akshita Nanda, for the feature in Singapore's Straits Times:

Poet Koh Jee Leong Had to Leave Singapore to Engage with It 

Shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize for English poetry last November, Jee Leong Koh says he ironically found his voice only after leaving the country in 2003 to study in the United States.

He lives in Manhattan with his partner, teaching in a private school, but continues to engage with Singapore in his critically acclaimed verse. Take the collection Steep Tea, to be published in July by UK publisher Carcanet Press.

It is partly Koh's response to women poets such as Ireland's Eavan Boland or American Rachael Briggs, who co-wrote the titular poem as a call-and-response Japanese "renga" form.

The collection also includes Koh's reactions and thoughts on Singaporean icons such as the old KTM Railway Station at Tanjong Pagar and poet Lee Tzu Pheng's well-known and much-discussed poem about life here, My Country And My People.

"When writing my poem Recognition, I found myself trying to find the details of my own life in her life and writings," says Koh, 45, who came to poetry through the writings of Philip Larkin and other English poets and did his degree in English literature at Oxford University. Though he had read and loved the works of Singapore-born Boey Kim Cheng many years ago, he encountered Lee's work only recently.

He says he felt an instant connection to her poem and plans to send her a copy of Steep Tea.

"I grew a bean plant as a school science project. Did she? I reared a chick in my then-new housing estate. Did she? Nothing is certain until the final comparison, that I have written poems, just as she did. I am less interested in the details of her personal life, than in the fact that we both write poems, that we both try to make sense of ourselves and our country through our imagination."


Steep Tea by Jee Leong Koh will be published by Carcanet Press in July. Read the rest of the article here.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Friday, March 13, 2015

Haiku and Book Cafe

the first crocus
flashes its green card
at airport security


On March 7, Saturday evening, I read at the Singapore Literature Prize event at Book Cafe, with M. Ravi, Hidayah Amin, Josephine Chia and Yong Shu Hoong. Organized by the Book Development Council of Singapore and moderated by Jason Erik Lundberg, readings by the five authors were followed by pertinent questions about writing and publishing. Most of the people present were from the Singapore Writers' Group, which mostly consists of expatriates living in Singapore. The last time I was in Book Cafe was many years ago, when I attended a reading given by Cyril and met Jason Wee there. It was good to see the place thriving in the competitive cafe business. Eric Norris and Cheryl Koh came for the reading.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Poetry Workshop at Dunman High

I'm going to teach my first poetry workshop in a Singapore school this afternoon. The one-hour session, with 20 students, marks my return to the Singapore classroom after an absence of 12 years. What will I find? Continuities or changes? How will these students respond to THE PILLOW BOOK?

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Manuscript Bootcamp

I was one of three poets (with Ng Yi-Sheng and Grace Chia) roped in to offer comments on the first manuscripts of 6 new Singapore poets.The session was part of a manuscript bootcamp organized by the indefatigable Joshua Ip. It was a pleasure to engage with the work of Amanda Chong, Daryl Lim, David Wong, Jennifer Anne Champion, Samuel Lee, and Tse Hao Guang, and to have an open and collegial discussion about poetry. The poets will receive much feedback from different people over the weekend, some of it conflicting, some of it confusing, but at the end of the day, we must be our own toughest critics, if we are going to write the kind of poetry that will stand the test of time. Thanks, Josh, for organizing this working group. Thanks too to Sarah for opening your home to us.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Free My Library

The National Book Development Council of Singapore has been energetically promoting last year’s winners and shortlistees of the Singapore Literature Prize. They have organized public panels and school events at which writers could speak of their work. By their initiative and effort, they are helping to advance the cause of local literature among the audience most of us writers would love most to reach.

When I agreed to participate in one such event on my visit to Singapore, I did not know that the panel would take place in the National Library. Many of you will remember that the National Library disgraced itself last year by removing three children’s books from the shelves and threatening to pulp them because they depict non-traditional (i.e. queer) families. Public furor, including a read-in, caused them to backtrack on their decision, whereupon they returned the books, not to the children’s, but to the adult section of the lending library. With a few other dissenting voices, I rejected this compromise, and I still do. The children’s books belong to the children’s section of the library. To shelf them elsewhere is to stigmatize the families depicted in the books. So with regret, I decided not to participate in the panel, even though the National Library is only providing the venue. I gave my reasons in the email below:

Dear XXX and XXX,
Thanks very much for organizing the panel. I agreed to participate, not knowing the event will be held in conjunction with the National Library. Since the National Library removed the children's books And Tango Makes Three and White Swan Express from its children's section last year, and then made the cowardly compromise of returning the books but shelving them in the adult section, I have decided not to participate in any National Library event. I do not wish to help promote its image as a champion of literature when it is nothing of the sort. My sincere apologies for missing what looks to be a stimulating discussion.

Best regards,
Jee Leong

I am posting this in order to stand with those who still object to the literary segregation practiced by the National Library of Singapore. Our memory is long, and writing and documentation extend it further. I am posting this now because it is the Lunar New Year, a time for families to get together, make restitution for wrongs done, and practice forgiveness and reconciliation. I call on the National Library to make things right by returning And Tango Makes Three and White Swan Express to where they belong, in the hands of children.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Amazon Author

Roxanne Hoffman of Poets Wear Prada Press took a chance on me and published my very first book Payday Loans. I'm happy to learn from her this morning that the book has sold the most number of copies in the month of January on Amazon.

Monday, February 09, 2015

Book Log

I'm flying to Singapore tomorrow, so have no time to do more than log in the books read.

Vikram Chandra's Geek Sublime: The Beauty of Code, the Code of Beauty started slowly but increased in interest as I read on. The chapters on Indian aesthetics are particularly interesting, the chapters on computer history less so.

Richard Flanagan's The Narrow Road to the Deep North: I don't see what's the fuss about this book. It was awarded the Man Booker Prize, but it seemed a rather conventional POW book to me. I may be influenced by having just reading Roberto Bolano's astounding 2666.

Another prize-winner, Jean Echenoz's I'm Gone won the Prix Goncourt. It's very ironic, very cool, very French. I don't like it much. I much prefer Michel Houellebecq, who has been described as a poisoned cherry.

Saturday, February 07, 2015


we'll see one another again
when spring comes with its flowers
before you leave for Lahore

Friday, February 06, 2015

Thursday, February 05, 2015


when will my body
throw off this spell of cold?
more snow last night

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Monday, February 02, 2015

Friday, January 30, 2015

A Simple and Clear-Cut Constellation

The New Yorker, Feb 2, 2015

from Alec Wilkinson's profile of Yitang Zhang "The Pursuit of Beauty":

The British mathematician G. H. Hardy wrote in 1940 that mathematics is, of "all the arts and sciences, the most austere and the most remote." Bertrand Russell called it a refuge from "the dreary exile of the actual world." Hardy believed emphatically in the precise essence of math. A mathematical proof, such as Zhang produced, "should resemble a simple and clear-cut constellation," he wrote, "not a scattered cluster in the Milky Way." 
The books on his shelves have titles such as "An Introduction to Hilbert Space" and "Elliptical Curves, Modular Forms, and Fermat's Last Theorem." There are also books on modern history and on Napoleon, who fascinates him, and copies of Shakespeare, which he reads in Chinese, because it's easier than Elizabethan English.
"Bounded Gaps Between Primes" is a back-door attack on the twin-prime conjecture, which was proposed in the nineteenth century, and says that, no matter how far you travel on the number line, even as the gap widens between primes you will always encounter a pair of primes that are separated by two. The twin-prime conjecture is still unsolved. Euclid's proof established that there will always be primes, but it says nothing about how far apart any two might be. Zhang established that there is a distance within which, on an infinite number of occasions, there will always be two primes.
"You have to imagine this coming from nothing," Eric Grinberg said. "We simply didn't know. It is like thinking that the universe is infinite, unbounded, and finding it has an end somewhere."... 
When we reached Zhang's office, I asked him how he had found the door into the problem. On a whiteboard, he wrote, "Goldston-Pintz-Yildirim" and "Bombieri-Friedlander-Iwaniec." He said, "The first paper is on bounded gaps, and the second is on the distribution of prime numbers in arithmatic progression. I compare these two together, plus my own innovations, based on the years of reading in the library." 
"Many people have tried that problem," Iwaniec said. "He's a private guy. Nothing is rushed. If it takes him another ten years, that's fine with him. Unless you tackle a problem that's already solved, which is boring, or one whose solution is clear from the beginning, mostly you are stuck. But Zhang is willing to be stuck much longer." 
"I think what he did was brilliant," Deane Yang told me. "If you became a good calculus teacher, a school can become very depended on you. You're cheap and reliable, and there's no reason to fire you. After you've done that a couple of years, you can do it on autopilot; you have a lot of free time to think, as long as you're willing to live modestly...."


on my narrow chin
windswept limestone cliff
a fledgling beard

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Haiku and Archive

After keeping indoors for two days to nurse a cold, I venture out to the park newly opened since the snowstorm. Walking on snow is like walking on a beach, with the difference that I have too much clothes on.

sand so white
it has given up the ghost
of a sea


Started talking with Alvin Pang, Joshua Ip, Jennifer Champion and Jennifer Crawford about setting up a website with the poetry archive that Jen Cr. has collected. We decided that Alvin will take care of the website, Josh the general management and fundraising, Jen Ch. the media editing and I the text editing. Everyone is pitching in, because we really want a website devoted to Singapore poetry. We are now thinking about a good name for it.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Less Can Be More

TLS January 16 2015

from Paul Davis's review of The Complete Poetry of Robert Herrick, edited by Tom Cain and Ruth Connolly:

In fact, Herrick was a pioneer of print authorship, as the exemplary scholarship on Hesperides in this edition confirms. It has long been recognized that Herrick was the first English poet to see a collected edition of his own verse through the press, but here we learn how closely he involved himself in the production process, perhaps even to the extent of demanding in-press corrections not only to rectify printing errors, but also as las-minute poetic refinements.  
The various forces pressing editors towards ever more maximal feats of scholarship need to be answered by a counterbalancing impulse towards selection and concentration. Attempting to compete with online databases on the score of comprehensiveness is a fool's errand; nor should print editors be cowed into confusing comprehensiveness with objectivity. They need instead to play to their distinctive strengths, now more valuable than ever: authoritative summation of a complex body of knowledge. and its presentation to the reader in usable form. As Herrick might have said, less can be more.


from Sharon Ruston's review of Martin Priestman's The Poetry of Erasmus Darwin: Enlightened Spaces, Romantic Times:

The endstopped couplet is found to be the "perfect vehicle for moving rapidly between diverse fields of knowledge", as in the move between mythology and physiology in The Economy of Vegetation.... Such poetic techniques are identified and fruitfully examined by Priestman; they are seen to contribute importantly to Darwin's aim to prioritize "the pictorial space of his verse over its musical time". 
... The ways in which Darwin's poems are considered spatial rather than temporal are both myriad and persuasive. Priestman looks at the material page of the text, the paratextual notes and the poems' framing devices, such as the use of gardens at the start of Darwin's poems, which establish "the poem as a space to be explored".  
... Darwin's poems are "a space to wander in" rather than concerned with the "'organic', tree-like growth" we witness in the poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge. 


a blizaard warning
my half-year sabbatical
is in effect

Monday, January 26, 2015

Tse Hao Guang reviews "Payday Loans"

"[PAYDAY LOANS] is clearly the poetry of the bounced cheque, the bummed out, the delayed pay day, the day-to-day." My first book of poems reissued by Math Paper Press. 40% off at BooksActually this week only! Thanks, Tse Hao Guang, for the kind review!

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Camus's "The Fall" and Haiku

After reading "The Myth of Sisyphus," I went on to read Camus's three novels one after another. The Stranger is deliberately provocative. The Plague goes beyond provocation and arrives at the realm of perfection. The Fall speaks in the ultra-subtle voice of the judge-penitent who is also the tempter. The narrator in his pleasurable anguish reminds me of the unnamed Man from Dostoyevsky's Notes from the Underground. All this reading leaves a very powerful impression on the mind, the chief part of which is an ethical imperative: do least harm.

on a leafless twig
a caterpillar of snow
will change to nothing

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Friday, January 16, 2015


On the subway, sitting across from me is a young man with whom I’d love to speak.

book in hand
skateboard between his feet
yoga mat on his lap

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Albert Camus's "The Stranger" and "The Plague"

The Stranger is deliberately provocative. Could someone kill another human being without meaning to? And when he does, how would society judge him?

The Plague goes beyond provocation and arrives at the realm of perfection. It is so clear in its conception and so direct in its execution. It is everywhere intended and inevitable. It reminds me of the perfection of The Iliad and of Henry James's The Golden Bowl.

Monday, January 12, 2015


it's too cold to walk
i run for the crosstown bus
and miss the ducks

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Shadows of Japan

Guy and I put together this folio of photos and haiku in December. The photographs were taken during our visit to Japan last August. The haiku were inspired by the trip too. The folio will be available at the Rainbow Book Fair in NYC in April, and at the Brooklyn Book Fest in September.

Kin Poetry Journal published six of my haiku. Thanks, Eric Norris, for inviting me to submit.


At Kitaro, my go-to Japanese restaurant, an American child stops jabbering and wails that she does not like the food.

how i wish
you could be sent to a corner
of a bowl of soup

Friday, January 09, 2015

Albert Camus's "The Myth of Sisyphus"

The absurd, according to Camus, arises from the tension between an inhuman world and our human longing to make sense of it. To kill oneself is to try to escape the absurd. Camus recommends, instead, living in lucid acknowledgement of this tension. It is not easy. In his view, existential philosophers such as Kierkegaard evade the problem by positing transcendence, or God, as beyond human reason. They abolish human reason in favor of the eternal. On the other hand, the phenomenologists such as Husserl claim to attend to the phenomena of the world but end up finding essences in them, analogous to Platonic forms, and so abolish the unknowability of the world. Instead of destroying or weakening either of the terms, Camus prefers to live fully and creatively in the gap between mind and world. For him, the figure of Sisyphus embodies this attitude of heroic futility. Unexpectedly, Camus finds a happiness in Sisyphus' plight.

All of Sisyphus' silent joy is contained therein. His fate belongs to him. His rock is his thing. Likewise, the absurd man, when he contemplates his torment, silences all the idols. In the univers suddenly restored to its silence, the myriad wondering little voices of the earth rise up. Unconscious, secret calls, invitations from all the faces, they are the necessary reverse and price of victory. There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night. The absurd man says yes and his effort will henceforth be unceasing. If there is a personal fate, there is no higher destiny, or at least there is but one which he concludes is inevitable and despicable. For the rest, he knows himself to be the master of his days. At that subtle moment when man glances backward over his life, Sisyphus returning toward his rock, in that slight pivoting he contemplates that series of unrelated actions which becomes his fate, created by him, combined under his memory's eye and soon sealed by his death. Thus, convinced of the wholly human origin of all that is human, a blind man eager to see who knows that the night has no end, he is still on the go. The rock is still rolling.
I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one's burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

Two things attract me to Camus's philosophy of the absurd. First, he is clearly indebted to the thinking of Nietzsche, who proclaimed that God is dead, and we must take up the burden of becoming the masters of our own fates. Camus quotes the German philosopher throughout his essay. Second, Camus insists that he is trying to live according to what he knows clearly. He refuses mysticism. He also refuses sentimentality. It is not enough to live according to how one feels. It is nobler to live with what one knows. My one reservation is this: the reification of human consciousness. This is what divides us supposedly from the non-conscious world. But perhaps we are less conscious than we think we are, and the world is more conscious than we think it is. Camus would presumably dismiss the first as an abdication of reason, and the second as mysticism, but I am not so sure.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

2015 Carcanet Catalogue

Thrilled to appear in the same 2015 Carcanet catalogue as Jon Silkin, Elaine Feinstein, Sujata Bhatt, David Morley, Tim Liardet, Tom Raworth, Kate Miller, Sophie Hannah, John Ashbery, Willis Barnstone, Sheri Benning, Les Murray, R.F. Langley, Muriel Spark, and Grevel Lindop. 

"Singapore-born poet Jee Leong Koh's first book to be published in the UK is rich in detail of the worlds that he explores and invents as he follows his desire for an unknown other, moving tentatively, passionately, always uncertain of himself. His language is colloquial, musical, aware of the infusion of various traditions and histories. 'You go where? / I'm going from the latterly to the litany, from writs to rites.' The poems share many of the harsh and enriching circumstances that shape the imagination of a postcolonial queer writer. Taking leaves from other poets - Emilia Lanyer, Eavan Boland, Xunka' Utz'utz', Lee Tzu Pheng - Koh creates a text that is distinctively his own."


the himalayan pine
a transplanted cross-dresser
tucked up with needles

Wednesday, January 07, 2015


bits of christmas trees
left behind on the sidewalk
three-day-old champagne

Monday, January 05, 2015


winter rain collects
in the long cracks of the road
and small depressions

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Dividing Lines and Sidelines

TLS December 19 & 26, 2014

from Jacques Rupnik's review of Michael Zantovsky's Havel: a Life:

It was in the 1970s that Havel established himself as the leading figure of Czech dissidence, both as a political thinker and as the prime inspirer of the human rights movement that became known as Charter 77. His "Letter to Gustáv Husák" of 1975 was, of course, not a letter to the party boss but a lengthy and profound essay on governance through fear and the way "we go in for various kinds of external adaptation as the only effective method of self-defence". This idea of habituation and critique of the "as if" behaviour prevalent in society was futher developed in Havel's famous essay of 1978, "The Power of the Powerless". In the post-totalitarian system, he argued, "the dividing line is not just between the party-state and society . . .  it runs de facto through each person, for everyone in his own way is both victim and supporter of the system" [emphasis mine]. This deep insight provides the key to understanding Havel's controversial stance after 1990 on "lustration": his reluctance to engage in a radical settling of scores with the collaborators of the old regime.


from Kathryn Murphy's review of Ivan Klíma's My Crazy Century: A memoir:

An apocryphal Chinese curse wishes that enemies may live in interesting times. Klíma's times were decidedly interesting, and the curse had added implications for a writer beyond the dangers of censorship and persecution. Dissident literature carries what Klíma himself called, in an interview with Philip Roth in 1990, an "extraliterary appeal": in Czechoslovakia it offered testimony "on the side of truth", against the derangements of sense and language perpetuated by the regime, and bore the torch for a continuity of culture and civic society. For some writers in the West, this was cause for a peculiar envy: the curse of interesting times at least meant interesting material. and a context in which writing really mattered. But such expectations are also oppressive: demanding seriousness, political engagement and a sidelining of formal and aesthetic concerns. The political role which literature was compelled to play stifled assessments of quality, conferring value not always reflected in the work itself [emphasis mine].

Monday, December 29, 2014

Begin Again, Les Enfants Terrible, a Haiku

Begin Again (2013), watched last Saturday, would work well on stage but the music performances would have to be much better if they are "live." Film glamorizes and idolizes, so that the mediocre acquires a kind of mystification through focus and angle. The film is worth watching for the performances of Mark Ruffalo as a has-been music producer, and of Keira Knightley, the unrecognized talent. It is written and directed by John Carney.

On Sunday, I watched Les Enfants Terrible (1950), directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, based on a novel by Jean Cocteau. Everything rests on the poetry, for the story is highly unrealistic and its characters strongly improbable. But the poetry of the images is arresting. The discovery of the dead mother in her room. The siblings' own room, a ramshackle hideout, where they could enact their games of fantasy. The final image of the bamboo curtains crashing down. As Elisabeth, Nicole Stéphane is magnetic. Edouard Dermithe, who plays her brother Paul, is bland. He is too old for the part. If you need someone to root for, Jacques Bernard, the siblings' friend who loves Elisabeth hopelessly, is winsome.

strong night wind
the reservoir has become a sea
slapping the rocks and slurping

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Christmas Gifts

Gift exchange after a hearty Christmas lunch is a golden ritual at my lover’s parents. Having joined in the dusky afternoon twice, in the village of Cleves, twenty-one miles from Cincinnati, I thought I knew the form but was taken aback with delight when I opened a flat square box and found a bolo tie from his father. He had made it with braided brown and black leather at the ends of which coiled silver aiguillettes.

the slide of the bolo tie
is made of peach wood
from the tree that died

At the airport, as I thanked him for the stay, this veteran of World War II, a teacher of industrial arts, an avid card player, a father of five and lately a great-grandfather, said, Jee, you are like one of my sons. I did not mishear him, for my lover’s mother, knowing her husband’s deafness and darkening taciturnity, was so surprised that she repeated it to her son when he called her to say we are safely home.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Roberto Bolano's 2666

Finished reading 2666 and now I'm ready for 2015! It's a masterpiece from a master storyteller. I was completely absorbed by the different stories, the main ones and the many "digressive" others that enter so quietly and then leave with a memorable exit. The Part about the Critics, about a love quadrangle, is almost mathematical in the working out of the plot. The Part about Amalfitano is an acute psychological portrait of fear. The Part about Fate moves like an American TV series. The Part about the Crimes is almost unbearable to read as it recounts, like a police procedural, the serial killings of women in the city of Santa Theresa. The last section, The Part about Archimboldi, is the biography of a writer. Oscar Fate, a black reporter from New York is at the center of of his story, just as his section is at the center of book, his name raising obviously questions about fate and choice. Part 2 balances Amalfitano's fear of losing his daughter against Part 4's account of the killings, the longest section of the book. In Part 1, the critics Jean-Claude Pelletier, Piero Morini, Manuel Espinoza, and Liz Norton look in vain for their writer, who is only found by the reader in Part 5. We discover Archimboldi's reason for going to Santa Theresa, and realize fully that his quest is both foolish and heroic, that of a new Don Quixote.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

On-line Pillow

THE PILLOW BOOK is now out in Kindle! Thank you, Team Awai Books, for turning the book of zuihitsu electronic!

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Jason Irwin's "Where You Are"

The virtues of Jason Irwin's poetry are again on full display in his latest work, a chapbook titled simply Where You Are (NightBallet Press). The feeling for the dailiness of life's disappointments. The devotion to a plain yet eloquent diction, associated with the working class. The discovery of metaphor in the course of living and writing. I have been reading Jason's work since we were together in the Creative Writing MFA at Sarah Lawrence College, and this new book strikes me as a powerful argument for persisting in the same vein. There are, however, at least two new features in this small volume. One is the addition of prose poems to a body of work mostly written in supple free verse. These prose poems provide formal variation, but they lose the intentness of Irwin's line breaks. The other is the subject of a marriage gone south. True to its gentle spirit, there is no recrimination or hysteria here, but an aching remembrance of loss. Where You Are, it turns out, is also the painful cry, Where Are You.


a cocker walking
on uncut claws
clicks like a clock

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Monday, December 15, 2014

Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samouraï

Was captivated by Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samouraï (1967) last night. Alain Delon plays Jef Costello, a contract killer who finally and ritually plans his own suicide. Beautiful minimalist cinematography, with a spare palette of silver and blue. Minimal dialogue too. But there is a less noticeable extravagance too. It seems that the whole of the Paris police force is out to get him. As one imdb comment notes, Costello is not just a child of Sartre. The killing of Reyes, in its magic impossibility, is pure Nabokov.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

New York Festival of Song

Attended the concert last night with HA. Kaufman Music Center and New York Festival of Song present "Harlem Renaissance" in song and poetry. Julia Bullock sang soprano, Darius de Haas tenor, and James Martin baritone. On the piano was NYFOS was Artistic Director Steven Blier and Associate Artistic Director Michael Barrett.

The Joint is Jumpin'
Music by Thomas "Fats" Waller; lyrics by Andy Razaf and J. C. Johnson
Sung by Ensemble

A Porter's Love Song to a Chambermaid
Music by James P. Johnson; lyrics by Andy Razaf
Sung by Mr. Martin

Aint'-cha Glad
Music by Thomas "Fats" Waller; lyrics by Andy Razaf
Sung by Ms. Bullock

L'il Gal
Music by J. Rosamond Johnson; poem by Paul Lawrence Dunbar
Sung by Mr. Martin

Death of an Old Seaman
Music by Cecil Cohen; poem by Langston Hughes
Sung by Ms. Bullock

The Breath of a Rose
Music by William Grant Still; poem by Langston Hughes
Sung by Ms. Bullock

Day Dream (a concert highlight for me)
Music by Billy Strayhorn; lyrics by John LaTouche
Sung by Mr. de Haas

I'm Craving for that Kind of Love
Music by Eubie Blake; lyrics by Noble Sissle
Sung by Ms. Bullock

You're Lucky to Me
Music by Eubie Blake; lyrics by Andy Razaf
Sung by Mr. de Haas and Ms. Bullock

I've Heard of a City Called Heaven (another concert highlight)
Musical arrangement by Hall Johnson; traditional poem
Sung by Ms. Bullock

Guiding Me Back Home
Music by Harry Revel; lyrics by Noble Sissle
Sung by Mr. Martin and Mr. de Haas

Mo' Lasses
Music by Charles "Luckey" Roberts; lyrics by Alex Rogers
Sung by Mr. Martin

In a Sentimental Mood
Music and lyrics by Duke Ellington and Manny Katz
Sung by Mr. de Haas

I'm Just a Lucky So-and-So
Music by Duke Ellington; lyrics by Mack David
Sung by mr. Martin

A Flower is a Lovesome Thing (another concert highlight)
Music and lyrics by Billy Strayhorn
Sung by Ms. Bullock

The Harlem Blues
Music and lyrics by W. C. Handy
Sung by Mr. Martin

My Handy Man Ain't Handy No More
Music by Eubie Blake; lyrics by Andy Razaf
Sung by Ms. Bullock

I'm Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town
Music by William Weldon; lyrics by Andy Razaf
Sung by Mr. de Haas

Song to the Dark Virgin
Music by Florence Price; poem by Langston Hughes
Sung by Mr. Martin

What's the Use
Music by Florence B. Price; poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar
Sung by Mr. de haas

Black and Blue
Music by Thomas "Fats" Waller & Harry Brooks; lyrics by Andy Razaf
Sung by Mr. de Haas

What Harlem is to Me
Music by Russell Wooding and Paul Denniker; lyrics by Andy Razaf
Sung by the Ensemble

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Draft of Preface for "Shadows of Japan"

The art of the haiku is the art of the unsaid. Saying so is already saying too much.

The Great Fish swims in the Great Ocean and the little fishes cannot understand it. How can it plunge to a depth of a thousand miles and still live? I can only dip in my pond to the distance of ten times my length. It cannot be true. And then they hear that the Great Fish changes into a Great Bird, and, as a bird, flies ten thousand leagues in a day. Now we understand, they say, it has been a bird all along.

After Zhuangzi

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Monday, December 01, 2014

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Let us give thanks for celluloid

Watched a slew of movies during Thanksgiving stay with Ty and Di. On Wednesday, when we arrived, we watched an hour of the stand-up comedian Louis C. K., before turning in. Across the Universe (2007), directed by Julie Taymor, is visually entrancing, although the boy-meets-girl story is all too predictable. The fun here is hearing the Beatles songs mesh with the loosey-goosey plot. Evan Rachel Wood plays upper-class American Lucy and Jim Sturgess plays the working class Liverpudlian Jude.

Another visual entertainer, but in a very different way, Getting Go, the Go Doc Project (2013) is framed as a video documentary by a college student named Doc (Tanner Cohen), of his crush on NYC go-go dancer Go (Matthew Camp). Written and directed by Cory Krueckeberg, this is a better gay movie than most. The acting is believable. I love all the split-screens and frames-within-frames that convey the multiplicity and simultaneity of on-line life. After this, I'm off to stalk Matthew Camp on Facebook.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was so god-awful that we stopped watching it after 15 minutes. House of Boys (2009), directed by Jean-Claude Schlim, boy-meets-boy-in-whorehouse-and-falls-in-love-and-ends-up-taking-care-of-partner-infected-by-AIDS, is totally unrealistic. The only reason to watch it is Layke Anderson who is cute and a decent actor. His dance numbers are the best things in the movie.

We were knackered after the bus trip home, so what did we do for the evening, but to watch another movie. A Coffee in Berlin (2012) follows a young college dropout as he encounters various weird folks around the city, beautifully shot in black and white. A neighbor who is unable to make love to his wife since her breast cancer surgery. An underachieving actor friend. A high-school classmate whom he once bullied for being fat, but who is still in love with him. And, finally, fatefully, an old man returning to the old neighborhood who told the story of how his father made him throw stones at a Jewish store and how he cried and cried, not for the smashed lives, but for the fact that he could no longer ride his bike in all the shattered glass. Tom Schilling plays Niko Fischer very naturally. As he puts it to the woman, who is still a fat little girl in her own mind, you look at people and think they are so strange. Then there comes a moment when you realize that they are not strange and that you are the problem. Written and directed by Jan Ole Gerster.

Enjoyed The Giver (2014), based on Lois Lowry's book of the same name. Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep brings some depths to their respective characters The Giver and Chief Elder, who could otherwise be cardboard figures. Brenton Thwaites as Jonas is eminently watchable. Katie Holmes was given too little to do as Jonas's mother. Directed by Phillip Noyce.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Hard Choices: Challenging the Singapore Consensus

A thought-provoking set of essays. The main writer Donald Low is persuasive about how widening income inequality in Singapore is destroying the social compact between the government and the people. He argues for income redistribution and the strengthening of social nets, and against the shibboleths that stand in the way, such as elite belief in trickle-down economics, moral hazard, and decreased global competitiveness. He wants policy-makers to look hard at the empirical evidence, instead of being confirmed in their prejudices by past experience raised to the status of ideology.

Low is particularly good at using insights from cognitive research to explain why the governing elite is so slow to adapt to a fast-changing environment. His reliance on such findings is telling. He mainly believes that governmental failure is primarily a failure in thinking. Correct the thinker, and he will correct his policies and processes. At one point, Low assures the reader that the governing elite that he mingles with, both civil servants and ministers, are well-intentioned and public-spirited. He does not see them as a class, and that as a class they will act according to their class interest. And so his calls to the government to expand democratic freedoms may sound overly optimistic. Nothing is harder for the powerful than to give up their power. His co-writer Sudhir Vadaketh may be less analytically astute, but he has stronger political instincts. He speculates that political change, if it comes, will come from the ground up, and not from the top down.

The one essay by historian Thum Ping Tjin takes a very different tack. By taking a synoptic survey of the twentieth-century history of Singapore, he makes the nice point that present-day Singapore resembles Singapore in the 1920s and 30s when it was the richest and most cosmopolitan city in S.E. Asia. Then, as it is becoming now, it was also the most exploitative economy. When the British found it untenable to hold on to power, they tried to transfer power to the pro-British, pro-business Progressive Party. It was David Marshall and his Labor Party, however, who won the vote and implemented pro-labor policies, such as starting the CPF. Other good ideas came out of that period of intense political debate and contest, ideas that became the foundation of Singapore's success. The implication for modern Singapore is clear: we need multiple political parties that are capable of forming a government. This scenario looks more realistic, especially after the 2011 election, than any proposal to reform the entrenched political elite. Whichever party wins, it would do well to look hard at Donald Low's policy recommendations.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Lydia Kwa's novel "Pulse"

As it self-identifies, Pulse is not a whodunnit, but a whydunnit. A young man kills himself, and his mother's ex-lover, a woman who migrated with her own parents to Toronto, Canada, may be the only one to understand why he does so. Natalie, an acupuncturist, shares with the dead Saleem an interest in kinbaku, the erotic art of Japanese rope bondage. She is only willing to do the tying, whereas Saleem relishes the pain-pleasure of being tied. Both long, however, to transcend their bodies, the sites of their trauma, while knowing that the body is the only means to such transcendence.

The body is also the limit of our knowledge of one another. We have to interpret, after all, one another by means of visual and verbal cues. Chris Lee, a Canadian critic quoted on the back cover, puts it well: "Pulse relentless explores the limits of knowability--cultural boundaries of knowledge, the seemingly impassable divide between one person and another, and the temporal gaps that render memory unstable yet ever-present." Pulse is searching and courageous in this exploration, and so the ending comes somewhat as a letdown, when Saleem's lover shows Natalie a letter from the dead man to her explaining everything. Saleem had read between the lines of Natalie's own story of trauma to deduce their similar history. She, and the reader, had the truth handed to her on the plate.


from the movie house
into the bright fall day
are they airsick too

After watching The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 yesterday.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Friday, November 21, 2014

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Wednesday, November 19, 2014


Reading Zakir Hussain Khokhon’s poem “Pocket 2,” which won the first Singapore migrant workers poetry competition, I was moved by its heady fragrance.

in Shahbag
the bakul tree flowers
out of season

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Monday, November 17, 2014


fall leaves by the road
blaze brighter than spring flowers
november eaves

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Dysclosure, the openness to the multiple

TLS October 24, 2014

from Jean-Pierre Boulé's review of David Caron's The Nearness of Others: Searching for tact and contact in the age of HIV:

Self-disclosure lies at the heart of Caron's book. The argument is accessible, but also intellectually sophisticated and convincing. Caron's experience has taught him that coming out as HIV-positive means exclusion from the gay community at large, hence the paradox of being closeted as HIV-positive. However, the author starts to rethink disclosure, outside of regimes of truth, policing and control (references are made to both Michel Foucault and Jacques Rancière) so that contact between the directly affected and the indirectly affected is possible. He coins the term "dysclosure", "closure vulnerable to dysfunction", as a mechanism for sharing, premissed on equality. In response to questions about one's status, he suggests the answer "undetectable" (referring to one's viral load) as an exemplar of dysclosure because it deconstructs the binary system of enclosure/disclosure. "Dysclosure, the openness to the multiple, is located between confession and silence".


the moon in madrid
is the oldest you will see
says my marco polo

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Friday, November 14, 2014


the wind is rising
i'm listening to the dark tints
of a crow etching

Thursday, November 13, 2014


so many crinkled faces
around a few crinkled stalks
of discount choy sum

Wednesday, November 12, 2014


in the 4 o'clock dark
the electric streetlights shine
like the eyes of pike

Tuesday, November 11, 2014


on the dining table
yellow, red and brown leaves
a nōkanshi has been

Monday, November 10, 2014

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Friday, November 07, 2014


Judges Gwee Li Sui, Leong Liew Geok and Boey Kim Cheng awarded the 2014 Singapore Literature Prize (English poetry category) to Joshua Ip and Yong Shu Hoong. On the morning of hearing the result, I was very disappointed. While I was turning the disappointment over in my mind on my way to school, a jogger, silver-haired, in his fifties, ran past me without shoes.

a sore loser
i'd start writing in spanish
if i can run barefoot

Thursday, November 06, 2014

The Real Thing

Watched Tom Stoppard's "The Real Thing" at the American Airlines Theatre yesterday. Directed by Sam Gold, the production boasted of stars such as Ewan McGregor, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Cynthia Nixon (in the leads) and Josh Hamilton. They were all over-shadowed by Ronan Raftery (Billy), who spoke his words with emotional clarity and distinguished relish, and whose physical presence lit up the stage. The first half was tedious, but the second half picked up, mostly because of a terrific monologue spoken by McGregor comparing good writing to a well-made cricket bat, and because of Raftery's performance.

Ronan Raftery. Photo from United Agents.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Monday, November 03, 2014


With some friends from out of town, we walked the High Line yesterday, a cold fall day. After running parallel to the Hudson for blocks and blocks, this most linear of parks curves in its third and final section toward the river and floats over the storage and maintenance yards for Long Island Rail Road.

at hudson yards
the trains laid down like rain
in hiroshige

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Poetry Reading at BGDQD

Read on October 19 with Eduardo Martinez and Adam Fitzgerald at an event organized by Eduardo Corral under the auspices of the Bureau of General Services-Queer Division. The Bureau has relocated to the LGBT Community Center. It still has a wonderful selection of books and prints. Greg and Donny were such genial hosts. Eduardo asked me two good questions about some remarks that I made in interviews. One remark was about trying to find an English word that means "soul-body." Asked if I have discovered a poet who comes closest, I mentioned Cyril Wong and described his poetry of meditation. What did I mean when I said that I was a lyric poet living in an anti-lyric age? I meant that our age is justifiably suspicious of the unified and universal lyric self, but as a lyric poet, I yearn to be unified and universal, or, to put it another way, I am suspicious of the suspicions against the lyric. Thanks very much, Eduardo, for putting together this lovely reading. It was very kind of Henry Abelove, Eric Norris, Christine Chia, Amos Toh and Cheryl Koh to come for the reading. I read about my bolster, my parents' altar table, Wolverine, things out of place, and the old Chinese poets from The Pillow Book, as queer a collection as any that I've written.


the wind is rising
and crashing on the coast
of my ear

Friday, October 31, 2014

Haiku and Pub

when the sun drops
another view of fuji-san
holding up the feet

In PN Review 220, a celebration of Eavan Boland. Many tributes, from Sapphire, Mark Doty, Paula Meehan, Tara Bergin, Colm Tóibín, Yusef Kommunyakaa, and Sandra M. Gilbert, among others. I have a small piece that looks at Boland's sense of humor in "The Fire in Our Neighborhood."

Tuesday, October 28, 2014


eating too much too late
they say, can give you dreams
black bears in new jersey

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Love Is Strange

Movie watching is out-stripping movie reviewing, even movie remembering. The only solution is a list, before everything dissolves away.

Ida (2013) is about a Polish novitiate who discovers from her only living relative that she is Jewish. The film is directed by Pawel Pawlikowski and stars Agata Trzebuchowska as Anna/Ida, and Agata Kulesza as Wanda, her free-living, depressed aunt. Beautiful cinematography. Absorbing narrative, except for the rather facile ending.

In Cloudburst (2011), two old lesbians escape to Canada to get married. They pick up a young male drifter and teach him a few valuable life lessons. Written and directed by Thom Fitzgerald, the movie stars Olympia Dukakis as Stella and Brenda Fricker as Dot. Ryan Doucette is the young hitchhiker with the symbolic name of Prentice. Heartwarming and convincing.

Guy and I watched Love Is Strange (2014) at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas. After Ben and George got married, George is fired from his teaching job. Both have to fall back on their families, causing tension and unhappiness. Directed by Ira Sachs, the movie stars John Lithgow as Ben and Alfred Molina as George. Great ensemble cast. Marisa Tomei gives a nuanced performance as the wife of Ben's nephew, who has to put her uncle-in-law up.

Monster Pies (2013) is a so-so Australian gay movie. A loner falls in love with the new boy, who turns out to be self-harming. Directed and written by Lee Galea, it has some of the worst dialogue ever heard. Lucas Linehan is the beautiful stranger William. Tristan Barr plays the sensitive Mike.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014


from google hangout
to black bears in new jersey
a quick noisy lunch

Tuesday, October 21, 2014


what stops me in my track
an overhanging branch of leaves
the colors of tiger

Sunday, October 19, 2014


Yesterday, some friends and I hiked to the top of Breakneck Ridge. The weather was full of changes. The clouds were white one moment, and black-gray another. It was sunny, and then it was raining. The wind blew at us at the top. At the bottom the air was quiet and still.

sunny october day
under a rock a lizard molts
rolling up its sleeves

tramping ungainly
down the stony channel the stream
tingles in my feet

 how many gay boys
does it take in Cold Spring
to screw an antique bulb?

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Friday, October 17, 2014


right after the rain
little birds peck at the dirt
e-a-t e-a-t e-a-t

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Monday, October 13, 2014


the tall blonde tourist
puts her bag down by the tree
where the dog pissed

Monday, October 06, 2014

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Alex Kerr's "Dogs and Demons"

Alex Kerr's Dogs and Demons (2001) is a polemic against the wrong direction that Japan has taken in in the closing decades of the last century. The charge sheet looks serious. Excessive construction is destroying the environment. Bureaucrats are enriching themselves at the expense of national interest. The country is piling up its national debt but losing its technological edge. Schools are teaching rote-learning and social conformity. Culture has degenerated into manga and anime, plastic flower-arrangement and context-less architecture. The unremittingly bleak picture makes me doubt that I visited the same country last summer that the author is describing. Still, I remember things in retrospect that fit with Kerr's picture. The Kamo River in Kyoto was barricaded on both sides by concrete embankment. Pachinko parlors contributed to the noise pollution in Shinjuku in Tokyo, where we stayed. Manga took up more than half of the shelves of the bookshop in one train station. The culture of cute, or kawaii, was evident everywhere. But I went to Japan to launch the Japanese translation of my Pillow Book, my homage to Sei Shonagon. The launch was well-attended by a youngish crowd, who listened appreciatively to my Singaporean re-working of this Japanese classic. Afterwards, a young woman approached me and asked me shyly why I called a verse a tanka when it does not have the traditional five lines. She shared that she was studying medieval literature at school. In that hip, artistic crowd, there was at least one person who looked back to Japan's past for enjoyment and education. She couldn't have been the only one.


little urban sprawl
between tokyo and kyoto
the bullet train is fast

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Monday, September 15, 2014

Sky Farm Fortress and Starry Island

Chelsea galleries walkabout with GH, S and R last Saturday.

At Jack Shainman Gallery, Nick Cave's series Rescue "comprises sculptures that incorporate found ceramic dogs sitting on furniture within elaborate grottos or dreamlike dens," decorated with branches, bead necklaces and fake birds.

At Mike Weiss Gallery, Tom Fruin's Color Study, an exhibition of new work: "structures, illuminated from within, flash and dim to their own internal rhythms becoming beacons of color and temples of light dotting city skylines and community parks...." I like the gridded colors of a cover for a water tank.

At Sikkema Jenkins & Co., Jorge Queiroz's "large-scale drawings suggest surrealist landscapes or dreamscapes in vibrant color and amorphous forms."

At Mary Boone, Jacob Hashimoto's Sky Farm Fortress was full of childish wonder.


In the evening, the launch of Starry Island: New Writing from Singapore at the new St. Mark's Bookshop, part of Manhattan Lit Crawl. I read with Jeremy Tiang and Amanda Lee Koe. Paul Rozario-Falcone introduced and moderated the Q&A. Over 60 people at the reading, and 12 copies of the special issue sold.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize

My collection of zuihitsu The Pillow Book has been shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize. It joins five other works in the shortlist for the category of English Poetry. The other works are Cordelia by Grace Chia, The Viewing Party by Yong Shu Hoong, Circle Line by Theophilus Kwek, Tender Delirium by Tania De Rozario and Sonnets from the Singlish by Joshua Ip. I am grateful to Michael Schmidt for first publishing the work in PN Review, and to Kenny Leck and the Math Paper Press team for publishing it as part of their Babette's Feast chapbook series.

The prizewinner will be announced at the Awards Ceremony, during the Singapore Writers Festival in Singapore on November 4.


the wind is rising
the shadow of the pine
holds its ground

Friday, September 12, 2014


the boy in the window
at the back of the school bus
a cricket in a jar

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Monday, September 08, 2014


how many writing spiders
did the wild pheasant eat
before ending on my plate?

Monday, August 25, 2014

Several Theories, Four, Lots!

TLS August 15, 2014

from Michael Hofmann's review of Stephen Parker's Bertolt Brecht: A literary life:

Brecht was extremely hard-working, got up early, wrote every day, and believed writing was a function of the health he actually didn't enjoy.  
Often too, there is something to be dropped or switched. "A contract is good, you can always break it", was a piece of advice in a particular situation, but then any arrangement and any idea can be picked apart or reversed with Brecht's mental agility. "I'm continually forgetting my opnions", he wrote, as if he cared. And then, instead: "A man with one theory is lost. He need several of them, four, lots!" - which of course got him in trouble later on, when he was at the mercy if people who had precisely one theory - or rather, one certainty - and guarded its purity against whatever they saw him as advancing, avant-gardism, sectarianism, formalism, Proletkult, cosmopolitanism, you name it. Parker calls him eclectic, unsystematic and intellectually "bordering on the promiscuous". Brecht is not always on the right side of every argument, but he is always on the more thoughtful, heretical, interesting side. 
"How can a linden tree be expected to conduct a discussion with someone who reproaches it for not being an oak?" Brecht lamented that there was ideology everywhere, writes Parker; "The first thing we have to do is institute exhibitions and courses to develop taste, i.e. for the enjoyment of life", he proposes with delightful implausibility. Aesthetics before ethics, as Joseph Brodsky put it.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Amanda Lee Koe's "Ministry of Moral Panic"

There is a deftness of touch, a sureness of intent, a knowingness of accomplishment that makes it hard to believe that Ministry of Moral Panic is Amanda Lee Koe's first book of fiction. She has marked out in virgin territory a realm of her own, a kingdom of weird, non-conforming, stubborn passions in Singapore. And she has done so without resorting to the usual pieties of understanding and tolerance. She has looked directly at the contorted subject and drawn every contortion that she could see. Love between a senile Chinese high-society woman and a successful but aging Malay rocker with three wives? Read the opening story "Flamingo Valley." Art as vengeance by a Chinese Singaporean artist for unrequited love from an Iranian Muslim reporter? Read "Carousel & Fort." The manipulations of love? Read "Pawn" to find who is making use of whom, the middle-aged Chinese Singaporean office virgin or the Chinese Chinese food-stall boy. The attraction between a high-living, and dying, female globetrotter and a teenage girl trying to come into her own person? Read "Alice, You Must Be the Fulcrum of Your Own Universe." Inter-species love? Read "Siren," a fantastic tale about the one-night passion between a sailor and a mermaid, and the seductiveness of their offspring, a ladyboy with both a slit and a stick.

Perfectly capable of writing the well-crafted traditional short story, Koe experiments confidently with narrative form as well. The urban pastoral "Every Park on This Island" is written in sections headed by the names of parks in Singapore. The most powerful of these experiments is the "Fourteen Entries from the Diary of Maria Hertogh," a Dutch girl raised by a Malay Muslim family, who was forcibly reclaimed by her Dutch parents by resorting to British law, and then transplanted to The Netherlands, where she did not take root. Yes, a few of the stories are slight, not in length, but in substance. "Two Ways to Do This" does not improve even in its second variation: the experience of rape is described with great acuity, but the folkloric magical elements are unsurprising. "Laundromat" is as bland as the sociological experiment that it describes. Nevertheless, the collection is eminently readable. I should know. I read it straight through--all fourteen stories--on my flight from Singapore to New York. I had not been able to read on a plane for a while. Too uncomfortable and distracted. But these stories carried me to the end.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

In Memory of Bob Hart, gentleman-poet

I learned, with great sadness, from Eric Norris and a FB post by Jane Omerod that Bob Hart passed away on the morning of August 13, Saturday. I met Bob Hart at a Pink Pony reading at Cornelia Street Cafe, NY, in 2005. Or rather, it'd be more accurate to say that I heard him first. The mellifluous voice at the mic was strikingly different from anything that had gone before, and It made me sit up and take note. You know the sensation when you know you are hearing poetry, and not prose? Bob Hart never read any prose; he is, was, all poetry. The writing was lyrical, exploratory, musical and witty. It was inspired by the greats like Shakespeare and Donne. I got to know the man a little better when I edited and published his second book, Lightly in the Good of Day. When I asked to see his poems, he gave me a cardboard box filled with tissue-thin sheets of paper, covered with his slanty handwriting in blue or black ink. Over a decade of writing. He dated his poems, and the revisions, and so I could see that he wrote almost every day for long stretches of time. He was ever so gracious when I approached him with suggestions for edits. Some he accepted calmly, others he rejected firmly. We would meet in a cafe in Hell's Kitchen to go over the poems. Bob did not do email; he had no Internet at home. Our conversations hewed pretty closely to the poems but he would tell me, once in a while, about his belief and involvement in Christian Science. I must admit I listened with only half an ear, ignorant and dismissive of what I had always taken to be a Christian cult. But now I see how vital were his Christian Science beliefs to his poetry. As his editor, I regret not giving his religion its due in a critical preface for his book. I was guilty of condescension. Indeed it is easy to underestimate Bob Hart. He was so modest, soft-spoken and self-effacing. He was always quick to give credit to others. One of my most vivid memories of Bob was how he leapt forward at the end of a Pink Pony reading to praise and thank a reader whose work he particularly liked. He was a generous man, and gave as much of himself as we could find room in ourselves to receive. One of my favorite Bob Hart poems:


Watery within this graveled world,
translucent almost,
thinner than the air,
we move as rarer than our monuments
which we can occupy or not
however crude or well we shaped them;
feeling frail amid solidity
and pinned down by the names which,
large enough to run in an environment,
are points too dot-ephemeral
to pin the powered nowhereness
our talent operates from,
we agree, like entities leaped out from story pages,
to sit, assuming body styles,
disrobed from our invisibility,
with lightnings folded like mosquito's wings
polite in company.

by Bob Hart

Friday, August 15, 2014

Reading at Booktique

Waiting for a friend, I walked into The Cathay, in Singapore, and stumbled upon Booktique, the pop-up bookstore owned and run by the inimitable Anthony Koh Waugh, who promptly invited me to read at the closing party of his present shop. So I did last night, and sold six more copies of my Pillow Book. Zed Yeo read next from his collection of hybrid writing, Unapologetically Insane Tales, the first Singapore book to be produced through crowdfunding. Zed was a very engaging storyteller. It was fun to see shoppers popping into the shop to hear me and Zed read, and to speak with many writers unfamiliar to me. Anthony is a great supporter of writers. After a well-deserved break, he will set up shop in another location. Do watch out for the next iteration of Booktique, the writers' bookshop.

Launch of Japanese/English Edition of "The Pillow Book" in Singapore

Thanks, everyone, for coming out to the book launch on Wednesday. It was lovely to see so many familiar faces, and quite a few new ones too. Thank you, William Phuan and Aliah Ali from The Arts House, for hosting the event in such a professional and helpful manner. Thank you, my publishers Matthew Chozick, Keisuke Tsubono and Midori Ohmuro, for flying all the way from Tokyo to lend a touch of glamor to the event. Thank you, Keisuke, for reading so beautifully in Japanese. Thank you, Chong Li-Chuan, for your musical piece, which touches the surface and sounds the depths, an aim shared by my little book. Thank you, my parents Robert Koh and Susan Cheong, for coming to the event, and for getting the Bengawan Solo kueh-kueh (they were much heavier than we expected). Thank you, my love Guy Humphrey, for your support and encouragement. You always step in when help is needed. I read this extract last night for us. Happy birthday, dear.

If the tree were blooming, a close examination would show that it puts out two kinds of flowers, bigger pinks with nine pistils, and smaller whites with single pistils. The explanation for this miracle is that the camellia is not one tree but two. Growing at first side by side, they became so entwined through the years that they are now indistinguishable from each other. Voluptuaries of the sun and rain, they have fused into one in their joint pursuit of essential needs, outliving the generations of monks that tended them, displaying every year the hue of youth.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Book Launch in Tokyo

Of all the readings that I've done, yesterday's book launch at Tokyo's Editory stands out for its combination of charm, warmth and sincerity. It was a special delight to meet Mariko Hirasawa, who illustrated my Pillow Book. Mariko, thank you for expressing so well the feelings that you received from the work. You spoke with wonderful animation during the interview. Matthew Chozick, a writer cannot ask for a better publisher. You are always so respectful and enthusiastic. Midori, you touched me when you remembered "Kimiko" from the book, having read the collection three times. Keisuke, I look forward to reading again with you at the launch in Singapore on August 13, and in New York in November. Thank you for introducing me to your loved ones and friends. I am honored to call you my friends.

You can purchase the book here.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

July 26 Reading at BooksActually

Math Paper Press re-issues my first book of poems Payday Loans in a beautiful new edition designed by Shellen Teh, with a new critical preface by Joshua Ip and an interview with me conducted by Chloe Miller for Eclectica Magazine.

To launch the book, I read at BooksActually's reading series "An Evening with..." on Saturday, July 26. Ian Chung moderated the session, asking me questions about each of my books that I read from. I was really pleased to see familiar and new faces in the audience. I won't remember everyone, so my apologies in advance, but here are the faces that flash across my mind: Robert Yeo, Leong Liew Geok, Toh Hsien Min, Zhang Ruihe, Shawn Chua, Tania De Rozario and her lovely partner, Chong Li Chuan, Boedi Widjaja and his gracious wife, Weetz and his partner .... Shawn took the photo of me and Kenny's cat.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Speakeasy #14 Gwee Li Sui and Koh Jee Leong

Read with Gwee at Speakeasy #14 organized by Pooja Nansi at Artistry Cafe last night. Video taken by Alvin Pang.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Open Letter Regarding the National Library’s Book Ban

Open Letter Regarding the National Library’s Book Ban

What the National Library has done—banning, and pulping, three children’s books because they depict untraditional families—horrifies and saddens me. I love the National Library, first in its original Stamford Road edition, and then in its modern translation in Bras Basah, for its vast repository of knowledge and pleasure. But the “generous giver,” as poet Edwin Thumboo calls it in his poem on the old library, has now taken away with a closed fist, and not just taken away, but will destroy the books.

I feel the destruction on the pulse because I identify as gay. All the ways in which the state, supported by an apparent majority of citizens, criminalize and discriminate against the LGBT community have not hit home as hard as this act of vandalism. The object to be pulped is so innocuous. And Tango Makes Three, one of the three books, is about a pair of male penguins hatching an egg and caring for the chick. It is about love and family. It is based on a true incident. But it is deemed so corrupting of our youth that it must be indexed and banned. Nothing before this act of censorship has shown me the true extent of the fear, loathing and hostility that are directed against LGBT persons and families. It stops the heart.

But this destructive act also offends me deeply because I identify as a Singaporean, and what the state does, through its agencies, misrepresents me and my values. I have lived for many years in the USA but I visit Singapore every one of those years because I have the means and the inclination. I have a green card, but I will never give up my Singapore citizenship. Singapore is still my country. In the years away, I have discovered the truth of the truism: you can take the boy out of Singapore, but you cannot take Singapore out of the boy. Against the forces of homophobia, I will insist that I am a gay Singaporean. Whether you like it or not, I am a part of your “social norms” and “family values.” You have to take my pink I.C. and my red passport, my National Service dues and my Education Service record, into account.

Finally, and most personally, I am outraged by the book ban because I am a writer. Writers often compare books to lives for very good reasons. Not only do books distill the best thoughts and feelings of writers, they conduct the widest and deepest dialogues with their societies. Books are the founders of global democracy. So it is with great admiration that I read about the principled stand that some Singapore writers have taken against the book ban. Ovidia Yu, Cyril Wong, Tania De Rozario, Gwee Li Sui, Prem Anand, Felix Cheong, Adrian Tan, Joshua Ip and others are boycotting National Library events; a number are also boycotting the Singapore Writers Festival, for which the National Library is a program partner.

I have never been invited to participate in National Library events nor the Singapore Writers Festival, so it is presumptuous of me to say the following, but in order to express my solidarity with these courageous and thoughtful writers, I will not participate in a National Library event nor the Singapore Writers Festival, if I am asked, until the National Library restores the three children’s books to their proper shelves, unsegregated and unmarked by any warning label. Because books are like lives, these books must be treated the same way as other children’s books. They should not be herded into a reservation nor forced to wear a Star of David.

Instead of destroying books in the name of protecting our children, how should a National Library provide for its youngest guests? In the heart of the Bras Basah edifice stands a special collection of books donated by Edwin Thumboo, who is, according to the National Library website, “widely regarded as the unofficial poet laureate of Singapore.” In his poem “National Library, 2007, nr Bugis” about this new library, the grandfather of seven expresses his hope for the library and the country in this way:

“Let the young, including my seven butterflies, explore,
Grow, discern and cherish; test shifting worlds, judge and
Prefer. Learn to check their walk and track that serpent
As we re-arrange our gardens, our declensions of heart…”

Koh Jee Leong
New York City
July 13, 2014