Friday, June 10, 2016

Orchid Haiku

A pot of orchids from my poetry writing workshop students! It was wonderfully energizing to meet ten eager young poets every Thursday at 7:20 am before the start of school, in order to read contemporary poetry and workshop their poems. Their dedication to learning, exploring, and changing nurtured mine.

Orchid petals--
streaky stains in the air
after rain

Thursday, June 09, 2016

Monday, June 06, 2016

Haiku Time

TLS March 11 2016

from Thomas Heaney's review of Vanessa Ogle's The Global Transformation of Time:

In the early 1960s, E. P. Thompson started scouring anthropological reports and journals for examples of peoples around the world with a less calculating sense of the passage of time. He was looking for temporal measures that were still deeply embedded in human action. In Madagascar, there was a word that designated "the time it takes to cook rice" and another for the moment it took to "roast a locust". In Burma, there were monks who started the day "when there is light enough to see the veins in the hand". In the English language, Thompson found linguistic markers closer to home: there were once such things as "a pater noster wyle", "a misere whyle", and there there had survived a rarefied measurement known as "a pissing while".

Summer breeze—
a pint of blueberries
from the store

Sunday, June 05, 2016

Tyler Cowen's Good and Plenty

As the subtitle "The Creative Successes of American Arts Funding" suggests, Tyler Cowen defends the decentralized approach to arts funding adopted by the USA against the more centralized approach of the European states. The defense is, to my mind, thoughtful and thorough. Thoughtful because it takes into account both aesthetic and political claims, not over-stating either, but exposing excessiveness where he sees it. Thorough because it examines the long history and the contemporary context of American arts funding. The only caveat here is that the book was published in 2006, and so its data and findings need updating. The update is unlikely to overturn the book's conclusion.

The decentralization argument, or the use of indirect subsidies instead of direct subsidies, is the core of Cowen's thesis. It helps to answer not only the demand for more arts funding coming from the arts community, but also the demand for less funding, arising from Christian critics of immoral art and libertarian critics of coercion. By decentralizing arts funding, society does not place the impossible responsibility on the state to define what is art, and to decide what is worthy of funding. Instead, society provides for different ideas of art, and therefore encourages innovation and creativity. How Cowen phrases the decentralization argument has particular relevance to Singapore, with its top-down, centralized approach to arts policy and funding:

In some areas of human life, we learn by amassing the cooperation of "the best and the brightest" through centralized institutions. The Manhattan Project proceeded this way in its later stages. Or if we wish to study quarks, it may be best to invest heavily in a single, high-powered particle smasher (though not all scientists agree on the cost-effectiveness of this approach). 
Other endeavors require more decentralization. Artistic discovery, for instance, is rarely a matter of brute force, or amassing enough laborers to work on perfecting a single technology. Rather we are hoping that the artist can "look at things differently" and see something that others have not. To make this happen, the artist must have the ability to market his or her vision to a diverse set of consumers, donors, and funders. It is unlikely that any single source of support will grasp the important of all these innovations. Creativity flourishes when many different visions have a chance of succeeding. 
Along these lines, we can view arts funding as a portfolio or investment problem. In most cultural markets, if we are trying to pick tomorrow's winners, we cannot forecast in advance what will work. In this regards cultural markets resemble Internet start-up firms or classic R & D problems. A few tries will hit it big, and many more will fail. In this kind of environment it makes sense to try many different approaches, rather than put all our eggs in one basket. 
The American system helps generate artistic innovations, encourages new ways of marketing and distribution, and supports competing critical visions for artistic contributions. In essence, the American system satisfies the "Hayekian" standard that institutions should support the generation and dissemination of knowledge. Austrian economist Friedrich A. Hayek emphasized "competition as a discovery procedure" in many of his writings, and stressed the inability of a central authority to plan discovery. Entrepreneurs have opportunities to test their diverse visions in a setting with many different sources of financial support. 
Hayek's argument has often been viewed as a plea for laissez-faire, but a look at arts policy belies the necessity of that interpretation. In reality, the argument implies that we should have many decentralized sources for producing and evaluating ideas. This may or may not imply laissez-faire, depending on the institutional setting. Both tax-breaks for knowledge-producing institutions and a publicly subsidized university system may encourage decentralization, to provide two examples. American arts policy uses government to induce a more decentralized pattern of financial support than would arise through pure laissez-faire.  
These policies do not imply that investments in the arts, relative to alternatives, yield especially high social returns. We should not think in terms of subsidizing the arts at the expense of other activities, or giving the arts special status. Rather we should think of American policy as encouraging decentralization for all creative activities, the arts included. 
In this regards the development and decentralization arguments are distinct. The development argument asserts that the arts bring net economic advantage at the relevant margin. The decentralization approach seeks the greatest possible chance of generating, at the margin, whatever brings the greatest net economic advantage. 
Most deliberate governmental attempts to stimulate the discovery process have failed, and for reasons that Hayek and other economists have outlined. Government does not have the knowledge needed to centrally plan innovation. To provide one well-known example, after the energy crisis of the 1970s, the U.S. government subsidized research into alternative energy sources, such as synfuels and solar energy. The end result was wasted money and little or no net technological progress with energy conservation. The government had no idea which energy-saving technologies were going to be the winners. Most improvements in energy efficiency have come from market-based institutions, encouraged by a desire to save money or to earn a profit from a new technology. 
Governments usually stimulate discovery best when they eschew central planning, instead providing support according to some non-market criteria. This approach does not require that government can do an especially good job of picking winners, or that government is smarter than the market. It requires only that government distributes support according to some principle differing from what is already available. The real question is not whether decentralization is beneficial in today's world, but rather how we should encourage decentralization at the margin. 

Cowen goes on to argue why we should support decentralization by giving one aesthetic and two economic reasons. From the aesthetic perspective, more art is desirable and so we should invest in the preconditions of quality art, namely diverse sources of financial support. The second reason, from the economic viewpoint, is that art, like information, is a public good and involves a positive externality. The last reason, also economic, is that extant analyses suggest that entrepreneurs undersupply variety to consumers. I think of how literary festivals all over the world recycle the same few writers. To increase variety, we should support a variety of arts funding.

Cowen defines indirect subsidies, the tool of decentralization, very broadly. They take the form of tax breaks as well as subsidies to organizations not usually or solely considered arts-related, such as the military, which commissions and buys art, and the public university, which sponsors artists and art programs.

At the end of the book, Cowen asks what vision of arts and arts funding will command wide public adherence, offer the possibility of inspiration, and mesh with American politics, economics and religious beliefs. Without a Goethe or a Shakespeare, the USA could and should look to a set of values, Cowen suggests, for its guiding myth. He nominates three values as cultural central to the liberal vision of his book:

1. Innovation
As a culture we should value and reward the ability of individuals, including artists, to strike out on new paths. Openness to innovation is commonly perceived as an American value, relative to the attitudes of other countries. 
2. Entrepreneurship
As a culture Americans recognize and admire the ability of ambitious individuals, including artists, to change the world for the better. Often we refer to these individuals as entrepreneurs. We seek, however imperfectly, to maximize opportunities for these individuals. 
3. Charity and Generosity
Americans are the most generous private donors in the world, including to the arts. As outlined in chapter 2, they have given time, money, energy, and vision to the nonprofit sector in unprecedented magnitudes. Furthermore this attachment to charity is rooted deeply in American culture.

Similar to America in so many ways, Singapore can do worse than to adopt these three values for its vision of the arts and arts funding. To the skeptics of Singaporean charity and generosity, I venture to say that the present niggardly situation is new to Singapore, and that it has been brought about by decades of relentless economics-only development. Before our time, Singaporean arts philanthropy from the elites and masses was prevalent. The tremendous financial support for the setting up of Nantah (a form of indirect subsidy for the arts) was one prominent instance. Our current situation is the result of mistaken engineering, and with some ingenuity it can be reversed.

Thanks, Winston, for getting me the book.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Self-Propelled Island

Two Fridays ago, went gallery hopping with VM not in Chelsea, but on the Upper East Side. Saw a retrospective of David Hammons, the foremost African American conceptualist artist, at Mnuchin Gallery. The most striking work was his Basketball Chandeliers. Also saw portraits and landscapes by Jean-Michel Basquiat, including four paintings of cows and goats. We ended up at the Met, to look at Turner's whaling pictures, before having a drink at the gallery bar.


TLS April 8, 2016

from Pippa Goldschmidt's review of Jules Verne's The Self-Propelled Island, translated by Marie-Therese Noiset:

By contrast, in The Self-Propelled Island, published much later, in 1895, this optimism is tempered with a greater sense of realism; now technology is primarily an enabler of hubris. The novel is set in an apparent utopia; a vast island inhabited only by millionaires which floats around the Pacific, hardly ever needing to dock in its home country of the United States. Only the very rich can afford to live on this island and the initial descriptions quantify the financial value of all the trappings. From this, one might hope for a more satirical edge to the story, especially as it is told through the eyes of outsiders: four penniless French musicians kidnaped on the island and held, initially at least, against their will. Too quickly, however, they accept their loss of liberty and fall in love with the luxury on offer.

TLS April 22 2016

from "Acting on instinct: Dublin, Shakespeare and the 'radical improvisers' of the Easter Rising" by Declan Kiberd:

Men make the world, sighed Karl Marx, but not in conditions of their own choosing. Every so often, however, there is a rebellion not only against the authorities but also against the given conditions, whose ineluctability may no longer be taken as read. At such moments of extreme innovation, Marx added, people anxiously conjure up ghosts from the past. Just as Hamlet, on the verge of insurrection, summoned the ghost of his father, so did the French Revolutionaries of 1789 cast themselves as resurrected Roman democrats .... The immensity of the new departure seemed unutterable, most of all to those who wished to utter it--and so they soothed themselves, as well as their audiences, with images from the past. But, like Hamlet, they also had "that within which passeth show". Impulse-ridden, praisers of rashness, they sought to give voice to a desire so deeply buried within them as to be scarcely conscious of itself as such. They adopted the pose of insurgents, in order to find out what might happen next. 
The only way to be original was to go back to origins: reculer pour mieux sauter. The Irish knew that the classic texts of the past which they "quoted"--from Homer to Shakespeare--contained an intellectual surplus, indicating the contours of the future. Like all visionaries, their innovative intellectuals emitted the light by which they became visible; and they created the thinking according to which their actions would become comprehensible. And, at that point, when their success in changing things made them seem less and less original, they lost their high definition. As subsequent historical accounts adduced clear causes and gave the look of inevitability to what they had done, they began to seem derivative and dull, rather than the radical improvisers that they surely were.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

David Hare's The Judas Kiss

Watched Rupert Everett in David Hare's play The Judas Kiss last night at Bam Harvey, and thought he was mesmerizing. We were too far away to see facial expressions, but the posturing, the collapse, the eloquence, came together for a terrific effect. The production, directed by Australian Neil Armfield, was first presented at Hampstead Theatre in London in 2012. The play itself juxtaposes two very different halves. The first, taking place in a London hotel room, is frenetic, as Wilde faces the prospect of imminent arrest, and is urged by his lover Bosie to stay and fight the prosecution, and by his good friend Robbie to flee into exile. It climaxes with the arrival of the police. The second half takes place in Naples, after Wilde's imprisonment and release, and it has the sadness of the aftermath of sex. The erotics of the play's construction is deliberate, of course. The first half opens with interrupted coitus between the bellboy (a dishy Elliot Balchin) and the chambermaid (funny Jessie Hills); the second half opens with the satiated bodies of Bosie (a shouty Charlie Rowe) and his Neapolitan fisherman Galileo (Tom Colley beautifully naked throughout). Cal MacAninch was a fine Robert Ross. Alister Cameron plays the hotel owner Sandy Moffat with the right, and saving, touch of dignified service.

Thursday, May 26, 2016


Make a home
of an old carriage house?
Make a tea house!


Over the scaffold
by the side of the girls' school
a big butterfly net

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Monday, May 23, 2016

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Vicente L Rafael's Motherless Tongues

Thought-provoking essays on post-colonialism, neo-colonialism, translation, and the insurgency of language. Looking at the Philippines at the time of its Revolution, American occupation, and "People Power" II, and at the USA after 9/11, Rafael traces the attempts by colonial and neo-colonial powers to master translation in order to subjugate local populace. Each time he shows that the powers fail because of the insurgency of language, that which cannot be translated. Particularly interesting to me is the idea of the radical welcome that Revolution shows to the Other. Also fascinating is the failure of American schooling to eradicate Tagalog and other vernacular idioms and accents. The Introduction speaks eloquently of the suppression of other languages in order to speak and write in scholarly English. The final essays on Filipino scholars--Renato Rosaldo and Reynaldo Ileto--are appreciative of their achievements while remaining alert to their limitations. Of the latter's historical and autobiographical works, Rafael writes:

By contrast, the linguistic play evinced in Pasyon and Revolution between Tagalog and English, as I have suggested, speaks to the possibility of leveling hierarch. Rey gives a compelling explication in English of peasant movements as political projects intimately tied to ethical norms sustained by a messianic sense of history. But in doing so he also makes clear that the specificity of their thoughts and actions can be grasped only in and through Tagalog. The juxtaposition of the two languages, English and Tagalog, thus allows for the opening of worlds hitherto invisible to "us." The autobiography, however, moves in a different direction. Recounting life as a series of struggles against authority figures, the autobiography betrays an investment in hierarchy whether by way of a self commemorating an absence presence--the young "I," the silent mother--or a self overcoming the other that comes before it, in all senses of that word, whether it be a professor, another author, or one's own father. There is, then, the sense that autobiography forecloses the possibilities raised in Pasyon. The book speaks of a kind of unfinished social revolution evinced on the level of language and translation. The autobiography, however, deploys a gendered optic that conventionalizes the process of transformation, substituting social revolution with a narrative of generational masculine succession. (page 187)

Friday, May 13, 2016

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Arts Entrepreneurship Awards and Haiku

Last night attended Fractured Atlas's Arts Entrepreneurship Awards at the Jerome L. Greene Performance Space in Tribeca. The five awardees worked in the different fields of Indian dance, independent theater, on-line sketchbooks, activist museum curation, and ... I did not understand what the last one was about. The most interesting idea was Flux Theater Ensemble's Living Wage ticket scheme. Tickets to their productions are free. They tell the audience the different budgets for paying actors and crew a minimum wage and a living wage, and people pay what they wish on their way out. They have had more audience and more payments since the launch of the scheme. SLF events in September will be free and open to the public. This makes the important point that everyone is welcomed. I'm thinking, however, of asking the audience to contribute whatever they can afford towards the writers' next work. They can make a donation on their way out too. Last week I also had the idea of giving the audience extracts of the writers' work before the event begins. This will give them a chance to read the writing on the page before hearing the authors, and so encourage greater interaction between audience and authors. Each festival program can hold an extract from a different author, so the audience can swap and talk among themselves too.


Looking down Park
all the way to MetLife
sparrow between spikes

I bow my head before the sun
the sun falls sprawling at my feet

Thursday, May 05, 2016

Now an E-book

Steep Tea is now available as an e-book around the world! The formatting looks a little wonky in the preview, but I've been assured by the publishers that the actual e-book looks good.

Last night, read for the NY Lambda Finalists' Reading at Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art. Good turnout. WL, WKN, YW, and AH came. WKN brought a friend who found my book in the Union Square Barnes & Noble. I especially enjoyed hearing Chinelo Okparanta read from her Nigerian novel Under the Udala Trees. I thought the audience was very attentive when I read "Attribution" and "Hub Caps as Big as Ashtrays." Wanted to distance myself just a little from the atmosphere of tribalism in the event, so stressed my Singaporean origins and biases.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Motherless Tongues and Haiku

Last night at Asian American Writers' Workshop, I heard Leila Chudori read from her newly translated novel Home, followed by Vicente Rafael reading from Benedict Anderson's memoir A Life Beyond Boundaries. The discussion was moderated by Gina Apostol. Rafael, a former student of Anderson's, and Professor of History at the University of Washington, was really sharp. In his reading, he put together a collage of extracts that focused on the role of luck in a life. According to Rafael, Anderson once noted that "luck" does not appear in the index at the back of any scholarly book: it is outside the boundaries of academic inquiry. If Benedict was not expelled from Indonesia for contradicting the Suharto regime's explanation of the 1965 massacre, he would not have lived in Thailand and the Philippines, and written his innovative comparative study on nationalism, Imagined Communities. During the Q&A, Rafael explained Anderson's ideas very succinctly in response to questions sometimes pedantic, sometimes vague. I'm now reading his book Motherless Tongues: The Insurgency of Language amid the Wars of Translation. The Introduction, titled "The Aporia of Translation," is beautifully written, almost poetic.


With these four haiku, I conclude the NaPoWrMo.

The coffee maker
hissing like distant gunfire
end of the month

all the green growing
lush pigment

the police siren
the bird resists arrest

Spring 2016
a book of selected poems
or a brief history?

Friday, April 29, 2016

Forgery and Haiku

TLS March 4 2016

From Nick Groom's review of Oscar Wilde's Chatterton: Literary history, Romanticism and the art of forgery by Joseph Bristow and Rebecca Mitchell:

But it was [Theodore] Watt's model of immersive and untrammelled creativity that appealed most to Wilde: "by the artist's yearning to represent", Watts wrote, "if perfect representation seemed to him to demand forgery, he needs must forge". 
The "Chatterton" notebook is, then, a "crucible" in which Wilde explored the ideas that would shape his subsequent works and theory of the artist, serving as the epitome of the inextricability of life and work, and affirming the overriding important of Paterian "personality".... Among the first of Wilde's own comments is the claim that Chatterton's life and work are inseparable: "Without a full comprehension of his life the secret of his literature is not revealed". Wilde was attracted to Chatterton's exploitation of "the links between imagination, authenticity, and truth" that forged an "artistic originality ... in fabrications that conjured a literary past that historically never existed". He was super-creative, the ultimate artist, and enabled Wilde to show that "all artistic creation is an act of forgery". 
Similarly, "The Portrait of Mr. W. H." (1889), Wilde's fantasia on Shakespeare's Sonnets, extends forgery to the heart of the literary canon by drawing inspiration from the shenanigans of the "second Chatterton", William Henry Ireland, as well as the later Victorian editor-forger John Payne Collier. Bristow and Mitchell's impressively subtle reading of "The Portrait of Mr. W. H." reveals its criss-crossing layers of representation: an ekphrastic narrative of a forged portrait of the non-existent "Wille Hughes", supposed dedicatee of the Sonnets, who is conjured into being through a combination of textual criticism, historical scholarship and imaginative vision. Once traced in this way, the boy-actor Hughes then acts as the conductor of homoerotic desire in the text. The Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 had made any sexual relations between men illegal, but in a teasing denial (or protraction) of homoeroticism the narrative of "The Portrait" repeatedly discloses that Willie Hughes, the male object of infatuation, is a fake.


Bright birdcall
unstitches every seam
the old woman looks up

Ice clinking in the water bottle
blood flows
blood clots

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Marlon James's A Brief History of Seven Killings

It should be impossible to understand and empathize with this frightening cast of monsters, but it is not. Herein lies Marlon James's brilliance. I was crushed when Weeper died. I was overwhelmed when Josey Wales self-destructed by shooting up a crack house.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Truth, Endeavor, and Haiku

I've not been recording the movies I had watched. Shame on me. Last weekend, two interesting ones, well worth recording. 2015 Truth, directed by James Vanderbilt, is, as imdb has it, "Newsroom drama detailing the 2004 CBS 60 Minutes report investigating then-President George W. Bush's military service, and the subsequent firestorm of criticism that cost anchor Dan Rather and producer Mary Mapes their careers." Cate Blanchett was terrific as Mary Mapes, as was Robert Redford as Dan Rather. That was Friday, and on Sunday, we were completely charmed by Shaun Evans's cerebral and isolated Inspector Morse in made-for-TV Masterpiece Mystery's Endeavor, written by Inspector Lewis creator and Inspector Morse writer Russell Lewis.


Pale daffodils
poor wandering things
the souls of emperors

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Nothing Important Happened Today

Read for the New York Writers Workshop at the Red Room with Sudeep Sen, Ravi Shankar, and Claudia Serea last Thursday. Good turnout, thanks to the strong promotional efforts by the organizer Tim Tomlinson. Claudia Serea's poems, from Nothing Important Happened Today, were very appealing in their lyrical directness and imaginative shifts. Born in Romania, she fled the country after the only violent revolution in Communist Europe.

At a poetry reading—
ice melting
in a steel basin


Sweet sweet sweet
rises from the swamp
into a yellow warbler

Composing haiku
relieves the hemorrhoids
a happy waste of time

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Uprooted and Leafless

Uprooted by Naomi Novik is a fairy tale for adults, or very mature children. It describes terrible evil: the annual sacrifice of a girl by a village to its lord called Dragon; the corruption of people and animals by the nearby Wood; the entombment of a wife with her dead husband, war's bloody results; and genocide. It subjects ancient myths to modern scrutiny, and so achieves a voice that is both contemporary and timeless. The pacing of the story is relentless, with wonderful set pieces, such as a fight with a monster in the king's palace, and the siege of a wizard's tower. The ending tries to do too much, I think, torn between the marital and the sisterly stories. The origin of the Wood's evil requires too much explanation. Still, Uprooted is very worth reading. Novik is a born storyteller.


From a leafless tree
dangle five long seed pods
all uncircumcised

Monday, April 18, 2016

Monotypes, Moules, and Morning Light

On Sunday, GH and I went to the MoMA. He wanted to see the exhibition on Japanese architecture: "A Japanese Constellation: Toyo Ito, SANAA, and Beyond." I find architectural shows very unsatisfying. The models, plans, drawings, and projections cannot convey the sense of space that must be experienced on-site. I lack 3-D spatial imagination, I suppose. The only architectural show I really enjoyed was the one on Corbusier.

I really enjoyed the show on Degas's monotypes. Beautiful, striking surfaces achieved: the shimmer of water, the lushness of hair, the hatchings of curtains. The bathing nudes were spectacular. When two impressions are made, one directly after another, they are called cognates. Good name, that. Degas would make two impressions, instead of the usual one, and color the second one with pastel. He also experimented with dark field and light field printing. In the first, black ink was applied to the whole metal plate, and then removed, with a roll of sponge, a finger, the wooden tip of a brush, to create the image. The second is the opposite, in which the image is drawn in black ink on the clean plate. Degas used both techniques in some of his most ambitious print works.

We also saw the Marcel Broodthaers retrospective. Born a Belgian, he was a poet before he became an artist, and even after he turned to art, never left his fascination with text and wordplay. He drew inspiration from Magritte (This is not a pipe.) and from the French symbolists, such as Mallarmé. I liked his sculpture of a pot of mussels, the lid lifted by the abundance of the shellfish. The sculpture was repeated in various permutations and formats throughout his career, together with his use of eggshells. Moules means both mussels and molds. I also liked his mussel paintings, in which canvases in different shapes are covered with the emptied shells bearing a tint of green, blue or yellow. The work is limited in its aims and execution, but interesting, nevertheless.


Morning light
rich as an avocado
the earth a seed

Why drive? You will miss
the connotations of light

Friday, April 15, 2016

New York Writers Workshop Reading

Mark your NYC calendar. I'm reading with Ravi Shankar and Claudia Serea at Red Room (above KGB Bar), 85 East 4th Street, Thursday, April 21, 7:00 PM. The event is organized by the New York Writers Workshop. Its indefatigable leader Tim Tomlinson has put our poems on these beautiful images. Enjoy, and then come and enjoy more with us.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

The Delancey and Haiku

Last night I read for the "Writers with Drinks" variety show at the Delancey. Organized by Charlie Jane Anders, the show featured a comedian (Aparna Nancherla), a fabulist (Charlie Jane Anders), a futurist (Annalee Newitz), a fantasist (Naomi Novik), a novelist (Colson Whitehead), and me, the poet. It was enormously entertaining, and the audience lapped it all up. Charlie Jane gave such whacky and inventive introductions to everyone that I was encouraged to crack a couple of jokes during my reading, something I had never done before.


Unscrew the moon
and pour out from the sky
more moon

Wednesday, April 13, 2016


Last night BV and I attended a talk at Jefferson Market Library to commemorate the upcoming 50th anniversary of an early instance of gay activism in New York City.

"Fifty years ago a person could be refused service in a bar simply for being gay, and his or her mere presence there could result in the bar’s closure by the State Liquor Authority. On April 21, 1966, Dick Leitsch and other members of the Mattachine Society, an early LGBT rights organization, staged the now famous Sip-In at Julius’ bar in the Village to challenge this “legal” discrimination. After they announced to the bartender that they were homosexuals and wished to be served, they were refused service. The event generated publicity and was one of the earliest acts of organized LGBT civil disobedience in New York City. Scholars of LGBT history consider the Sip-In at Julius’ as a key event leading to the growth of legitimate LGBT bars and the development of the bar as the central social space for urban LGBT New Yorkers" (from the website of the Greenwich Village Society for Historical Preservation, the organizer of the event).

One of the three men, Dick Leitsch, was present and spoke touchingly, and humorously, about the nearly accidental way in which he became an activist. Originally from Kentucky, all he wanted to do was to find love, sex, and domesticity, but was drawn into the Mattachine Society for its sociability. At some point, enough was enough, and as the 29-year-old President of the society masterminded the 'sip-in'. Also present were Andrew Dolkart, Ken Lustbader, and Jay Shockley of the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project who talked about  their recent efforts to have the site, and others important to LGBT history, designated a NYC landmark. Only NYC Landmark Designation can ensure the preservation of the site and prevent demolition or inappropriate alterations.

You can support their efforts:

1. Send a letter calling for NYC Landmark Designation for Julius' - go to

2. Buy a high-quality glossy estate stamped silver gelatin print of the Julius' 'Sip-in' by Fred W. McDarrah, with proceeds supporting the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.

Monday, April 11, 2016


a small bar of soap
a rabbit's foot

as if I am not in the room
one thrush to another

Saturday, April 09, 2016

Diary and Haiku

Met Michelle Cahill last night, finally, after years of exchanging emails and following one another's work. With her, James Byrne and Sandeep, and their friends Samantha and her husband. Vivek completed the party at the NYU reading and afterwards dinner at Rasa.


Early Chinese Literature
the cover the patina
of a copper church steeple

Thursday, April 07, 2016

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Suicide and Haiku

TLS February 19, 2016

from Amia Srinivasan's review of Simon Critchley's Notes on Suicide:

Most interesting is the suicide that heeds Seneca's dictum that the wise man "lives as long as he ought, not as long as he can". George Eastman, founder of Eastman Kodak, shot himself in the heart, leaving behind the note: "To my friends: my work is done. Why wait?" Hunter S. Thompson apparently felt that late was better than never: "67. 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring . . . 67, you're getting greedy. Act your old sage. Relax. This won't hurt". Critchley admires this sort of end, sober and unentitled. But he is attracted most of all to suicide done for no apparent reason, as a leap into the absurd. He quotes approvingly from Edouard Levé's novel Suicide (Levé turned in the manuscript ten days before hanging himself): "Your death was scandalously beautiful".


Over the rocks
the fall of water froze
forsythia pours

Sunday, April 03, 2016

Saturday, April 02, 2016


Doing Poetry Writing Month again. Yesterday's and today's poems.

Birdcall in the spring--

Milk and blood
the cherry tree holds up
without dripping

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

San Francisco March 2016

San Francisco is a palimpsest of memories for me. Visiting the first time with my first boyfriend WL, I was so excited to stroll down the famous Castro, browse at City Lights, and then, less usually, have dim sum in Daly City with WL's friend D. My second visit was with TH, my second boyfriend, who loved walking about the city too. The sharpest memories of that trip was dancing at Badlands and the tour of Napa Valley in a mini-bus, returning to the city on a ferry. I flew out a third time, on a crazy impulse, to meet someone whom I got to know on-line. JES managed a cafe in Westfield Shopping Mall, and I read a book in the cafe until he knocked off from work. He drove us down the coast where I saw seals playing in the Pacific Ocean. The fourth visit was with GH. In the city we visited art galleries, hotel lobbies, and a great architectural bookshop, and out of the city we stayed in Napa Valley, a first for me.

I visited SF for the fifth time with a decided mix of emotions. I was there to read from my new book Steep Tea, and to meet friends of the SF poet Justin Chin, who died last December. Justin was born in Malaysia and grew up in Singapore. He left Singapore for the States after his "A" levels, and in San Francisco created an admired body of work, consisting of poetry, essays, stories, and performance art. On the day I arrived, I had a reading at Modern Times Book in the historic Mission District. The turnout was minuscule and yet brought together different threads of my life. Kevin Killian was a friend of Justin's and I was very glad to meet him. I had so many questions to ask him, but none appropriate for a public, and social, event, such as a reading is. I read four poems by Justin, and could feel his kinetic style altering my usually more measured delivery. Afterwards Kevin said that it was interesting for him to hear Justin's work in another voice. Present too were JB and BD, whom GH and I met in Spain last summer. ML was visiting SF from NYC too, and brought with her a group of Singaporeans, including her fiance T. ML and T joined us at a leather bar after dinner, and we were a little surprised that the good-looking couple was so comfortable there. ML let out that they loved going to gay clubs in London when she was there as an art student.

GH arrived after midnight, and the next day, a Friday, we walked along the Embarcadero, into North Beach, looking into City Lights on the way. We had evening drinks with JB and BD at their lovely home above the Castro, and found the time with them as easy and relaxing as before in Sitges. The next day, GH and I visited the very fine Asia Museum, and saw a a great collection of Buddhist and Hindu sculptures. A lion-faced Tibetan god, radically balanced on one leg, made me think of connections to Simha, Simba, and Singa. We did some shopping in the Hayes Valley. In the evening, I did my reading for Nomadic Press out in Oakland. The founding editor JK Fowler had moved with his husband from Brooklyn. He had the best hug in the world, an embrace as comfortable as a a familiar armchair. I was very pleased to hear the songs of Hassan El-Tayyab, who is half-Bedouin, and fronts a band called American Nomad. Hassan had a beautiful voice. Soma Mei Sheng Frazier, freshly published by Nomadic, read two stories from her book Salve. The second story, about a child born with an ugly appearance, was particularly moving. It wove together make-believe and harsh reality in a convincing manner. After the reading, I headed back to SF and joined GH and his Cincinnati friend DSC for a drink at The Edge in Castro.

On Easter Sunday, most shops were closed. We took a bus to Richmond and had a good dim sum at Hong Kong Lounge. The same bus took us to Land's End, where the Ocean dashed itself into spray. GH was particularly pleased to visit Cliff House, a former hotel, now turned into a tourist attraction with bistro and cafe, and stunning views. We returned in time to watch "The Realistic Joneses" by Will Eno at the American Conservatory Theater. Thanks to DSC, we had great seats in the orchestra. Eno has been hailed as "a Samuel Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation," which sounded to me like a backhanded compliment. The play was concerned about the slips and gaps in language, but they were naturalized to some extent by a physical malady that both husbands shared. The script was clever and moving in many places, but never quite touched rock bottom as Beckett does.

GH flew home the next day, and I made my way to the Mission District, to kill time before my evening reading at SF State University. At Alley Cat Books, I bought Marlon James's A Brief History of Seven Killings and was soon sucked into its Jamaican world of gang warfare and Cold War politics. Dodie Bellamy was my host at SFSU, and she is also Kevin's wife and a distinguished essayist. The reading series "Writers on Writing" is aimed at both undergrads and grads, so I faced a quite diverse audience. I read from Steep Tea, of course, and ended with a short story by Justin Chin called "Quietus." The Q&A afterwards was engaging. The students had read my book beforehand and came with questions about my writing in general but also about specific poems. One young woman, who looked Muslim, told me that after she read the opening poem "Eve's Fault" she had to put down the book for a while, so moved was she. I was very touched by the remark, and very humbled. I knew the feeling, having had it many times in a lifetime of reading. It is the Grail of all true readers.

Richard Loranger came for the reading. He had been such a friend on this trip. He put me in touch with JK Fowler in the first place. After the SFSU reading, he and I went for a sushi dinner, and then back to his place in Oakland. After a refreshing sleep, I was more communicative, and we had a wonderful morning talking about poetry, the Oakland literary scene, the idea of the individual, and how to take care of plants. He made me breakfast and sent me away with his chapbook 6 Questions, which ends with a gorgeous sonnet about watching a swan dive suddenly after a fish.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Poem: I Sought a Theme

I Sought a Theme 

I won’t, I won’t, be 46, I’d rather be 47.
46 is divisible into
2 x 13, who would wish the world
twice the evil.

No parade for you, says my lover,
no fat man playing the tuba, no skinny man playing the trombone,
no Splash boys dancing on a float
lowering their hips into your face
down Fifth Avenue
if you won’t be 46.

I’d rather be 47.
It has a nice ring to it.
4 sounds like death in Cantonese, and 7
rhymes with heaven.
Take away your trombone player, take away your tuba player.
Take away the dancing boys and the dancing hips.
I will go down Fifth Avenue by my self
as if it is a ladder.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Reading at Queens Central Library

The library was a long way away from Manhattan. It was near the 169th Street stop on the F line. That made it further than the train stop for JFK airport. Still, I was curious to see that part of Queens, and it was very nice of Micah Eaton Zevin to invite me to read. When I walked through the front doors, the library looked like any other library. Then I took an elevator down to the basement and entered a maze of hallways looking forbiddingly institutional. When I finally entered the lecture hall, there were only a few souls there. When the open mic began, there were about 12 people scattered in the very large hall. Two young African American girls had wandered into the reading. Perhaps one of them did not wander but made it look as if she did. She signed up for the open-mic. Her friend, dressed like a boy, did not know what to make of the gathering. She told Micah that she did not like reading. When it was Girl One's turn to read, she read a sweet little poem for her tomboy companion, describing their friendship as a "miracle." Her example emboldened Girl Two, who went up the stage, got behind the podium, and read a poem from her phone. She was a natural. Speaking of their bond, she said, and I paraphrase badly, that when you cut yourself on the wrist once, I feel the cut twice. After my reading, they wandered over to me, and Girl Two asked me, are you famous? I was nonplussed and could only get out, not yet. Then, maybe in some circles. They did not look impressed or non-impressed, but just silently digested the information. I told them how much I enjoyed hearing their poems. I was very pleased when an older white woman bought my book. I am always most pleased when a stranger buys my book after hearing me read. It's one of the sincerest gestures that I know of.

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Lambda Finalist

Steep Tea is a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award! The announcement was made yesterday. Very pleased and proud to be in the company of Carl Phillips and Nicholas Wong.

Friday, March 04, 2016

2nd Singapore Literature Festival in NYC, Sep 28 - 30, 2016

Dear Friends,

We are excited to announce the return of Singapore Literature Festival in New York City. The theme this year is Singapore Unbound. Started in 2014, the biennial festival brings together Singaporean and American authors for in-depth conversations about literature and society. The inaugural festival, attended by more than 500 people, was very warmly received. Attendees formed personal connections to the writers whom they heard. This year we aim to raise USD15 000 for the festival and we ask you to consider making a generous gift.

The 2nd Singapore Literature Festival in NYC will be held from September 28 – 30, 2016. Award-winning authors Alfian Sa’at and Ovidia Yu will fly from Singapore to New York to present their trailblazing fiction, poetry, and plays. They will be joined by Singaporean and American authors and artistes based in the US, including Jessica Hagedorn, Gina Apostol, Naomi Jackson, Jeremy Tiang, Marcus Yi, Mei-Ann Teo, and Jason Wee. Our partners Hunter College, New York University, Adelphi University, and Asia Society will be co-presenting readings and discussions. All events are free and open to the public.

Your donation is essential in making this festival a reality. We are an independent, volunteer-run festival and depend wholly on private contributions from donors passionate about literature. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation in the next 30 days. Your support means everything to us. Your donation will help pay for festival expenses, such as writers’ airfares, venue rentals, and publicity efforts. Beyond the festival, your donation will also help sustain the Second Saturdays Reading Series, a regular platform in NYC for the reading of Singapore and American literatures.

There are two easy ways to donate:

1. You can donate by credit card online at the link below:

2. If you prefer, you can also donate by check. Please send contributions to Jee Leong Koh, 47 W 86th Street, Apt. 2R, New York, NY 10024, USA. Checks should be made payable to “Fractured Atlas,” with “Singapore Literature Festival in NYC” in the memo line.

Singapore Literature Festival in NYC is a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a nonprofit arts service organization. Contributions for the charitable purposes of Singapore Literature Festival in NYC must be made payable to “Fractured Atlas”only and are taxdeductible to the extent permitted by law.

We also appreciate matching gifts, non-cash or in-kind donations. If you would like to get more involved, we are looking for volunteers to help run the festival events. You could also help by spreading the word about this fundraising appeal. Thank you in advance for your generous support.


Jee Leong Koh
Singapore Literature Festival in NYC

Giving Levels

$50 or more >> Backer
Your name on the festival website and in the festival program.

$100 or more >> Friend
A souvenir copy of the official festival program. Plus reward from previous tier.

$250 or more >> Supporter
A handwritten Singapore poem on a special postcard. Plus all rewards from previous tiers.

$500 or more >> Fan
A personally inscribed book by a festival author. Plus all rewards from previous tiers.

$1 000 or more >> Benefactor
A dedication to you in a new book by Jee Leong Koh, festival organizer and author of a Financial Times Best Book of 2015. Plus all rewards from previous tiers.

Donate by credit card online at the link below:


Sunday, February 28, 2016

Jessica Hagedorn's "Dogeaters"

Drawn from different sectors of Manila society in the 1950s, the characters in Dogeaters are so vividly drawn, so complexly animated, that they appear primed for the big screen that they love so much. Through their interactions, often indirect, Hagedorn lays bare the obsession with American glamor, the ruthless suppression of political dissent, the awkwardness of coming-of-age, the irrepressible yearning for love. The novel is artfully constructed with alternating points of views, supplemented with fabricated news reports and surrealistic dream sequences. The plot curves with great speed towards its denouement, a political assassination and its shattering consequences.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Roger Smith Annual Poetry Dinner

The Roger Smith Annual Poetry Dinner is held at the Roger Smith Hotel in Midtown East in the spirit of Scottish-American cultural exchange and in honor of a Scottish poet. The poet is usually returning from the Poetry Festival in Nicaragua, as I learned last night from the honored poet Gerrie Fellows. After the opening remarks by organizer Danika Druttman, Gerrie began the dinner by reading her lovely poems. The phrase "the grit and oil of matter" stayed with me. As the dinner continued, every guest read a poem he or she brought.

It was to be expected that the Scottish connection would be strong. One of the best poems of the evening was a witty parody of a Scottish ballad. More surprising was the international flavor of the evening. Two poets of Indian heritage read, as well as a woman from Mexico and a man from Peru, the latter two reading in Spanish. There was also a poet of African heritage; she did not say what part of Africa. Sitting across from me, as I discovered later in the evening, was one of the co-editors of the Penguin Book of Russian Poetry. Irina Mashinski was there with her husband, John, who introduced her as someone crazy about Scottish culture. Irina had read at the StAnza poetry festival, and co-edited the Penguin book with Boris Dralyuk, who teaches at St. Andrews. She gave me a quick preview of an upcoming lecture, about the myth of singularity in translation. The idea that there is one best word for another is particular strong in the Russian tradition, and Irina compared it to having one father, one Patriarch, one Tsar. She favors instead, a "variation," which she likened to jazz. She was a fascinating and intense conversationalist.

GH and I also enjoyed meeting a young poet Spencer Elliot, originally from Colorado, now lecturing on English literature at Brooklyn College. He read a good poem about his dad the car salesman. When the daughter of the hotel owners recited a Frank O'Hara poem, Spencer recited it too, just under his breath.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

HIV Here and Now

Michael Broder started the HIV Here and Now Project as a poem-a-day countdown to 35 years of AIDS on June 5, 2016. Yesterday I joined some contributors--Michael, Lonely Christopher, Guillermo Filice Castro, Debora Lidov and Sarah Sarai--to read our poems at the Bryant Park Word for Word poetry series in nearby Kinokuniya Bookstore. Michael suggested that I read a poem by John Humpstone from the project.

John Humpstone grew up on Long Island. After graduating from Pratt Institute, he became an interior designer and was one of the founders of Lexington Gardens, a design and garden store in Manhattan. A lifelong artist and writer and a lively conversationalist, he wrote this poem when he knew he was dying of AIDS, and left it behind unpublished. John died on June 23rd, 1996, a few days before his 40th birthday.


The fireflies who drifted on summer's evening
Warm and reassuring dark
And seemed to my young eyes a thousand
Tiny boats afloat on sunset's lapis sea
Called to us still playing hide and seek
To keep night's magic dancing in the air.....

Read the rest of the poem on the HIV Here and Now website.

After the reading I met Brad Vogel when he asked me to sign his copy of my book.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Alexander Chee's The Queen of the Night"

How many literary epics are also page-turners? The Queen of the Night is one of the very few. Intricate plotting, unforgettable characters, marvelous coincidences: this is life writ large on a huge canvas, covering frontier and urban America in the late nineteenth century, France in the last days of her Second Empire, and Bismarck's Prussia. Under all the historical bustle, however, is a story about love, what we are willing to give up and what not, for the sake of love. And though our very being yearns for freedom, we give ourselves up at every turn to chains. Turgenev, who appears in the novel in a reverential light, is the presiding spirit. In its sympathetic insight into women, The Queen of the Night pays a handsome tribute to the Russian master.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Nabokov's "Pale Fire"

A Game of the highest sort, but still only a game. The characters remain cartoonish figments of a madcap imagination, and do not acquire flesh and blood. There is no Lolita at stake here, only the idea of exile and the chimera of fame.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Writing Prompt

An imaginative writing prompt taking off from "Broccoli" in my book!

"Our prompt this week comes from Jee Leong Koh’s collection of poetry, “Steep Tea.” We’ve been going around the room in groups, reading the poem five or six times before stopping to talk about it. By doing so we create the mundane that the poem refers to. Then the prompt is to open with, “I think, I am going to get out of bed, and I…” And somewhere in the writing include “I watch myself…” It can be just once, or a repetition. Whatever you need. 20 minutes, loves. Watch yourself. If you don’t like what you see, make some changes."

Image from Seema Reza's blog

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Theater Week

Tuesday night, WL and I watched Pan Asian Repertory Theater's production of A Dream of Red Pavilions, adapted by Jeremy Tiang from the classic Chinese novel by Cao Xueqin. The set was beautiful and the period costumes stunning, but I could not shake off the feeling that it was strange watching and hearing Asian American actors speak in English with a mixture of Asian and American accents as members of the upper-class Jia clan in the Qing Dynasty. Things were not helped by the weak acting, most unfortunate in the case of the actor playing the teenage protagonist Bao Yu (Precious Jade). It was hard to see what was adorable about this celestial being reborn on earth. The actor with the strongest stage presence was the one playing the Fairy, the seductive Aunt, and the Emperor's concubine. Bold yet subtle in her delineation of each character, she lit up the stage each time she appeared.

Wednesday night, I watched a cabaret show titled The Way We Were at Joe's Pub at The Public Theater. The conceit was for each performer to show a video of himself when young and then respond to it on stage. I was there to support a friend and colleague in the show, as were other members of the audience, I presumed. The expensive pub was packed. TM, my friend, had the best script of the evening, witty and self-deprecating and literary without being too serious. The others ... I had not seen a less talented bunch of people on a NY stage. With one or two glimpses of color, they were all white, a succession of thirty-somethings, straight women and skinny gay guys, many of whom escaped from the suburbs to the "bohemia" of NYC. So much self-absorption on show. One performer made fun of the broken English of her Chinese veterinarian. The best of the lot was a woman from Australia, who sang in a faux-naive style a funny song about getting a green card. My server was a stunner. I just couldn't stop smiling at him as he served me first my Malbec and then my Syrah. He smiled back.

The week was saved by the Brooklyn Repertory Theater production of Anton Chekhov's Three Sisters. Playing in the tiny basement theater of 4th Street Theater, the production was a genuine downtown revelation. It was adapted and directed by Victor Cervantes Jr., and energized by an updated setting and a multi-racial cast. The ensemble acting was uniformly good, although special mention must be made of Anna Tempte's emotionally affecting turn as Masha, the second sister. Erick Betancourt as Colonel Vershinin, and Fabio Motta as Baron Tuzenbach were wholly convincing. The pacing in the first half of the play was exceptional, but it slackened somewhat in the second half. I had seen another production of the play in NYC years before, where all was dust and sadness, very poignant in its own way, but last night's performance was very moving for highlighting the shiny promise (all the actors were so young!) and its darkening.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Speaking for Itself

I do not recognize my book in this review in the QLRS.


TLS January 8 2016

from Karen Thomson's Stephanie W. Jamison and Joel P. Brereton's The Rig Veda: The earliest religious poetry of India, and Roberto Calasso's Ardor, translated by Richard Dixon:

As Rudolph Roth wrote over a century ago, "A translation must speak for itself. As a rule, it only requires a commentary where it is not directly convincing, and where the translator does not feel secure".


from Norma Clarke's review of Stephen Bernard's The Literary Correspondences of the Tonsons:

It was Tonson who began the pleasant practice of giving dinners to his authors when contracts were signed. He enjoyed the feasting and at the same time created a sense of obligation in his poets. Pope said he used flattery and food strategically: "Jacob creates poets, as kings sometimes do knights, not for their honour but for their money". Was he "genial Jacob" or avaricious? He was known for his gift-giving and also for his money-making. Dryden thanks him for two melons in the first line of his first letter here; others were treated to cider, wine, books.


TLS January 15 2016

Henri Astier's review of Pierre Boncenne's Le Parapluie de Simon Leys and Simon Leys' Quand Vous Viendrez Me Voir Aux Antipodes: Lettres a Pierre Boncenne and The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays:

As Lu Xun, Leys's favourite modern Chinese author, wrote: "If there are still men who really want to live in this world, they should dare to speak out, to laugh, to cry, to be angry, to accuse, to fight - that they may at least cleanse this accursed place of its accursed atmosphere!" 

A related theme often stressed by Leys is that of "Belgianness", the idea that coming from a small nation was the best safeguard against pomposity. Those born in a great country tend to think that its tradition encompasses the whole of human experience, and do not feel the need to look elsewhere. It is they, paradoxically, who are most at risk from provincialism. In an article on the "Belgianness of Henri Michaux," he noted that as a young man, the Walloon poet dared to mock both his native land and those countries he visited - an attitude typical of an outsider who does not take anything too seriously. But after moving to Paris, Michaux lost his levity: he was at the centre of the civilized world and could not question the prevailing orthodoxy. Leys, by contrast, continued to live on the periphery, and from Australia was able to hold on to his humble Belgianness. He regarded humour as an essential quality, and one that in no way precluded seriousness of purpose. Leys was fond of quoting G. K. Chesterton on the subject: "My critics think that I am not serious, but only funny, because they think that 'funny' is the opposite of 'serious'. But 'funny' is the opposite of 'not funny' and nothing else".

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Haiku and Singapore's Lies

So much snow
written off
by January


Lies, half-truths, excuses. At the UN's Universal Periodic Review, Chan Heng Chee defends discrimination against LGBTI people on behalf of the Singapore government: "... we treasure every Singaporean. LGBTI persons are part of our society. And we acknowledge their contributions, like we do for all our citizens. Let me say that Singapore is basically a conservative society. We have to manage such issues sensitively and in a pragmatic way without fracturing our society. Even in developed countries with more liberal societies, LGBT rights remain a divisive issue. We inherited the law on sodomy, Section 337A of the Penal Code from Britain, through the Indian Penal Code and the Straits Settlement Penal Code during our colonial history, but our position today is not to proactively enforce Section 377A. On October 2, 2007, there was a long and intense debate in Parliament on repealing 377A. Parliament eventually decided to retain the status quo. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made the following points. One, that Singapore is a conservative society. Two, it is better to accept the legal untidiness and ambiguity of leaving 377A as it is and not proactively enforce it. And three, it would not be wise to force the issue, to settle the matter one way or the other. In fact, LGBTI persons are free to lead their lives in Singapore. The Civil Service does not discriminate against LGBTI applicants. They hold an annual LGBT rights rally called Pink Dot, which was attended by more than 28 000 people last year, as reported in our national media. They are free to write and stage plays about LGBTI issues. And there are bars that are frequented by LGBTI persons. Our approach is to live and let live, and to preserve the common space for all communities in Singapore. We firmly oppose discrimination and harassment, and we have laws to protect our citizens from such acts. Our view is that our society should evolve gradually. Our population has to decide collectively, rather than the government decides one way or the other."

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Simon Critchley on David Bowie

"The technical proficiency of what he did with his voice, given his vocal range (he didn’t think his voice was good enough, back in the day), is often overlooked, the amount of time he spent in the studio just trying to get the right effect. Robert Fripp shares this story about watching Bowie in the studio, trying for hours to get his voice to match the emotion in the music. That’s complete artifice, complete inauthenticity, and yet he’s able to hit those feelings in a way no one else could. And what you feel when you hear that is something simply strong, powerfully true." The interview.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Nothing Outside But Everywhere

TLS December 18 & 25 2015

from Steven Nadler's review of Jon Miller's Spinoza and the Stoics:

Both Spinoza and the Stoics identified God with Nature and believed it to be the unique, immanent casual source of all things. Spinoza, however, rejects the Stoic idea that this "divine" power acts teleologically, and especially that it does what it does for the benefit of human beings. While the Stoics would agree with Spinoza that there is nothing outside of God or Nature that serves as a goal for its actions, Spinoza goes further and makes it absolutely clear that God (or Nature) does not act to achieve any ends or purposes whatsoever. 
With respect to moral psychology, Miller examines the striving for self-preservation that both the Stoics and Spinoza identify as the nature of any individual. He shows that, in fact, the ancient thinkers had the more complex view of this fundamental tendency, whereby it develops into an elevated pursuit of rationality and also leaves room for altruistically motivated actions; for Spinoza, on the other hand, actions are egotistically (or hedonistically) motivated. and the striving for self-preservation remains paramount throughout an individual's lifetime. 
Miller shows how both the Stoics and Spinoza are committed to the view that eudaimonia (variously translated as happiness, flourishing and living well, and consisting in the perfection of one's rational condition) is the summum bonum for human beings, even if there are differences regarding what such flourishing consists in.


TLS January 1 2016

from Carol Tavris's review of Laurence Scott's The Four-Dimensional Human: Ways of being in the digital world:

""It's astonishing to think how in the last twenty years the limits and coherence of our bodies have been so radically redefined", he observes. "We have an everywhereness to us now that inevitably alters our relationship to those stalwart human aspects of self-containment, remoteness and isolation. ... But "everywhereness" takes a toll, "for it can make life feel both oppressively crowded and, when its promise is wasted, uniquely solitary"." 
""It has become part of the rhythms of almost every waking hour to look for a word or a sign from elsewhere". Because "everywhereness" demands a blurring of here and there, it "can produce a sense of absenteeism, and the suspicion that, despite being in many places at once, we're not fully inhabiting any of them"."

Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Inspired Word

On Thursday night, I read from Steep Tea for The Inspired Word at Parkside Lounge, NYC. Thanks, Michael Geffner, for asking me to read and for taking these wonderful photos!

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Site Responsive

On Sunday, I trotted along to Marc Straus Gallery for the opening reception for Jong Oh's show. The Korean artist creates sculptures that plays off the space and light of a site. "Tenuous strings and shards of Plexiglas are pulled into form by small stones or metal pendulums tied almost invisibly to the 21-foot high ceiling," as the gallery website puts it. The sculptures were mostly boxy, either backed by a wall or hanging freely in space. Most impressive was the last work. Two rectangles made of string are suspended one on top of the other. Due to their subtly shaded coloration, they looked like pieces of glass. Walking under them gave me a terrifically uneasy feeling. The show was curated by gallery director Ken Tan.


On Monday, GH and I went to the Asia Society to hear architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien speak about their building of Asia Society Hong Kong. They transformed the Former Explosives Magazine Compound into a gleaming modern center for arts and culture. To avoid endangering the fruit bats native to the site, they angled their link-bridge into the shape of an elbow. The discussion was moderated by Alice Mong, the Executive Director of Asia Society Hong Kong. Asked about their complementarity as creators, Billie characterized Tod as restless and impatient of constraints whereas she was for the stillness and shelter within walls. The new Vice-President of Arts and Cultural Programming at NYC"s Asia Society, Tan Boon Hui, introduced the speakers with panache and concision. The hall on the eighth floor sat about 100 people. It was filled and additional chairs were added to the back. The event was webcast live.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

ARB Reviews Steep Tea

"Steep Tea by Jee Leong Koh, a Singapore-born, New York-based poet, is a wonderfully rich and lyrical narrative on self-identity, diaspora and love. As the title fittingly suggests, the poems articulate the embrace of otherness and changes while traversing different cultures. Koh’s lyricism reveals influences from modern poets such as Elizabeth Bishop, Mary Oliver and Eavan Boland and Singaporean poet Lee Tzu Pheng; his poetry is full of music, originality and imagination...."

- Jennifer Wong in Asian Review of Books

Saturday, January 09, 2016

Friday, January 08, 2016

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

The Tombs of Ravenna

PN Review 42:2 November - December 2015

From Yves Bonnefoy's essay "The Tombs of Ravenna," translated by John Naughton:

If nothing is less real than the concept, nothing is more real than this alliance between form and stone, between the exemplary and a body: nothing is more real than the Idea that is risked
Ornamentation belongs to that category of beings that joins together in its profound purity the universal and the particular. It is the Idea made presence, and in the joy it awakens in us, I tasted the savor of a true eternity. 
The universal is not a law that is everywhere the same and so never worth anything anywhere. The universal has its locale. In every place, the universal exists in the way it is looked at, in the way it is used.  
Poetry and journey are of the same substance, the same blood - I am repeating what Baudelaire has said - and of all the actions that are available to man, these are perhaps the only useful ones, the only ones that have a goal
I will say by allegory: it is this piece of the somber tree, this torn leaf of ivy. The entire leaf, constructing its immutable essence with all its veins, would already be the concept. But this torn leaf, green and black, dirty, this leaf that shows in its wound all the depth of what is, this infinite leaf is pure presence, and hence my salvation. Who could tear from me the fact that it was mine, and in a contact, beyond destinies and sites, that binds me to the absolute? Moreover, who could destroy it, since it has already been destroyed? I hold it in my hand, I hold it tight as I would have loved to hold Ravenna, I hear its tireless voice. - What is presence? It seduces like a work of art; it is rudimentary like the wind or the earth. It is black like the abyss and yet it reassures. It seems a fragment of space among others, but it calls to us and contains us. And it is a moment that will be lost a thousand times, but it has the glory of a god. It resembles death... 
Whoever seeks to make his way through sensory space reconnects with a sacred water that runs through each thing. At the slightest contact with it, one feels immortal. 

Haiku and Yield to the Willow

Morning runners
at the finishing line—
a gull wheels away


Don Wentworth's Yield to the Willow is a collection of very short poems, most of which are haiku, but not all. It's an enjoyable read but nothing earthshaking. He can be very concise, achieving insight and pathos through wordplay:

Sutra Blues

the haunted man
needs no house

A small household incident can turn into a question of ontology:

freeing centipede
trapped in the tub
I step inside

His observational powers can be matched by a delicacy in form:

bits of grit & oh oil in the ash

But too many pieces read like throwaways, and were probably written the same way:

in memory
in the moment,

or they are overly didactic, which even Zen-inspired verse can be:

hole in the center
of the snowflake
another koan

What compounds Wentworth's challenge is that he has chosen to begin each chapter with a quotation from a poetry or Zen master, and these quotations are hard to beat:

Butterfly, these words
From my brush are not flowers
only their shadows

-Soseki, translated by Harry Behn

Haiku is like a finger pointing at the moon. Once you've seen it, you no longer need the finger.

-Variation of an aphorism by Sixth Zen Patriarch, Hui-Neng

Poetry never forgets the all even when it is dealing with exclusively one thing.

-R. H. Blythe

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Saturday, January 02, 2016

Haiku and Noon at Five O'Clock

Brown leaves penned
in a field of winds
who will open the book?


Noon at Five O'Clock: The Collected Short Stories of Arthur Yap: This slim volume of 8 stories is significant mainly because it collects the prose fiction of a major Singaporean poet. Too much can be made of the resemblance of these spare, almost plotless stories to his minimalist poetry. The best story here is the first, "Noon at Five O'Clock," written when Yap was nineteen years old, an undergraduate at NUS. The style is spare too, but here the spareness is entirely fitted to the situation of a young boy's accidental discovery of a secret courtyard. A small moment is inscribed in plain yet highly conscious prose. The style is less convincing in the other stories in the collection. It feels rather more like a writer's handicap than like a precisely chosen instrument. When the later stories become longer, they turn to satire, dream, and formal pastiche. Nowhere do they give the hidden depths of a lightning-quick characterization. In a very interesting critical essay included in the volume, Shirley Geok-Lin Lim posits that Yap's preference for extreme privacy and reticence hinders the expression of the public privacies required in a short story. She may very well be right. A great poet may not make a great storyteller. Still, I'm grateful to Angus Whitehead for editing this collection. It adds to one's understanding of Arthur Yap's artistic powers and their limitations.

Friday, January 01, 2016

Yeo Wei Wei's "These Foolish Things"

Yeo Wei Wei sees the broken and hurting lives of her characters with a kind of dispassionate compassion. A wife finds her way home from mass devastation. An old woman in a home for the elderly. A blind painter. A female Math teacher abandoned by a younger lover. The subjects are ripe for sentimental depiction, but Yeo does not hurry to sympathize. Instead, with patience and care, she slowly delineates the details of their lives and the flush of their thoughts. The only exception, perhaps, is the story "The National Bird of Singapore," in which good and evil are too simply demarcated.

In other stories, the details become, as they should in a work of art, subtly suggestive, even symbolic. The yellow umbrella in the title story "These Foolish Things." The ivory carving of three apples in "Branch." The blue lamp and the blue flowers of the bunga telang outside an artist's house in "The Art of Being Naked." Not only are the stories are threaded with beautiful symbols, but they are also narrated with a soundtrack in the background. Mdm Goh in her lonely seniority used to listen to Teresa Teng in "Here Comes the Sun," the title itself coming from a Beatles song. In "Chin Chin" there is recorded birdsong in the airport bathroom. If we give ourselves to these visual and musical details, they open portals in the stories. It is no coincidence that the stories feature many doors, windows, and balconies, belonging most often to condos and bungalows. The Singapore that appears in this book is not the bustling HDB heartland, but the decaying propertied class.

The stories also give entry into the characters' minds. Settling there, we discover how their consciousness is richly burdened by memories and desires. The light-footed surrealism in some of these stories activates these memories and desires into action, blurring the line between past and present, even between person and person. The surrealism in "Beauty in the Eye" is humorous, as the protagonist discovers that he is a character in a story being written by his date. Darker in "Here Comes the Sun," the surrealism of talking animals prepares us for Mdm Goh's passing. Wrenching in "These Foolish things," the unreal haunts the story in the form of a ghost. In one instance, the device fails to carry the story, as in "The Beholder" when fruits, the supposed objects for painting, heckle the artist. The device is too cutesy. It is extraordinarily powerful, however, in the best story of the collection "Chin Chin," when it turns uncanny. How it plays out is too good to give away.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

New Year Letter to Lovers of a Better Singapore

New Year Letter to Lovers of a Better Singapore 

I’d wish you a happy new year if last year had not been so bitter. We had high hopes that Singapore would become a freer, fairer, and kinder society after the death of Lee Kuan Yew. We had high hopes that the 50th year of our independence would herald a new phase of social, political, and artistic maturity. For only the second time in my forty-five years, I was able to vote. With Lee Kuan Yew gone, the PAP did not enjoy a walkover in Radin Mas constituency, but faced two challengers. On Election Day, I made my way in the rain to the Singapore Consulate in New York. I knew the PAP would win Radin Mas, but I had to make my voice heard and my vote count. Like many of you, I had high hopes that the general election would prove a watershed in the history of our country. We had high hopes that, despite the gerrymandering, vote-buying tactics, state control of mass media, and creeping influence of Christian fundamentalism on government, the people of Singapore would speak and vote without fear. The election results dashed our hopes. The PAP was returned to power with a reinforced majority. Out of choice, we knew we were a minority before the election, but after the election we learned what it was to be minoritized.

To be minoritized is to be shown by the majority that we don’t count. (It’s a first-past-the-post system, after all. Proportional representation would have given the opposition 26 seats, instead of 6, for winning 30% of the popular vote.) The minoritized may be tolerated but the tolerance is at the pleasure of the majority. We may even be considered useful, since having a vocal fringe releases the pressure of internal resentment and softens the country’s hard image abroad. We are now in the same unenviable position as other traditionally minoritized groups, such as racial, sexual, and economic minorities, tolerated within arbitrary limits, useful for others’ purposes. The Indian appears on national posters and banners, alongside the Chinese, Malay and Eurasian, but he will not become Prime Minister. The lesbian playwright wins multiple Life! Theatre awards, but she and her kind are still proscribed by law. The migrant worker is given media attention for his poetic talent, but he is not given legal protections for his working person. To be minoritized by the last election is to taste the bitter aftertaste in the mouths of other long-minoritized peoples.

 If we are to change Singapore as minoritized citizens, we must hold on to our bitterness, the taste of our disappointment. It’s too easy to exchange it for the sourness of cynicism. Out of sentimentality, complacency, indifference or ignorance, the majority of our fellow citizens voted for more of the same, in the delusion that the status quo is sweet. We know it’s not sweet. Those of us working for social justice, free speech, and free information know the status quo is not sweet for other minoritized peoples, whether they are migrant workers, the LGBT community, artists of various stripes, refugees, victims of human trafficking, the working poor, or the aged. We know, in fact, that the status quo makes sweets for the majority out of the salty blood, sweat, and tears of the minoritized. One anecdote may stand for a thousand similar stories. A friend, a middle-class professional, said to my sister, “If we raise the wages of the food court workers, food prices will go up, and we won’t be able to eat out cheaply.” We must chew on this story and others like it, chew the bitter cuds of our outrageous prosperity until the unequal status quo changes.

Singapore has ramifications beyond its 716 square kilometers. Singapore’s hyper-success has attracted many imitators in the global South. In a talk based on a forthcoming paper “Aspirational City: Desiring Singapore and the Films of Tan Pin Pin,” NYU’s English professor Jini Kim Watson spoke about Singapore’s ascendancy to the status of “aspirational city” to countries such as China, Brazil, the U.A.E., and Rwanda, all ruled by authoritarian regimes. Singapore has actively encouraged this imitation by exporting its urban planning techniques to these countries. If the thought of historic neighborhoods demolished to make space for Singapore-style shopping malls, temples of mind-destroying consumerism, does not fill you with dismay, you can stop reading this letter since it’s not for you. Against the apparent reproducibility of Singapore anywhere, Watson read the documentary films of Tan Pin Pin as a record of disregarded, because culturally specific and therefore non-reproducible, spaces in the city, and as an index of desires for heterogeneous, not homogeneous, connections. These spaces and desires are fast disappearing from Singapore. Not only the state, but also the majority of Singaporeans does not care enough to keep them. Remember the old National Library at Stamford Road demolished to make way for a tunnel?

To hold on to our bitterness is to hold on to our hopes and our disappointment. It is to remember SG50 in our mouths and our bodies, so that we will not forget its political lesson. When I was young, I hated to eat bitter gourd. My mother would tempt me by frying it with fish cake and soy sauce. Not to be tempted, I’d spear the meat out of a ring of gourd and leave the green rind behind. As I grow older, however, I discover a growing taste for everything, including bitter gourd, because everything tastes of the world, and I can’t get enough of the world. What is bitter nourishes too, if we chew hard and swallow it. In his book-length poem Lines from Batu Ferringhi, the Singapore poet Goh Poh Seng wrote about his encounter with Pak Din, the aged owner of a failing restaurant. In his former life, Pak Din was a bomoh, or witchdoctor. Once, he was called to attend to a rich Chinese towkay (boss) who had just died. By swaddling the dead man with herbs and native medicine, Pak Din raised the man back to life, this towkay “who was already dead / Except for his mouth!” Nothing is quite completely gone, not the towkay, not the restaurant, certainly not Pak Din, so long as we eat and remember. With hindsight, the better part of 2015 may very well turn out to be the bitter.

 Jee Leong Koh
December 31, 2015