Saturday, August 27, 2016

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Cambodia Diary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Into Russian now. What next?

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

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Into Latvian

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

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Magma reviews "Steep Tea"

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

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Putting Down "Taproot"

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

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Singapore Arts Diary

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Singapore Art Diary

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Emigres and Outsiders

TLS May 13, 2016

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

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

***

from Freelance by Bryan Cheyette:

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


***

TLS April 29, 2016

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

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

Monday, June 27, 2016

Difficult decision made esay

Eric Valles, the director of Singapore's National Poetry Festival, invited me to contribute a poem to the festival's ekphrastic-poetry exhibit. Since the festival is partly funded by the National Arts Council, I had to turn down the kind invitation because I have decided not to work with the NAC since its withdrawal of funding from Sonny Liew's political novel "The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye," followed by public statements from NAC CEO Kathy Lai and NAC Chairman Chan Heng Chee supporting the continued censorship of the arts. (For the thinking behind my decision, you could see https://singaporepoetry.com/2015/12/06/to-my-fellow-singaporean-artists-and-arts-lovers/.) I have also had to turn down a request to include my poems in a major formal poetry anthology, UnFree Verse, because the editors are, not unusually, seeking an NAC grant for publication. These decisions are taken not against the festival organizers or the anthology editors, but in protest of NAC's politicization of arts funding. Until the NAC returns its funding to Sonny's book and gives an unequivocal statement of support for the freedom of artistic expression, I will continue not to work with it.

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

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Four Poets

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 24, 2016

Complete Headrush

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

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

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


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

On this Friday evening, connect with poet Jee Leong Koh and experience culinary delights in a cosy environment -- any blues are sure to subside by the end of this event! Whether you're an aspiring author, corporate executive, or home-maker, you're welcome to join us with colleagues, friends and loved ones to enjoy an informal exchange about "Steep Tea", a unique collection of insights that blend traditional and contemporary poetic styles. During the session, Jee Leong will share his life experience, and how he got to down to writing and publishing the book in the UK. For details and directions: http://www.meetup.com/talentshowcase/events/231924286/

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

Three prominent Singaporean writers, Alfian Sa'at, Ovidia Yu, and Koh Jee Leong, read from their works and share their experiences with overseas readers, editors, and publishers. Between them, the writers cover multiple genres, including fiction, poetry, drama, essays, crime stories, and children's writing. They will discuss the impact of Singapore literature beyond the boundaries of the country, and how their writing is, in turn, changed by the encounter. They will also speak about the upcoming 2nd Singapore Literature Festival in New York City, to be held from September 28 - 30, 2016, and their hopes for the future of Singaporean writing. This event is organized by & Co, the National Gallery's museum store. https://www.facebook.com/events/129019267522297/

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

Forbidden love. Broken promises. Criminal acts. Blasphemy. Cyril Wong, Ovidia Yu, Tania De Rozario, and Koh Jee Leong read their transgressive writings in the heart of sanitized Singapore, and go unpunished. Or punish them, if you're into it. Proudly presented by the Singapore Literature Festival in NYC. https://www.facebook.com/events/1701422790121177/

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

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

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

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

Haiku


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



Mid-spring
all the green growing
lush pigment



Contesting
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

Sip-in

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 gvshp.org/juliusbar.

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

Haiku


Unwrapping
a small bar of soap
a rabbit's foot



Speaking
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

Haiku

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


Birdcall in the spring--
squeaky
wheels



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.


Sincerely,

Jee Leong Koh
Organizer
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.

Untitled

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.