Sunday, October 04, 2015

Saturday, October 03, 2015

Ian Pople reviews STEEP TEA

"In these poems, the grace and elegance mentioned above mix with Koh’s imagination, to create a fine sense of play in his material. The final effect is a charged, nuanced lyricism."

- Ian Pople in The Manchester Review. Read more.

Friday, October 02, 2015

Singapore at 50 and Haiku

"Singapore at 50: Reflections on the Local, Global and Postcolonial," organized by Jini Kim Watson of NYU, was a thoughtful and stimulating presentation of work by academics from Singapore, the US and Canada. Joanne Leow, from the University of Toronto, read Singapore's Gardens by the Bay together with Kevin Kwan's novel Crazy Rich Asians and highlighted the uses of excess. E.K. Tan, from Stony Brook University, argued for a more complicated and expanded notion of Sinophone literature by looking at two poems written in a hybrid of Chinese and English. From Singapore's Nanyang Technological University, C. J. Wan-Ling Wee looked at the distinct character of the 1980's for Singaporean cultural productions, created during a fruitful gap after the state began to focus on high culture but before it produced its Renaissance City report and poured huge amounts of money into the arts. Cheryl Narumi Naruse, also from NTU, examined the transnational mobility of Singaporeans and its creation of a new coming-of-career genre of writing.

I was the odd duck of the evening, very pleased to be included, and warmly welcomed. Before I read "Attribution," "Recognition," and "Talking to Koon Meng Who Called Himself Christopher" from Steep Tea, I gave this somewhat tongue-in-cheek preamble:

None Can Tell: On Poetry and Plagiarism  

I’m here as an imposter. I’m not a scholar, I’m a poet. I’m here to practice fraud on you. I’m here to say, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” and confuse the two on earth. I make copies of copies, and so should be thrown out on my ear from the philosophers’ club. Thank you for not throwing me out. Thank you for welcoming me into your midst. Perhaps you are not followers of Plato but of Aristotle. You see poetry, and aesthetics in general, as a species of knowledge. Well, in that case, we are still diametrically opposite: poetry, to me, is a species of ignorance. A poet does not know many things; a post-colonial poet does not know many special things, things peculiar to his historical condition, to the long shadow of Western imperialism, in my case. I’m convicted on both counts, by Aristotle of ignorance, by Plato of plagiarism. Perhaps you are not a philosopher at all. Like me, you have wandered into this place by mistake. You just wish to be entertained, before the break for wine and cheese. If so, you are just the person to whom I will read.


Cheep cheep
the small plagiarist bird
rips off its head

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Tuesday, September 29, 2015


Last Sunday, the NY launch of UNION, an anthology that celebrates 50 years of Singaporean writing and 15 years of seminal American journal Drunken Boat. I read from The Pillow Book at Singapore: Inside Out, with Alvin Pang (editor), Ravi Shankar (editor), Sharon Dolin and Amanda Lee Koe. Photos by GH.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Mystery Plays and Dancing Space

TLS July 24, 2015

from Gerard Kilroy's review of Mortal Thoughts: Religion, secularity and identity in Shakespeare and early modern culture by Brian Cummings; The Bible in Shakespeare by Hannibal Hamlin; and A Will to Believe: Shakespeare and religion by David Scott Kastan:

Cummings explore the "condition of soliloquy" in the Confessions - "et cum ipso me solo coram te" (with myself all alone in front of you) - in one of the most rewarding chapters in the book, "Soliloquy and Secularization". Augustine is seen as the source both of the word "soliloquy" and of the genre. The soliloquy is both a meditation and a dialogue between an interior self that is true, and an interior self that is mutable and transitory. Long before Hamlet's most famous of soliloquies, Cummings finds Augustine in De libero arbitrio, meditating on not being: "It is not because I would rather be unhappy than not be at all ... , that I am unwilling to die, but for fear that after death I may be still more unhappy".  
In "one of Shakespeare's favorite books", Arthur Golding's translation of Calvin's Sermons upon the Booke of Job (1574), humanity is described as "sullyed and full of all fylthe", and Golding uses the world "solydnesse [i.e. sulliedness] in his translation of the sermons in Calvin's Psalmes of David (1571). Orally and in print the two words were "sometimes indistinguishable", making them ripe for punning.  
Hamlin (following Jones) notes that the greeting "All hail" in Macbeth and several plays including Julius Caesar, echoes Judas's kiss in the York Cycle [of mystery plays].... Hamlin has now discovered that this greeting became so "conventional" that the phrase "All haile maister" was attributed to Judas in many sermons between 1571 and 1599. While the received opinion had been that the last recorded performance of a Mystery Play was in Coventry in 1579, recent work has shown that they continued in small towns, and (as Phebe Jensen has shown) in Catholic country hourses like Gowlthwaite Hall, "well into the seventeenth century".


from Kapka Kassabova's review of Dancing Tango: Passionate encounters in a globalizing world by Kathy Davis:

One of Davis's conclusions is that the milonga is a rare space in our globalized and yes, unequal world, where men and women - especially heterosexual men and women - can safely perform gender roles, explore desires that in the rest of their lives have become outdated, and even fall in love - for fifteen minutes. In that sense tango remains subversive, as it was always meant to be. Should a feminist dance tango? The overwhelming evidence here shows us one thing: in tango, there is no such thing  as "should".

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Erica Wagner's "Ariel's Gift"

In Ariel's Gift, Erica Wagner composes a running commentary on the poems in Ted Hughes's Birthday Letters. The commentary calls on Sylvia Plath's fiction, journals and letters, and on Hughes' few public statements after Plath's death, in order to shine a light on the poems. Wagner is particularly good, I think, on Hughes's sense of fate in the making of his and Plath's poems, and in the events that overtook them. Critics of Hughes may see the avowals of ignorance and helplessness in the Birthday Letters poems as evidence of blame-shifting and self-justification, but the poems themselves convey the ignorance and helplessness in a very palpable way. To enter the poems at all, one must enter them, suspending one's judgment. Wagner tries to be very fair-minded but it becomes clear in the course of her book that she is more sympathetic toward Hughes. The last chapter shows the pain that the living (Hughes and the children, Plath's mother Aurelia) have to bear when the dead is still capable of screaming from her grave.

Perhaps in response to the accusations of self-justification against Hughes, Wagner quotes Seamus Heaney's verdict on Plath's poetry. In his lecture "The Indefatigable Hoof-taps," Heaney explained what he saw as her limitation:

There is nothing poetically flawed about Plath's work. What may finally limit it is its dominant theme of self-discovery and self-definition, even though this concern must be understood as a valiantly unremitting campaign against the black hole of depression and suicide. I do not suggest that the self is not the proper arena of poetry. But I believe that the greatest work occurs when a certain self-forgetfulness is attained or least a fullness of self-possession denied to Sylvia Plath. . . . In "Lady Lazarus" . . . the cultural resonance of the original story is harnessed to a vehemently self-justifying purpose, so that the supra-personal dimensions of knowledge--to which myth typically gives access--are slighted in favor of the intense personal need of the poet.

If Birthday Letters is not a great book of poems because self-justification diminishes it, the same caveat must be applied to Plath's poetry.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Tara Bergin on Steep Tea

Tara Bergin, a poet whom I admire greatly, mentions Steep Tea in her reading list for POETRY magazine's Editors' Blog: "Particularly striking about this book is the way that every poem has an epigraph; brief quotations chosen from a diverse set of sources. The impression is of a writer for whom reading represents a vital part of the creative process."

Monday, September 14, 2015

Singapore Symposium and Haiku

Yesterday's Singapore Symposium was an experiment and a gambit. To host speakers from the different fields of academia, the arts, and social work, with their different concerns and languages, was to take a risk. I think the bet paid off handsomely. Adeline Koh's work on digitally archiving "Chinese Englishmen" provides a necessary counterbalance to the current focus on the major Victorian authors, all white, mostly men. Listening to Jini Kim Watson, I was struck by how many countries in the world aspire to build modern cities like Singapore and so replicate its social control and public order. E. K. Tan spoke about the politics of using dialect in Singapore's Sinophone literature. I especially enjoyed his close look at xinyao (Singapore ballads) and Kuo Pao Kun's play "Mama Looking for Her Cat."

The artists came on next and spoke passionately about why they write plays, make ceramic works, and compose music. Damon Chua, Hong-Ling Wee, and Eli Tyler, you were so inspiring! So were Kavitha and Shahrin, who spoke about making dance with children with special needs.

In the evening, the writers took to the stage. I read from Steep Tea and then introduced the other authors. Amanda Lee Koe read a searing story about a woman who found herself loveless in old age. Jeremy Tiang's story about a young woman who decides to turn vegetarian rang true in its every wonderful turn of phrase. Yen Yen Woo and Colin Goh did a very Singaporean thing and gave us all a test - on their Dimsum Warriors comics and on Singlish. I failed the test but laughed very hard.

During the Q&A afterwards, someone from the audience asked about the impact of New York on our work. Colin's answer stuck with me: in New York, you don't have to be just one thing - lawyer, teacher or dentist - but you can be many things, an actor-waiter, a lawyer-writer or, in their case, teacher, lawyer, graphic novelist, illustrator, yoga studio owner, and parent.

Into the forest 
of video equipment
grey-green eyes

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Opening Party and Haiku

Last night was the opening party of Something to Write Home About, the Singapore arts festival in New York wholly organized by Singapore creatives and volunteers based in the city. The basement of La Mama Theater was transformed into an art gallery. There was plenty to drink. Peranakan food was served. The festival director Hong-Ling Wee was, naturally, flushed with excitement. I was again impressed by her ability to connect with people when she spoke to the room. It was lovely to see friends again and to meet new people, among which were an Indian classical dancer born in Ferguson, MO; a young Malaysian diplomat; and a Singaporean new-media artist based in Chicago.

Today, I'm speaking on the arts practitioners panel at the Symposium on Singapore Studies, and reading in the evening, with four other writers, at the Literary Arts event. I'm looking forward to stimulating conversations with the scholars, artists, writers and audience. It's my way of participating in the on-going project called Singapore.

Plop! Plop! Plop!
the first rain of the season—
bubble wrap

Wednesday, September 09, 2015


Shirt off
he drinks from the water fountain
sparrows make tiny splashes

Monday, September 07, 2015

Carol Rumens on "Steep Tea"

"In His Other House" is Carol Rumens' Poem of the Week in The Guardian. So happy about it. Thank you, Ms Rumens, for your insightful reading of "In His Other House" and your sympathetic response to Steep Tea.

Poem: "The Book of Nature"

The Book of Nature 

What if the wind is a hint
of the coming fall of leaves
so greenly gleaming, fully
numerical, I swear, they
read like everlastingness?
In print so fine it can’t be
seen, the wind annotates
the assertion of the green
or else it is to be, or not,
read between the lines.

Sunday, September 06, 2015



I run so fast I leave the past behind,
the carrom board under my parents’ bed,
the uniforms I grew out of, the kind
evenings after the moon swung overhead,

I leave behind the blistering army songs,
the young man’s sense of being in the right,
the young man’s rights and the young man’s wrongs,
the wind keeping aloft the fighting kite,

behind, the smell of rain before it rains,
behind, the thousand gaudy island cast,
behind, the globe-spanning spinning planes,
I run so fast I run into the past.

Saturday, September 05, 2015

Coleridge's "Biographia Literaria"

Edited by James Engell and W. Jackson Bate (Princeton University Press)

Our genuine admiration of a great poet is a continuous under-current of feeling; it is every where present, but seldom any where as a separate excitement. I was wont boldly to affirm, that it would scarcely be more difficult to push a stone out from the pyramids with the bare hand, than to alter a word, or the position of a word, in Milton or Shakspeare, (in their most important works at least), without making the author say something else, or something worse, than he does say. 
And therefore is it the prime merit of genius and its most unequivocal mode of manifestation, so to represent familiar objects as to awaken in the minds of others a kindred feeling concerning them and that freshness of sensation which is the constant accompaniment of mental, no less than of bodily, convalescence. 
I regard truth as a divine ventriloquist: I care not from whose mouth the sounds are supposed to process, if only the words are audible and intelligible." 
But the poison-tree is not dead, though the sap may for a season have subsided to its roots. At least let us keep watch and ward, even on our best feelings. I have seen gross intolerance shewn in support of toleration; sectarian antipathy most obtrusively displayed in the promotion of an undistinguishing comprehension of sects; and acts of cruelty (I had almost said) of treachery, committed in furtherance of an object vitally important to the cause of humanity; and all this by men too of naturally kind dispositions and exemplary conduct. 
Only in the self-consciousness of a spirit is there the required identity of object and of representation; for herein consists the essence of a spirit, that it is self-representative. If therefore this be the one only immediate truth, in the certainty of which the reality of our collective knowledge is grounded, it must follow that the spirit in all the objects which it views, views only itself. If this could be proved, the immediate reality of all intuitive knowledge would be assured. It has been shown, that a spirit is that, which is its own object, yet not originally an object, but an absolute subject for which all, itself included, may become an object. It must therefore be an ACT; for every object is, as an object, dead, fixed, incapable in itself of any action, and necessarily finite. Again, the spirit (originally the identity of object and subject) must in some sense dissolve this identity in order to be conscious of it: fit alter et idem. But this implies an act, and it follows therefore that intelligence or self-conscious is impossible, except by and in a will. The self-conscious spirit therefore is a will; and freedom must be assumed as a ground of philosophy, and can never be deduced from it. 
A poem is that species of composition, which is opposed to works of science, by proposing for its immediate object pleasure, not truth; and from all other species (having this object in common with it) it is discriminated by proposing to itself such delight from the whole, as is compatible with a distinct gratification from each component part.  
"The man that hath not music in his soul" can indeed never be a genuine poet. Imagery (even taken from nature, much more when transplanted from books, as travels, voyages, and works of natural history); affecting incidents; just thoughts; interesting personal or domestic feelings; and with these the art of their combination or intertexture in the form of a poem; may all by incessant effort be acquired as a trade, by a man of talents and much reading, who, as I once before observed, has mistaken an intense desire of poetic reputation for a natural poetic genius; the love of the arbitrary end for possession of the peculiar means. But the sense of musical delight, with the power of producing it, is a gift of imagination; and this together with the power of reducing multitude into unity of effect, and modifying a series of thoughts by some one predominant thought or feeling, may be cultivated and improved, but can never be learnt. It is in these that "Poeta nascitur non fit."

Friday, September 04, 2015


So many seeds
in the self-seeding spider flower
pushing through the fence

Thursday, September 03, 2015

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Progressive Poetics

"What must or might be said now about poetry?" I might have said something to the Progressive Poetics project, initiated and organized by H. L. Hix.

The Progressive Poetics project asks each contributor to respond, in light of something she or he has already said in print, to this question: 
“Poetry makes nothing happen.” (W. H. Auden, 1939) 
“To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” (Theodor Adorno, 1949) 
Though often cited as timeless, authoritative truths about poetry, those two pronouncements were made at particular historical moments, in particular cultural contexts, and from particular subject positions. But we (choose any “we” from those of us alive now) occupy various subject positions, live in various circumstances, and stand nearer the mid-twenty-first century than the mid-twentieth. It is not self-evident that we should (continue to) defer to Auden and Adorno, so: 
What must or might be said now about poetry?

Friday, August 28, 2015

Yoko Ono Haiku

After seeing the Yoko Ono retrospective at MoMA:

painted half a moon tonight
Yoko Ono

Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Sense of Style and Haiku

WL recommended Steven Pinker's The Sense of Style. Pinker is a graceful and persuasive advocate for what he calls the classic style. To write clearly and expressively, as if showing a reader a view outside the window, or engaging a reader in a conversation of equals, one can do worse than consult this book. My one reservation is that the classic style is not the only style of value. Pinker admits as much, but he is a partisan.


Summer sunset
smelling of oranges

Friday, August 21, 2015

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Censored Again?

A Singapore news website requested a copy of my book STEEP TEA, and an email interview with me. They have now decided not to run the article because "this may not be the best time to publish an article about your book (it's elections period here)." The other reason given is that the article will not attract the kind of people who read the website. The explanation smacks of both self-censorship and dumbing-down. The journalist involved is not at fault; he has been helpful and professional throughout. I also find it hard to blame the website for caving in to political pressures to self-censor. Since the interview will not be used, I regard my answers as my own intellectual property, and so will publish them here. You will have to imagine the questions yourself, and view their absence as a sign of the censorship that Singaporean writers and artists endure. If you read my answers, you will see how innocuous they are, and therefore how afraid we are.

About Steep Tea. 
1. Question 
Steep Tea is divided into two parts. The first part looks at my life in New York City, the second at my life in Singapore. You can say that the book is a Tale of Two Cities. I moved from Singapore to New York 12 years ago, and I have been looking for connections between them ever since. The connections have to do with love, sex, family, job, travel, in other words, the stuff of daily life. The art is to try to stamp this stuff into a memorable form, which is what poetry is to me. 
2. Question 
I’m not proud of it, but I’ve always been ashamed of my mother. For the whys, read this blog-post (…/mothers-not-muses-by-…). Because of this shame, I’ve always been looking for surrogate mothers. Poets make good surrogates. So, in Steep Tea, I quote 34 women from 14 countries, ranging from the sixteenth century to the present day. The poems are my replies—in the form of agreement, qualification, rebuttal, change of topic—to them. Two Singaporean poets are quoted: Lee Tzu Pheng and Leong Liew Geok, for their work calls out for a response. 
3. Question 
Sheer pleasure. I like what the former US Poet Laureate Donald Hall said: ““The pleasure of writing is that the mind does not wander, any more than it does in orgasm, —and writing takes longer than orgasm.” I have poetic orgasms most mornings and they last for about two hours. This does not mean that my poems are about happy things. They are about angst, frustration, rage, guilt, fear, but the experience of writing transforms them into pleasure. The American poet Charles Simic describes this process very well: “Imagination equals Eros. I want to experience what it's like to be inside someone else in the moment when that someone is being touched by me.”

About yourself 
1. Question 
When I was in Secondary One, I wrote a poem about rain, which was read over national radio. The check that arrived in the mail confirmed my vocation as a poet. 
2. Question 
I was too afraid to come out as gay in Singapore, so I had to move to New York to be who I am. I was also too busy working in Singapore to write, so I had to move to New York to find out if I was any good as a poet. I came out as a gay man and a writer at the same time, so to speak. 
3. Question 
I have cravings for noodles. There is this wonderful ramen place on the Upper West Side, where I live. I go there often for lunch, to get my fill of spicy tonkotsu, kimchi and miso ramen. I love going to Malaysian restaurants when I travel. In London to launch Steep Tea, I broke fast with Malay and Indian Muslims in a restaurant called The Flavors of Malaysia. The restaurant was owned by a Malay family from KL. I thought that was unusual. The Malaysian restaurants in NYC are Chinese-owned. To paraphrase Cleopatra, I have laksa longings in me. 
4. Question 
I was one of the featured readers at ContraDiction, a gay pride event. The censors banned me from reading aloud the poem on the excuse that it promoted “the homosexual lifestyle.” Ng Yi-Sheng, one of the organizers, had the brainwave of passing out to the audience handouts of the poem, so that everyone could read it for him or herself. To the ban, and other bans such as the one by National Library of the three children’s books that depict non-traditional families, and the ban of Tan Pin Pin’s film “To Singapore, with Love,” I say: Grow up, Singapore! If you don’t agree with something, write your own book or make your own film. Don’t stop the conversation. 
5. Question 
There is no doubt in my mind that Cyril Wong is the best living poet writing in Singapore right now. His poems are deeply felt and imaginatively wrought. He is very versatile. There is nothing in Singapore poetry like his long Zen poem Satori Blues or his satirical fantasia The Dictator’s Eyebrow. A more recent favorite is Yeow Kai Chai, whose writing keeps pushing forward the boundaries of lyric poetry. Alfian Sa’at would have given both a run for their money, had he not gone over to the stage.

The bizarre 
1. Question 
Noodles! See above. 
2. Question 
I admire Edwin Thumboo’s early work. His poem “Gods Can Die,” for instance, is a powerful statement about the alienating effects of power. Then he became one of the gods and lost his lyre. Have you read his poem from the recent LKY anthology, A Luxury We Cannot Afford (Math Paper Press)? It’s terrible: servile and smug, deaf to its own diction. A huge disappointment from someone who reshaped his poetic career to be the national poet. 
3. Question 
Broccoli. Don’t you think it’s such a weird-looking veg? I was going to do a stir-fry one night in the apartment that my boyfriend and I just moved into. As I was cutting up the vegetables, I had the strong sensation that I was becoming my mother. The sensation was so hateful that I almost walked out of the apartment. I did not. Instead, I wrote a poem called “Broccoli” and put it in my new book.

New development:

All right, the journalist has just written back to say that by his statement "this may not be the best time to publish an article about your book (it's elections period here)," he meant that the news website readership is more interested in the elections now than anything else; he did not mean that the website is censoring itself. He also says that his editors consulted him on publishing the article and he decided to withdraw the article as he deemed it not interesting enough in the election season to their readership. Now I'm not sure what to think. What he says is plausible enough, maybe even probably true. If so, I leapt to the wrong conclusion, and am suitably embarrassed. In my own mitigation, I'd say, however, that past and recent past acts of government censorship gave me cause to jump.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

A History of Clocks

Look what came in a blue starry bag in the mail. Jennifer Anne Champion's beautiful chapbook A History of Clocks, a postcard from Tel Aviv, another postcard titled "Jiak Gan Tang" for the Angmoh Singaporean, AND a poem written for me!

First, to find the blank page.
Not as some would say to confront the notebook
Recently acquired from the store.  
The slate is already filled with someone else's opinion
Someone you should love a little less or perhaps
A little more?... 

Thanks, Jennifer!

Monday, August 17, 2015

Thanks, Patty!

A lovely congratulatory note from my dear friend and colleague, Patty. It's so nice to get a real letter in the mail. She wrote from Narrowsburg, NY.

The Columbia Anthology of Japanese Essays

A stimulating selection of zuihitsu, the Japanese essay form that is, as aptly characterized by the editor Steven D. Carter, the anti-method method. Deploying a broad definition of zuihitsu, Carter includes not only the canonical such as The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon and Yoshida No Kenko's Essays in Idleness, but also haikai prose by Matsuo Basho and Natsume Seibi, and some tales of the unusual. Four qualities unite this diverse collection of prose: the writing is personal and casual, instead of formal and scholarly; the subject matter is not restricted but includes anything that occurs to the writer; the writing aims to entertain and impress; the purely fictional is excluded. The selection of works is generous also in terms of the time period covered, from the Heian period to the twentieth century. I'm particularly pleased to make the acquaintance of Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801) in "Jeweled Comb Basket"; Tachibana Nankei (1753-1805) in "Idle Chats Beneath a Northern Window"; Matsudaira Sadanobu (1758-1829) in "Blossoms and the Moon"; Uchida Hyakken (1889-1971) in "Idle Fantasies," "Bumpy Road" and "A Long Fence" written under the pseudonym of Master Hyakken; Osaragi Jiro (1897-1973) in "Sleepless Nights" and "A Bed for My Books"; Shono Junzo (1921-2009) in "The Road"; and Sakai Junko (1966- ) in "On Zuihitsu."

Friday, August 14, 2015

Things about Costa de Barcelona I Will Not Forget

Things about Costa de Barcelona I Will Not Forget 

Not the taste of paella marinera but the taste of anticipation. Anchovies.

Beach that smells of cigarette ash. Men, like so many beaten up luxury boats, cruising in the lap of the Mediterranean. The water is so clear off Platja des Cavallet that I see the ghost of the fish that I ate last night.

Eight years ago, you treaded the narrow walkway around the construction scaffolding inside the Sagrada Familia. Now the nave is polished to a shine, the light streaming through the stained glass windows as if through water. It’s all too bright and clean to you. When the church is finished in ten years’ time, it will be just another church, Gaudi dead as a saint in the basement.

What chance! Meeting B and J on the train to Sitges. I first met them in Madrid a month ago, when we were standing still. Lying in an enormous bed with our new friends, in a restaurant overlooking the sea, we drank too much. Nothing happened, but a morning hard-on-and-on.

Another night, grilling a sea bass over a charcoal fire on the roof. Adding eggplant, peppers, onions bought from the local market. B says that they usually walk around their apartment in the nude. On his last visit, a beautiful boy rode a bike in his direction. He dismounted only three feet away and took off his shirt.

The ferry to Formentera.

After half an hour, the paella is still not ready, and I’m glad that you are not here with your impatience. Happy birthday, love. The day will soon be over.

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Steep Tea in Desperate Literature

Guy visited Desperate Literature Bookshop, where I read from my book STEEP TEA. He took these photos. When you are in Madrid, be sure to visit this lovely bookshop and get a copy of STEEP TEA from Madrid! We're leaving for Barcelona tomorrow morning.

Saturday, August 01, 2015

Things about Andalusia I Will Not Forget

Things about Andalusia I Will Not Forget 

So many palm trees, shooting up like fireworks. A courtyard of orange trees. After harvest, the sunflower stalks stand alert as otters.

The Alhambra is a mosaic of not two, not three, but four dimensions. After moving through its fountains, gardens, and palaces, I see on the way home the tessellation of leaves and the space between leaves. I see the tessellation of leaves and the time between leaves.

Riding pillion behind my host on a motorbike and slipping through the streets of Sevilla.

In Murillo’s great painting, the child gives his coin to his mother, with a look of tenderness that only a child can give, just as the towering saint gives his money to the beggar man. Outside the cathedral, one night, the guitarist waved away the coin proffered by a child. He did not want charity but to sell his compact discs.

Mecca is east-southeast but the Mosque of Córdoba faces south because its royal builder was homesick for Damascus. Representing the earth, its perfect square dances in red and white arabesques, until it is severed in the aorta by the flashing sword of a Cathedral nave. I could not bear to look around the church. How could an architect destroy the best work of another architect? A king, a bishop would, yes, that is the way of the world, but an artist?

In the Alcázar del Rey, in the oldest part of Sevilla, there is a garden that remembers the meeting in friendship of the Spanish poets called the Generation of ‘27. Will I be remembered? And whom will I be remembered with?

Friday, July 31, 2015

Los Gallos

At the Plaza de Santa Cruz, I watched the Los Gallos (The Cocks) tablao flamenco last night. Great singers and guitarists. The male dancer was terrific, as was one of three female dancers. The oldest one, of course.

Loud as castanets
the dancer snaps her fingers—
fish, fowl, and flesh

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Things about Madrid I Will Not Forget

Things about Madrid I Will Not Forget 

So many sex workers. South of Gran Via, the women are mostly white, north they are mostly dark, or trans. A melon is called melón but a watermelon is called sandia. In the morning, when the day is fresh, I love running shirtless along Gran Via and all around Retiro Park.

Given the wrong drink and too shy to ask the muscle waiter to change it. Tinto de verano, con limón. In a plaza chanced upon one night, Chinese schoolchildren kicking around a football and speaking Spanish, of course. Which of them will be the next David Villa? Which the next Lorca? Who will come first? Woken up at 4 am by the cigarette-edged talk of kids outside the club opposite my apartment.

The dark pearl on the outside of razor clams. A cruise club called Organic, equipped with a cross, resting horizontally, and revolving, on one leg. Goya’s Black Paintings.

¿De donde eres? The same younger Asian with the older white man sighted in Buenos Aires, London, Paris, and Tokyo: somewhat shameful still, that. A white man in his forties begging outside a tourist hotel. No, he’s not disabled or ill. I pass him on my runs. Liquid siftings in my favorite beige shorts from Embajadores to Valverde, after a bad lunch.

Yesterday, at Mercado San Fernando, I bought Elogio de la Madrastra by the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa, and paid for the secondhand book by weight. It cost only 2.20 Euros. In English, it’s called In Praise of the Stepmother.


Leaves on the sidewalk
color of a Guinness bottle—
moon waxing overhead

Friday, July 24, 2015

Segovia and Haiku

Visited Segovia yesterday, just half an hour by train from Madrid. When the bus from the train station approached the old city, everyone was immediately struck by the grand Roman aqueduct running across the public square. The aqueduct also ran underground to the castle.

At the museum of contemporary arts, I saw the show of Esteban Vicente's works. Born in Turégano, Spain, he studied art in Madrid, remarking on his experience at the Academy: "It doesn't give you any ideas about anything. It gives you tools, and teaches you about materials. Academic training is safe. It prepares you to be against." He moved with his American wife to the USA a few months after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. One of the first generation of American Expressionists, he knew artists such as De Kooning, Pollock, and Rothko. His works in the Segovia museum were constantly evolving, but maintained a delicate sense of balance. I liked his drawings best: their austerity was sensual and spiritual.

The Cathedral was very grand. Many beautiful chapels with impressive altarpieces and paintings. Most astounding was the Chapel of the Descent from the Cross. The painting at the top of the altarpiece showed Christ on the cross. The painting below it showed the dead Christ being brought down from the cross. Both paintings are by Francisco Camilo. Following this dramatic line downwards, one saw next the polychrome "Recumbent Christ" (by the Baroque sculptor Gregorio Fernández), lying with his lifelike wounds in a glass case. A single euro dropped into the meter brought the lights on to this visual theater.

At the Plaza Meyor, I had tapas in two different bars. In the second one, I saw this splendidly dressed older woman sitting by herself in a corner.

Nursing her beer
woman with a bib necklace—
late morning in Segovia

I walked to the castle but did not enter it. Retracing my steps, I stumbled on Mesón Don Jimeno, where I had a most delicious lunch of cochinillo asado (suckling pig). Two older ladies provided no-fuss and friendly service. The restaurant had a quaint family atmosphere. My best meal in Spain so far, I reckon.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Flamenco en viva

Had a dinner of grilled octopus and pickled pork skewers last night at Casa Patas before watching the flamenco show. Raquela Ortega the dancer was mesmerizing. She showed why duende could only manifest at a mature age, when the artist brought all her life and training to the performance of a moment. The male dancer Sergio Aranda was virtuosic in his technique but he looked too young to be dancing with Ortega. The three singers, Tomasa Gabriel, Jesule Utrera, Fernandez de Antonio, were very good, as was the guitarist, the very handsome Yeray Cortés.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Sunday, July 19, 2015


Taking my heart
to the Sunday flea market—
what will it fetch?

Taking my heart
to the Sunday flea market
south of La Latina

Taking my heart
to the Sunday flea market
instead of the post office

Saturday, July 18, 2015


They're thinking aloud,
the old zuihitsu writers,
but where are they?

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Diary and Haiku

Found the lovely little garden in El Museo Nacional del Romanticismo yesterday. The high walls provided shade while the trees provided airy perches for birds. It had a small fountain with a Cupid in it.

On the algae running
down one flank of the stone Cupid
a bee cools its feet

In the evening, NT brought me to La Latina. I had razor clams, fried in olive oil and parsley, for the first time. It was the speciality of the restaurant called Bar Cruz, also billed as Las Casa de los Navajas. We walked to the ethnically diverse neighborhood of Lavapies, and ate again at Restaurante Baobab. The menu was African. We had couscous negro and curry goat. It went down well with tinto de verano con limon.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015


Yesterday's highlights both involved eating. Lunch at a local chorizo restaurant with James Womack​ and Terry Andrew Craven​. James is a poet, translator, and publisher, originally from Cambridge, UK, now based in Madrid. Terry moved from Leeds to work with Shakespeare and Company in Paris before taking over the cave of treasures called Desperate Literature​ Bookshop with his wife Charlotte four months ago. Wonderfully easy conversation. Among other things, we talked about how different cultures invite people home, or not. And the arms race of giving birthday presents to one's spouse. My sausage was delicious. The other highlight was dinner by myself at 11 pm. Out on a walk, I was enticed by the sight of so many people eating and drinking outdoors at that late hour to wander into Plaza Juan Pujol, where I sat and had a good risotto, washed down with chilled red wine. The restaurant was aptly named El Balcón de Malasaña. I perched on that balcony and watched the world enjoy themselves.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Diary and Haiku

After looking at Guernica, the crowd at my elbows, their tour guide in my ears, I am coming out against history painting. The magniloquence of terror. The demand for submission. Far more delightful is the magic of Joan Miró, whose rooster crows in a landscape with it in it.

On the balcony
carrying a bowl of cereal

Monday, July 13, 2015


This far south
the day becomes light later—
the wavy darkness of his hair

Saturday, July 11, 2015


Yesterday's highlight was a visit to Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. Was surprised to see a number of Lucian Freuds, including his Retrato of the Baron himself. Really liked Michael Andrews's "Portrait of Timothy Behrens," which shows the young man standing pensively at the entrance to the bathroom.

An unusual view of Saint Sebastian, tended by Saint Irene and her maid, attributed to Dirck Jaspersz. van Baburen:

Had lunch at La Cueva, with all male patrons, including construction workers from a nearby site. Used la lavadora successfully. Napped. Went for an walk at nine, when it was cool, and discovered the lively night life of Chueca and its surrounds. Lots of restaurants, outdoors and in. Sex workers plied their trade at street corners, a few transvestites. Men clustered in sociable groups along Calle Pelayo, the gay drag.

NT and his course mates were in the apartment when I returned. I joined in their discussion about the existence of god. Since it was past midnight, NT was officially a year older. We all wished him happy birthday.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Prado and Haiku

Yesterday was my first full day in Madrid. Woke up at my usual time and worked on the Mothership interview. The gym on my street, Calle Valverde, opened at 9 am. A cute young gay guy was working out there when I arrived. Four other guys came in after me. The equipment was rather worn, but I managed to put in a good workout. Then I went for a run. I had walked around Chuecas on the day of my arrival in Madrid. Yesterday, I ran to the west of my street, and looked around Malasaña. The neighborhood, with its alternative shops and wall posters, reminded me of the Lower East Side. Like the LES, it was also gentrifying, art galleries and such.

I decided to walk to the Prado instead of taking the Metro. At the museum, I saw Titian's wonderful "A Knight of Malta with a Clock." Everywhere I was looking for portraits of men in their handsome prime, Caravaggio's young "David with the Head of Goliath" proving an exception. Velazquez was a star of the show. His "Las Meninas" proved equal to its reputation: a completely absorbing work. I also liked very much his paintings of the dwarves at court, especially after looking at too many Italian idealizations of beauty. He was clearly a painter of immense sympathies and a philosophical bent. Goya was the other star. His historical paintings "The Second of May 1808" and "The Third of May 1808," which commemorate the uprising against the French that sparked the War of Spanish Independence, went far beyond their occasion. The Black Paintings were fantastic and surreal, their animalistic faces reminding me of Bacon. Originally wall murals, they were transferred to canvas by another painter. The most affecting painting was "The Witches' Sabbath, or The Great He-Goat." A girl in black veil to the right of the painting was waiting to be initiated. The nightmarish quality reminded me of Hawthorne's short story "Young Goodman Brown," published in 1835, some ten years after the painting.

I had a lunch of huevos rotos (broken eggs) that came in a sarten (saucepan). I did not understand the proprietress when she tried to tell me that "postre" was included in the set meal. A man at the counter kindly explained to me in English. I think I will have big mid-day meals and very small suppers while I'm in Spain. It is too hot even at 7 pm to think of eating much. Drink is another matter.

Malasaña lives—
workmen holed up in the shade
she still works the street

Wednesday, July 08, 2015


At Gatwick South Terminal waiting for my Norwegian Airlines plane to Madrid. Last night's reading at the London Review Bookshop must rank as one of the more memorable ones. Tickets were sold out and the bookshop packed with about 80 people. Michael Schmidt spoke about the net of PN Review/Carcanet that welcomes all schools of fish. The first to read, I had a slight sore throat and so paused a couple of times, but carried on like the National Service-trained soldier that I am. The most enjoyable moment for me was to refer briefly to the banning of Lee Tzu Pheng's poem "My Country and My People" from the airwaves because it was deemed insufficiently enthusiastic about nation-building. It was a pleasure to hear the four contributors to New Poetries VI, Rebecca Watts, Joey Connolly-Wright, Vahni Capildeo, and John Clegg. Get the anthology to hear the most exciting poetic voices now in the UK.

After the reading, I met Richard Price and enjoyed talking to him. Also spoke briefly with Kei Miller, and wished we had more time. Was chuffed that Richard and Kei bought my book. Also managed to tell Alison Brackenbury how much I loved her horse poems even in Singapore, before I left for NY. Song-Khoon Lim, your signed copies are waiting for you at the bookshop. Afterwards, Paul, Alphonse, Mary and I went for drinks at The Admiral by Trafalgar Square. Delicious Pimm's, made with sloe gin instead of lemonade. Paul and Al brought us to the rooftop bar of the Hilton, where they are staying, and we enjoyed a sweeping view of the area, the National Portrait Gallery in one direction, the London Eye in another, and Big Ben in yet another. We were nearly as tall as Lord Nelson, not quite, but nearly nearly. One more reading. Hola, Madrid!

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Kensington Gardens and Haiku

Had been eating too much. Had an enormous Polish dinner with MJ and DW last night. Went for a run in Kensington Gardens to work off all that food. I ran along the Serpentine, looping back to the Italian Gardens, at the head of The Long Water that becomes the Serpentine in Hyde Park. Then I went for breakfast at this little bakery I spotted yesterday at the end of Queensway Street, where I saw this morning a construction worker pass by.

At the head of the Serpentine
the Italian Gardens
symmetrical as push-ups

Workman carrying
an attachable barrier
past a blonde

Monday, July 06, 2015

Tate Britain and Haiku

Saw the special Barbara Hepworth retrospective at Tate Britain yesterday. The exhibit showed her moving from early figurative works into abstract forms. The early abstractions explored single and double standing forms: self and relations. Both became interiorized, it seemed to me, in later abstractions that explored the relationship between her inner and outer worlds, in her response to the seascape of St. Ives, for instance. The later sculptures, often round in shape, were punctured or gorged with holes, as if to allow light (and eyes) in. At the same time, these holes functioned as framing devices, through which one could see the other side. One of the most powerful sculptures had a punctured ball sitting inside the puncture of another ball. It was also a fine example of her move late in her career into bronze, after working mostly with wood and marble.

Really enjoyed the show "New Brutalist Image 1949 - 1955: Hunstanton School and the Photography of Life and Art." The show highlights the collaboration of architects Alison and Peter Smithson, artist-photographer Nigel Henderson, pioneering structural engineer Ronald Jenkins and sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi. The show could also be called Structure and Materials. The room installation was centered by a long boxy steel structure, which housed glass cases displaying photographs, the architects' student works, their proposal for the school, notebooks, posters, and memorabilia. Mounted on the structure at different points, three projectors threw images onto the walls. The images from the first projector moved across a corner of the room, so the image was first seen frontally before it slanted and sped up on the next wall. Another projector threw a triptych of changing images of worksite materials, patterns found in urban areas, and children playing on streets. The last projector showed a slideshow of more abstract images. Small concrete slabs deeply incised with figures lay in a row along one wall. They were matched on the opposite end of the entrance by a long orange collage mural with multiple viewpoints. The architectural plans for the school - top and side views - were mounted on the wall, next to a video showing an interview with the project architect. The entire room gave me many ideas for the possible collaboration with Boedi Widjaja.

From the permanent galleries, Eric Gill's heart-stopping "Ecstasy" (1910 - 11) and Ivon Hitchens' "Autumn Composition, Flowers on a Table" (1932). The Henry Moore gallery was full of wonders of form and space.


Hard to count
sheep in the shade
day dreams

Sunday, July 05, 2015

STEEP TEA and Haiku

Hurtling on the Virgin East Coast train from Edinburgh toward King's Cross, London. Last night's reading at The Sutton Gallery went well, I think. About 40 people packed the place. Colin Herd, the owner of the gallery, was a sweetheart. David and Eric were there. It was lovely meeting Henry King, my fellow contributor to New Poetries V.

I have known Rob A. Mackenzie, my host, on-line for about 15 years, first through an Internet poetry workshop, so it was a real pleasure to meet him in person, and to hear him read his work. The other readers Janette Ayachi and Tessa Berring were a terrific contrast in styles, and rendered their poetry very individually. Afterwards a group of us went to the Star Bar, and I got to know more of Rob's friends. Many interesting conversations, among which I picked up the factoid that Scotland exports its excess energy to England.

Rob and I walked back to his home in Leith. On the way, we passed through the pink triangle, the gay area in Edinburgh. Leith, built around a port, has long been incorporated into Edinburgh but retains an independent spirit. It reminds me of Brooklyn, with its ethnic restaurants and shops, and young writers and artists roaming its streets.

Crows in the distance
barb the telephone wires
hi, anyone there?

Crows in the distance
barb the telephone wires
sheep or lint?

Crows in the distance
barb the telephone wires
since he left the train

Tuesday, June 30, 2015


Flying to the UK tonight to launch my new Carcanet book of poems. Bittersweet feeling, actually. 12 years ago, when I was deciding between moving to the UK or the US, I plumped for the latter because it was terra incognito to me. It felt right to start a new life in a country completely new to me. The US has since given me so much. The encouragement and opportunity to come out as a gay man. Superb poetry teachers and exemplars. Friends and lovers. New York City.

But the US has not embraced my poetry. I'm grateful to Roxanne Hoffman for publishing my first chapbook and to various fine independent journals for publishing my poems. My work had not, however, found favor with any of the big poetry journals and publishers. After years of contest submissions and payments, I decided to self-publish my books and found a great deal of satisfaction in the process and result. I'm ever so pleased, and surprised, when individuals tell me how much they like my work. Still, the niggling feeling persists, why the disconnect between my work and this country? Is the disconnect a matter of aesthetics, history, politics, or sheer lucklessness? I have found a home here but my work is still homeless. There is this homeless guy in Central Park, near where I live, who keeps a golf club close to him and, every now and then, hits around an invisible ball in the long grasses.

So I'm flying tonight to the country to which I could have migrated but did not. For personal and historical reasons, the UK is the natural home for my work. The British understand where I come from, without too much explanation; they understand too my resistances and ambivalences as a postcolonial subject. In contrast, the Americans, by and large, don't even understand that they are an empire. I owe a great debt of gratitude to Michael Schmidt who saw it fit to publish my work in PN Review, New Poetries V and, now, a book. This faith, so incredibly important to a writer, makes me wonder if I should have migrated to the UK instead all those 12 years ago. Would I have gotten further there, not just career-wise but, more importantly, in the growth of my writing? Or would an earlier endorsement have stunted my writing, have brought any development to a halt? The game of counterfactuals.

The one thing certain is that I'd have been a different writer. My work is now such a compound of Singaporean, British and American elements that it is hard to distill one thing from another. Or to conceive of it in another way, it is unassimilable to any one tradition. That has a heroic ring to it, that makes me want to laugh. All to the good. A good laugh chases away any pre-flight blues.

Monday, June 29, 2015

STEEP TEA: Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin

The poetry of Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin (1942 - ) is populated by religious and folkloric motifs and so it reads like a world outside, beyond, beside, the ordinary world. This alternative world could be seen as a critique of the common world, but it is also vital in its own right. Her poem "St Mary Magdalene Preaching in Marseilles" inspired me to depict a Hell's Kitchen panhandler as St. Thomas the Skeptic. Her ekphrastic poem "Fireman's Lift," with its Virgin Mary spiraling upwards, reminded me of the beautiful old-fashioned lift in Singapore's St. Andrew's Children's Hospital, where my mother used to wash laundry.

I am most pleased, however, with my poem "In His Other House," which borrows inspiration and title from her poem "In Her Other House." Taking for the epigraph these wonderful lines: "In this house there is no need to wait for the verdict of history And each page is open to the version of every other" I describe my own alternative world, in which Singapore bookstores shelve not only books on the stock market, self-improvement and the supernatural, but also works of poetry; my father reads to me, my dead grandfather approves of my father; and my beloved does the dishes.

From Poetry International: "Ní Chuilleanáin was born in Cork in 1942, educated there and at Oxford before spending all her working life up to the present as an academic in Trinity College Dublin. Ní Chuilleanáin’s first book Acts and Monuments was published in 1972 and her work has been much admired ever since, resulting in her being described variously as one of Ireland’s best poets and Ireland’s best woman poet.

... Ní Chuilleanáin comes from a family of writers and musicians. Her father, a famous academic and combatant in the Irish War of Independence, her mother, a classic children’s author. She said she became a poet because her mother wrote prose and because she thought poetry was more difficult."

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Saturday, June 27, 2015

STEEP TEA: Li Qingzhao

I read the poems of Li Qingzhao in the translation by Kenneth Rexroth and Ling Chung. Li (1084 - c.1151) is "universally considered to be China's greatest woman poet," according to Lin Chung. "Her life was colorful and versatile: other than a great poet, she was a scholar of history and classics, a literary critic, an art collector, a specialist in bronze and stone inscriptions, a painter, a calligrapher and a political commentator." She is reputed to be "the greatest writer of t'zu poetry, a lyric verse form written to the popular tunes of the Sung Dynasty (960 - 1279)."

Li was born into a well-known family of scholars and officials. Notably, her father was a member of Su Dongpo's literary circle. She was a precocious talent. When she was seventeen, she wrote two poems in competition with a poem by her father's friend. This female boldness was not acceptable to the society at large, but was encouraged by her father's unconventional friends. Living so close to political power, Li's life underwent ups and downs in accordance with the factional strife at court.

When she was eighteen, she married Zhao Mingcheng. They shared a happy married life that revolved around the study of the classics and the appreciation of poetry and fine art. When Zhao died of an illness, probably typhoid, on his way to a new official post, Li was heartbroken. Her t'zu poem "On Plum Blossoms," written to the tune "A Little Wild Goose," expresses her deeply felt grief. All is stale, cold and empty. "I have no words for my weary sorrow."

I hope some of the previous happiness and present grief comes through in my poem "Black Dragon Pool," written for a dear colleague who lost her daughter to a skiing accident. The title and the trope came from my first visit to China, when I first heard the awful news. The poem was one of the hardest ones that I have ever written. It was difficult to strike a balance between sympathy and presumption. Li's words - "I have no words for my weary sorrow" - were not only expressive of my colleague's state of mourning, but also indicative of the poverty of my poem.


Open along the edge
for the movie about a gay marriage
this is also your return envelope

Friday, June 26, 2015

STEEP TEA: Leong Liew Geok

Another Singapore poet quoted in Steep Tea is Leong Liew Geok. My poem "Singapore Catechism" rings changes on an evocative phrase in her poem "Exiles Return." From her "laterite roots," I go from literal to lateral to littoral to literate to lottery to latterly to litany and back to laterite, in trying to answer the Singlish question "You go where?"

Born in Penang, Malaysia, Leong moved to Singapore in 1981. Thereafter, she published two important collections of poems, Love Is Not Enough (1991) and Women without Men (2000). The gardening poems in her second book represent a signal achievement in Singapore poetry. Alternating between lyrics and dramatic monologues, they are a sustained engagement with the cultivation of both self and environment.

Singapore Poetry is reprinting the informal sequence of poems as the first of its "Special Focus" series. An avid gardener, Leong shot photographs of her garden for the series.


A butterfly and I pass each other
my pearl anklet
its morning brush with death

Thursday, June 25, 2015


The estate cat
is stalking the ducklings—
a gymnast flexes his six pack

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

STEEP TEA: Lee Tzu Pheng

Five poems in STEEP TEA take for their epigraph a quotation of Anne Lee Tzu Pheng, who is widely considered to be the foremost woman poet of Singapore. Her "Neanderthal Bone Flute: A Discovery" meditates on the invention of art, in the form of the bone flute. "To see for the first time a thing other / than the mire of food," she wonders, and simultaneously criticizes Singapore's immigrant obsession with material wealth. My poem "Useless" imagines the first bone flautist to be a woman who discovers belatedly how long her ex-lover was sleeping with her replacement before breaking up with her.

Lee is best known for her 1976 poem "My Country and My People," which was banned from the national airwaves for reasons that are unclear, but may have something to do with the poem's ambivalence towards Singapore's nation-building project. For me, such ambivalence is a vital attitude that is sorely missing from other more straightforwardly patriotic poets. My poem "Recognition" spins changes and questions on two less well-known lines from Lee's poem: "a duck that would not lay / and a runt of a papaya tree." The figures of duck and papaya tree speak powerfully of the spiritual sterility and handicap behind Singapore's economic growth. To pay tribute to her patriotic ambivalence, my poem is written as a series of questions. Another well-known poem by Lee is "Singapore River" in which she laments the neglect of human ties and feelings in the cleaning up of the river. As she wryly observes, " the heart / can sometimes be troublesome" in the dispassionate rush to modernize. My poem "Bougainvillea" responds to hers by depicting, and questioning, the modern society that we have "achieved."

The last two poems have to do with the heart. In a more recent poem "Tough, Love," Lee speaks of the difficulty of loving "no matter how many turns / you make." The trope of turns reminded me of a childhood game "Reversi, Also Called Othello," played with pieces that are white on one side and black on the other. The short lyric plays with the idea of flipping things around, all kinds of things, including coffee mugs and photo negatives. My last quotation comes from a very early poem by Lee, from the title poem of her first book "Prospect of a Drowning." Written while she was still an undergraduate, although published only 8 years later, this first book is full of untamed passion. Her speaker wanders, lost and afraid, along the seashore, looking for "some curio of the change." It is a beautiful phrase, which I used for my poem "Hong Kong," when I turned to writing about a change, a good one, in my relationship with my lover. Hong Kong was full of curiosities for us, and we brought home a token of its effect on us. Lee Tzu Pheng has been much lauded for her poetry. Her first three volumes all won National Book Development Council of Singapore Awards. She was awarded the Cultural Medallion, the country's highest honor for an artist. In 1995 she was one of six writers from the Asia-Pacific region and one of fifty writers worldwide to be conferred the Gabriela Mistral Award by the government of Chile.

Haiku and Reading

Daylilies by the lake
a bouquet of sunsets
but not a lullaby


Last night I read at a PrideWriters event, organized by Kevin Scott Hall, to benefit New Alternatives, a non-profit working for LGBT homeless youth. The upper bar at the Duplex was filled, though not to capacity, partly because of the heavy downpour just before the reading. GH, WL and JH came. Kevin read from his memoir about taking in a homeless black man from New Orleans. Ricardo Hernandez read several poems, the best of which was a beautiful one about Rene Magritte and his mother. Kate Walter read from her memoir about going back to the dating pool after a long-term relationship broke up. James Gavin read from his biography of singer Peggy Lee, a well-crafted extract about the encounters between Lee and Madonna. Sissy Van Dyke was hilarious as she translated her comedic flair into print and read from The Adventures of Sissy Van Dyke. I read three poems from Equal to the Earth. During the reading I could feel the house becoming absolutely still. A woman paid me a huge compliment afterwards, something about weighing every word and embodying my poetry.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

STEEP TEA: Aemilia Lanyer

As far as we know, Aemilia Lanyer wrote only one book, but a big and ambitious one. Published at the age of 42, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (1611) is a Christian defense of women's virtue against interpreters such as St. Augustine. It is made up of several parts but the most interesting for me is an apology for Eve. The defense, imaginative, ranging, and vigorous, may be summed thus: Eve's fault was only too much love. This idea I took as the premise of my opening poem "Eve's Fault," in which Eve has not one but three lovers, God, the snake and Adam.

Lanyer's editor Danielle Clarke is certainly right to point out in her introduction that Lanyer's "feminism" must be carefully understood within the contexts and terms of her time. For instance, a revision of biblical tradition regarding Eve's culpability was not necessarily subversive. Lanyer was in fact very traditional in seeing the representative woman in Eve. My poem does not seek to depict Eve as a universal type so much as a "historical" mother, from whom we inherit our inclination to love too much.

Clarke reads the poem as primarily an act of Renaissance self-fashioning. To claim virtue and authorship, Lanyer had to proclaim virtue and authorship through her long poem, which includes ten dedicatory encomia, all addressed to noblewoman, beginning wth the queen. The personal impulses behind such strenuous effort may be guessed at from the few known facts about her life. Clarke: "... she was raised in the household of the Countess of Kent. She had an affair with Lord Hunsdon, the Lord Chamberlain, bore his child and was married off to a musician, Alphonso Lanyer. She clearly spent time with the aristocratic northern Clifford family (mother and daughter) at Cookham ..., but the circumstances surrounding this are unclear." Illicit love, social disgrace, unhappy marriage, desire for vindication, these are powerful forces propelling the wish to speak.

Mothers and Haiku

The Carcanet blog has published my essay "Mothers, Not Muses" on my new book Steep Tea.

Poets make the best mothers. I can pick up their books and be inspired and instructed. When I tire of them I can put them down.


In duty red trunks
the lifeguard on his high chair
zaps away the scuds

Monday, June 22, 2015

STEEP TEA: Kimura Noboku

"Born and brought up in a farming village in Ibaraki, Kimura [Nobuko b. 1936] attracted attention with poems that mix folkloric and dream elements. "A poem is born, not so much because I make one," she once said. "It's just that something spurts out of me and hurriedly presses me into writing it down." She started publishing her poems in her twenties and came up with her first book in 1971. Five books followed. Since the 1980s she had also published books of poems for children. A housewife since her marriage, she has remained independent of any poetry group."

--Hiroaki Sato in a preface to his selection of Kimura's poems in "Japanese Women Poets: An Anthology."

Hiroaki Sato stated somewhere else that while translating Kimura's poems for this anthology, he was so taken by her work that he translated and published a separate book of her poetry called "The Village Beyond."

Kimura's short poem "Mundaneness" evokes perfectly the dream-like domestic life that I was beginning then to share with my lover, the fierce desire to tear out of the solidifying substance of reality. I wrote "Broccoli" in protest against my life.

Lake Carmel and Two Movies

GH and I spent a lovely weekend with C and B at their lovely new home at Lake Carmel. C drove us to the Chuang Yen Monastery, a huge Buddhist temple complex, with a great Buddha hall and a Kuan Yin hall, and 225 acres of land. On our return to their house, we met their friends who drove from Queens for dinner. B went with GH and me on a walk around the lake. Dinner was fun, although we had to move the barbecue indoors when it started to drizzle. J had been working as a tailor since eight. His current job was for a TV series on hip hop from South Bronx. A was a currency trader whose bf G was white and worked as a loans officer for a bank.

On Sunday, B cooked a breakfast of eggs, sausages and peppers. We went for another walk around the lake, this time in the other direction. Many lovely lookouts. The day turned warm enough for a swim at the small artificial lake in front of their house. It was my first time swimming in a lake. G and I enjoyed the time away from the city. It was lovely to rest the eyes on so much greenery and water. We had not known that part of the state to be so saturated with lakes. I'm glad to re-connect with C and B after so many years, when they put up this hapless conference volunteer at their home in Forest Hills.


Last Sunday, we watched the movie Stealth (2006), written, directed and acted by Lionel Baier. He plays a Swiss man who discovers his Polish roots and becomes obsessed with being Polish. Behind the unlikely premise lies a critique of the ennui resulting from the mainstreaming of gay life and the determined neutrality of Switzerland. History, or family history, is not dead yet, and the proof can be found in Poland. Lionel the protagonist drives there with his more down-to-earth sister (Natacha Koutchoumov), who is pregnant. They find the Polish branch of the family, but more than that, they finf the adventure of living history.

Last night, the movie Beloved/Friend (1999) was also an interesting feature. Directed by the Catalan director, Ventura Pons, the movie centers on a dying gay professor who falls in love with a bi-sexual student. More than sex, Jaume the professor (Josep Maria Pou) wants David (David Selvas) to be his spiritual heir. The parallel plot involves Alba (Irene Montalà), whom David has gotten pregnant, and her mother, Fanny (Rosa Maria Sardà), who talk over whether Alba should get an abortion. In a thematic connection, the mother projects onto her daughter her own desire for her youth and her fear of dying, by encouraging Alba to abort. The last member of the fine cast is Mario Gas playing Pere, husband of Fanny, and the youthful love of Jaume. The complications play out in the course of a day. Time runs out on Jaume, as it does for all the characters in some sense.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

STEEP TEA: Mimi Khalvati

A villanelle is a tricky form to pull off. The challenge is to make the two repetends look inevitable and earned. I I wrote "Novenary with Hens" as part of the Poetry Free-for-all Apprentice Contest. The participants were given a choice of two odd titles. I had to look up the meaning of the word "novenary." Hens reminded me of the time when I was a kid and stepped on one of my chicks. It died on me and I have never had a pet since. While I was writing about this experience, two lines repeated themselves in my head: "I couldn't count to ten till I turned eleven" and "One, two, buckle my shoe, nine and a big fat hen." Surrealistic, rhyming dissonantly, they became the repetends of my poem, an elegy for the deaths of a pet and childhood innocence.

Mimi Khalvati's line "No one is there for you. Don't call, don't cry" is the perfect epigraph for the poem. Repetitively in Khalvati's own villanelle, titled simply "Villanelle," the line evokes the child's helpless loneliness acutely. In my poem, Mother is part of the cause of the death. Father is not around to fix it. The Shopgirl adds horror to the trauma. I have never forgotten this incident, and I hope the repetends fix the poem in the reader's mind too.

Mimi Khalvati is an Iranian-born British poet. She was born in Tehran and moved to the Isle of Wight for boarding school at the age of six. A feted poet, she has published many collections with Carcanet Press. Her skill with poetic forms appeals to me strongly. Her sense of not belonging can be deduced from the name "Theatre in Exile," a theater group that she co-founded and directed and wrote for. I found her "Villanelle" in the Everyman's Library edition of the poetic form, edited by Annie Finch and Marie-Elizabeth Mali. Given the closeness of our last names--Khalvati and Koh--our poems were only separated by one other poem. Close but not together. Similar but not the same.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Back Cover of STEEP TEA

I've just seen the back cover of Steep Tea. It looks mighty fine to me.  Huge thanks to Gregory Woods and David Kinloch for their recommendations.

Friday, June 12, 2015


Lambda Literary has just published my essay on Pauline Park, my friend who identifies as a Korean adoptee and a transgender woman. Thanks, William Johnson, for accepting the essay.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Pre-order STEEP TEA

"Here are short, deft narratives that map the mismatched patterns of male and female desire grounded in partial understandings of love. The author’s native Singapore sounds out sharply, often ironically, in counterpoint to the intimate domestic interiors that help to constitute what will surely be recognised as some of contemporary poetry’s classic love poems." – David Kinloch

My new Carcanet book Steep Tea is now available to pre-order at the special price of £8.00 with free UK postage and packaging. Discount code KOH03 (case sensitive) at checkout.

Friday, June 05, 2015

STEEP TEA: Yasmeen Hameed

Every Singapore poet has an airplane poem, my friend and writer, Ruihe Zhang once said to me. It's an observation that stuck in the mind. Yes, Singaporeans love to travel out of their tiny island-state, and the quickest way to go abroad and back is to take the airplane. I wanted to write an airplane poem too, but for a long time did not know what it would be about.

Then I discovered the poems of Urdu poet Yasmeen Hameed in MODERN POETRY OF PAKISTAN, an anthology edited by Iftikhar Arif and Waqas Khwaja. Yasmeen's voice, quiet as the night, was utterly compelling. I felt strongly that the voice, like Cavafy's, was not lost through translation into English. The poems in the anthology are concerned with the appearance and disappearance of things, often evoked through the tropes of sleeping and waking. The powerful poem "Who Will Write the Epitaph?" imagines the loss of all "the earth-born." The tone is not melodramatically apocalyptic but poignantly elegiac.

The self-questioning in the poems is also immensely attractive. "I Am Still Awake" begins with lines that speak in the tone of near-disbelief:

I am still awake
like my eyes
and speak
in my own voice
my own dialect

Then the speaker explains why the self-alienation: "I have only now become acquainted with the meaning of migration." And it hit me that my airplane poem is about the difference between travel and migration. As Yasmeen puts it so eloquently, "When, sometimes, snow knocks a hole in the wall of night / I fill the hole with my body." Migration opens up a hole in one's life that migrants try to fill with all kinds of things, including a poem such as my "Airplane Poems." The attempt is futile, of course, but the gap is productive.

Yasmeen Hamid has published five books of poems in Urdu, and received several prizes for her work, including the Allama Iqbal Award, the Fatima Jinnah Medal and the Tamgha-i-Imtiaz (Medal of Excellence). She is also a translator and anthologist. Her PAKISTANI URDU VERSE was published in 2010 and DAYBREAK: WRITINGS ON FAIZ in 2013, both by OUP. She teaches Urdu Literature at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

STEEP TEA: Sarah Josepha Hale

Do you know who wrote "Mary Had a Little Lamb"? She's Sarah Josepha Hale, a remarkable New England woman who lived from 1788 to 1879. The nursery rhyme, originally titled "Mary's Lamb," appeared in her book Poems for Our Children. Before that book, she had published a collection of adult verse, titled confidently The Genius of Oblivion. She was one of the earliest American women novelists, publishing her anti-slavery, pro-union novel called Northwood: Life North and South in 1827. By the end of her life, she had written nearly 50 books, while bringing up five children and editing a national women's journal. As the editor of, first, the Ladies' Magazine, and, then, Godey's Ladies' Book, she was an influential arbiter of the nation's taste and a powerful advocate for change. Though she did not support the vote for women, she believed fervently in equal education for them. She helped found Vassar College. Her 17 articles and editorials about women's education prepared the nation for the establishment of a women's college.

Her passion for women's education lends a vital context to my poem "Paragraph" written about teaching in an all-girls, K-12 school in Manhattan. The poem describes one of my favorite lessons at the start of the sixth-grade Language course, which is, despite its name, not about French, Spanish or Chinese, but grammar. In that lesson, I ask the students to write a paragraph describing their favorite word. This assignment is not only pleasurable but also revealing, of their temperament, interests and language ability. To help them get started, I would reel off a paragraph about my favorite word off the top of my head. The students are usually lovely enough to be impressed. "Paragraph" is not, however, about what a teacher can do; rather, it is about what a teacher cannot do. One is the flip side of the other.

Young Eliot and Haiku

Robert Crawford's Young Eliot makes very good use of recently released materials, including letters by Eliot and by others to him, to show the vital importance of his growing-up years in St. Louis and Cape Ann to his poetry, not just his Unitarian and privileged upbringing, but also his social shyness and sexual self-doubt. Crawford is probably right that Eliot wrote his best poetry when he was in crisis, whether sexual or health-wise. The rest of the time he was too busy being the responsible machine to his wife, family, bank job and literary journalism. This part of his life is almost unbearable to read, the steeling of the self against tremendous pressures. He and Vivienne should never have gotten married, but if they did not, he would have gone back from Oxford to America and become a philosophy professor, not a poet. She believed in his poetic genius, and that must count for a very great deal. I learned a great deal from this conscientious biography. The style is unnecessarily convoluted in places.


for your buttonhole
a summer flower called

Tuesday, June 02, 2015


Exchanged Facebook messages with John Clegg, with whom I will read at the London Review Bookshop on July 7. When he mentioned my "Translations of an Unknown Mexican Poet" and his PhD in pseudo-translations, he gave me the idea of treating my haiku as pseudo-translations of an insignificant Japanese poet.


the rain knows
only one way to behave
not the pin oak

Monday, June 01, 2015

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Hike and Haiku

GH, WL, CC and I went to Cold Spring yesterday. We walked around the West Point Foundry Park, which was less a hike than a stroll. Some pretty views of the stream and the ruins of the red-bricked company building. We ate lunch at the viewing deck overlooking a pond covered with green scum. Wanting to hike more, we walked into the park opposite the Breakneck Ridge hike, and found a local beach. The water of the Hudson was clean enough up here for swimming. Then we hiked the White route below Breakneck but couldn't find the Yellow trail to lead us back to town, and so we back trekked and reached la Bouchon in time for our early dinner reservation.


as green as hot
through the taconic range
or was it bukit timah

Friday, May 29, 2015

STEEP TEA: Jorie Graham

GH started an Easter tradition: host brunch for a group of friends and then go for a walk in Central Park. These walks encourage intimacies. On the very first walk, which is the substance of my poem "Easter," two friends shared personal stories of an isolated childhood and a health problem. The stories became emblematic in my mind of the dying body, which will not be resurrected, unlike Jesus'. Threaded through these stories in my poem is a strong unease that came from the early days of living with GH. It's hard to join two separate lives into one. The surreal feeling of that attempt informs the strange atmosphere of the poem. I was writing differently.

The epigraph - "your body an arrival / you know is false but can't outrun" - is taken from the poem " "The Geese" by Jorie Graham. In the poem she compares the goal-directed movement of migrating geese to the texture-thickening work of spiders. She concludes that we live in between the geese and the spiders. When Graham achieves the right blend between philosophy and imagery, as she does in this poem, she is marvelous. Her poem is consolatory, finally. Mine refuses the consolation of the everyday in order to walk the tightrope of the body.


a soap bubble
splits the sun
by the black walnut

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Wednesday, May 27, 2015


late spring
the white flowers can barely lift
their heads from the dust

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

STEEP TEA: Mary di Michele

I am not the first, nor will I be the last to write poems in response to another writer's work. As Elaine Scarry wrote, beauty begets beauty. I don't know if my poems may be described as beautiful, but they are begotten by beauty. My poem "In Death As In Life" was written after Mary di Michele's translation of a poem by Pier Paolo Pasolini, that great Italian poet and filmmaker. Pasolini's poem speculates about the day of his death, how he would die and where, "in some city, Trieste or Udine," in di Michele's translation. The poem inspired me to make an important decision about my final resting place after living a migrant's life. I wanted to put on record the place to scatter my ashes.

Di Michele has a special link to Pasolini as she explained in her book of response poems THE FLOWERS OF YOUTH. After reading the book, I wrote this review on my blog:

You read up on a great writer and director, what he wrote and what others wrote about him. You find affinities in thought and temperament, though you live in different times and places. You fly to Italy for an academic conference and make the pilgrimage to the writer's grave at Casarsa. There, sitting on a bench shaded by cypress, weeping for a man you have never met, you hear a voice whispering to you in Italian, which you don't know how to write, but find yourself transcribing. Translated into English, the voice said,

I leave the city and discover the sky,
The world is bigger than I realized,
Where there's nobody the stars are myriad.

That was what happened to Mary di Michele, according to her book's prologue, and what inspired her to write The Flower of Youth. The title is the same as that of the volume of verse Pier Paolo Pasolini wrote in dialect about his coming of age in the countryside during World War II. The verse that di Michele heard at Pasolini's grave speaks of the affinities that she found in the Italian writer. The usual migration goes from the country to the city in the search of a bigger world. di Michelle and Pasolini, however, found their world enlarged by leaving the city for the countryside. In her case, that journey is also a return, a homecoming, from Canada to Italy. Born in Lanciano, Italy, in 1949, she moved with her family to Toronto when she was six.

The Flower of Youth is organized in four parts. The Prologue narrates in verse and prose di Michele's journey to Pasolini's grave. Part II "Impure Acts," the bulk of the book, speaks in the voice of Pasolini about the struggle between his sexuality and his faith. Instead of fighting in the war, he followed his mother into the countryside to set up a school for boys too young to be conscripted. di Michelle's poems take off from his own memoir about that period of sexual awakening. In Part III "After Pasolini," she translates the two very different versions of the poem that Pasolini wrote about his death, and she adds what she calls a permutation, a poem of her own about the reported circumstances of his death that deploys motifs from his poems. Part IV the epilogue explains the structure of di Michele's book.

The poems in Part II reproduce what di Michele discovered to her surprise when she read Pasolini's memoir. The World War is sidelined in favor of the internal battle. The bombs keep falling, but the real devastations are those of the heart and its desires. Most of the poems are written in quatrains with the last line of each quatrain shorter than the rest and indented. This stanzaic form proves to be admirably malleable and musical in di Michele's hands. The opening stanza of "Postscript(s)" introduces gently yet pointedly Pasolini's story in di Michelle's chosen form:

The fall of '47 I was 25 and still living
in Viluta. What made me stay so long?
What made me linger in that nothing place,
xxxxxxxxxxxthat hamlet of ten houses?

The enjambment after "living" subtly reminds us of the casualties of war. The repetition of "What made me" fills out the entire length of the third line and the next, which also contracts to round up the small hamlet. di Michelle is also fond of breaking a line between an adjective and its noun. That device works well in many instances to maintain narrative momentum, but may seem arbitrary in some places.

The sentiments traced in these poems are not extraordinary, but they are delicate. Sexual rendezvous takes place in discreet fields and secret woods, to which the reader's eyes are not privy, though enticed. In a few places, the plain language descends into conventionality, as when de Michele's Pasolini complains of a boy that "He erected invisible walls/ against me" ("Spring Far Behind"). The same poem, however, quickens in the end when Pasolini dreams of lying with him again in "a familiar bed," which for them is "some ditch fragrant with primrose." The invisible walls are unreal, a mere idea, but the ditch smelling of primrose brings the country and the sex to the nose.

In like manner the best poems of the book bring to life the physical environment in which the drama of love not only takes place but finds its embodiment. In "Hidden Corners/The Earth Moves," spring has returned and so has B. naked to the waist. He leads Pasolini into the woods, where

The dew had dried but the stones, gravel
from the river bank, still glistened; in the grove
where we lay together the Earth trembled
xxxxxxxxxxxxxwith the passing trains.

The trains unexpectedly and perfectly convey the temporary vibrations of the encounter. In "A Thousand Birds," it's summer and the boys go back to swimming naked at the pit, their playful cries harmonizing with birdsong. Sitting by the pit, distracted from his Tasso and Tommaseo, di Michele's Pasolini is keenly aware of his envy "for those meadows where B. stepped/ shoeless into the long grass." The mixture of the sacred ("shoeless") and the sensual ("the long grass") is captured vividly in a memorable image. With such images the book convinces us that the country is more bountiful than the city.