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.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Speaking for Itself

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

*

TLS January 8 2016

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

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

***

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

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

***

TLS January 15 2016

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

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

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

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Haiku and Singapore's Lies


So much snow
written off
by January


*


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





Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Simon Critchley on David Bowie

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

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Nothing Outside But Everywhere

TLS December 18 & 25 2015

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

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


***

TLS January 1 2016

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

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


Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Inspired Word

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





Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Site Responsive

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

*

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


Tuesday, January 12, 2016

ARB Reviews Steep Tea

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

- Jennifer Wong in Asian Review of Books

Saturday, January 09, 2016

Friday, January 08, 2016

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

The Tombs of Ravenna

PN Review 42:2 November - December 2015

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

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

Haiku and Yield to the Willow

Morning runners
at the finishing line—
a gull wheels away


*

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


Sutra Blues

the haunted man
needs no house


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


freeing centipede
trapped in the tub
I step inside
myself


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


bits of grit & oh oil in the ash


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


in memory
in the moment,
always


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


hole in the center
of the snowflake
another koan
revealed


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


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

-Soseki, translated by Harry Behn


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

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


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

-R. H. Blythe

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Saturday, January 02, 2016

Haiku and Noon at Five O'Clock


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


*


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

Friday, January 01, 2016

Yeo Wei Wei's "These Foolish Things"

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

New Year Letter to Lovers of a Better Singapore

New Year Letter to Lovers of a Better Singapore 

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

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

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

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

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

 Jee Leong Koh
December 31, 2015

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Vision and Touch

I read Rachel Urquhart's The Visionist over Christmas, an appropriate time for reading about the mysteries of faith, sin, and redemption. The Shaker settlement and the outside World of mid-19th century Massachusetts are both meticulously and convincingly brought to life. The novel is narrated through three points of view. Sister Charity of the City of Hope and Simon Pryor from the World both speak in the first person, as they struggle to understand the throes of events around them. Sister Charity, the self-deceiving innocent, bears much of the novel's psychological burden whereas Simon Pryor, the fire investigator, bears much of the narrative burden. The stroke of genius here is to narrate Polly Kimball's point of view through the third person. Polly, the outsider who becomes the insider on false pretenses, is thus seen with sympathetic detachment. The third-person becomes a delicate method of apprehending her trauma and her victory without inhabiting them.

*

TLS October 30, 2015

from Michael Silk's review of Joshua Billings' Genealogy of the Tragic: Greek tragedy and German philosophy:

The meaning that the [Idealist] theorists find in, most notably, Sophocles, "established a possibility for Greek tragedy's meaning that did not exist before". The new "meaning" (let us rather say) was not available before - but, in any case, let us at once add: the newly perceived "meaning" helps to create a new set of "possibilities" for the "meaning" of art and literature tout court. It helps to make possible Nietzsche's conviction that "all art can be understood as a remedy and aid in the service of growing and struggling life"; Matthew Arnold's claim that, by giving voice, and decisive shape, to "a current of true and fresh ideas", the greatest poetry speaks to our deepest concerns; and Terry Eagleton's insistence that the best writers are valuable because (pace mechanical Marxism) they can and do reveal the "fault lines" of a prevailing ideology. Idealist thought has enabled essential understanding of the distinctive value of literature and art, we are indebted to it....


***

from Katharine Craik's review of Joe Moshenka's Feeling Pleasures: The sense of touch in Renaissance England:

Here is a new story of the Reformation quite different from the familiar narrative of an affective, proximate world giving way to new forms of intellectual detachment. Christ's incarnation had always implied that touch involves a certain dignity, and tactile forms of worship continued in post-Reformation England even as the rules about what was touchable and what wasn't remained constantly in flux. The history of the Book of Common Prayer itself bears witness to the difficulty of ironing out tactility from Christian spiritual practice. Reforming preachers such as Thomas Cranmer and Lancelot Andrewes refused to abandon God's literal touch to mere metaphor, retaining the possibility, however indefinable, that divinity resides at our fingertips. Even the holy Word remained tactile and sinewy, its curative touch poised between the real and the figurative.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Justin Chin (1969 - 2015)

I never met Justin Chin, and now it’s too late. He died on Christmas Eve after his family took him off life support. Two people wrote me separately to ask if I knew Justin Chin. Why ask me? Because we both moved from Singapore to the States, and we both are poets and gay. Born in Malaysia, Justin Chin grew up in Singapore. He was just one year older than I am. He probably went to Anglo-Chinese School. I’m guessing from the comment on an obituary left by Singaporean actor and comedian Hossan Leong. Hossan Leong was a classmate of Justin Chin’s since six, and Hossan Leong studied at ACS and ACJC.

After ACS, Justin Chin went to the University of Hawaii before transferring to San Francisco State University. In the 90’s he made a name for himself on the San Francisco poetry scene, writing and performing work that was full of “humor and raw vulnerability,” as the POETRY Foundation website describes it. The website also calls him “fiercely political.” Justin Chin published many books, of poetry and non-fiction. Gutted (2006), a book of poems about tending to his dying father, was shortlisted for the Lambda Literary Award and won the Publishing Triangle’s Thom Gunn Award. 

All this I learned from a few minutes of googling. There is obviously much more to learn and to be said, but already questions crowd my mind. Who is his literary executor, the person responsible for preserving and disseminating his literary legacy? Will the executor advocate for the different aspects of Justin Chin’s life and work, not only his gay identity but also his Singaporean/Malaysian origins? Will Singapore literature claim him as one of its own? Does Justin Chin wish to be claimed by Singapore literature? Who will decide now that he is no longer here to express his wishes? None of the three American obituaries I read mentions his relationship with Singapore after he left. In all three, he is identified or identifiable as Asian American. What is and will be his status in Asian American literature and American gay literature?

A broader question: who are the writers writing in the USA who are originally from Singapore? By “who,” I don’t just mean the names, but the meaning of these writers. There are many of us here: Wena Poon, Sandi Tan, Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, Colin Goh, Yen Yen Woo, Damon Chua, Marcus Yi, Jeremy Tiang, Amanda Lee Koe, Lo Kwa Mei-en, to reel off some names. And if we include Canada, even more, including pioneering writer Goh Poh Seng and Lydia Kwa. Who will write our story, and what will our story say?

All these questions may seem beside the point when a man has just died. They affect, however, how we mourn for Justin Chin, or even if we mourn at all. Family and friends mourn for the person that they knew. Those of us outside the circle of personal intimacy find our own reasons to mourn this death, coming at the closing of the year. Reasons to do with common sexual orientation, national origin, or personal history. What I find affects me most is the loss of the poet that he was. These three poems published in Shampoo make me want to read more of his poetry.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Haiku


How warm-looking
the graying bristles on the man
selling Christmas trees

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The American Diary of a Japanese Girl

It is imperfectly written but it has the charm, as Charles Simic said of his earlier poetry, of awkwardness. The introduction written by Laura E. Franey outlines the collaborative process between Yone Noguchi and his editors in writing the book, the diary's critique of turn-of-the-century Japonisme, and Morning Glory's performance of authenticity and identity. The Afterword by Edward Marx surveys the book's reception and afterlife in the USA and Japan. It suggests usefully the different genres in which the diary may be placed: women's confessional diaries popular in the late 19th century in Europe and the USA; Japanese diary literature, or nikki bungaku, whose roots reach all the way back to The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon; the New Japanese Novel; Asian American literature; American trickster tales; and queer literature. The notes to the text are full and enlightening.

My favorite bits:

"Japan teaches nothing but simplicity. Simplicity is the philosophy of art." (62)

"I thought that Americans buy things because they love to buy, not because they have to buy." (62)

"Meriken jin [Americans] has to study the high art of concealing." (62)

"Every book was without finger-marks. Book without finger-mark is like bread without brown crust. Dear finger-mark!" (65)

"[Morning Glory to her uncle] "I'm a poet already. The poet without poem is greater, don't you know?" (91)

"[Morning Glory to Mr. Heine] The best poems are those not published. The very best are those not written." (99)

I think I've discovered in Yone Noguchi yet another of my American predecessors, in addition to Auden and Gunn.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Honor and Haiku

An American honor! Steep Tea makes the "2015 Poetry Books We Love" list from Split This Rock, joining such terrific poets as Marilyn Nelson, Nicholas Wong, and Timothy Yu.


*

Gray day
another salon lights up
for coloring nails

Friday, December 18, 2015

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Haiku and Kessler


The moon tonight
tosses its horns
at the trumpet’s lion


*

Last night heard William Fung, the video artist and scholar, gave the Kessler lecture at CLAGS. He showed snippets of Re-Orientation, which features 7 of the original 12 interviewees in the groundbreaking video Orientation made in the early 80's. 30 years later, the participants have visibly aged and, less visibly but more vitally, diverged in their paths as LGBT work becomes professionalized and LGBT workers more accepted in big corporations. Fung reflected cogently on how his own work has changed under the pressures of neo-liberalism and corporatism. He made me think about my own arts organizing, in particular, the Second Saturdays Reading Series and the Singapore Lit Fest in NYC. What is the point? How best to do it? At the very least, I've decided to drop the name of festival chair in favor of festival organizer.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Monday, December 14, 2015

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Translations of an insignificant Japanese poet

For those of you who have been reading my haiku, I must now reveal that they are not my own works, but translations of Japanese originals. Six of these English translations have now been re-translated into Chinese by Zhou Decheng, and published in the Chinese-language Poetry Monthly. The story of my English translations is as follows:

In February 2011, when I moved into my Upper West Side apartment, not far from 80 Riverside Drive, where Yone Noguchi boarded for a time, I found a sheaf of haiku in the bedroom closet, almost as if it had been left for me. To my surprise, the poet made numerous references to people and places that I knew from living in New York City. I was thus compelled to translate the poems from the Japanese. As I worked on these exhilarating, enigmatic pieces, I found myself searching out the street corner, the tree, and even the bird that had so enraptured our poet. In this manner I traced the route taken through Central Park—entering at 86th Street on the west side, then running south of the reservoir, or else strolling north of the Great Lawn by the Arthur Ross pinetum, and finally exiting on the east side at either 84th or 85th Street. Slowly but surely I was beginning to live the life glimpsed through these haiku. I now walk in the poet’s footsteps every day to where I teach school. The manuscript was untitled, so I have given it a title by quoting one of the poet’s haiku. He or she signed off as “an insignificant Japanese poet."

Below are the six haiku (in English translation) that appeared in Poetry Monthly. Thank you, Zhou Decheng, for re-translating the English into Chinese. Any takers for translating the English or Chinese translations into another language? I hope the haiku will eventually find their way home back into Japanese.


Last cherry blossoms
the tentative steps
of old women


A tiny leaf drops
into my cup of tea
and then another


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


In the fall evening
green flies glint
like mica in granite


In the snow
a stone sits on its shadow
a courtier on his robe


The snow unscrolls
for the ancient seals
of children’s shoes

Friday, December 11, 2015

To be less established

This Middle Ground article provides a useful summary of events and views about censorship and arts funding in Singapore, for those coming into the discussion mid-way.

From the discussion so far, I've read stated either directly or indirectly that I could stop asking NAC for funding because I am already an "established" artist, whatever that means. The implication is that less established artists cannot afford to stop asking NAC for funding. I just want to point out (at the risk of sounding as if I'm tooting my horn) that I did not apply for NAC funding even when I was trying to establish myself. I quit as VP of a secondary school in Singapore to move to New York City to study creative writing. I was rejected by four different graduate programs before I was accepted by one that did not offer any financial aid or teaching assistantship. I spent all my savings on the program before I received a financial gift in my second year from the college for my work.

After graduation, I submitted my thesis poetry manuscript to countless book contests, which required payment for consideration, and was rejected by all of them for four years. Finally I decided to set up my own imprint, Bench Press, and self-published my first two books. I paid for it all with my private-school teacher's salary (private schools pay less in NYC than public schools because teachers in private schools are non-unionized), while sharing an apartment in Queens with two other people to keep living costs down in this expensive city. I sent my self-published books to people whose work I admired. All this time, I was reading at open-mics all over town to hone my reading style, to share my work, to network, and to learn from other writers, while holding down a full-time job teaching in a very different culture, to a very different set of students.

Of course, I had advantages. My Oxford undergrad degree got me the private-school job. My private-school job came with well-motivated kids and stimulating colleagues. You make of your advantages, whatever they are, however you can. But, and here's my point, I did not apply to NAC for funding. Not one cent. Until, as I shared in my open letter, I was published by UK's Carcanet Press and applied for funding for the UK book tour (I've just mailed off the check this afternoon to return the money to NAC).

I am not so different from so many younger Singaporean artists I know in NYC. They are ambitious, resourceful, inquisitive. They have to be, to survive in NYC's competitive arts environment, where you can throw a stone in any direction and hit a gifted actor, an innovative painter, and a swoonsome singer. These Singaporeans will succeed because their lives depend on it.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Haiku


Hands uplifted
a virgin waits in stone robe
late December



Looking
for the wood
and the trees

Sunday, December 06, 2015

To my fellow Singaporean artists and arts lovers

It appears that after NAC CEO Kathy Lai wrote to the Straits Times to defend state censorship of the arts, NAC Chairman Chan Heng Chee defended the same in her speech as guest of honor at the Singapore International Film Festival. Her speech is an insult to the festival, which has prided itself on its support for freedom of expression by taking a principled stance against showing any film censored by the state. Chan’s speech also raises in an acute form the question of artists applying for and accepting state funding. In short, she claimed that the state has the right and the obligation to decide on what to fund, based on other considerations besides the artistic merit of the application. In response to the argument that the public purse belongs to the public and not the government, she countered that the public would prefer to spend more money on welfare subsidies and education, and less on the arts. This last point is meretricious: it is not a question of either-or. One may as well claim that the public would rather spend more money on welfare than on ministers’ pay, and thereby make a stronger claim than Chan’s.

Still, Chan’s speech makes it all too clear that the state after Lee Kuan Yew is bent on controlling the arts through its funding schemes. It will support the arts as a way of promoting the Singapore brand, and neuter the arts as a means of political and social expression. As its strategy clarifies, artists must decide how best to engage the state and retain their freedom and autonomy. I have a great deal of sympathy with the view that sees NAC funds as public monies and insists that they be dispensed on the sole consideration of artistic merit, and not the government’s political agenda. Such a view has right on its side, and idealism as its motive force. But the current one-party state has no trouble ignoring what is right and trashing what is ideal. It knows that it is the main funder of the arts in Singapore, and that Singapore artists have come to rely on its funding. By its cynical calculations, the state is certain that no matter how much of a stink artists may raise after each instance of censorship, they will return to suck its teats in the next round of grant applications.

The only way out of this bind is to wean us from state funding. We must learn to develop and present our works by using private, overseas, or minimal funding. This is possible not only for the literary arts, which are relatively inexpensive, but also for film and theater. We can pare down to the essentials, we can invent new forms for the new material situation, we can become resourceful. Groundbreaking works in film and on stage have been produced without state help, and, in many countries, against state sanction. They gain respect with their own people and with audiences abroad for their artistic integrity and innovation. In fact, pioneering Singaporean artists had been doing just this before the state decided to flush the arts with money. (Name the idol of your own artistic field here.) Perhaps, seeing our renewed determination, many more arts-loving private individuals will step forward to help, people big and small, like Eng Kai Er and her No Star Arts Grant. We can dispense with the nanny state.

After reading NAC CEO Kathy Lai’s letter, I decided not to work with the NAC any longer. Acting on that decision, I withdrew my submission to the poetry anthology A Luxury We Must Afford, since the editors intend, not unusually, to apply to NAC for funding. I also told my Russian translator about my no-NAC rule and very resourcefully he is applying for an American arts grant that will pay not only for the translation, but also his travel to the USA to present his translation. A Singapore publisher has just accepted my book of essays for publication, knowing my stance against NAC funding. Win some, lose some, but all’s based on some principle that I can live with.

Next year, I’m bringing back the biennial Singapore Literature Festival in New York. The first edition last year did not accept any NAC funding, but we did ask the authors to apply to NAC for airfare (for which they received partial funding). Next year, we will do without NAC funding completely, and raise funds from private donors. It’s a good way to invite personal investment in a community arts project. Without NAC funding, the festival can only invite a very small number of authors, but we will be able to focus on giving those authors maximum exposure. The tentative theme of the festival is “Singapore Unbound.” The festival will feature terrific writers who are also outspoken critics of the status quo.

I hope you will join me in re-considering your engagement with the state and its arts funding. To return to the topic of the state’s obligation to the arts, I will say that the state is obliged to cherish the country’s artists and art works, even when they are met with public indifference and hostility; the state should do so for the sake of future generations of Singapore, who need a free and authentic culture. I appreciate fully the fact that it is easier for me not to work with the state since I’m abroad. By the same token, I cannot have the same effect as someone working in Singapore can have. I can only do what I can where I am.

Jee Leong Koh
New York City
December 06, 2015

Saturday, December 05, 2015

Chelsea Gallery Hop

We went to see the Andy Goldsworthy show at Galerie Lelong, but knew we would make other discoveries along the way. The motorized sculptures of animals and lamps by the Swiss artist Jean Tinguely (1925 - 199) were a lot of fun to see. Shown at Gladstone Gallery, they were made of junkyard scraps and dime-store finds; the old motors, often decommissioned from 78rpm phonographs, produced unpredictable motions when you stepped on a switch on the floor. At Marlborough Chelsea, the black-and-white photos of Richard Kern in the viewing room were compelling takes on his friends living in druggy squalor in New York City. Taken in the 80's, the photos showed acts of sadomasochism and non-acts of ennui. There was one very different, rather sweet, "Brian with TV, 1981"





Over at Luhring Augustine, the British artist Rachel Whiteread was showing new sculptures made from casting windows and doors in colored resin. The pieces are then mounted on concrete casts of bricks, so the promise of transparency is finally blocked. Most impressive of all were the ash paintings of the Chinese artist Zhang Huan at Pace. A new body of paintings, made from incense ash collected from Buddhist temples, present passages from the Bible and "The Star-Spangled Banner" in braille. The highlight was a huge painting, measuring 122 feet long, drawn from a photograph of Mao and over 1000 loyal followers arranged in ranks for the camera. The work was monumental in its ambition, but also memorable in its human detail. When I posted Guy's photo on FB, the software asked me to tag the faces.





The Andy Goldsworthy show "Leaning into the Wind" did not disappoint. He made me laugh, whether he was scraping through a row of low thorny trees, or climbing up a waterfall, or washing in a stream his hands clean of blood-red poppy petals, or throwing a bunch of sticks up in the air so that they flew and scattered in beautiful patterns. He took such joy in making art. He takes life as it is and just adds one step.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Monday, November 30, 2015

The Full Interview

The Straits Times published a story about Steep Tea making the list of Best Books of 2015 in the Financial Times. The Singapore paper included only part of the email interview with me. The full interview below. Read it and you will understand ST's selectivity.

How does it feel to be one of the four poetry works named by the FT as best of 2015? 

Amazed. Humbled. Grateful that someone likes the book so much. We just celebrated Thanksgiving here in the US. I'm so thankful for the encouragement given by Maria Crawford, the FT editor who selected Steep Tea.

Looking back, what were some challenges you faced in writing Steep Tea? 

I couldn't have written Steep Tea without moving to the US to come out as a poet and a gay man. The poems in the book reflect the experience of finding my rightful place in New York and a useful perspective on Singapore. The poems were written over the course of 12 years, as both place and perspective come slowly. You might say that I had to steep myself in hot water before brewing this cup of tea.

You've taken an active role in promoting Singaporean poetry abroad. Why do you do so? 

We have many terrific Singapore writers, and so it is only natural that I want to share their work with others. By running the biennial Singapore Literature Festival in New York and the arts website Singapore Poetry, I hope to bring together my two homes--Singapore and the United States--in better understanding and appreciation.

What has the response to such poetry been like, from non-Singaporeans? 

They respond warmly to its deeply felt humanity and its finely crafted wit. They know Singapore from the mass media as an economic success, an authoritarian state, and a heartless people. They are surprised and delighted to learn from its writers that another Singapore exists: creative, free-wheeling, and compassionate.

What are your hopes for the Singapore literary scene? 

Singaporeans should embrace our own writers. We must learn to cherish our own artists. This involves reading, viewing, hearing, and discussing their works until they become an integral part of us. It also involves giving writers and artists the means, the freedom, and the courage to challenge us, with unpalatable truths and unusual beauties. They are our eyes and ears, they are our conscience.

What are you working on at the moment, and what other works can readers expect from you in the coming year ahead? 

I'm working on a book of haiku, tentatively titled Does grass sweat. I have a book of essays now under consideration by a Singaporean publisher. The essays examine in a personal mode writers from the UK, the USA, and Singapore. Taken as whole, the essays compose a portrait of a life lived in reading and writing.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Thanksgiving 2015

So I returned from my Thanksgiving getaway to learn that my book Steep Tea has been listed by the Financial Times as one of four best books of poetry of 2015, along with the new annotated Poems of T. S. Eliot by Christopher Ricks and Kim McCue; Horace: Poems ed. by Paul Quarrie; and Citizen by Claudia Rankine. Completely unexpected, completely floored.

"The Singapore-born poet’s first UK publication is disciplined yet adventurous in form, casual in tone and deeply personal in subject matter. Koh’s verse addresses the split inheritance of his postcolonial upbringing, as well as the tension between an émigré’s longing for home and rejection of nostalgia." - Maria Crawford in UK's Financial Times

The time away was otherwise dominated by reading Amy Sueyoshi's study of Yone Noguchi's romantic relationships in a book aptly titled Queer Compulsions. Through the study of the correspondence between Yone and his lovers, Sueyoshi persuaded me that his most passionate and most sustained feelings were for the older white writer Charles Warren Stoddard. His love for Ethel Armes was full of ups and downs, and starts and stops, until she ended their engagement finally when she learnt that Yone was "married" to Léonie Gilmour and had a son (the sculptor Isamu Noguchi) with her. Ethel herself had passionate feelings for other women. As for Léonie, she realized from early on that Noguchi did not love her and so took the difficult independent path of raising Isamu by herself. Yone's marriage in Japan to his domestic servant Matsu Takeda was a matter of convenience, as the poet turned himself into a strictly heterosexual and stridently nationalistic writer. Throughout the study, Sueyoshi showed sensitivity to the ways in which race, nation, and sexuality (as the sub-title promises) affects an immigrant hungry for love and literary fame. She underlines, in a clear-eyed manner, how same-sex desire is not necessarily revolutionary even when it is in revolt against social norms and moral mandates.

Of all the movies we watched at Ty and Di's place, the best was Out in the Dark (2012), directed by Michael Mayer. The lovers, coming from opposites sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, quick discover that being gay complicates the already messy situation. Nicholas Jacob plays the Palestinian student Nimr Mashrawi with just the right touch of resignation. Michael Aloni's Roy Schaefer, a young Israeli lawyer, discovers the need for moral compromise in order to save them both. Deepa Mehta's Midnight's Children (2012) was, however, a big disappointment. The problem lay in having Salman Rushdie write the screenplay. The novelist had no clue how to structure a film, and so threw in everything and the kitchen sink. The novel should be made into at least three feature films. If the Hunger Games series is made into four films, why should the Booker of Bookers deserve a less epic treatment?

On Friday, we drove to Hudson to visit the Basilica Farm and Flea. The line wrapped around the beautiful old forge and foundry, and so we gave up trying to get in and went antiquing in a nearby warehouse instead. My discovery was a newly opened print studio called Inky Editions. Artists can produce fine art prints there by working with non-toxic intaglio-based techniques.



Basilica Hudson