Showing posts from May, 2007

Arnold's "Rugby Chapel"

Giving my two cents in this PFFA thread on Shelley, I was reminded of Matthew Arnold, and how much I enjoyed "Sohrab and Rustum," "Empedocles at Atena," "The Buried Life," "The Scholar-Gipsy" and that anthology piece "Dover Beach," when I read them as an undergraduate. This evening, while traveling back home on the train, I started reading "Rugby Chapel" from his Poetical Works, and finished it in the Thai restaurant near my train station. The poem, a paean to his dead father, who was a Rugby headmaster, has the moral seriousness and dramatic vividness of Arnold's best poems. From the middle of the poem:

Friends, who set forth at our side,
Falter, are lost in the storm.
We, we only are left!
With frowning foreheads, with lips
Sternly compress'd, we strain on,
On--and at nightfall at last
Come to the end of our way,
To the lonely inn 'mid the rocks;
Where the gaunt and taciturn host
Stands on the threshold, the wind

Eiko and Koma's" Cambodian Stories Revisited"

The performance combined dance and painting to tell the stories of the Cambodian people. The stories, performed by an older Japanese couple, Eiko and Koma, and by a younger Cambodian pair, Charian and Peace, spoke on themes both universal, like love and old age, and also Cambodian, the sufferings under the Khmer Rouge and its legacy.

Each of the huge canvases, forming the backdrop to the open-air performance, depicted a stylized Cambodian woman with one hand raised, fingers arrested in a dance movement. The performance began with the four dancers painting one such canvas laid on the sandy ground of the church cemetery. During the performance, the dancers moved so slowly and yet so expressively that their movements seemed to aspire to the condition of painting.

I thought Koma was a particularly charismatic performer. Of the Cambodian teenagers, Charian showed such masterful control over his body that his dancing became, not gestural, but muscular.

Cambodian Stories Revisited
An Offerin…

Rob Mackenzie on "Payday Loans"

Rob was nice enough to blog this about my chapbook:
I read Payday Loans, a chapbook by Jee Leong Koh, a collection of 30 sonnets. I’d read several of the poems before, but having them all between two covers revealed both the unity between them and their diversity. It’s very strong formal poetry, with energy, quick intelligence, and emotional intensity. Not to be missed.

Recording my poems for WKCR 89.9 FM

This afternoon I recorded the reading of my poems for a literary radio show called Art Waves, put out by WKCR FM New York (89.9 FM, on the net), a radio station in New York City with a daily listening audience of approximately 11 million. My reading will be a small part of the show's highlight of the new press, Poets Wear Prada. That feature will be broadcast sometime in August.

After the recording, I realized afresh how much I detest talking about my poems. Anne Fiero, the producer and interviewer, was prepared and easy to talk to, so she was not the problem. But how do you talk about your own poems on air and not come off as a pretentious prick, with a smarmy smirk? The poems are what they are, verbal artefacts, and commentary on them reduces them to paraphrase or simplifies them to abstractions. I should have been stronger, and declined talking about the poems, after reading them.

Anyway, the show is not about me but about Roxanne's demanding baby, so I am glad t…

"Payday Loans" in NY LGBT Center Library

Roxanne, my publisher, has sent 4 copies of my chapbook to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered center library in New York City. So, my future scholars and biographers, you may find the yellowed, unthumbed books wedged in between "The Sexiest Gay Poems of 1968" and "What's So Gay about Poetry?", stashed in some shelf too high to reach except on a stepladder which is of course not available, in a corner of the room of

The Pat Parker/Vito Russo Center Library
LGBT Community Center
208 West 13th Street
New York, NY 10011

John Marcus Powell's "Summer Stories"

The Friday before last John Marcus read at Pink Pony a tremendous poem about men who have sex with horses. Inspired by the film "Zoo," the poem was not prurient but delicate. Yesterday he read "Summer Stories," the third part of which offers a different take on the Iragi war.

3. Summer in Iraq

bombs to tear the limbs off males
who used to like to wear high heels
when they had toes to their dear feet

the explosion in the road
to sever the tendons of the lady driver
who liked a good tobacco in her pipe

Know who to look for within the cemetery
Certain military graves contain the remains of men dubbed 'sissy'
the handsome skeletons of brainy dikes

Auden's "Fleet Visit"

Fleet Week in NYC: ships parked in the harbor, sailors roaming the quays, the streets, the bars. Here's a less well-known poem by Auden, "Fleet Visit," written for a very different context (which has some resonance for these days), American projection of power after World War II.

Fleet Visit

The sailors come ashore
Out of their hollow ships.
Mild-looking middle-class boys
Who read the comic strips;
One baseball game is more
To them than fifty Troys.

They look a bit lost, set down
In this unamerican place
Where natives pass with laws
And futures of their own;
They are not here because
But only just-in-case.

The whore and ne'er-do-well
Who pester them with junk
In their grubby ways at least
Are serving the Social Beast;
They neither make nor sell--
No wonder they get drunk.

But the ships on the dazzling blue
Of the harbor actually gain
From having nothing to do;
Without a human will
To tell them whom to kill
Their structures are humane

And, far from looking lost,
Look as if they were meant
To be …

Bob Hart's "Acrobat"

I posted Bob's "To a She or a General They" a couple of weeks ago. Last Friday, I bought his poetry book, Acrobat, and really enjoyed the warmth and wit that suffuse his poems. Bob and I are going to read one another's poems at the Pink Pony open-mic this Friday. I have decided to read the perfect little poem, "Warm," which not only displays that wit, but also conveys Bob's gift for observation and his spirit of adventure.

"Warm" by Bob Hart

The warm blood of the walrus;
his frost filled whiskers and his syrupy eyes:
swimming, he butts the ice.
The warm blood of the polar bear,
white like butter across the starwhite wastes:
emerged from the transparent splash
he can run or sleep in snow,
his vapored breath an aura round his mouth
like our planet's air against sub-zero space.

I like these guys.
I'd like to play one in a movie.
Inspector Walrus.
Cool but kind in an embittering world.
No day's work with him
without some smile.
Or the other fellow. Plu…

SQ21: Singapore Queers in the 21st Century

I finished reading SQ21while traveling to and from Babylon on Sunday, where I read as a feature in Pisces Cafe. The stories of these gay, lesbian and bisexual men and women are at once ordinary and extraordinary. I wished such a book had been published earlier; the book might have helped me pluck up the courage to come out earlier in my life.

Particularly moving to me is Sheila Rajamanikam's story. Her butch girlfriend was beaten up and gang-raped by a group of men before her eyes in the 1980's, near Orchard Road, the commercial and entertainment heart of Singapore. Sheila also spoke of the honey-traps, policemen posing as gay to entrap gay men in bars. In her account, lesbians and gay men were much closer back then, since the community was much smaller and even less accepted than now. Lesbians would go to the Croc, the oldest lesbian bar in Singapore, on the 4th floor of Far East Shopping Center. "You cannot write about lesbian history without writing about Crocodile Roc…

A Discussion on Keats' Negative Capability

After a few kneejerk reactions, this PFFA thread is developing into an interesting discussion about what Keats meant when he said he hated poetry that has a design on the reader, and about the necessity of considering the reader in one's writing. There are also side comments on Damien Hurst, T. S. Eliot, Shakespeare, Hopkins and Yeats.

Jay Chollick's "Finding the Refuge"

Jay is another regular at the Pink Pony Express open-mic at Cornelia Street Cafe. Bald, bespectacled, atheistic, Jewish, he is a visual artist who has turned to writing poetry late in life. From the start his poetry impresses me with its intellectual muscle, its rhetorical flights and its mixture of ornate and colloquial diction. Last night at Cornelia, he read an eloquent, moving prayer for survival, for all of us.

Finding the Refuge

Look back--ahead--the place
is dense
but we are forced
through creeping almost blind,
to move, we've seen
too much. Is there, away
from the world's
appalling room, a quiet

Spot--some place
of weakened energy--to lie,
sink down upon, is there
a hill; a water sound;
and muscled with
light twittering, is there a tree,
a massive twig
to catch the tearing of our shadows
on, does it

Exist? A place
of deep forgetfulness, where,
braided into greenery the skull
is hushed; and where,
to the quiet vapor of the mind
a herd in dappled movement
comes, we know
at last, snout-intimate,…

Turner as the link

Matisse, on his honeymoon in London, made his pilgrimage to view the Turners in the National Gallery. As Spurling puts it, "For Matisse,...Turner was a link between the present and the past, a way of reconciling the traditional realism of his native North with the lure of pure color which already beckoned him so fiercely. He described Turner's impact nearly fifty years later, at a moment when his own recovery from a near-fatal operation had made the world once again look fresh and sparkling. It is Matisse's most brilliant evocation in words of a window opening on a new world, a period of radiant bliss after unhappiness and self-denial." (Spurling, The Unknown Matisse, p. 156)

And what were those words?

Matisse: "It is always a good thing to begin with renunciation, to impose a regime of abstinence on yourself from time to time. Turner lived in a cellar. Once a week he had the shutters suddenly flung open, and then what incandescence! what dazzlement! what jewels!&…

"Hungry Ghosts" pub. in "Boxcar Poetry Review"

The May issue of Boxcar Poetry Review is up. Do check it out. Here's Neil Aiken, the editor, on the issue:

A wide range of elegies; explorations of the complexity of love, of family, and of goodbyes; the problems of fate and portents; loss and return; what we leave behind. In this issue we walk through Buddhist hell, lose fathers and teachers, question, doubt, and sometimes believe. Arthur Westover's stunning photography once again accompanies our journey. We also are treated to a great interview with Oliver de la Paz conducted by Diana Park, and Tatiana Forero Puerta reviews Sally Bell's Annus Mirabilis.


* Jeffrey Alfier: "Last Words to an Old Miner Leaving Albuquerque"
* Jon Ballard: "Trees Make Me Think of Other Things"
* Pris Campbell: "Undertow"
* Heather Green: "Valentine's Day at the SF MOMA, Again"
* Rachel Eliza Griffiths : "Wake for Memory"
* Jee Leong Koh: "Hungry Ghosts"

"Payday Loans" now in Select Bookstore

If you are in Singapore, you can now pick up a copy of my poetry chapbook from Select Bookstore, in Tanglin Shopping Center. The bookstore specializes in South-east Asian books on a whole range of topics, from science to social issues, from law to literature.

"Dark Ride" at Leslie Lohman

What is the difference between erotic art and pornography, I wondered as I wandered in Leslie Lohman gallery, viewing the PRIDE-month art show "Dark Ride: A Noctural Journey into the World of Erotic Desire." Part of me wanted to smash any divider between the two, the implicit hierarchy, the false compartmentalization. At the exhibition, I saw many artworks there that must have an erotic charge for the artist, and for those who are attracted to particular physical types--the bear, the androgynous boy, the goth--but have none for me who's not attracted to that type. For me, those artworks failed because they did not show me what was erotic about the figure I would have found unattractive in real life or in porn. They did not do the work of art: to seduce the viewer by its vision and method.

In fact, many of the works on view merely reproduced images, poses and activities familiar in porn. They were shockingly intimate, but they were not personal, in Matisse's sense of t…

My Virgin Visit to Nuyorican

I paid $10 to this burly man, and passed through a metal door set in a wall. I was in Nuyorican Poets Cafe. It was dimly lit, a loft, or more like a garage-turned-gallery. A small bar stood almost immediately to the right of the entrance. Pepe tended the bar that night, and lent me a pen when I needed one later. He also came to my table to ask for the pen back, when I forgot my promise to return it. A glass of red wine cost $4.

I was here because a beautiful plump Mexican girl handed me a slip of paper at Cornelia Street Cafe last Friday, and asked me to read here on Sunday night. The slip gave the details of the open mic, Poetry in Any Language.

Ricardo emceed and signed me on as a reader. A girl on stage was reading something in French. She was very dramatic; I didn't understand a word she said. Then she read a second piece which she prefaced by saying that it was a story about a rape. During that reading, she kept forming a triangle with her hands around her crotch. Each time she…

International Fine Art Fair 2007

I visited an art fair of this scale for the first time on Sunday. The fair was held in the Park Avenue Armory, the interior of which reminded me more of a very plush officers' club than of any weapon stash.

The Impressionists and Post-impressionists were strongly represented at the fair: Pissaro, Bonnard, Vuillard, Vlaminck, Renoir, Sisley. There was a large cubist Picasso that I did not like very much. A lovely Copley half-portrait of a stiff-backed woman dressed and hooded in black, her eyes glittering out of a noble face. Several Roaul Duffys, with their sketch-like figures standing at the pier, or shouting from the spectator stands of a racecourse. The English painters represented at the fair were largely forgettable: too much fact and not enough vision. I also found myself losing interest in the Chagalls, which suffered from the reverse problem.

I really liked the Andrew Wyeth watercolors. One of a cush-saw standing in the center, in front of a clapboard house. The red flowers…

Cheek by Jowl's "Cymbeline"

The performance last night played for laughs and plumbed the depths. At times I was not certain which response was called for, an uncertainty characteristic, I think, of Shakespeare's late romances. For laughs only: flanked by his sidekicks, wielding a microphone, Cloten wooed Imogen like the pretty leader of a boy's band; the Britons celebrated their victory over the Roman invaders by launching into a conga line.

And then there was that scene in which Imogen woke up from the drug that gave her the appearance of death, and discovered a body beside her, then its blood, then its lack of head, and then its garment which belonged to her husband, Posthumus. Her willingness to believe that the headless corpse must be Posthumus' echoed her husband's readiness to believe her infidelity. And both were wrong. Imogen's mistake dashes the hope expressed in my poem, "Head": the lover may identify the headless body wrongly for reasons to do with love, and the consequent…

I have a thing

I have a thing for straight white boys,
but they don't have a thing
for me, therefore, what furious joys
I sing, I sing, I sing.

Hilary Spurling's "The Unknown Matisse"

Why do I read biographies of artists? I'm looking for the springs of creativity, the shape of a life compromised by art, the motto on a fraying tapestry, the encouragement of success. I want to believe that, walking on this road, if I would hurry up, I could catch up with Matisse, and walk companionably with him, talking when either of us feels like it, but silent most of the time, in a kind of shared understanding. Here is Bohain: here is Singapore, and we are going somewhere together.

Of his portraits, Matisse said, "To sum up, I work without a theory. I am aware primarily of the forces involved, and find myself driven forward by an idea which I can really only grasp little by little as it grows with the picture."

Stein's "The Good Anna"

The language in this short story is plain and sturdy, like the good Anna herself, a German woman who lived to serve, to manage and scold her big and helpless mistresses. The repetition of sentences, almost word for word, serves as the verbal equivalent of the moral touchstones that Anna lived by to be good. Through repetition, the simple diction gains the fervency of commitment, and the mystery of constancy.
Part 1:
Anna led an arduous and troubled life (5).
You see that Anna led an arduous and troubled life (7).
You see that Anna led an arduous and troubled life (14).

Part 2:
The widow Mrs. Lehntman was the romance in Anna's life (23).
Remember, Mrs. Lehntman was the romance in Anna's life (26).
Mrs. Lehntman was the only romance Anna ever knew. (42).
But what could our poor Anna do? Remember Mrs. Lehntman was the only romance Anna ever knew (44).
When the exposition on friendship and love comes, it comes with a eloquence powered by the directness before and after it:
In friendship, p…

I have a call number

A couple of weeks ago, I sent a copy of my chapbook to the library of my MFA College, Sarah Lawrence, and today I came home to a nice thank-you note from them. More, they sent me a photocopy of the library record of my book, showing my very own call number. So if you visit the Esther Raushenbush Library, you should find Payday Loans at PS3611.04 P39 2007. Total cool.


I am re-working the sequence, "There Is No Safety in Distance," into a chapbook collection of songs instead. Force-fitting the poems into a numbered sequence was a wrong idea, I think, since the sequence has little logical development. The poems may work better in a looser form, a kind of anthology in which each is complete by itself, though related in theme and imagery to others.

Using a method explained in the poem itself, I wrote a last poem for that collection.

Dies is a last word of my songs:
and headstone, colder, sea,
hoots, then dead, before very long,
and then the end of me.

The dizzy body calls, more wine,
the dimming soul, burn, blood.
Although in time they intertwine,
in time they stand, then stood.

In time they bark, and then they bite.
In time body and soul
fashion the other into bait,
fish in the gloryhole.

Cowards die many times before their death,
so death to Cowardice!
--except this coward feels his breath
quicken each time he dies.

Bob Hart's "To a She or a General They"

Bob Hart is a regular reader at the Pink Pony Express open-mic, a reading series in the Village. A tall, gaunt, grey-haired man, Bob is always courteous in a way that strikes me as old-worldly. His poems are philosophical in approach, meditative in tone, and the best of them achieve a sweet gravity. I heard him read "To a She" 2 weeks ago, and loved it. Bob was kind enough to handwrite a copy for me, and to give me permission to share it on my blog.

To a She or a General They

There's less a barrier
between you and me today
than there was yesterday
--maybe a few minutes ago--
perhaps because space or I
am more alive.
I am not less evil I'm afraid
though I'd love to be good
which is to say
I'd love to treat you with the pure respect
affinity considers it should tender
to softness and loftiness
clothed in the pride beyond body.
I shouldn't make you
less than you
nor even for my power's and my
pleasure's sake should I
be less than me.
But my being evilly
less than myself

Cain and Abel

reworking "Leda and the Swan"

His brother leaning back on him, he clasps
him with his thighs, works up the leather, lithe
languorous giving, quickening to gasps
familiar. The corn stands tall. He weighs his scythe.

How can the heart spluttering the same blood wash
and tell the knives apart, which passion, Cain?
How can rough shepherd hands pull out the gash
in the man writhing under thorn-shaped pain?

A jealous seizure spawns a city, a look-out,
a king and other castes--Lamech the brave,
music and metal-making sons. He slumps
Abel on his bronzed back and tramps about.
A raven scratches the ground. Cain digs a grave,
tosses in sand. Toes sprout, and wings, white stumps.

Brent Goodman's "Wrong Horoscope"

I traded chapbooks with Brent Goodman, and what a good trade it turned out to be for me. I like many poems in Wrong Horoscope, my favorites being “The Walt Whitman Construction Project,” “Garage Sale Answering Machine,” and the title poem.

Quite a number of the poems happen at a real or symbolic road junction. In the opening poem, “Commute,” the speaker approaches the city “through an interchange of horn blast and brake light.” After visiting deep America, with its prairie, thunderheads and birdsong, the speaker returns to Atlantic City “the way blood must return to the mind, in tides/ and intersections, this dull push into the smallest capillary.” If “smallest capillary” gives a sense of diminishment, the Walt Whitman suspension bridge provides the hope of connecting past experience and present home, of maintaining connections with the “living crowd.”

In contrast with the exhilarations of travel, and the heightened moment at an intersection, the house, or home, is usually pictured as t…