Showing posts from June, 2007

Putting down "Taproot"

I've been asked to contribute a poem and an essay on the writing of the poem. The sale of the anthology would help raise funds for UK Cancer Research. I'm posting a draft here for comment. Where do the ideas and the language need clarification or tightening? The poem will probably come before the essay.

Putting Down "Taproot"

For some reason I thought I should imbibe some science while feasting on graduate writing workshops. At informal weekly seminars, in the spirit of continuous learning, the science faculty was giving brief talks on a subject out of their field of specialization. The talks were open to all. They attracted a modest but devoted audience, not a bad showing for a small liberal arts college. The free pizza might have helped too.

Was it a physicist or a chemist who spoke about the spotted knapweed? I don’t remember. It was a woman who found a new weed while gardening, and went online to find out more. I followed her lead.

My research turned up university a…

Last Night's PWP Launch Party

Many readers last night, whose books have been published or will be published by Poets Wear Prada this summer. I was the last to read. I read "My father doesn't know Zeus from Zeno" and "May good flowers always bloom for you" from the chapbook, and then read "Hungry Ghosts" and "There Is No Safety in Distance" from my Mermen manuscript. Winston was there, and John Marcus. (Thanks, guys, for the support!) Met Richard Weinraub for the first time, a brief but very pleasant introduction. George Held, of The Ledge, also liked my reading a lot. Sold three more books, to Laura Vookles, Alex Bleecker, and Patricia Carragon. The last two said they would get me to read at their series. All to the good. But now, in a stew of self-pity, as gooey as this New York City morning, I sigh, why can't I get my manuscript published?



A. E. Houseman's letter to Moses Jackson

from Robert Douglas-Fairhurst's TLS review of The Letters of A. E. Housman edited by Archie Burnett:

Only once does the mask slip, in the sole surviving letter to Moses Jackson, the Oxford contemporary to whom Housman devoted himself, but from whom, in Laurence Housman's carefully chosen words, "there was no response in kind". Forty years on, with Jackson dying of stomach cancer, A. E. Housman sent him a copy of Last Poems with what came as close as he ever dared to writing a love letter, just as his nickname for Moses, "Mo", stopped tantalizingly short of being a confession of love, "Amo".

It is now 11 o'clock in the morning, and I hear that the Cambridge shops are sold out. Please to realise therefore, with fear and respect, that I am an eminent bloke; though I would rather have followed you round the world and blacked your boots.
The desperate blokeishness of this suggests how raw Housman's wounds still were, but the little dabs of alliter…

Teacher Unaccountably Dismissed in Singapore

Alfian Sa'at, an acclaimed Singaporean playwright and poet, who is Malay and gay, was recently dismissed from his substitute teaching job by the Ministry of Education, without being given any reason. Considering this, as well as other relevant situations, Yawning Bread argues for a Freedom of Information Act in Singapore. I think such an act will go a long way in opening up the government for scrutiny, which is why the government will never agree to it. So much for the mask of fairness and transparency Singapore puts on in front of foreign investors.


I have a thing for white frat boys.
They don’t have a thing
for me, therefore, what furious joys
I sing, I sing, I sing.


To the man who praised my ditty
but questioned the use of soul,
for unlike arse, leg and titty,
it gives the mind no hold,

I wish I’d said it sure isn’t gritty
to versify the soul,
but someone, though the job’s shitty,
got to watch the gloryhole.


You love the feel of leather, thin
rubbery sheath your chest and hips breathe in.
It makes me really hard to think
that is your kink. Mine is the smell of ink.

A note.

Swamp, Trickle, Blood

I want my body to be a river.
I fear it is a swamp.
I want to surge and sing and shiver,
and not to be damp.

Cleo in her Egyptian barge
flashes fire and ice.
Anthony, general and large,
doesn't step in the same river twice.

But a swamp in the tropics! How it sticks
to the conqueror's leather boots,
and croaks, "Be sympathetic!"
while the owl hoots.


This water streams between the banks
of a subterranean track.
It cannot carry pulp or foam
nor shrug them off its back.

I've waded in the muddy Nile
and walked with Eliot's Thames,
dreamt by carp-bellied Singapore,
delivering gurgling names.

Sure, this foul trickle does not grow
from glaciers or from glades,
but from the fractured concrete cast
silently cascades,

still it descends from the same sky
as the Ganges and the Styx,
elementary the water
a rat, fat with babies, sips.


I know I'm made of water.
Of water made I am,
one third mucus, three quarters
(ahem!) phlegm.

I knew I'm made of water.
Today I've proven it.
Two thirds vomit, o…

Small Enough to Fit

After thinking, consciously and not so consciously, about monkey's response to my idea of compiling a chapbook of all my songs, I've decided to keep "There Is No Safety in Distance" as a sequence on its own. I've been moving the other songs around, seeing them in different permutations, flattering myself that I'm doing the same as Matisse with his scraps of colored paper when composing "The Dance" (1931-3, Paris version).

So how do I know when to stop moving things around? Matisse shows the way: "In his mid-seventies he felt himself approaching the clarity, power and purpose evoked by Paul Valery in a passage Camoin copied out for Matisse at the end of 1945: "Perhaps what we call perfection in no more than the sense of wanting or finding in a human work that certainty of execution, that inner necessity, that indissoluble, reciprocal union between design and matter, which I find in the humblest seashell" (Spurling, Matisse the…

NYC Pride 2007

The grand marshals for the March this year were Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum and Reverend Dr. Troy Perry. The religious contingents marched at the head, unlike in previous years. I've mixed feelings about this emphasis on religion. I appreciate the political statement such a move makes, especially in the current fight against religious fundamentalism and literalism. I also support the ideal of inclusiveness, which must embrace religious groups as well as secular movements. But I think this move raises the profile of organized religion too much. The answer to fundamentalist homophobia lies in some version of human rights, equality and liberty, some universally valid vision, and not "God is also on our side." But the latter answer makes for better TV, I guess.

A cheeky placard held up by one such contingent quotes Paul, "It is not what enters the mouth that makes one unclean."

Pride should be a carnival as much as a political statement. I was happy to see so much flesh…

Impressionist and Early Modern Paintings: The Clark Brothers Collect

From the Met website:
More than 65 celebrated masterpieces owned by rival brother collectors—Robert Sterling Clark (1877–1956), founder of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and Stephen Carlton Clark (1882–1960), a former trustee and illustrious donor to The Metropolitan Museum of Art—are featured in this unprecedented exhibition.
Renoir holds pride of place in this exhibition. Both Clark brothers thought highly of him and collected him avidly. Whereas Sterling, the older brother, drew a line at the Post-impressionists, Stephen collected Matisse, Bonnard, Picasso and Braque too. Stephen even hanged Matisse's "The White Plumes" (1919) over his fireplace.

Looking at Matisse's "Odalisque with Grey Pants" and Cezanne's "Still Life with a Ginger Pot and Eggplants" makes me think that Matisse paints patterns whereas Cezanne paints planes. Fabrics in Matisse often appear as wall hangings or floor carpets, and t…

Drumming in Sullivan's Room

The drummer boy at Sullivan's Room last night was an artist. His improvisations on the club's deep house sounds were creative and strongly felt. In the basement space, with exposed stone and brick interior, and pseudo-classical wall frescoes, at different times and in thrilling variations, the drums accented, attacked, sang, and danced around the pillars of the beat.

The comparison that leapt to mind was metrical poetry. Meter is the house beat, whereas rhythm is the drumming. Meter is familiar and collective; rhythm is surprising and individual. Rhythm is not only a matter of timing, it is also volume and pitch. Regardless of its content, a line of perfect iambic pentameter has a different volume and pitch depending on its position in a poem. This is most obvious in forms with repetends, like the triolet or the villanelle, but it applies to all poems. Like the drummer tapping, stroking or striking his different drums--bongo, kettle, snare--the poet's rhythmic devices can c…

Richard Marx Weinraub's Full Review of "Payday Loans"

Weinraub's review in A Gathering of the Tribes: "While reading Jee Leong Koh’s first book of poems, Payday Loans, I felt I was encountering an important new poet...."

Norah Vincent's "Self-Made Man"

I'm taking the lazy way out and, instead of giving my own plot summary, quote from the book's back cover. The book is more serious, more subtle, than the language of this publisher's blurb may suggest.

With an ever-present five o'clock shadow, a crew-cut, wire-rimmed glasses, and her own size 11 1/2 shoes, Norah Vincent spent a year and a half as her male alter ego, Ned, and reported back what she observed incognito. Narrating her journey with exquisite insight, empathy, and humor, Norah ponders the many remarkable mysteries of gender identity as she explores firsthand who men really are when women aren't around. As Ned, she joins a bowling team, takes a high-octane sales job, goes on date with women (and men), visits strip clubs, and even manages to infiltrate a monastery and a men's therapy group.
The best chapters describe her experiences in the competitive bowling league ("Friendship"), the monastery ("Life") and the Robert Bly-type men&#…

Ten Ways of Looking at Gay Poetry

Christopher Hennessy is an associate editor at Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide. An interesting post from his blog:

Our best and brightest poets hold forth on what makes them tick
(published originally in the Gay and Lesbian Review-Worldwide)

RECENTLY, a first-of-its-kind book, Outside the Lines: Talking with Contemporary Gay Poets was published by the University of Michigan Press, a collection of interviews with some of the most prominent poets alive who also happen to be gay. On the occasion of the book's release last June, The Gay & Lesbian Review asked interviewer Christopher Hennessy to invite all of the poets who appear in the book to write a paragraph about how their artistic sensibilities have been shaped by their identity as gay men....

The poets are Frank Bidart, Rafael Campo, Henri Cole, Alfred Corn, Mark Doty, Timothy Liu, J. D. McClatchy, Carl Phillips, Reginald Shepherd and David Trinidad.

The poets agree that their outsider status as gay men influences them to be mor…

Short Shorts

Before flash fiction, there were short shorts. Irving Howe and Ilana Wiener Howe published their anthology of "the shortest stories" in 1982, with the title of this post. In his introduction, Howe describes the editors' excitement over reading Mishima's "Swaddling Clothes," and then their observation that his story seemed different from the usual kind of short story.

How so? It is fiercely condensed, almost like a lyric poem; it explodes in a burst of revelation or illumination; it confines itself to a single, overpowering incident; it bears symbolic weight.
The Mishima story is a miniature masterpiece, as Howe points out. The image of the nurse's newborn wrapped in newspaper is as unforgettable to me as it is to Toshiko, the nurse's mistress, to her tragedy. The gem, however, is flawed. How could Toshiko's husband, in deciding to employ the nurse for his own newborn, have been naive enough to accept her explanation of her huge stomach as gastri…

LGBT Publishing

The purpose of the Publishing Triangle is to further the publication of books and other materials written by lesbian and gay authors or with lesbian and gay themes...

Lambda Literary Foundation: Our mission is to celebrate LGBT literature and provide resources for writers, readers, booksellers, publishers, and librarians – the whole literary community...

Visiting the Frick Again

The last time I visited the Frick was to view the tiny and exquisite Memling exhibition. This time I saw his "Portrait of a Man" again, and still loved it as much. (I have the postcard of the Man stuck to the inside of my locker in school.) It gripped me far more than the Holbein, Gainsborough and Whistler portraits in the same collection. The other portrait that exercised comparable power over me was an Ingres, some noble woman or another, looking pert yet pensive. The mirror behind her displayed the care with which her hair was tied up with ribbon.

The highlights of this visit were the Turners: "Antwerp" and "Cologne." The colors are irridescent, whether they are the white surf of waves, or the golden-green sheen of sunlight hitting a river. No wonder the Impressionists pissed their pants when they saw his paintings. But even his calmest paintings convey the force of restrained power, whereas the Impressionists still motion in dabs of paint.

The Vermeers …

On Using Modifiers in Poetry

kellylynn, in PFFA, asks:
Ok, in light of critiques I have received, threads I have read and general observations on modern poetry, I would like to know why good poetry has to be sparse [sic]. Why is the use of relevant, thoughtful modifiers that sharpen an image or clarify a thought a bad thing if they are not turning a poem into a prose piece? I am probably dense, but isn't there a place for rich language usage if it doesn't go overboard?
The responses are here. My comment tries to make the point that modifiers are not exactly the same as adjectives and adverbs, that modifiers are a bigger concept and open up more questions for a poet to consider than the narrow one of overmodification in writing poetry.

Sarah Polley's "Away from Her"

The film's ostensible subject is Alzheimer's disease, but its real theme is that of the marital bond tested by different kinds of infidelity. Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent are powerful, but Olympia Dukakis stole my heart through her utterly convincing portrayal of a disillusioned wife whose husband falls in love with Christie's character in the nursing home. The film redeems the suffering of Christie's and Pinsent's characters with a vision of love. But what about the wife who confesses that the only reason she stays with her mentally ill husband is to hold on to the house?

Reading Biographies

I don't read many biographies because I am not curious enough about other people's lives. A very few biographies matter to me, and they matter to me because they touch my own life at crucial points. Andrew Motion's biography of Philip Larkin explained to me, before I came out as gay, that unfulfilment can be a source of artistic power; it developed that theme like a novel. In Richard Davenport-Hines' biography of Auden, I saw my own flight from country, orchestrated like an opera. And now Hilary Spurling's biography of Matisse grips me with a familiar power: in its depiction of the artist's struggles, of his wife's devotion to his art, of his artistic breakthroughs, it beguiles like a Romance.

Poetic Language

My one design on poetic language is to make "fuck" the most beautiful word in it.

Reading at the Shooting Star

The Shooting Star is the homeground of the Montauk Theater Productions. It is a long room, with chairs arranged in rows of five, and a narrow side-aisle. It feels much more formal than Cornelia Street Cafe, and the audience, both at my reading and the one before me, was polite and restrained. Unlike at Cornelia, no one applauded the open-mikers when their names were announced, and so readers walked in deafening silence up to the mike. The sound system was excellent.

Since only 6 signed up for the open-mic, Nemo asked me to read first. I read four poems from Payday Loans, the ones about my parents, and then spent the rest of my feature reading from my series-in-progress, The Book of the Body. The latter choice was a little naughty of me because not only does it swear quite a bit, it is non-metrical. Written in quatrains, with an end-rhyme in each last quatrain, it is certainly formal. But not metrical. Features are a good time for me to test out a sequence of poems on an audience; ope…

Sally Tittman's Show--A Response

The graphite-on-paper drawings look simple until I give them the attention they deserve. What appear to be stones also look like balls of plasticine, or peaches. Or even meteorites, as Sally writes in her website, because no scale is given. Though they all float on paper, they convey their various weights according to their different heights from the ledge of the sheet. The graphite gives them a rough surface, but the roughness is not uniform. They appear bumpy, and these bumps make them individually real.

If bumps give spheres their charm, joints give limbs their pathos and grandeur. The limbs of the three wooden sculptures do not hide their joints; more, their arrangement presents their joints for examination. The first piece--spine and seven limbs--lies flat on the floor. It has been laid low, it has fallen, one of the limbs lying on top of another. But it also resembles tree roots, and so, has the potential to give life. The crossed limbs may be read, in a witty way, as fingers cro…

Sally Tittmann's Show

I'm going for the opening reception of Sally's show tonight. The sculptures and drawings are developed during her year-long residency at the New York Studio School.

Sally Tittmann
Opening Reception: Friday, June 8 6-9
Open Hours: Sat., Sun. June 9, 10 2-6 or by appt. June 11-14

NYSS Dumbo Studios
20 Jay Street, #307 Brooklyn, NY
F Train to York Street, 3 blocks downhill 646-285-1970

This is an earlier work (picture from her website)

Installation (Three Columns), 2005, papier mache, each column 124" x approx 12" diam.

Park Slope Poetry Project

This evening I went for the first time to the monthly Park Slope Poetry Project reading, to hear Thomas Fucaloro's feature. The reading was held in St. John-St. Matthew Emmanuel Lutheran Church, in its basement canteen with tables covered in green plastic sheets. Sarah Sarai was visiting for the first time too, and I really liked the poem she read, which has just been published in The Threepenny Review. Bill (or William Duke) played two lovely country songs he had composed. I read two sonnets from my chapbook, as well as "Heads" and "Roof of the Mouth" from my book of the body series.

My Books in Singapore's National Library

A friend forwarded a link to the shelf number of Payday Loans in the Reference Section of the National Library. A search for my name on the library's online catalogue brought up another book I've forgotten writing. This is Distinction: A Profile of Pioneers, co-written with Lo Mun Hou, when we were both serving our national service. Distinction is a book commemorating the 2nd Singapore Infantry Brigade's 25th anniversary.

I remember the great fun--and frustration--Mun Hou and I had, writing this book. Both text and pictures had to celebrate the Brigade but we managed to inject some postmodernist puns and ambiguities into the text, detectable only by the observant reader. The book title, for instance, not only has the meaning of "excellence," but also that of "difference." The last I heard of Mun Hou was that he was pursuing his PhD in Comparative Lit somewhere in the USA.

Ben, the graphic designer, was full of whacky ideas (including changing the book f…

"Brother" published in The Ledge

The Ledge Poetry & Fiction Magazine, No. 30, Fall-Winter 2007 issue arrived today. My poem comes third in the perfect bound book, after the prize-winning poem "My Aunt's Horse" by Melody Lacina, and "Moetotolo" by Gabriel Ramos-Rocchi Huertas (Moetotolo means sleep-crawler in Samoan, and is perhaps a trope in the poem for a homosexual lover.)

Some information from the magazine's website about the journal and its upcoming poetry and fiction contests:

We are proud to announce the arrival of our very latest issue, Number 30! This new issue is filled with over 200 pages of engaging and intriguing poems and stories, and we are pleased to offer it here for sale, for your reading pleasure. The Ledge is also quickly approaching a major milestone within the realm of literary magazine and small press publishing, too, as our next issue will be our twentieth anniversary issue! We invite those who haven't had the occasion to enjoy The Ledge to order a copy today …

Richard Marx Weinraub on "Payday Loans"

Whee! My second review. (The first is here.) And it's a positive one. I'm reviewed alongside Richard Howard and Rachel Hadas. What a kick!

Cezanne on Line and Color

"Line and colour are not distinct.... When colour is at its richest, form takes on its fullest expression." Cezanne's words gave Matisse the courage to break decisively with the old pictorial language when the latter was painting in Collioure in 1905, the summer before the fauve exhibition.

Another rejection slip from POETRY magazine. They did not like the four parts from my book of the body series: "Roof the Mouth, Jaws and the Jaw-hinges," "Eyes," "Finger-nails," and "Nose."

Introducing a Lover to Parents

My parents arrived in New York City yesterday morning, met at JFK by me and my sister who drove them to Virginia today to live with her for the next four months. Since this was their first visit to the USA, I showed off the city to them, those sights that I thought would impress them: Grand Central Station, Empire State Building, Chinatown, and Battery Park at Manhattan's toe, where one can see the Statue greenish-blue in the distance.

Instead of being favorably impressed, they remarked, when driven by my brother-in-law in his SUV, on the potholes in the road, and, when strolling the busy sidewalks, on the unevenness and cracks that wobbled the stroller in which my two-year-old niece slept. I had anticipated comments on the filthy subway stations, but not these. The imperfections that spoke to me of charming idiosyncrasy, spoke to them of inconvenience and, worse, of negligence. The roads and sidewalks in Singapore, like a discredited theory, are flat, of course.

Then, they found o…

EVC Benefit Screening

The Educational Video Center teaches documentary video production skills to young people from underserved high schools in NYC. At last night's benefit, I watched snippets from three student docs.

Still Standing, the first film, told the story of Mrs. Gertrude whose house was destroyed by Katrina. Her insurance claim was still not paid seven months after the hurricane. Evacuated to Houston, Texas, she returned one day to the neighborhood to find that the city had demolished the house without her permission. She suspected that the predominantly white neighborhood wanted her out of there. The city sent her a bill for the demolition job.

Are You Game? is about the videogaming craze. Technically it is more sophisticated than the first, but the narrative loses its way among the interviews of various people: game designers, gamers, parents. The last film, Losing Ground: The New Face of Homelessness, focuses on the plight of families who have lost their homes, and taken refuge in the city&…