"The New Poetry of Singapore" by Gwee Li Sui

The essay appears in Volume II of Sharing Borders: Studies in Contemporary Singaporean-Malaysia Literature, itself a part of the series Writing Asia: The Literatures in Englishes. In the essay, instead of rehashing the tired discourse of nationalism in the poetry of earlier Singaporean poets, Gwee focuses on younger poets who published their first books in 1997 and later. Relatively free from the control of both State and University, these poets put out, with the help of independent publishers, a series of works that have re-energized Singaporean writing. A chronology:

1997 - Alvin Pang's Testing the Silence, Aaron Lee's A Visitation of Sunlight, and Yong Shu Hoong's Isaac.

1998 - Grace Chia's Womango, Alfian Sa'at's One Fierce Hour, Felix Cheong's Temptation and Other Poems, Damien Sin's Saints, Sinners and Singaporeans and Gwee's Who Wants to Buy a Book of Poems?

1999 - Felix Cheong's I Watch the Stars Go Out, Daren Shiau's Heartland and Lim Hui Min's Mining for the Light

2000 - Cyril Wong's Squatting Quietly, Eddie Tay's Remnants and Daren Shiau's Peninsula, Archipelagos and Other Islands

2001 - Alfian Sa'at's A History of Amnesia, Cyril Wong's the end of his orbit, Yeow Kai Chai's Secret Manta and Toh Hsien Min's The Enclosure of Love

2002 - Koh Beng Liang's Last Three Women, Yong Shu Hoong's dowhile and Cyril Wong's Below: Absence

2003 - Felix Cheong's Broken By the Rain, Madeleine Lee's a single headlamp and Alvin Pang's City of Rain

2004 - Madeleine Lee's fifty three/zero three and Cyril Wong's Unmarked Treasure

2005 - Aaron Maniam's Morning at Memory's Border, Yong Shu Hoong's Frottage and Eddie Tay's A Lover's Soliloquy

2006 - Ng Yi-Sheng's Last Boy, Yeow Kai Chai's pretend I'm not here and Cyril Wong's Like a Seed with Its Singular Purpose

2007 - Daren Shiau's Velouria, Koh Jee Leong's Payday Loans, Nansi Pooja's Stiletto Scars, Colin Tan's The Evidence of the Senses and Aaron Lee's Five Right Angles

2008 - Madeleine Lee's synaethesia, Cyril Wong's tilting our plates to catch the light and Toh Hsien Min's Means to an End

2009 - Felix Cheong's Sudden in Youth: New and Selected Poems, Gilbert Koh's Two Baby Hands, and Koh Jee Leong's Equal to the Earth

(Correction: Daren Shiau's Velouria is not a book of poetry, but of micro-fiction. See also the qualification and clarification by Gwee in the comments.)

Yes, we are not many. But the list represents an explosion of sorts. What is most exciting is the sheer variety of subject matter, tone and style. Sure, there is plenty of gay poetry, in Cyril Wong, Alfian Sa'at, Ng Yi-Sheng and me, but we do not dominate in terms of numbers. There are satire, populism and defiance, besides the more meditative tone associated with an elite education. There are poets who write in meter and rhyme, and there are poets who do not. Influences may come from China and Malaysia as well as England and the USA.

After discussing the different poets on the list, Gwee ends the essay with some perceptive comments on my poetry.

The last most recent poet I want to introduce lives in New York today but aggressively uses the internet . . . to reach a transnational audience. Koh jee Leong is still more known in Singapore for "Come On, Straight Boy," his controversial gay love poem banned by authorities from being read publicly. He may have been contributing to the country's poetic and critical life for years, but his first book, Payday Loans, carrying thirty sonnets, appeared as late as in 2007. The "Hungry Ghost" sequence, from a second volume Equal to the Earth (2009), movingly describes his artistic journey:

I tell her my book rises on dammed desire,
a book my father would have called dirty.
Last summer, tired of being damned a liar,

I stopped Father from switching on the TV
and announced to my parents I am gay.
I talked too much. He didn't look at me.

When i wound down, he mumbled, It's okay,
and flicked the TV switch. In bed, that night,
he consoled Mother that every family prays

a secret sutra that is hard to recite--
a crippled son, retard or laughingstock.
Mother repeated to me his insight. (Equal 13-14)

These lines cut straight to the Asian gay poet's mundane struggles with far greater honesty and less flourish than the verses of Alfian, Ng, and even Wong. Koh's highly musical poems are talismans that hold down an inner life with much to exorcise even as he seeks new measures of acceptance and means to fix his mental arguments in verse.

Gwee continues, in a beautifully written paragraph that pays tribute to the new Singaporean poetry, and challenges it:

It should be palpable by now how the fullness of Singapore's new poetry is, in fact, demonstrated by its own lack of real opposites, counterpoints it does not already contain. As if each style or engagement has been overhearing all the rest, the writings fill in for one another: politics is answered by humour, ideology by confession, lyric by prose, form by flair, image by idea, consciousness by the subconscious. Moreover, contra what straightforward reviews say, the themes are seldom discrete, with, for example, travel itself troping existence which tropes locatedness even as location suggests myth, and so on. What this means is that the often invoked anxieties of postcoloniality and young nationhood can be overstated since most new voices share a different circle of reflection, one far more able to reposition the poets' emotions outside the discourses and urgencies of belonging. Their art of subtly managed inquiry indeed shifts its weight less to an exercise in reason than to a pursuit of private beauty, making it necessary for future academic engagers to forge a distinct critical language for them. While systems of effort like Thumboo's or of nomadism like Boey's may continue to be of some use, the worthier challenge is to dislodge notions of betweenness and volatility from those and tie them more to themes such as existential wakefulness, interrogations of privacy, transformations of self, the relation between art and wit, artistic and human influences, multi-lingual connections, the urban condition, the values of the absurd, and spirituality.


Anonymous said…
Jee Leong --

Thanks for your generous consideration here. I find the way you chronologise useful as it helps to make the case stronger. I should admit that I am still discovering poets from the same period. These have fallen out of my radar as they self-publish, are not part of a "batch", and are rarely found in bookshops and libraries.

So my project of documentation remains a start. The point to remember is that this "layer" of poetry coincides with earlier "layers" but must NOT be confused with them. I hope that the essay makes that clear enough. And, happily, we ARE many -- if you set our numbers against prose writers. The proportion is highly unusual as far as most modern societies go! :)

Take care!


PS. Here's an excerpt from my book introduction which you may like too:
Anonymous said…
By the way, Daren's Velouria is really micro-fiction. But it's good fun!

Jee Leong Koh said…
Thanks, Gwee, for adding the qualification, clarification and the correction. I should have looked up Velouria first.
Shropshirelad said…
Reading Hungry Ghost again, as a result of this piece, I have to say, this is my favorite. It gets richer every time.
Anonymous said…
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jee Leong Koh said…
I read "Hungry Ghosts" at the graduation reading at Sarah Lawrence, and so it holds special significance for me.
Jee Leong Koh said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Li Sui said…
You're welcome, Jee Leong. The "Hungry Ghost" sequence is also my favourite -- very powerful stuff!


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