Last weekend I started work on my book based on the prime number of 17. It will be a history of Singapore written according to Oulipian rules. I take the 17th word on the 17th page of The Straits Times and put the words together to form a poem. The Straits Times (ST) is Singapore's main English daily broadsheet newspaper. It was started by an Armenian, Catchick Moses, and launched on 15 July 1845 as an eight-page weekly. Since the earliest edition of the paper had only eight pages, I cannot begin my history at the beginning of the paper. I will begin, instead, in media res, so to speak, not at the so-called founding of Singapore by Stamford Raffles, not at the proclamanation of independence from the British, nor at the establishment of a newspaper by Moses. The beginning will be owned by no one, except accident.
But the beginning of my history is not without logic. Of course it made, and still makes, sense to publish a newspaper in multiples of four pages. Two sheets of newsprint give eight pages, the size of the earliest editions. Later, ST published in a cycle of three days: 16 pages for two days, then 20 or more pages for the third day. In this context, 17 is inconveniently indivisible, not only by the factor of four but by any other factor, except one and itself. During this period when ST published in this pattern, there is only one Page 17 in every three editions of the daily paper, and so my history will necessarily be incomplete, even by its idiosyncratic rules. A poem catches only nine words from a month's worth of newspapers.
I footnote every word in the poem with the title of the news article, the date of the newspaper and the page. In each footnote, I also include a quotation from the article that appeals to me. The quotation is not an attempt to explain the word in the poem or the headline of the article, at least not in any direct manner. First of all, the quotation is chosen for some striking detail or witty formulation or a tone of voice. I am actually very moved by the quotation of perishable journalistic copy. Personal taste is involved in the selection of quotation, and becomes one sign of the personal in this largely impersonal writing project. Another sign is the anonymous voice from the past that I quote.
Only secondarily can the quotation be compared in an analogous fashion with the word in the poem. The word in the poem will always hold a synecdochic relation with the news article, since it comes from the article, but sometimes it may bear a metaphoric or summarizing relation to the article as well. The footnoting of every word in the poem is, of course, a parody of traditional scholarship. The resulting poem looks like nonsense and so seems to cry out for explication. Only the form, but not the substance, of explanation is given, but the parody does not quite erase our human need for understanding.
I expect my own understanding of this project to broaden as I drill into the National Library Board archives. Right now I am pleased with the difference between Book 11 and Book 17. The poems in Book 11 are top-heavy with title and epigraph. The poems in Book 17, on the other hand, are untitled; they are weighted from below by footnotes. The former is lyrical, the latter objective. In between them is my edition of 13 Singapore poets, a step in the process of the removal of self from the writing.