Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Gerald Stern Tells It as Is

Heard Gerald Stern read on Monday in a private home just around the corner from where I live. The reading was organized by PL, held under the auspices of the ALSCW, of which I am a new council member. Talked with SS about the conference and the panel on translating Asia. HS introduced me to RW, who seemed very nice. Then Stern read, and talked, for about half an hour. I liked the more compressed poems better, especially a powerful one about the uselessness of cultural assimilation. You still have to pack your leather bag and go when they tell you to. "Tell" is, of course, an euphemism. Stern's parents were Polish and Ukrainian immigrants. There is a lot of truth-telling in his poetry.

During the Q&A, I asked him about the controversy over Rita Dove's anthology of American verse, whether his sympathies lie with the editor's principle of "diversity" or with Helen Vendler's "aesthetic" critique of Dove's choices. Given the hedging so often sounded in such sessions, I was surprised by how quick and direct his answer was. He immediately said, Dove. And said that he thought that Dove offended people because she is a black woman who dared to decide on the American canon. The Norton anthology is just as arbitrary in its selection, but it does not receive the kind of flak that Rita did.  In response to a subsequent question, Stern told the story of a boy who used quite innocently the word "black" to describe African Americans. His immigrant mother warned him not to use such a word in their new country. The boy learned, Stern said, to be correct but also learned deceit.

Monday, January 28, 2013

"Temple Art" in Kin

My poem "Temple Art" has been published in Kin. Thank you, Diana Bridge and China, for the inspiration! Thank you, Scorpion!

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf"

Watched this afternoon the Steppenwolf's production of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? A colleague described the attacks that husband George and wife Martha direct against each other as corrosive. And she is right. But I was surprised by how moving and tender were some of the quieter moments of the play. The couple need each other as much as they hate each other. George (Tracy Letts), who married the daughter of his college president, is a coward and a failure as far as his wife is concerned, but she needs his need for her, her need exacerbated by her fear of abandonment. Martha (Amy Morton), who is alcoholic, is emasculating in her taunts, but George wants to be punished for his obscure guilt over the deaths of his parents.

Their love-hate relationship is played out in the form of horrendous games in front of their guests Nick (Madison Dirks) and Honey (Carrie Coon), games like Humiliate Your Host and Hump Your Hostess. When Martha breaks the rule of one of their games by telling Honey about their imaginary son, George kills the son by making him drive and crash into a tree. The son, the bond that holds the couple together for so long in love and hate, becomes the casualty of the long night. The ensemble acting was uniformly superb. Pam MacKinnon directed this production at the Booth Theatre.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Inventing Abstraction: 1910-1925

Fernand Léger, "The Discs" 1919

The MoMA show is huge. Picasso and Kandinsky open it but it quickly expands to look at the network of artists all across Europe--including America--producing abstract art. The show is organized mostly according to countries: Russia, France, Germany, Italy, England, the USA. Artists who moved to work in a foreign country are grouped with their colleagues, so the two works by Marcel Duchamp are placed with the work of Stieglitz and other Americans. I love his painting "Movement from Virgin to Bride," which counters Kandinsky's valorization of the spiritual in art with Duchamp's preference for the sensual. It was a treat to see works by Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell representing England. Gino Severini is also a stand-out for me. There is a wonderfully frilly painting by Giacometti, so sensationally different from his sculptures. Best of all is the work of Fernard Léger on display. It is rhythmically vital and yet reassuringly stable. It is experimental yet traditional.

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Stupendous Budapest Festival Orchestra

The Budapest Festival Orchestra was stupendous yesterday afternoon. Under the baton of its founder-conductor Iván Fischer, it rollicked through Shostakovich's "Selections from Suite for variety orchestra in eight parts" (1950), finessed Bernstein's "Serenade" (with replacement Dutch violinist Liza Ferschtman) and rendered Rachmaninov's Symphony No. 2 its fulsome due. I thought the first movement of the Rachmaninov was a little sluggish, but the rest of the symphony was played with such  emotional conviction that I fell in love with the music all over again.

I had to rush off, abandoning AH, to meet EN for dinner before the NYC launch of the journal Asymptote. We had a good soto ayam at the Noodle Bar on Orchard Street, and then walked over to the Living Theater for the launch. It was lovely to meet Yew Leong's friends, poet and translator Yu Yan Chen and contributing editor Dylan Suher. Of all the readers, I particularly enjoyed hearing Cole Swensen, her musical poems and her crystalline translations of a French writer's prose reflections on English authors such as Woolf and Keats. JI, who came to the city to attend a wedding, joined us in time to hear Swensen, and then he came home with me.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Marquez's "One Hundred Years of Solitude"

As I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, I kept thinking of how much Salman Rushdie owes to this novel when writing his Midnight's Children. Not just for the general method, now labeled magic realism, but also for particular incidents such as the plague of insomnia and particular characters such as the old prostitute Pilar Ternera. Was Rushdie electrified by the discovery that the language that generations of Buendias tried to decipher in the parchments of the gypsy Melquiades is Sanskrit? Did his discovery establish a personal link to the Muse of Marquez's city Macondo so that one novel directly inspired another? I felt such a connection, though in a far smaller way, when I read that Melquiades died on the sands of Singapore. The island-state is still a killer of the imagination.

Rushdie's brainchild in Midnight's Children was to dramatize the history of post-independence India through the life of one magic child Saleem. In doing so, Rushdie achieves a unity of design that I think is missing in One Hundred Years of Solitude. Marquez tells the story of five generations but the dominating figure is that of Colonel Aureliana Buendia who leads the Liberals' war against the Conservatives. After his death, the novel shrinks to a family tragedy, poignant in its own way but pessimistic in its outlook. Jose Arcadio Segundo, the leader of the banana plantation workers, was a hapless witness in comparison to his heroic forebear. Ursula, the matriarch, does live through almost the whole of the novel, but she is increasingly powerless to affect the course of events. The novel does not end so much as run out of steam, much as the family does. Aureliano, the bastard son of Meme, decodes the parchments and realizes that Melquiades has predicted down to the smallest and last details the fortunes of the Buendia family.

By encompassing many generations, however, Marquez is able to deal with the notion of repetition in history with greater penetration and persistence than Rushdie. The repetition of names in the Buendia family--Aureliano, Jose Arcadio, Amaranta, Remedios--makes the notion impossible to forget. Do the later generations inherit the same character as their namesakes? Are they as fortunate or unfortunate? The problem of repetition is compounded in the twins Aureliano Segundo and Jose Arcadio Segundo, who look and behave alike until their adolescence. Their adult lives are vastly differently but what a trick fate plays on them when they are buried in the grave intended for the other. For all our frantic attempts to distinguish ourselves from others, we end up in a similar place. That is also the conclusion of the novel, for repetition does not prevent the coming to an end, as Aureliano the Bastard discovers as he reads to the end of Melquiades' parchments, which is also the end of the novel:

Before reaching for the final line, however, he had already understood that he would never leave that room, for it was foreseen that the city of mirrors (or mirages) would be wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men at the precise moment when Aurelian Babilonia would finish deciphering the parchments, and that everything written on them was unrepeatable since time immemorial and forever more, because races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

A Tribute to Iris Berman

I met Iris Berman at Cornelia Street Cafe, at a Pink Pony reading, some six, seven years ago. She read a poem from her flower series, I seem to remember. She dressed like one of those British women you see in BBC films, a floral dress cinched with a ribbon around the waist. Did she once wear a straw hat? She died of cancer some months ago, round about the same time as Brant Lyon, another regular of the Pink Pony. According to Roxanne Hoffman, Iris and Brant hated each other and did not speak to one another though they lived in the same block.

Iris's collages are part of the group show now on at the Active Space. Curated by Daria Kostina and Irina Danilova, Brural: Peripheral Vision brings together works by non-mainstream artists from Brooklyn and the Ural region of Russia. I did not know that Iris was an artist as well as a poet. It was a deep pleasure last night to see her collages. They revealed a feel for shape, color and texture, and a way with words, for many of the collages incorporated found text. One, in particular stuck to the retina. Formed with cut-up strips of a Christian tract, it was a patchwork of gold. A sentence that read "Would you like to know for sure that you have eternal life in heaven?" was cut up in two, and so expressed simultaneously hope and doubt.

I mentioned the collage and then read her poem "Night Animal" about a menacing night intruder into a women's hotel. It was clear that the speaker was both afraid of and attracted to the mysterious creature that finally climbed into her bed and left as dawn filtered in through the shades. I read after Patrick, who was Iris's boyfriend, and Linda Lerner, Robert Gibbons, Jack Cooper, Su Polo and Roxanne also read. The tribute went on too long, I think. The audience, who had to stand, was very respectful, however, and attentive.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Goh Chok Tong's Visit to FCBC

I am surprised by how much this incident is affecting me. I thought I have moved past my former religious life, left it behind in Singapore, but like tin cans tied to a dog it has followed me and is rattling me. I am posting the incident, and my response to it, here on this blog, because I want to remember that the past is not yet past.

When Emeritus Senior Minister of Singapore Goh Chok Tong visited Faith Community Baptist Church on 13 January during a Sunday service, Senior Pastor Lawrence Khong took the opportunity to deliver a hateful anti-gay message. Among other things, he said:

We affirm that the family unit comprises a man as Father, a woman as Mother, and Children. This is the basic building block of society, a value foundational for a secure future, a premise fundamental to nation-building.

and warned ominously that

We see a looming threat to this basic building block by homosexual activists seeking to repeal Section 377A of the Penal Code.  
Examples from around the world have shown that the repeal of similar laws have led to negative social changes, especially the breakdown of the family as a basic building block and foundation of the society. It takes away the rights of parents over what their children are taught in schools, especially sex education. It attacks religious freedom and eventually denies free speech to those who, because of their moral convictions, uphold a different view from that championed by increasingly aggressive homosexual activists.

The church statement posted on Facebook received over 300 comments (as of now), most of which question the statement's illogicality, bigotry, fear-mongering and obvious debt to American evangelical fundamentalists. I was moved to post a personal response, because at a certain phase of my life the church was all-in-all to me. I appeal to the love of friends in the church.

I was with Faith Community Baptist Church for many, many years, through my late teens and my twenties. I followed Pastor Lawrence Khong to FCBC when he was thrown out by Grace Baptist Church for preaching speaking in tongues and other gifts of the Holy Spirit. I left FCBC when I finally could not reconcile its homophobic preaching with my search for personal happiness. I am sexually attracted to men, more, I love men. I am so thankful that I am now in a committed relationship with a beautiful and good man. I want my FCBC friends to know for a certainty that when you oppose the repeal of Section 377A, you are discriminating against me, not some abstract, weird group of activist-perverts, but me, Jee Leong, the person whom you love and admire more than I deserve. I don't take away your right to love. Why do you support the continued suppression of my right to love?

Monday, January 14, 2013

Reading Queerly!?

I very much enjoyed reading last night for R. Nemo Hill and John Marcus Powell's series Reading Queerly!?. The Pink Pony was a wonderfully eclectic venue, though the music from the bar was a little loud. Met Ivan Steiger Galietti, who read two poems by Pier Paolo Pasolini in both Italian and English, one the supplication to his mother, the other a more political piece. Ivan said that he fell in love with Pasolini's poetry at the age of sixteen and met the great man himself in Rome. Lorenzo Pozzan read the beginning of Whitman's "Song of Myself" with much feeling. He is a very good-looking young actor. The open-mic was short but good, anchored by Nemo, John Marcus and Eric Norris. I sold two copies of Seven Studies and one copy of The Pillow Book.  Thank you, my friends, for coming to the reading--EN, TH, AH, R and AS. This is a reading series to which I will return, for its atmosphere of appreciative comaraderie.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Poem: "Concierge"

My first 7/7 effort for the new year: write a poem a day for one week, starting on the 7th day of the month. Not sure if the draft is any good, but I wrote about people about whom I don't usually write: politicians, scientists and actors. The first part, with its matter-of-fact tone, is at odds with the rest of the poem. The Millay section (Vincent) is factually inaccurate since she did not die in Paris, but I don't know if that fudge really matters. I could change her to someone else. The poem is a gallery of characters and may be added to.


Guardian of the gate, a doorman, I greet
your visitors and keep out the street.

On rainy days I whistle for your cab
and stow your bags carefully at the back.

I salt the sidewalk so you won’t slip,
after the snowfall has been cleared in heaps.

When power goes down, as in the earthquake,
I provide candles, like my medieval namesake.

And when you are gone,
I hold the parcels for your return.


Welcome back, Mr. Ceaușescu!
I almost did not recognize you.

The ears are dead giveaways,
even when they stick out from a Chinese face.

I hear the revolution is over.
We can all come out of our covers.

Message for you, sir, I think,
a prank:

Ceaușescu, go to Hell!
You are looking remarkably well.


Vincent, how was Paree?
Did you bring back a sonnet for me

from a dirty café in Montmartre,
burnished in your lovely meter?

You broke a heart? And found
it was your own?

O, matter for the muses!
O, martyrdom, the best of ruses!

Here, I’ll bring up your steam trunk.
You’re a man now but I’m a lover of the franc.


What took you away, Madame Skłodowska-Curie, so long?
Work or play? What a beautiful sarong!

I have held your blue lab coat for your return.
Many asked to touch its radiation,

half-lives mostly, some split
personalities, and just last week, a double date.

I suppose they hope,
in some measure, to be your isotope.

Good one, that, eh?
Madame Curie-Skłodowska, you have been too long away.


Is it you, Mr. Mishima, behind that mask?
I’m sorry that I have to ask.

Don’t be angry, sir. You won’t believe
the cranks that I had to get rid of.

No, no, I don’t mean to imply that you are a crank
any more than I am Anne Frank.

‘Tis the season, sir, Halloween.
And your mask is rather African.

Like it? Why, sir, I lose my head over it.
And here is your knife to make your costume complete.


Your pigeon, Professor Skinner,
set off the security scanner.

No animals in the building.
Not for Science or Superstition or fill in

the blank. Rules are rules.
I didn’t set the reinforcement schedules.

There’s the flashing light for my coffee.
Now, if you will excuse me,

I must see to my refreshment,
before it goes again to the Bangladeshi gent.


Only right that you return as Thai,
what you pretend to be in The King and I.

Yes, you also return naked and dirt poor
but all of us have to start from somewhere,

Vladivostok or Sakhalin,
a home we left or an imaginary inn.

Taidje, Julius, Jule, Youl, Yul, Yuliy,
singing the songs of the Romani,

collect your hair as down-
payment for a crown.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Two Film Adaptations

Torch Song Trilogy (1988), watched at home last weekend, is a film adaptation of the Tony-winning Boradway play by Harvey Fierstein. In the film Fierstein reprises his role as Arnold Beckoff, a gay man looking for love in 1970's New York City. He is really the heart of the show, funny, witty and poignant, though Anne Bancroft is a scream too as his domineering mother, and Matthew Broderick throws himself bravely into the part of Arnold's young, modelling lover. Arnold's drag performances, with a cast of other queens, reminded me of the recently watched Magic Mike, but the latter was a skinny latte compared to the frothy blend of humor, psychology and melodrama in Torch Song.

I wanted to like The Namesake the movie, just as I wanted to like The Namesake the book, but both were ultimately disappointing. The book has more going for it. If it does not have enough plot, it does at least have the pristine prose of Jhumpa Lahiri. The movie tries to be epic by covering the story of three generations and two countries, but none of its scenes is particularly memorable or penetrating. The camera sees but does not look. The make-up is horrible. Irrfan Khan (Ashoke) and Tabu (Ashima) never look old enough to be the parents of Gogol, played by Kal Penn who put up a pleasant but undistinguished performance. Neither Jacinda Barret (the white Maxine) nor Zuleikha Robinson (the Bengali Moushumi) has sufficient presence on screen that may explain Gogol's attraction to the women.  The film, directed by Mira Nair, needs spicing up.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Helen Vendler on Sylvia Plath

I was lucky last night. MB, a friend of KS, had a free ticket to Helen Vendler's 92Y lecture on Sylvia Plath, and I was free to take up the offer. Vendler's parents knew Plath's parents, though the two daughters did not meet. A year younger than Plath, Vendler followed the poet's publications in different magazines; Plath's mother would announce her precocious daughter's successes in her Christmas cards.

In Vendler's introductory remarks, she characterized Plath as an elegaist, a didactic poet (both parents were teachers), an unsuccessful poet of seasons because she saw only the extremes of black and orange, a lover of traditional poetic forms, a diligent experimenter with stanzaic form, a poet who avoided writing in sequences because they diluted the taste on the tongue, and who learned to deploy flat sentences because they were irrefutable. Vendler also detected the influence on her early poetry of Auden, Dylan Thomas, T.S. Eliot, Dickinson, Stevens, Moore, and Roethke.

The lecture was divided in two: the first half looked at Plath's juvenilia published in The Collected Poems edited by Ted Hughes, and second half focused on her mature poems. Interesting as it was to see how Plath experimented with different styles and tried to overcome the rigidity and formality of her early writing, I could have done with fewer of the immature poems in order to spend more time with her truly accomplished poems.

The mature poems that Vendler chose to spend time on were not the usual suspects, Instead of "Daddy" or "Lady Lazarus," we read "The Everlasting Monday," "Moonrise," "Old Ladies' Home," "Dark Wood, Dark Water," "the satirical "Poem for a Birthday, 4: The Beast," "The Hanging Man," "The Moon and the Yew Tree," "Mirror," "Winter Trees," "Sheep in Fog" and "Edge." Vendler judged "Death & Co." to be a masterpiece, whereas I felt the poem was rather thin. The selection showed Plath working and re-working her master-tropes: moon, trees, water, children. The poems amounted to an obsessive corpus. By the end of the evening, three hours later, I was glad to escape the overly heated, suffocating Warburg Lounge.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Eshuneutics on "The Pillow Book"

"... The Pillow Book is a book of changes. It is about massive shifts within a person’s life. But it is done with such delicacy that these changes are floated through, not as in a surreal dream, but with a sense of meditation." Read the whole review.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

"Obvious to sight and touch"

Eighteenth-century Women Poets
, edited by Roger Lonsdale, is an eye-opener. Julia Briggs described it in The Times as "a brilliant and original anthology." Both epithets are just. It is original for no one before Lonsdale thought to look at eighteenth-century poetry by women for anything more than historical interest. The anthology is also brilliant because the discriminating taste of its editor ensured a selection of the liveliest and wittiest poetry of the time. The poetry becomes its own argument for its continued relevance and strength. The voices, from a cross-section of classes, are varied and individual, particularly those of Annie Finch (Countess of Winchilsea), Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Mary Jones, Mary Leapor, Susanna Blamire, Anna Lestitia Barbauld, Anna Seward, Charlotte Smith, Ann Yearsley, Elizabeth Hands. Even lesser talents are represented by one or two of their most distinctive contributions. 

Lonsdale's informative introduction gives the historical context of this poetry. The eighteenth century, it shows, saw the increasing participation of women as writers and readers in the literary marketplace. Although patronized by some male authors and many aristocractic women, if mostly in a condescending manner, women poets had to negotiate with self-doubt and society's disapproval in order to write and publish. Though the doubt and disapproval waned as the century wore on, they never completely disappeared. Just as women poets were about to consolidate their achievements, they were hit at the end of the century by the phenomenon of High Romanticism. Wordsworth learned much from and praised the poetry of women such as Charlotte Smith, but his ultra-lofty conception of the Poet denied the value of the earthy and humorous domestic poems written by the most interesting women poets of the time. Anna Lestitia Barbauld sensed this when she warned Coleridge in 1797:

... A grove extends; in tangled mazes wrought,
And filled with strange enchantments--dubious shapes
Flit through dim glades, and lure the eager foot
Of youthful ardour to eternal chase.
Dreams hang on every leaf: unearthly forms
Glide through the gloom; and mystic visions swim
Before the cheated sense. Athwart the mists,
Far into vacant space, huge shadows stretch
And seem realities; while things of life,
Obvious to sight and touch, all glowing round,
Fade to the hue of shadows. 

It is striking to me how much this poem anticipates, and cautions against, the language of High Romanticism: adjectives such as tangled, strange, dubious, dim, eager, vacant, huge; verbs such as extends, flit, lure, hang, glide, swim, stretch, seem, fade; and substantives such as enchantments, shapes, ardour, forms, gloom, visions, space, shadows, realities, shadows. The success of Romanticism swept all before it, including poetry that deals--shrewdly, resignedly, contentedly--with the "things of life/ Obvious to sight and touch." Londsdale's anthology returns to us these useful voices of the past.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

A Year in Review and a Resolution

The year, in retrospect, was full. The most important event arrived in the mailbox. I received my green card in March, and so can call myself a Permanent Resident of the United States of America, in addition to being a Citizen of Singapore. I am very thankful to my school for sponsoring me, especially the Academic Dean, not only for her leadership in driving the whole process but also for her acumen in changing lawyers when the first lot turned out to be inept. The Registrar spent many hours too on the paperwork. My former department head was also very supportive and helpful throughout the long application.

Being a PR means that I don't have to renew my work permit or get a travel visa in order to return to the country. I got in the PR line for the first time when returning from the school trip to China. That trip was particularly memorable for taichi in Green Lake Park, and for volunteering at a school for migrant children, both in Kunming. It was lovely to visit Dali again, a city I love for its houses, lake and mountains. I'd like to visit China again, this time on my own, and travel down the Yangtze and the Huangho.

First-time visits were made this year to Hong Kong and Bali, together with GH when he flew to Singapore. I am glad that my parents and GH liked each other. Hong Kong was strikingly vibrant, Bali serenely peaceful. We also visited Puerto Rico at the end of the year for the first time. In March I was in Chicago for the first time. Next summer we are thinking of visiting Paris, which GH has not yet seen, and traveling around the south of France. See the villages where Monet and Matisse worked.

Anish Kapoor's Cloud Gate in Chicago

This year's musical highlight must be the joyous performance of Takács Quartet. I also enjoyed the HD screening of Strauss's Salome, and prided myself on sitting through the Ring cycle shown on PBS. I watched Giuseppe Tornatore's Cinema Paradiso finally and loved it. The De Kooning show at the Met and the black-and-white Picasso show at the Guggenheim were exhilarating experiences. The best theater was Sydney Theatre Company's production of Uncle Vanya, starring the beautiful and gifted Cate Blanchett.

Another brush with star power happened at the Lambda Literary Awards. There to present the award for gay poetry, I sat near Olympia Dukakis and Amistead Maupin. If I were to be frank, GH was more excited about it than I was, since the Tales of City, both the books and the TV series, mean more to him than to me. This year I discovered Rohinton Mistry. A Fine Balance is a great novel. After reading it, I wanted more and so read Such a Long Journey and Family Matters too during the summer.

Math Paper Press published my The Pillow Book as part of its beautifully-made chapbook series, Babette's Feast. On my visit to Singapore I read at its launch in the store Books Actually. I also read in the Ministerial Lounge at the former Parliament House of Singapore, now a literary arts venue called The Arts House. In New York City, my most memorable reading was at the Barnes and Noble on the Upper West Side. The reading was for the queer anthology Divining Divas. I was ecstatic to study with Paul Muldoon at the Poets House. I did not achieve my goal of publishing in a major American journal.  After much work, my new book is almost ready.

What will I resolve to do this year? I don't believe in making too many resolutions if one is serious about keeping them. I have only one: I will pick up Spanish again and make a serious attempt to be proficient in the language. I have been toying with the idea of living in Mexico or Argentina or even Puerto Rico when I get my sabbatical. GH made the interesting suggestion this morning that I go to Spain instead. Not only will I be at the beginnings of Spanish-language culture, but I will be able to see Moorish Spain and perhaps visit North Africa. Spain is also closer to England, where I can see my friends again.