Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Dividing Lines and Sidelines

TLS December 19 & 26, 2014

from Jacques Rupnik's review of Michael Zantovsky's Havel: a Life:

It was in the 1970s that Havel established himself as the leading figure of Czech dissidence, both as a political thinker and as the prime inspirer of the human rights movement that became known as Charter 77. His "Letter to Gustáv Husák" of 1975 was, of course, not a letter to the party boss but a lengthy and profound essay on governance through fear and the way "we go in for various kinds of external adaptation as the only effective method of self-defence". This idea of habituation and critique of the "as if" behaviour prevalent in society was futher developed in Havel's famous essay of 1978, "The Power of the Powerless". In the post-totalitarian system, he argued, "the dividing line is not just between the party-state and society . . .  it runs de facto through each person, for everyone in his own way is both victim and supporter of the system" [emphasis mine]. This deep insight provides the key to understanding Havel's controversial stance after 1990 on "lustration": his reluctance to engage in a radical settling of scores with the collaborators of the old regime.


from Kathryn Murphy's review of Ivan Klíma's My Crazy Century: A memoir:

An apocryphal Chinese curse wishes that enemies may live in interesting times. Klíma's times were decidedly interesting, and the curse had added implications for a writer beyond the dangers of censorship and persecution. Dissident literature carries what Klíma himself called, in an interview with Philip Roth in 1990, an "extraliterary appeal": in Czechoslovakia it offered testimony "on the side of truth", against the derangements of sense and language perpetuated by the regime, and bore the torch for a continuity of culture and civic society. For some writers in the West, this was cause for a peculiar envy: the curse of interesting times at least meant interesting material. and a context in which writing really mattered. But such expectations are also oppressive: demanding seriousness, political engagement and a sidelining of formal and aesthetic concerns. The political role which literature was compelled to play stifled assessments of quality, conferring value not always reflected in the work itself [emphasis mine].

Monday, December 29, 2014

Begin Again, Les Enfants Terrible, a Haiku

Begin Again (2013), watched last Saturday, would work well on stage but the music performances would have to be much better if they are "live." Film glamorizes and idolizes, so that the mediocre acquires a kind of mystification through focus and angle. The film is worth watching for the performances of Mark Ruffalo as a has-been music producer, and of Keira Knightley, the unrecognized talent. It is written and directed by John Carney.

On Sunday, I watched Les Enfants Terrible (1950), directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, based on a novel by Jean Cocteau. Everything rests on the poetry, for the story is highly unrealistic and its characters strongly improbable. But the poetry of the images is arresting. The discovery of the dead mother in her room. The siblings' own room, a ramshackle hideout, where they could enact their games of fantasy. The final image of the bamboo curtains crashing down. As Elisabeth, Nicole Stéphane is magnetic. Edouard Dermithe, who plays her brother Paul, is bland. He is too old for the part. If you need someone to root for, Jacques Bernard, the siblings' friend who loves Elisabeth hopelessly, is winsome.

strong night wind
the reservoir has become a sea
slapping the rocks and slurping

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Christmas Gifts

Gift exchange after a hearty Christmas lunch is a golden ritual at my lover’s parents. Having joined in the dusky afternoon twice, in the village of Cleves, twenty-one miles from Cincinnati, I thought I knew the form but was taken aback with delight when I opened a flat square box and found a bolo tie from his father. He had made it with braided brown and black leather at the ends of which coiled silver aiguillettes.

the slide of the bolo tie
is made of peach wood
from the tree that died

At the airport, as I thanked him for the stay, this veteran of World War II, a teacher of industrial arts, an avid card player, a father of five and lately a great-grandfather, said, Jee, you are like one of my sons. I did not mishear him, for my lover’s mother, knowing her husband’s deafness and darkening taciturnity, was so surprised that she repeated it to her son when he called her to say we are safely home.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Roberto Bolano's 2666

Finished reading 2666 and now I'm ready for 2015! It's a masterpiece from a master storyteller. I was completely absorbed by the different stories, the main ones and the many "digressive" others that enter so quietly and then leave with a memorable exit. The Part about the Critics, about a love quadrangle, is almost mathematical in the working out of the plot. The Part about Amalfitano is an acute psychological portrait of fear. The Part about Fate moves like an American TV series. The Part about the Crimes is almost unbearable to read as it recounts, like a police procedural, the serial killings of women in the city of Santa Theresa. The last section, The Part about Archimboldi, is the biography of a writer. Oscar Fate, a black reporter from New York is at the center of of his story, just as his section is at the center of book, his name raising obviously questions about fate and choice. Part 2 balances Amalfitano's fear of losing his daughter against Part 4's account of the killings, the longest section of the book. In Part 1, the critics Jean-Claude Pelletier, Piero Morini, Manuel Espinoza, and Liz Norton look in vain for their writer, who is only found by the reader in Part 5. We discover Archimboldi's reason for going to Santa Theresa, and realize fully that his quest is both foolish and heroic, that of a new Don Quixote.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

On-line Pillow

THE PILLOW BOOK is now out in Kindle! Thank you, Team Awai Books, for turning the book of zuihitsu electronic!

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Jason Irwin's "Where You Are"

The virtues of Jason Irwin's poetry are again on full display in his latest work, a chapbook titled simply Where You Are (NightBallet Press). The feeling for the dailiness of life's disappointments. The devotion to a plain yet eloquent diction, associated with the working class. The discovery of metaphor in the course of living and writing. I have been reading Jason's work since we were together in the Creative Writing MFA at Sarah Lawrence College, and this new book strikes me as a powerful argument for persisting in the same vein. There are, however, at least two new features in this small volume. One is the addition of prose poems to a body of work mostly written in supple free verse. These prose poems provide formal variation, but they lose the intentness of Irwin's line breaks. The other is the subject of a marriage gone south. True to its gentle spirit, there is no recrimination or hysteria here, but an aching remembrance of loss. Where You Are, it turns out, is also the painful cry, Where Are You.


a cocker walking
on uncut claws
clicks like a clock

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Monday, December 15, 2014

Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samouraï

Was captivated by Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samouraï (1967) last night. Alain Delon plays Jef Costello, a contract killer who finally and ritually plans his own suicide. Beautiful minimalist cinematography, with a spare palette of silver and blue. Minimal dialogue too. But there is a less noticeable extravagance too. It seems that the whole of the Paris police force is out to get him. As one imdb comment notes, Costello is not just a child of Sartre. The killing of Reyes, in its magic impossibility, is pure Nabokov.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

New York Festival of Song

Attended the concert last night with HA. Kaufman Music Center and New York Festival of Song present "Harlem Renaissance" in song and poetry. Julia Bullock sang soprano, Darius de Haas tenor, and James Martin baritone. On the piano was NYFOS was Artistic Director Steven Blier and Associate Artistic Director Michael Barrett.

The Joint is Jumpin'
Music by Thomas "Fats" Waller; lyrics by Andy Razaf and J. C. Johnson
Sung by Ensemble

A Porter's Love Song to a Chambermaid
Music by James P. Johnson; lyrics by Andy Razaf
Sung by Mr. Martin

Aint'-cha Glad
Music by Thomas "Fats" Waller; lyrics by Andy Razaf
Sung by Ms. Bullock

L'il Gal
Music by J. Rosamond Johnson; poem by Paul Lawrence Dunbar
Sung by Mr. Martin

Death of an Old Seaman
Music by Cecil Cohen; poem by Langston Hughes
Sung by Ms. Bullock

The Breath of a Rose
Music by William Grant Still; poem by Langston Hughes
Sung by Ms. Bullock

Day Dream (a concert highlight for me)
Music by Billy Strayhorn; lyrics by John LaTouche
Sung by Mr. de Haas

I'm Craving for that Kind of Love
Music by Eubie Blake; lyrics by Noble Sissle
Sung by Ms. Bullock

You're Lucky to Me
Music by Eubie Blake; lyrics by Andy Razaf
Sung by Mr. de Haas and Ms. Bullock

I've Heard of a City Called Heaven (another concert highlight)
Musical arrangement by Hall Johnson; traditional poem
Sung by Ms. Bullock

Guiding Me Back Home
Music by Harry Revel; lyrics by Noble Sissle
Sung by Mr. Martin and Mr. de Haas

Mo' Lasses
Music by Charles "Luckey" Roberts; lyrics by Alex Rogers
Sung by Mr. Martin

In a Sentimental Mood
Music and lyrics by Duke Ellington and Manny Katz
Sung by Mr. de Haas

I'm Just a Lucky So-and-So
Music by Duke Ellington; lyrics by Mack David
Sung by mr. Martin

A Flower is a Lovesome Thing (another concert highlight)
Music and lyrics by Billy Strayhorn
Sung by Ms. Bullock

The Harlem Blues
Music and lyrics by W. C. Handy
Sung by Mr. Martin

My Handy Man Ain't Handy No More
Music by Eubie Blake; lyrics by Andy Razaf
Sung by Ms. Bullock

I'm Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town
Music by William Weldon; lyrics by Andy Razaf
Sung by Mr. de Haas

Song to the Dark Virgin
Music by Florence Price; poem by Langston Hughes
Sung by Mr. Martin

What's the Use
Music by Florence B. Price; poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar
Sung by Mr. de haas

Black and Blue
Music by Thomas "Fats" Waller & Harry Brooks; lyrics by Andy Razaf
Sung by Mr. de Haas

What Harlem is to Me
Music by Russell Wooding and Paul Denniker; lyrics by Andy Razaf
Sung by the Ensemble

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Draft of Preface for "Shadows of Japan"

The art of the haiku is the art of the unsaid. Saying so is already saying too much.

The Great Fish swims in the Great Ocean and the little fishes cannot understand it. How can it plunge to a depth of a thousand miles and still live? I can only dip in my pond to the distance of ten times my length. It cannot be true. And then they hear that the Great Fish changes into a Great Bird, and, as a bird, flies ten thousand leagues in a day. Now we understand, they say, it has been a bird all along.

After Zhuangzi

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Monday, December 01, 2014

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Let us give thanks for celluloid

Watched a slew of movies during Thanksgiving stay with Ty and Di. On Wednesday, when we arrived, we watched an hour of the stand-up comedian Louis C. K., before turning in. Across the Universe (2007), directed by Julie Taymor, is visually entrancing, although the boy-meets-girl story is all too predictable. The fun here is hearing the Beatles songs mesh with the loosey-goosey plot. Evan Rachel Wood plays upper-class American Lucy and Jim Sturgess plays the working class Liverpudlian Jude.

Another visual entertainer, but in a very different way, Getting Go, the Go Doc Project (2013) is framed as a video documentary by a college student named Doc (Tanner Cohen), of his crush on NYC go-go dancer Go (Matthew Camp). Written and directed by Cory Krueckeberg, this is a better gay movie than most. The acting is believable. I love all the split-screens and frames-within-frames that convey the multiplicity and simultaneity of on-line life. After this, I'm off to stalk Matthew Camp on Facebook.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was so god-awful that we stopped watching it after 15 minutes. House of Boys (2009), directed by Jean-Claude Schlim, boy-meets-boy-in-whorehouse-and-falls-in-love-and-ends-up-taking-care-of-partner-infected-by-AIDS, is totally unrealistic. The only reason to watch it is Layke Anderson who is cute and a decent actor. His dance numbers are the best things in the movie.

We were knackered after the bus trip home, so what did we do for the evening, but to watch another movie. A Coffee in Berlin (2012) follows a young college dropout as he encounters various weird folks around the city, beautifully shot in black and white. A neighbor who is unable to make love to his wife since her breast cancer surgery. An underachieving actor friend. A high-school classmate whom he once bullied for being fat, but who is still in love with him. And, finally, fatefully, an old man returning to the old neighborhood who told the story of how his father made him throw stones at a Jewish store and how he cried and cried, not for the smashed lives, but for the fact that he could no longer ride his bike in all the shattered glass. Tom Schilling plays Niko Fischer very naturally. As he puts it to the woman, who is still a fat little girl in her own mind, you look at people and think they are so strange. Then there comes a moment when you realize that they are not strange and that you are the problem. Written and directed by Jan Ole Gerster.

Enjoyed The Giver (2014), based on Lois Lowry's book of the same name. Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep brings some depths to their respective characters The Giver and Chief Elder, who could otherwise be cardboard figures. Brenton Thwaites as Jonas is eminently watchable. Katie Holmes was given too little to do as Jonas's mother. Directed by Phillip Noyce.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Hard Choices: Challenging the Singapore Consensus

A thought-provoking set of essays. The main writer Donald Low is persuasive about how widening income inequality in Singapore is destroying the social compact between the government and the people. He argues for income redistribution and the strengthening of social nets, and against the shibboleths that stand in the way, such as elite belief in trickle-down economics, moral hazard, and decreased global competitiveness. He wants policy-makers to look hard at the empirical evidence, instead of being confirmed in their prejudices by past experience raised to the status of ideology.

Low is particularly good at using insights from cognitive research to explain why the governing elite is so slow to adapt to a fast-changing environment. His reliance on such findings is telling. He mainly believes that governmental failure is primarily a failure in thinking. Correct the thinker, and he will correct his policies and processes. At one point, Low assures the reader that the governing elite that he mingles with, both civil servants and ministers, are well-intentioned and public-spirited. He does not see them as a class, and that as a class they will act according to their class interest. And so his calls to the government to expand democratic freedoms may sound overly optimistic. Nothing is harder for the powerful than to give up their power. His co-writer Sudhir Vadaketh may be less analytically astute, but he has stronger political instincts. He speculates that political change, if it comes, will come from the ground up, and not from the top down.

The one essay by historian Thum Ping Tjin takes a very different tack. By taking a synoptic survey of the twentieth-century history of Singapore, he makes the nice point that present-day Singapore resembles Singapore in the 1920s and 30s when it was the richest and most cosmopolitan city in S.E. Asia. Then, as it is becoming now, it was also the most exploitative economy. When the British found it untenable to hold on to power, they tried to transfer power to the pro-British, pro-business Progressive Party. It was David Marshall and his Labor Party, however, who won the vote and implemented pro-labor policies, such as starting the CPF. Other good ideas came out of that period of intense political debate and contest, ideas that became the foundation of Singapore's success. The implication for modern Singapore is clear: we need multiple political parties that are capable of forming a government. This scenario looks more realistic, especially after the 2011 election, than any proposal to reform the entrenched political elite. Whichever party wins, it would do well to look hard at Donald Low's policy recommendations.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Lydia Kwa's novel "Pulse"

As it self-identifies, Pulse is not a whodunnit, but a whydunnit. A young man kills himself, and his mother's ex-lover, a woman who migrated with her own parents to Toronto, Canada, may be the only one to understand why he does so. Natalie, an acupuncturist, shares with the dead Saleem an interest in kinbaku, the erotic art of Japanese rope bondage. She is only willing to do the tying, whereas Saleem relishes the pain-pleasure of being tied. Both long, however, to transcend their bodies, the sites of their trauma, while knowing that the body is the only means to such transcendence.

The body is also the limit of our knowledge of one another. We have to interpret, after all, one another by means of visual and verbal cues. Chris Lee, a Canadian critic quoted on the back cover, puts it well: "Pulse relentless explores the limits of knowability--cultural boundaries of knowledge, the seemingly impassable divide between one person and another, and the temporal gaps that render memory unstable yet ever-present." Pulse is searching and courageous in this exploration, and so the ending comes somewhat as a letdown, when Saleem's lover shows Natalie a letter from the dead man to her explaining everything. Saleem had read between the lines of Natalie's own story of trauma to deduce their similar history. She, and the reader, had the truth handed to her on the plate.


from the movie house
into the bright fall day
are they airsick too

After watching The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 yesterday.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Friday, November 21, 2014

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Wednesday, November 19, 2014


Reading Zakir Hussain Khokhon’s poem “Pocket 2,” which won the first Singapore migrant workers poetry competition, I was moved by its heady fragrance.

in Shahbag
the bakul tree flowers
out of season

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Monday, November 17, 2014


fall leaves by the road
blaze brighter than spring flowers
november eaves

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Dysclosure, the openness to the multiple

TLS October 24, 2014

from Jean-Pierre Boulé's review of David Caron's The Nearness of Others: Searching for tact and contact in the age of HIV:

Self-disclosure lies at the heart of Caron's book. The argument is accessible, but also intellectually sophisticated and convincing. Caron's experience has taught him that coming out as HIV-positive means exclusion from the gay community at large, hence the paradox of being closeted as HIV-positive. However, the author starts to rethink disclosure, outside of regimes of truth, policing and control (references are made to both Michel Foucault and Jacques Rancière) so that contact between the directly affected and the indirectly affected is possible. He coins the term "dysclosure", "closure vulnerable to dysfunction", as a mechanism for sharing, premissed on equality. In response to questions about one's status, he suggests the answer "undetectable" (referring to one's viral load) as an exemplar of dysclosure because it deconstructs the binary system of enclosure/disclosure. "Dysclosure, the openness to the multiple, is located between confession and silence".


the moon in madrid
is the oldest you will see
says my marco polo

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Friday, November 14, 2014


the wind is rising
i'm listening to the dark tints
of a crow etching

Thursday, November 13, 2014


so many crinkled faces
around a few crinkled stalks
of discount choy sum

Wednesday, November 12, 2014


in the 4 o'clock dark
the electric streetlights shine
like the eyes of pike

Tuesday, November 11, 2014


on the dining table
yellow, red and brown leaves
a nōkanshi has been

Monday, November 10, 2014

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Friday, November 07, 2014


Judges Gwee Li Sui, Leong Liew Geok and Boey Kim Cheng awarded the 2014 Singapore Literature Prize (English poetry category) to Joshua Ip and Yong Shu Hoong. On the morning of hearing the result, I was very disappointed. While I was turning the disappointment over in my mind on my way to school, a jogger, silver-haired, in his fifties, ran past me without shoes.

a sore loser
i'd start writing in spanish
if i can run barefoot

Thursday, November 06, 2014

The Real Thing

Watched Tom Stoppard's "The Real Thing" at the American Airlines Theatre yesterday. Directed by Sam Gold, the production boasted of stars such as Ewan McGregor, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Cynthia Nixon (in the leads) and Josh Hamilton. They were all over-shadowed by Ronan Raftery (Billy), who spoke his words with emotional clarity and distinguished relish, and whose physical presence lit up the stage. The first half was tedious, but the second half picked up, mostly because of a terrific monologue spoken by McGregor comparing good writing to a well-made cricket bat, and because of Raftery's performance.

Ronan Raftery. Photo from United Agents.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Monday, November 03, 2014


With some friends from out of town, we walked the High Line yesterday, a cold fall day. After running parallel to the Hudson for blocks and blocks, this most linear of parks curves in its third and final section toward the river and floats over the storage and maintenance yards for Long Island Rail Road.

at hudson yards
the trains laid down like rain
in hiroshige

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Poetry Reading at BGDQD

Read on October 19 with Eduardo Martinez and Adam Fitzgerald at an event organized by Eduardo Corral under the auspices of the Bureau of General Services-Queer Division. The Bureau has relocated to the LGBT Community Center. It still has a wonderful selection of books and prints. Greg and Donny were such genial hosts. Eduardo asked me two good questions about some remarks that I made in interviews. One remark was about trying to find an English word that means "soul-body." Asked if I have discovered a poet who comes closest, I mentioned Cyril Wong and described his poetry of meditation. What did I mean when I said that I was a lyric poet living in an anti-lyric age? I meant that our age is justifiably suspicious of the unified and universal lyric self, but as a lyric poet, I yearn to be unified and universal, or, to put it another way, I am suspicious of the suspicions against the lyric. Thanks very much, Eduardo, for putting together this lovely reading. It was very kind of Henry Abelove, Eric Norris, Christine Chia, Amos Toh and Cheryl Koh to come for the reading. I read about my bolster, my parents' altar table, Wolverine, things out of place, and the old Chinese poets from The Pillow Book, as queer a collection as any that I've written.


the wind is rising
and crashing on the coast
of my ear

Friday, October 31, 2014

Haiku and Pub

when the sun drops
another view of fuji-san
holding up the feet

In PN Review 220, a celebration of Eavan Boland. Many tributes, from Sapphire, Mark Doty, Paula Meehan, Tara Bergin, Colm Tóibín, Yusef Kommunyakaa, and Sandra M. Gilbert, among others. I have a small piece that looks at Boland's sense of humor in "The Fire in Our Neighborhood."

Tuesday, October 28, 2014


eating too much too late
they say, can give you dreams
black bears in new jersey

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Love Is Strange

Movie watching is out-stripping movie reviewing, even movie remembering. The only solution is a list, before everything dissolves away.

Ida (2013) is about a Polish novitiate who discovers from her only living relative that she is Jewish. The film is directed by Pawel Pawlikowski and stars Agata Trzebuchowska as Anna/Ida, and Agata Kulesza as Wanda, her free-living, depressed aunt. Beautiful cinematography. Absorbing narrative, except for the rather facile ending.

In Cloudburst (2011), two old lesbians escape to Canada to get married. They pick up a young male drifter and teach him a few valuable life lessons. Written and directed by Thom Fitzgerald, the movie stars Olympia Dukakis as Stella and Brenda Fricker as Dot. Ryan Doucette is the young hitchhiker with the symbolic name of Prentice. Heartwarming and convincing.

Guy and I watched Love Is Strange (2014) at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas. After Ben and George got married, George is fired from his teaching job. Both have to fall back on their families, causing tension and unhappiness. Directed by Ira Sachs, the movie stars John Lithgow as Ben and Alfred Molina as George. Great ensemble cast. Marisa Tomei gives a nuanced performance as the wife of Ben's nephew, who has to put her uncle-in-law up.

Monster Pies (2013) is a so-so Australian gay movie. A loner falls in love with the new boy, who turns out to be self-harming. Directed and written by Lee Galea, it has some of the worst dialogue ever heard. Lucas Linehan is the beautiful stranger William. Tristan Barr plays the sensitive Mike.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014


from google hangout
to black bears in new jersey
a quick noisy lunch

Tuesday, October 21, 2014


what stops me in my track
an overhanging branch of leaves
the colors of tiger

Sunday, October 19, 2014


Yesterday, some friends and I hiked to the top of Breakneck Ridge. The weather was full of changes. The clouds were white one moment, and black-gray another. It was sunny, and then it was raining. The wind blew at us at the top. At the bottom the air was quiet and still.

sunny october day
under a rock a lizard molts
rolling up its sleeves

tramping ungainly
down the stony channel the stream
tingles in my feet

 how many gay boys
does it take in Cold Spring
to screw an antique bulb?

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Friday, October 17, 2014


right after the rain
little birds peck at the dirt
e-a-t e-a-t e-a-t

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Monday, October 13, 2014


the tall blonde tourist
puts her bag down by the tree
where the dog pissed

Monday, October 06, 2014

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Alex Kerr's "Dogs and Demons"

Alex Kerr's Dogs and Demons (2001) is a polemic against the wrong direction that Japan has taken in in the closing decades of the last century. The charge sheet looks serious. Excessive construction is destroying the environment. Bureaucrats are enriching themselves at the expense of national interest. The country is piling up its national debt but losing its technological edge. Schools are teaching rote-learning and social conformity. Culture has degenerated into manga and anime, plastic flower-arrangement and context-less architecture. The unremittingly bleak picture makes me doubt that I visited the same country last summer that the author is describing. Still, I remember things in retrospect that fit with Kerr's picture. The Kamo River in Kyoto was barricaded on both sides by concrete embankment. Pachinko parlors contributed to the noise pollution in Shinjuku in Tokyo, where we stayed. Manga took up more than half of the shelves of the bookshop in one train station. The culture of cute, or kawaii, was evident everywhere. But I went to Japan to launch the Japanese translation of my Pillow Book, my homage to Sei Shonagon. The launch was well-attended by a youngish crowd, who listened appreciatively to my Singaporean re-working of this Japanese classic. Afterwards, a young woman approached me and asked me shyly why I called a verse a tanka when it does not have the traditional five lines. She shared that she was studying medieval literature at school. In that hip, artistic crowd, there was at least one person who looked back to Japan's past for enjoyment and education. She couldn't have been the only one.


little urban sprawl
between tokyo and kyoto
the bullet train is fast

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Monday, September 15, 2014

Sky Farm Fortress and Starry Island

Chelsea galleries walkabout with GH, S and R last Saturday.

At Jack Shainman Gallery, Nick Cave's series Rescue "comprises sculptures that incorporate found ceramic dogs sitting on furniture within elaborate grottos or dreamlike dens," decorated with branches, bead necklaces and fake birds.

At Mike Weiss Gallery, Tom Fruin's Color Study, an exhibition of new work: "structures, illuminated from within, flash and dim to their own internal rhythms becoming beacons of color and temples of light dotting city skylines and community parks...." I like the gridded colors of a cover for a water tank.

At Sikkema Jenkins & Co., Jorge Queiroz's "large-scale drawings suggest surrealist landscapes or dreamscapes in vibrant color and amorphous forms."

At Mary Boone, Jacob Hashimoto's Sky Farm Fortress was full of childish wonder.


In the evening, the launch of Starry Island: New Writing from Singapore at the new St. Mark's Bookshop, part of Manhattan Lit Crawl. I read with Jeremy Tiang and Amanda Lee Koe. Paul Rozario-Falcone introduced and moderated the Q&A. Over 60 people at the reading, and 12 copies of the special issue sold.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize

My collection of zuihitsu The Pillow Book has been shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize. It joins five other works in the shortlist for the category of English Poetry. The other works are Cordelia by Grace Chia, The Viewing Party by Yong Shu Hoong, Circle Line by Theophilus Kwek, Tender Delirium by Tania De Rozario and Sonnets from the Singlish by Joshua Ip. I am grateful to Michael Schmidt for first publishing the work in PN Review, and to Kenny Leck and the Math Paper Press team for publishing it as part of their Babette's Feast chapbook series.

The prizewinner will be announced at the Awards Ceremony, during the Singapore Writers Festival in Singapore on November 4.


the wind is rising
the shadow of the pine
holds its ground

Friday, September 12, 2014


the boy in the window
at the back of the school bus
a cricket in a jar

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Monday, September 08, 2014


how many writing spiders
did the wild pheasant eat
before ending on my plate?

Monday, August 25, 2014

Several Theories, Four, Lots!

TLS August 15, 2014

from Michael Hofmann's review of Stephen Parker's Bertolt Brecht: A literary life:

Brecht was extremely hard-working, got up early, wrote every day, and believed writing was a function of the health he actually didn't enjoy.  
Often too, there is something to be dropped or switched. "A contract is good, you can always break it", was a piece of advice in a particular situation, but then any arrangement and any idea can be picked apart or reversed with Brecht's mental agility. "I'm continually forgetting my opnions", he wrote, as if he cared. And then, instead: "A man with one theory is lost. He need several of them, four, lots!" - which of course got him in trouble later on, when he was at the mercy if people who had precisely one theory - or rather, one certainty - and guarded its purity against whatever they saw him as advancing, avant-gardism, sectarianism, formalism, Proletkult, cosmopolitanism, you name it. Parker calls him eclectic, unsystematic and intellectually "bordering on the promiscuous". Brecht is not always on the right side of every argument, but he is always on the more thoughtful, heretical, interesting side. 
"How can a linden tree be expected to conduct a discussion with someone who reproaches it for not being an oak?" Brecht lamented that there was ideology everywhere, writes Parker; "The first thing we have to do is institute exhibitions and courses to develop taste, i.e. for the enjoyment of life", he proposes with delightful implausibility. Aesthetics before ethics, as Joseph Brodsky put it.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Amanda Lee Koe's "Ministry of Moral Panic"

There is a deftness of touch, a sureness of intent, a knowingness of accomplishment that makes it hard to believe that Ministry of Moral Panic is Amanda Lee Koe's first book of fiction. She has marked out in virgin territory a realm of her own, a kingdom of weird, non-conforming, stubborn passions in Singapore. And she has done so without resorting to the usual pieties of understanding and tolerance. She has looked directly at the contorted subject and drawn every contortion that she could see. Love between a senile Chinese high-society woman and a successful but aging Malay rocker with three wives? Read the opening story "Flamingo Valley." Art as vengeance by a Chinese Singaporean artist for unrequited love from an Iranian Muslim reporter? Read "Carousel & Fort." The manipulations of love? Read "Pawn" to find who is making use of whom, the middle-aged Chinese Singaporean office virgin or the Chinese Chinese food-stall boy. The attraction between a high-living, and dying, female globetrotter and a teenage girl trying to come into her own person? Read "Alice, You Must Be the Fulcrum of Your Own Universe." Inter-species love? Read "Siren," a fantastic tale about the one-night passion between a sailor and a mermaid, and the seductiveness of their offspring, a ladyboy with both a slit and a stick.

Perfectly capable of writing the well-crafted traditional short story, Koe experiments confidently with narrative form as well. The urban pastoral "Every Park on This Island" is written in sections headed by the names of parks in Singapore. The most powerful of these experiments is the "Fourteen Entries from the Diary of Maria Hertogh," a Dutch girl raised by a Malay Muslim family, who was forcibly reclaimed by her Dutch parents by resorting to British law, and then transplanted to The Netherlands, where she did not take root. Yes, a few of the stories are slight, not in length, but in substance. "Two Ways to Do This" does not improve even in its second variation: the experience of rape is described with great acuity, but the folkloric magical elements are unsurprising. "Laundromat" is as bland as the sociological experiment that it describes. Nevertheless, the collection is eminently readable. I should know. I read it straight through--all fourteen stories--on my flight from Singapore to New York. I had not been able to read on a plane for a while. Too uncomfortable and distracted. But these stories carried me to the end.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

In Memory of Bob Hart, gentleman-poet

I learned, with great sadness, from Eric Norris and a FB post by Jane Omerod that Bob Hart passed away on the morning of August 13, Saturday. I met Bob Hart at a Pink Pony reading at Cornelia Street Cafe, NY, in 2005. Or rather, it'd be more accurate to say that I heard him first. The mellifluous voice at the mic was strikingly different from anything that had gone before, and It made me sit up and take note. You know the sensation when you know you are hearing poetry, and not prose? Bob Hart never read any prose; he is, was, all poetry. The writing was lyrical, exploratory, musical and witty. It was inspired by the greats like Shakespeare and Donne. I got to know the man a little better when I edited and published his second book, Lightly in the Good of Day. When I asked to see his poems, he gave me a cardboard box filled with tissue-thin sheets of paper, covered with his slanty handwriting in blue or black ink. Over a decade of writing. He dated his poems, and the revisions, and so I could see that he wrote almost every day for long stretches of time. He was ever so gracious when I approached him with suggestions for edits. Some he accepted calmly, others he rejected firmly. We would meet in a cafe in Hell's Kitchen to go over the poems. Bob did not do email; he had no Internet at home. Our conversations hewed pretty closely to the poems but he would tell me, once in a while, about his belief and involvement in Christian Science. I must admit I listened with only half an ear, ignorant and dismissive of what I had always taken to be a Christian cult. But now I see how vital were his Christian Science beliefs to his poetry. As his editor, I regret not giving his religion its due in a critical preface for his book. I was guilty of condescension. Indeed it is easy to underestimate Bob Hart. He was so modest, soft-spoken and self-effacing. He was always quick to give credit to others. One of my most vivid memories of Bob was how he leapt forward at the end of a Pink Pony reading to praise and thank a reader whose work he particularly liked. He was a generous man, and gave as much of himself as we could find room in ourselves to receive. One of my favorite Bob Hart poems:


Watery within this graveled world,
translucent almost,
thinner than the air,
we move as rarer than our monuments
which we can occupy or not
however crude or well we shaped them;
feeling frail amid solidity
and pinned down by the names which,
large enough to run in an environment,
are points too dot-ephemeral
to pin the powered nowhereness
our talent operates from,
we agree, like entities leaped out from story pages,
to sit, assuming body styles,
disrobed from our invisibility,
with lightnings folded like mosquito's wings
polite in company.

by Bob Hart

Friday, August 15, 2014

Reading at Booktique

Waiting for a friend, I walked into The Cathay, in Singapore, and stumbled upon Booktique, the pop-up bookstore owned and run by the inimitable Anthony Koh Waugh, who promptly invited me to read at the closing party of his present shop. So I did last night, and sold six more copies of my Pillow Book. Zed Yeo read next from his collection of hybrid writing, Unapologetically Insane Tales, the first Singapore book to be produced through crowdfunding. Zed was a very engaging storyteller. It was fun to see shoppers popping into the shop to hear me and Zed read, and to speak with many writers unfamiliar to me. Anthony is a great supporter of writers. After a well-deserved break, he will set up shop in another location. Do watch out for the next iteration of Booktique, the writers' bookshop.

Launch of Japanese/English Edition of "The Pillow Book" in Singapore

Thanks, everyone, for coming out to the book launch on Wednesday. It was lovely to see so many familiar faces, and quite a few new ones too. Thank you, William Phuan and Aliah Ali from The Arts House, for hosting the event in such a professional and helpful manner. Thank you, my publishers Matthew Chozick, Keisuke Tsubono and Midori Ohmuro, for flying all the way from Tokyo to lend a touch of glamor to the event. Thank you, Keisuke, for reading so beautifully in Japanese. Thank you, Chong Li-Chuan, for your musical piece, which touches the surface and sounds the depths, an aim shared by my little book. Thank you, my parents Robert Koh and Susan Cheong, for coming to the event, and for getting the Bengawan Solo kueh-kueh (they were much heavier than we expected). Thank you, my love Guy Humphrey, for your support and encouragement. You always step in when help is needed. I read this extract last night for us. Happy birthday, dear.

If the tree were blooming, a close examination would show that it puts out two kinds of flowers, bigger pinks with nine pistils, and smaller whites with single pistils. The explanation for this miracle is that the camellia is not one tree but two. Growing at first side by side, they became so entwined through the years that they are now indistinguishable from each other. Voluptuaries of the sun and rain, they have fused into one in their joint pursuit of essential needs, outliving the generations of monks that tended them, displaying every year the hue of youth.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Book Launch in Tokyo

Of all the readings that I've done, yesterday's book launch at Tokyo's Editory stands out for its combination of charm, warmth and sincerity. It was a special delight to meet Mariko Hirasawa, who illustrated my Pillow Book. Mariko, thank you for expressing so well the feelings that you received from the work. You spoke with wonderful animation during the interview. Matthew Chozick, a writer cannot ask for a better publisher. You are always so respectful and enthusiastic. Midori, you touched me when you remembered "Kimiko" from the book, having read the collection three times. Keisuke, I look forward to reading again with you at the launch in Singapore on August 13, and in New York in November. Thank you for introducing me to your loved ones and friends. I am honored to call you my friends.

You can purchase the book here.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

July 26 Reading at BooksActually

Math Paper Press re-issues my first book of poems Payday Loans in a beautiful new edition designed by Shellen Teh, with a new critical preface by Joshua Ip and an interview with me conducted by Chloe Miller for Eclectica Magazine.

To launch the book, I read at BooksActually's reading series "An Evening with..." on Saturday, July 26. Ian Chung moderated the session, asking me questions about each of my books that I read from. I was really pleased to see familiar and new faces in the audience. I won't remember everyone, so my apologies in advance, but here are the faces that flash across my mind: Robert Yeo, Leong Liew Geok, Toh Hsien Min, Zhang Ruihe, Shawn Chua, Tania De Rozario and her lovely partner, Chong Li Chuan, Boedi Widjaja and his gracious wife, Weetz and his partner .... Shawn took the photo of me and Kenny's cat.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Speakeasy #14 Gwee Li Sui and Koh Jee Leong

Read with Gwee at Speakeasy #14 organized by Pooja Nansi at Artistry Cafe last night. Video taken by Alvin Pang.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Open Letter Regarding the National Library’s Book Ban

Open Letter Regarding the National Library’s Book Ban

What the National Library has done—banning, and pulping, three children’s books because they depict untraditional families—horrifies and saddens me. I love the National Library, first in its original Stamford Road edition, and then in its modern translation in Bras Basah, for its vast repository of knowledge and pleasure. But the “generous giver,” as poet Edwin Thumboo calls it in his poem on the old library, has now taken away with a closed fist, and not just taken away, but will destroy the books.

I feel the destruction on the pulse because I identify as gay. All the ways in which the state, supported by an apparent majority of citizens, criminalize and discriminate against the LGBT community have not hit home as hard as this act of vandalism. The object to be pulped is so innocuous. And Tango Makes Three, one of the three books, is about a pair of male penguins hatching an egg and caring for the chick. It is about love and family. It is based on a true incident. But it is deemed so corrupting of our youth that it must be indexed and banned. Nothing before this act of censorship has shown me the true extent of the fear, loathing and hostility that are directed against LGBT persons and families. It stops the heart.

But this destructive act also offends me deeply because I identify as a Singaporean, and what the state does, through its agencies, misrepresents me and my values. I have lived for many years in the USA but I visit Singapore every one of those years because I have the means and the inclination. I have a green card, but I will never give up my Singapore citizenship. Singapore is still my country. In the years away, I have discovered the truth of the truism: you can take the boy out of Singapore, but you cannot take Singapore out of the boy. Against the forces of homophobia, I will insist that I am a gay Singaporean. Whether you like it or not, I am a part of your “social norms” and “family values.” You have to take my pink I.C. and my red passport, my National Service dues and my Education Service record, into account.

Finally, and most personally, I am outraged by the book ban because I am a writer. Writers often compare books to lives for very good reasons. Not only do books distill the best thoughts and feelings of writers, they conduct the widest and deepest dialogues with their societies. Books are the founders of global democracy. So it is with great admiration that I read about the principled stand that some Singapore writers have taken against the book ban. Ovidia Yu, Cyril Wong, Tania De Rozario, Gwee Li Sui, Prem Anand, Felix Cheong, Adrian Tan, Joshua Ip and others are boycotting National Library events; a number are also boycotting the Singapore Writers Festival, for which the National Library is a program partner.

I have never been invited to participate in National Library events nor the Singapore Writers Festival, so it is presumptuous of me to say the following, but in order to express my solidarity with these courageous and thoughtful writers, I will not participate in a National Library event nor the Singapore Writers Festival, if I am asked, until the National Library restores the three children’s books to their proper shelves, unsegregated and unmarked by any warning label. Because books are like lives, these books must be treated the same way as other children’s books. They should not be herded into a reservation nor forced to wear a Star of David.

Instead of destroying books in the name of protecting our children, how should a National Library provide for its youngest guests? In the heart of the Bras Basah edifice stands a special collection of books donated by Edwin Thumboo, who is, according to the National Library website, “widely regarded as the unofficial poet laureate of Singapore.” In his poem “National Library, 2007, nr Bugis” about this new library, the grandfather of seven expresses his hope for the library and the country in this way:

“Let the young, including my seven butterflies, explore,
Grow, discern and cherish; test shifting worlds, judge and
Prefer. Learn to check their walk and track that serpent
As we re-arrange our gardens, our declensions of heart…”

Koh Jee Leong
New York City
July 13, 2014

Monday, July 07, 2014

Received & Recommended

My Seven Studies for a Self Portrait has been "Received and Recommended" on the MANOA blog. Frank Stewart and Pat Matsueda, thanks for liking the book so much. The blog is a treasure of contemporary poetry, much of which is from Asia.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Summer Exhibitions at MoMA PS1

Just want to remember that I saw the installations and political performances of Christoph Schlingensief, the paintings of Maria Lassnig, the painting and installation of Korakrit Arunanondchai, and the sculptures and ephemera of James Lee Byars. Had a lovely lunch with LW at a Peruvian restaurant around the corner afterwards.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Donate to Singapore Literature Festival in New York

Dear Friends and Readers of this blog,

For three days in October (Oct 10th to 12th, 2014), sixteen Singapore writers will converge on New York City to share their exciting works. It is a wonderful opportunity to hear and engage with the most distinctive voices of the island-state, which celebrates its 50th year of independence next year. The Singapore Literature Festival will help deepen the dialogue between East and West, between Asia and America. 

The festival will take place in various locations around New York City including 92nd Street Y, NYU Writers House, Book Culture, and McNally Jackson. 

Ten writers will be flying in from Singapore, to be joined by six writers based in the US. The exciting line-up: Alfian Sa'at, Alvin Pang, Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, Christine Chia, Colin Goh and Yen Yen Woo, Cyril Wong, Haresh Sharma, Jason Erik Lundberg, Joshua Ip, Kirstin Chen, Ovidia Yu, Pooja Nansi, Tania De Rozario, Verena Tay, and Wena Poon. 

We need your support to make this dream come true. We are a group of volunteers, Singaporean writers and creatives who are proud to call New York City home. We have secured sponsorship for the costs of mounting the festival. The writers have received partial funding for their airfare and are willing to make up the difference, even if it means crashing on someone’s couch. As the organizers, we want to help our writers by raising funds for them. Your donation will go toward paying the writers. It will also pay for professional video recording and photography, so that the readings and conversations will be preserved and made available for future use. 

Please contribute generously to our Kickstarter campaign. We have come up with some fantastic rewards for various levels of sponsorship. How would you like to own a piece of art by one of our writers? Or have your name written into a poem or story? You can show your support by contributing an amount as large as $1000 or as small as $10. Every dollar counts. 

Please feel free to forward this appeal to family and friends. You can follow us on the festival website ( or on Facebook (

Make history with us by supporting this independent literary venture!

Yours sincerely,
Paul Rozario-Falcone and Jee Leong Koh
Co-chairs of Singapore Literature Festival

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Cover for Japanese Translation of "The Pillow Book"

The cover for the Japanese translation of my Pillow Book. I love it! It pays tribute to the original cover by Math Paper Press, but the new design is at the same time so typical of Awai Books. Thank you, Matthew Chozick and team! Thank you, Mariko Hirasawa, for the wonderful illustrations! And Keisuke Tsubono for translating it.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Banana Yoshimoto's "Kitchen" and Tse Hao Guang's "Hyperlinkage"

The two books are linked only by being carried in my bag to Fire Island last weekend. Banana Yoshimoto's book Kitchen is really two stories, a longer one, "Kitchen," and a shorter one, "Moonlight Shadow." Both deal with mourning for loved ones who died. After the death of her grandmother, her last relative, Mikage was "adopted" into the household of transgender woman Eriko and her son Yuichi. Neither Mikage nor Yuichi quite comes into focus, for me, as characters. It is Eriko, the embodiment of charm, who dominates the story with her personality, and whose death constitutes the true tragedy of the tale. She is Yoshimoto's update of the famous Chinese story by Li Yu, "A Male Mencius's Mother." The ending of "Kitchen" is charming. It is about the power of food, in particular, katsudon, to save one from numb despair. It reminds me of the nori-wrapped cucumber in Murakami's Norweigan Wood.

The other story in the book, "Moonlight Shadow," as its name promises, is more mystical. The narrator, another young woman, always parted from her boyfriend Hitoshi at the bridge over a river. When he died after a car crash, she is given a chance to say a final good-bye to him at the bridge by a mysterious woman called Urara. The story itself refers to the Chinese legend of the Weaver Girl and the Cowherd. Translated by Megan Backus, the writing is simple, light and fresh, and despite of the literary allusions, not overly literary.

Hyperlinkage is Tse Hao Guang's first book of poems. There is intelligence here, both in the handling of the subject matter and in the lyricism of the voice. The poems in the voice of a Mrs. T (a figure presumably based on the poet's mother) are observant and musical. Tse wears the feminine voice lightly and convincingly. The poems inspired by the Internet (the hyperlinkage in the book's title) are far less moving, to me. They seem overly cerebral and calculated. The second-to-last poem "Frangipani" is a stunner, however. The poet is experimenting with different methods in this debut, as he should, and I very much hope that he will find the right one for his talent.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Celebrating 10 Years of Being Queer

In gay terms, I am ten years old this year, a young un. I was not out as a gay man to myself for the first thirty-four years of my life, even though I knew since primary school that I was strongly attracted to boys. I had to move from Singapore to New York in order to come out as gay. Unlike many friends, I lacked the courage to come out in Singapore. It was not easy to come out in New York either. I remember walking back and forth in front of a gay bar, terrified of going in. I had to join a coming-out group at Identity House for group therapy and discussion. I was not sick, but you don’t need to be sick to need therapy. You only need to be damaged. The first time I plucked up the courage to attend a meeting of the Gay Asian Pacific Islander Men of New York (GAPIMNY), I made sure I did not cross my legs in the room filled with gay Asian men; I did not want to appear effeminate.

But it was at the next GAPIMNY meeting, which of course ended with supper in a Chelsea restaurant, that I met my first boyfriend. Winston was smart, kind and gentle. We took long walks in the city and talked and talked and talked. I was studying creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College at that time, and could not wait for the weekends when I would take the half-hour Metro-North train ride from Bronxville to Grand Central Station, and then the subway to Brooklyn Heights to see him. Once, watching a movie alone in Bronxville, I decided to surprise him by seeing him mid-week. The visit was more for my sake than his, but he welcomed me, though it was past midnight, and I returned to the campus by train early in the morning.

It was easier for me to come out to my parents when I had a boyfriend. I did not make it easy for my parents, though. After telling them that I was gay, I told them next that he was visiting them in Singapore in three days’ time. They rose gallantly to the occasion. It was very difficult for them, for it was like mourning the death of a son whom they thought they know, but they welcomed Winston warmly. We went out for a satay dinner at Lau Pa Sat, or Old Market. It was harder for my sister, for she was a sincere Evangelical Christian. My parents were Christians too, but they came to Christianity late in life and, anyway, kinship, for them, trumps religion. Still, my sister asked both of us to her home for dinner. It was a magnificent gesture. Not of acceptance, mind you, for her religious belief forbids it, but of love. My parents still attend Faith Community Baptist Church (yes, where the senior pastor is the homophobic Lawrence Khong). My sister and her family are looking for another church closer to their home, the last I heard.

This summer I will visit Singapore, as I’ve been doing every year. Guy my boyfriend will join me there, for the second time. During his last visit, two years ago, he hated the crowded shopping malls, but he loved Little India, for its architecture, food and atmosphere. We will again stay with my parents, taking up one of the two bedrooms in their tiny apartment, my old bedroom, in fact. I’m looking forward to introducing him to my sister and brother-in-law, who were living in New Delhi at the time of Guy’s first visit. I don’t know how my sister will introduce Guy to my young nieces. She and I have not talked about it. We are very loyal to one another, but we don’t talk much. Some things do take time. I myself took a very long time to come to terms with my sexuality. The least, and perhaps best, that I can do is to give others time too.

Coming out does not mean I have all my questions answered, but it does mean that I can answer life’s questions more truthfully. What is the balance between freedom and responsibility? What are the claims and limitations of love? Why do I hit the gym so obsessedly? And it is not just a matter of truth. It is a matter of liberation. For only by understanding the truth about oneself and others can we expand the ambit of our freedom. The Bible has at least this right: the truth shall set you free.

What about the role of the law in guaranteeing our freedoms? The words of Michel Foucault are the lodestone to me in this respect. Asked by an interviewer if he saw any particular architectural projects, either in the past or the present, as forces of liberation or resistance, Foucault replied, “The liberty of men is never assured by the institutions and laws that are intended to guarantee them. This is why almost all these laws and institutions are quite capable of being turned around. Not because they are ambiguous, but simply because “liberty” is what must be exercised.” He does not mean, of course, that we should not try to change the laws and institutions to gain our liberties, but he insists that we cannot depend on laws and institutions to guarantee our freedom. For, as he puts it succinctly, “Liberty is a practice.” We must act as if we are already free.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Osamu Dazai's "Self Portraits"

Translated by Ralph F. McCarthy, Self Portraits: Tales from the life of Japan's great decadent romantic comprises 18 short stories by Osamu Dazai. The long introduction by the translator provides a useful biographical context for the stories. Dazai wrote a form of biographical fiction, which amounted to a light fictionalization of his actual life. The life was certainly decadent. Born into a wealthy and politically influential family, Dazai left his class by marrying a young geisha. He forsook his university education in order to be a writer. He had romantic liaisons with many women. He was addicted to drugs and alcohol. He tried committing double suicides with his lovers, and finally killed himself at the age of 39.

The Tales are, however, not romantic with a capital R; they do not seek transcendence of the mundane. Instead, they are wistful, even comical in places, full of consciousness, and self-consciousness, of life's suffering. They are non-resistant to life. "Cherries," the final story of the collection, is particularly self-lacerating. The shorter stories, such as "Female," "Seascape with Figures in Gold," "A Promise Fulfilled," are shapely and striking. The longer stories are ambitious and complex. His famous "One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji, " though not quite providing the number of views promised in the title, gave a variety of fresh expression of the beauty and meaning of this touristy icon. Not least among these views is a view of art, an ars poetica:

To take what is simple and natural--and therefore succinct and lucid--to snatch hold of that and transfer it directly to paper, was, it seemed to me, everything, and that thought sometimes allowed me to see the figure of Fuji in a different light. Perhaps, I would think, that shape was in fact a manifestation of the beauty of what I like to think of as "elemental expression." Thus I'd find myself on the verge of coming to an understanding with this Fuji, only to reflect that, no, there was something about it, something in its exceedingly cylindrical simplicity that was too much for me, that if this Fuji was worthy of praise, then sow ere figurines of the Laughing Buddha--and I find figurines of the Laughing Buddha insufferable, certainly not what anyone could call expressive. And the figure of this Fuji, too, was somehow mistaken, somehow wrong, I would think, and once again I'd be back where I started, confused. 

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Rachael Briggs Reads "A Lover's Recourse"

The wonderful poet Rachael Briggs read and recorded the entire divan of 49 ghazals that concludes my book Seven Studies for a Self Portrait. What a feat and honor! The hero of the ghazals is a man whom I dated only twice, but fell head-over-heels for. The ghazals, however, are also crowded with other lovers. In her dramatic reading, Rachael teased out a great variety of tones and moods. Find a comfy seat. The whole reading takes only 1 hour, 12 minutes and 43 seconds. Let Rachael Briggs take you through "A Lover's Recourse."

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Starry Island

Order information for "Starry Island: New Writing from Singapore," the summer 2014 issue in the MANOA series of international literature published by the University of Hawai'i. Edited by Frank Stewart and Fiona Sze-Lorrain, this issue features the work of over two dozen writers and translators, including Kim Cheng Boey, Philip Jeyaretnam, Jee Leong Koh, Shirley Geok-lin Lim, O Thiam Chin, Wena Poon, Alfian Sa'at, Jeremy Tiang, Toh Hsien Min, and Cyril Wong.

Friday, June 13, 2014


smell of garbage
no garbage truck in sight
the fly follows me inside

Thursday, June 12, 2014


short summer night
in two months I will be tramping
the streets of Edo

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Starry Island: New Writing from Singapore

I'm in this anthology of new writing from Singapore, the 2014 summer issue of MANOA, published by the University of Hawai'i, edited by Frank Stewart and Fiona Sze-Lorrain.

Subtitle and Haiku

I think I may have the subtitle of my next collection: an album of haiku-like pieces.

girl on bike
grandfather on foot
short summer night

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Monday, June 09, 2014

Kafka on the Shore and a Haiku

In alternate chapters, two plots that begin far apart come together. In the first, Kafka Tamura, a fifteen-year-old abandoned by his mother at the age of four, runs away from home and finds refuge in a library. There he meets Oshima, a young transgender man, and Ms Saeki, who may or may not be his mother. Before reaching the library, he also has his first sexual experience with Sakura, who may or may not be his sister. Kafka's father is murdered, and the cops start searching for Kafka. In the second plot, Satoru Nakata lost all his memories, including the ability to read and write, on a mushroom-hunting expedition with his schoolmates. As an old man, he is an expert cat-finder as he is able to speak to cats. His murder of a cat-killer Johnnie Walker, however, puts him on the run. Helped by the young truck driver Hoshina, Nakata tries to find the entrance stone and is drawn inexorably, and mysteriously, to the library where Kafka hides. The novel is a good read, but I find it ultimately unsatisfying. There are many vivid scenes, such as the horrible one in which Johnnie Walker slits open the cats to eat their beating hearts, and the confrontation between Oshima and a pair of self-righteous feminists looking for sexual bias in the management of the Nomura Memorial Library. Also, the sex scenes are frank and stimulating. But the symbolism of the woods behind Oshima's mountain house feels heavy-handed. Telling Nakata's backstory through U.S. Army intelligence reports is also a less than fresh device. Minor characters, such as Oshima's surfer brother, appear incidental to the plot. The novel consists of disparate elements that seem to cohere only accidentally. Fate in the novel, a theme often evoked with reference to Greek Tragedy, is less inevitable than unavoidable.

the rain outside
sounds like white ants
gnawing through the roof

Saturday, June 07, 2014

Friday, June 06, 2014

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Monday, June 02, 2014

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Films and Haiku

Watched Stranger by the Lake at Ty and Di's house last weekend. Good movie directed by Alain Guiraudie. Also enjoyed Argo, directed by Ben Affleck, though I couldn't see why it should win the Oscar, as so many wanted it to. It's just a well-made movie, not that special. Last night, after dinner with Tim, I watched X-Men: Days of Future Past. Bryan Singer directed. Sexy scene with Hugh Jackman buck naked but he seemed strangely beside the point in a plot that really revolved around Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and her paramours Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (a very hot Michael Fassbender). Even minor characters such as Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and Major Bill Stryker (Josh Helman) were more interesting.

from Panama
the first hummingbirds
schoolchildren at a waterfall

Friday, May 23, 2014

Bach and Haiku

Heard István Várdai play Bach's Cello Suites 1, 5 and 6 last night at Armory Park Avenue. Impeccable technique and dynamic shading. I thought that he lost the plot in some middle sections of all the suites. Suite 5 was especially moving. The experimental Sarabande--I want to hear it again. The performance took place in the recently refurbished Board of Officers Room. A stunning salon. Wine was served during intermission. The ticket cost only $25. A steal.

damp clothes
in a crowded bus
late spring

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Monday, May 19, 2014

Book Launch and Haiku

John Marcus Powell launched his book Glorious Babe at Suite Bar last Sunday afternoon. Published by Nemo R. Hill's Exot Books, and designed and illustrated by Julio, the book was celebrated with the artistic respect and warm affection that John Marcus has garnered in years of reading poetry around New York City. Hosted by Cordis Heard and John Foy, the launch was the last installment of the Red Harlem Readers series this season. Nemo led off the reading, followed by Thomas Fucaloro, me, and David Yezzi. As Nemo observed, all of us read a little like John Marcus, so powerful was the influence of the man's voice on us. The original came on stage and read for a most entertaining half-hour.


I started posting the first two lines of a haiku on Facebook, and invited other people to complete it. The results were certainly interesting.

a tiny leaf drops
into my cup of tea

Gwee Li Sui provided the humorous "I ask for refund"; Eric Norris the witty "like Basho's little frog"; Zhang Jieqiang the luxurious "no need to look up"; Chia Foong Yin the childlike "Splash! Caterpillar!" My attempt:

a tiny leaf drops
into my cup of tea
and then another

The next day I posted two more lines.

under the dry moss
yesterday's rain

Desmond Kon completed it with the excellent "no lovers back home"; Adam Alex Sage the earthy "still tastes of dirt"; Yong Shu Hoong the meta "acerbic subtext." My attempt:

under the dry moss
yesterday's rain
soaks my sneakers

Today's haiku, quite a grotesque one:

a dropped napkin
dabs at the corner
of a field

Friday, May 16, 2014

Poetry Reading and a Haiku

Dorothy Wang invited, and we attended, a reading by John Tipton, Mary Margaret Sloan, and Michael Autrey at at Berl's Poetry Shop in Dumbo last night. Tipton read from his forthcoming book Paramnesia and his translation of Aeschylus' Seven Against Thebes. The poetry of Sloan, a friend of Dorothy's, was more experimental. Autrey read from his book Our Fear. The rumbling of trains over the Manhattan Bridge made it quite difficult to hear the readers, especially since the men insisted on not using the mic. Before the reading, Dorothy and I had dinner at Almar, an Italian place just a block away from Berl's. We had a lively discussion, as usual, about poetry, politics, and friendships.

divided on race
while sharing a side
of broccoli rabe

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Monday, May 12, 2014

Downtown Fair and a Haiku

The Downtown Fair was better than I had expected. I especially liked the paintings of Sheba Sharrow, and the photographs of Eric Forstmann and Julie Blackmon. Too many boring color field paintings and pop nothings.

a sandpiper
miles from the ocean
or a sparrow?

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Second Saturdays #3 and Haiku

Jeremy Tiang hosted the third edition of the Second Saturdays reading series. Joseph Legaspi read as the feature. It was good to hear new and familiar voices reading their work: poetry, the opening of a novel, an academic treatise on the performing arts in Singapore, and the dramatization of a scene from local play. As before, the evening energized me for the work of writing and organizing.

behind the blinds
ruled like foolscap
a crow calls

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

ALSCW Salon and Haiku

Heard Philip Lopate and Patricia Hampl read their essays at an ALSCW salon on Monday. The essays were about many things, and one of the things was about the writing of an essay. In reflecting on writing, both essayists traced their inspiration back to Montaigne. I particularly enjoyed hearing Lopate, whose writing was suffused with irony directed at himself. A modest life modestly lived. The essay will never attain the prestige accorded to the novel and to poetry. It is capable of great beauty and even profundity, but it is not as various as the novel nor as sublime as poetry.

early morning
smell of diesel
in the garden

Monday, May 05, 2014

Deep Gossip and Haiku

I met Henry Abelove at Dorothy Wang's book party, and was introduced to his book of essays called Deep Gossip. The title is taken from Allen Ginsberg's elegy for Frank O' Hara. After describing O'Hara as a "Curator of funny emotions," Ginsberg praises him for his ear "for our deep gossip." The essays are as engrossing as gossip, an apt compliment if we think of gossip as the sharing of information between disempowered people. In these essays, Abelove performs careful and gracious corrections to what has been underestimated, overlooked and sidelined. 

Like many gay men, I have read Freud's letter to the American mother, but had not realized that it was his last riposte to the moralism of American psychoanalysts. In the next essay, the suggestion that other sexual practices besides "intercourse so-called" have been redefined as foreplay in the late eighteenth century is brilliant. Since I am not a fan of marriage, Abelove's reading of Walden in the third essay resonates strongly with me. An anti-novel, Walden delineates pleasures outside of bourgeois society and family. An essay interprets the interpretative community of queer students in Abelove's classroom. Another looks at the beginnings of American Studies through the lens of the work of F.O. Matthiessen, and the subsequent contestation of those queer beginnings.

The last essay of the  collection is especially meaningful to me. It argues that the Gay Liberation Front was influenced in its liberationist rhetoric by its reading of post-World War Two queer writers such as James Baldwin, Elizabeth Bishop, Paul Bowles, Jane Bowles, and Frank O'Hara. These writers, having spent long periods of time abroad, witnessed the decolonization of the world and wrote about it. The college students of the GLF read them avidly. Having grown up in Singapore, a former British colony, I was happy to discover the American link between gay liberation and decolonization. Abelove ends the essay, and the book, with three suggestions, the last of which resonates powerfully with me:

The common view of early gay liberation as an identity politics is mistaken. New York's GLF was not predicated on a commitment to a suppostitiously stable or definite identity. It was rather predicated on a commitment to a worldwide struggle for decolonization and its potential human benefits.

The implications of the statement and immense, and I will be thinking them out in the days to come. 

skipping brightly
a great spangled fritillary
a loose thread

Sunday, May 04, 2014