Wednesday, December 30, 2015

New Year Letter to Lovers of a Better Singapore

New Year Letter to Lovers of a Better Singapore 

I’d wish you a happy new year if last year had not been so bitter. We had high hopes that Singapore would become a freer, fairer, and kinder society after the death of Lee Kuan Yew. We had high hopes that the 50th year of our independence would herald a new phase of social, political, and artistic maturity. For only the second time in my forty-five years, I was able to vote. With Lee Kuan Yew gone, the PAP did not enjoy a walkover in Radin Mas constituency, but faced two challengers. On Election Day, I made my way in the rain to the Singapore Consulate in New York. I knew the PAP would win Radin Mas, but I had to make my voice heard and my vote count. Like many of you, I had high hopes that the general election would prove a watershed in the history of our country. We had high hopes that, despite the gerrymandering, vote-buying tactics, state control of mass media, and creeping influence of Christian fundamentalism on government, the people of Singapore would speak and vote without fear. The election results dashed our hopes. The PAP was returned to power with a reinforced majority. Out of choice, we knew we were a minority before the election, but after the election we learned what it was to be minoritized.

To be minoritized is to be shown by the majority that we don’t count. (It’s a first-past-the-post system, after all. Proportional representation would have given the opposition 26 seats, instead of 6, for winning 30% of the popular vote.) The minoritized may be tolerated but the tolerance is at the pleasure of the majority. We may even be considered useful, since having a vocal fringe releases the pressure of internal resentment and softens the country’s hard image abroad. We are now in the same unenviable position as other traditionally minoritized groups, such as racial, sexual, and economic minorities, tolerated within arbitrary limits, useful for others’ purposes. The Indian appears on national posters and banners, alongside the Chinese, Malay and Eurasian, but he will not become Prime Minister. The lesbian playwright wins multiple Life! Theatre awards, but she and her kind are still proscribed by law. The migrant worker is given media attention for his poetic talent, but he is not given legal protections for his working person. To be minoritized by the last election is to taste the bitter aftertaste in the mouths of other long-minoritized peoples.

 If we are to change Singapore as minoritized citizens, we must hold on to our bitterness, the taste of our disappointment. It’s too easy to exchange it for the sourness of cynicism. Out of sentimentality, complacency, indifference or ignorance, the majority of our fellow citizens voted for more of the same, in the delusion that the status quo is sweet. We know it’s not sweet. Those of us working for social justice, free speech, and free information know the status quo is not sweet for other minoritized peoples, whether they are migrant workers, the LGBT community, artists of various stripes, refugees, victims of human trafficking, the working poor, or the aged. We know, in fact, that the status quo makes sweets for the majority out of the salty blood, sweat, and tears of the minoritized. One anecdote may stand for a thousand similar stories. A friend, a middle-class professional, said to my sister, “If we raise the wages of the food court workers, food prices will go up, and we won’t be able to eat out cheaply.” We must chew on this story and others like it, chew the bitter cuds of our outrageous prosperity until the unequal status quo changes.

Singapore has ramifications beyond its 716 square kilometers. Singapore’s hyper-success has attracted many imitators in the global South. In a talk based on a forthcoming paper “Aspirational City: Desiring Singapore and the Films of Tan Pin Pin,” NYU’s English professor Jini Kim Watson spoke about Singapore’s ascendancy to the status of “aspirational city” to countries such as China, Brazil, the U.A.E., and Rwanda, all ruled by authoritarian regimes. Singapore has actively encouraged this imitation by exporting its urban planning techniques to these countries. If the thought of historic neighborhoods demolished to make space for Singapore-style shopping malls, temples of mind-destroying consumerism, does not fill you with dismay, you can stop reading this letter since it’s not for you. Against the apparent reproducibility of Singapore anywhere, Watson read the documentary films of Tan Pin Pin as a record of disregarded, because culturally specific and therefore non-reproducible, spaces in the city, and as an index of desires for heterogeneous, not homogeneous, connections. These spaces and desires are fast disappearing from Singapore. Not only the state, but also the majority of Singaporeans does not care enough to keep them. Remember the old National Library at Stamford Road demolished to make way for a tunnel?

To hold on to our bitterness is to hold on to our hopes and our disappointment. It is to remember SG50 in our mouths and our bodies, so that we will not forget its political lesson. When I was young, I hated to eat bitter gourd. My mother would tempt me by frying it with fish cake and soy sauce. Not to be tempted, I’d spear the meat out of a ring of gourd and leave the green rind behind. As I grow older, however, I discover a growing taste for everything, including bitter gourd, because everything tastes of the world, and I can’t get enough of the world. What is bitter nourishes too, if we chew hard and swallow it. In his book-length poem Lines from Batu Ferringhi, the Singapore poet Goh Poh Seng wrote about his encounter with Pak Din, the aged owner of a failing restaurant. In his former life, Pak Din was a bomoh, or witchdoctor. Once, he was called to attend to a rich Chinese towkay (boss) who had just died. By swaddling the dead man with herbs and native medicine, Pak Din raised the man back to life, this towkay “who was already dead / Except for his mouth!” Nothing is quite completely gone, not the towkay, not the restaurant, certainly not Pak Din, so long as we eat and remember. With hindsight, the better part of 2015 may very well turn out to be the bitter.

 Jee Leong Koh
December 31, 2015

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Vision and Touch

I read Rachel Urquhart's The Visionist over Christmas, an appropriate time for reading about the mysteries of faith, sin, and redemption. The Shaker settlement and the outside World of mid-19th century Massachusetts are both meticulously and convincingly brought to life. The novel is narrated through three points of view. Sister Charity of the City of Hope and Simon Pryor from the World both speak in the first person, as they struggle to understand the throes of events around them. Sister Charity, the self-deceiving innocent, bears much of the novel's psychological burden whereas Simon Pryor, the fire investigator, bears much of the narrative burden. The stroke of genius here is to narrate Polly Kimball's point of view through the third person. Polly, the outsider who becomes the insider on false pretenses, is thus seen with sympathetic detachment. The third-person becomes a delicate method of apprehending her trauma and her victory without inhabiting them.


TLS October 30, 2015

from Michael Silk's review of Joshua Billings' Genealogy of the Tragic: Greek tragedy and German philosophy:

The meaning that the [Idealist] theorists find in, most notably, Sophocles, "established a possibility for Greek tragedy's meaning that did not exist before". The new "meaning" (let us rather say) was not available before - but, in any case, let us at once add: the newly perceived "meaning" helps to create a new set of "possibilities" for the "meaning" of art and literature tout court. It helps to make possible Nietzsche's conviction that "all art can be understood as a remedy and aid in the service of growing and struggling life"; Matthew Arnold's claim that, by giving voice, and decisive shape, to "a current of true and fresh ideas", the greatest poetry speaks to our deepest concerns; and Terry Eagleton's insistence that the best writers are valuable because (pace mechanical Marxism) they can and do reveal the "fault lines" of a prevailing ideology. Idealist thought has enabled essential understanding of the distinctive value of literature and art, we are indebted to it....


from Katharine Craik's review of Joe Moshenka's Feeling Pleasures: The sense of touch in Renaissance England:

Here is a new story of the Reformation quite different from the familiar narrative of an affective, proximate world giving way to new forms of intellectual detachment. Christ's incarnation had always implied that touch involves a certain dignity, and tactile forms of worship continued in post-Reformation England even as the rules about what was touchable and what wasn't remained constantly in flux. The history of the Book of Common Prayer itself bears witness to the difficulty of ironing out tactility from Christian spiritual practice. Reforming preachers such as Thomas Cranmer and Lancelot Andrewes refused to abandon God's literal touch to mere metaphor, retaining the possibility, however indefinable, that divinity resides at our fingertips. Even the holy Word remained tactile and sinewy, its curative touch poised between the real and the figurative.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Justin Chin (1969 - 2015)

I never met Justin Chin, and now it’s too late. He died on Christmas Eve after his family took him off life support. Two people wrote me separately to ask if I knew Justin Chin. Why ask me? Because we both moved from Singapore to the States, and we both are poets and gay. Born in Malaysia, Justin Chin grew up in Singapore. He was just one year older than I am. He probably went to Anglo-Chinese School. I’m guessing from the comment on an obituary left by Singaporean actor and comedian Hossan Leong. Hossan Leong was a classmate of Justin Chin’s since six, and Hossan Leong studied at ACS and ACJC.

After ACS, Justin Chin went to the University of Hawaii before transferring to San Francisco State University. In the 90’s he made a name for himself on the San Francisco poetry scene, writing and performing work that was full of “humor and raw vulnerability,” as the POETRY Foundation website describes it. The website also calls him “fiercely political.” Justin Chin published many books, of poetry and non-fiction. Gutted (2006), a book of poems about tending to his dying father, was shortlisted for the Lambda Literary Award and won the Publishing Triangle’s Thom Gunn Award. 

All this I learned from a few minutes of googling. There is obviously much more to learn and to be said, but already questions crowd my mind. Who is his literary executor, the person responsible for preserving and disseminating his literary legacy? Will the executor advocate for the different aspects of Justin Chin’s life and work, not only his gay identity but also his Singaporean/Malaysian origins? Will Singapore literature claim him as one of its own? Does Justin Chin wish to be claimed by Singapore literature? Who will decide now that he is no longer here to express his wishes? None of the three American obituaries I read mentions his relationship with Singapore after he left. In all three, he is identified or identifiable as Asian American. What is and will be his status in Asian American literature and American gay literature?

A broader question: who are the writers writing in the USA who are originally from Singapore? By “who,” I don’t just mean the names, but the meaning of these writers. There are many of us here: Wena Poon, Sandi Tan, Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, Colin Goh, Yen Yen Woo, Damon Chua, Marcus Yi, Jeremy Tiang, Amanda Lee Koe, Lo Kwa Mei-en, to reel off some names. And if we include Canada, even more, including pioneering writer Goh Poh Seng and Lydia Kwa. Who will write our story, and what will our story say?

All these questions may seem beside the point when a man has just died. They affect, however, how we mourn for Justin Chin, or even if we mourn at all. Family and friends mourn for the person that they knew. Those of us outside the circle of personal intimacy find our own reasons to mourn this death, coming at the closing of the year. Reasons to do with common sexual orientation, national origin, or personal history. What I find affects me most is the loss of the poet that he was. These three poems published in Shampoo make me want to read more of his poetry.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015


How warm-looking
the graying bristles on the man
selling Christmas trees

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The American Diary of a Japanese Girl

It is imperfectly written but it has the charm, as Charles Simic said of his earlier poetry, of awkwardness. The introduction written by Laura E. Franey outlines the collaborative process between Yone Noguchi and his editors in writing the book, the diary's critique of turn-of-the-century Japonisme, and Morning Glory's performance of authenticity and identity. The Afterword by Edward Marx surveys the book's reception and afterlife in the USA and Japan. It suggests usefully the different genres in which the diary may be placed: women's confessional diaries popular in the late 19th century in Europe and the USA; Japanese diary literature, or nikki bungaku, whose roots reach all the way back to The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon; the New Japanese Novel; Asian American literature; American trickster tales; and queer literature. The notes to the text are full and enlightening.

My favorite bits:

"Japan teaches nothing but simplicity. Simplicity is the philosophy of art." (62)

"I thought that Americans buy things because they love to buy, not because they have to buy." (62)

"Meriken jin [Americans] has to study the high art of concealing." (62)

"Every book was without finger-marks. Book without finger-mark is like bread without brown crust. Dear finger-mark!" (65)

"[Morning Glory to her uncle] "I'm a poet already. The poet without poem is greater, don't you know?" (91)

"[Morning Glory to Mr. Heine] The best poems are those not published. The very best are those not written." (99)

I think I've discovered in Yone Noguchi yet another of my American predecessors, in addition to Auden and Gunn.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Honor and Haiku

An American honor! Steep Tea makes the "2015 Poetry Books We Love" list from Split This Rock, joining such terrific poets as Marilyn Nelson, Nicholas Wong, and Timothy Yu.


Gray day
another salon lights up
for coloring nails

Friday, December 18, 2015

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Haiku and Kessler

The moon tonight
tosses its horns
at the trumpet’s lion


Last night heard William Fung, the video artist and scholar, gave the Kessler lecture at CLAGS. He showed snippets of Re-Orientation, which features 7 of the original 12 interviewees in the groundbreaking video Orientation made in the early 80's. 30 years later, the participants have visibly aged and, less visibly but more vitally, diverged in their paths as LGBT work becomes professionalized and LGBT workers more accepted in big corporations. Fung reflected cogently on how his own work has changed under the pressures of neo-liberalism and corporatism. He made me think about my own arts organizing, in particular, the Second Saturdays Reading Series and the Singapore Lit Fest in NYC. What is the point? How best to do it? At the very least, I've decided to drop the name of festival chair in favor of festival organizer.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Monday, December 14, 2015

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Translations of an insignificant Japanese poet

For those of you who have been reading my haiku, I must now reveal that they are not my own works, but translations of Japanese originals. Six of these English translations have now been re-translated into Chinese by Zhou Decheng, and published in the Chinese-language Poetry Monthly. The story of my English translations is as follows:

In February 2011, when I moved into my Upper West Side apartment, not far from 80 Riverside Drive, where Yone Noguchi boarded for a time, I found a sheaf of haiku in the bedroom closet, almost as if it had been left for me. To my surprise, the poet made numerous references to people and places that I knew from living in New York City. I was thus compelled to translate the poems from the Japanese. As I worked on these exhilarating, enigmatic pieces, I found myself searching out the street corner, the tree, and even the bird that had so enraptured our poet. In this manner I traced the route taken through Central Park—entering at 86th Street on the west side, then running south of the reservoir, or else strolling north of the Great Lawn by the Arthur Ross pinetum, and finally exiting on the east side at either 84th or 85th Street. Slowly but surely I was beginning to live the life glimpsed through these haiku. I now walk in the poet’s footsteps every day to where I teach school. The manuscript was untitled, so I have given it a title by quoting one of the poet’s haiku. He or she signed off as “an insignificant Japanese poet."

Below are the six haiku (in English translation) that appeared in Poetry Monthly. Thank you, Zhou Decheng, for re-translating the English into Chinese. Any takers for translating the English or Chinese translations into another language? I hope the haiku will eventually find their way home back into Japanese.

Last cherry blossoms
the tentative steps
of old women

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

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

In the fall evening
green flies glint
like mica in granite

In the snow
a stone sits on its shadow
a courtier on his robe

The snow unscrolls
for the ancient seals
of children’s shoes

Friday, December 11, 2015

To be less established

This Middle Ground article provides a useful summary of events and views about censorship and arts funding in Singapore, for those coming into the discussion mid-way.

From the discussion so far, I've read stated either directly or indirectly that I could stop asking NAC for funding because I am already an "established" artist, whatever that means. The implication is that less established artists cannot afford to stop asking NAC for funding. I just want to point out (at the risk of sounding as if I'm tooting my horn) that I did not apply for NAC funding even when I was trying to establish myself. I quit as VP of a secondary school in Singapore to move to New York City to study creative writing. I was rejected by four different graduate programs before I was accepted by one that did not offer any financial aid or teaching assistantship. I spent all my savings on the program before I received a financial gift in my second year from the college for my work.

After graduation, I submitted my thesis poetry manuscript to countless book contests, which required payment for consideration, and was rejected by all of them for four years. Finally I decided to set up my own imprint, Bench Press, and self-published my first two books. I paid for it all with my private-school teacher's salary (private schools pay less in NYC than public schools because teachers in private schools are non-unionized), while sharing an apartment in Queens with two other people to keep living costs down in this expensive city. I sent my self-published books to people whose work I admired. All this time, I was reading at open-mics all over town to hone my reading style, to share my work, to network, and to learn from other writers, while holding down a full-time job teaching in a very different culture, to a very different set of students.

Of course, I had advantages. My Oxford undergrad degree got me the private-school job. My private-school job came with well-motivated kids and stimulating colleagues. You make of your advantages, whatever they are, however you can. But, and here's my point, I did not apply to NAC for funding. Not one cent. Until, as I shared in my open letter, I was published by UK's Carcanet Press and applied for funding for the UK book tour (I've just mailed off the check this afternoon to return the money to NAC).

I am not so different from so many younger Singaporean artists I know in NYC. They are ambitious, resourceful, inquisitive. They have to be, to survive in NYC's competitive arts environment, where you can throw a stone in any direction and hit a gifted actor, an innovative painter, and a swoonsome singer. These Singaporeans will succeed because their lives depend on it.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Wednesday, December 09, 2015


Hands uplifted
a virgin waits in stone robe
late December

for the wood
and the trees

Sunday, December 06, 2015

To my fellow Singaporean artists and arts lovers

It appears that after NAC CEO Kathy Lai wrote to the Straits Times to defend state censorship of the arts, NAC Chairman Chan Heng Chee defended the same in her speech as guest of honor at the Singapore International Film Festival. Her speech is an insult to the festival, which has prided itself on its support for freedom of expression by taking a principled stance against showing any film censored by the state. Chan’s speech also raises in an acute form the question of artists applying for and accepting state funding. In short, she claimed that the state has the right and the obligation to decide on what to fund, based on other considerations besides the artistic merit of the application. In response to the argument that the public purse belongs to the public and not the government, she countered that the public would prefer to spend more money on welfare subsidies and education, and less on the arts. This last point is meretricious: it is not a question of either-or. One may as well claim that the public would rather spend more money on welfare than on ministers’ pay, and thereby make a stronger claim than Chan’s.

Still, Chan’s speech makes it all too clear that the state after Lee Kuan Yew is bent on controlling the arts through its funding schemes. It will support the arts as a way of promoting the Singapore brand, and neuter the arts as a means of political and social expression. As its strategy clarifies, artists must decide how best to engage the state and retain their freedom and autonomy. I have a great deal of sympathy with the view that sees NAC funds as public monies and insists that they be dispensed on the sole consideration of artistic merit, and not the government’s political agenda. Such a view has right on its side, and idealism as its motive force. But the current one-party state has no trouble ignoring what is right and trashing what is ideal. It knows that it is the main funder of the arts in Singapore, and that Singapore artists have come to rely on its funding. By its cynical calculations, the state is certain that no matter how much of a stink artists may raise after each instance of censorship, they will return to suck its teats in the next round of grant applications.

The only way out of this bind is to wean us from state funding. We must learn to develop and present our works by using private, overseas, or minimal funding. This is possible not only for the literary arts, which are relatively inexpensive, but also for film and theater. We can pare down to the essentials, we can invent new forms for the new material situation, we can become resourceful. Groundbreaking works in film and on stage have been produced without state help, and, in many countries, against state sanction. They gain respect with their own people and with audiences abroad for their artistic integrity and innovation. In fact, pioneering Singaporean artists had been doing just this before the state decided to flush the arts with money. (Name the idol of your own artistic field here.) Perhaps, seeing our renewed determination, many more arts-loving private individuals will step forward to help, people big and small, like Eng Kai Er and her No Star Arts Grant. We can dispense with the nanny state.

After reading NAC CEO Kathy Lai’s letter, I decided not to work with the NAC any longer. Acting on that decision, I withdrew my submission to the poetry anthology A Luxury We Must Afford, since the editors intend, not unusually, to apply to NAC for funding. I also told my Russian translator about my no-NAC rule and very resourcefully he is applying for an American arts grant that will pay not only for the translation, but also his travel to the USA to present his translation. A Singapore publisher has just accepted my book of essays for publication, knowing my stance against NAC funding. Win some, lose some, but all’s based on some principle that I can live with.

Next year, I’m bringing back the biennial Singapore Literature Festival in New York. The first edition last year did not accept any NAC funding, but we did ask the authors to apply to NAC for airfare (for which they received partial funding). Next year, we will do without NAC funding completely, and raise funds from private donors. It’s a good way to invite personal investment in a community arts project. Without NAC funding, the festival can only invite a very small number of authors, but we will be able to focus on giving those authors maximum exposure. The tentative theme of the festival is “Singapore Unbound.” The festival will feature terrific writers who are also outspoken critics of the status quo.

I hope you will join me in re-considering your engagement with the state and its arts funding. To return to the topic of the state’s obligation to the arts, I will say that the state is obliged to cherish the country’s artists and art works, even when they are met with public indifference and hostility; the state should do so for the sake of future generations of Singapore, who need a free and authentic culture. I appreciate fully the fact that it is easier for me not to work with the state since I’m abroad. By the same token, I cannot have the same effect as someone working in Singapore can have. I can only do what I can where I am.

Jee Leong Koh
New York City
December 06, 2015

Saturday, December 05, 2015

Chelsea Gallery Hop

We went to see the Andy Goldsworthy show at Galerie Lelong, but knew we would make other discoveries along the way. The motorized sculptures of animals and lamps by the Swiss artist Jean Tinguely (1925 - 199) were a lot of fun to see. Shown at Gladstone Gallery, they were made of junkyard scraps and dime-store finds; the old motors, often decommissioned from 78rpm phonographs, produced unpredictable motions when you stepped on a switch on the floor. At Marlborough Chelsea, the black-and-white photos of Richard Kern in the viewing room were compelling takes on his friends living in druggy squalor in New York City. Taken in the 80's, the photos showed acts of sadomasochism and non-acts of ennui. There was one very different, rather sweet, "Brian with TV, 1981"

Over at Luhring Augustine, the British artist Rachel Whiteread was showing new sculptures made from casting windows and doors in colored resin. The pieces are then mounted on concrete casts of bricks, so the promise of transparency is finally blocked. Most impressive of all were the ash paintings of the Chinese artist Zhang Huan at Pace. A new body of paintings, made from incense ash collected from Buddhist temples, present passages from the Bible and "The Star-Spangled Banner" in braille. The highlight was a huge painting, measuring 122 feet long, drawn from a photograph of Mao and over 1000 loyal followers arranged in ranks for the camera. The work was monumental in its ambition, but also memorable in its human detail. When I posted Guy's photo on FB, the software asked me to tag the faces.

The Andy Goldsworthy show "Leaning into the Wind" did not disappoint. He made me laugh, whether he was scraping through a row of low thorny trees, or climbing up a waterfall, or washing in a stream his hands clean of blood-red poppy petals, or throwing a bunch of sticks up in the air so that they flew and scattered in beautiful patterns. He took such joy in making art. He takes life as it is and just adds one step.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Monday, November 30, 2015

The Full Interview

The Straits Times published a story about Steep Tea making the list of Best Books of 2015 in the Financial Times. The Singapore paper included only part of the email interview with me. The full interview below. Read it and you will understand ST's selectivity.

How does it feel to be one of the four poetry works named by the FT as best of 2015? 

Amazed. Humbled. Grateful that someone likes the book so much. We just celebrated Thanksgiving here in the US. I'm so thankful for the encouragement given by Maria Crawford, the FT editor who selected Steep Tea.

Looking back, what were some challenges you faced in writing Steep Tea? 

I couldn't have written Steep Tea without moving to the US to come out as a poet and a gay man. The poems in the book reflect the experience of finding my rightful place in New York and a useful perspective on Singapore. The poems were written over the course of 12 years, as both place and perspective come slowly. You might say that I had to steep myself in hot water before brewing this cup of tea.

You've taken an active role in promoting Singaporean poetry abroad. Why do you do so? 

We have many terrific Singapore writers, and so it is only natural that I want to share their work with others. By running the biennial Singapore Literature Festival in New York and the arts website Singapore Poetry, I hope to bring together my two homes--Singapore and the United States--in better understanding and appreciation.

What has the response to such poetry been like, from non-Singaporeans? 

They respond warmly to its deeply felt humanity and its finely crafted wit. They know Singapore from the mass media as an economic success, an authoritarian state, and a heartless people. They are surprised and delighted to learn from its writers that another Singapore exists: creative, free-wheeling, and compassionate.

What are your hopes for the Singapore literary scene? 

Singaporeans should embrace our own writers. We must learn to cherish our own artists. This involves reading, viewing, hearing, and discussing their works until they become an integral part of us. It also involves giving writers and artists the means, the freedom, and the courage to challenge us, with unpalatable truths and unusual beauties. They are our eyes and ears, they are our conscience.

What are you working on at the moment, and what other works can readers expect from you in the coming year ahead? 

I'm working on a book of haiku, tentatively titled Does grass sweat. I have a book of essays now under consideration by a Singaporean publisher. The essays examine in a personal mode writers from the UK, the USA, and Singapore. Taken as whole, the essays compose a portrait of a life lived in reading and writing.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Thanksgiving 2015

So I returned from my Thanksgiving getaway to learn that my book Steep Tea has been listed by the Financial Times as one of four best books of poetry of 2015, along with the new annotated Poems of T. S. Eliot by Christopher Ricks and Kim McCue; Horace: Poems ed. by Paul Quarrie; and Citizen by Claudia Rankine. Completely unexpected, completely floored.

"The Singapore-born poet’s first UK publication is disciplined yet adventurous in form, casual in tone and deeply personal in subject matter. Koh’s verse addresses the split inheritance of his postcolonial upbringing, as well as the tension between an émigré’s longing for home and rejection of nostalgia." - Maria Crawford in UK's Financial Times

The time away was otherwise dominated by reading Amy Sueyoshi's study of Yone Noguchi's romantic relationships in a book aptly titled Queer Compulsions. Through the study of the correspondence between Yone and his lovers, Sueyoshi persuaded me that his most passionate and most sustained feelings were for the older white writer Charles Warren Stoddard. His love for Ethel Armes was full of ups and downs, and starts and stops, until she ended their engagement finally when she learnt that Yone was "married" to Léonie Gilmour and had a son (the sculptor Isamu Noguchi) with her. Ethel herself had passionate feelings for other women. As for Léonie, she realized from early on that Noguchi did not love her and so took the difficult independent path of raising Isamu by herself. Yone's marriage in Japan to his domestic servant Matsu Takeda was a matter of convenience, as the poet turned himself into a strictly heterosexual and stridently nationalistic writer. Throughout the study, Sueyoshi showed sensitivity to the ways in which race, nation, and sexuality (as the sub-title promises) affects an immigrant hungry for love and literary fame. She underlines, in a clear-eyed manner, how same-sex desire is not necessarily revolutionary even when it is in revolt against social norms and moral mandates.

Of all the movies we watched at Ty and Di's place, the best was Out in the Dark (2012), directed by Michael Mayer. The lovers, coming from opposites sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, quick discover that being gay complicates the already messy situation. Nicholas Jacob plays the Palestinian student Nimr Mashrawi with just the right touch of resignation. Michael Aloni's Roy Schaefer, a young Israeli lawyer, discovers the need for moral compromise in order to save them both. Deepa Mehta's Midnight's Children (2012) was, however, a big disappointment. The problem lay in having Salman Rushdie write the screenplay. The novelist had no clue how to structure a film, and so threw in everything and the kitchen sink. The novel should be made into at least three feature films. If the Hunger Games series is made into four films, why should the Booker of Bookers deserve a less epic treatment?

On Friday, we drove to Hudson to visit the Basilica Farm and Flea. The line wrapped around the beautiful old forge and foundry, and so we gave up trying to get in and went antiquing in a nearby warehouse instead. My discovery was a newly opened print studio called Inky Editions. Artists can produce fine art prints there by working with non-toxic intaglio-based techniques.

Basilica Hudson

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

A Student's Response to "Eve's Fault"

Two weeks ago I held a Skype discussion with eleventh-grade students of Garden International School, Kuala Lumpur. Under the guidance of their teacher Renie Leng, they had been studying two poems closely, Derek Walcott's "Adam's Song" and my poem "Eve's Fault." I was chuffed to be studied alongside the great Walcott. Over Skype, the students asked me many keen questions from theme and characterization to the use of particular words in my poem. The questions spoke very well of their thoughtful preparation for the discussion. Afterwards, they wrote an essay analyzing and comparing the two poems. The essay is for their CIE IGCSE coursework teacher's choice component. Contrary to current educational thinking in Singapore, the Malaysian and International students proved more than capable of enjoying and learning from poetry. Shame on Singapore schools for abandoning the teaching of literature at the higher levels. The whole exercise also showed me the power of giving effective teachers autonomy in their pedagogy.

I enjoyed reading many of the essays submitted by the class. Of particular note is the following essay by Jonathan Chin, reprinted with his permission. His response is alive to not only the complications of poetic language but also its implications.

How do the poets powerfully present the experiences of Adam and Eve in the poems Eve’s Fault by Jee Leong Koh and Adam’s Song by Derek Walcott respectively? 

In the poem Adam’s Song, Derek Walcott closely follows the story of Genesis, exploring Eve’s sin with themes of betrayal and regret, illustrating her as the villainous protagonist of the story. However, Adam is elevated to the reader through Walcott’s portrayal of his love and forgiveness towards Eve. In contrast, Eve’s Fault by Jee Leong Koh has a subversive take on the book of Genesis, presenting Eve simply as a character journeying through love, deciding between three of her suitors. Jee Leong Koh further reinvents Adam, opposing the traditional ideas of him, transforming him into a flawed being.

Koh humorously presents Adam’s experience of himself to be one of imperfection, contrasting the traditional portrayal of a flawless being. The first of Adam’s flaws, described as being “inarticulate”, shatters the reader’s conventional image of a perfect man and instead replaces it with a man that is blemished in his ability to express himself. Adam is further characterized as “a terrible speller”, adding to the semantic field of imperfection in Adam’s personality. Koh uses the humour evoked by this phrase to accentuate Eve’s scholarly characteristic, reversing the biblical notion of Adam being superior to Eve. The effect of the humour is further empowered by “terrible”, exaggerating the degree of his unlettered mind. Koh continues to apply humour while describing Adam’s body to be “precariously balanced on his feet”. This phrase exhibits Adam’s physical appearance to look strange and unsymmetrical, contrary to the illustrations of the original and perfect body of Adam. The depiction of Adam’s imbalance could also represent his adventurous and unpredictable personality. The phrase is also the only physical representation of Adam suggesting that the flaws that humanize us are ones to do with personality instead of physical appearance. Adam’s narrow minded trait is denoted through “mind made up”, convincing the reader that Adam is more closed to ideas in comparison to Eve, adding to the subversive concept of Eve being superior to Adam. The bombardment of Adam’s flaws is then followed up by “he needed her”. Eve knew this as through her perspective, Adam was dependent on her, incapable of living without her either due to his undying love for her or because he was inferior to Eve and needed her guidance, much unlike God and the serpent. Adam might have been ashamed of this fact which is why he “scratched down… the story of the rib”. Koh intends on altering the reader’s view of Adam thus making him seem insecure about his defects and therefore wrote a historic event that never happened to heighten himself above Eve. The poet’s powerful portrayal of Adam’s experience circulates the emphasis on Adam’s faults, drawing the reader into the importance of Adam’s humanity and juxtaposing the biblical illustration.

Koh powerfully presents Eve's experience to be a journey to find love, meeting a variety of partners before discovering her true need and thus discovering herself. The epigraph denoted that Eve’s fault “was only too much love”, highlighting the theme of love to the readers as well as alerting the reader to the irony in the title, being that the poet’s ultimate message is that Eve is not at fault. The first of Eve’s partners-God-is exemplified as the stereotypical high school jock, attributed to be charming and fun, evident at his attempt to win Eve using flamboyant gestures such as “whipped...a bouquet of light” and “told her the joke about the Archaeopteryx”. The bombastic action of something being “whipped” creates an energetic and magical atmosphere. The “bouquet of light” signifies an act of love in attempt to pursue Eve. A “bouquet” depicts the image of flowers-a sign of affection. However, God takes this common expression and erupts it with the glamour brought by “light”, which further reinforces his ostentatious personality, wanting to win Eve over with ornate displays. God then proceeds to tell a “joke”, revealing his childish side, contradicting the traditional idea of an almighty and wise God. In addition, the “joke” relates to the “Archaeopteryx”, a prehistoric dinosaur, integrating humour yet again, as the “Archaeopteryx” holds no biblical connotation since it was not present on Noah’s arc. It also validates God’s childishness as dinosaurs are often a popular topic amongst children. The complexity brought by “Archaeopteryx” symbolises the convolution within the relationship of Eve and God, insinuating that they could not be together as Eve did not want someone as captivating and dominant as God, especially with his childishness. Her next partner, the snake, was an opposite to God, described as a “quieter fellow” in the beginning of the stanza, already juxtaposing the personality of God. The snake being “quieter” impels a sense of mystery onto the reader, causing them to see the snake as an inscrutable individual. This also foreshadows a sense of danger that is often associated with the snake as “quieter” would imply that the snake was sneaky and cunning. Moreover, It connotes the snake to be sophisticated as “quieter” people are stereotyped to be intellectual. Nonetheless, the snake “gave her up” to Adam at the end of the stanza. Despite it being in the name of love, Eve could not be with the snake as he did not need her, allowing him to give her away. Eve had then realised that what she really needed was “Adam’s need”, which is personified as Eve. Eve chose Adam over God and the Snake because unlike them, “he needed her” and that was all that she required. The poet gave each of Eve’s partners a similar structure in their respective stanzas to indicate that each of Eve’s partners were whole, having both strengths and weaknesses, highlighting that Eve chose Adam not because he was the strongest but as the result of his personality. Eve’s adventure through the garden of Eden is presented by Koh as an expedition to find love and is displayed to the readers through her experience with three partners.

Walcott powerfully presents Eve’s experience as torturous and agonizing as a result of her betrayal through his usage of vivid imagery. Eve is depicted as an “adulteress stoned to death” arousing a gruesome illustration that invokes disgust and horror into the reader. The phrase is a reference made towards Eve’s sin that stained the innocence of humanity, and therefore despite Eve not committing adultery, she is still to be blamed for the crime. Eve is symbolised as the “adulteress” as it signifies the betrayal she committed against God. It also insinuates that she is despised by others because of her deed and the title will remain on her forever as it did with women who committed adultery during those historic times. The strong imagery brought by “stoned” accentuates the brutality of the punishment Eve had to endure. A morbid atmosphere is created by “death”, emphasising the savage nature of “stoned”. Walcott further outlines the permanence of Eve’s judgment in the phrase “films her flesh with slime”, alluding to the evidence of her sin written in the Bible. The soft consonants brought by “films” “flesh” and “slime” creates a smooth flowing tone, suggesting that Eve’s torment will never end and will be ongoing. The action “films” induces a sense of insecurity and vulnerability, that Eve will never be spared a hint of privacy. The perpetuation of this agony is elicited through the idea of hopelessness as it is impossible to remove “flesh”, therefore her sin is now part of her. A sense of repulsion is further invoked into the reader through the imagery brought by “slime”, also contributing to the permanence of her sin insinuated from the sticky properties of “slime”. The blame is showed to be entirely put on Eve when Walcott described her to have “horned God”. Eve’s betrayal to God is represented by “horned”, depicting her as having horns similar to the devil, therefore associating her with the devil and her actions deemed evil. Eve’s experience is portrayed as coated with suffering and regret, as well as inheriting the blame for all the sin in the world.

Adam is presented to be cowering his end, caused by his strong devotion to Eve, until he experiences the forgiveness granted to him by God. Walcott uses sibilance in “men still sing the song that Adam sang” to create a ghastly tone, notifying the readers to the presence of the serpent. The feeling of the serpent's proximity in the evoked in the phrase foreshadows danger and further summons a deathly atmosphere. Adam’s personal forgiveness of Eve is evident in the phrase “the world he lost to vipers”, connoting that Adam takes blame upon himself and is aware that Eve should not be blamed for men’s sin. Furthermore, the zoomorphic representation of the devil as a “viper” conjures a sense of ominousity amongst the readers, reinforcing the previously foreshadowed danger and death. Walcott further speculates on Adam’s fear in the phrase “panther in the peaceable kingdom”. A plosive alliteration is used to shift the tone from a softer one to a harsher one, signifying that Adam is overcome with fear. Walcott manipulates the reader into resonating with Adam’s fear through creating a contrast between “panther” , symbolised as danger and death, and “peaceable” denoting a safe and secure environment. The imagery of darkness and hopelessness is also conveyed through the “panther”, with it’s dark fur. The use of enjambement in the following stanza is intended to insinuate Adam’s panic at it’s limit, forcing the reader into a quickened pace, intensifying the moment. Walcott powerfully induces the experience of Adam’s crippling fear of his death and God into the readers, creating a tense and desolate atmosphere.

Both Walcott and Koh revolve their poems around the book of Genesis, specifically the story of Adam and Eve. Despite Walcott having a conventional approach in Adam’s Song, Koh still chooses to implement a subversion of the story in Eve’s Fault, showing a shift of themes from betrayal and suffering to themes of love and humanity. Walcott forces the readers to empathise with Adam and Eve, alerting them towards the pain of their experience through powerful imagery. Whereas Koh reverses the reader’s perception of a perfect Adam as portrayed by the media, into an imperfect being.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Andalusia: A Zuihitsu

"Andalusia: A Zuihitsu" has just appeared on Concis Journal. Thanks, Chris Lott, for accepting it.

Brearley Book Festival

Last night read from Steep Tea at The Brearley Book Festival. Couldn't have imagined it ten years ago when I was hauled up to defend this racy blog. It was a pleasure to read with seven other authors (faculty, alum and parents), particularly with Rachel Urquhart (The Visionist) and George Hagen (Gabriel Finley and the Raven's Riddle).

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Jane Routh reviews STEEP TEA

"Eavan Boland is the poet he responds to most frequently – probably because she understands the subtle oppressions of colonial rule, one of his main preoccupations. He also uses her as a springboard in a different direction: “The toxins of a whole history” leads into a poem about the history of relationships for gay men, looking beyond his immediate personal moment. Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin sparks a fair few poems too – but I’m also introduced to a much wider range of poets like Tzu Pheng Lee, a Singaporean poet whose phrase “some curio of the change” provokes ‘Hong Kong’, a poem about choosing a keepsake, and the Mayan Xunka’ Utz’utz’ Ni’, whose poem about a new house has the poet echoing her prayers. Both entertaining and thought-provoking, this book is also a serious conversation between poets and cultures, and an education."

-- Jane Routh on STEEP TEA. Read the rest of the review in MAGMA 63, and poems by Eoghan Walls, Emma Wilson, Michael Henry, Sophie Baker, Raymond Antrobus, and Angela Kirby.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Sonny Liew's "The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye"

A biography of the artist as a hero, The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye is full of swagger even as it pays tribute to its comics predecessors. The virtuosic display of different comics styles, the mind-boggling meta-meta-meta narratives, the political satire. The result is an astounding feat, which sets a high bar not only for Singapore comics, but also for Singapore fiction. Yet much remains familiar. Singapore history may be re-interpreted but its periodization is not challenged. The reading of the historical protagonists may be flipped, but there are still clearly heroes and villains. And the greatest hero of all is the artist, who is depicted as uncompromisingly dedicated to his art. Singapore art needs such a heroic image, perhaps, given its frequent and forced accommodations to authority. Still, the terms of the artist's exaltation are traditional: he foregoes a love interest; gives up having a family; disappoints his parents. Heterosexual love, family, and happy parents are self-evident goods in the graphic novel; they are not subject to the kind of interrogation that the novel applies to political history. The artist is essentially male, as are all the politicians. Women are peripheral characters to the political and the personal stories. Having surrendered his claim to a place in bourgeois, Chinese, Singaporean patriarchy, the hero-artist reasserts his maleness in his art, ending aptly with a page of nine panels, eight of which depict the phallic instruments of his art.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Saturday, November 14, 2015

STEEP TEA poems in Asia Literary Review

Four of my poems from Steep Tea appear in Asia Literary Review, edited by Phillip Kim and Martin Alexander. You can read one poem for free, and take out an e-book subscription for the other poems and the rest of the issue. Enjoy!

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Open Letter to Singapore's National Arts Council

Open Letter in Response to National Arts Council CEO Kathy Lai’s Letter to the Straits Times (November 7, 2015)

I am greatly saddened by the NAC CEO’s defense of censorship in response to Ong Keng Sen’s radio interview and Haresh Sharma’s Cultural Medallion speech. In his hard-hitting interview, Ong Keng Sen criticized state censorship of the arts for infantilizing the populace. Haresh Sharma, in his speech, called for unconditional support of our artists. In response, NAC CEO Kathy Lai wrote a reply that managed to be obfuscating, ingratiating, and high-handed all at once, with the sole aim of defending the status quo. Jason Wee has rebutted the letter soundly in a Facebook post, so I will not repeat the objections here. What’s worth remembering is the recent actions taken against the arts. If we remember them, we will know to take the letter for what it is: a whitewashed tomb.

There were high hopes in the last days of Lee Kuan Yew that Singapore society would breathe more easily and freely. This was not to be. First, the government restricted the screening of Tan Pin Pin’s documentary film “To Singapore, With Love” about Singapore’s political dissidents and exiles. Then, NAC, under Kathy Lai, withdrew the publication grant from Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, because the graphic novel was deemed politically sensitive. These actions may seem to show the lightening of the censoring hand, since neither film nor book was banned outright, but they do not. They are, instead, carefully calculated to mute any protest from the artistic community and to prevent the dissemination of film and book to the populace. The state is not bothered by film screenings to small groups of like-minded individuals. It knows that they are a lost cause and, anyway, their opinion leaders depend on it for arts funding. By restricting screenings, the state has achieved its purpose of restricting the exposure of the populace to what it considers to be undesirable ideas. The same goes for the graphic novel. Withdrawing funding is a sufficient warning to schools and other institutions to stay away from the disapproved publication. The strategy is clear: let the tiny liberal fringe protest while watching their film and reading their book, but cordon off the populace from any liberating ideas. As playwright Tan Tarn How observed on Facebook, “things are changing, but backwards.”

That the NAC is one of the state instruments for carrying out this policy is clear from Kathy Lai’s letter. After dividing the “well-traveled, deeply engaged” arts lovers from “others who want the arts to uplift them, to be simple expressions of joy and beauty” (meaning the heartlanders), she warned that “The one thing we won’t – and must not – do is to be patronising or even insulting to audiences and potential audiences on their choices.” By her twisted logic, to encourage Singaporeans to eschew the ersatz and the simplistic, to appreciate the profound and the complex, is to patronize (even insult!) them. This statement alone disqualifies her to be the chief of the National Arts Council. But we must not overlook the political hackwork done by the statement. In political terms, the statement says to artists and art lovers, do what you like but leave the electorate alone.

Just as insidious, and even more upsetting, is her argument that artists’ complaints about censorship are exaggerated. Look at “our lively theatre scene,” she wrote. “Similarly, the marketplace has never seen a more diverse range of Singaporean-authored and published books than today - from the reverential and celebratory to all manner of contrarian narratives.” In arguing thus, she is using works produced under a restrictive regime to prove a lack of restrictions, conveniently ignoring the fact that many of the most vibrant works were produced despite of these restrictions. What she argues is tantamount to saying that queer writers cannot be oppressed in Singapore since they can publish their books in the country. This kind of logic is what stops LGBT writers such Cyril Wong and Ovidia Yu from representing their country. To display the vitality of Singapore writing is to contribute to their own oppression. You can write and publish, right? So you cannot be so badly off. In the meantime, 377A, the law against sodomy, remains on the books, and prevents any progress towards achieving equality. Kathy Lai seems oblivious to the irony in her phrase “all manner of contrarian narratives.” What did she do to The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye on her watch? Whitewashed tomb.

Because of the reasons above, I have decided to embark on a policy of non-cooperation with the NAC until it changes its approach, until it champions freedom of expression. I have managed thus far to be an independent writer, having self-published my books of poems, or having them published by US and UK publishers. I have also been running the arts website Singapore Poetry without any funding from the NAC. Only recently have I received monies from it: funding for the Steep Tea tour in the UK and payment for participation in this year’s Singapore Writers Festival. I’ve written to the NAC to return all the monies received. From now onwards, I will not participate in any NAC events nor have my work included in any NAC-funded publication. I do not wish to contribute to my political oppression.

I wish, instead, to heed Haresh Sharma’s clarion call, given in his speech on receiving the Cultural Medallion: “The most fundamental frontier of change is the mind. If our mindsets can’t change then there is very little hope for our attitudes to change. Our attitude towards censorship and regulation, our attitude towards openness and dialogue, our attitude towards risk-taking, and ultimately, our attitude towards the value of the artist in society.” I wish to decolonize my mind.

Koh Jee Leong
New York City
November 12, 2015


Sole dry thing
in the rain-soaked park
an inkling of death

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Arthur Miller at Lyceum

Saw the Young Vic production of "A View from the Bridge" at the Lyceum Theatre this afternoon, with Mark Strong as Eddie, Nicola Walker as Beatrice, Phoebe Fox as Catherine, Michael Zegen as Marco, and Russell Tovey as Rodolpho. Gripping but finally unsatisfying.

Monday, November 09, 2015

Skype Lesson with Garden International School (KL)

The students of Garden International School (Kuala Lumpur) had such good questions about "Eve's Fault." One asked why I chose the Snake, instead of God and Adam, to be Eve's intellectual lover. Another asked about the possible meanings of "God entered her." Yet another wondered if I intended to criticize patriarchy when I wrote that Adam scratched down and believed his own story of the rib. The students had annotated and discussed the poem before the Skype lesson, so they came very well prepared. The hour flew by. It was a lovely way to spend a Sunday evening. Thanks, Renie Leng, for arranging for it.

Friday, November 06, 2015

Eshuneutics reviews "Steep Tea"

"Each of the forty-six poems begin with an act of reading: the resultant creations aren't reactive fictions or attempts to better the originals. They are, to carry on with Duncan's ideas concerning poetic (gay) creation, extensions of a ground, acknowledgements of the fault-lines where poems break from." Eshuneutics reviews Steep Tea

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Singapore Launch of Steep Tea and SWF

Thanks very much, everyone who came out to the Singapore launch of Steep Tea tonight. You were, in a word, overwhelming. Your support, love, and friendship. I am so grateful. I'm just sorry that there wasn't time to talk to everyone properly. I hope we will see one another when I visit again next summer. If you fancy hearing me talk cock sing song about "Raising the Profile of Asian Literature" (10 am) and "Getting Published Overseas" (2:30 pm), come to the Singapore Writers Festival at The Arts House tomorrow (Sat). For those of you who couldn't get a copy of my book tonight, it will be available at the festival bookshop at The Arts House from tomorrow to the end of the festival. Thanks again, Boedi Widjaja, for the cover image and for coming out tonight. Thank you, Anthony Koh Waugh, for hosting the launch at your wonderful bookstore. You are a sweetheart.

At the Singapore Writers Festival, I was a panelist in two sessions.

"Raising the Profile of Asian Literature" with Linh Dinh, Laksmi Pamuntjak, and Eun Heekyung (Eun's interpreter on extreme left) (not pictured: moderator Desmond Kon).

"Getting Published Overseas" with Toh Hsien Min and Alvin Pang, moderated by Fong Hoe Fang.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Pittsburgh and Haiku

Just returned on MegaBus from Pittsburgh. Last night I read with Jason Irwin and two other poets at Classic Lines Bookstore for the Under the Sign of the Bear reading series, organized by Michael Albright. It was good to hear Jason read again, so sturdy and genuine is his poetry. It was lovely also to meet Jenny Ashburn, and Jason's friend Scott Silsbe, and to spend the day with Ian.


Full moon
through the blue moorings

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Sunday, October 18, 2015

NY Launch of Steep Tea

Thanks, everyone, for celebrating my new book "Steep Tea" with me last night at Book Culture. The trains were acting up, the night was cold, but you came, some traveling for more than an hour, at least one person whom I know of walking 24 UWS blocks because of Sabbath. Your presence made the event special. Thank you, Cody and the team at Book Culture, for hosting the launch. A big thank-you to Simpson from Chomp Chomp for sponsoring the delicious reception. Thank you, Doug and Chris, for bringing the food to the reading. Thank you, Raj, for the Tiger Beer sponsorship. And thank you, Meiko, for helping with the reception.

It was wonderful to hear Cindy Arrieu-King again. Thank you, Cindy, for coming in from Philly to read with me. Your poems are beautiful and brave. They confront the horrors of our contemporary world, not in some far-off war-torn country, but right here among our daily struggles. Softness, you remind us, is a form of kindness. Your soft touch is born of great toughness.

I have so many people to thank for my book. Last night, I had the chance to thank my New York friends, in particular. Below is what I said from the heart:

I’m very pleased to be reading for you tonight from my new book "Steep Tea." The book bears my name on its front, but it owes its life to many people. I am very grateful to Michael Schmidt, the editor of Carcanet Press, for his belief in my work. I first came across his name in Singapore when I was studying for my GCE ‘A’ Level Examinations at the age of 17. He was the editor of the anthology "11 British Poets," which was an examination text. That anthology changed my life. After my encounter with Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes, and R. S. Thomas in it, I wanted to be a poet too. By publishing my new book, Michael has made me a poet twice over.

Before leaving Singapore for New York, I submitted a manuscript to Carcanet. It was duly rejected, for the poems in it were bloodless things. It is New York that gave me the needed blood infusion. I am so grateful to friends here who have supported my writing over the years. I’m sorry that Eric Thomas Norris cannot be here. As an editor, he has championed my work. As a poet, he gave me superb advice on a draft of "Steep Tea."

I also want to thank my dear friend and colleague Tara Neelakantappa Safronoff, who is here tonight. Over a series of early mornings, before her children woke up, she read a draft of my book. Her warm and honest response helped me cut down the manuscript from 160 pages to 60. I was so pleased when Tara told me, after reading the published book, that it had no filler!

I owe so much to another dear friend and colleague, Helaine Smith. She has been an invaluably keen reader of my work. Her detailed comments on individual poems in "Steep Tea" made them better. She saw, just as Paul Muldoon did in a workshop that I attended, that the opening poem “Eve’s Fault” did not move forward sufficiently from its first line. Helaine’s ingenious suggestion, offered so tactfully and gently, was to remove the first line. So now the collection begins with the word “God” and not with the word “Though.” So much better!

Most of all, I want to thank my love, Guy, to whom the book is dedicated. Guy has supported my writing in big and small ways, all significant. He advised me on my writing career. He threw parties to celebrate my books. When I needed someone to manage the reception tonight, he stepped in. We celebrated our fifth anniversary this year. The last five years have been a time of personal growth for me, as I learn what it means to love another person. I’m so grateful that he allows me to write about our life together, both the darkness and the light. It is a profound mark of his trust, and I can only hope to be worthy of such loving trust.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Richard Scott reviews Steep Tea in Ambit

"Koh is at his best when he’s writing about lust; his massively understated poems detailing homosexual desire are marvellous."

Thanks, Richard Scott and Ambit, for this no-holds-barred review of Steep Tea.


They have torn up the surface of Lexington Avenue again.

Tar dust in my nose
after twelve years
I'm still walking home

Monday, October 12, 2015

"Telltale: 11 Stories" edited by Gwee Li Sui

A fine selection of short stories by literary critic, poet, and graphic novelist Gwee Li Sui. I appreciate the emphasis in his introduction on the humanistic dimensions of these stories, instead of their representations of Singapore. Powerful stories by Alfian Sa'at, two from his collection Corridor, and one new story about a man waiting on death row. Dave Chua is represented by his moving story "The Drowning" about the impact of the Asian tsunami on a family. My biggest discovery is Tan Mei Ching, whose story "In the Quiet" rings absolutely true about how a precocious teenage girl learns about death. Jeffrey Lim's stories "Haze Day" and "Understudies" are clever constructions but somewhat thin in characterization. Still, they display an experimental daring not usually found in the Singapore short story. They push against the social realist tradition of fiction-making that the other stories in this anthology exemplify.

Dia: Beacon

Visited Dia:Beacon for the second time yesterday. Enjoyed looking at John Chamberlain's sculptures of crushed and twisted auto parts, Imi Knoebel's wooden forms stacked against the walls, Robert Smithson's glass and sand sculptures, in particular, "The Map of Glass (Atlantis)" and Joseph Beuys's piles of felt weighed down or pedestaled by copper plates. Two very different artists brought close to home the feeling of the sublime. Richard Serra and his colossal elegant forms. Fred Sandback and his drawings in space using yarn. As Sandback himself said, he does not aim to transform the space so much as to co-exist with it. His yarn sculptures do not take up room but they are as solid as Serra's thick sheet metal. How to write and present haiku like that?

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Friday, October 09, 2015

Thursday, October 08, 2015

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Saturday, October 03, 2015

Ian Pople reviews STEEP TEA

"In these poems, the grace and elegance mentioned above mix with Koh’s imagination, to create a fine sense of play in his material. The final effect is a charged, nuanced lyricism."

- Ian Pople in The Manchester Review. Read more.

Friday, October 02, 2015

Singapore at 50 and Haiku

"Singapore at 50: Reflections on the Local, Global and Postcolonial," organized by Jini Kim Watson of NYU, was a thoughtful and stimulating presentation of work by academics from Singapore, the US and Canada. Joanne Leow, from the University of Toronto, read Singapore's Gardens by the Bay together with Kevin Kwan's novel Crazy Rich Asians and highlighted the uses of excess. E.K. Tan, from Stony Brook University, argued for a more complicated and expanded notion of Sinophone literature by looking at two poems written in a hybrid of Chinese and English. From Singapore's Nanyang Technological University, C. J. Wan-Ling Wee looked at the distinct character of the 1980's for Singaporean cultural productions, created during a fruitful gap after the state began to focus on high culture but before it produced its Renaissance City report and poured huge amounts of money into the arts. Cheryl Narumi Naruse, also from NTU, examined the transnational mobility of Singaporeans and its creation of a new coming-of-career genre of writing.

I was the odd duck of the evening, very pleased to be included, and warmly welcomed. Before I read "Attribution," "Recognition," and "Talking to Koon Meng Who Called Himself Christopher" from Steep Tea, I gave this somewhat tongue-in-cheek preamble:

None Can Tell: On Poetry and Plagiarism  

I’m here as an imposter. I’m not a scholar, I’m a poet. I’m here to practice fraud on you. I’m here to say, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” and confuse the two on earth. I make copies of copies, and so should be thrown out on my ear from the philosophers’ club. Thank you for not throwing me out. Thank you for welcoming me into your midst. Perhaps you are not followers of Plato but of Aristotle. You see poetry, and aesthetics in general, as a species of knowledge. Well, in that case, we are still diametrically opposite: poetry, to me, is a species of ignorance. A poet does not know many things; a post-colonial poet does not know many special things, things peculiar to his historical condition, to the long shadow of Western imperialism, in my case. I’m convicted on both counts, by Aristotle of ignorance, by Plato of plagiarism. Perhaps you are not a philosopher at all. Like me, you have wandered into this place by mistake. You just wish to be entertained, before the break for wine and cheese. If so, you are just the person to whom I will read.


Cheep cheep
the small plagiarist bird
rips off its head

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Tuesday, September 29, 2015


Last Sunday, the NY launch of UNION, an anthology that celebrates 50 years of Singaporean writing and 15 years of seminal American journal Drunken Boat. I read from The Pillow Book at Singapore: Inside Out, with Alvin Pang (editor), Ravi Shankar (editor), Sharon Dolin and Amanda Lee Koe. Photos by GH.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Mystery Plays and Dancing Space

TLS July 24, 2015

from Gerard Kilroy's review of Mortal Thoughts: Religion, secularity and identity in Shakespeare and early modern culture by Brian Cummings; The Bible in Shakespeare by Hannibal Hamlin; and A Will to Believe: Shakespeare and religion by David Scott Kastan:

Cummings explore the "condition of soliloquy" in the Confessions - "et cum ipso me solo coram te" (with myself all alone in front of you) - in one of the most rewarding chapters in the book, "Soliloquy and Secularization". Augustine is seen as the source both of the word "soliloquy" and of the genre. The soliloquy is both a meditation and a dialogue between an interior self that is true, and an interior self that is mutable and transitory. Long before Hamlet's most famous of soliloquies, Cummings finds Augustine in De libero arbitrio, meditating on not being: "It is not because I would rather be unhappy than not be at all ... , that I am unwilling to die, but for fear that after death I may be still more unhappy".  
In "one of Shakespeare's favorite books", Arthur Golding's translation of Calvin's Sermons upon the Booke of Job (1574), humanity is described as "sullyed and full of all fylthe", and Golding uses the world "solydnesse [i.e. sulliedness] in his translation of the sermons in Calvin's Psalmes of David (1571). Orally and in print the two words were "sometimes indistinguishable", making them ripe for punning.  
Hamlin (following Jones) notes that the greeting "All hail" in Macbeth and several plays including Julius Caesar, echoes Judas's kiss in the York Cycle [of mystery plays].... Hamlin has now discovered that this greeting became so "conventional" that the phrase "All haile maister" was attributed to Judas in many sermons between 1571 and 1599. While the received opinion had been that the last recorded performance of a Mystery Play was in Coventry in 1579, recent work has shown that they continued in small towns, and (as Phebe Jensen has shown) in Catholic country hourses like Gowlthwaite Hall, "well into the seventeenth century".


from Kapka Kassabova's review of Dancing Tango: Passionate encounters in a globalizing world by Kathy Davis:

One of Davis's conclusions is that the milonga is a rare space in our globalized and yes, unequal world, where men and women - especially heterosexual men and women - can safely perform gender roles, explore desires that in the rest of their lives have become outdated, and even fall in love - for fifteen minutes. In that sense tango remains subversive, as it was always meant to be. Should a feminist dance tango? The overwhelming evidence here shows us one thing: in tango, there is no such thing  as "should".

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Erica Wagner's "Ariel's Gift"

In Ariel's Gift, Erica Wagner composes a running commentary on the poems in Ted Hughes's Birthday Letters. The commentary calls on Sylvia Plath's fiction, journals and letters, and on Hughes' few public statements after Plath's death, in order to shine a light on the poems. Wagner is particularly good, I think, on Hughes's sense of fate in the making of his and Plath's poems, and in the events that overtook them. Critics of Hughes may see the avowals of ignorance and helplessness in the Birthday Letters poems as evidence of blame-shifting and self-justification, but the poems themselves convey the ignorance and helplessness in a very palpable way. To enter the poems at all, one must enter them, suspending one's judgment. Wagner tries to be very fair-minded but it becomes clear in the course of her book that she is more sympathetic toward Hughes. The last chapter shows the pain that the living (Hughes and the children, Plath's mother Aurelia) have to bear when the dead is still capable of screaming from her grave.

Perhaps in response to the accusations of self-justification against Hughes, Wagner quotes Seamus Heaney's verdict on Plath's poetry. In his lecture "The Indefatigable Hoof-taps," Heaney explained what he saw as her limitation:

There is nothing poetically flawed about Plath's work. What may finally limit it is its dominant theme of self-discovery and self-definition, even though this concern must be understood as a valiantly unremitting campaign against the black hole of depression and suicide. I do not suggest that the self is not the proper arena of poetry. But I believe that the greatest work occurs when a certain self-forgetfulness is attained or least a fullness of self-possession denied to Sylvia Plath. . . . In "Lady Lazarus" . . . the cultural resonance of the original story is harnessed to a vehemently self-justifying purpose, so that the supra-personal dimensions of knowledge--to which myth typically gives access--are slighted in favor of the intense personal need of the poet.

If Birthday Letters is not a great book of poems because self-justification diminishes it, the same caveat must be applied to Plath's poetry.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Tara Bergin on Steep Tea

Tara Bergin, a poet whom I admire greatly, mentions Steep Tea in her reading list for POETRY magazine's Editors' Blog: "Particularly striking about this book is the way that every poem has an epigraph; brief quotations chosen from a diverse set of sources. The impression is of a writer for whom reading represents a vital part of the creative process."

Monday, September 14, 2015

Singapore Symposium and Haiku

Yesterday's Singapore Symposium was an experiment and a gambit. To host speakers from the different fields of academia, the arts, and social work, with their different concerns and languages, was to take a risk. I think the bet paid off handsomely. Adeline Koh's work on digitally archiving "Chinese Englishmen" provides a necessary counterbalance to the current focus on the major Victorian authors, all white, mostly men. Listening to Jini Kim Watson, I was struck by how many countries in the world aspire to build modern cities like Singapore and so replicate its social control and public order. E. K. Tan spoke about the politics of using dialect in Singapore's Sinophone literature. I especially enjoyed his close look at xinyao (Singapore ballads) and Kuo Pao Kun's play "Mama Looking for Her Cat."

The artists came on next and spoke passionately about why they write plays, make ceramic works, and compose music. Damon Chua, Hong-Ling Wee, and Eli Tyler, you were so inspiring! So were Kavitha and Shahrin, who spoke about making dance with children with special needs.

In the evening, the writers took to the stage. I read from Steep Tea and then introduced the other authors. Amanda Lee Koe read a searing story about a woman who found herself loveless in old age. Jeremy Tiang's story about a young woman who decides to turn vegetarian rang true in its every wonderful turn of phrase. Yen Yen Woo and Colin Goh did a very Singaporean thing and gave us all a test - on their Dimsum Warriors comics and on Singlish. I failed the test but laughed very hard.

During the Q&A afterwards, someone from the audience asked about the impact of New York on our work. Colin's answer stuck with me: in New York, you don't have to be just one thing - lawyer, teacher or dentist - but you can be many things, an actor-waiter, a lawyer-writer or, in their case, teacher, lawyer, graphic novelist, illustrator, yoga studio owner, and parent.

Into the forest 
of video equipment
grey-green eyes

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Opening Party and Haiku

Last night was the opening party of Something to Write Home About, the Singapore arts festival in New York wholly organized by Singapore creatives and volunteers based in the city. The basement of La Mama Theater was transformed into an art gallery. There was plenty to drink. Peranakan food was served. The festival director Hong-Ling Wee was, naturally, flushed with excitement. I was again impressed by her ability to connect with people when she spoke to the room. It was lovely to see friends again and to meet new people, among which were an Indian classical dancer born in Ferguson, MO; a young Malaysian diplomat; and a Singaporean new-media artist based in Chicago.

Today, I'm speaking on the arts practitioners panel at the Symposium on Singapore Studies, and reading in the evening, with four other writers, at the Literary Arts event. I'm looking forward to stimulating conversations with the scholars, artists, writers and audience. It's my way of participating in the on-going project called Singapore.

Plop! Plop! Plop!
the first rain of the season—
bubble wrap

Wednesday, September 09, 2015


Shirt off
he drinks from the water fountain
sparrows make tiny splashes

Monday, September 07, 2015

Carol Rumens on "Steep Tea"

"In His Other House" is Carol Rumens' Poem of the Week in The Guardian. So happy about it. Thank you, Ms Rumens, for your insightful reading of "In His Other House" and your sympathetic response to Steep Tea.

Poem: "The Book of Nature"

The Book of Nature 

What if the wind is a hint
of the coming fall of leaves
so greenly gleaming, fully
numerical, I swear, they
read like everlastingness?
In print so fine it can’t be
seen, the wind annotates
the assertion of the green
or else it is to be, or not,
read between the lines.

Sunday, September 06, 2015



I run so fast I leave the past behind,
the carrom board under my parents’ bed,
the uniforms I grew out of, the kind
evenings after the moon swung overhead,

I leave behind the blistering army songs,
the young man’s sense of being in the right,
the young man’s rights and the young man’s wrongs,
the wind keeping aloft the fighting kite,

behind, the smell of rain before it rains,
behind, the thousand gaudy island cast,
behind, the globe-spanning spinning planes,
I run so fast I run into the past.

Saturday, September 05, 2015

Coleridge's "Biographia Literaria"

Edited by James Engell and W. Jackson Bate (Princeton University Press)

Our genuine admiration of a great poet is a continuous under-current of feeling; it is every where present, but seldom any where as a separate excitement. I was wont boldly to affirm, that it would scarcely be more difficult to push a stone out from the pyramids with the bare hand, than to alter a word, or the position of a word, in Milton or Shakspeare, (in their most important works at least), without making the author say something else, or something worse, than he does say. 
And therefore is it the prime merit of genius and its most unequivocal mode of manifestation, so to represent familiar objects as to awaken in the minds of others a kindred feeling concerning them and that freshness of sensation which is the constant accompaniment of mental, no less than of bodily, convalescence. 
I regard truth as a divine ventriloquist: I care not from whose mouth the sounds are supposed to process, if only the words are audible and intelligible." 
But the poison-tree is not dead, though the sap may for a season have subsided to its roots. At least let us keep watch and ward, even on our best feelings. I have seen gross intolerance shewn in support of toleration; sectarian antipathy most obtrusively displayed in the promotion of an undistinguishing comprehension of sects; and acts of cruelty (I had almost said) of treachery, committed in furtherance of an object vitally important to the cause of humanity; and all this by men too of naturally kind dispositions and exemplary conduct. 
Only in the self-consciousness of a spirit is there the required identity of object and of representation; for herein consists the essence of a spirit, that it is self-representative. If therefore this be the one only immediate truth, in the certainty of which the reality of our collective knowledge is grounded, it must follow that the spirit in all the objects which it views, views only itself. If this could be proved, the immediate reality of all intuitive knowledge would be assured. It has been shown, that a spirit is that, which is its own object, yet not originally an object, but an absolute subject for which all, itself included, may become an object. It must therefore be an ACT; for every object is, as an object, dead, fixed, incapable in itself of any action, and necessarily finite. Again, the spirit (originally the identity of object and subject) must in some sense dissolve this identity in order to be conscious of it: fit alter et idem. But this implies an act, and it follows therefore that intelligence or self-conscious is impossible, except by and in a will. The self-conscious spirit therefore is a will; and freedom must be assumed as a ground of philosophy, and can never be deduced from it. 
A poem is that species of composition, which is opposed to works of science, by proposing for its immediate object pleasure, not truth; and from all other species (having this object in common with it) it is discriminated by proposing to itself such delight from the whole, as is compatible with a distinct gratification from each component part.  
"The man that hath not music in his soul" can indeed never be a genuine poet. Imagery (even taken from nature, much more when transplanted from books, as travels, voyages, and works of natural history); affecting incidents; just thoughts; interesting personal or domestic feelings; and with these the art of their combination or intertexture in the form of a poem; may all by incessant effort be acquired as a trade, by a man of talents and much reading, who, as I once before observed, has mistaken an intense desire of poetic reputation for a natural poetic genius; the love of the arbitrary end for possession of the peculiar means. But the sense of musical delight, with the power of producing it, is a gift of imagination; and this together with the power of reducing multitude into unity of effect, and modifying a series of thoughts by some one predominant thought or feeling, may be cultivated and improved, but can never be learnt. It is in these that "Poeta nascitur non fit."

Friday, September 04, 2015


So many seeds
in the self-seeding spider flower
pushing through the fence

Thursday, September 03, 2015

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Progressive Poetics

"What must or might be said now about poetry?" I might have said something to the Progressive Poetics project, initiated and organized by H. L. Hix.

The Progressive Poetics project asks each contributor to respond, in light of something she or he has already said in print, to this question: 
“Poetry makes nothing happen.” (W. H. Auden, 1939) 
“To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” (Theodor Adorno, 1949) 
Though often cited as timeless, authoritative truths about poetry, those two pronouncements were made at particular historical moments, in particular cultural contexts, and from particular subject positions. But we (choose any “we” from those of us alive now) occupy various subject positions, live in various circumstances, and stand nearer the mid-twenty-first century than the mid-twentieth. It is not self-evident that we should (continue to) defer to Auden and Adorno, so: 
What must or might be said now about poetry?