Posts

Showing posts from June, 2015

Diary

Flying to the UK tonight to launch my new Carcanet book of poems. Bittersweet feeling, actually. 12 years ago, when I was deciding between moving to the UK or the US, I plumped for the latter because it was terra incognito to me. It felt right to start a new life in a country completely new to me. The US has since given me so much. The encouragement and opportunity to come out as a gay man. Superb poetry teachers and exemplars. Friends and lovers. New York City.

But the US has not embraced my poetry. I'm grateful to Roxanne Hoffman for publishing my first chapbook and to various fine independent journals for publishing my poems. My work had not, however, found favor with any of the big poetry journals and publishers. After years of contest submissions and payments, I decided to self-publish my books and found a great deal of satisfaction in the process and result. I'm ever so pleased, and surprised, when individuals tell me how much they like my work. Still, the niggling feeli…

STEEP TEA: Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin

The poetry of Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin (1942 - ) is populated by religious and folkloric motifs and so it reads like a world outside, beyond, beside, the ordinary world. This alternative world could be seen as a critique of the common world, but it is also vital in its own right. Her poem "St Mary Magdalene Preaching in Marseilles" inspired me to depict a Hell's Kitchen panhandler as St. Thomas the Skeptic. Her ekphrastic poem "Fireman's Lift," with its Virgin Mary spiraling upwards, reminded me of the beautiful old-fashioned lift in Singapore's St. Andrew's Children's Hospital, where my mother used to wash laundry.

I am most pleased, however, with my poem "In His Other House," which borrows inspiration and title from her poem "In Her Other House." Taking for the epigraph these wonderful lines: "In this house there is no need to wait for the verdict of history And each page is open to the version of every other" I d…

Haiku

The fighter falls
to the floor of the cage—
appalling!

STEEP TEA: Li Qingzhao

Image
I read the poems of Li Qingzhao in the translation by Kenneth Rexroth and Ling Chung. Li (1084 - c.1151) is "universally considered to be China's greatest woman poet," according to Lin Chung. "Her life was colorful and versatile: other than a great poet, she was a scholar of history and classics, a literary critic, an art collector, a specialist in bronze and stone inscriptions, a painter, a calligrapher and a political commentator." She is reputed to be "the greatest writer of t'zu poetry, a lyric verse form written to the popular tunes of the Sung Dynasty (960 - 1279)."

Li was born into a well-known family of scholars and officials. Notably, her father was a member of Su Dongpo's literary circle. She was a precocious talent. When she was seventeen, she wrote two poems in competition with a poem by her father's friend. This female boldness was not acceptable to the society at large, but was encouraged by her father's unconventional f…

Haiku

Open along the edge
for the movie about a gay marriage
this is also your return envelope

STEEP TEA: Leong Liew Geok

Image
Another Singapore poet quoted in Steep Tea is Leong Liew Geok. My poem "Singapore Catechism" rings changes on an evocative phrase in her poem "Exiles Return." From her "laterite roots," I go from literal to lateral to littoral to literate to lottery to latterly to litany and back to laterite, in trying to answer the Singlish question "You go where?"

Born in Penang, Malaysia, Leong moved to Singapore in 1981. Thereafter, she published two important collections of poems, Love Is Not Enough (1991) and Women without Men (2000). The gardening poems in her second book represent a signal achievement in Singapore poetry. Alternating between lyrics and dramatic monologues, they are a sustained engagement with the cultivation of both self and environment.

Singapore Poetry is reprinting the informal sequence of poems as the first of its "Special Focus" series. An avid gardener, Leong shot photographs of her garden for the series.

Haiku

A butterfly and I pass each other
my pearl anklet
its morning brush with death

Haiku

The estate cat
is stalking the ducklings—
a gymnast flexes his six pack

STEEP TEA: Lee Tzu Pheng

Image
Five poems in STEEP TEA take for their epigraph a quotation of Anne Lee Tzu Pheng, who is widely considered to be the foremost woman poet of Singapore. Her "Neanderthal Bone Flute: A Discovery" meditates on the invention of art, in the form of the bone flute. "To see for the first time a thing other / than the mire of food," she wonders, and simultaneously criticizes Singapore's immigrant obsession with material wealth. My poem "Useless" imagines the first bone flautist to be a woman who discovers belatedly how long her ex-lover was sleeping with her replacement before breaking up with her.

Lee is best known for her 1976 poem "My Country and My People," which was banned from the national airwaves for reasons that are unclear, but may have something to do with the poem's ambivalence towards Singapore's nation-building project. For me, such ambivalence is a vital attitude that is sorely missing from other more straightforwardly patrio…

Haiku and Reading

Daylilies by the lake
a bouquet of sunsets
but not a lullaby


*

Last night I read at a PrideWriters event, organized by Kevin Scott Hall, to benefit New Alternatives, a non-profit working for LGBT homeless youth. The upper bar at the Duplex was filled, though not to capacity, partly because of the heavy downpour just before the reading. GH, WL and JH came. Kevin read from his memoir about taking in a homeless black man from New Orleans. Ricardo Hernandez read several poems, the best of which was a beautiful one about Rene Magritte and his mother. Kate Walter read from her memoir about going back to the dating pool after a long-term relationship broke up. James Gavin read from his biography of singer Peggy Lee, a well-crafted extract about the encounters between Lee and Madonna. Sissy Van Dyke was hilarious as she translated her comedic flair into print and read from The Adventures of Sissy Van Dyke. I read three poems from Equal to the Earth. During the reading I could feel the house …

STEEP TEA: Aemilia Lanyer

Image
As far as we know, Aemilia Lanyer wrote only one book, but a big and ambitious one. Published at the age of 42, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (1611) is a Christian defense of women's virtue against interpreters such as St. Augustine. It is made up of several parts but the most interesting for me is an apology for Eve. The defense, imaginative, ranging, and vigorous, may be summed thus: Eve's fault was only too much love. This idea I took as the premise of my opening poem "Eve's Fault," in which Eve has not one but three lovers, God, the snake and Adam.

Lanyer's editor Danielle Clarke is certainly right to point out in her introduction that Lanyer's "feminism" must be carefully understood within the contexts and terms of her time. For instance, a revision of biblical tradition regarding Eve's culpability was not necessarily subversive. Lanyer was in fact very traditional in seeing the representative woman in Eve. My poem does not seek to depict…

Mothers and Haiku

The Carcanet blog has published my essay "Mothers, Not Muses" on my new book Steep Tea.

Poets make the best mothers. I can pick up their books and be inspired and instructed. When I tire of them I can put them down.

*


In duty red trunks
the lifeguard on his high chair
zaps away the scuds

STEEP TEA: Kimura Noboku

Image
"Born and brought up in a farming village in Ibaraki, Kimura [Nobuko b. 1936] attracted attention with poems that mix folkloric and dream elements. "A poem is born, not so much because I make one," she once said. "It's just that something spurts out of me and hurriedly presses me into writing it down." She started publishing her poems in her twenties and came up with her first book in 1971. Five books followed. Since the 1980s she had also published books of poems for children. A housewife since her marriage, she has remained independent of any poetry group."

--Hiroaki Sato in a preface to his selection of Kimura's poems in "Japanese Women Poets: An Anthology."

Hiroaki Sato stated somewhere else that while translating Kimura's poems for this anthology, he was so taken by her work that he translated and published a separate book of her poetry called "The Village Beyond."

Kimura's short poem "Mundaneness" evoke…

Lake Carmel and Two Movies

Image
GH and I spent a lovely weekend with C and B at their lovely new home at Lake Carmel. C drove us to the Chuang Yen Monastery, a huge Buddhist temple complex, with a great Buddha hall and a Kuan Yin hall, and 225 acres of land. On our return to their house, we met their friends who drove from Queens for dinner. B went with GH and me on a walk around the lake. Dinner was fun, although we had to move the barbecue indoors when it started to drizzle. J had been working as a tailor since eight. His current job was for a TV series on hip hop from South Bronx. A was a currency trader whose bf G was white and worked as a loans officer for a bank.

On Sunday, B cooked a breakfast of eggs, sausages and peppers. We went for another walk around the lake, this time in the other direction. Many lovely lookouts. The day turned warm enough for a swim at the small artificial lake in front of their house. It was my first time swimming in a lake. G and I enjoyed the time away from the city. It was lovely…

STEEP TEA: Mimi Khalvati

Image
A villanelle is a tricky form to pull off. The challenge is to make the two repetends look inevitable and earned. I I wrote "Novenary with Hens" as part of the Poetry Free-for-all Apprentice Contest. The participants were given a choice of two odd titles. I had to look up the meaning of the word "novenary." Hens reminded me of the time when I was a kid and stepped on one of my chicks. It died on me and I have never had a pet since. While I was writing about this experience, two lines repeated themselves in my head: "I couldn't count to ten till I turned eleven" and "One, two, buckle my shoe, nine and a big fat hen." Surrealistic, rhyming dissonantly, they became the repetends of my poem, an elegy for the deaths of a pet and childhood innocence.

Mimi Khalvati's line "No one is there for you. Don't call, don't cry" is the perfect epigraph for the poem. Repetitively in Khalvati's own villanelle, titled simply "Vi…

Back Cover of STEEP TEA

Image
I've just seen the back cover of Steep Tea. It looks mighty fine to me.  Huge thanks to Gregory Woods and David Kinloch for their recommendations.





Pauline

Lambda Literary has just published my essay on Pauline Park, my friend who identifies as a Korean adoptee and a transgender woman. Thanks, William Johnson, for accepting the essay.

Pre-order STEEP TEA

"Here are short, deft narratives that map the mismatched patterns of male and female desire grounded in partial understandings of love. The author’s native Singapore sounds out sharply, often ironically, in counterpoint to the intimate domestic interiors that help to constitute what will surely be recognised as some of contemporary poetry’s classic love poems." – David Kinloch

My new Carcanet book Steep Tea is now available to pre-order at the special price of £8.00 with free UK postage and packaging. Discount code KOH03 (case sensitive) at checkout.

STEEP TEA: Yasmeen Hameed

Image
Every Singapore poet has an airplane poem, my friend and writer, Ruihe Zhang once said to me. It's an observation that stuck in the mind. Yes, Singaporeans love to travel out of their tiny island-state, and the quickest way to go abroad and back is to take the airplane. I wanted to write an airplane poem too, but for a long time did not know what it would be about.

Then I discovered the poems of Urdu poet Yasmeen Hameed in MODERN POETRY OF PAKISTAN, an anthology edited by Iftikhar Arif and Waqas Khwaja. Yasmeen's voice, quiet as the night, was utterly compelling. I felt strongly that the voice, like Cavafy's, was not lost through translation into English. The poems in the anthology are concerned with the appearance and disappearance of things, often evoked through the tropes of sleeping and waking. The powerful poem "Who Will Write the Epitaph?" imagines the loss of all "the earth-born." The tone is not melodramatically apocalyptic but poignantly elegia…

STEEP TEA: Sarah Josepha Hale

Image
Do you know who wrote "Mary Had a Little Lamb"? She's Sarah Josepha Hale, a remarkable New England woman who lived from 1788 to 1879. The nursery rhyme, originally titled "Mary's Lamb," appeared in her book Poems for Our Children. Before that book, she had published a collection of adult verse, titled confidently The Genius of Oblivion. She was one of the earliest American women novelists, publishing her anti-slavery, pro-union novel called Northwood: Life North and South in 1827. By the end of her life, she had written nearly 50 books, while bringing up five children and editing a national women's journal. As the editor of, first, the Ladies' Magazine, and, then, Godey's Ladies' Book, she was an influential arbiter of the nation's taste and a powerful advocate for change. Though she did not support the vote for women, she believed fervently in equal education for them. She helped found Vassar College. Her 17 articles and editorials abo…

Young Eliot and Haiku

Robert Crawford's Young Eliot makes very good use of recently released materials, including letters by Eliot and by others to him, to show the vital importance of his growing-up years in St. Louis and Cape Ann to his poetry, not just his Unitarian and privileged upbringing, but also his social shyness and sexual self-doubt. Crawford is probably right that Eliot wrote his best poetry when he was in crisis, whether sexual or health-wise. The rest of the time he was too busy being the responsible machine to his wife, family, bank job and literary journalism. This part of his life is almost unbearable to read, the steeling of the self against tremendous pressures. He and Vivienne should never have gotten married, but if they did not, he would have gone back from Oxford to America and become a philosophy professor, not a poet. She believed in his poetic genius, and that must count for a very great deal. I learned a great deal from this conscientious biography. The style is unnecessaril…

Haiku

Exchanged Facebook messages with John Clegg, with whom I will read at the London Review Bookshop on July 7. When he mentioned my "Translations of an Unknown Mexican Poet" and his PhD in pseudo-translations, he gave me the idea of treating my haiku as pseudo-translations of an insignificant Japanese poet.


*


the rain knows
only one way to behave
not the pin oak

Haiku

the rain hitches
the end of may to june
by dropping stitches