Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Censored Again?

A Singapore news website requested a copy of my book STEEP TEA, and an email interview with me. They have now decided not to run the article because "this may not be the best time to publish an article about your book (it's elections period here)." The other reason given is that the article will not attract the kind of people who read the website. The explanation smacks of both self-censorship and dumbing-down. The journalist involved is not at fault; he has been helpful and professional throughout. I also find it hard to blame the website for caving in to political pressures to self-censor. Since the interview will not be used, I regard my answers as my own intellectual property, and so will publish them here. You will have to imagine the questions yourself, and view their absence as a sign of the censorship that Singaporean writers and artists endure. If you read my answers, you will see how innocuous they are, and therefore how afraid we are.

About Steep Tea. 
1. Question 
Steep Tea is divided into two parts. The first part looks at my life in New York City, the second at my life in Singapore. You can say that the book is a Tale of Two Cities. I moved from Singapore to New York 12 years ago, and I have been looking for connections between them ever since. The connections have to do with love, sex, family, job, travel, in other words, the stuff of daily life. The art is to try to stamp this stuff into a memorable form, which is what poetry is to me. 
2. Question 
I’m not proud of it, but I’ve always been ashamed of my mother. For the whys, read this blog-post (http://carcanetblog.blogspot.com.es/…/mothers-not-muses-by-…). Because of this shame, I’ve always been looking for surrogate mothers. Poets make good surrogates. So, in Steep Tea, I quote 34 women from 14 countries, ranging from the sixteenth century to the present day. The poems are my replies—in the form of agreement, qualification, rebuttal, change of topic—to them. Two Singaporean poets are quoted: Lee Tzu Pheng and Leong Liew Geok, for their work calls out for a response. 
3. Question 
Sheer pleasure. I like what the former US Poet Laureate Donald Hall said: ““The pleasure of writing is that the mind does not wander, any more than it does in orgasm, —and writing takes longer than orgasm.” I have poetic orgasms most mornings and they last for about two hours. This does not mean that my poems are about happy things. They are about angst, frustration, rage, guilt, fear, but the experience of writing transforms them into pleasure. The American poet Charles Simic describes this process very well: “Imagination equals Eros. I want to experience what it's like to be inside someone else in the moment when that someone is being touched by me.”

About yourself 
1. Question 
When I was in Secondary One, I wrote a poem about rain, which was read over national radio. The check that arrived in the mail confirmed my vocation as a poet. 
2. Question 
I was too afraid to come out as gay in Singapore, so I had to move to New York to be who I am. I was also too busy working in Singapore to write, so I had to move to New York to find out if I was any good as a poet. I came out as a gay man and a writer at the same time, so to speak. 
3. Question 
I have cravings for noodles. There is this wonderful ramen place on the Upper West Side, where I live. I go there often for lunch, to get my fill of spicy tonkotsu, kimchi and miso ramen. I love going to Malaysian restaurants when I travel. In London to launch Steep Tea, I broke fast with Malay and Indian Muslims in a restaurant called The Flavors of Malaysia. The restaurant was owned by a Malay family from KL. I thought that was unusual. The Malaysian restaurants in NYC are Chinese-owned. To paraphrase Cleopatra, I have laksa longings in me. 
4. Question 
I was one of the featured readers at ContraDiction, a gay pride event. The censors banned me from reading aloud the poem on the excuse that it promoted “the homosexual lifestyle.” Ng Yi-Sheng, one of the organizers, had the brainwave of passing out to the audience handouts of the poem, so that everyone could read it for him or herself. To the ban, and other bans such as the one by National Library of the three children’s books that depict non-traditional families, and the ban of Tan Pin Pin’s film “To Singapore, with Love,” I say: Grow up, Singapore! If you don’t agree with something, write your own book or make your own film. Don’t stop the conversation. 
5. Question 
There is no doubt in my mind that Cyril Wong is the best living poet writing in Singapore right now. His poems are deeply felt and imaginatively wrought. He is very versatile. There is nothing in Singapore poetry like his long Zen poem Satori Blues or his satirical fantasia The Dictator’s Eyebrow. A more recent favorite is Yeow Kai Chai, whose writing keeps pushing forward the boundaries of lyric poetry. Alfian Sa’at would have given both a run for their money, had he not gone over to the stage.

The bizarre 
1. Question 
Noodles! See above. 
2. Question 
I admire Edwin Thumboo’s early work. His poem “Gods Can Die,” for instance, is a powerful statement about the alienating effects of power. Then he became one of the gods and lost his lyre. Have you read his poem from the recent LKY anthology, A Luxury We Cannot Afford (Math Paper Press)? It’s terrible: servile and smug, deaf to its own diction. A huge disappointment from someone who reshaped his poetic career to be the national poet. 
3. Question 
Broccoli. Don’t you think it’s such a weird-looking veg? I was going to do a stir-fry one night in the apartment that my boyfriend and I just moved into. As I was cutting up the vegetables, I had the strong sensation that I was becoming my mother. The sensation was so hateful that I almost walked out of the apartment. I did not. Instead, I wrote a poem called “Broccoli” and put it in my new book.


New development:

All right, the journalist has just written back to say that by his statement "this may not be the best time to publish an article about your book (it's elections period here)," he meant that the news website readership is more interested in the elections now than anything else; he did not mean that the website is censoring itself. He also says that his editors consulted him on publishing the article and he decided to withdraw the article as he deemed it not interesting enough in the election season to their readership. Now I'm not sure what to think. What he says is plausible enough, maybe even probably true. If so, I leapt to the wrong conclusion, and am suitably embarrassed. In my own mitigation, I'd say, however, that past and recent past acts of government censorship gave me cause to jump.

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