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