Tuesday, June 30, 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 feeling persists, why the disconnect between my work and this country? Is the disconnect a matter of aesthetics, history, politics, or sheer lucklessness? I have found a home here but my work is still homeless. There is this homeless guy in Central Park, near where I live, who keeps a golf club close to him and, every now and then, hits around an invisible ball in the long grasses.

So I'm flying tonight to the country to which I could have migrated but did not. For personal and historical reasons, the UK is the natural home for my work. The British understand where I come from, without too much explanation; they understand too my resistances and ambivalences as a postcolonial subject. In contrast, the Americans, by and large, don't even understand that they are an empire. I owe a great debt of gratitude to Michael Schmidt who saw it fit to publish my work in PN Review, New Poetries V and, now, a book. This faith, so incredibly important to a writer, makes me wonder if I should have migrated to the UK instead all those 12 years ago. Would I have gotten further there, not just career-wise but, more importantly, in the growth of my writing? Or would an earlier endorsement have stunted my writing, have brought any development to a halt? The game of counterfactuals.

The one thing certain is that I'd have been a different writer. My work is now such a compound of Singaporean, British and American elements that it is hard to distill one thing from another. Or to conceive of it in another way, it is unassimilable to any one tradition. That has a heroic ring to it, that makes me want to laugh. All to the good. A good laugh chases away any pre-flight blues.

Monday, June 29, 2015

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 describe my own alternative world, in which Singapore bookstores shelve not only books on the stock market, self-improvement and the supernatural, but also works of poetry; my father reads to me, my dead grandfather approves of my father; and my beloved does the dishes.

From Poetry International: "Ní Chuilleanáin was born in Cork in 1942, educated there and at Oxford before spending all her working life up to the present as an academic in Trinity College Dublin. Ní Chuilleanáin’s first book Acts and Monuments was published in 1972 and her work has been much admired ever since, resulting in her being described variously as one of Ireland’s best poets and Ireland’s best woman poet.

... Ní Chuilleanáin comes from a family of writers and musicians. Her father, a famous academic and combatant in the Irish War of Independence, her mother, a classic children’s author. She said she became a poet because her mother wrote prose and because she thought poetry was more difficult."

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Saturday, June 27, 2015

STEEP TEA: Li Qingzhao



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 friends. Living so close to political power, Li's life underwent ups and downs in accordance with the factional strife at court.

When she was eighteen, she married Zhao Mingcheng. They shared a happy married life that revolved around the study of the classics and the appreciation of poetry and fine art. When Zhao died of an illness, probably typhoid, on his way to a new official post, Li was heartbroken. Her t'zu poem "On Plum Blossoms," written to the tune "A Little Wild Goose," expresses her deeply felt grief. All is stale, cold and empty. "I have no words for my weary sorrow."

I hope some of the previous happiness and present grief comes through in my poem "Black Dragon Pool," written for a dear colleague who lost her daughter to a skiing accident. The title and the trope came from my first visit to China, when I first heard the awful news. The poem was one of the hardest ones that I have ever written. It was difficult to strike a balance between sympathy and presumption. Li's words - "I have no words for my weary sorrow" - were not only expressive of my colleague's state of mourning, but also indicative of the poverty of my poem.

Haiku


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

Friday, June 26, 2015

STEEP TEA: Leong Liew Geok



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

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Haiku


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

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

STEEP TEA: Lee Tzu Pheng



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 patriotic poets. My poem "Recognition" spins changes and questions on two less well-known lines from Lee's poem: "a duck that would not lay / and a runt of a papaya tree." The figures of duck and papaya tree speak powerfully of the spiritual sterility and handicap behind Singapore's economic growth. To pay tribute to her patriotic ambivalence, my poem is written as a series of questions. Another well-known poem by Lee is "Singapore River" in which she laments the neglect of human ties and feelings in the cleaning up of the river. As she wryly observes, " the heart / can sometimes be troublesome" in the dispassionate rush to modernize. My poem "Bougainvillea" responds to hers by depicting, and questioning, the modern society that we have "achieved."

The last two poems have to do with the heart. In a more recent poem "Tough, Love," Lee speaks of the difficulty of loving "no matter how many turns / you make." The trope of turns reminded me of a childhood game "Reversi, Also Called Othello," played with pieces that are white on one side and black on the other. The short lyric plays with the idea of flipping things around, all kinds of things, including coffee mugs and photo negatives. My last quotation comes from a very early poem by Lee, from the title poem of her first book "Prospect of a Drowning." Written while she was still an undergraduate, although published only 8 years later, this first book is full of untamed passion. Her speaker wanders, lost and afraid, along the seashore, looking for "some curio of the change." It is a beautiful phrase, which I used for my poem "Hong Kong," when I turned to writing about a change, a good one, in my relationship with my lover. Hong Kong was full of curiosities for us, and we brought home a token of its effect on us. Lee Tzu Pheng has been much lauded for her poetry. Her first three volumes all won National Book Development Council of Singapore Awards. She was awarded the Cultural Medallion, the country's highest honor for an artist. In 1995 she was one of six writers from the Asia-Pacific region and one of fifty writers worldwide to be conferred the Gabriela Mistral Award by the government of Chile.

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 becoming absolutely still. A woman paid me a huge compliment afterwards, something about weighing every word and embodying my poetry.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

STEEP TEA: Aemilia Lanyer




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 Eve as a universal type so much as a "historical" mother, from whom we inherit our inclination to love too much.

Clarke reads the poem as primarily an act of Renaissance self-fashioning. To claim virtue and authorship, Lanyer had to proclaim virtue and authorship through her long poem, which includes ten dedicatory encomia, all addressed to noblewoman, beginning wth the queen. The personal impulses behind such strenuous effort may be guessed at from the few known facts about her life. Clarke: "... she was raised in the household of the Countess of Kent. She had an affair with Lord Hunsdon, the Lord Chamberlain, bore his child and was married off to a musician, Alphonso Lanyer. She clearly spent time with the aristocratic northern Clifford family (mother and daughter) at Cookham ..., but the circumstances surrounding this are unclear." Illicit love, social disgrace, unhappy marriage, desire for vindication, these are powerful forces propelling the wish to speak.

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

Monday, June 22, 2015

STEEP TEA: Kimura Noboku



"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" evokes perfectly the dream-like domestic life that I was beginning then to share with my lover, the fierce desire to tear out of the solidifying substance of reality. I wrote "Broccoli" in protest against my life.

Lake Carmel and Two Movies


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 to rest the eyes on so much greenery and water. We had not known that part of the state to be so saturated with lakes. I'm glad to re-connect with C and B after so many years, when they put up this hapless conference volunteer at their home in Forest Hills.






*

Last Sunday, we watched the movie Stealth (2006), written, directed and acted by Lionel Baier. He plays a Swiss man who discovers his Polish roots and becomes obsessed with being Polish. Behind the unlikely premise lies a critique of the ennui resulting from the mainstreaming of gay life and the determined neutrality of Switzerland. History, or family history, is not dead yet, and the proof can be found in Poland. Lionel the protagonist drives there with his more down-to-earth sister (Natacha Koutchoumov), who is pregnant. They find the Polish branch of the family, but more than that, they finf the adventure of living history.

Last night, the movie Beloved/Friend (1999) was also an interesting feature. Directed by the Catalan director, Ventura Pons, the movie centers on a dying gay professor who falls in love with a bi-sexual student. More than sex, Jaume the professor (Josep Maria Pou) wants David (David Selvas) to be his spiritual heir. The parallel plot involves Alba (Irene Montalà), whom David has gotten pregnant, and her mother, Fanny (Rosa Maria Sardà), who talk over whether Alba should get an abortion. In a thematic connection, the mother projects onto her daughter her own desire for her youth and her fear of dying, by encouraging Alba to abort. The last member of the fine cast is Mario Gas playing Pere, husband of Fanny, and the youthful love of Jaume. The complications play out in the course of a day. Time runs out on Jaume, as it does for all the characters in some sense.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

STEEP TEA: Mimi Khalvati



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 "Villanelle," the line evokes the child's helpless loneliness acutely. In my poem, Mother is part of the cause of the death. Father is not around to fix it. The Shopgirl adds horror to the trauma. I have never forgotten this incident, and I hope the repetends fix the poem in the reader's mind too.

Mimi Khalvati is an Iranian-born British poet. She was born in Tehran and moved to the Isle of Wight for boarding school at the age of six. A feted poet, she has published many collections with Carcanet Press. Her skill with poetic forms appeals to me strongly. Her sense of not belonging can be deduced from the name "Theatre in Exile," a theater group that she co-founded and directed and wrote for. I found her "Villanelle" in the Everyman's Library edition of the poetic form, edited by Annie Finch and Marie-Elizabeth Mali. Given the closeness of our last names--Khalvati and Koh--our poems were only separated by one other poem. Close but not together. Similar but not the same.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Back Cover of STEEP TEA

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.





Friday, June 12, 2015

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.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

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.

Friday, June 05, 2015

STEEP TEA: Yasmeen Hameed

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 elegiac.

The self-questioning in the poems is also immensely attractive. "I Am Still Awake" begins with lines that speak in the tone of near-disbelief:

I am still awake
like my eyes
and speak
in my own voice
my own dialect

Then the speaker explains why the self-alienation: "I have only now become acquainted with the meaning of migration." And it hit me that my airplane poem is about the difference between travel and migration. As Yasmeen puts it so eloquently, "When, sometimes, snow knocks a hole in the wall of night / I fill the hole with my body." Migration opens up a hole in one's life that migrants try to fill with all kinds of things, including a poem such as my "Airplane Poems." The attempt is futile, of course, but the gap is productive.

Yasmeen Hamid has published five books of poems in Urdu, and received several prizes for her work, including the Allama Iqbal Award, the Fatima Jinnah Medal and the Tamgha-i-Imtiaz (Medal of Excellence). She is also a translator and anthologist. Her PAKISTANI URDU VERSE was published in 2010 and DAYBREAK: WRITINGS ON FAIZ in 2013, both by OUP. She teaches Urdu Literature at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.




Wednesday, June 03, 2015

STEEP TEA: Sarah Josepha Hale



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 about women's education prepared the nation for the establishment of a women's college.

Her passion for women's education lends a vital context to my poem "Paragraph" written about teaching in an all-girls, K-12 school in Manhattan. The poem describes one of my favorite lessons at the start of the sixth-grade Language course, which is, despite its name, not about French, Spanish or Chinese, but grammar. In that lesson, I ask the students to write a paragraph describing their favorite word. This assignment is not only pleasurable but also revealing, of their temperament, interests and language ability. To help them get started, I would reel off a paragraph about my favorite word off the top of my head. The students are usually lovely enough to be impressed. "Paragraph" is not, however, about what a teacher can do; rather, it is about what a teacher cannot do. One is the flip side of the other.

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 unnecessarily convoluted in places.


*


for your buttonhole
a summer flower called
good-for-nothing

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

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

Monday, June 01, 2015