Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Union

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

Haiku


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

Song

Song


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

Haiku


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?