Wednesday, March 30, 2016

San Francisco March 2016

San Francisco is a palimpsest of memories for me. Visiting the first time with my first boyfriend WL, I was so excited to stroll down the famous Castro, browse at City Lights, and then, less usually, have dim sum in Daly City with WL's friend D. My second visit was with TH, my second boyfriend, who loved walking about the city too. The sharpest memories of that trip was dancing at Badlands and the tour of Napa Valley in a mini-bus, returning to the city on a ferry. I flew out a third time, on a crazy impulse, to meet someone whom I got to know on-line. JES managed a cafe in Westfield Shopping Mall, and I read a book in the cafe until he knocked off from work. He drove us down the coast where I saw seals playing in the Pacific Ocean. The fourth visit was with GH. In the city we visited art galleries, hotel lobbies, and a great architectural bookshop, and out of the city we stayed in Napa Valley, a first for me.

I visited SF for the fifth time with a decided mix of emotions. I was there to read from my new book Steep Tea, and to meet friends of the SF poet Justin Chin, who died last December. Justin was born in Malaysia and grew up in Singapore. He left Singapore for the States after his "A" levels, and in San Francisco created an admired body of work, consisting of poetry, essays, stories, and performance art. On the day I arrived, I had a reading at Modern Times Book in the historic Mission District. The turnout was minuscule and yet brought together different threads of my life. Kevin Killian was a friend of Justin's and I was very glad to meet him. I had so many questions to ask him, but none appropriate for a public, and social, event, such as a reading is. I read four poems by Justin, and could feel his kinetic style altering my usually more measured delivery. Afterwards Kevin said that it was interesting for him to hear Justin's work in another voice. Present too were JB and BD, whom GH and I met in Spain last summer. ML was visiting SF from NYC too, and brought with her a group of Singaporeans, including her fiance T. ML and T joined us at a leather bar after dinner, and we were a little surprised that the good-looking couple was so comfortable there. ML let out that they loved going to gay clubs in London when she was there as an art student.

GH arrived after midnight, and the next day, a Friday, we walked along the Embarcadero, into North Beach, looking into City Lights on the way. We had evening drinks with JB and BD at their lovely home above the Castro, and found the time with them as easy and relaxing as before in Sitges. The next day, GH and I visited the very fine Asia Museum, and saw a a great collection of Buddhist and Hindu sculptures. A lion-faced Tibetan god, radically balanced on one leg, made me think of connections to Simha, Simba, and Singa. We did some shopping in the Hayes Valley. In the evening, I did my reading for Nomadic Press out in Oakland. The founding editor JK Fowler had moved with his husband from Brooklyn. He had the best hug in the world, an embrace as comfortable as a a familiar armchair. I was very pleased to hear the songs of Hassan El-Tayyab, who is half-Bedouin, and fronts a band called American Nomad. Hassan had a beautiful voice. Soma Mei Sheng Frazier, freshly published by Nomadic, read two stories from her book Salve. The second story, about a child born with an ugly appearance, was particularly moving. It wove together make-believe and harsh reality in a convincing manner. After the reading, I headed back to SF and joined GH and his Cincinnati friend DSC for a drink at The Edge in Castro.

On Easter Sunday, most shops were closed. We took a bus to Richmond and had a good dim sum at Hong Kong Lounge. The same bus took us to Land's End, where the Ocean dashed itself into spray. GH was particularly pleased to visit Cliff House, a former hotel, now turned into a tourist attraction with bistro and cafe, and stunning views. We returned in time to watch "The Realistic Joneses" by Will Eno at the American Conservatory Theater. Thanks to DSC, we had great seats in the orchestra. Eno has been hailed as "a Samuel Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation," which sounded to me like a backhanded compliment. The play was concerned about the slips and gaps in language, but they were naturalized to some extent by a physical malady that both husbands shared. The script was clever and moving in many places, but never quite touched rock bottom as Beckett does.

GH flew home the next day, and I made my way to the Mission District, to kill time before my evening reading at SF State University. At Alley Cat Books, I bought Marlon James's A Brief History of Seven Killings and was soon sucked into its Jamaican world of gang warfare and Cold War politics. Dodie Bellamy was my host at SFSU, and she is also Kevin's wife and a distinguished essayist. The reading series "Writers on Writing" is aimed at both undergrads and grads, so I faced a quite diverse audience. I read from Steep Tea, of course, and ended with a short story by Justin Chin called "Quietus." The Q&A afterwards was engaging. The students had read my book beforehand and came with questions about my writing in general but also about specific poems. One young woman, who looked Muslim, told me that after she read the opening poem "Eve's Fault" she had to put down the book for a while, so moved was she. I was very touched by the remark, and very humbled. I knew the feeling, having had it many times in a lifetime of reading. It is the Grail of all true readers.

Richard Loranger came for the reading. He had been such a friend on this trip. He put me in touch with JK Fowler in the first place. After the SFSU reading, he and I went for a sushi dinner, and then back to his place in Oakland. After a refreshing sleep, I was more communicative, and we had a wonderful morning talking about poetry, the Oakland literary scene, the idea of the individual, and how to take care of plants. He made me breakfast and sent me away with his chapbook 6 Questions, which ends with a gorgeous sonnet about watching a swan dive suddenly after a fish.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Poem: I Sought a Theme

I Sought a Theme 

I won’t, I won’t, be 46, I’d rather be 47.
46 is divisible into
2 x 13, who would wish the world
twice the evil.

No parade for you, says my lover,
no fat man playing the tuba, no skinny man playing the trombone,
no Splash boys dancing on a float
lowering their hips into your face
down Fifth Avenue
if you won’t be 46.

I’d rather be 47.
It has a nice ring to it.
4 sounds like death in Cantonese, and 7
rhymes with heaven.
Take away your trombone player, take away your tuba player.
Take away the dancing boys and the dancing hips.
I will go down Fifth Avenue by my self
as if it is a ladder.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Reading at Queens Central Library

The library was a long way away from Manhattan. It was near the 169th Street stop on the F line. That made it further than the train stop for JFK airport. Still, I was curious to see that part of Queens, and it was very nice of Micah Eaton Zevin to invite me to read. When I walked through the front doors, the library looked like any other library. Then I took an elevator down to the basement and entered a maze of hallways looking forbiddingly institutional. When I finally entered the lecture hall, there were only a few souls there. When the open mic began, there were about 12 people scattered in the very large hall. Two young African American girls had wandered into the reading. Perhaps one of them did not wander but made it look as if she did. She signed up for the open-mic. Her friend, dressed like a boy, did not know what to make of the gathering. She told Micah that she did not like reading. When it was Girl One's turn to read, she read a sweet little poem for her tomboy companion, describing their friendship as a "miracle." Her example emboldened Girl Two, who went up the stage, got behind the podium, and read a poem from her phone. She was a natural. Speaking of their bond, she said, and I paraphrase badly, that when you cut yourself on the wrist once, I feel the cut twice. After my reading, they wandered over to me, and Girl Two asked me, are you famous? I was nonplussed and could only get out, not yet. Then, maybe in some circles. They did not look impressed or non-impressed, but just silently digested the information. I told them how much I enjoyed hearing their poems. I was very pleased when an older white woman bought my book. I am always most pleased when a stranger buys my book after hearing me read. It's one of the sincerest gestures that I know of.

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Lambda Finalist

Steep Tea is a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award! The announcement was made yesterday. Very pleased and proud to be in the company of Carl Phillips and Nicholas Wong.

Friday, March 04, 2016

2nd Singapore Literature Festival in NYC, Sep 28 - 30, 2016

Dear Friends,

We are excited to announce the return of Singapore Literature Festival in New York City. The theme this year is Singapore Unbound. Started in 2014, the biennial festival brings together Singaporean and American authors for in-depth conversations about literature and society. The inaugural festival, attended by more than 500 people, was very warmly received. Attendees formed personal connections to the writers whom they heard. This year we aim to raise USD15 000 for the festival and we ask you to consider making a generous gift.

The 2nd Singapore Literature Festival in NYC will be held from September 28 – 30, 2016. Award-winning authors Alfian Sa’at and Ovidia Yu will fly from Singapore to New York to present their trailblazing fiction, poetry, and plays. They will be joined by Singaporean and American authors and artistes based in the US, including Jessica Hagedorn, Gina Apostol, Naomi Jackson, Jeremy Tiang, Marcus Yi, Mei-Ann Teo, and Jason Wee. Our partners Hunter College, New York University, Adelphi University, and Asia Society will be co-presenting readings and discussions. All events are free and open to the public.

Your donation is essential in making this festival a reality. We are an independent, volunteer-run festival and depend wholly on private contributions from donors passionate about literature. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation in the next 30 days. Your support means everything to us. Your donation will help pay for festival expenses, such as writers’ airfares, venue rentals, and publicity efforts. Beyond the festival, your donation will also help sustain the Second Saturdays Reading Series, a regular platform in NYC for the reading of Singapore and American literatures.

There are two easy ways to donate:

1. You can donate by credit card online at the link below:

2. If you prefer, you can also donate by check. Please send contributions to Jee Leong Koh, 47 W 86th Street, Apt. 2R, New York, NY 10024, USA. Checks should be made payable to “Fractured Atlas,” with “Singapore Literature Festival in NYC” in the memo line.

Singapore Literature Festival in NYC is a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a nonprofit arts service organization. Contributions for the charitable purposes of Singapore Literature Festival in NYC must be made payable to “Fractured Atlas”only and are taxdeductible to the extent permitted by law.

We also appreciate matching gifts, non-cash or in-kind donations. If you would like to get more involved, we are looking for volunteers to help run the festival events. You could also help by spreading the word about this fundraising appeal. Thank you in advance for your generous support.


Jee Leong Koh
Singapore Literature Festival in NYC

Giving Levels

$50 or more >> Backer
Your name on the festival website and in the festival program.

$100 or more >> Friend
A souvenir copy of the official festival program. Plus reward from previous tier.

$250 or more >> Supporter
A handwritten Singapore poem on a special postcard. Plus all rewards from previous tiers.

$500 or more >> Fan
A personally inscribed book by a festival author. Plus all rewards from previous tiers.

$1 000 or more >> Benefactor
A dedication to you in a new book by Jee Leong Koh, festival organizer and author of a Financial Times Best Book of 2015. Plus all rewards from previous tiers.

Donate by credit card online at the link below: