Posts

Showing posts from 2017

Gay But Not Yet Equal 2

Gave out 27 tops altogether, yesterday at Artistry Cafe and today at Intermission Bar - at The Projector. Take a gander at these brave souls who wore their gay pride proudly. Thanks, everyone, for coming and taking a risk. Let’s stand up for gay equality! You make a difference.

Bare Life

Submitted three of my Harlem poems to The Bare Life Review, a journal devoted to publishing immigrant and refugee writers.

The Soloist

Yesterday, went for two readings. A reading by four poets at AAWW. Monica Sok's poetry stood out for its formal intelligence. She was also very articulate about her work. Then over to the the Bureau of General Services-Queer Division, at the LGBT Community Center, to hear the contributors to the anthology Our Happy Hour: LGBT Voices from the Gay Bar. Ann Aptaker, who organized and emceed the reader, read with great energy and panache.

Tonight, watched the movie The Soloist (2009) about an LA Times columnist who befriended a homeless man who was trained in cello at Julliard. Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr. turned in good performances. Directed by Joe Wright.

Jewish Mysticism

Last Monday, had dinner with Kevin Maxwell at Grand Szechuan, Chelsea. He had been with his friend Fahdi, who was dying of cancer. On Thursday, Kevin posted on FB that Fahdi had died. I met Fahdi only once, at a birthday dinner for Kevin. He was a psychologist or psychiatrist. He was into big biceps.

Tuesday, attended the second session of the Gershom Scholem course at the Center of Jewish History, taught by Izhak Lewis. The readings and discussion turned on Scholem's study of Jewish mysticism. Is there such a thing as mysticism across time and space, or is it constituted as an object by academic study?

Wednesday, had coffee with Matt from Shelf Awareness. Then dinner with Kim and Judy Luo, who was applying to be editorial intern with Gaudy Boy. Flora Chan joined us and showed us her cover designs for Malay Sketches.

Thursday, GH and I watched Annie Hall. Friday, we watched Beach Rats (2017), which suffered from bad writing but had a rather good Harris Dickinson as a druggie Brook…

Endeavor

Worked on Snow at 5 PM from 5 am to 12:30 pm, with a break to get the paper and groceries and another break for brunch. Focused on pumping up the language and adding specific details.

Went for Bikram Yoga at Yogacare. Missed only 1 of the poses.

Watched the last episode of Endeavor Season Four, called "Harvest." Shaun Evans as the young constable Endeavor Morse and Roger Allam as his older colleague, Detective Inspector Fred Thursday.

East West Street

Revised the Preface and the Afterword to Snow at 5 PM.

Finished reading East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity by Philippe Sands, recommended by Henry Abelove. Very well researched, it reads like a detective novel. 

Watched Fire Song (2015), written and directed by Adam Garnet Jones, about a gay Anishinaabe teenager living in North Ontario and trying hard to get out of his small town. Andrew Martin, who plays the protagonist Shane, is a natural actor.

Last Vegas

I'm going to record my daily activities more faithfully on this blog. It is the main on-line repository of my memories.

I've been working on Snow at 5 PM this Thanksgiving break. Yesterday GH and I had brunch with Dan Liu at Maison Harlem. He shared about the way he catalogues his images. One useful tip was to keep hi-res assets on Dropbox, which can be accessed from any device. For Thanksgiving dinner, GH and I went to Barawine. I had good mussels and a passable Sancere. Then we came home and watched Last Vegas, a 2013 comedy starring Robert De Niro, Michael Douglas, Morgan Freeman and Kevin Kline, and directed by Jon Turteltaub. Good script and acting. The plot is so-so. The movie confirmed our prejudice against Las Vegas.

Philip Roth: the early novels

A colleague said condescendingly that Roth's humor is adolescent. Sure it it, but which of us have grown out of our adolescence so completely that we do not recognize its old growth in our selves? "Portnoy's Complaint" is superb in in its inventive humor. The anti-Nixon satire of "Our Gang" I find rather tiresome. The Kafkaesque "The Breast" is unexpectedly moving. I read the three novels in the Library of America edition.

Vladimir Nabokov's "Ada, or Ardor"

Philip Roth said in an interview that a novel must be read within a fortnight or else the experience would be much dissipated. I think Nabokov's Ada cannot be read so quickly. Each chapter, quite short but so dense with imagery, wordplay, and recondite allusions, must be read slowly, and then savored in the mind's mouth by turning off the spigot of liquid riches, by closing this most unusual family chronicle of incestuous love.

National Coming Out Day

Image
I came out as a gay man 13 years ago. I trace the moment back to my first attending a meeting of GAPIMNY, the Gay Asian Pacific-Islander Men of New York. Since then I've been coming out, again and again, to family, friends, and strangers. Yes, there is such a thing as coming out to oneself, an internal understanding and acceptance of one's own sexual identity, but coming out of the closet is essentially a public act, of saying to others "Hi, I'm here and I'm queer."

Some in the LGBT community have argued that talk of coming-out reinforces the heterosexual norm and marginalizes ourselves. Straight people do not have to come out as straight. This argument has no force in Singapore, where heterosexuality is overpoweringly taken for grant, and so the act of coming out constitutes a challenge to that norm. Our bodies must be seen. Our demands must be heard. Our persons must be respected and treated equally as those of straight people.

It is true that gay liberati…

Kei Miller's "The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion"

An expertly crafted book of poetry, full of heartfelt knowledge of a place that the author has left to reside elsewhere. The cartographer and the rastaman represent two different ways of knowledge, one rational and calculating, representing an imperialistic perspective, the other mystical and musical, representing a local resistance. If--even in the evidently sincere clash of views, perhaps expressing the conflict in the author--some of the poems feel overly explanatory (the Place Names poems, for instance, even though the explanations may be more invented than real), conceding too much to the ignorant curiosity of Western minds, the collection is still suffused with a strong sense of self-discovery and self-making, which asserts the autonomy of the post-colonial subject. My favorite poem, which does not explain too much, is the extremely moving "My Mother's Atlas of Dolls." Here, the author is not trying to justify himself, but attempting to do justice to one who has ne…

Diary

Image
Had a really special afternoon with the daughters of my late junior-college English teacher Keith Wiltshire. It was lovely to meet Grace and Christine finally, and Grace's husband Pete. After torte, tea, and wine at Cafe Sabarsky, we walked over to Shepherd Gallery, where Christine's husband, Lin, an artist, works. We were given a little tour of the current show by the owners. Then more drinks--gin and tonic--and conversation. We miss you, Keith.

Shoot for Equality

Image
""Shoot me, I asked the young bartender at Dorothy’s...," and Yoshi Matsuzaki did, on the rooftop of Singapore's People's Park Complex. Thanks, Yoshi, for the photography; Jaire Remy W for the art direction; Mark Yeo for the tee-shirt design; and Carolyn Oei and Marc Nair, for publishing the haiga at Mackerel.

14 Singaporeans React to That Gay Tank Top

Thanks, Dear Straight People, for publishing this article.
In this opinion piece, I hope to begin a national conversation by giving the responses of different Singaporeans to my tank top.

I met them in various public spaces, mostly cafés and restaurants, in the course of the week after my Facebook post about the complaint went viral.

They are not a representative sample of Singaporeans, but they can be trusted to give their honest response. In fact, when I asked them for their views, I told them that mixed feelings were welcomed. I think, in the current debate about gay equality, it is important to listen closely and understand one another before we reply. Read the reactions.

Get the Viral Tank Top!

4 tank tops to go to the 4 highest bidders! The tank top that got me into trouble with Singapore's SAFRA gym. Designed by Mark Yeo. Gently worn, freshly washed, lovingly ironed. Get a memento of the gay tank top affair. Wear it about proudly. It's a talking piece. Support gay equality. All proceeds benefit Singapore Unbound, a NY-based literary non-profit that champions freedom of expression and equal rights for all. Opening bid: USD50. Let the bidding begin. Please help to spread the word. Thanks!

Running with Strippers

Cake Theater's "Running with Strippers" last night was one of the most exhilarating pieces of theater I've seen in Singapore. It took great risks and brought them off beautifully. Director Natalie Hennedige selected her artist-performers carefully and then freed them to do what they wished in stunning sets specially created for their work. C.O.P. (Cult of Personality) had fantastic costumes and wonderfully synchronized movements. Rizamn Putra's "Trip the Light Fantastic," a romp through the artist's personal entanglements with dance, was funny and painful, shadowed by a blown-up drawing of an x-ray of his injured spine. I cried during Cyril Wong's "Disassembly" when he sang live to a recording of his own voice, and made us wonder which voice, if any, would survive us. When I reached Zul Mahmod's sound installation "March On," I found the dull thuds of the 16 solenoids on hanging sheets of white paper strangely consolatory…

SU Fellowship Award Event Tonight

I'd gone back and forth about whether I should wear my gay tank top at tonight's Singapore Unbound Fellowship Award Event. Singapore Unbound is the NY-based literary non-profit I founded to build cultural exchange between Singapore and the USA. It is not solely about gay rights. Would I be misrepresenting the organization by wearing something with so personal a statement, and so informal as a tank top? Would I be identifying the organization too closely with me?

But the tagline that summarizes the values of Singapore Unbound is, after all, "Freedom of Expression. Equal Rights for All." It is echoed in the back of my shirt: "Equality for All" and in the act of wearing the shirt freely in public. Although Singapore Unbound is not solely about gay rights, it is about human rights. And the discrimination, including torture and murder, against LGBT people around the world is a very pressing global issue now, and must be fought with every weapon we have. Singapor…

Cartoon and Reflections

I've inspired a cartoon! Lol. Wish I look like that. Thanks, toastwire!

https://www.instagram.com/p/BWotdzRDDmM/

My brief piece of reflection  on SAFRA's statement. Thanks, Sean Foo, for soliciting and publishing it on Dear Straight People.

SAFRA Responds

SAFRA came out for fairness. They did not give in to homophobia. Thank you, SAFRA! Your statement proves that Singapore is ready for diversity.

"In a statement sent to Channel NewsAsia, SAFRA said Mr Koh's attire did not contravene any of the gym's rules and regulations.

"We have also spoken to the gym users who gave the feedback. From our conversation with Mr Koh, we believe there was no intent to cause discomfort to other gym goers so we hope this can be resolved amicably," said SAFRA."

SAFRA Mount Faber

Image
A few users of the SAFRA Mount Faber Club Gym complained about my tank top to the gym manager. They accused me of trying to change a sensitive social policy or issue. My tank top says, “Gay But Not Yet Equal” on the front, and “Equality For All” on the back. I learned of their complaint when I arrived at the gym this morning. I have been using this same gym when I visit Singapore every summer. On this trip back to Singapore, I had gone to the gym three times; today was my fourth visit only. The gym manager had tried to call me about the complaint but could not reach me. He spoke to me on the phone in the gym.

I asked him how many people complained. He repeated, some, and elaborated, more than one but not many. He also said that “the social issue” was sensitive nationally, and that SAFRA could not allow any social advocacy. I explained that I was not trying to change any social policy, but I was just wearing a tank top specially designed by a New York designer. I should have pointed ou…

Singapore Diary

Image
Saturday, conducted a Sing Lit Station workshop on revision with three participants. Andrea, an intern, made a valuable addition. Then attended the Migrant Poetry Evening at The Arts House in the tank top designed by Mark Yeo.




On Sunday, I heard Phillip Cheah perform at Victoria Memorial Hall (Dance Studio) with his collaborator and pianist Trudy Chan. They were terrific, as expected. Phillip is a good interpreter of art songs. I found the French tunes the most affecting in their combination of lightness and emotion. Many of Phillip's former teachers and classmates from RI came to support him. In the evening, I had dinner with YP and her family at Chapter 55, an Italian bistro in Tiong Bahru. The girls liked their presents. Hannah got an autographed copy of Naomi Novik's Temeraire series. She is beginning to collect books signed by their authors. I found the perfect present for Liesel at the Asian Civilization Museum, a book of watercolor paintings of the flora and fauna of th…

Diary

Strange limbo while waiting to fly to Singapore tonight. I've packed, now waiting for my order of tee-shirts, and then the airport shuttle. Last Thursday, celebrated KM's birthday by treating him to dinner at Chomp Chomp. He has taken early retirement because of Parkinson's, and will be released from work next month. On Saturday, we had the Calatayuds over for dinner. Conversation flowed back and forth. Everyone seemed to have had a great time. Sunday, we spent on Christopher Street pier and got sunburnt. Undeterred, we went to Rockaway Beach on 4th of July. Very crowded, but good fun. We now have an almost straight train there, the A.

Kirsten Tan's "Pop Aye"

With gentle yet probing wit, Kirsten Tan's film Pop Aye sounds the empty depths of human accomplishment and urban development. It brings us along with its protagonists, a disillusioned architect and a rescued elephant, on an unusual road trip to meet a string of colorful characters all coping with life's losses in different ways, the charismatic Thai countryside echoing the massive beauty of what the director called the "Brad Pitt" of elephants. The human actors hold their own. Astonishingly all but one are non-professional actors. Their strong and nuanced performances, drawn out by skillful directing, made the movie delightfully engaging, even affecting. Last night, at the opening night at Film Forum, I heard people expressing surprise that this was Kirsten's first feature film, so persuasive was its vision and assured its execution. She is definitively a filmmaker to watch. Catch Pop Aye in Film Forum before it moves to other cities. It plays only through Tuesd…

Diary

On Sunday, celebrated New York Pride by having brunch with WL, CC, DM, and PB at Philip Marie. After brunch we watched the parade and saw the Resist and Gays Against Guns contingents. GH left for Standard Hotel's Pool Party, and DM and PB left soon after. WL, CC and I had drinks at French Roast and then watched more of the parade along 5th Ave, after which we had dinner at Rasa. Good day. I still think it's important to support the parade. At night, GH and I watched Terry Gilliam's The Fisher King (1991).  Jeff Bridges was very good at a suicidal radio DJ and so was Robin Williams as a deranged homeless man.

Today I've been reading Elie Wiesel's memoir The Sea Is Never Full. In its absolute uniqueness, the Holocaust, which Wiesel prefers to call the Event, cannot be described or shown. It is on the other side of language and image. Also, the tension between Jews living in Israel and those living in the Diaspora.

Diary

Met Maureen Hoon for lunch yesterday at Sovlaki Midtown. Really juicy lamb chops, in pieces easily handled with fingers. Pita bread made in house and on the day. Maureen showed me some images of her new art project, which arose out of her response to a deeply moving piece of music about loss. We talked about the fundraiser for Singapore Unbound. After leaving her, I worked on Does grass sweat in the New York Public Library branch near me. Jacques the day before gave me an important clue to the character of Sam Fujimoto-Meyer. He described his son as being a moral absolutist. Since young, he has always wanted to know who the bad guys are. This despite his enormous intelligence and wide reading. The two are not contradictory. In the evening, we finished watching a queer movie from Venezuela. An older man started a relationship with a young gangster. When the young man wanted to show his gratitude to the older man, he killed the man's father since the man had said how much he wished …

Diary

Visited Jacques Houis and his wife Shelly at their home in Millertown, two hours' train ride from Harlem. Shelly, a former movie producer, made a delicious lunch of shrimp salad and tomato-coconut milk soup. Jacques drove me to visit his friend Kush, who has an astonishing collection of books, recordings, and memorabilia associated with the San Francisco Renaissance. Kush recited Artaud and Whitman for us and showed me his bust of William Blake, which he kissed on the forehead. On the train back home I finished reading Cheryl A. Wall's a Very Short Introduction to The Harlem Renaissance. Very useful. At night I watched François Truffaut's The 400 Blows (1959), one of the most famous films of the French New Wave. This is gritty Paris, where you have to walk down six flights of grimy stairs to take out the garbage every night. Constrained by unimaginative schooling and feckless parents, Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) turns to petty crime, which leads him eventually to a …

Diary

Finalized and posted my review of Tan Pin Pin's documentary In Time to Come on SP blog. Heard Eric Calatayud sing and Kenny play on the keyboard with their band in the common garden on 122nd Street. Jazz standards and Beatles songs. They were very good. Left early to hear Cheryl A. Wall speak about the women writers of the Harlem Renaissance. She was a good speaker, concise and perceptive. Her manner was stately. I asked her a question about Tea Cake slapping Janie in Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God. She referred me to Alice Walker's observation that Janie does not speak in that chapter although she does in all other chapters. The novel does, implicitly, criticize Tea Cake's action.

Diary

Second day of summer break. Worked on Does grass sweat. Met Gina Apostol and young Filipino literary scholar Paul Nadal for dinner at Chomp Chomp.

Oxford Weekend

Attended a very interesting poetry symposium and read at Teddy Hall over the weekend. Met Mina Ebtehadj-Marquis for Sat brunch, and spent time with Anna, Adam, James, and Reuben, whom I stayed with.

Organized by Kristin Grogan and Hugh Foley, "Special Relationships: Poetry Across the Atlantic Since 2000," Friday, May 19, Rothermere American Institute:

Panel 1
Mary Jean Chan (Royal Holloway) - Spatial and Spiritual Subalternity in Kei Miller's The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion
Dave Coates (Edinburgh) - Awards Culture and Whiteness in Contemporary Poetry
Dai George (UCL) - The Salt Aesthetic: American Influence in British Poetry's Experimental Mainstream

Panel 2
Jess Cotton (UCL) - Performing (In)visibility: Bhanu Kapil, Sileutas, and the Supine Body
Jewel Pereyra (Georgetown) - Resisting a Legar Grammar: Poetic Embodiment and Tidal Memory in M. NourbeSe Philip's Zong! and Claudia Rankine's Citizen
 Jee Leong Koh (The Brearley School) - Complication a…

New SU Website

We're very excited to launch the new Singapore Unbound website. It brings together into one place all our initiatives and activities: Singapore Literature Festival in NYC, Second Saturdays Reading Series, Singapore Poetry blog, Singapore Unbound Fellowship, and our new imprint, Gaudy Boy, which publishes authors of Asian heritage. Please support us by signing up on the website for the e-newsletter, following us on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, and spreading the word. We are a completely independent non-profit venture seeking to build cultural exchange and mutual understanding between Singapore and the USA. Champion the cause of literature, the arts, and equal rights by making a donation.

Hi Harlem #28

#28 Two Well-dressed Gentlemen Out on an April Afternoon

Sirs, may I walk with you,
I saw you throwing me a glance?
You walk so funny,
so dapper and rangingly.
You walk as if at any moment
you may break out
into a dance.
You’re so evident,
men who’ve been around
and still unbroken,
no, that’s too melodramatic,
you’re finally
comic,
entirely yourselves,
like the sun.

Hi Harlem #27

#27 The Birds of Harlem

The birds of Harlem are the birds
of America,
the brown nonentities
and the self-advertising glories.
They have returned from other lands
to a familiar bough
or the corner ledge of a brownstone.
To call them
the birds of Harlem
is to give spirit a local habitation and a name.
It’s a way of saying we belong
somewhere, a way of singing.

Hi Harlem #24 - 26

#24 Under the Elevated Railway Tracks

In the plant nursery a muscular Chinese man
balances on his right hand a tray of miniatures
as he walks among the cactuses and hyacinths
in the rumbling shadow of the scheduled trains.
He brings me back to Kunming, the acrobats
climbing up one another, the strongest lifting
clear the other two, a trinity exerting pressure
at every point and achieving a momentary rest.

I see him and I see you look at him, his shorts
round and covered in a pretty pattern of ferns,
his big arm lifting the greenly growth for home.
You walk ahead to sneak a peek back at his face,
I following. It’s a good face, strong and open.
Love, do you hear somebody call out for Adam?



#25 Leave from Harlem

Setting his triangular speaker on the train floor,
the man does not blast but croons into his mike,

making love to the dark glasses on a Roman nose,
the gold chain round a throbbing jugular, the phone

lighting up a face with radiation, the bandaged hand
resting on a hard case lug…

Hi Harlem #23

#23 The Man in the Gold Jumpsuit

Who are you, O, who are you actually,
man in the jumpsuit glinting in the sun?
Where are you going with the spray can,
gold like you to the squatchee of your cap?
Are you legendary King Midas who turns
a Red Delicious to its dumb weight in gold?
Are you an astronaut who shows us where
to find the stars and their transmissions?
Or are you the one who creates the stars
on the walls of schools, prisons, hospitals?

Hi Harlem #22

#22 The Classical Theater of Harlem

Downstage left, enter the Self in the making
of what we all must see, the busy and free crayon,
the things you can do with a piece of string,
then it gets called names, it calls others names,
one name rising above the others to stand for
the Self’s self, for whom one makes a bouquet
of involuntary thought and ventures beyond
the house, listening in the wing for the place
to come back on stage, for it loves the stage,
the strutting and the fretting, the figure it cuts
with its kitchen scissors around the play script,
understanding so much is pre-given and all one
 can do is to inflect a line or two in a particular
way, to hold the pistol with one hand or two,
to drop one’s head or hold it up, before moving
to the end, upstaged by the audience, and right.

The Singapore Writers Directory

Yes, I have strong objections to being featured in the 2017 edition of the Singapore Writers Directory because I've sworn never to work with the National Arts Council until they return their publishing grant to Sonny Liew's graphic novel The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye and issue a public apology to the writer/artist, the publisher, and the Singapore people for withdrawing their promised support for a seminal work of literature, and until the National Arts Council promise to work with their counterpart the Orwellian-named Media Development Authority to revoke the restriction of Tan Pin Pin's documentary To Singapore With Love from public screening. Their letter:

Dear Jee Leong,

The National Arts Council would like to feature you in the 2017 edition of the Singapore Writers Directory, a print and online directory of Singapore writers in English profiling living Singapore writers from the four official languages (English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil) and their works. The first…

Hi Harlem #19, 20, and 21

#19 American Sentence

Today I saw a cotton gin and learned how a machine expanded slave labor.


#20 Elegy

Black light, black light,
as still as the black train
is frantic, rushing the
black night. As narrow
as the black boulevard
is wide. Old as Cheops
and as the black olive
is young, blasted time.
Frequent as injustice
and as rare as equal
understanding. Sexy
as hell and as heaven
is detumescent. Tiny
as he, snorting, was big
inside after his white
boy had first opened
me up. As strong as
the curtains are weak.
As quiet as the siren
is alarming, arresting
never the black river.


# 21 Friday Nights

The movies have gone all weird on me.
The murderer, the victim, and the lawyer
are all white. The spy and his spymaster
white. The gay teen and his crush white.
The surgeon and his patient white, with
a black nurse or hospital administrator
thrown in for color. The poets, you guess
it, white. Nothing like the world outside.
My screen is not a window, it’s a filter.

Hi Harlem #18

#18 Reading Richard Wright’s Haiku on International Haiku Day

They take the measure of things,
spider webs, melons, a scarecrow,
a candle with the faint markings
of rat teeth. Written in France,
in the last 18 months of his life,
a number begin, just enough snow… 

Poem #17

#17 Strongman from Qinshi Huangdi’s Tomb

Against Rilke 

The head would have given the final expression
like a peacock’s tail feathers, had we not lost it,
and yet the body is too strongly modeled for us
to require a face. Rounded like high cheekbones,

the shoulders weigh two brawny arms, snakes
lashing within, holding what would have been
a great bendy pole, with a colleague, on which
an acrobat would swing and somersault and land.

Driven to the ground but rising from his feet,
the enormous torso, of earth once trampled on
by trumpeting beasts, is not smooth like a smile
but frowns with clear cracks, in large fragments,

about the roof of the barbarous belly, the lines,
opening and closing, emanating from our mouth.

Hi Harlem #16

#16 From the Vantage of Harlem

A plane flies by my window,
and then another, very slowly,
as if to say, you can’t catch us,
poet, living the way you do.

Hi Harlem #15

#15 The Places I have lived in NYC Compared to Literary Genres

Brooklyn is a big novel.
Queens is a memoir.
Hell’s Kitchen is a play
by Tennessee Williams.
The Upper West Side
a film by Woody Allen.
Harlem, with your crazies,
your preachers and loafers,
you take the prose poem.

Hi Harlem #14

#14 Counting Song

This is failing territory, where we will die
of prostate cancer or sweet pneumonia,
after we hang our coats up in the broom closet.
This old man played nick nack on my drum.

Ambition, the devil, has descended to details
and every meal is eaten with Dissatisfaction.
Give, my Love, the long-dead dog a bone.
Paddy whacked, this old man rolled home.

Friends go before us—who knows where.
The doorbell rings for other men, our door
opens to the mocking grin of thinning air.
This old man played nick nack on my shoe.

Look, our eyesight is deserting us, o parody,
They say hearing, HEARING, the first to go.
Sans eyes, sans ears, sans smell, sans taste,
paddy whacked, this old man rolled home.

What have we left? The furniture of memory.
Dining table your dad made, the ghostly TV,
 the ghastly hooks of animal horn on the wall.
This old man played nick nack on my tree.

A house of sadness when we intend joy,
it will be a property, a prop, for tired feet.
After the drill square and …

Hi Harlem #13

#13 Their Eyes Are Watching God

The God of the Church of Scientology of Harlem, the God
of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the God
of the Mother African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, the God
of worldwide socialist revolution, the God of the big black butt, the God
who made Ellington the Duke, the God of Malcolm X, the God
Asclepius hobbling out of the College of Podiatric Medicine, the God
racing another God down Powell in his souped-up go kart, the God
of waffle and fried chicken, the God of fried fish, the God
of the Harlem Renaissance, the God of the real estate renaissance, the God
of the big boom box, the God of small businesses, the God
of beggars, thieves and magicians, the God of children, the God
of Apollo Theater who is also the God of Comedy.

Hi Harlem #12

#12 Sleeping on Park Benches

Stretched out on park benches, these men
tilt their dark rumpled faces to the sun,
xxxxxlike sunflowers,
I could say, but they are really emperors
xxxxxof their time.

They remind me of retirees back home
in 80s Singapore, sleeping the day away,
xxxxxwhite ribbed singlet
their pauper disguise, returning at night
xxxxxto well-lit homes.

They have disappeared from public parks.
They looked unsightly to someone, or useless,
xxxxxso they are
clearing children’s trays, picking up cardboard
xxxxxfor the weight.

I don’t really understand why I’m thinking
of retirees while crossing Marcus Garvey
xxxxxon my run,
seeing in these men swathed in coats and jeans
xxxxxstone effigies.

Hi Harlem #11

#11 High Enough

Now I live high enough, above surrounding roofs,
to see the unimpeded sky turn ever so slowly to light,
the black church tower coming into sight with its bells,
turn in the spring evening to purple wash, into which
the water tank, like a squat rocket, catapults its icon
and flies without moving as darkness falls around it,
the shopping mall pulsating in the corner of the eye
with an unearthly glow, high enough to see all this,
unimpeded, I repeat, with only the sky looking in,
when the buzz-cut jock in the vid, left hand relaxed
on the steering wheel, master hand on himself, looking
back and forth between the motorway and her activity
 between her legs, passing pylons and twelve-wheelers,
brings himself off, oh my god, self-recording, laughing.

Harlem # 9 and 10

#9 Ordering Takeout in Harlem

Being a pedant, I told Empire Corner II
on the phone that it was Apt 5D, as in D
for Donkey. That didn’t sound quite right,
so I told Sottocasa Pizzeria that it was D
for Donald, before I remembered Drumpf.
Finally I settled on David, to the very fancy
Indian place, for Jonathan’s sweetheart,
the king of Israel, the dancer, the psalms.



#10 Harlem Haiku

Alighting
on a high branch of the tree
outside my study,
the silhouette of a songbird
chirps and chirps:
I know what branch will hold my weight,
I know what time to go,
what I know I know I know.

Artless Art

The beauty of Akhil Sharma's novel Family Life lies in its understated style. The sentences are simple but delicately weighted. The metaphors and similes, born of close observation of ordinary life, are highly original. Throughout, the hopes and fears of migrating from India to America, and then the effects of a tragedy on the family in the new land, are evoked with painful honesty. This is not an easy book to read, for it deals with the devastation of happiness, but the style holds up the devastation to the light with wit and grace.

*

WL recommended that I watch Clouds of Sils Maria (2014) when Kristen Stewart came up in our conversation.  I'm so glad I did. It's one of the best movies I've watched in the past few years. Directed by Olivier Assayas, the movie stars Juliette Binoche as an aging actress (Maria Enders) who returns to act in the play that launched her career but this time as the older woman, not the younger one. Stewart plays the personal assistant (Valen…

Hi Harlem #8

#8 Was It Known as Mount Morris Park Then?

You used to live in Harlem,
back in the 90s,
and cruised the boys in the outdoor pool
to the north of the park.
Not in the sex clubs,
which you likened to shooting fish in the barrel.
You always have a way with words.
I can see you
chatting up a young buck, one yourself,
while children thrashed about on floats and parents
shouted instructions,
then heading for the changing room,
you first, and then your accomplice,
to finish up the confab.
I can’t wait for summer,
if the boys at the gym are anything
to go by,
when the pool will be filled with water
and the park with the sour cherry,
which the website tells me is
self-pollinating.

Hi Harlem #7

#7 Sisters Caribbean Cuisine

They are an allegory, these two elegant women,
chicory brown showing between the flaming red
of their origami turbans and long flowing dresses.
They move with a slow stateliness that yet owns
a required quickness for plucking a child from a river
or a flower from a stem. Unmistakably sisters,
they have a brother (or is he a husband?), succulent
as goat curry with collard greens and candied yam,

who is not always there. They manage without him.
Once, someone threw a rock through the window
and made off with the cash register. It was empty,
one sister told me as she swept up the fallen glass.
(One speaks English, the other, however, does not.)
The restaurant is on the rougher side of the park.

Hi Harlem #6

#6 I Don’t Believe in the Long Arc of Justice

In the Martin Luther King Jr. Senior Center,
a dozen Martins and Martinas doze and drool
in front of the Baptist preacher on cable TV.
 They know better than to take him seriously.

Sure, they sometimes wake at night, blurred
with heat and sweat, and cry out for a savior.
But in their better, which means less fearful,
moments, they see through cataracts the truth.

No one will save them from slow deterioration
or a heart attack. No words will do. Sure, it is
far far better to have brave words than harsh,
but the time for words is almost over, so they

look forward to their children coming for them,
after a hard day’s slog, to bundle them into coats
and wheel the feebler out to the open chariot,
paid for by monthly installments and rough hands.

Hi Harlem #5

#5 Sea & Sea Fish Market

How does Sea feel, knowing that there is another Sea,
that he, or she, or they, is not unique?
Not just in a Psyche and Echo way,
not just in the coincidence of a common name, like Smith,
nor in the past and present tense sense,
not even in the fashion of the replication of a gene,
like two daughters from a mother,
or two poems from the great Polish poet Wisława Szymborska,
but exact copies of each other in alternate universes
except they live in the same one
where together they set up a Fish Market,
selling Atlantic Salmon, Red Snapper, Large Whiting, Sea Bass.
How do the Seas feel? We can ask Jee & Jee
of Harlem and Harlem.
Or we can ask the fish.

Hi Harlem #4

#4 Revolution Books

You are Ngugi wa Thiong’o! You are my O
Level textbook, the river between Nyambura
and charismatic Waiyaki.

When you rejected the oppressor’s language
in favor of your native tongue, Gikuyu, you
made this would-be writer

sweat over if he should follow your example.
He couldn’t, for he received praise for his As,
Bs, Cs from his teachers.

Good-bye, Ngugi. He’d thank you, if he could.
He is a young man still star-struck by authority
sanctified by sacrifice.

I’ve locked him up in solitary, so he can’t speak
to others, starved him, beaten him once or twice,
but he won’t die. Nor I.

Hi Harlem #3

#3 M60 on Monday

For the stretch of 125th Street, these American children,
on the bus with luggage racks, dream of summer and flying

to Dakar, Port-au-Prince, Lagos, and Charlotte Amalie,
until the driver snaps to a stop, just before the flyover,

and lets in a cold blast, filthy piles of snow, oily slicks.
Then we know we’ve landed on the wrong landing strip.

Hi Harlem # 1 and 2

We've been in Harlem now for two months, so I'm going to try writing about it for NaPo as the newbie that I am to the neighborhood.Yesterday's poem and today's.


#1 NYC Best Grocery Corp

The church
across the street
 says you sell
stale bread
at exploitation
price. Pot calling
kettle black.


#2 Aims 99 Cent Store

The men shooting
the breeze outside
aren’t going anywhere
on the rental wheels
or the bikes brought
in for repairs. They
are going everywhere,
everyone, on their
mouths, traveling,
and doubling back,
setting up a hoop,
3-pointer, cheap shot.

Being 17

"Being 17" ("Quand on a 17 ans") (2016) is a study of two very different families, whose 17-year-old boys discover, in a stumbling and aggressive fashion, their love for one another. Directed by André Téchiné, the film is beautifully shot, alternating between the snowy mountains of Thoma's farm and the rooms of Damien's suburban house. Sandrine Kiberlain is wonderful as Damien's doctor mother, Marianne. Kacey Mottet Klein (Damien) and Corentin Fila (Thomas) both put in persuasive performances.

Viet Thanh Nguyen's "The Refugees"

SW lent me this collection of short stories before we heard Nguyen read at 92Y last Thursday. I had read his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Sympathizer and admired it very much. At the Y, Nguyen read an excerpt from his novel, an opinion piece on refugees, and the beginning of the first story from The Refugees. The juxtaposition of fiction and non-fiction was canny, prompting persistent questions about genre from the moderator Alexander Chee afterwards. It was also canny in a more commercial sense: a good way of enticing the audience to buy both of his books.

The first story "Black-Eyed Women" blew me away. It was a complexly layered narrative about ghosts and ghostwriting, a powerful meditation on what the living tries to forget in order to go on living. One of the two epigraphs for the book is a quotation from James Fenton's "A German Requiem":

It is not your memories which haunt you.
It is not what you have written down.
It is what you have forgotten, what…

Contemporary Art and Walter Benjamin

Image
Walter Benjamin's library card

With Y, I saw the show "The Arcades: Contemporary Art and Walter Benjamin" at the Jewish Museum today. A few of the contemporary works were well worth seeing, but the show as a whole was disappointing. Benjamin's unfinished project The Arcades assembled a miscellany of quotations and commentaries based on a principle and a purpose. The principle was represented by these iron and glass vaulted shopping malls in Paris, the cultural capital of the nineteenth century. The purpose was to mount a critique of capitalism through an examination of the materiality of experience. Both gave Benjamin's project its coherence and interest. The principle of the museum show was Benjamin's text. Its purpose was to put up a museum show. As such, the selection of contemporary art works, from various times, places, and artistic practices, failed to illuminate any particular time, place, or practice. Worse, they failed to illuminate Benjamin's t…

Am I a Chinese poet?

"Growing up in Singapore, I was teased by Chinese schoolmates for being a banana, yellow on the outside, white on the inside. They were mocking my love for the English language and my apathy towards Mandarin Chinese. At home my family spoke a mixture of English and Cantonese. Mandarin was for me a school language. The schoolyard teasing turned me off from learning it properly. Now, as if in belated protest against those ancient taunts, I’d like to think of myself as a Chinese writer who writes in English, if only to expand the notion of what a Chinese writer is." Read the interview. Thanks, Jennifer Wong, for interviewing me, and Peter LaBerge, for publishing the interview.

Ode to Billy Joel

This 1976 film attempts to provide the answers to the questions raised in the haunting 1967 Bobbie Gentry song of the same title. Why did Billy Joel McAllister kill himself by jumping off the Tallahachee Bridge? Set in the Mississippi Delta, in a time before the boondocks had seen television and indoor plumbing, the film apparently shows how eighteen-year-old Billy Joel persists in his courtship of beautiful sixteen-year-old Bobbie Lee, forbidden by her father to receive gentleman-callers. The end turns suddenly tragic when at the county fair, instead of helping himself to the hired whores, a drunk Billy Joel gives in to his desires and has sex with a man. Robby Benson is terrific as Billy Joel, as is Glynnis O'Connor as Bobbie Lee Hartley. They carry the film on their slim young shoulders, helped by a very watchable supporting cast. Directed by Max Baer, Jr..

Complication as a Form of Explication

My proposal has been accepted! I will be speaking about my hybrid creative and critical work-in-progress "Does grass sweat" at Oxford University, Rothermere American Institute, on May 19, for the symposium "Special Relationships: Poetry Across the Atlantic Since 2000." Abstract below. I've read parts of the work at Rutgers at the invitation of Patrick Rosal. So excited to read more of it at Oxford! Thanks for publishing parts of it, H.L. Hix, Bryan Borland, Vivek Narayanan, Eric Thomas Norris, Cindy Arrieu-King, Ryan Wilson, Bry Hos, Cy Rai, Haikuist Network, Rattle, Gulf Coast, Hayden's Ferry, Dusie, Almost Island, Queer Southeast Asia, From Walden to Woodlands, Alba, Assaracus, Literary Matters, Kin, Ten Thirty, The Capilano Review.

Abstract: Complication as a Form of Explication 
by Jee Leong Koh

My work-in-progress "Does grass sweat: translations of an insignificant Japanese poet" deploys the tropes of literary translation and critical commenta…

Revolution Books

Friday night GH and I walked into Revolution Books and whom did I see? Ngugi wa Thiong'o! Waiyaki, Nyambura, and Muthoni all flashed back like daffodils. We had dinner at Yatenga and then I went back to the bookstore to hear Ngugi read from the third volume of his memoir Birth of a Dream Weaver. His son Mukoma wa Ngugi, who is Assistant Professor of English at Cornell University, read from his latest poetry collection Logotherapy. The third Kenyan author Peter Kimani read from his novel Dance of the Jakaranda. The train, called "the iron snake" in Kenya, was a powerful symbol of colonial and neo-colonial exploitation.

Social Maternalism

TLS January 27, 2017.

From the article "The New Pragmatism: How to save capitalism from itself, by cutting across traditional political divides and making the state active in the right areas" by Paul Collier, Professor of Economics and Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford:

Social democracy can justly be accused of social paternalism: the state is assumed to know best, but unfortunately it didn't. For want of a better term, I think of the pragmatic policies I have suggested as social maternalism. In this model the state would be active in both the economic and social spheres, but it would not overtly empower itself. Its tax policies would restrain the powerful from appropriating rents, rather than stripping income from the rich to help the poor. Its regulations would empower those who suffer from creative destruction to claim compensation, rather than attempting to frustrate the very process that gives capitalism its astonishing dynami…

Reading Richard Rorty

I've always wondered how to reconcile Nietzschean self-creation with liberal politics, and so it is with a tremendous sense of excitement, and relief, that I learn from Richard Rorty that it is not necessary to reconcile the two, that in fact it is a mistake to try for some kind of synthesis. One has to be contented with their separation, to be a liberal ironist, as Rorty calls it. The irony is directed at all final vocabularies, one's own as well as others', understanding that there is no final vocabulary that is not contingent and not formed by one's historical and social contingencies. Discourse and socialization goes all the way down, and the best one can hope for is to re-write a small part of one's inherited script. The geniuses among us re-write a bigger part. That is the self-creation advocated by Nietzsche. It retains his perspectivism but relinquishes his essentializing move of making "the will to power" a commonality in all human beings. "…

To be an ironic liberal

To be inscribed on my forehead and in my heart: "If we are ironic enough about our final vocabularies, and curious enough about everyone else's, we do not have to worry about whether we are in direct contact with moral reality, or whether we are blinded by ideology, or whether we are being weakly "relativistic"." - Richard Rorty in "Orwell on Cruelty" in his book CONTINGENCY, IRONY, AND SOLIDARITY.

Judo vs Jujitsu

Sanshiro Sugata (a.k.a. Judo Saga) is Akira Kurosawa's first film (1943), based on the novel by Tsuneo Tomita. Sanshiro (Susumu Fujita) learns judo from master Yano (Denjirô Ôkôchi) but also learns to grow up. The moment of enlightenment comes while he is hanging to a stake in a muddy pond. He sees a glowing lotus rising from the mud. What does it mean? A calm acceptance of Nature's law? A awakening to the shitty roots of life? Later he almost fails to vanquish an old master from the jujitsu school because the master's daughter is praying with a pure devotion for her father to win. To overcome his inner doublts, Sanshiro remembers the lotus again, so the flower could also represent a kind of selfless innocence. Not surprisingly, he defeats the implacable jujitsu master Gennosuke Higaki (Ryûnosuke Tsukigata) in the end. Not a terribly profound film, but well-paced and shot. It is very much a young man's film.

Organize, Organize, Organize

Feb 7, 2017: An informative and inspiring meeting organized by the Asian American Federation. Panel speakers representing different civic organizations spoke about making Asian Americans visible and their voices heard; the need for language access in govt proclamations; organizing protests and call-ins (New York Immigration Coalition); the impact of Trumpism on social policies (Coalition for Asian American Children & Families) and on-the-ground social services, especially elderly and mental services (Hamilton-Madison House); teaching students to stand up for one another in schools against bullying (Sikh Coalition); the building of alliances between mainstream Asian America and marginalized communities such as the LGBTQAPI (National Queer API Alliance). Participate. Support. Donate. Above all, organize, organize, organize.

Haiku

The round clock
above the pump house
ducks sleeping


That's it, folks. The last one. Thanks for following and liking the haiku. We move to Harlem today.

Haiku

End of January
the moon behind clouds
cheese sandwich

Haiku

High winds
the reservoir gathers a sea
the night a black hut

*

Hanging from a nail
in the wall of the study
an Olympic gymnast


*

Two more. We move on Friday.

Haiku

Last five haiku before we move away from Central Park:

Number written
on the FedEx door tag—
a strong headwind

Women's March on Washington

Guardian headline: "Over 20 countries see protests on the first day of Trump's presidency." Where were you, Singapore? Hungary, Ghana, South Africa, India, Thailand, Korea held protests. Where were you, Singapore? I look in vain for your pictures. If you can't protest and march freely in your own country, you are living in a police state. The largest march ever held in Washington (more than 500 000) and not a single arrest made, giving the lie to the security and unrest argument. The unity among marchers was incredible. When the women chanted, "My body, my choice," the men replied in unison, "Her body, her choice." When my students shouted, "Show me what democracy looks like," we responded, looking around us at the tremendous diversity of people, including babies in prams and a disabled woman on crutches, "This is what democracy looks like."

I posted the above on Facebook and the result was a rather lively discussion thread abo…

Trump's Inauguration today

You can say
anything in a haiku
except fuck you

Haiku

Moon
in the morning
my shoes are wet

Politics in Singapore poetry?

Whatever happened to politics in Singapore's English-language poetry? An enlightening essay by the inimitable Gwee Li Sui, who discusses poems by Gilbert Koh, Felix Cheong, Boey Kim Cheng, Cyril Wong, Grace Chia, Aaron Lee, Yeow Kai Chai, and me. Here's the spoiler: politics has never gone away. Essay published as part of a Singapore issue, by Zurich University of the Arts.

Numbers Game

This summary in Today newspaper is symptomatic of what's wrong with the current direction of Singapore arts: it's all about numbers, institutions, infrastructure, international recognition, markets, and nothing about the artists and their work. Even when naysayers such as Khairuddin Hori and I are quoted, our words are taken to support the same themes. I am not "agreeing" with Joshua Ip, but saying something very different instead. Even increasing arts appreciation among Singaporeans is couched in terms of attendance numbers. Nothing is mentioned about how a certain segment of Singaporeans has worked to censor the arts, and so betrays how backwards we are still in terms of our understanding of art. None of this is a surprise, but it is very sad. All the investments of money, time, and energy in the arts only go to creating a spirit that is anti-art. This must have a corrupting effect on art-making in Singapore. As artists, we must resist this corruption, and hope tha…

No to MOE

I've just turned down a request to include a poem of mine in an anthology of Singapore poetry to be used in Singapore schools. I admire the work of the publisher and the editors involved, but the project is initiated (and presumably funded) by the Ministry of Education, and I refuse to allow the state to represent my work in its books while discriminating against my queer person and community through its maintenance of the anti-sodomy law. I ask only to be treated equally as any other Singaporean, that's all. To publish my work and deny me my rights is not equality.

My decision is consistent with my refusal to allow my books to be considered for the state-funded Singapore Literature Prize. I also see it as consistent with my refusal to apply for state funding for my books, projects, and the Singapore Lit Fest in NYC, as a form of protest against state censorship of the arts. Freedom for the arts and equality for all.

Keith Wiltshire

Keith Wiltshire, a wonderful English teacher to me and my RJC classmates, died yesterday morning, January 3. Grace, his daughter, wrote, "He was at home and Pauline and I were with him which is what he would have wanted. He had lived for two years after his stroke and we are very grateful to all our wonderful NHS staff and all the carers who looked after him." Keith had enjoyed being read to in the last year or so. A few days before he died, Grace read to him three of his favorite Matthew Arnold poems, "Growing Old," "Dover Beach," and "The Last Word." If you'd like to write to the family, send me a private message.

I will always remember Keith for being an inspiring teacher and human being. His literary and moral passions were both tremendous, and, together with my history teacher Rodney Cole, he was my entire education at junior college. Confronted by our intellectual lethargy and moral turpitude, he would strive to provoke us into thinkin…