Showing posts from 2019

Where Are the Writers?

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The Singapore government's proposed anti-fake news law has been heavily criticized by local and international media and rights groups for investing too much arbitrary power in government ministers to decide what is fact or otherwise. Most recently, a group of 59 academics, with expertise, experience, or interest in Singapore and Asia generally, have joined in the chorus of criticism by issuing a joint public statement and sending letters to the Education Minister and Singapore University Leaders.

Other professional groups with a stake in free speech and democratic process should do likewise. Unfortunately, the Law Society of Singapore has been gagged by a 1986 law from commenting on legislative proposals unless they are invited to do so by the government. Singapore's creative writers are not so proscribed. Individual writers have spoken up but they could make a far bigger impact if they would speak together, as the …

A Poet Laureate of Singapore?

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We're proud to announce that Gaudy Boy's Poetry Book Prize co-winner The Experiment of the Tropics by Lawrence Lacambra Ypil has been selected by The Millions as 1 of 6 must-read poetry books for April 2019. Congratulations, Larry, on this wonderful honor! At the book's New York launch last week, Larry shared that much of the book, which meditates on archival photographs of the Philippines under American occupation, was written in Clementi hawker center in Singapore. That, we fondly imagine, must have enhanced the book's delicious tropical lyricism.

April is National Poetry Month in the USA and Canada. Introduced in 1996, the annual celebration of poetry organized by the Academy of American Poets has the laudable aim of increasing awareness and appreciation of poetry in the USA. It was inspired by the success of Black History Month, held in February, and Women's History Month, held in March, but it wo…

Gaudy Boy Matters

A whirlwind of events these past two weeks. First, AWP at Portland, Oregon, (March 28-30), where I tabled for Gaudy Boy, and all three of our authors—Alfian Sa'at, Lawrence Ypil, and Jenifer Park—signed books, and read at an off-site event. Alfian also participated in panel titled "Innovations in Southeast Asia" with Gina Apostol and Laurel Fantauzzo, moderated by Larry Ypil. I read at Literaoke at Chopsticks Karaoke Lounge and Bar, and that was quite fun.

Then the New York launch of Larry and Jenifer's books at the Asian American Writers' Workshop on Thursday, April 4. The launch went really well. The house was full and the books—15 copies per author—were sold out. Larry and Jenifer read very well and were full of thoughtful and memorable reflections during the Q&A. As Judy Luo remarked, our poets have personalities!

And then the Second Saturdays gathering on April 6, hosted by C and M at their Harlem home. About 35 people came. Potluck, mingling, drinking, …

Worse Than 1984

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The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act tabled in Singapore's Parliament on Monday threatens to restrict free speech in the country even further. It effectively gives any Minister the power to decide what is fact and to demand corrections or removals of statements that he deems to be against the public interest. If passed, the Act will not just create a Ministry of Truth, so ironically named in George Orwell's dystopian novel 1984, but will turn all agents of the Singapore government into Ministries of Truth.

The best commentary that I have read on the bill so far is written by media professor Cherian George. Here I will just highlight one provision of the bill that indicates its wide-ranging scope: its extra-territoriality. Section 7.1 states that "A person must not do any act in or outside Singapore [my emphasis] in order to communicate in Singapore a statement knowing or having re…

Spiritual Affiliations

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I turned 49 yesterday in New York. 16 years ago, I arrived in the city to begin graduate studies in writing poetry. Stepping into the stupendous Great Hall of Grand Central Station to take the Metro-North train to Sarah Lawrence College, I thought, as many did before me, I'm finally here. On the train, I spoke to the first New Yorker I didn't have to. He turned out to be an elderly jeweler whose family fled the war in Europe.

New York is a city of refuge for many people, including artists. Here you find, at last, your own people, who are related to you, not by blood, but by spirit. On the morning of my birthday, I wrote a poem about a young gay Singaporean who came here to study fashion and found himself, before graduation, marrying a man 21 years older than him, and, upon graduation, adopting two teenage children. During our interview for the poem, it was obvious that he was still amazed at what he had done.


Ants Among Elephants

The subtitle—An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India—provides a sober summary of the content of this memoir, but it deliberately underplays the harrowing stories told in lucid prose by the author Sujatha Gidla. The national tale is one of class-initiated and state-supported oppression of the lower castes and, in helpless response, the divisions in the Communist Party of India when it abandoned armed revolution to enter electoral politics. The family tale traces the transformation of an uncle into a famous poet and leader of a left-wing guerilla movement. The other hero of the story is a heroine, the author's mother, who comes into her own as a mother and teacher in the later part of the story. A wonderful aspect of this memoir is that it never lets you forget the impact of social upheavals on women. The author is, however, not concerned with hagiography. The different members of the family, including their circle of friends, are here depicted with warts and all.



I have a poem, "Gaudy Boy," written after Singapore's late poet Arthur Yap, in this anthology commemorating the bicentennial of the birth of Walt Whitman and the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall riots. Besides Whitman, many poetic forebears, including Cavafy, Rimbaud, Thom Gunn, Justin Chin, James Baldwin, Garcia Lorca, Tim Dlugos, Allen Ginsberg, and Yukio Mishama, are celebrated by a good range of contemporary gay male poets. Big thanks to editor Raymond Luczak for including my poem and for putting together this celebration of the vitality of the gay male poetic tradition. You can get hold of the anthology here.

Building on Sand

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To expand its surface area, Singapore has become the world's largest importer of sand for its land reclamation projects. A documentary video made by environmental activists shows how sand dredging in Cambodia to meet Singapore's insatiable demand for land has destroyed coastal ecosystems and the livelihood of Cambodians who depend on harvesting shrimp and shellfish from the mangroves.

When the video was posted on Facebook yesterday, it attracted a range of comments. One Singaporean dismissed the video by writing, "Willing buyer and willing seller. The solution is for Cambodia not to sell anymore [sic] sand to anyone." The remark springs from a purely transactional view of the world and ignores the harm that Singapore is complicit with. Under pressure from activists, the Cambodian government has banned the sale of sand to Singapore, but activists suspect that illegal smuggling is still carrying on.

Another …

A Crackle of Flames, A Circle of Rainbow

A Selected Poems, spanning 1967-1977, by the foremost Singaporean Malay poet Mohamed Latiff Mohamed, A Crackle of Flames, A Circle of Rainbow (Ethos Books) is worth the read. The poems are from two collections, the first bearing the same title, the second titled When the Butterfly Breaks its Wings. This is a fighting book of poems, passionate and plainspoken, often lambasting the New Malays for not fighting for their own dignity, culture, and history, but giving it all up instead to serve Chinese dominance in Singapore. Yet the high rhetoric often ends with a lyrical, and sometimes mysterious, image. For instance, "Poetry of Song" begins unsparingly:

if what i say hurts you
then that is what I intend
because i like to tell stories
exposing harlotry as it is
right before our very eyes...

and ends with:

the tears of the wretched
who have lost everything
at dawn on the blue petals of pomegranate
the call to prayers reverberates
love and longing overlap
and the moon falls on the…

Banding for Good?

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On Tuesday, Singapore's Ministry of Education announced that it will scrap streaming in secondary schools in 2024 and replace it with subject-based banding. Singapore Unbound supports the abolition of streaming, which has undermined and stigmatized students by labeling them as Express, Normal (Academic), and Normal (Technical). The belated change to subject-based banding, or tracking as it is called in the USA, is an improvement, but it does not go very far in addressing the inequities in the educational system.

Subject-based banding will, in fact, reinforce the false idea that the current system is based on meritocracy. Even with the change, schools will still be measuring student performance based on different student starting points and unequal access to resources (families, schools, and communities). There is no acknowledgement of prevailing social and economic injustices in society, as piercingly de…

Why I Am Half in Love with Jolovan Wham

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Because like most Singaporeans l have been inducted into the cult of personality. I have been indoctrinated, I mean taught, from young the history of Great Men, so I petition Parliament to preserve the shrine of Jolovan's HDB apartment, even if it's against his wishes, after he joins our Lord.

Because he is super tech savvy, as a Singaporean should be. The cops confirm it after they arrested him for holding an indoor Skype meeting with a democracy activist from Hong Kong, another tech-savvy city. The courts confirm it by convicting him of public disorder and sentencing him to 16 days in prison. See how powerful techies are!

Because every national day I am brainwashed by songs on radio, TV, and in shopping malls telling me charity begins and stays at home, and Jolovan Wham is a labor activist belonging to HOME.

Because I won't give up my Chinese privilege and two Chinese men make more privilege than one, …

Inheritance: An Anthology

Slim pickings in a slim book featuring the work of younger Singaporean poets, edited by Marie Ee and Joy Chee, published by Math Paper Press. Most of the poems are, unsurprisingly, about family, and most of these family poems are overly sentimental and all-too-pious for my taste. How refreshing then to re-encounter the work of Cyril Wong, whose unsparing poem "Coming Out, Leaving Home" closes the anthology with a jet of cold water in the face. He is oddly placed here, however, since he has already published many books. Outstanding among the newer names are Joy Chee, whose "mother comes back as a wok" imagines anew the hoary scene of mother and daughter cooking in a kitchen, and whose "the blank space where the body used to be" deploys the surprising perspective of the dead to good effect; Ian Chung, whose pantun "Presently Absent, Absently Present" employs the recurring form not just seamlessly, but movingly; and Jerrold Yam, who writes with unc…

Less Is More

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It's easy to make fun of Marie Kondo, the decluttering guru with elvish good looks. Her KonMari Method, so summarizable in the mantra to throw out everything and keep only the things that "spark joy," sounds the definition of twee. And yet, as the sale of millions of copies of her books around the world attests, she has touched an open sore in our maximalist lives and consumerist societies. What is to be our relationship to our things, which we accumulate so avidly?
The KonMari Method stresses looking at each category of things in turn, dresses, shoes, books, kitchen utensils, politicians, etc. You can see the necessity for this for we are all too apt to avoid decluttering by looking at our best category and pronouncing ourselves fine in general. To say, for instance, since we're doing well in the economic category, we're doing well too in life. The English word "good" is notoriously slippery s…

World Without Walls

Thanks, Lola Koundakjian, for organizing last night's reading FOR A WORLD WITHOUT WALLS, in conjunction with the World Poetry Movement at Saint Illuminator's Armenian Apostolic Cathedral. What a tremendous cloud of poetic witnesses, embodied and voiced by the 18 participating poets. There were rousing calls to action, moving appeals to pity, satirical depictions of wrong, and sharp diagnoses of individuality.

I read Frost's "Mending Wall" and then one of my poems about Singaporeans in America, "The Ceramicist." While reading over the Frost poem in preparation, I wondered if anyone has ever noticed that the speaker, in distinguishing himself from his wall-loving neighbor, is also building a wall between them. Frost's speakers are not his mouthpieces (see the much-misunderstood "The Road Not Taken") but may be airing an attitude that the poet wishes us to be wary of, if not criticize. The speaker of "Mending Wall" speaks of "m…

"Pitiless Trains"

Brief remarks at the launch of John Marcus Powell's book of poems Veil On, Veil Off (Exot Books) at Suite Bar, NY, NY, on Feb 10, 2019:

I relate to John Marcus Powell's poetry in many ways. We are both flaneurs, and we love to walk through the city and allow the city to walk through us. We are also queer, and so share a history that is far longer than the 10 years that we've known each other. And we are both immigrants to the great city of New York, and so we look back at our homes with an eye that is loving but not blind, that is critical but not cynical. I will read you one of his poems about his native Wales, and then I will say a few words about it. 

"River" is unusual in John Marcus's poetry; it is rather more objective than subjective. In his other poems about home, he inserts himself either as the vulnerable but self-aware child that he was or as the knowing, playful voice of adult experience. In "River" John Marcus dials down his mesmerizin…

Time to Open the Archives

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"They came to the coffee shop in Joo Chiat where I was working at 2am. About five or six officers came, and they took me to Outram [police station], where there were already many people. I was detained for four and a half years. I was a Singapore citizen but I lost my citizenship; they took me to the border. I couldn’t return to Singapore for years...."

YEH Kim Pak was 27 years old when he was arrested on February 2nd, 1963, along with over 110 anti-colonial activists on the mere suspicion of being Communists. Yeh was not a Communist, but he did fight for workers' rights through the Singapore Coffee Shop Employees Union. The British police operation, codenamed Cold Store, was supported by the Malaysian and Singaporean leaders who used it against their political opponents. In fact, there is evidence that Singapore's leader LEE Kuan Yew urged the reluctant British authorities to tak…

Posing Modernity

Saw the show "Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today" at the Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University. Curated by Denise Murrell as her PhD thesis, the show argued that Manet broke from the Orientalist and ethnographic depiction of black women current during his time, that Matisse took his cue from Manet in his painting of his black models, and that subsequent painters have been in part influenced or reacted against these two forerunners, in particular, Manet's famous "Olympia." I was particularly happy to see Matisse's "Dame a la robe blanche" (1946) in which negative space defines the woman's chest, and for a second time his cutout "Creole Dancer," now rendered visibly black due to this show. I was also taken with Charles Alston's "Girl in a Red Dress" (1934), showing a modern and sophisticated young Harlemite.

The Tropics and Other Experiments

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Interviewed by the online magazine Entropy, I had the opportunity to reflect on the point of setting up Gaudy Boy in 2017 as an imprint of Singapore Unbound. What are your influences, your aesthetic, your mission, the interview asked. I wrote, "We arise from, and hope to contribute to, the transnational ‘turn’ in literature and literary studies. We are interested in the various ways that writers and writings move across national boundaries to develop a circulation of influences, exchanges, and alliances. Instead of seeing the world in such dualistic terms as East versus West, North versus South, we envision the gathering of the most progressive elements everywhere, and the publication of such a gathering in our list."

Big words indeed, which do not hide the fact that Gaudy Boy is very much an experiment in its infancy. We don't know if we will succeed, but we are inspired by others who have gone before us. In…

Seal Speaks

7 poems from my new book CONNOR AND SEAL forthcoming from Sibling Rivalry Press in Spring 2020. The poems in the voice of Seal are pessimistic in outlook (be warned!), whereas the poems spoken by Connor are the opposite. Together they capture something of the vacillations of this politically unsettling time, I hope. Big thanks to Dale Peck, for accepting these poems, the first poetry published in this reincarnation of a pioneering American journal that was launched in 1957 with the work of Samuel Beckett, Jean-Paul Sartre, Mark Schorer, and James Purdy, and that introduced to American readers the work of Genet, Grass, Ōe, Duras, Paz, Walcott, and Nabokov.


Watched Tom at the Farm (2013), directed by Xavier Dolan, who also co-wrote the script and played the part of the protagonist. Quite a tense film, a psychological struggle between Tom and his deadlover's homophobic older brother, but the film could have been so much better. Pierre-Yves Cardinal plays the older brother Francis.

Adventure in Selfhood

Ian McKellen is luminous as the titular protagonist of Mr. Holmes (2015), directed by Bill Condon. Laura Linney, as his housekeeper, is good, and completely adorable is Milo Parker, the young fan who tries to get Holmes to work again, but McKellen could express so much with just one twitch in his hangdog face.

American Wrestler: The Wizard (2016), directed by Alex Ranarivelo, is too much of a feel-good movie to be genuinely moving, let alone intellectually probing. The teenage boy, who escaped from Iran, does not question his compulsive desire to assimilate into America. He succeeds when he helps his struggling high-school wrestling team to win and when he gets the blonde. Still, when George Kosturos finally pulled off his baggy shirt and showed off his Greek body, all my criticisms expired eagerly. Kevin G. Schmidt, who plays his teammate, was also dishy.

Read about Robert Penn Warren's long poem about Audubon in Literary Imagination Volume 20 Number 1 2018, in the essay "Rob…

To Redeem the Pledge

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Social change activists are often perceived as trouble-makers. This happens not only in Singapore but all around the world. However, this wrong perception is even more egregious in Singapore because Singaporeans have forgotten or suppressed their own local tradition of activism. The mistake is thus prevalent and stubborn. To unearth the history, theory, and practice of Singaporean activism, the news magazine New Naratif interviews former student activist TAN Tee Seng and civil rights activist Jolovan WHAM in their podcast series Political Agenda.

In the interview, New Naratif's THUM Ping Tjin referred to a theory of activism propounded by Bill Moyer. This is not the beloved American political commentator. This Bill Moyer (without an 's" at the end of his last name) was a United States social change activist who influenced Martin Luther King Jr. and James Bevel to focus the…

The Conduct of Propaganda

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"All art is propaganda, and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists," declared W.E.B. Du Bois, the African American philosopher and civil rights leader, in "Criteria for Negro Art" (1926). The trenchant declaration captures a vital truth about the function of literature in directing the sympathies of the reader. Being somewhat priggish and not a little puristical, I confess to feeling uncomfortable with the word "propaganda," feeling as I do the Singaporean state's output of feel-good songs, images, and 'news' as a rash.

Was it the element of 'propaganda' in Terrance Hayes's American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin that disappointed my high hopes? The poems are tremendously inventive and musical, but the matter and treatment of the murders of young black men in America is... too obvious? Too easy a play for the sympathies of the reader…

The Body Transformed

Friday night—watched first 3 episodes of the series Atlanta. Good script but uneven acting. GH hated it. The black body as brute and brutalized, as tender and tenderness.

Saturday night—Gina Apostol read from INSURRECTO for Second Saturdays. She began a little unsteadily, as I've seen her do at other readings, and then she settled into it and delivered a passionate voicing of the many characters in her novel. The novel restores my faith in the literary form, in its capacity to revisit the atrocities of history and not merely to recount them, but to re-view them. The colonizer is in me just as I am in my colonizer. There is an essential mystery to the large-scale horrors of history, just as there is to final act of the suicide.

Sunday—The Met's "Epic Abstraction" show was a big disappointment. After two gigantic rooms of Pollocks and Rothkos, one of this and one of that, in a misguided attempt to show the influence of Abstract Expressionism beyond American shores and …

Invitation to an Insurrection

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Dueling Narratives About Colonial Rule

In the early morning of September 28, 1901, Filipino revolutionaries, led by local police chief Valeriano Abanador, attacked the American garrison stationed in Balangigi, on the island of Samar. They killed 36 and wounded 22 in action. In retaliation, the Americans swept through the island, burning villages and killing anyone, men and women, above the age of 10. Their order was to make Samar "a howling wilderness." Estimates of the number of casualties range from 2,500 to 50,000.

In her new novel INSURRECTO, Gina Apostol approaches this historical incident of colonial brutality through the dueling narratives of an American filmmaker and her Filipino translator. In the process Apostol also tells the stories of women artists and revolutionaries, daughters and lovers, coming to an understanding of the truth of their lives, including one Casiana Naci…

Foamy Days

Last night watched Mood Indigo (2013), original title L'écume des jours, which may be translated as "Foamy Days." Like its title, the movie was light and whimsical, until it turned dark. Wealthy inventive bachelor Colin (Romain Duris, who looked stunningly like BV) fell in love with Chloé (Audrey Tautou) who fell ill due to a flower growing in her lung. To keep her alive, he spent his fortune surrounding her with fresh flowers. At their first meeting, they danced to Duke Ellington's "Choe." Directed by Michael Gondry, the movie is based on the novel by Boris Vian.

Today, after a rainy and cold brunch, we walked into the greenhouse of the Urban Garden Center under the railway tracks in Harlem, and came out of it with a Peace Lily. It now sits on our desks between us in our studio. After trying out a few names, boys' and girls', we've decided, I think, to call it Chloe. Welcome, Chloe, to our lives.

New Croton Dam

Spent yesterday with PYR who brought me to see the magnificent Croton Dam. Then a drive through the miniscule downtown of Croton-on-Hudson and lunch of home-made siew mai and popiah at her place. Lovely day, which ended with a Gaudy Boy team meeting at Rasa back in the city.

Happy New Year from Singapore Unbound

"What reprieve the streets could be, what rain
falling endlessly from the eaves of shophouses
as a line of trees becomes the token gesture
nature makes to signify an elsewhere here
where a woman slowly rises to become the shadow of a shadow of me."

—from Lawrence Lacambra Ypil's forthcoming book THE EXPERIMENT OF THE TROPICS

2018 changed into 2019 on a rainy night in New York City. The rain, however, did not dampen the merrymaking on the streets much. Instead, with the right pair of eyes, or pair of light-up glasses, you could have seen the rain signifying both here and elsewhere, as Ypil's lines above evoke, both past and future, not in the style of transformation, but in the method of what English poet William Wordsworth called interfusion, which is the art of both poetry and photography.

Gaudy Boy publishes Ypil's lyrical meditation on photographs of colonial Philippines in April, together with its fellow winner of the first Gaudy Boy Poetry Book Award…


Tuesday, Dec 18—Read Kevin Killian's Fascination. Who would have guessed that the North Shore of Long Island was so full of incident and pathos in the 70s? This three-decker memoir is in search of lost time, the writer's teens and twenties, lived in a haze of drugs and drink and drool-worthy boys. "Move along the velvet rope, run your shaky fingers past the lacquered zigzag Keith Haring graffito: "You did not live in our time! Be Sorry!""

Friday, Dec 28—Saw the Indian's Progressive Artists' Group show at Asia Society. Ram Kumar's "Unemployed Graduates" (1956), F. N. Souza's "Tycoon and the Tramp" (1955) and "Girl with the Silken Whip" (1963), and S. H. Raza's two "Ls Tere"'s (1973 and 1985) were stand-outs. My favorite painting was V. S. Gaitonde's Untitled (1962) abstract work, commissioned by Air India. After the show GH and I had Spanish tapas, Barcelona-style, at the very fine Boquer…