The words are what they are: Interview with Joshua Ip

By Felicia Low-Jimenez, Interviews Editor, Kitaab

Joshua IpJoshua Ip is prodigiously talented and quite likely needs very little sleep given that he has achieved all that he has while juggling a full-time job. He was the Golden Point Award runner-up for Poetry in 2011, the winner for Prose in 2013, and was co-winner of the Singapore Literature Prize for English Poetry in 2014. His winning book, Sonnets from the singlish, was his first published collection. Not satisfied with conquering verse and prose, he is also working on a graphic novel titled Ten Stories Below. However, beyond all his personal accomplishments, Joshua is also the brain behind a slew of literary programmes that are focused on mentoring and grooming the next generation of local poets.

Tell us more about these programmes/initiatives (for lack of a better catch-all word) with names that most Singaporeans can relate to (or feel traumatised by).

  • Burn After Reading (BAR): A workshop for young poets aged 15-21. Selection by an open call and interviews.
  • Image-Symbol Department (ISD)/Ministry of Noise (MON): A workshop for 20-something-ish poets before their first manuscripts. Selected through or attracted by SingPoWriMo.
    • Manuscript Boot camp: An intensive residential program focused on developing first manuscripts for publication
    • Ten Year Series: An imprint for first manuscripts
  • Math Remedial: A workshop for published poets after their 1st-2nd

I’m not sure about “most Singaporeans”, but:

Joshua Ip 1BAR is Sunday school, where you get broad guidance together with kids around the same age. ISD/MON are cell groups/care groups which are more mature and intensive, with focus on peer review and support. Manuscript Boot camp is like an intensive Bible course. Ten Year Series is the process of being ordained. Math Remedial is a club for pastors. Regular poetry reading events are church, and SWF is Christmas season… I think I lost the metaphor halfway through.

But basically there is a kind of hierarchy and progression through these programmes, with intensity varying based on the level of enthusiasm and maturity of the participants. Most are regular monthly workshops, with the onus really on the poets themselves to drive the sessions. The exception is the younger BAR session which has slightly more facilitation. Also, members from higher levels pop down regularly to provide support to the next generation. Even the pinnacle workshop, Math Remedial still gets regular support from senior poets—from Prof Edwin Thumboo to Alvin Pang, and Cyril Wong’s generation all the way to guest residents like Jasmine Cooray.

Why did you and your fellow poets feel the need to come up with these initiatives? Is there something currently lacking in our creative arts education infrastructure (Creative Arts Program, Mentor Access Program, National Arts Council, National Book Development Council etc.) that you are addressing?

I went for the Asia-Pacific Writers’ Conference in Bangkok where I met writers from the Philippines. I was fascinated by the system of workshops they have in the Philippines that culminated at Silliman, the longest-running writing workshop in Asia. I had also attended workshops in the US and Bangkok, and realized what was missing from my writing development here was a regular peer-driven workshop.

As for community, there was also a bit of a lack of a formal structure, especially given the explosion of new poets (in their 20s and 30s) with the Math Paper Press-driven poetic renaissance of the 2010s. Math Remedial felt like it filled a natural space when we began to meet. It helped us connect as a generation and form links to the senior generation. The title came about coincidentally—I invited poets from all publishing houses, but only Math Paper Press (MPP) showed up.

Joshua Ip 2ISD/MON began separately (and equally organically)—as an offshoot of SingPoWriMo. The first Singapore Poetry Writing Month in April 2014 gathered nearly 500 poets in a challenge to write one poem a day for 30 days. The best and most regular of the contributors established a sense of community and expressed privately the desire to keep things going after SingPoWriMo.  We threw together two groups: poets interested in page and stage respectively. We brought in writers from Math Remedial to facilitate sessions and worked to get them performance opportunities at the Singapore Writers Festival.

BAR was a legacy program left behind by Jacob Sam LaRose and later Jasmine Cooray after both decamped to London after short residencies. Pooja Nansi and I took over shortly after we started Math Remedial, and eventually integrated it into the portfolio of workshops.

Finally, after a year of workshops, I felt that all the participants had achieved a high level of development for individual poems—but no one had really delved into the theory and process of developing a manuscript, which is entirely different. Flush with cash from other literary endeavours, I wanted to invest in the younger generation of Singapore writers, and thus approached Kenny Leck to start an imprint of Math Paper Press that would cater to new poets, but would also guarantee a certain amount of quality control.

After discussion with Alvin Pang, I decided to throw together an intensive boot camp modelled partially on Silliman—a three-day workshop for manuscripts, anchored by a wide range of poets, publishers, editors and academics. This would allow a few of the poets from ISD/MON to get the feedback and guidance necessary to produce really polished first collections. The result was the recently concluded Manuscript Boot camp.

All these programs really started from the ground up. Their success has come from a real community need and desire to make things happen, and peer review as a driving force rather than top-down instruction. This is where I think we have been able to fill some gaps in the whole portfolio of literary development programs. CAP and MAP are very much top-down programs, and ultimately only have a short period of intervention. Peer-review workshops are infinitely scalable, low-cost, and inherently create the sense of community that is necessary to sustain these efforts for the long run.

You’ve recently completed your first three-day manuscript boot camp. Could you tell us what goals (or if you want, KPIs) you set out to achieve together with your participants?

To beat the living shit out of their manuscripts. For my own first manuscript I had to assemble my own feedback group within my own social circles, but how many people are both willing and qualified to read through an entire book of poetry and give you detailed, useful feedback? It’s terrible when you feel like something is broken but you don’t really know if it is, or how to fix it. And sometimes you can be caught up in the euphoria of wanting to rush something out to show people, so much that you forget the need to produce a polished product. So many poets regret their first manuscripts.

If there was one feeling in common for all the poets at the end of boot camp, it was “my manuscript needs more work, I don’t want to rush this out”. I count that as a success.

Would you consider the boot camp a success? If so, could you define what you mean by success?

Oh, I kind of answered that in the previous question. But a few additional, ancillary bits:

It wasn’t just the six participants who benefited. All the organisers got the opportunity to audit the boot camp, and many of us took away useful insights for our own work. The practicing poets who came in also got to hear the opinion of other diverse voices of their own generation, and found their opinions and judgments challenged and questioned by a very lively set of young poets. Lots of literary networking occurred, not just among poets, but among the vital support group–editors, academics and publishers that sustain the wider literary ecosystem. And finally, I got to redistribute a few thousand dollars of government money (via honoraria) into writers’ pockets. Some of them would have done it purely for the love of developing young writers, but I believe it’s important to pay writers for their time and effort. Being able to secure NAC funding and to disburse it in a timely fashion to people who deserve it counts as a success for me.

What was the participant selection process like? What criteria did the participants have to meet to make the cut for the boot camp?

There was an open call for manuscripts in the month of January. I asked for manuscripts of at least 30 poems (which is already on the short side), with at least three publishing credits in online or print journals. The publishing and length criteria helped to established two bars of merit: quality and quantity. A poet can write three brilliant poems but not be able to sustain it for the length of a collection, or they can also churn out a thousand poems but not have a single one deemed worthy of publication by other subjective opinions. After that, the four facilitators read through all the manuscripts and discussed which had the greatest potential for publication.

Based on what I understand, most of these programs are self-funded (though you did mention there was some support from NAC).

Disclosure: NAC funded Manuscript Boot camp to the tune of $8,000. The other workshops are self-running, but we’ve obtained generous venue sponsorship from The Arts House for all the groups.  Sarah and Schooling Graphic Design firm also provided venue sponsorship for the boot camp, in line with their long standing support for the literary arts, and is our back-up venue in event The Arts House has booking conflicts.

Did you have any problems convincing your fellow trainers to donate their time?

The core group of facilitators hail from Math Remedial—Pooja Nansi and Ann Ang, with occasional help from Jollin Tan and Tania de Rozario. I think we share the same passion for developing the next generation, as well as the more practical understanding that being in a workshop with talented young writers helps develop our own skills—keeping us up to date, as it were. Certain members such as Samuel Lee and Tse Hao Guang help to bridge different groups like ISD and BAR, and provide leadership for the younger groups. Specifically for the boot camp, I think it’s evidence of the amount of passion there is for the literary scene that all my panelists (poets, editors, publishers and academics alike) agreed to help out with no promise of financial remuneration.

Who were the first people you thought of to involve in your boot camp (trainer-wise)?

Alvin Pang, Cyril Wong and Toh Hsien Min were the first three people I asked, and eventually all provided double sessions at the start and end. All are not just acclaimed poets, but also long—running editors in their own right. All three had been guests to Math Remedial in the last year, and were favorite guests for various reasons.

Alvin had been on my case to start a Singapore version of Silliman for the longest time—in some ways he is the inspiration for Boot camp. (Though his vision was closer to a residential retreat on a tropical resort somewhere.) Cyril was close to the facilitators thanks to our work on “Apart”, the poetry-play at SWF. And Hsien Min—we chiefly wanted him to bring alcohol. Instead he delivered an Oxford-quality opening lecture, and a closing series of individual graphs complete with correlation analysis that blew the participants away.

Do you feel that “grassroots” initiatives like these will be sustainable?

Joshua Ip 3I think workshops are sustainable as long as you pick the right people with the correct levels of talent and maturity, and achieve the right fit within workshops. Some of the workshops have slightly higher levels of passion and commitment than others, and will probably last longer as a result, with or without any help from me. In fact, I intend to cut a couple of them loose to run themselves, and move on to starting one or two more after SingPoWriMo 2015, just like cell groups. BAR has burgeoned to 30 after the last round of recruitment, and may have to go amoeba soon. I believe that this model is infinitely self-replicable and scalable­—you just need a clear set of SOPs, good facilitators to hand-hold for the first 3-6 sessions, and enough talent in each group to run itself.

The little bonus factor these grassroots initiatives have versus CAP and MAP is that people sign up for CAP and MAP expecting to be brought through a programme. Whereas in a peer-reviewed workshop, everybody has to pull their own weight—write the regular piece, and provide criticism on everyone’s pieces. I think that creates a greater sense of ownership, and ultimately develops poets with more confidence and initiative. (Of course, this works slightly better for working adults as opposed to students.)

Did your SLP win galvanize you into action or was this something you had been planning for a while?

Looking at how all these various programmes have come together nicely as a holistic, vertically—integrated developmental framework, I’d like to say I had the foresight and long—term vision to have planned all of this from the start. Unfortunately I just blundered into most of them on whims and fancy, and have been sustained by a core group of helpful, enthusiastic fellow facilitators like Pooja and Ann, as well as a real need from the community. You would be horrified at how many of these initiatives began as a late night Facebook conversation on somebody’s wall (usually Alvin Pang), got recorded and honed in a google spreadsheet, and were launched the next morning with a flurry of emails.

SLP helped give me a smidgen more credibility as a facilitator-poet, and by correlation sprinkled a little bit more fairy dust on all the workshops I was affiliated with, but most of the programs were set in motion long before the win.

Do you think writing poetry can be a collaborative process and thrive in a “studio” environment the same way comic books have?

I don’t like collaborating on poems. I like giving and receiving criticism on poems, which is a different thing entirely. Artists and writers are egotistical individuals and generally don’t share well–but can play nice if they can clearly own something. Comic books have a few different components for specialist individuals to lay claim to – writing, inks, colours etc. I don’t think it works that way for poets. The words are what they are. Poetry collectives and workshops can work in terms of developing pieces with strong mutual feedback – but at the end of the day you’re only going to see one name under each poem.

Sonnets from the singlish, Making Love With Scrabble Tiles, A Luxury We Cannot Afford, and SingPoWriMo are published by Math Paper Press and are available from all good bookstores or from