Singapore: Poetry At The Planetarium
by Team Kitaab – Poetry
“When it is dark enough,” Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “you can see the stars.” This Saturday, the Omni-Theatre at Science Centre Singapore will dim its lights for Singapore’s literary luminaries. A project initiated by the Singapore Writers Festival and Science Centre Singapore, Poets Among The Stars promises a feature-length show that brings together the wonders of science and art, as contemporary verse lights up the Omni-Theatre’s massive IMAX dome, the only of its kind in the country. The event is free, with limited seating. For registration, please visit: http://swfpop11.peatix.com/?lang=en-sg.
About this unique collaboration, Yeow Kai Chai, director of the Singapore Writers Festival, has this to say: “Poets have always been inspired by astronomy and the solar system, ranging from William Blake to the Metaphysical Poets, and so, we thought, why not work with Science Centre Singapore to get writers to wax lyrical about the galaxy in the awe-inspiring Omni-Theatre? For the longest time, our society tends to compartmentalise people into either of two camps – science-oriented or arts-inclined. Instead, we believe that there’s much we can learn and appreciate as we reach across the aisles. We have been blown away by the unique, eclectic approaches by the writers as they reach inwards, and outwards towards the universe. We are thankful to our friends at Science Centre Singapore who have taken on the project whole-heartedly, and shown everyone, regardless of their discipline, how alike we are as we marry words and astronomy in our pursuit of truth and knowledge.”
Eight accomplished writers in Singapore were commissioned to pen pieces for the show. The writers include Ann Ang, Chairul Fahmy Hussaini, Christine Chia, Deborah Emmanuel, Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé, Jon Gresham, Loh Guan Liang and Teng Qian Xi. Managed by Caroline Wan and Muhamed Leoaidil from the National Arts Council, the show has been no easy feat to put together, as Yong Jian-Yi from The Science Centre explains:“One word describes this project, ‘Tough’. A work that would usually require half a year condensed into a month. Besides the constraint of time, one of the challenges is to develop the creative vision of each poet into a visual and coherent whole. Although I do consult with the poets, I occasionally have to take artistic licence. Hopefully the visitors don’t find it too disjointed! The planetarium is something new to the Science Centre which I am particularly proud of. Science is usually seen as very utilitarian in Singapore – one of the goals that we hope to accomplish is to show the public that science is also beautiful. There is beauty in exploration and discovery. One can communicate the beauty of science. I think that led us to ask who could best communicate through words. The writers, poets, singers and artists. I think this is a very exciting collaboration. A meeting of minds between art and science will surely bring forth something greater: a merging of goals.”
On Saturday, the eight writers will perform live, reading their original pieces against the audio-visual splendour of this special feature. These celebrated writers have brought their own distinct voices and imagination to their individual pieces. Several of them share their insights and creative process with us.
Chairul Fahmy Hussaini
“Transient Masterpiece” relates to my observation about life, of the bees in particular, which sneak into my bathroom, at around six in the morning every day. Seeing their eagerness to try coming in through the window crevices and then hovering at the ceiling light before falling dead, makes me feel incongruent. I am trying to stop them from flying into my bathroom and meet a certain death, their determination in meeting death after going through a short period of enjoyment, provides me an opportunity to reflect on and appreciate the state of being, about life and death. So through my poem, I try to share my thoughts on these things. The bees made me better understand that death is a part of the cycle of life and our dependency on the Divine. The bees too made me understand a simple fact: that one should never strive for death but one should be ready to meet death when it comes. I express these notions in abstract, as seen below:
for a moment, the bee skirts
dancing towards the light enlightening
life’s chambers, before falling
and die in defeat
the light is such enthralling brilliance
which hauls life to death
The poem also relates the majestic creation of the universe and us, the living beings. The creation proves one thing, that the creator is Supreme.
When we first went into the planetarium, I was dizzy. It was a beautiful vertigo, coupled with awe. We sat down for the next hour in plush seats and watched the universe fly around us, feeling as though we were the ones flying around it. I became one with the blur of planets and nebulae. The resultant understanding was profound and sobering – a realisation that I am an insignificant speck. Yet insignificant specks such as myself are completely capable of destroying the planet we inhabit. Specks can demolish a part of the universe with just ignorance and selfishness. That didn’t seem insignificant anymore. So in my poem I decided to address the insignificance of us as individuals and the significance of our actions when we practise destructive behaviours as a whole. It was not difficult to construct the sequence with song and video because I enjoy multimedia work and have made it in the past. I wrote the poem, then decided what imagery would work, and picked a song to rehearse it to. My favourite part of the piece is the supernova sequence, brightly blazing pink and swallowing the audience with its starry mouth. I can’t wait for people to feel the same dizzy awe I felt during preparations for the show.
Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé
At the centre of my poem stands Auguste Rodin’s bronze sculpture, The Thinker. Few people know the sculpture was originally titled The Poet, or “Le Poète” in French. The work was inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy. My text is cheekily titled “Science Exam Margin Notes”, a response poem to the often profoundly difficult test questions students have to grapple with these days. Given my larger project of exploring the impossible limits of language, I collapsed both question and answer into this post-confessionalist narrative. It’s largely an exposition on the Derridean dictum that everything is quasi-metaphorical. It also features as elements other beautiful ideas – of the trace, erasure, iterability, presence, play, spectrality, undecidability – that Derrida talked about. My text asks the fundamental question: what is reality, and how do we make meaning of it as poets? Jamming into the lyric are abstract notions of epistemology, ontology, relativity, relativism, all in a heady stream. Streaming across the dome are images of some of my all-time favourite writers – Eliot, Ginsberg, Derrida, Foucault – and that alone makes me beam. Something quaint: Meghan, a recurring character in my books, was deliberately included in the original draft. She lost her function as the text morphed. She now exists only in memory. This remains a wonderful irony, given the poem’s fuzzy thesis on the trace, and how we think/speak through and despite various systems of signification.
In my poem, “Pulau Ubin and the Universe”, after missing the last bum boat to Changi Village a thoughtful chap is taken on a journey by a strong, young woman. They rise upwards from a beach on Pulau Ubin, through the rings of Saturn, touch the surface of sun, and explore the outer reaches of the universe. I don’t want to reveal what happens on this intergalactic expedition. All I’ll say is our hero is very afraid of being eaten, and this woman takes him further than he has ever gone before. I wrote this poem while listening to Steve Reich and Vangelis, and looking at pictures of Ziggy Stardust, Rutger Hauer and Laika. I brainstormed ideas, and took a traditional narrative approach coupled with immersive techniques, i.e. I managed to switch off my internet connection for long enough to write something vaguely comprehensible. My process can be broken down into four steps:
- Create a story world with stars and the universe, and a hero possessed by the desire to impress his companion on a beach at Pulau Ubin
- Introduce a disruption with an event that takes this hero up, up and away
- Explore what that disruption means for my hero
- Try and end within the time constraints
Loh Guan Liang
For Poets Among The Stars I composed a tanka sequence entitled “Astronaut Marginalia”. Prior to this my knowledge of astronomy was abysmal, hence I sought out Carl Sagan’s Cosmos as my guide to the universe. Each tanka in “Astronaut Marginalia” riffs on a certain aspect of astronomy in an imaginative, sometimes comical, manner: the cosmonaut stops to take a selfie while travelling, and is even told off for eating durians in space! Multimedia in nature, my poem seeks to complement the Omni-Theatre’s planetarium performance. Not forgetting sound, I chose an instrumental by Yasunori Mitsuda to enhance the ethereal sensation of sitting under a huge black dome as it blooms into planets and light.
Teng Qian Xi
While reading up on astronomy for this commission, I found myself returning again and again to the concept of constellations. Constellations have always seemed to me so typical of the way human imaginations work; it’s fascinating and baffling to me that the ancient Greeks managed to see crabs and archers and so on in groups of stars which, if lines were drawn between them, would basically form polygons or maybe spiky crystalline shapes. So I decided to see what my imagination could do with poems I’d written more than a decade ago, and extracted a bunch of lines from four separate poems, and shuffled the words around. The final piece, “Reconfigurations”, consists of three reconfigurations of that set of words, with no omissions. It was marvelous to discover new, sometimes darker resonances and undertones in lines which had felt so immutable, but it was only after rereading Zong! by M. NourbeSe Philip that I realised that fragmenting each of the lines in the tidy couplets would open up even more meanings, especially when read on a huge screen. The process of reconfiguration was weirdly like a collaboration with my past self, but I also experienced twinges of guilt that by creating this piece, I was in a way disavowing her. But at the end of the day, I needed to liberate those words from their histories, and I think this new form gives a better sense of the messiness of longing and human (dis)connection.