By Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé

ravi-shankar-at-jaipur

Let’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?

Wow, well start with the easy questions, eh? Well, I suppose, thinking of Rilke—whose poems and letters I’ve always loved but who I would sadly come to find out (in that way we eventually kill our heroes) was a kind of a pretentious deadbeat who shirked his responsibilities and mooched off the aristocratic patrons of the Hapsburg Empire in pursuit of his “pure” art—I have gone into myself and found that the need to write has spread its roots into my heart. I don’t know if I would die if forbidden to write, but having dug deeply, that mythic Rilkean imperative of “I must” is there, for better or worse. I write because I feel compelled to describe what I’ve seen and touched and tasted, the losses I’ve tallied, the places and people who’ve inspired me, all in pursuit of trying to better understand myself as a bicultural human being at the beginning of a new millennium. Those marks of signification help me fix the flux into something that might resemble, if not the answers, then at least the questions that are most relevant to ask when delving into the nature of our shared reality.

Tell us about your most recent book or writing/editing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?

Well I should mention two projects that achieved closure around the same time. One is the anthology I co-edited with Alvin Pang, entitled “UNION: 15 Years of Drunken Boat and 50 Years of Writing from Singapore” [https://www.ethosbooks.com.sg/products/union] which encompasses two very disparate bodies of work, one from the online journal of the arts I founded in 1999 and one from the Singaporean city-state founded as a modern republic in 1965. The main purpose behind this project was to highlight the subconscious connections that writers might share, who on the surface might not have anything at all in common. To view the Malay Peninsula through the prism of experimental poetics, then to stand on the other side of the lens and look back. I’m particularly excited that I can introduce to an American readership the really wonderful work happening in Singapore. I also just recently translated the 9th century female Tamil poet/saint Andal with Priya Sarukkai Chabria [http://zubaanbooks.com/shop/andal-the-autobiography-of-a-goddess/], and this ancient bhakti poet writes remarkable sensual yet devotional work that is as relevant to our time as it was to hers. Her fierce longing takes the shape of the corporeal body but transcends in such a way that she is continually reaching beyond herself in the way true mystics do. And because Tamil is my mother tongue, it was an important project for me, especially to resuscitate Andal not as a scholar’s creation but as a poet’s, even when that meant taking some liberties with her work, for we hoped to make her sing in a contemporary English idiom.

Describe your writing aesthetic.

If I was visual artist, I might be Gerhard Richter, he of those photorealistic blurs alongside those scraped and layered abstractions. That range, that impulse never to settle on one unity of style, when it might lead to a calcification of perception, of a repetition of motive, has never interested in me. Instead I am the formalist who believes in roughening up his enjambments; the postmodern archaic who loves forms that are simultaneously contemporary and ancient, like the zuihitsu and the cento, collage-forms and remixes that are many centuries old. I believe in a geometry of language, poems sculpted until they sit in the palm like a desk clock. But I also believe in those wild, undetermined screes of language that accumulate upon the slope of speech like some alien transmission—which they are—some spiritual guidance given the form of a salamander that skitters on the page.  I believe in translation and transmission, vision and revision, and mad distillation so that nothing can be pared away without collapsing the entire tower.

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EFW 2015 Cover 18 Aug 2015 Front OnlyWhat happens when art meets literature? At the Singapore Writers Festival, Eye/Feel/Write will launch its second installment, with the publication of a beautiful anthology, titled “Eye/Feel/Write: Experiments in Ekphrasis”, as well as curated walking tours at The National Gallery.

A special commission by the National Arts Council, Eye/Feel/Write is a two-year ekphrastic project that has invited distinguished writers in Singapore to pen texts inspired by artworks exhibited at museums here. In the first year, ten writers — Alvin Pang, Edwin Thumboo, Isa Kamari, Jollin Tan, Joshua Ip, Ovidia Yu, Ramanathan Vairavan, Robin Hemley, Tan Chee Lay, and Yeow Kai Chai — created texts that dialogued with artworks at Singapore Art Museum’s Medium at Large exhibit. Ten poems were printed on broadsides as limited edition collectibles, housed in blank journals with an invitation to readers to engage in their own ekphrastic experiments.

By Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé

Alvin PangLet’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?

To make something meaningful out of nothing.

Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?

My latest set of poems all seem to have to do with a sense of endings; they are elegies and aubades and goodbyes – perhaps I am subconsciously trying to come to terms with impending middle age. I also have a couple of anthologies of Singapore writing due for US and UK publication; these are introductory scans of some of our best, more cutting edge work to date. Very SG50!

Describe your writing aesthetic.

Restless.

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.

PenguinWriters in Singapore have gone on a verbal offensive (and launched petitions) against the decision of the National Library Board (NLB) to pull out and “pulp” three controversial children’s books. NLB decided to take this step after a pro-family group in Singapore complained to the library about these titles that were supposedly anti-family.

The three titles are And Tango Makes Three, The White Swan Express and Who’s In My Family?

Here are reactions from some prominent writers of the city state who have spoken on the matter on their Facebook pages or have shared their thoughts with the media:

NgYishengNg Yi-Sheng, Poet

“They could have chosen a compromise solution, such as putting the books in Adult Lending, or even the Reference Section. They didn’t. Don’t think they won’t do the same again.”

 

cyril wongCyril Wong, Poet

“As a queer writer, I think I have reached a limit of some sort, in the light or dark of recent events. I don’t know why I’m bothering anymore. By sometime next year, I’m just going to stop; yes, stop publishing, stop working with governmental organisations, even stop writing.”

Alvin Pang
Alvin Pang

“The latest, second edition of The Oxford Companion to Modern Poetry in English features several entries on Singapore poets,” tweeted Singapore poet and literary guru Alvin Pang today.

Besides Pang, Boey Kim Cheng, Edwin Thumboo, Arthur Yap, Yong Shu Hoong, Toh Hsien Min,  Jee Leong Loh and Cyril Wong have been included in the publication.