By Tammy Lai-Ming Ho and Jason Eng Hun Lee
Born in 1977, Alfian Sa’at is an accomplished and versatile Singaporean writer who has published across all three genres of prose, poetry, and drama, winning awards in each genre, including the Singapore Literature Prize, Golden Point Award and Singapore Young Artist Award. His three poetry collections, One Fierce Hour (Landmark Books, 1998), A History of Amnesia (Ethos Books, 2001) and The Invisible Manuscript (Math Paper Press, 2012) were mainly composed during his undergraduate days in Singapore, and he has since published several plays, translations and two short story collections, Corridor: 12 Short Stories (SNP, 1999; Ethos Books, 2015) and Malay Sketches (Ethos Books 2012; Gaudy Boy 2018). Alfian is the Resident Playwright at Wild Rice, a theatre company in Singapore headed by artistic director Ivan Heng.
As part of an ongoing collaborative project entitled Anglophone City Poetics and the Asian Experience, Alfian talks to Tammy Ho and Jason Lee about his first poetic journeys, his relationship with the city-state he calls home, and his reactions to globalization and the cultural imaginary of the Asian city.
Tammy Ho & Jason Lee: You are perhaps more renowned as a playwright these days, but can you tell us what inspired you to write your first poems?
Alfian: I think I was exposed to poetry through an anthology we used in my secondary school (Raffles Institution) called Touched with Fire. It was my first introduction to poets such as Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney, and, if I’m not mistaken, also Sylvia Plath and Philip Larkin. I think these poets left quite a significant impression and I started hunting for their collections in the school library. I was at that age when I took on melancholy as adolescent affectation, and I remember committing Larkin’s ‘Faith Healing’ to memory.
I probably started dabbling in poetry when I joined the Creative Arts Programme, which was a residential programme for students who displayed some aptitude in creative writing. This was when I was 15 years old. We spent one week staying at a hostel at the National University of Singapore. Every day, the other students would publish some of their writings in the daily newsletter. This was one of my earliest exposures to a writing community of peers.
Tammy & Jason: Can you list some important moments in your early experiences as a poet?
Alfian: I recall quite distinctly one moment in the canteen, when we were having our lunch. This was usually some rice with a side of meat and vegetables. Just the day before, one of the students had claimed to have found weevils in the rice, and all the complaints about how bad the food was took this rather nightmarish turn. On that day, the newsletter featured many poems, limericks, doodles about weevils.
So I went up to the lady who served us the rice (in styrofoam containers), to top up my drink. She seemed very pleased with the fact that I was returning ‘for seconds’ and asked me what school I was from. I told her, and her response was that I should eat more, since I was ‘so clever’ and used ‘my brain a lot’.
It was that gap, between the woman’s unguarded, even effusive interaction with me, and the fact that she was a target of parody, that made me return to my hostel room to write one of my first poems. I felt all these things that had to do with class and privilege and guilelessness and betrayal and it was something that I could only process through poetry.