Ravi Shankar on the Ties that Bind Singapore and America

An award-winning poet and the founding editor of Drunken Boat, one of the world’s oldest electronic journals of the arts, Ravi Shankar was in Singapore recently to read at the American Writers Festival, an event co-sponsored by the Singapore Management University and the American Embassy. Below, Shankar writes up his impressions of Singapore on this, his second, visit.

If first impressions are the low-hanging fruit in the horticulture of cultural production, then entering America through JFK airport in New York City is a remarkably sour affair. It’s not hard to wonder what the new immigrant thinks of being corralled through dirty warrens of makeshift dingy walls, rudely patrolled by TSA agents who have mastered the fine art of the exasperated grimace. Arriving in Singapore, in Changi Airport, on the other hand, is sleek and indulgent, with a forest-themed indoor playground for the kiddies and space-age lounges with free massages for the weary traveler. Singapore, like Hong Kong, has the reputation of being first world plus, from the moment you disembark to take a spin in the luxurious and state-regulated Mercedes-Benz cab to the shopping and eating on Orchard Road and in VivoCity. I’m sure there’s a dark, despotic underside pulsing in tandem with the pumps and valves of governmental authoritarianism, but my impression of Singapore was that of a clean, civilized and cosmopolitan city, dedicated to literature and the arts in an overt way, while also buttressed by banking and financial health hard to imagine in the debt-ridden US.

I was invited to Singapore by Dr. Kirpal Singh of Singapore Management University to participate in the American Writers Festival, held from September 23 to 27. A much smaller affair compared to the annual Singapore Writers Festival, this festival was co-sponsored by SMU and the American Embassy in Singapore. American writers from varied backgrounds, including myself, Jewish-American poet and memoirist Rodger Kamenetz, African-American scholar and organizer of the famed Short Story conference Dr Maurice Lee, Asian-American novelist and screen writer Shawn Wong and speculative fiction writer Moira Crone, gave readings, held talks, engaged in dialogues with our Singaporean counterparts, and visited secondary schools around the city-state. In part, our mission was to identify the crossover in our respective cultures and to analyze the ways in which our cultures diverged; I think we also explicitly hoped to counter the notion of American hegemony so prevalent in the Middle East and Asia. Here were five American writers totally variant in terms of ethnicity and writing genre, with views as radically divergent as only a democracy might produce, speaking to a Singaporean audience who seemed to be grappling with the responsibilities and risks of free speech, who were admiring of the audacious American contributions to the arts, but who were also perplexed by a nation that can’t seem to have a civil discussion on its Senate floor. I in turn was mesmerized by the efflorescence of this island brought to prominence by 14th century Srivijayan prince Parameswara whose idea to set up a trading port proved prescient as that remains what Singapore seems most adept at doing: assimilating and evolving.

Perhaps that’s why there are so many statues of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles around, a figure I thought would be reviled as a colonialist parasite but to whom, it turns out, Singaporeans feel they owe much, including ideas of modernization, jurisprudence, city-planning and the inherent value of turning the lens inward at the marvels of one’s own country. Raffles, who helped identify many new species of animals and plant life, kept an extensive zoo on his grounds. The Rafflesia is a genus of parasitic plants that subsist on palm trees in Sumatra, possibly metonymic for the man himself if you consider my favorite picture of the man: Sir Stamford Raffles having dinner on silver plate, with his children and a Sun Bear cub reared from infancy who had acquired a taste for mangoes and champagne. At least in terms of collective iconography, he seems, beside the first Prime Minister of the Republic of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, to be one of Singapore’s most popular public figures.

Fellow American writer Shawn Wong and I traversed the city on days when we weren’t visiting schools or performing our work, and we found miracles of urban planning, such as hives of communal apartments clustered around rings of food courts. We also found a thriving Little India where the dosas were as crisp as they are in Madras. That Tamil was an official language was a source of perpetual delight for me, and I navigated our way through the streets with the vocabulary of a cavalier twelve-year-old. Everywhere I went, all four official languages—Malay, Mandarin, English and Tamil—seemed to get equal play. The instructions at an ATM, for instance, were rendered meticulously in each language, roughly occupying the same amount of space. However, the four separate languages are also a part of the colonial legacy of Raffles, who separated the different ethnic groups to live in their own areas, thus fostering the inequity that still exists today. But Singapore is a small enough country (population of 5 million) that it can manage those differences while creating a dynamic economy. Whether it will continue to do so remains to be seen, as the gap between rich and poor widens. Of all the countries in the world, Singapore has the most number of millionaires, at the time of writing. It is also dependent on live-in domestic helpers, mainly from Southeast Asia.

Shawn and I were amazed by the architecture around the city, the seamless integration of technology into the daily life of the citizens. Along Beach Road, there’s the Concourse, American architect Paul Rudolph’s honeycomb of ascending octagonal layers bisected by windows. There, across the water, the Marina Sands resort, designed by architect Moshe Safdie to resemble a deck of cards, but appearing from street level to be a boat perched atop two skyscrapers, really a ‘Sky Park’ with one of the world’s largest infinity pools curving into the sky. We went to the glass-fronted National Library and marveled at the views and the vestibules, such as the evocative “Possibility Room.” The central atrium was full of historical displays and projected images on flat screens, though we both wondered where the books were in this library. Perhaps it truly was a library of the future and housed no books!

One of the questions I was asked the most by the students whom I met, who came from very different schools, a Baptist mission school as well as prestigious Raffles Institution, the breeding ground of the future leaders of Singapore, was how to infuse their lives with creativity. The question came out in different ways; for example, some engineering students wanted to know how responding to a poem was different than solving an equation and why both tasks had value. Tough question! The self-assured Raffles student had a voice mellifluous in the unintentional parody of a classically trained Latin orator but his witty commentary was spot-on. He showed off his erudition as he introduced Rodger Kamentz and I to read our poems. For my part, I was unprepared, having simply spoken about the expressive capabilities of language and drawn out tentative questions from students at prior school visits, and so I had to read my poems off an iPhone with a wobbly Internet connection, creating caesuras unintended by the author but received with rousing warmth by the audience.

Besides the fellowship with other writers, the warmth and hospitality shown by Kirpal Singh and his students, the excellent panels and the screening of “Americanese,” the film adaptation of the Shawn Wong book “American Knees,” and the in-depth interview I did with Robin Steinberg for the National Critics Choice, one of the highlights of the Writers Festival was a roundtable on The Singapore American Experience. Shawn Wong and I represented America, while Alvin Pang and Christine Su-Chen Lim spoke for Singapore; Kirpal Singh moderated. That we all could speak of both places with some degree of knowledge enhanced the dialogue. Alvin Pang spoke about what he saw as the difference between American foreign policy and literary exchange, speaking from the vantage point of someone who has spent much time in multiple cities there. Shawn Wong recalled going to graduate school at a time when there were literally no programs to study Asian or Asian American literature (and this was in Berkeley in the early 1970’s!) He had to cobble his own course of study together. He spoke about those heady times putting together the groundbreaking anthology of Asian-American writing The Big Aiiieeeee! with Jeffery Paul Chan, Lawson Fusao Inada and the legendary Frank Chin, whose public spats with folks such as Amy Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston gave Asian-American writing the requisite glamor, the kind of gossip —like Hemingway boxing with Wallace Stevens in Key West or Norman Mailer berating Gore Vidal on the Dick Cavett Show—that helps to immortalize a certain literary epoch. Now we live in a world of American literature where there are organizations such as the Asian American Writers Workshop and Kundiman, where writing and publishing by Asian Americans are being supported. But for years there were hardly any voices in the national conversation, save for the memorable ones of folks such as Meena Alexander and Li Young-Lee.

Clearly American poetics has influenced Singaporean literary thought, but there is a thriving scene in Singapore that has flourished in its own right and should be spoken about with a growing notion of canonicity. Some of the earliest online journals of the arts I read came from Singapore—Softblow and the Quarterly Literary Review of Singapore—and more and more younger poets are being published in America and England, such as Pang, Cyril Wong, Koh Jee Leong, Nic Wong, and emerging poets such as Christine Chia Yueh Chin (keep a keen eye on her emergence on American shores in 2014). There is innovation happening in Juliet Wong’s A Minor Magazine and press and in Kenny Leck’s fine bookstore BooksActually.

Indeed, one of the best evenings I had in Singapore over the course of the American Writers Festival was at Kenny’s bookstore where I gave a reading along with Rodger Kamentz. Rodger debuted some of his poems from To Die Next to You, a series of surrealistic poems, created in response to dream-life, that are illustrated by the Soutine-like Michael Hafftka “in images that serve as imaginative midrash, annotation, anticipation and anti-illustration.” BooksActually is the literary version of what an indie fan-boy’s vision of a favorite record store might be. Out on Yong Siak Street in Tiong Bahru, the Astoria of Singapore, meaning the place where artists take over the old spaces before the real estate moguls follow, the shop has books recommended by the owners and staff, stacked on shelves lined with stationary and marvelous little tchotchkes produced by an arm of the bookstore, Birds & Co.. As the house cat Pico purrs along the aisles, the bookstore has the feel of something both comfy and swank, a place where books and reading are cool again. This is especially manifest in their imprint Math Paper Press, which publishes and sells a series of beautiful limited-edition chapbooks at a reasonable price and then turns them into collector’s items. The books are exquisite and the margins on them decently high, and it feels very much like the kind of publishing model that could be utilized in the burnt-out wake of the big box bookstores. I recommend Verena Tay’s In the Company of Heroes, Vinita Ramani’s Parvathi Dreams About his Sex, and Loh Guan Liang’s Transparent Strangers.

After the reading, we went to an art exhibition at Grey Projects that felt like the punk rock shows I used to go to in the Lower East Side, makeshift and full of energy. The exhibition was informal but important, and included Kenny Leck’s first solo exhibition in three years, Quim Tarrida’s open studio and Godwin Koay’s exhibition of watercolors from “Notes from A Revolution.” Leck’s installation recalled Joseph Cornell’s boxes, creating a cliff side of rectangular worlds containing cracked eggs and melted candles, in memory of a mother. Delicate and understated, it spoke eloquently of the grieving process. Tarrida’s images derived from what he called the Subcutanian World, “a microcosm,” according to critic Jordi Costa, “inhabited by strange, metamorphic and viral beings, true anti-heroes on the verge of the uncanny. Projections of the self or of Neo-pop alter egos, ultra-world characters, compose a unique and prodigious imaginary, and attain form through a series of sculptural pieces, limited ceramic editions, and drawings, notable among which are classical pieces from his iconography, such as Subsub Family, The Soldier, Subcutanian Ninja, Oh Gaar, or his latest productions, Relaxing in Blue and The Monkey Knows.”

Godwin Koay’s watercolors imagined a future Singapore where opposition to the government has begun to result in civil unrest and riots in the streets. Rendered as newspaper clippings in languid but journalistically precise watercolors, the works are suggestive of the other question we kept returning to in our peregrinations around Singapore: how important is freedom, in every sense of the word, to the citizens. As Min Chin of Ziggy magazine writes, “Through an entirely imagined narrative, Koay manages to pose very real questions (the series is, after all, inspired by Occupy Wall Street) about what makes a country, the people that exist in it, and the politics of resistance and co-existence. Juxtaposed against the paradise garden city of Singapore – a so-called “insulated greenhouse eternally welcoming to financial investment and growth” – the message becomes this much more striking. “ I was amazed that the work had been inspired by “Occupy Wall Street” (so the movement did have some lasting legacy!) and found the work very edgy and subversive, the kind of art I didn’t expect to find in Singapore. Confronting the artwork overturned my expectations about what is allowable in art and civil discourse in the face of government censors, with a police force, who, according to urban legend, would cane you for disposing your chewing gum on the bottom of a park bench.

I remain excited by the possibilities that evening offered, the impromptu space of the Grey Projects Gallery, with its collection of hipster artists and subversive activists, the connection between poetry and visual art, the use of the digital to help activate the textual. In fact, poet Alvin Pang is going to curate a folio of Singaporean literature for Drunken Boat, and he and I are going to edit a collection of American and Singaporean poetry responding to the theme of “Union,” which can be interpreted broadly, from the mathematical definition in set theory to the sexual connotation of conjugal union, from organized associations of workers to the common purpose that unites a republic. We feel this theme will resonate both for American poets living in a federal union under the Articles of Confederation, and for Singaporean poets living in a country that only exists as a sovereign entity after the forced Separation from Malaysia. This book will be published by Math Paper Press in 2014 and poets interested in submitting work can send no more than 3 poems to [Ravi_AT_Drunkenboat.com]. Both endeavors will be more fully advertised in this space and elsewhere.

No matter what correspondences I found between America and Singapore, the most appealing characteristics were ultimately the latter’s openness and hospitality. Singapore is a culture of amalgamation, one that has transformed the Indian epic The Ramayana in its own telling and that has built a theme park, Haw Par Villa, devoted to illustrating various aspects of Confucianism; it is open and eager to learn about the United States. I think it’s a place where American poetics can be digested and turned into something inflected by the vernacular of the Malay Peninsula and by the multiple cultures that are braided together in this financial hub. What will the result look like when Singapore absorbs into its capacious maw the New York School, the Black Mountain Poets and the Beats? In an interview, Kenny Leck said something along the line of “when you think Singapore, think Poetry.” I’d add, when you think Poetry, think America and Singapore, because there’s a connection there that is bound to strengthen, and I’m glad to have had some small sense of this growing bond during my recent visit.

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At Singapore Management University, Shawn Wong, Rodger Kamentz, Moira Crone, Maurice Lee, Kirpal Singh, Ravi Shankar and Eric Watnik, US Ambassador to Singapore

RAVI SHANKAR is the founding editor and Executive Director of Drunken Boat, one of the world’s oldest electronic journals of the arts. He has published or edited eight books and chapbooks of poetry, including the 2010 National Poetry Review Prize winner, “Deepening Groove,” called the work of “one of America’s finest younger poets” by Connecticut Poet Laureate Dick Allen and the 2005 Finalist for the Connecticut Book Awards, “Instrumentality.” Along with Tina Chang and Nathalie Handal, he edited W.W. Norton’s “Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from Asia, the Middle East & Beyond,” called “a beautiful achievement for world literature” by Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer. He has won a Pushcart Prize, been featured in The New York Times and the Chronicle of Higher Education, appeared as a commentator on the BBC, NPR and Jim Lehrer News Hour, received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the Atlantic Center for the Arts, and the Connecticut Commission on the Arts, and has performed his work around the world. He is currently Chairman of the Connecticut Young Writers Trust, on the faculty of the first international MFA Program at City University of Hong Kong and an Associate Professor of English at Central Connecticut State University. He has traveled to Singapore twice and looks forward to many return excursions.

About Jee Leong Koh

A Singapore poet living in New York, I am the author of four books of poetry, including SEVEN STUDIES FOR A SELF PORTRAIT (Bench Press). My latest collection THE PILLOW BOOK (Math Paper Press) has been translated into Japanese and published in an illustrated bilingual edition by Awai Books. A new book STEEP TEA is forthcoming from Carcanet Press (UK) in July 2015. I curate the arts website Singapore Poetry and run the Second Saturdays Reading Series in New York.

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