Unwritten: An Anecdotal History of Performance Poetry in Singapore
by Ng Yi-Sheng
A Prologue (2010)
It’s Thursday night at Blu Jaz Café, a restaurant-cum-lounge bar at 11 Bali Lane. We’ve got a room on the third floor with a chandelier and a sound system and bar service; the writers are huddled near the stage and a girl’s been posted at the door to sell tickets. The place is packed to the gills with our audience: they’re scanning their menus, ordering chicken fingers and beer and Coca-Cola, but what they’re really hungry for is poetry.
A little after 8pm, the slam-master comes on stage: a young Canadian woman named Arianna Pozzuoli. She warms up the crowd, leading them in “The Singapore Slamthem”, introduces the five randomly chosen audience members who’ll serve as judges, then kicks off the slam.
Former national champion Marc Nair dishes out his satires of the Orchard Road floods and the Mass Rapid Transit’s Love Your Ride campaign, while Pooja Nansi reads sensual homages to love from her book, Stiletto Scars. Eccentric British expat Alan Ardy chimes in with his sly, erotomaniac rhyming couplets; Ridzal Hamid defies government censorship with “This Is Not a Political Poem”; and Milani, who identifies as an immigrant poet, channels Sandra Cisneros with a paean to her own homeland: “You Bring Out the Indonesian in Me”.
After three rounds, the victor turns out to be one of the emerging stars of the scene: the 20-year-old theatre student and former Singapore Idol contestant Benjamin Chow. He wins $75 and the applause of the room. The slam-master invites audience members to sign up to slam next month, and I end up hanging around the bar till well past eleven on this weekday night.
Those are my memories of the Word Forward Poetry Slam of 28 October 2010. True, it was a particularly well-attended slam, since it took place after regular slams had been on hiatus for two years. Yet this positive, populist vibe is by no means unusual in the scene that Chris Mooney-Singh and Savinder Kaur have established since their first slam in 2003. A subculture has developed –less mature, perhaps, than what you’ll find in many North American, European and Australasian nations – but thriving and provocative nonetheless.
What irks me is that almost nothing has been written about Singapore’s slam poetry in academia. In fact, there’s been very little documentation of the history of poetry in performance in our nation, in spite of the fact that many of our most important poets were deeply committed to the performative experience of their works.
I’ve thus attempted to redress this omission by sketching a brief history of our nation’s English language performance poetry scene, focusing primarily on the regular literary readings organised by writing communities over the years. Due to this decision, I’ve included very little biographical information about significant performance poets like Kirpal Singh, Chin Woon Ping, Grace Chia and Cyril Wong, and nothing about poet-performers who eschewed the literary scene, expressing themselves primarily through theatre or music: X’Ho, Roger Jenkins, Michael Corbidge. I’ve also depended largely on interviews for my information. Consequently, major gaps and errors may be present, and descriptions may be coloured by the lenses of subjective memory and personal prejudice. Please write to correct me regarding any aspect of the narrative that misinforms or misleads.
What follows is an imperfect attempt at understanding how performance poetry in Singapore has progressed and regressed over the past 50 years. I can only hope it yields better scholarship from researchers more thorough than I.
Dazzling beginnings: the Evening of Poetry and Music (1962-1979)
There must, of course, have been poetry readings associated with the Straits Chinese literary movements of the 1900s, as well as the proto-nationalist literary movements of the 1950s. Yet if we’re talking about a clear, sustained tradition of English language poetry in performance in Singapore, it’s probably best to begin with the Evening of Poetry and Music, initiated circa 1962 and resumed, after a hiatus in 1965. Organised by the National University of Singapore (NUS)’s Literary Society, this was the brainchild of two poet-professors, the British chair of the English Department DJ Enright and the then-rookie lecturer Edwin Thumboo.
Poet-professor Kirpal Singh attended these readings as a schoolboy in the mid-sixties, and later coordinated them as a university student and young lecturer at their peak in the late sixties and early seventies. They were then held monthly (and for a period of two years, fortnightly), usually at the Upper Quad of the old Bukit Timah Campus, outside the English Department. He recalls the atmosphere of such events:
“People would just lie on the grass, and you would find others having a romantic date while listening to poetry and music… It was rubbish to say that people didn’t support poetry: there were usually as many as 100 or 80 people on the lawn, and nobody cared if you had a beer can or wine there. In some ways we were less prudish then….
The typical format was that usually at about 6, people would start strolling in. At about 6:15, the MC would start calling people, ‘Hello and good evening guys,’ and the most staid ones [poets] would read from 6:30 to 7:30. The real music would go on from 8:30 until about 10… The folksy music would come earlier, but the dance disco types came later, when people were really in a smooching mood.”
Besides faculty and student readers, poets from beyond the university were featured. These included Chandran Nair, Sng Boh Khim, Goh Poh Seng and Arthur Yap, who taught at the Regional Languages Centre before NUS. Malaysian poets also appeared on occasion, such as KS Maniam, Kee Thuan Chye and Muhammad Haji Salleh. Australian poets passing through would also come on board, such as Sid Harrax and John Tranter.
It is noteworthy that, after 1965, an almost compulsory policy emerged of featuring representatives from the non-English language poetry scenes. These guest poets included Malay poets SN Masuri, Abdul Ghani, Muhammad Latiff Muhammad, Mandarin poets Chua Chee Lay and Wong Yoon Wah, and Tamil poets Elangovan, TS Iqbal and Ramachandran.
These poets often (but not always) performed their work in combination with music. Such performances might range from simple affairs, such as tinklings of piano keys between stanzas and spontaneous mid-poem guitar riffs. However, Singh recalls more complex forms as well: poems by Thumboo, Robert Yeo and himself were set to choral music by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra; visiting musicians from India dubbed poetry to a drumbeat.
Star musicians were also invited: bands like the Quests, the Bambinos, albeit often minus certain key members; also singers like Susan Lim of Crescendos fame and folk guitarist Robert Liew. Unlike the poets, the bands were often given a token fee for transport expenses, as they sometimes had to hire trucks to bring in their drums. When popular bands performed, audience members tended to congregate on a patch of the green designated as the dance floor.
Singh notes that NUS students were given free admission, though outside visitors paid a small sum. He also remembers the Literary Society’s cunning strategy to ensure healthy attendance numbers:
“It spread by word of mouth: we always told the boys to get their girlfriends along and got the girls to tell the boys, ‘If you want to take me to a movie, you’ll have to come to the Evening of Poetry and Music.’ So we got boys from Engineering, because they were trying to court our girls; they were from way out at the Dover Campus but they would come to our lawn and indulge. There was a poet called Chung Yee Chong: she used to be hilarious because she was so attractive that everybody would hit on her. There would be some days when more than three guys took her out to the Evening of Poetry and Music.”
Besides the campus readings, an annual edition of the Evening of Poetry and Music would take place at the old Drama Centre at Fort Canning. In such cases, an admission fee was charged for fundraising purposes; and though only about $100 was raised on each occasion, that money could go a long way in those days. Alternative venues were sometimes chosen, such as the National Museum Theatrette, Victoria Theatre and even once the now-demolished National Theatre, which Singh remembers as having rather poor acoustics and technical equipment. A few editions were even held in Malaysia.
“The thing I’m trying to convey,” says Singh, “is that poetry was more than what you saw on the page. The Evenings of Poetry and Music, they reached beyond what we would call poems or poetry. They actually made real impacts on people’s lives and relationships.”
However, the buzz of the Evening was not to last. By the eighties it had become an annual affair, usually held at Lecture Theatre 13 in the new NUS Kent Ridge Campus. Nonetheless, it’s survived: it remains a regular event on the NUS calendar today, held in various locations, from the Arts House to the University Culture Centre. It has influenced and been influenced by the movements and communities in the chapters that follow.
An interregnum: the Bistro Toulouse-Lautrec, The Substation, Boat Quay Readings (1980-1996)
In the eighties, a few other notable poetry readings sprang into existence. From 1980, the now-defunct Ministry of Culture published the biannual quadrilingual literary journal Singa; an initiative accompanied by a spattering of Singa Readings from until 1984.
This was also the decade of the Bistro Toulouse-Lautrec, a French restaurant-cum-blues and poetry bar in Tanglin Shopping Centre. This was a sophisticated spot where fashionable professionals could dine to the melodies of the house band, the African-American jazz singer Cassandra and the Singaporean jazz artist Jeremy Monteiro, or else to the words of prominent poets such as Robert Yeo and Simon Tay, wrangled by entertainment manager Shirley Soh.
The founder, Goh Poh Seng, had been inspired by the performance poetry traditions of Ireland, where he had studied medicine, as well as the Philippines, which he had visited. (In 1978, he had famously hired the National Museum Theatrette for the launch of his poetry collection Lines From Batu Feringghi, where he spent 90 minutes performing a poem of 3,048 lines.)
Singh notes that some poets at the Bistro would get soused in alcohol before their numbers. Some critics therefore unkindly quipped that the café might better be known as “too loose, lost track”. Nonetheless, Singh claims that the outlet approximated the decadent atmosphere of a Berlin or Parisian café rather well.
Sadly, this was also a short-lived enterprise. It opened in 1983 and closed shortly before Goh emigrated to Canada in 1986; the readings themselves were monthly for a period of five months, but were ultimately never sustained. Goh left the country disgusted that the authorities had shut down his other bar, Rainbow, because a member of the house band Speedway had uttered a vulgar Hokkien word.
Poetry readings gained momentum again in the nineties. The founding of the Substation by playwright-director Kuo Pao Kun in 1990 was a crucial moment, as it provided an independent multidisciplinary arts space for emerging writers. Regular readings, often accompanied by music, were held in its garden, with a peak period from 1994 to 1996, though stretching on to the anti-Iraq War rally of 2003.
Meanwhile, Sky Omoniyi, an energetic young Nigerian poet-professor, had begun teaching English at the National Institute of Education (NIE). From 1995 to 1996, he organised a series of monthly readings in Boat Quay, where performing poets were treated to a jug of beer as payment for their services.
A few of these readings were particularly memorable as they were held on board a bumboat. Yong Shu Hoong was a featured poet at one of these evenings afloat, and he remembers them as informal, intimate affairs, with audiences of just 20 to 30 people, sipping wine. “The nice thing about it was that it was open-air, and if the weather was good you could see the sun setting on Singapore River,” he says. On the downside, acoustics were often pretty poor.
But Omoniyi knew he couldn’t run his readings forever. His teaching contract was due to expire in 1997. To ensure some form of succession, he called for a meeting at his NIE office with four poets: the Chinese-American lecturer Chin Woon Ping, the Singaporean computer programmer Yong Shu Hoong, a local teacher trainee named Alvin Pang, and a Singapore Tourism Board employee named Paul Tan. Red-eyed with emotion, he pleaded with them to take on his mantle. Little did he realise how well they’d answer his call.
Rebirth of the word: the Forum readings, Art Aloud, AfterWords (1997-2000)
The poets of Singapore didn’t start just one monthly reading in 1997 – they started three. The first, in February, was a continuation of the Boat Quay readings, which Omoniyi’s four protégés rebranded as the Forum readings.
The premiere edition of the Forum readings took place in the chapel of the newly refurbished CHIJMES, a former convent now transformed into a lifestyle hub. Later sessions were mostly in the second-floor gallery space of Caldwell House, the former living quarters of the nuns, or else in the gazebo area. Tan eventually assumed leadership of the event, assisted by Yong and fellow poet Heng Siok Tian.
In spite of the glory of the performance space, it had its shortcomings. “They [the readings] were a bit clinical, because really, the venue was too grand to be an intimate setting,” says Pang, who was frequently in attendance. “Audiences were small, the space was echoey. You had to try very hard to fill that space with presence, and that was not easy at all.”
Pang thus decided to break off and start his own monthly reading series, partnering his fellow York University alumnus Aaron Lee. Late in ’97, they began AfterWords, held at the recently opened Borders megastore in Orchard Road. This was more of a loungey, talk-shop event than a reading per se, and thus had a more populist attraction for the audience.
photographs courtesy of Aaron Lee
The third set of readings that began that year was Art Aloud: a monthly open mic at the Singapore Art Museum’s Olio Dome bistro. Initiated by SAM itself, the sessions were often hosted by the curators of the Forum and Borders readings: Pang, Lee, Tan, Yong and the like.
This crowded literary calendar caused some headaches. The organisers would try to coordinate amongst themselves so that each of the three readings would take place during a different week of the month, for fear that they’d begin cannibalizing each other’s writers and audiences.
There were also legal worries. According to the writ of the law, all arts events in Singapore had to be licensed by the Media Development Authority, including innocuous literary readings. The application process for each reading could’ve taken over two months, and would’ve left little room for impromptu numbers.
“I was pretty gung ho and I said, ‘We’ll worry about it when we worry about it,’” says Pang. “I refused to get a licence, but I know some people wanted to for theirs, or [they wanted] CHIJMES to get a blanket licence. I remember one of the discussions where one of the co-organisers said we wouldn’t proceed unless we got some kind of blanket licence.” Fortunately, the poets never ran into any trouble – not even following risky incidents, such as when Pang’s poetry open mics at SAM were hijacked by the activist James Gomez with his political tracts, or by the playwright Elangovan intent on performing the entirety of his banned play Talaq.
In fact, the government-sponsored Singapore Writers Festival continued to hire Pang et al to host readings and panels and open mics at the Substation and the National Library. Pang believes this early decision set the precedent for today, when most literary event organisers wouldn’t dream of applying for a reading licence (although some, including myself, have been pressured by the MDA into doing so).
Over the years, the territory changed. In ‘98, the Forum Readings moved to the old National Library Building at Stamford Road, where performers read their works al fresco in the courtyard by the art deco fountain. Then, in ‘99, Pang ended AfterWords, discouraged by a change in the bookstore’s management. A burnt out Paul Tan ended the Forum readings in 2000.
“It was all very exhausting. And I think in hindsight, it was too much too soon. But that’s how ecologies grow: you have to let everything grow at once,” says Pang. He notes that the Internet may have had something to do with the die-off: now writers had the chance to express themselves on on-line journals, forums, billboards and blogs, there was no longer so much of a pent-up need to share poetry via performance.
He notes a further factor: “Every mother’s son’s brother was publishing poetry and doing a reading at the launch.” Publishers like Landmark and Ethos Books were issuing volumes by Alfian Sa’at, Felix Cheong, Gwee Li Sui, Toh Hsien Min and the like. AfterWords and the Forum readings had established the value of performance as a marketing strategy at launches. Combined with other one-off events, the literary famine wasn’t too extreme.
Before the slam: subTEXT (2001-2008)
Oddly enough, the two years preceding the first slam in Singapore proved to be crucial for Singapore’s performance poetry tradition. According to Alvin Pang, it was in those lean years that he and his compatriots learned the genuine skills of how to present poetry on stage.
“To me, 2001 was quite a landmark, because that was when we started touring [the multi-poet anthology] No Other City,” he says. “The influence was two-way. [Firstly,] because we had to go out there and show our work, we had to step up our delivery. Secondly, we saw what other people did. In Australia, we were very much exposed to what performance poetry is all about, so we started adopting performance styles to make our poems work on stage.”
Pang would continue to develop his skills the following year, when he received an invitation to the Austin International Poetry Festival with his fellow poets Grace Chia and Toh Hsien Min. The three of them resolved to prepare for the event by training under actor Sim Pern Yau. In a complimentary one-day workshop, Sim communicated the basics of movement skills, based on a philosophy of inner mastery – a lesson that’s stuck with the poets since. (Sim has since retired from acting to become a full-time tai qi master.)
Meanwhile, the scene in Singapore wasn’t lying completely dormant. Paul Tan had urged Yong Shu Hoong, one of Sky Omoniyi’s original protégés, to continue the tradition of hosting literary readings. The result of this was subTEXT, first held in May 2001 at the lounge of the Gallery Evason Hotel. This monthly reading series would prove to have stamina, and would endure over the next seven years.
subTEXT would later move from the hotel to the Books Café on the second level of the old MPH Bookstore on Stamford Road. This eatery was burdened by a noisy coffee machine and an absence of mics, yet it’s fondly remembered for how it provided poets with complimentary gourmet tapas and canapés: chips with salsa and pesto chicken dips, easily worth ten or twelve dollars at today’s restaurant prices.
The reading’s third and final location was the new National Library Building in Bugis. Here, readings were housed in the basement’s Multi-Purpose Room – a rather sterile space, but furnished with technical equipment. Writers occasionally had their texts projected on screen as they read, and even (in my own case) exhibited YouTube videos based on poems.
It’s impossible to give a representative list of featured readers at subTEXT, as it would include pretty much everybody active in writing in Singapore in the 2000s. Guests ranged from aspiring poets like Teng Qian Xi to indie songwriters like Typewriter’s Yee Chang Kang to renowned foreign authors such as Alexander McCall-Smith and Paul Theroux. (Theroux’s reading was held in the NLB Pod, and commanded an audience of 200. As the Pod was only designed to hold 150 people, Yong was worried at the time that it might fall off the top of the library.)
Even today, long after its January 2008 dissolution, subTEXT is still arguably alive. Yong holds the event on extremely ad hoc basis, and still alerts a base of bibliophiles to nationwide literary events via his e-mail blasts.
Slam emerges: Word Forward (2002-2003)
Yet subTEXT didn’t impress everyone. A recent immigrant to Singapore attended in 2002 and found the general level of performance inhibited – none of the poets had memorized their work beforehand, and seemed mostly content to simply sit down and read their three poems in undramatic voices.
This spectator was, of course, the future founder of Singapore’s slam scene, Chris Mooney-Singh. Born Chris Mooney in Canberra in 1956, he’d studied journalism at Mitchell College of Advanced Education, with an additional major in creative writing. During this period, he organised poetry readings on campus and created poetry programmes for the local student radio station. Upon graduation, he began publishing in poetry journals across ANZAC, and also became the poetry editor for an environmentalist magazine in Perth named Simply Living. Here he printed the likes of Les Murray, Judith Wright and other established Australian poets.
“I started performing myself during the early ‘80s,” he recalls. “There was a kind of strong push, a lot of energy in the Australian poetry scene at that time. The Sydney poets, the Melbourne poets and the Canberra poets, and the other cities’ poets all kind of tussled with each other. [There was] good energy and the necessary locking of horns that happened in poetry scenes and literary scenes.”
Mooney moved to Adelaide in the mid-eighties, home of Friendly Street Poets, the longest running community open mic in the southern hemisphere, alive and well since 1975. Here, he began to practise performance poetry in earnest, experimenting with music, even founding a poetry performance ensemble in 1991.
But as nourishing as the Adelaide scene was, he chose to spend most of the nineties traveling around India, researching oral traditions of poetry. It was here that he converted to Sikhism, inspired by the centrality of the Granth’s sacred poetry to the faith. While in New Delhi, he produced a poetry and music fusion CD, called Indian City.
In 1997, he toured the Sikh gurdwaras of Singapore and Malaysia, attempting to promote his CD. During his stay, he performed at the Substation and attended a poetry reading at Zouk Club. More importantly, he met Savinder Kaur, a Singaporean corporate trainer who would become his wife just two years later. The two of them went on to work in India, researching sacred Sikh music and working to revive the rabab, a medieval string instrument that had fallen out of fashion over the last 400 years.
Then in July 2002, the couple migrated back to Singapore. Mooney-Singh was intent on returning to his roots in performance poetry: after all, he’d hosted poetry readings and created poetry radio programs as a student, and had participated in the vibrant performance culture of Adelaide’s Friendly Street Poets gatherings.
His first step was to found Four Crying Out Loud, a poetry performance collective. The quartet originally comprised Mooney-Singh, subTEXT host Yong Shu Hoong, American writer Richard Lord and Singaporean poet and contratenor Cyril Wong – though Wong left after their first showing at the National Library, and was soon replaced by the painter-poet Julyan Perry. Performances were created using mostly original works, and were tailored to fit a seasonal theme. For instance, the Deepavali/Halloween performance at the Substation was titled Shadows and Voices: Light and Darkness. Perry, now mostly forgotten in the world of poetry, proved to be quite the performer: “He’s got a gift for accents. He could do Adolf Hitler rhetoric and he could do Irish pirate ballads,” Mooney-Singh says.
Thanks to this work, Mooney-Singh was invited by the National Arts Council to serve on a working committee for the Singapore Writers Festival 2003. The idea emerged of holding a poetry slam-related event domestically. He was thus given funding to attend the Austin International Poetry Festival to investigate – but first, he began e-mail correspondence with Marc Kelly Smith, the man generally credited as the founder of slam poetry.
“He let me stay with him in Chicago and introduced me to the leading North American slam poets,” he recalls. “The National Body for Poetry Slam [probably the committee of Poetry Slam, Inc.] was also meeting up, so I actually met everybody of note: the people who’ve had almost 20 years of history in poetry slam and who were already the elders of slam tribe. They had their ups and downs but they were still very community-centered, very poetry-centered, all about an art form generated by poets for a public. I traveled around for about a month, went to many poetry slams in different states, and recommended that Marc be invited to come to Singapore for that Festival.”
Mooney-Singh didn’t stop at the recommendation, though: he was inspired. He made an agreement with Zouk Club to begin his own regular performance poetry event. He founded Word Forward as a company, and in May 2003, he kicked off Singapore’s very first poetry slam. This was held at Velvet Underground, a lounge bar owned by Zouk, decorated with Keith Haring and Takashi Murakami prints.
Controversially, he also registered “poetry slam” as a trademark, so that no other group in Singapore could hold an event with such a title without his company’s permission. This he did on the advice of the American slammers, who warned against the devaluation of slam culture by amateur groups.
“When Chris came back [from the US], he told us that he saw that slam was the new wave and the thing that was going to save poetry and reinvigorate poetry in Singapore and the many other cities,” says Richard Lord. As a veteran of the Boston spoken word scene, he became deeply involved in these early slams, usually performing opening numbers as part of Four Crying Out Loud.
“I can remember that early on, the slam was very well-attended,” he continues. “Zouk was packed, every slam. It was sort of an in-thing: you had a number of Mediacorp celebrities who would show up. I remember one time there was a little group of artistes including [fashion model] Nadya Hutagalung.”
The slam’s greatest moment of glory came just a few months later, on 23 August at the Singapore Writers Festival. The bar was packed to the point of ridiculousness, mostly because of the fame of the guest star, Marc Smith himself, who kicked off the night with his own dynamic mixture of original and cover poetry.
Although it was officially a National Arts Council event, Mooney-Singh feels he can take credit for the evening’s triumph. “We had actually warmed up the scene considerably before [Marc Smith] got here,” he says. “[NAC] rode on the model we had already created. They held it at our own venue, at Zouk. They followed our procedure. A lot of new people came to the slam through the Writers Festival, naturally, but I don’t think it would have had the impact if slam had not been launched four months earlier.”
Indeed, considering the newness of slam, Singapore poets acquitted themselves rather well in the competition. Some, such as then-NUS student Marc Nair, were gallantly testing out pieces they’d written for the page rather than the stage; others like deejay Greta Georges displayed obviously honed skills in half-sung, half-spoken delivery. Plus, there were so many competitors that results had to be released after only two rounds: it was getting past the NAC officials’ bedtimes.
This was a landmark in our literary history – and also an event of personal significance to myself. After all, it was the first slam I competed in, and one of the very few I won.
Slam rises, slam falls: the Zouk years (2003-2008)
Slam continued to prosper at Velvet Underground for the next few years. I was able to observe this from a front-row seat. Although I was still finishing my university studies in New York, I came back at the end of almost every semester to compete and spectate.
The slams were held, as they are now, on Thursday nights at 8pm. Often, they would be set to a theme: a love slam around Valentine’s Day, a haiku slam, an all-women’s slam, even experimental slams using Mandarin, Tamil and pantuns. Guest artists were varied; they included poets, singers, non-fiction writers, theatremakers and film directors. Velvet accommodated the tech demands for this easily – it not only boasted a large projection screen, but also several smaller monitors so that we could survey the action from the bar area.
Mooney-Singh often kicked off the competitive portion of the night with a self-composed anthem, “The Word Must Rock”, which explained the rules of the game. This was when the slammers came up: a surprisingly diverse group of people drawn from both the expatriate and local communities. Besides Georges and Nair, there was Alan Ardy, with his flamboyant dress sense, carnal love couplets and Asian girlfriend on his arm. There was Hari Kumar, an awkward computer programmer whose poems were often sweet family anecdotes rather than diatribes. There was Bani Haykal, a National Serviceman whose surreal verbal compositions reflected his background as a songwriter for the indie rock group B-Quartet. And there was Pooja Nansi, a university student whose work reflected her tumultuous romantic past and her Gujarati immigrant roots.
Though I’d hesitate to claim that a specifically Singaporean style of slam emerged, others have noted that our mainstream is quite distinct from the hip-hop-influenced variety that’s become prevalent in the United States. Poems tend to be less explicitly political, less angry, with greater variation in format. “We’re still a little bit rojak, a little bit all over the place, and I like it,” says Nair. “It’s more personal. You hear the poet more than the form.”
A few published poets were slam participants as well, including Felix Cheong, Robert Yeo and Yong Shu Hoong – even playwright Stella Kon took a stab at it. But by and large, there was little intermingling between the two worlds. Established writers, including myself, weren’t used to the casual cruelty of the amateur judges, who had little patience for abstruse or poorly performed work. Mooney-Singh claims that pride was involved: “A lot of people declined because they didn’t want to be associated with this lower form of poetic output. For some, we’ve been seen as a kind of opposition to the ‘government of poetry’ in Singapore in some way.” Alvin Pang has a different story: he says he stopped going because he couldn’t see what the fuss was about – he’d seen much better slams abroad.
Ultimately, Nair emerged as one of the slam’s most frequent champions – thanks in no small part to Mooney-Singh. “Chris is really my mentor, helping me to develop my own poems,” he says. “He would look at my work and go down to the level of real language: ‘You need to like develop more striking imagery,’ or ‘Cut the feminine end rhymes.’ We’d also talk about the poem, the emotions behind it. Sometimes I’d have the idea but it wasn’t fully formed, so I’d discuss it with him.”
It soon became apparent that his work was worthy of publication – as was the work of a number of other committed slammers in the group. Thus, at the Singapore Writers Festival 2007, Word Forward launched four self-published poetry collections: Mooney-Singh’s The Laughing Buddha Cab Company, Nair’s Along the Yellow Line, Pooja Nansi’s Stiletto Scars and Bani Haykal’s Sit Quietly In the Flood. These last three writers have since been recognised as Singapore’s first generation of native slammers.
The same year, Word Forward successfully planted the seeds of slam in Kuala Lumpur. The city has since developed a thriving spoken word culture, supported by key players such as Elaine Foster, Sheena Baharuddin, Jamal Raslan and Jerome Kugan. (Not all such initiatives have gone as planned, though: despite a promising event at the Man Hong Kong International Literary Festival 2004, slam has yet to take root in that region.)
Yet times had changed in Singapore. Slam audiences were clearly dwindling – on numerous instances, I recall we had to endure freezing temperatures in Velvet Underground, caused by a combination of hyperactive air-conditioning and sparse body heat. Poets stopped coming, either because of a change of interest or a change of address. Several, including Georges and Kumar, had left the country to pursue work in other lands. Richard Lord recalls the dramatic change in atmosphere:
“The love poetry slams had been one of the best attended and ardently competed of the slams. I think they had to refuse people the right to compete simply because they already had twelve people signed up. A couple of times people were pissed off because they didn’t arrive early enough [to sign up].
“But a few years later, we had a love poetry slam and it was very well publicized. And at the end, Marc Nair and I were going to be the only two competitors, and we didn’t have enough people to be judges [in the crowd]. We were going around just begging people who’d stumbled into Zouk to compete, and in the end that evening we didn’t have a slam – we all just sat around and read cover poems which Chris and Savinder had brought along. I think that was the last slam I ever went to at Zouk.”
There were several reasons why Velvet Underground wasn’t an ideal location – the large size of the space, the mandatory entry charge of ten dollars and the pillars which blocked most audience members’ view of the stage. Perhaps the biggest issue, however, was Zouk’s reputation as a liquor-soaked club for adults – something the parents of young poets didn’t quite approve of.
Given all these problems, it was no huge surprise when Word Forward ceased its slams at this venue, shortly after its fifth anniversary in 2008. “At that point I suppose we felt we needed more new voices that were not coming through,” Mooney-Singh reflects. “So we felt the need for a bit of a rest: to clean out the well and let new water fill up.”
In January 2009, an attempt was made to rise from slumber. Discussions were carried out with Literati, the literary society of Singapore Management University, to make their annual slam a monthly event. However, this fell flat due to a lack of sustained support from students. Our nation’s high-pressure education system, alas, does not stimulate the development of literary communities.
Slam and education (2004-2009)
While things looked gloomy to former audience members of Zouk, insiders at Word Forward knew the situation was more complex. The monthly slam was by no means the only activity they were invested in: what was far more important was the business of poetry as education.
As early as 2004, Mooney-Singh and Kaur had managed to score a regular source of funding from Creative Communities Singapore, a division of the Ministry of Community, Youth and Sports aimed at arts outreach. One of their first moves was to send out a letter to every junior college and secondary school they could contact, offering to conduct free poetry workshops. Similar workshops were later initiated with university students, thus attracting writers like Nansi and Ridzal Hamid to the slam.
With her background in corporate training, Savinder Kaur became a key player in this area of Word Forward’s work. She built up a strong administrative framework for performance poetry education in schools, including detailed curricula and lesson plans. Today, the company is regularly invited to schools to present performance poetry assembly shows as well as workshops – a program which gives Ms Kaur an opportunity to actually pay young slam poets to teach and perform their poetry.
According to Mooney-Singh, “Poetry slam has answered a strong need to give a voice and a platform to young Singaporeans to help them overcome their self-consciousness in public speaking. Young people are much more open to exploring poetry and presentation and performance, and actually poetry slam had to find new poets, new audiences.”
Kaur adds: “When Chris brought in poetry slam, I realized this is a powerful tool to bring into the classroom. So many things can be learnt. That’s the power of poetry.” She’s particularly triumphant about the company’s successes at the Institute of Technical Education (ITE), traditionally seen as the dumping ground for the lowest-scoring students in each cohort. “ITE people cannot believe that their students can appreciate poetry. But one girl, she talked about her family problems onstage and she cried, and all the facilitators were shaken. I’m very proud that poetry slam has served this way.”
Through collaboration with the British Council, Word Forward has also been able to bring in some rather renowned mentors from the UK for their workshops: poets like Malaika Booker, Charlie Dark and Jacob Sam-La Rose. Mooney-Singh was also individually responsible for engaging pioneer American slammer Ray McNiece, who worked with the company in Singapore for over six months.
According to Mooney-Singh and Kaur, Sam-La Rose was especially impressed by one of the company’s interschool initiatives: the National Youth Poetry Slam League (NYPSL), first set up in 2005. This event allowed teams and individuals from schools across the nation to compete for a slam title, watched by an audience of thousands. Inspired, Sam-La Rose went on to develop similar nationwide events for the UK, including the Apples & Snakes Word Cup and Shake the Dust – the country’s largest national youth slam to date.
Since 2006, the NYPSL has been incorporated into the National School Literature Festival, a day-long event featuring performances, debates and parades, held in a different school each year. This in turn gave rise to the launch of Lit Up in 2009, an annual literary festival aimed at youth and emerging writers, usually lasting two weeks. Both Singaporean and international writers were involved, with some guests coming from as far as Kenya and Botswana. A National Poetry Slam League for non-students was also incorporated into the festival, with a special incentive for the winner: he or she would go on to represent Singapore at the Réunion Island Poetry Slam, a contest for poets from across Asia and Africa.
Marc Nair was the first to claim this prize in 2009. Looking back, he confesses he was highly intimidated by the African slammers’ revolutionary anthems, and more than a little disoriented when, as a half-Malayalee, half-Chinese Singapore citizen, he was asked to do a poem in his native language. (In the end, he opted to read in Malay.) Nonetheless, he ultimately managed to place third in the whole competition, and went on to compete at the Poetry Slam World Cup in Paris.
An Indie Renaissance (2010-present)
With the inception of the Word Forward Poetry Slam at Blu Jaz Café, regular slams have returned to Singapore after two years’ absence. So far, the venue’s been good for us: the location’s central, the space is intimate without being insanely cramped, enough drinks are served to keep the adults happy, and enough food is on the menu to reassure parents that it’s a restaurant instead of a vice den.
The company can now charge just a token five dollars for admission, advertising through the zero-cost medium of Facebook invites. The only drawback, really, is that poems are occasionally drowned out by the indie music blasting downstairs.
As hoped, new voices have broken through. There’s Deborah Emmanuel, who commands the stage with her stirring confessional pieces; Nabilah Husna, who takes on social issues with sardonic humour; and Charlene Shepherdson, who’s developed a foolproof system of improvisational poetry. Also Benjamin Chow, Lee Jing Yan, Goh Koon Hui, Abel Koh, Zuni Chong, Jennifer Champion, Amber Lim, and many, many more.
Meanwhile, the first generation of slammers has matured: each one is now creating projects that extend far beyond the three-round structure of slam. Nair has independently published a collection of travel poetry, Chai, and is the frontman for his band Neon and Wonder. Pooja Nansi has mastered the guitar and does shows fusing bluesy poetry and music, both solo and as part of the song/spoken word duo the Mango Dollies. As for Bani Haykal, he’s gained close to mainstream fame, first with B-Quartet, then with the renowned band The Observatory. He’s also founded the multi-disciplinary art collective mux, performed solo shows at the Substation and the Esplanade, and frequently designs sound for theatre productions by Teater Ekamatra and The Necessary Stage.
It’d be natural to assume all these developments are part of Word Forward’s plan to build up the Singapore spoken word scene. But there’s something more organic happening. In 2010, Mooney-Singh left Singapore to embark on his PhD studies at Monash University, and in his absence, it feels as if young slam poets are reclaiming the scene for themselves, integrating it with the country’s emergent indie arts culture.
One aspect of this has been an explosion of regular, independently organised spoken word events. I’ve engaged in this myself: since March 2011, I’ve recruited spoken word artists for SPORE Art Salon, a multidisciplinary evening of visual and performing arts initiated by American choreographer Ryan Beck. It’s now principally organised by photographer Olivia Kwok, and was hosted by ECHO Loft, then Blu Jaz Café. Though it doesn’t prioritise poetry over other art forms, it does give writers a whole 20 minutes to perform, forcing them to present their work as a proper repertoire.
In June 2012 Destination: INK arose: a monthly open mic series, where poets, prose writers, musicians and other artists have a safe space to showcase their work. Held at Blu Jaz, it’s the brainchild of spacer.gif, a collective set up by writers Charlene Shepherdson, Nabilah Husna and Vanessa Victoria. In January 2013, Home Club’s head programmer Razi Razak had Deborah Emmanuel and Vanessa Victoria create the open mic platform SPEAK – they’ve since played host to American spoken word sensations Sarah Kay and Phil Kaye, who performed in April to a fully packed club. Then in May 2013, Pooja Nansi started Speakeasy, a literary program at Artistry Café, each edition focusing on one or two major poets or collectives from Singapore or abroad. Besides the familiar faces of the slam community, they’ve showcased Alvin Pang, Cyril Wong, the women’s arts group Etiquette, and TJ Dema from Botswana.
Readings and recitals continue outside the circles of poetry slam. The independent bookstore BooksActually has been the host of innumerable literary events since its opening in 2005, including Poet X Poet, Babette’s Feast and variegated book launches. The Arts House has remade itself as a centre for a higher class of literary events, such as World Voices, which showcases non-Singaporean writers, and Yong Shu Hoong’s New Word Order series of talks and readings. These institutions have been remarkably inclusive towards spoken word artists: in fact, both the NUS-Arts House Poets in Residence for 2012 and 2013 have been British performance poets, namely Jay Bernard and Jasmine Cooray.
Nonetheless, the year’s biggest spoken word-themed event is probably still Lit Up. Marc Nair and Deborah Emmanuel are now employees of Word Forward, and they’ve transformed this affair from a student literary festival into an indie arts festival, featuring not just spoken word but also rap battles, band gigs, gallery exhibitions, performance art, literary workshops, black box dramas and comedy improv.
A major highlight of the fest is its annual collaborative spoken word project. In 2011, fifteen writers, actors, artists, musicians, photographers and origami practitioners came together to create The City Limits, an inter-disciplinary performance on urban Singapore, staged at the newly opened Goodman Arts Centre. In 2012, a spoken word troupe was formed called The Party Action People, with eight poets performing solos and choral pieces in the soon-to-be-demolished Telok Ayer Performing Arts Centre, where Word Forward’s office had been housed for years. Collaboration went international in 2013, with She Walks Like a Free Country, an all-female spoken word revue, highlighting injustice, repression and patriarchy in Singapore and Malaysia. From Kuala Lumpur, we had Elaine Foster, Sheena Baharuddin and Melizarani Selvakkumar, bringing down the house with Jennifer Champion, Victoria Lim, Nabilah Husna and Raksha Mahtani. This took place at at Aliwal Arts Centre, where Word Forward’s new office is housed.
The National Poetry Slam League remains part of Lit Up’s programming – though not the student-focussed National Youth Poetry Slam League, which has been shifted to a separate weekend. Following Nair’s success, the victors have been Stephanie Chan, Lee Jing Yan, Nair again and Victoria Lim.
But alas, the event no longer has international links. The Réunion Island Poetry Slam has shut down due to lack of funds. Stephanie Chan was Singapore’s last contestant in 2010. Since then, she’s been in London, studying law and honing her craft under the alias of Stephanie Dogfoot. This year, she competed at the Poetry Slam World Cup in Paris – on behalf of the UK.
Epilogue: Slam futures
Chris Mooney-Singh is due to return to Singapore in 2014. There’s every reason to believe his presence will transform the scene once more: he harbours big dreams of developing an Asian Slam League, covering the Anglophone regions of India, the Philippines, Malaysia and Hong Kong as well as Singapore.
This would give poets the means to build careers, he claims. “In America, the reason why the poetry slam scene has worked out so well is because they’ve created a network, a performance circuit. So people travel to North America and on to Europe, earning their full-time living from poetry – maybe very modestly, but they do it. They can do it because poetry slams are spread out, and visiting poets have somewhere to perform next week, and they keep traveling.”
He adds: “Once you have regular [events]: weekly, monthly and annual events, national events, people will get better. With more stages, more opportunities to create their art and craft and they become more professional at it. Without creating a continuing circuit for this, poetry slam can wilt a bit, because you’re basically performing with the same audience, just like a singer needs to keep moving to new gigs.”
As of now, Singapore’s already developed a rudimentary circuit for poets. This was evident in August 2013, when a team of visiting Burmese poets were able to play three venues on three successive nights: BooksActually on Monday 12th, World Voices at The Arts House on Tuesday 13th, and Speakeasy at Artistry Café on Wednesday 14th – an impressively packed calendar. Yet it’s too soon to say if this poetry-loving climate will thrive. Tracing the history of performance poetry here, one notices how quickly readings are snuffed out and forgotten, how there’s an ebb and flow to the culture of literature in performance.
What will change in the coming years? Can Word Forward, or another literary organiser, set up an international network of spoken word events, fostering the cross-pollination of our literatures? How will this affect the literature and culture of Singapore, and of other nations?
These questions shall serve as a subject of study for future academics and members of the literary community. For now, the answers remain tantalisingly unwritten.
Ng Yi-Sheng is a full-time writer in multiple genres. He was the first winner of the Singapore Poetry Slam, and the youngest ever winner of the Singapore Literature Prize, which he received for his debut poetry collection last boy. While in Singapore, he co-organises the SPORE Art Salon and teaches Creative Writing at Nanyang Technological University. He is currently based in Norwich, where he is pursuing his MA in Prose Fiction at the University of East Anglia. He blogs at http://lastboy.blogspot.com, twitters at @yishkabob. If you really want to get a hold of him, send him a Facebook message.
This essay was originally written for SPARK: the Singapore Poetry Archive, an online project under development by Nanyang Technological University’s English Department.