A Home for Singapore Poetry

Just a month ago, if you look on-line for poetry written by Singaporeans, you would find bits and pieces all over the internet, and despair of forming a comprehensive and up-to-date picture of it. Not any more. Now you can find it all in a new digital archive that aims to be the home of Singapore poetry. Launched at the Singapore Writers Festival in November, poetry.sg presents an initial 50 poets writing and performing in English, and plans to add more, including poets writing in the other official languages of the country, Chinese, Malay, and Tamil. Each poet is represented by a biographical note, a critical introduction, and three self-selected poems. He or she comes “live” too in the form of video and audio recordings. The website is a joy to explore.

Heading this long-anticipated project is a team of younger writers. They include a Singapore Literature Prize recipient and winners of the Golden Point award, given out for new work in verse and prose. They are also close friends, whose bonds are forged through poetry workshops, publication by a common publisher, and mahjong. Many of them were educated overseas; most of them work for the civil service or educational institutions. Together they form a fascinating profile of a new generation of Singapore writing. In a frank and wide-ranging Facebook conversation with SP, they spoke about their work on the poetry archive and their understanding of the local literary culture.

Critical Editor: Tse Hao Guang
Text Editor: David Wong
Multimedia Editor: Jennifer Anne Champion
Web Editor: Amanda Chong
Chief Clerk: Joshua Ip
Editorial Team Members: Daryl Qilin Yam, Daryl Lim Wei Jie and Prabu Daveraj

 

Singapore Poetry. Thanks for agreeing to a group interview for SP. Instead of sending you a set of questions, I’m thinking of getting the ball rolling with just one question, and continuing more organically by following up on your responses. More of a conversation than an interview. So if that’s okay with everyone, here’s the first question: Building an electronic archive of Singapore poetry is a wonderful yet challenging project. How did you decide to be involved with it?

Tse Hao Guang. Honestly, I agreed to do it out of necessity. Some of us were working on a project called the “Field Guide,” which was meant as a survey of the poetic tastes and preferences of Singapore’s poets and readers, but that fell through because of lack of funding. So when the opportunity arose to work on this, I agreed to work on that portion of it which would contribute to artistic critical culture.

Daryl Yam. For me, it was a no-brainer – I play a very small role in the team compared to the others, but I’d do anything to be involved with these people. And so when I was asked, I immediately said yes. They are a very hardworking, dedicated, and passionate team.

Daryl Lim. I got involved because of the importance of a critical culture in Singapore literature, which I think is something we don’t really have. So I see poetry.sg as much a home for Singapore criticism as it is for Singapore poetry.

David Wong. I was not part of the original team, and was brought on board as a matter of necessity. The team needed someone at the time and I was someone who was already familiar with the goals of the project. Like Daryl Yam, I knew these people to be a pleasure to work with.

Prabu Daveraj. Likewise, I play a peripheral role in the project. I got involved because I believed it was important that we help build the literary culture in Singapore and I was willing to play any small role. The members of this team have put in rather significant efforts in building this archive. I am very glad to be given the opportunity to work on this and with this amazing bunch of people.

Jennifer Anne Champion. I got into the project after realising that page poetry was more represented on archive databases in Singapore than spoken word and performance poetry. I spoke with Alvin Pang who put me in contact with Jennifer Crawford at Nanyang Technological University. She agreed to trust us with critical essays and footage she and her team had collected over the past ten years. Some of my performance poet friends felt I should start an independent archive for just spoken word poets but I felt that it was time we have a database that covered all our bases. Especially since there are so many bases to cover in Singapore.

Joshua Ip contacted me later with his independent project to video pioneering page poets and we joined forces and resources. I got the video and photography footage sometime in February this year and immediately started sifting through the footage. I am still conceptualising how to display the photographic part of the archive, which extends to the days when Borders Bookstore was still open and they were having poetry readings there in the 90s. But for now, we press on with video and audio.

My role in the team is not so much academic or page bound. When I meet poets, I discuss with them what recording formats they are comfortable with or want to explore. I’m also interested in interviewing them about their aesthetics and beliefs about poetry. This part of the archive is still very new (the poet in his or her own words) and I’m working on expanding it. It’s been very sweet talking to pioneer poets especially, who even in their 60s to 80s, remember what their first poems were about. Leong Liew Geok, for example, told me that one of the first poems she ever wrote was about a pet chicken her mother had executed for dinner.

Joshua Ip. I had a random idea to put together an archive of Singapore poets on video, somewhat inspired by the audio archive PennSound from my alma mater UPenn (currently administered by Charles Bernstein and Al Filreis). I heard that Jen Champion, Alvin Pang and Koh Jee Leong had similar or parallel interests, pertaining to the handover of the SPARK archive when Jen Crawford was leaving Singapore, so we sat down in Tiong Bahru one day to chat and left deciding to do poetry.sg.

I applied for the grant, did a bunch of the financial and website admin, and contributed an intern to the project. I then helped to integrate the new team from the Field Guide along the way while providing some business continuity together with Jen. I’m glad that they can do all the real work while I just do money stuff.

Amanda Chong. Like Daryl Lim and Tse Hao Guang, I am interested in helping to build a culture of literary criticism in Singapore, which is vital for writers to improve and thrive. I was also excited about the potential of poetry.sg as an educational resource or a resource for the curious reader. I didn’t study any Singapore poetry in school as it wasn’t part of the curriculum but I did read a lot of Alfian Sa’at and Cyril Wong on the side. I wish I had a central repository to find more work by Singapore poets then.

 

Singapore Poetry. Thanks, everyone, for your responses. Tse Hao Guang, Daryl Lim, and Amanda Chong spoke of a lack of literary criticism in the local literary scene. Why do you think there is such a lack? How does poetry.sg remedy such a lack?

Daryl Lim. The lack, the lack. I think there’s such a lack because the exuberance of publishing coincides with a corresponding decline in criticism: many potential critics are also writers, and it’s sometimes easier — and more prudent — to just write one’s own stuff instead of risking criticism, which is thankless and may even sour relations with potential and erstwhile publishers. To crudely summarise: getting books out is so cool, why bother being the potential wet blanket? (Of course, criticism doesn’t aim to just take down. But in the face of such a boom there has to be some culling.)

Tse Hao Guang. There is the unfortunate caricature of the critic: as an opportunistic one-upsman, affecting sales, hurting sincere poets, etc. The truth is I never met a Singapore poet who stopped writing because of bad criticism; conversely, it seems like at least one critic has stopped writing both poetry and reviews (Nicholas Liu, for example) for whatever reason. I think the overriding sense I get is that people think Singapore literature is in its infancy, and we should be nurturing all forms of expression. I disagree — if anything, there is far too much being published now.

Joshua Ip. Off on a tangent: aside from what Daryl Lim and Hao Guang have covered in good detail, I’m also interested in the role of a critic as a discoverer, and a guide to the reader. This role helps the veteran poet as much as the debutante — a whole younger generation of students know very little of even Lee Tzu Pheng, Leong Liew Geok, and Edwin Thumboo beyond a few over-quoted pieces. I think of poetry.sg as (re)discovering or (re)introducing old/new voices to public attention, and the criticism is a key component of that that you won’t get in, say, uh, a tumblr share. Wong May is one particular example of this, but I’ll let Hao Guang expand on that.

I think it’s also necessary to make the obvious comparison with the Quarterly Literary Review of Singapore, and answer the question about whether we are just offering more of the same thing on a different platform — no, QLRS focuses more on individual book reviews, while poetry.sg allows us to examine a writer’s body of work over an extended period of time — so in a sense we are complementary critical products.

 

Singapore Poetry. Since writers may be reluctant critics and reviewers, how did you solicit the valuable critical introductions on poetry.sg? How will you do so for poets to be added later to the website?

Tse Hao Guang. In addition to the work already done by the SPARK team, I brainstormed with the rest of the subcommittee (basically the Daryls) and we came up with a list of people we thought we could reach out to. We did actually find a few established poets who were willing to write on a fellow poet (e.g. Eric Valles), but more excitingly, we also recruited MA and PhD students from the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University, Angus Whitehead from the National Institute of Education, and “emerging” poets who were happy to chip in, i.e. Cheryl Julia Lee, Samuel Lee, Rodrigo Peña Jr., etc.. Now that this first round is out, I hope to add to the stable of writers through open calls for help (I have a few NUS classmates who have already reached out to me), and lessening our reliance on fellow poets writing about each other.

Regarding Wong May, that was a little pet project of mine — I discovered her writing properly about 2 years ago when I was at the University of Chicago (they have her books in the library!). And then in 2014 I found out that she had a new collection. Fortunately, I also discovered that Angus was working on a book chapter dedicated to her, and he agreed to write her introduction. Wong May is quite outstanding because she is herself “forgotten” by most of the literary scene here, let alone young people, possibly because she moved overseas. It’s baffling to me still, because her writing is so ahead of its time. And yes, Josh is absolutely right that part of criticism is about digging into our literary past and unearthing gems that have been out of sight for far too long. In the filing cabinet of my mind there are at least 2 more “undiscovered” women writers in our literary history: Margaret Leong and Cecile Parrish, both of whom will make it into our next update, I hope.

 

Singapore Poetry. We’ll go to the discovery of poets next. Just to stay on the topic of critical introductions for another minute, how critical are the introductions? Could you give some examples?

Daryl Lim. Hao Guang can talk about Koh Buck Song.

Tse Hao Guang. Because we gave writers their choice of poets, most of our commissioned writers only wrote on poets they already admired/had an affinity for. Thus, most of the critical introductions are actually pretty positive. On the other hand, there were inevitably some writers who were not picked up, and for some of those poets, it fell to us (the team) to write on them. Personally, I think Jen and I wrote the most “critical” introductions. I don’t want to single Koh Buck Song out, because I think I was also pretty hard on Toh Hsien Min. And all of this, I hope, is entirely fair and rigorous.

Singapore Poetry. Fairness and rigor are important. What was said about Koh Buck Song and Toh Hsien Min with fairness and rigor? I know I am pushing you a little on this, but it will give the critical introductions some credibility and this interview some spicy specificity.

Tse Hao Guang. Basically, Toh Hsien Min was one poet I chose to write on, having thought about his work for some time. Koh Buck Song, conversely, was a very last-minute addition. I hadn’t read any of his work before I agreed to write on him. Nonetheless, I believe I approach their work with the same care and attention, although Koh Buck Song came out of it looking worse in comparison. Nobody’s accused me of being unfair or unrigorous, to be clear, but they are easy/lazy charges that get thrown about every time someone doesn’t like a review.

 

Singapore Poetry. Thanks for elaborating. Turning to the topic of discovery, Hao Guang described his excitement over Wong May’s poetry. In an interview with Leong Liew Geok, Jen discovered that the pioneer poet wrote about dining on her pet chicken in one of her earliest poems. What other exciting discoveries did you make as you put together this archive?

Joshua Ip. All I discovered were the joys of the National Arts Council presentation and participation grant website.

Daryl Yam. Well, I personally was never very attuned to local literature — I remember being vaguely aware of writers such as Cyril Wong and Ng Yi-Sheng as a teenager, but beyond those people I was only invested in literature from Europe and the Americas that was being marketed to me. It was only much later when I started to be aware of the history of Singaporean literature. Helping out with poetry.sg was pretty much as big of an eye-opening experience as it would be for any other person clueless about the subject.

I only contributed one essay to the website. I was assigned to write about Ho Poh Fun. For a while I somehow kept assuming Ho Poh Fun was male, and kept referring to her as “him,” haha. Needless to say, I hadn’t read a single one of her poems before, and so when I got started on her one and only collection, I began to wonder why I had never come across her work in the past. And I genuinely hope that the website would prove to be just as educational, and just as big of a discovery for other people as it was for me.

 

Singapore Poetry. Jennifer mentioned that some performance poets felt that she should have started a separate and independent archive for performance poetry. Could Jennifer and anyone else explain this separatist sentiment?

David Wong. I don’t know if this is PC, but the performance poets have every right and opportunity to set up a distinct archive, but they have not. They could still create an independent archive now, but I’d be puzzled as to why they would not want to use the foundation we’ve already built for poets both page and performance. If the concern is that performance poets will be treated as an afterthought on the site, I think that’s valid. But inclusivity and being comprehensive is something we committed to from the start of the poetry.sg project. Personally, I’d go as far as to say that it would be an act of erasure if we didn’t cover the performance poets. Jen obviously know the performance/spoken word scene the best, but the team as a whole is invested in bringing in the right people/more people to ensure that the performance poets are accurately represented.

Joshua Ip. There was some initial tension over the breakdown of the 50 poets to go up on the website first. The original division was 40 page poets and 10 performance poets, but after some cat-fighting to squeeze in a few people (Wong May), it went down to 42-8. The reasoning was that the relative brief history of performance poetry compared to page poetry in Singapore merited this distribution. Also, we double-counted poets such as Marc Nair, Pooja Nansi and Ng Yi-Sheng, who are both performance and page poets, so there were 10+ performance poets represented at the website launch. Throughout this, Jen was the champion of the spoken word scene and we agreed to respect that space.

Amanda Chong. From a site design perspective, we did not want to make a distinction between page and performance poets. They are all listed as poets on our main page without any segregation. We feel that both traditions are equally part of Singapore’s literary scene and heritage. In fact, the performance and page “genres” are growing increasingly porous — with performance poets publishing collections that stand up excellently on the page and “page” poets like Cyril Wong including very performative elements in the reading of his works using his beautiful counter tenor voice, and poets like Ng Yisheng who have straddled both from the beginning.

Joshua Ip. There is one chief difference between the page and performance poets on the site currently — the performance poets are covered by a survey essay by Ng Yi-Sheng rather than by individual critical introductions. This reflects the relative paucity of criticism for poetry in performance, due to the youth of the field. We hope to remedy this in the future but foresee some challenges due to the absence of scholarship in this field.

 

Singapore Poetry. Another question: Amanda expressed the hope earlier that the archive would also serve as an educational resource. Are there any plans to introduce the archive to students, teachers and schools?

David Wong. We’ve already connected informally with teachers who are regularly involved in the Singapore Lit scene. Professors and instructors from the National Institute of Education (which trains educators) have also been introduced to the project and our hope is that they will introduce poetry.sg to future educators.

Singapore Poetry. I am a teacher myself and so would love to see the archive used regularly by teachers and students. I think the team has done a great job reaching out to the wider literary community to compose the critical introductions. Perhaps the same strategy could be pursued to make the site an educational resource: invite teachers to create lesson plans based on the site, which can then be uploaded to the site.

Amanda Chong. Informally I have also introduced the website to literature teachers within my social circle. But definitely more work to be done there. I’d like to see students independently exploring the site too, after being introduced to it by their teachers. I think the great thing about the multimedia archive curated by Jen is that it has great potential to engage students in the classroom, and encourage independent browsing by the YouTube generation.

Jennifer Anne Champion. Regarding outreach to schools, I think it’s important not to just have literature students treat poetry.sg as a resource or dictionary. Next year I am offering workshops with the National Arts Council for tertiary students in which I want them to consider alternative ways of experiencing and preserving poetry beyond the text. I’ll be doing this in March next year. poetry,sg to me is an active process and I’m interested in engaging students not just to read the poetry or learn to write it, but also to think about how it lends itself to other media. I’m wondering if I might find a few potential interns among these students.

 

Singapore Poetry. One last question to wrap up, unless anyone wants to propose another question. Feel free also to jump on previous questions. If everyone could chip in on the last question, it would round up the interview nicely, since we began with everyone introducing himself or herself. Where do you see the archive in five years’ time?

Jennifer Anne Champion. 5 years from now I want to see more new faces in the team and a bigger pool of manpower. Sustainability is the important thing, which means putting ourselves out there to invite people who will become passionate about the project. I’m thinking of more editors for the different languages, for one. I have a basic command of Malay but even the Malay poetry in our video archive stumps me. I think we will need more funding to expand in this, but it’s also very important if we want to be a more representative archive, which is something I think we’re all pushing for.

Right now I’d be happy to have some volunteers to do simple transcribing and subtitling for our video archive in English. Along with representation, it’s important to reach a wide base. I am working on making the video archive accessible to the deaf. Eventually I think it would be crazy cool if we could have translated subtitles. Which is useful on both a local and global scale. Imagine a Malay poem being understood by an English speaker here and an English speaker abroad.

Tse Hao Guang. I would love to see people organically volunteering ideas and time to the site, especially in those areas where we might still be lacking; coming up with a viable model for funding beyond repeatedly applying for grants; hosting other kinds of media/information on the site — in short, I would like poetry.sg to be seen as even more of a grassroots venture than it already is, both in terms of execution as well as vision.

David Wong. I hope for the site to still be around. So many literary initiatives die within five years, and I don’t think we can take the site’s existence for granted. At the same time I think poetry.sg could continue its work for years to come without ever reaching beyond Singapore’s literary community, and that’s a fate I hope we avoid. It’s out of our control, however. We’re just going to have to do the work and see what happens.

Joshua Ip. I just have two words: mobile optimization.

Prabu Devaraj. Sorry for the late jump in: but I believe poetry.sg will flourish by adding more writers (both older and upcoming) in English. I hope we will be able to cross language barriers to upload poetries in the other native languages. It is definitely a feat of sorts to keep up a literary initiative, but I suppose we will be looking at effective succession between managers of the project, so that wave after wave of passionate and dedicated individuals will propel SG lit and poetry.sg into the future.

Singapore Poetry. Joshua, if by “mobile optimization,” you mean optimize the site for mobile devices, that seems to be a great way to get those eyeballs. Thanks, everyone, for participating in this interview-conversation. I appreciate your time and thought.

 

HaoGuang

Critical Editor: Tse Hao GuangAssembled with parts from Hong Kong and Malaysia, Tse Hao Guang is interested in form and formation, creativity and quotation, lyrics and line breaks. He is the author of poetry collections hyperlinkage (2013) and Deeds of Light (2015, both Math Paper Press). He graduated from the Masters of Arts Program in the Humanities at the University of Chicago in 2014 with a concentration in poetry and creative writing, and co-edits the cross-genre, collaborative literary journal OF ZOOS, as well as UnFree Verse, an anthology of Singapore poetry in received and nonce forms. As Critical Editor, Hao Guang coordinates the search for and deployment of writers for critical introductions. He works closely with those writers to turn their thoughts into insightful, properly-formatted, house-styled pieces.

 

David

Text Editor: David Wong. David Wong Hsien Ming discovered poetry as a child at a Sunday lunch. His work has earned an Honorable Mention and later won second prize in Singapore’s Golden Point Award, and has appeared in publications like Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Ceriph, and Mascara Literary Review. His first collection of poetry, For the End Comes Reaching, was published in 2015 (Math Paper Press). He read philosophy at the University of Melbourne, graduating with honours, and is a high school teacher. As text editor, David works on sourcing poets’ biodata and bringing it in line with the critical introductions.

 

Jennifer

Multimedia Editor: Jennifer Anne Champion. Jennifer Anne Champion is a writer and performance poet. She has performed her work in Shanghai, the UK, Israel, and is a regular voice in the Singapore spoken word scene. She has been documenting the work of Singapore-based poets since 2013 and continues to do so for poetry.sg. She has a BA Hons degree in English Literature with a minor in Communications & New Media from the National University of Singapore. Jennifer is a founding member of all-female performance poetry troupe, Sekaliwags, a member of spoken word troupe, Party Action People, and writing group Image Symbol Department. She also teaches slam poetry in public schools and writes curatorial essays for art galleries both locally and internationally. She released her first chapbook A History of Clocks with Redwheelbarrow Books in 2015 and is working on her forthcoming full collection Caterwaul with Math Paper Press.

 

Amanda

Web Editor: Amanda Chong. Amanda Chong is a lawyer trained in Cambridge and Harvard, who writes poems on her lunch breaks. A winner of the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award and third prize winner of the Golden Point Award for Poetry in 2015, her poetry has been engraved on the Marina Bay Helix Bridge and included in the Cambridge International GCSE syllabus. She is interested in exploring themes of gender and power, in both her poetry and academic writing, which has been published in the Harvard Journal of Law and Gender. Her first collection is forthcoming in 2016 under Math Paper Press Ten Year Series imprint.

 

JoshuaIp

Chief Clerk: Joshua IpJoshua Ip loves spreadsheets, financial planning, and applying for grants. His invoices, budget sheets and grant applications have been published widely across websites and institutions like STARS and the SG50 Celebration Fund. He is a four-time recipient of the Presentation and Participation Grant, a three-time recipient of the Market and Audience Development Grant, and was awarded the Creation Grant in 2014. His life ambition is to apply for and be awarded the Seed and Major Grants.

 

DarylY

Editorial Team Member: Daryl Qilin Yam is a writer of prose and poetry, currently studying English Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Warwick. He has most recently co-edited SingPoWriMo 2015: The Anthology with Jennifer Anne Champion and Joshua Ip.

 

DarylL

Editorial Team Member: Daryl Lim Wei Jie read history at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. He won first prize for the Golden Point Award for English poetry in 2015. His work has been featured in the Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal,Ceriph, POSKOD.SG, Drunken Boat and Softblow, and his poetry has been anthologised in A Luxury We Cannot Afford (Math Paper Press, 2015) and elsewhere. He is particularly interested in the literary uses of history. His first collection will be published in 2016 under the Math Paper Press Ten Year Series imprint.

 

Dave

Editorial Team Member: Prabu Daveraj is a Law student who needs poetry to deal with life. He is at NUS Law, and currently trying to hone his poetic craft. He assists the Chief Clerk.

 

About Jee Leong Koh

My book of poems Steep Tea (Carcanet) was named a Best Book of 2015 by UK's Financial Times, and a Finalist by Lambda Literary. I also wrote three other books of poems and a book of zuihitsu. My work has been shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize, and translated into Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian and Latvian. Originally from Singapore, I live in New York City, where I edit the arts blog Singapore Poetry, and run the Second Saturdays Reading Series and the Singapore Literature Festival in NYC.

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