To a Young Poet (on Singapore’s 51st Birthday)

To a Young Poet
by Jee Leong Koh


Quit the country soon as you can
before you’re set on a career path or marrying
the home ownership scheme.
Pay no heed to the village elders.
They are secretly ashamed that they did not leave.

Quit the country but do not
shake the dust off your feet against it.
Leave instead with a secret smile
for all that leaving has to teach you.

Learn what it is to be welcomed
for the coin in your purse, for strong hips
in pushing a cart uphill, a firm voice in a good cause.
When the welcome wears off, as it will,
learn to leave again, this time by the sea.

Be always on your way, and on arrival
sleep with anyone who asks. You never know
what gift they may have for you in the morning.
You will discover, suddenly or over the course of a winter night,
what gift you have for them.
Always kiss goodbye on the lips.

There will be seasons of great loneliness.
You cannot outrun it, so sit and survey
the thunderless desert.

In every town, pick up the local accent
and blend it into yours, already impure,
as a secret ingredient is fused into the top note of a perfume.
Hearing you, the taberna will wonder where you are from.
Drink deep of their wonderment. Do not betray it.

After you leave a good tip for the barkeep,
climb to your narrow room and write whatever you wish.
Your flowers will grace the sweaty brow of a buffalo.
Your politics will smell of perfume.
If you write about the old country, you will write
about a lover who leaves your side in the night
to stand by the window and look up at the crescent moon.



P1070927 copy









Photo: Guy E. Humphrey

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.


  1. dot

    I have learnt more about poetry than I have my entire, from this set of words by Jee.


  2. James F. Sheppard Jr.

    The great wanderer. I liked it. What is a Taberna?


  3. angelinamarilyn

    I nearly wanted to write something similar, because I feel the exact sentiments as the poem; about this city; about leaving this city. This is so beautifully written amongst other poems written about sg. I love it.


  4. I’m relocating back to Singapore next Sat after 2+ years in Shanghai and I plan to leave for another place after Singapore as soon as I figure out where. This poem speaks to me. Thank you for penning and sharing this.


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