On Writing Poetry in Singapore
Alvin Pang and Yong Shu Hoong drive head to head down the Central Expressway
By Eddie Tay
It has been said that while there is no money in poetry, there is no poetry in money either. So what motivates our poets? What do they do for a living and what are they up to when they are not at their day jobs?
Eddie Tay catches up with Yong Shu Hoong and Alvin Pang to find out their thoughts on writing in Singapore. Yong, a web editor with a local bank, is the author of Isaac (1997) and Isaac Revisited (2001), while Pang, who works with a communications consultancy, is the author of Testing the Silence (1997) and co-editor of poetry anthologies No Other City (2000) and Love Gathers All (2002).
ET: What is it about Singapore that motivates you to write?
AP: Nothing. I write from my own motivations; nothing to do with Singapore most of the time. Why should there be a link? I'm very uncomfortable with this 'obligation' for social writing. Some writers naturally gravitate towards certain themes and approaches but not everyone has to do so.
YSH: I think any major city in the world, Singapore included, offers an abundance of inspirations for perceptive poets. Singapore, in particular, has a lot of obvious and hidden contradictions, especially in terms of an east-west clash, a contrast of values; for example, the country's Disneyland image versus the sexual openness of one of Singapore's more famous daughters, Annabel Chong, topped by a certain repressed complex that is a mix of paranoia, contentment and cautious hope.
So far, I've tried scraping beneath the surface, focusing on seemingly insignificant occurrences to bring out deeper issues in a subtler manner, but I don't think I have completely milked Singapore for all its worth. Another thing, being in the company of fellow Singapore young poets certainly motivates me to try to come up with better stuff all the time. The competition is definitely heating up as the poetry scene grows.
ET: Do you see a relationship between your occupation and your role as a poet?
YSH: At first glance, there seems to be little relationship between my current occupation as a web editor with a local bank and my role as a poet. But having a full-time job offers me invaluable opportunities to mingle with different levels of people, and of course places me right smack in the midst of all the action in terms of Internet culture, bank mergers, as well as yuppie fears and concerns. These are ingredients that would fuel the writing of my second collection of poems.
ET: Do you face any difficulties in getting your poetry heard or published in Singapore?
AP: No, apart from the natural dearth of an audience. I put the blame squarely on the MOE, which has been slow, at best, to get our local literature on the school curriculum. We're still insisting on a very narrow Western – make that British – canon when even their writing has moved on. More contemporary stuff from around the world and at home please. And let's have more poetry, not just fiction or drama on the Literature syllabus.
YSH: Not a problem for me. I organise the monthly subTEXT readings, where any local poets can read or participate in open-mic sessions. I've also been published and anthologised.
ET: In your opinion, is there an audience for poetry in Singapore?
AP: Yes, but small. And a lot of them are would-be poets themselves. There's actually a growing and untapped audience among young polytechnic grads and so on... very tuned in to media and culture, not just the JC or undergrad crowd you'd expect. Also the expats from Philippines, Australia, US, etc. that we've yet to reach out to.
YSH: I don't think there is too big an audience now. I would say that currently, the audience is still growing and needs to be educated and cultivated. At the same time, for the audience to expand, local poets need to continue honing their skills and dream up innovative ways, whether through interesting performances or visual exhibition of poetry like artwork, to get their poetry heard.
ET: What are some of the literary events you’ve organised/participated in recently?
AP: I used to run AFTERWORDS. Most recent was my helping out at the Writers’ Festival 2001. Also... hosting and organising events for the Filippino writers contingent, including a sell-out reading at the MPH Book Café – $25 a ticket, overbooked by poets!
YSH: As said before, I organise the monthly subTEXT readings [at the MPH Book Café]. I also organised a recent poets' retreat at the Gallery Evason hotel. Over the past year, I have also taken part in overseas readings in countries like Malaysia, Hong Kong and Australia.
ET: Do you see yourself as a literary activist? What's a literary activist?
YSH: Not really. I think activist is too big a word. You might even be arrested for branding yourself as that.
AP: Yes I'm a literary activist.
I always use the analogy of highways. Writers and poets are like race drivers, exploring the highways and byways of culture and intellect and the emotional landscape. But drivers need good roads, and in the absence of such cultural and administrative infrastructure, drivers are obliged to go build roads so that they can carry on driving. But we're drivers at heart, not road-builders.
So while I see such events as a critical aspect of the literary culture of a society, I wish I didn't have to spend quite so much time developing it. Really we should be writing, and reading rather than organising events, promotions, marketing, etc. It has its own rewards, but it isn't the same as practising and honing your art.
ET: Do you think it is more difficult to be a writer in Singapore than anywhere else?
AP: Yes. After visiting Australia, even relative cultural backwaters like Brisbane, I realise how far behind we are in terms of providing basic resources – funding, grants, housing, etc. – for writers. Sure, NAC gives some token grants but they're nowhere near the levels in these places, and we're not talking about Sydney and Melbourne. We need more infrastructure level and production level support if we're going to get our literary scene off the ground, especially since our publishing and printing costs are so high. Even former Singaporeans like Lau Siew Mei are getting far more support, grants and recognition in Australia than they were here, and they've gotten some critical attention. Why are we selling our own talent short?
YSH: Depends on how you look at it. On one hand, we are better off than some other countries in Southeast Asia, but if we were to compare ourselves with more established cultural centres, for example, Australian cities like Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, not to mention US cities, we are lagging far behind in terms of assistance and support given to writers. A big step forward would be to start a writers' centre in Singapore to take care of writers' interests.
ET: What advice would you give to Singaporeans who are aspiring to get their poetry published?
YSH: If you are not already doing it, you should. Start off with getting your poems into anthologies or online journals. And go to any readings to get yourself heard. Don't forget to make full use of NAC's programmes and fundings.
AP: Hone your manuscript, pare it down to its essence. Think of it as a book, not just a loose collection of poems you've written. It needs to have an internal coherence and theme. Show it to someone whose work you respect, and accept some friendly editorial advice. An objective opinion is critical even for established writers. Send the manuscript round to a publishing house whose work you like, but don't commit until you're sure its the best deal. Don't be afraid of rejection. Try overseas publishing houses too. Be prepared to change things up to printing time. The creation of a book is a dynamic, fluid and collaborative process. It's not just your baby now: you're giving it to the public to adopt.
ET: What is your wish-list for the local literary scene in 20 years’ time?
AP: More professional literary agents and publishers and support, on par with the best practices around the world. At least 1-2 Singaporean faces among the world elite literati – Booker Prize, Pulitzer Prize, Nobel Prize or whatever. Singaporean books on sale in major bookstores around the world, just like anyone else's books. That Singaporeans would be appalled if anyone were to suggest that local literature be taken off the syllabus. That we will be as proud of our writers as we are of our engineers, entrepreneurs and lawyers. That young writers would take it as a God-given right to have a shot at the global market and awards.
ET: Is there anything else you want to say about being a poet in Singapore?
YSH: I am optimistic that things can only get better. But writers would have to help themselves first, and hopefully, corporations and the general public will soon be swayed to give their support.
AP: Being a poet anywhere is the same. It's your writing that makes you a poet. Not a badge, not a grant, not an award, although these things help. It's your sensitivity to the world, your itch to write and your urge to write it well and with as much integrity to the truth of what you experience as your talent can muster. Oh, and you really don't have to be gay to be a good poet in Singapore, although it helps, apparently.