Wilfred Owen meets Hokkien peng
Koh Buck Song does national service
By Toh Hsien Min
Born in Singapore in 1963, Koh Buck Song read English at Cambridge University. He has authored or edited 11 books, including his own verse collections A Brief History of Toa Payoh and Other Poems (1992) and The Worth of Wonder (2001), and the anthology Singapore: Places, Poems, Paintings (1993). His wider experience includes spells as a journalist with The Straits Times, as a Major(NS) in the army, and, currently, as the head of corporate communications in the Economic Development Board. Toh Hsien Min meets him by the Singapore River.
THM: Thank you for agreeing to do this interview. There’re many points in the brief history of Koh Buck Song where we can commence, but let’s start at the very beginning, as the song goes. You’re part of the first post-independence generation in Singapore, and, as I gather, grew up in its first new town at Toa Payoh. Was there anything in your early years that signalled the emergence of a writer?
KBS: As far as whether there was anything in my early years that signalled the emergence of a writer, there was precious little, I have to admit. I came from a humble family background and was not privileged to have much by way of Nurture – no gifted programme in schools, in those days, with special coaching, etc. – so I guess much of my instincts for literature come from Nature.
I loved reading, and used to borrow many books from the library and try to hog them as long as I could. In those days, they did not have today’s system of charging for renewals, so I was able to really study books so long as no one else had tried to reserve those books.
I recall once in primary school, a teacher asked my class for literary contributions to a call for submissions that must have come from the Ministry of Education or somewhere official. In response, I wrote probably my first finished poem, titled ‘The Jetty’. I still remember it by heart, a poem in rhyming couplets:
I go to the jetty
I remember my teacher praising it, but cannot recall much else or what happened to it. This poem is juvenilia, but it is still very close to my heart and I often think of it when I do go to the jetty (usually at East Coast, sometimes Labrador Park) to unwind, de-stress and get away from the burdens of life.
My interest in “serious literature” was really piqued only in secondary school, when we studied writers like Chinua Achebe, John Steinbeck and, of course, William Shakespeare. I found I had a flair for the subject, and the power of literature to enable otherwise powerless and insignificant individuals to give voice to their innermost yearnings, and so, to speak out against issues and topics of concern, was something I found very empowering and liberating.
In my teenage years, the British literature tutors we had in the Humanities scholarship scheme at Hwa Chong Junior College really fired up my interest in literature. I found the satire of Jonathan Swift to be really spot-on and illuminating about human nature. My appreciation of Shakespeare broadened and deepened. When I started reading Singapore literature on my own – Edwin Thumboo, Lee Tzu Pheng, Arthur Yap, etc., this also inspired me to emulate them in adding to the body of works by Singapore writers.
What all this shows is that teachers and mentors have a very great and long-lasting influence on nurturing the love of literature which does not come to everyone who studies the subject. As I have noticed, looking at some of my contemporaries, it is possible to score an “A” and yet have little deep and lasting love or passion for the subject. In my case, somehow, it just connected and gelled with an instinct inside me and continued to develop.
THM: Great teachers are only too rare. And then you applied to Cambridge?
KBS: Yes, at age 18, I did not look too far ahead to consider long-term career interests or prospects. At that time, there was hardly any career guidance. My main aim was to get a scholarship and develop my best area of interest. Literature was the subject that I felt would give me my best chance to get into Cambridge.
THM: Looking back, you haven’t done too badly without career guidance! But back to Cambridge, you did a sort of European tour during your time there – you have a section in both your collections focussed on travel. Did the travel motivate the writing or the writing motivate the travel?
KBS: Mostly, in the beginning, the travel motivated the writing. Overall, my approach has been to try to reach for larger and more universal themes, and travel offers this opportunity perfectly as it includes more of the world and allows for a juxtaposition and bouncing off of experience from the homegrown with the foreign and exotic. This helps clarify the foreign experience at the same time as it illuminates and defines the homegrown. I went to Europe a few times from England, including two long periods of train journeys in the spring of 1983 and the summer of 1984. Travel really opens the mind and nurtures open-mindedness.
Some of the time, the writing has motivated the travel, such as in the poems on visiting the tombs of John Keats (in A Brief History Of Toa Payoh) and Ezra Pound (in The Worth Of Wonder). I had an intention in the back of my mind to write something about these visits before I embarked on them. It was also satisfying to try to weave in literary references from the writers themselves, so that there is a connection between past and present.
More recently, there has been a bit more of the writing motivating the travel. For instance, my more recent trips, e.g. South Africa, Taiwan, Japan during cherry blossom season, have been made with a much sharper and more deliberate consciousness of the potential of experience gained from travel as material for writing. On these trips, I was more consciously aware of my surroundings and sought to capture ideas, emotions and images that could be used in poetry.
My next collection (now in the final editing stage) also has a section on travel. I feel it is necessary to include travel pieces, as the world is so big and there is so much to experience and capture. To focus on Singapore alone would be too narrow a perspective. Travel writing allows for cross-cultural sharing; in its way, it is a vital channel for art to contribute to deeper and more informed international understanding.
THM: I must confess to having stood in wonder before Keats’s grave as well – though I was puzzled by your reference to Colosseum crowds, since the Colosseum is actually quite a distance away. But the Romantic note is well sounded. I get a sense from your books, especially Brief History, that you’re most heavily influenced by that period. There’s a tremendously Wordsworthian feel to many of the poems, which deal with place less in an evocative manner than as a site for philosophical musing, as in “wonder of earth / unsinister chasm” (in ‘Into the Grand Canyon’), or ‘Acropolis Now’. Is this still or will this still be relevant to our age?
KBS: In the Keats poem, I was referring to other aspects of Rome as part of the whole experience of the place, and not only those things that are within earshot, so to speak. It’s exercising a kind of poetic licence. I use this same approach in all my travel poems, referring to elements of a place, even a whole country, as if they were there in one place. In the realm of that poem, these elements are in one place, in the sphere of that particular poem.
Yes, I suppose I was at that time quite influenced by poets like Keats and Wordsworth, and the influence has endured, and comes through even in some of my most recent poems e.g. in my “nature” series, set in Singapore featuring an animal, sea creature or other element of natural life.
I think this spirit is still very much relevant to our lives, even in this modern age. It is timeless, this sense of appreciation for nature, what I call “the worth of wonder”. This is something that technology can never replace, just as the Internet did not destroy reading and books, but actually brought people closer to buying books online and brought about an increase in reading.
THM: Yes, I’ve noticed that conflation occurring quite frequently in the poems, most starkly for me in ‘Esplanade Echoes’, where Sang Nila, Raffles, Lim Bo Seng and weekend sportsmen all appear in the space of two stanzas. Does this not sacrifice focus for breadth? Although I suppose it is also quite a Romantic thing to do. And what is the worth of wonder? How do you quantify it, or even qualify it, or is it just an esoteric religiosity?
KBS: To me, the worth of wonder means a few things. Most simply, it is retaining a child-like sense of awe, e.g. at the wonder of Nature. Not everyone has this ability, which is also why not everyone enjoys literature. I recall on a driving tour of Australia, driving my travelling companions right to the edge of a cliff to see a coastal blowhole we had driven hours to reach, and they would not even get out of the car because the view did not mean much to them. And there are people who travel to Hawaii to go only to shopping malls. Literature and the arts are about nurturing this sense of appreciation for the greatness of creation, trying to make sense of the myriad experiences available in the universe and to communicate it to others so that they may enrich their own sense of the world.
It also means creativity, innovation, freedom of expression, the insight not to take things at face value but to question surface reality, the courage to hold on to principles and articulate what is true literally and emotionally.
I don’t think it is sacrificing focus for breadth. Art allows us to put things together that are connected thematically or even spiritually. It’s like an MTV video with thousands of images flickering across the screen. How good the video is depends on how coherent the whole thing is, whether the end-product is greater than the sum of all the parts, and how fluid is the meshing of apparently disparate elements. Poetry is perfect for that too. It is the essence of metaphor, to juxtapose two or more apparently unconnected ideas and to produce meaning out of that interaction.
THM: You did say, as I recall, during the Q&A at the most recent subTEXT reading, that poetry is about taking one central image and developing it. Developing that metaphorical thread, as it were, that juxtaposition of two or more apparently unconnected ideas seems very often to produce observations that are not so much attributive as projective in scope. Some examples from your poems are “boardwalk of coexistence” (‘Sungei Buloh’) or “saliva of ambition” (‘Frogleap’). Sometimes there isn’t even any physical presence, as abstract concepts fuse into each other, as when you speak of “arithmetic of survival” and “geometry of community” (‘Close Quarters, Chinatown’). Can you describe how you arrive at these frogleaps?
KBS: In the Sungei Buloh poem, there really is a boardwalk at Sungei Buloh and the boardwalk is used as a metaphor for the way man modifies nature in order to come closer to it. ‘Frogleap’, like several other poems in The Worth Of Wonder, is actually a companion poem to a painting by the Singapore artist Thomas Yeo in his catalogue Moving Colours (1993). There is a streak of paint in the painting that looks like saliva, and for frogs, saliva represents their ambition, to slurp up delicious flies for supper. This operates as a metaphor for other kinds of ambition, which may be as messy or slimy.
A few of the other companion poems are from the book Twenty-Five Years Of Watercolour Painting In Singapore (1994). The poems were written in response to the paintings and what they evoke. I realise that readers may not be able to appreciate these poems without seeing the paintings. I hope the poems speak to them nonetheless.
For ‘Close Quarters, Chinatown’, one impression that has always fascinated me is how the shophouse buildings in Chinatown are so close to each other and people live in peaceful coexistence despite the tensions and inconveniences this may cause. It just struck me that mathematical references would be appropriate in describing and defining this. Overall, the aim is the same: to use language creatively, innovatively and hopefully uniquely, to define the human condition.
THM: So the methodology is associative then? I mean, I suppose all poetry is to some extent associative...
KBS: Yes, and the metaphor picked can come from a totally unexpected context, so long as it captures the right idea, feeling or mood. Some writers say they do not care if readers attach their own interpretations, which could be way off from what the writer intended. I try my best to be accurate in capturing what I want to say and the feeling and mood I want to convey.
In other words, I care about the writer’s intention. I disagree with the school of thought that dismisses all talk of the writer’s intention, as if it were irrelevant. I believe what the writer intended is absolutely crucial, and if we could, we should try our best to record it. Of course, this does not preclude other interpretations. The writer’s intention is one meaning, but it is a meaning that should carry more weight than all others.
THM: Are you dismayed by the directions literary theory has taken in the last half-century?
KBS: To some extent. I would have more to say about this topic if I had kept in touch. But I feel quite distant now from literary theory, not having engaged with it in any depth since my university days some 15 years ago now. So much of academia is so far removed from real, everyday life...
I still do the occasional book review, but have never applied any formal literary theories. I apply old-fashioned approaches to reading, making sense of the denotative and connotative meaning of words in their contexts, appreciating the use of literary techniques and testing possible meanings against our experience of life.
As a writer, one does not have to bother about theory, which is wonderful. One just has to remain true to one’s own instincts and principles. One of my main aims as a writer is to record experiences for posterity. In this way, writing is like a museum, storing valuable artifacts in words instead of display cases. This is why one of my favourite themes is to capture what is about to be lost, like old Chinatown or impressions of a place visited. All places change in the blink of an eye. In Singapore, that blink is fixed on permanent fast forward. Hence, all the more urgent the task, and responsibility, of art to record.
THM: One could, if one was inclined to, argue for Brief History and The Worth of Wonder being books of nostalgia. But I pick up that you said “one of [your] main aims as a writer...”. You’ve certainly extended that archival urgency beyond poetry, to Bugis Street: The Novel and the non-fiction Toa Payoh: Our Kind of Neighbourhood. How did those come about?
KBS: Bugis Street: The Novel was a novelisation of a theatre production that two of my friends put up at the Victoria Theatre in 1994. These were the early days when people in Singapore were becoming more adventurous in the arts and seeing greater value in art both as an integral and valuable part of life, as well as something holding potential as a business venture. They asked me to do the book based on the skeleton of a story they had already worked out for the stage musical. I wrote it in collaboration with another writer, Tan Hwee Hua.
I did the project mainly as an experimentation in trying out a new form of writing and also because I did not want to disappoint my friends. It was an interesting venture. Exploring the story of urban renewal and the destruction of Bugis Street allowed me to explore this favourite theme of mine – conflict between tradition and modernity, competing interests in society, loss and art’s role in making sense of loss and coming to terms with it.
The book has been given very serious academic study in Interlogue, a series of works of literary criticism published by Ethos Books.
Recently, a university student group put up the same musical using only the book as a basis. The amazing thing was, none of them had watched the musical in 1994 but the stage production was almost exactly like the one at the Victoria Theatre. This must have meant that the descriptions in the book were vivid, evocative and accurate enough for them to recreate the same atmosphere.
Toa Payoh: Our Kind Of Neighbourhood is a coffee-table corporate history of the Housing [Development]Board for its 40th anniversary for the year 2000. It was a commissioned book which the publishers Times Editions approached me to do, partly because I had published my earlier collection A Brief History Of Toa Payoh And Other Poems.
The HDB book is different from other corporate histories because it is written not from the perspective of the corporate HQ but from the grassroots, through the stories of five main characters drawn from residents representing the whole spectrum of race, religion, gender, income group, social background, etc. This was what attracted me to the project.
I recall thinking that this was a gathering of “representative people”, something a bit like Geoffrey Chaucer’s characters who reflect the life and concerns of a town, as in his Canterbury Tales. Of course, my interviewees were real people and this was non-fiction, so we presented them very much as they were, with little embellishment. I tried to be as true to them and the place as possible. There are some touches of poetry in the descriptions of scenes. Since the book was published, Toa Payoh has been transformed even further and is now a really modern and impressive town, which proves my point that literature and the arts have an urgent task to record, especially in a fast-changing place like Singapore.
This is a theme and concern that I have also voiced many times in my newspaper personal columns for The Straits Times, when I was with the paper from 1988 to 1999, and up till now, in my freelance book reviews.
Having said that, as I mature even more as a writer and social observer, I find myself feeling less agitated that so much of our heritage is being lost. This is due to two reasons. First, there has been a clear shift in official policy towards heritage conservation in Singapore in the last few years. The saving of Chek Jawa, the attention being paid to restoring and maintaining our museums, are just two examples of the greater attention being paid to this area. The other reason is that I have already expressed the primary concerns that I hold dearest, and so can take a broader view that change is inevitable and writers can still draw on memory to evoke the past if they want to.
THM: Can I take this as a hint that the upcoming collection you had mentioned will see a change in direction? I’m also quite intrigued that there were nine years between your first and second poetry collections, yet only two years will divide the second and third.
KBS: For my forthcoming third collection, I would say there will be no major change in direction, only in subject matter and treatment of themes. I will still have a number of travel poems about trips to more recent destinations, as well as a few pieces about places visited in the past. There will also be general pieces of observations of life, which I hope will be wiser and more adventurous. In addition, I am working on a series of nature poems.
After my first collection in 1992, I turned to other books and projects, including collaborating with visual artists especially Thomas Yeo and Ong Kim Seng. This is something I want to explore further, and also with other artforms. I also channelled much of my energy into my newspaper journalism, especially my features and columns, which consumed a lot of creative energy. I’ve never done a count, but I must have written several hundred columns.
In 1999, after I left fulltime journalism, I was able to harness the energy to refresh the poems I had been working on, on and off, in my drawer all this time, and put them together into The Worth Of Wonder. I had always been told that journalism works against creative writing in that it takes up too much of the same energies, and didn’t really believe it before, but have found this to be true in my own case. I was nonetheless able to produce anthologies and other books in that time, including trying out a stage novelisation and non-fiction works, but somehow never sat down to put my poetry together.
Wonder was published in 2001, as what I like to think of as the first book of Singaporean poetry in English in the 21st century. After it was released, I set myself a target of producing another book soon, and this is how I now have almost enough pieces for another collection. I might have been able to get this ready even sooner, if not for the two other projects that came up in between - the two books I edited in 2002, Heart Work (stories of how the Economic Development Board steered the Singapore economy from 1961 into the 21st century) and From Boys To Men: A Literary Anthology Of National Service in Singapore.
There may be more than two years in between Wonder and collection no. 3, as I am still working on the final editing and the publishers’ consideration and book production process may take a while. Anyway, writers are not supposed to say too much about works in progress, so I think I have said enough on this topic...
THM: So let’s talk about From Boys To Men then. I was surprised initially that it was a private initiative, and I think someone at that same subTEXT reading asked you if there was anything you had to watch out for while doing this, and you said, if I recall, something along the lines of, not really, you hadn’t crossed any boundaries. I think you were referring to the Official Secrets Act, but I’m not sure everyone came away with the same impression, because the book is arguably quite placid for an NS [National Service] anthology. Did you not receive any protest/ dissident writing?
KBS: We did receive a flaming email, but there were only a very small handful of pieces we did not include, and these were mainly due to lack of literary quality as much as anything else. Others were not included because they were off-tangent from the theme or could be sensitive if misunderstood. I would argue that many of the pieces are quite honest in their critical treatment of the subject. It’s certainly not placid by Singapore standards.
THM: Point taken. What about the demographics of the writers though? I don’t have the book on me, but remember feeling that there were some obvious weights. It may be a little too rich for an Oxonian to observe to a Cantabrigian that this anthology has probably the highest per capita Oxbridge influence among Singapore anthologies... is there a vernacular army literature? Furthermore, the generation of writers Umej and yourself belong to – and in particular Boey Kim Cheng, whose army poetry is admittedly strong – received possibly disproportionate coverage.
KBS: I haven’t done a study of the book as a critic, having obviously been too close to the book thus far. Your observation about Oxbridge influence is probably right, since there haven’t been that many anthologies in Singapore so far. I suppose every anthology will display some biases and preferences of the editors. In our case, we tried to be as inclusive as possible and this is reflected in the pieces that came from public submissions and from the women. Of course, we supplemented this with pieces from people we knew – more in the case of Umej than for me, as I did not do as much as he did in terms of asking people I knew for submissions. If we had been able to get the word around more than we did, we probably could have garnered more contributions. The limitations of this process explain what you call the “disproportionate coverage”. We would have liked to extend the range of coverage but since this is an anthology in the tradition of literature in English, it is inevitable that some kinds of writing will have an advantage over others. We did have one piece translated from the Chinese and could have included other similar pieces, but there is already, I feel, a wide enough representation of the main ethnic groups.
Still, I feel the anthology has a broad enough range of representation in terms of gender, period of experience (the pieces span from the early 1970s to Nov 2002), branches of service (including police, artillery, clerical etc) and attitude. It also covers all the main aspects of national service from enlistment to ROD [Run-Out Date].
As to whether there is a vernacular army literature, I think it exists in the oral tradition of army stories, swear words and coined terms like “keng” (malingering) and “siong” (physically demanding). This is something NSmen are already familiar with. This book aims to add another dimension – army stories and expressions that are couched in the tradition of English literature. This is, if you like, the place where the Singaporean Everyman in skeletal battle order, the Hokkien “peng” (soldier), meets Wilfred Owen.
THM: Dulce et decorum est... If Wilfred Owen were to meet the Hokkien “peng”, what do you think he would say?
KBS: That’s a tough question. I think Owen might say something like this:
“Beng, I know what you are going through is tough. But it is nothing like the real thing. There is no “exercise cut” when the storm clouds gather. When the real bullets fly, I can only say, you can only pray that the war will be for a just cause. In the meantime, endure, be strong, be alert, and serve with honour – for yourself, if nothing else.”
I am more intrigued by what the Hokkien “peng” might say to Owen... and this where my answer would be less confident. I am really unsure to what extent the Singaporean Everyman in SBO [skeletal battle order] can grasp what Owen was expressing in his war poetry. Maybe the better modern point of reference would be films like Saving Private Ryan, but the point is the same – whether there is that awareness of the issues, the conflicts of interests, versus blind obedience and bravado that is potentially destructive if misguided. This is something I hope this anthology can begin to change, to nurture what I call, in the book’s introduction, “the writing soldier” – that is, a citizen soldier who has a more developed awareness of conscience, compassion, creativity, critical thinking and courage (moral and intellectual). This is the value-add of literature, its five “Cs” of economic contribution, if you like.
In a recent interview with The Straits Times, the writer Mario Vargas Llosa made the observation that the decline of fiction reading, from what he has noticed and compared with the past, is mainly due to the fact that fewer men now read fiction. His fans are nearly all women. I am sure this is largely true of Singapore as well, with men more drawn to publications on sports and management. I hope From Boys To Men will make a difference, and mobilise some Singaporean men back to the critical terrain of literature.
THM: Thank you for your time.
KBS: Let me thank you for your time and effort too. It has been a really enjoyable conversation.