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.
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QLRS Vol. 1 No. 3 Apr 2002