Quarterly Literary Review Singapore
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Vol. 1 No. 3 Apr 2002

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On Writing Poetry in Singapore
Page 2

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.

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QLRS Vol. 1 No. 3 Apr 2002


About Eddie Tay
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  Related Links

Alvin Pang overview
External link to the National University of Singapore.

Testing the Silence
External link to the Poetry Billboard.

Alvin Pang interviewed on Love Gathers All
External link to the 2nd Rule.

Yong Shu Hoong webpage
External link.

Yong Shu Hoong overview
External link to the National University of Singapore.


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