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.
QLRS Vol. 2 No. 2 Jan 2003