A twin cinema poem that responds to the current discussion surrounding the Substation, Singapore’s first independent arts centre and an incredibly nurturing and necessary space for generations of young artists practicing all genres of art.
For a year in which I made just one trip overseas, there has, surprisingly, been no shortage of projects and collaborative opportunities. My fellow artists proved to be anything but horizontal and together, we devised an unending stream of ideas that was realised through a range of platforms and forms. Video was pretty foregrounded this year, but I also had the incredible privilege to put together and perform two live shows.
Together with Demond Kon, Kevin Martens Wong and Nuraliah Norasid, I was commissioned to write a long sonnet that functioned as one of several anchor pieces for the 2020 Light To Night Festival. A line from my poem was on an artwork that sprawled invitingly across the Padang. It felt like a good omen to a year that was already hearing ominous whispers of a wildfire virus straight outta Wuhan.
Note for Note: Stop, Look and Listen
This year’s edition of Note for Note further iterated on previous versions. Usually, the poets would perform their work but for this round, I curated a selection of poems based on the broad palette of the city and divided the performance into three segments, ‘Stop, Look and Listen,’ playing with the ideas of movement, changing spaces and listening to the city in all its varied postures of listening. The performance was superbly directed by Cherilyn Woo and introduced me to the graceful movements and voices of Victoria Chen, Tia Guttensohn, Krish Natarajan and Vignesh Singh. The accompanying soundscape was crafted by the incomparable Bani Haykal.
I was a participating artist in The Singapore Festival 2020, held in Lim Chin Tsong Palace in Yangon, Myanmar. As part of a larger collaborative exhibition called ‘A Matter of Time’, curated by my gallerist, Marie Pierre-Mol, I paired up with Maung Day, a cutting-edge poet and multidisciplinary artist and activist. We created a series of photograph-poem pairs that were accompanied by a series of metronomes ticking away at different tempos. It was also a lovely opportunity to reconnect with friends and collaborators like San Lin Tun and Nicola Anthony. The larger festival was a marketing attempt by STB to bring Singapore food, fashion and culture to Myanmar. It was a hit-and-run exhibition: setup, showcase, tear down and zip back to Singapore. If only I had known, I would have extended my stay for a few more days…
Part of the Buy SingLit Campaign, Uncanny Yishun was a unique walking tour around Khatib and Yishun. Each checkpoint was a site of uncanny news, often illustrated by a poem and performed by either one of our two able guides, Sharda Harrison and Lian Sutton. As the shadow of Covid-19 loomed ever larger, Crispin Rodrigues and I were given a choice: go ahead with the tour or postpone it to September. We pressed on and were rewarded with four fantastic rounds of the tour in early March.
Handbook of Daily Movement
This was certainly a show that I would have been heartbroken to have cancelled. It was probably one of my most collaborative shows. I worked with music, dance, costumes and we even had a fashion label sponsor the dancers.
Fortunately, The Arts House decided that the show must go on. It would be the last live show that I would do until December.
April to June was a period of reconfiguring, experimenting with the online space. I teamed up with music producer James Lye and a whole crew of talented singers and musicians to make Livin’ Covida Loca, a parody song that reflected the world in lockdown.
A poem that was originally written for The Straits Times found its way into an anthology of pandemic poems published by Penguin India. For the first time, I find myself featured alongside two other Nairs.
Originally scheduled to be held earlier in the year, the Alliance Francaise generously kept the exhibition space available for Tsen Waye and I and when they reopened, Sightlines was the first exhibition in the door. We were grateful to have a long run of two months in the space as well as the chance to reimagine some of our work in terms of size and text layout.
A soft start to my new residency with the Exactly Foundation. The topic is Offence and my stomping ground is the Bugis Precinct. The mode is street photography and I have been drawn to the liminal points of infraction between private and public space. These are often tacit, fleeting and contextual, but they do exist, even in such a manicured city.
Crossroads Vol. 3 was another music collaboration with James Lye. This time, James produced the show while I performed poetry to the emotive sounds of PandaMachine and the improvisational genius of Michael Spicer.
I had a very different role in the 2020 Singapore Writers Festival. Normally, I’m used to being on a panel or two, be on a reading or even moderate a conversation. But this time, I pitched Poetry Bites, a video series where I interviewed ten poets over video. I filmed them (mostly) in their homes reading a poem and then had a short conversation with them about the poem and their work in general. The festival theme being intimacy, I thought that this would be a closer glimpse into process through the screen. Plot twist: I even interviewed myself!
Another fun collaboration, writing and voicing a spoken word piece to a dance piece conceptualised and choreographed by Victoria Chen and Valerie Lim.
Joshua Wong Weng Yew’s Pandemic Time project was a fantastic idea in a year where time seems to shift and warp and become elastic and interminable. 24 poets responded to the 24 hours in a day. I was given 8am.
My last official poems for the year were a pair written in response to Sing Lit Station’s Digital Travel Bubble, cheekily offered up in lieu of the cancelled travel bubble between Singapore and Hong Kong. Poets from each country were paired together and each had to write a poem about their favourite place and one that responded to the other poet’s favourite place. I was with David McKirdy, who wrote a poem about Fei Ngo Shan, or Kowloon Peak, while I wrote about Bugis. If anything, it just made me even more wistful and sad about the impossibility of leisure travel for a long time to come.
The mrbrown show Live!
Commissioned by SIFA for their version 2.020 festival, The mrbrown show live! was written, rehearsed and performed in the span of two months. It was a little rushed and we wished that we had more time to build the show, but 2020 being what it is, we were grateful for the opportunity to play four shows to sold-out crowds and even have a multi-cam livestream. It was a humbling, enriching and exhausting experience. I will do it all over again.
Last night, we got drunk on Indiana Jones
racing through the underbelly of temples,
breaking gods and errant priests with his whip
then hurtling home afterwards
as a mist hung over the moon.
We fell asleep dreaming of adventure,
holding each other against the fear
of never being able to fly again.
In the morning, we are exhausted, soaked from
the summer sun trapped overnight in tarmac.
I am steeped in stillness,
pretending to be nothing more than river.
The blanket lifts the top of the current,
foghorns out at sea are lonelier than ever.
The fan spins as fast as it can without
tearing off and flying somewhere else.
We have nowhere to go;
it is too early to be full of frustration,
so we become tongues of cool water,
slip our skins through the window,
past the last of the night clouds.
Where do bodies end?
Do we return to god
or become, valleys we’ve yet to see?
I hold you like a dam holds back
the edge of an ocean, now we dance
against the silhouette of songbirds,
now we are dissolving into air.
Be my hummingbird, my long kiss,
be my electric way home.
Let me tell you the same story
with a different ending every single time.
Amidst this time of postponed or cancelled gigs, I’m really glad that some things are proceeding as planned. Uncanny Yishun started life as an open call for an online anthology of poems responding to Yishun as a place, a phenomenon and a state of mind. From the entries received, Crispin Rodrigues (my co-editor) and I selected a series of poems that formed the backbone for a literary walk around the environs of Yishun.
The poems are interwoven with news stories, transforming quotidian blocks and innocent, shaded lanes into moments of hilarity and humour. I’m sure every neighbourhood has its share of WTF moments, but Yishun seems to have them in proximate abundance.
The four tours on 8th March will be led by either Sharda Harrison or Lian Sutton, two experienced and funny actors. Here they are on our recce, coming to grips with the weird underbelly of what was a very pleasant morning walk.
Each 2-hour tour is only $15 and is limited to 15 pax. Each participant will receive a limited edition zine specially produced for the walk and early birds also get a $10 BSL voucher.
Get your tickets here! https://uncannyyishun.peatix.com
At the beginning of February, a handful of artists from Singapore and Myanmar (along with honorary Singaporean collaborator Nicola Anthony) came together under the curation of Marie Pierre-Mol of Intersections Gallery to showcase work around the idea of time. This was part of a larger event organised by the Singapore Tourist Board (STB) as part of their efforts to raise an awareness of various aspects of Singapore, from food, culture, and art to retail as well as to partner with local restaurants and artists as a way of forging bonds between Singapore and Myanmar.
The event was held at the Chin Tsong Palace, a sprawling complex that was built by Lim Chin Tsong, said to have been Myanmar’s richest man at one point. The building was finished but never occupied and in the 1960s it was commandeered by drug smugglers. The Palace had a network of tunnels and secret rooms under it, and one of the tunnels was said to have led to the river. Much history, many feels.
Tempo(rary) is a collaboration with Burmese artist Maung Day. It consists of a dialogue in poems and photographs. Over the course of a month, I sent a poem to Maung Day and he responded with a poem or a photo. And then he sent a photo to me, and I responded in kind. We created ten pairs of work from this exchange, each one accompanied by a metronome set to a different tempo.
The photograph is from Maung Day, the poem is from me. All the poems were translated to Burmese as well. Text layout by Nicole Soh.
Ticking at a range of tempos, the metronomes are a sonic reflection of the varying speeds of two very different cities.
Time in the city is a function of progress and growth. It is invisible; fleeting and always in scarcity.
We are always running out of time. Time is never on our hands. We need more time, we say, this commodity that can never be bought or bartered.
We are made by time, its invisible, inevitable ticking, keeping tempo to the rhythms and reasons of our lives. Time soothes and serenades, summons and silences.
The crowds weren’t what we were led to expect, partly due to the prohibitive ticket prices. The food was also probably priced beyond the reach of the average local. But hey, at least the art was free!
Following the exhibition, I received the incredible news that Tempo(rary) has been selected to be part of the 12th Yangon Photo Festival. The work will be exhibited at the Rosewood Hotel from 19 Feb to 21 March. Do check it out if you happen to be in Yangon!
2019 is winding down after the usual mix of publications, performances and an extremely unique residency in Panama. We’ll be taking some time to be spectators at Wonderfruit, a music and art festival outside of Pattaya.
Then it’s back to art-making next year with Note for Note on 10 January. This edition is rather different from the usual one poet + one musician pairing. This time, I selected 16 poems from various poets around the subject of the city and the theme of speed. The title of the show is ‘Stop, Look and Listen’ and will feature actors performing poems in three separate sets. The soundscape will be scored by Bani Haykal.
Light to Night Festival runs from 10-19 January 2020. Desmond Kon, Nuraliah Norasid and Kevin Martens Wong and I were commissioned to each pen a poem that would serve as the basis for the festival programming. Inspired by Ítalo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, my poem imagined the city as a canvas of stories both known and unknown
At the start of February, I’ll be headed to Yangon for a weekend as part of the Singapore Festival 2020. I’m doing an artistic dialogue with Burmese poet and artist Maung Day. The exhibition is called Tempo(rary) and uses a series of metronomes to map different speeds of our two cities (Singapore & Yangon) through a poems and images.
As part of Buysinglit 2020, Crispin Rodrigues and I will be doing something completely different on 8th March. We’ll be running Uncanny Yishun: A Literary Tour, melding poems, creative non-fiction pieces and torrid tales from Singapore’s most notorious neighbourhood into an entertaining two-hour walk. More details to come!
The following weekend, Handbook of Daily Movement gets its hour of fame. I’m super pleased that this labour of love with Sudhee Liao has been commissioned to be part of the Textures Festival. So we are expanding it into a full-length live performance featuring original music by Rupak George and four dancers. There will be two shows and also a screening of our original film.
And then a quick trip at the end of March to Ho Chi Minh City to sit for my third Milestone in my PhD journey. Ahhhhhhhhhhh.
From 11 June to 11 July, Alliance Française have graciously offered to exhibit the poems and photographs from Sightlines, my collaboration with Tay Tsen-Waye. The AF gallery is a lovely space, with loads of possibilities when it comes to displaying the work.
And on 13 July, I begin an Exactly Foundation residency on the nebulous yet fascinating topic of ‘offence.’
That’s a pretty stacked start to the year! At some point I am also hoping to squeeze in an exhibition with Cheyenne Philips of the work we created from the La Wayaka Residency in Panama. Hopefully that will come together in the usual way that exhibitions happen; a blend of serendipity, timing and opportunity.
Sightlines launches on 23 May at 3Arts, a pottery studio in Joo Chiat Place.
It’s been a book that has been on an incredible journey, starting from Waye reaching out to me to write poems from her collection of film photographs. At that time, I was just beginning to write about collaborative processes as part of my PhD at RMIT. Here was a chance to put theory into practice. Of course, ideas are far easier than the actual work of selecting images, arranging them into a kind of arc and then writing poems that allowed for a different sightline, another way to apprehend the image. The first title that emerged was Waypoints, but eventually, we realised that while it described each image/poem pairing as a node on a journey, what we were really after was a treatise on different ways of seeing.
Sightlines allows for a dialogue between text and image. The reader is not bound to one particular way of seeing or reading, and the work has to be ‘read’ not just as a pair, but as a grander arc. The narrative, so to speak, begins and ends in Singapore, where both of us are from. Whilst travel is the given, there are other elements that layer the experience of travel, such as the implied female persona that moves from one space to another. Then there is the medium of the image; film. The treatment of grain, how light falls and is held on the page and the emotional resonance of an analogue process seems to cohere with the personal nature of the poem; as a space that is made intimate through a different kind of viewfinder.
And to add yet another layer to the experience, we are showcasing selected poem/images with pottery works made by various artists at 3Arts, a pottery studio. The pieces and the prints (A2, framed and printed on acid-free archival paper) are available for sale.
Here’s a sample of one of the poems and images.
Come journey with us on an evening of looking, listening and learning.
Event details: https://www.facebook.com/events/392737178231584/
I was invited to read at The National Gallery Singapore on 24 Feb together with a bunch of really cool poets – Momtaza Mehri, Charlene Shepherdson, Jennifer Champion and Tse Hao Guang. We were responding to Minimalism. Space. Light. Object. an ongoing exhibition at NGS, either to the individual exhibits or on themes of form/anti-form, light or space. I wrote two new pieces for the reading. The first was after Tatsuo Miyajima’s Mega Death, where I spotted a single number counting up against an entire room of descending numbers.
a pulsing envelope of blue magic
beckons in irregular heartbeats,
a chorus for the clicking crowd
Seen up close,
one number counts upwards
while the rest descend like a
herd reasoning down to zero
One number walks upslope
an improbable anomaly
a refugee refusing order
a sheep swallowing the language of wolves
The other numbers blink furiously
as they chase zero, starting over
at their own pace, making up
the apparition of a faceless crowd,
lights going on in a silent room.
The lone number climbs
against the tide, against all logical proof;
glitch in the system, broken integer.
Like that one child in class who keeps
raising a hand to ask question
after question, dissatisfied,
holding up the diminishing lesson,
holding time itself with a clenched fist,
wired for a different world.
The other poem drew its inspiration from Jiro Takamatsu’s pair of 1971 artworks titled Oneness of Wood and Oneness of Concrete. I tried to embody the idea of words contained within words through a series of haiku, where the four successive haiku that followed the first one comprised of words drawn from the latter.
Here is the earth and
here we find, body broken
between unread lines
Here the line is broken
body and earth
Find the unread body
here, and here
find the broken here, unread,
Here between the earth
and body, we unread
BuySingLit is back for a third year (https://buysinglit.sg/programmes-list/) and there are a whole host of programmes, workshops, performances and readings that caters to different languages and age groups.
Book publishers, retailers and literary non-profits band together to encourage more people to discover and embrace Singapore’s literature. And they are doing this through a variety of way, some conventional and some experimental. Its good to know that as a literary community, we’re not content to rinse and repeat but are willing to innovate and embrace new ideas.
I’m excited to be doing two new things for this year’s festival. The first is a terrarium workshop called We all step on snails: A Poetry & Terrarium Experience on the 9th and 17th of March, 1-3pm.
Make your very own terrarium while I serenade you with a series of poems about our natural world. Note: snails not included!
Tickets can be found at bit.ly/terrariumtickets.
Each ticket comes with a $10 #BuySingLit voucher.
Each session is limited to 20 pax.
On 16 March at 2pm, I’ll be at the very lovely Temenggong 18/20 space, a black and white bungalow along Temenggong Road, to share my poems from my travels while everyone has a cup, or two, of tea. Think of this as a rest-stop for the world-weary traveler. Let poetry be a balm that refreshes and renews the soul. Best of all, this is a double bill featuring fellow travel writer Tan Mei Ching.
Note: Please bring your own cups.
General Admission – $28
Student / NSF / Senior Citizen – $20*
Ticket price excludes ticketing agent fee.
Each ticket comes with a $10 #BuySingLit voucher!
Get your tickets here