After an intense ten days at the Singapore Writers Festival I’m back to considering the role of text and image in my work in a couple of events that are coming up this weekend.
Most of the time, the image is made first. It occurs from a way of looking, an intense gaze in search of something striking. It does not have to be spectacular or manufactured. The image is often found at the intersection between light and chance.
The frame is always deliberate, and what is excluded is sometimes what is unnecessary; an abundance of sky which fills too much of the frame, or cropping out what’s distracting, which could be something as simple as one person too many, or simply a brightly-coloured object.
The poem almost always comes afterwards, a kind of reflection to the image. The poem is a mirror held up to the image, translating that striking moment into its own composed shape.
The frame line sits between, an unused space that separates two adjacent images, or frames. If one considers the image and the poem as two successive frames, then the frame line is what divides and connects them.
And the very next day, I’ll be speaking on Today at Apple at the Apple Store on Orchard Road! It’s a talk/photo walk where I share a few ideas and approaches to photography and then we’ll all go for a photo walk together around the Emerald Hill area to take a few images and write a poem based on them.
Vital Possessions is my ninth (ninth!!) book of poetry. The roots of this book came about through the Gardens by the Bay residency in 2015. I had the opportunity to spend hours walking and thinking in the grounds of GBTB. Initially, I wasn’t enamoured by how planned and fake the gardens seemed to be. I am more a fan of wide-open moors and natural forests. But gradually, I came to see the gardens as that perfect synthesis between nature and nurture. It is, in many ways, the epitome of our garden city. The Supertrees are like our skyscrapers, inhabited by a variety of human flora, and the grounds of the garden are much like our planned estates, neatly segmented while still keeping a semblance of nature and enough variety to keep us sane.
The poems in the book began to be shaped by this overarching theme and along the way, they expanded as I explored and visited other green spaces. I also considered the way we interacted with our environment. Along the way, the title of the book morphed from Naturebiotics to For Yours Is The Garden to Vital Possessions. It became a treatise on what we believe and hold dear to in an age of uncertainty, where our faith is frangible and our knowledge fractured.
The book reads like one long narrative and dips in and out of the following themes: our relationship with nature and natural spaces, how technology interfaces with our lives and the votive value of nature. Haiku accompanied by photographs intersperse the poems. They function as pauses, a breath of image; quirky and quiet reminders of the unnoticed quotidian.
Ethos Books, my publisher, has been very patient with the manuscript over many moons of editing and piecing together the book. The cover proved to be especially tricky, because with such a title, it was truly difficult to find an image that would evoke a similar state of feeling.
The book launch is at the Esplanade Concourse on 11 August, at 5pm. I will be doing something rather different, and invite all of you to come and join me as Vital Possessions finally emerges into the world.
Here are ten poetry/craft/art related things that will be taking place in 2018. It’s going to be an intense year for sure!
1. I head off for a writing residency in Paris in late Jan. It’s a space for me to work on a number of projects, but most importantly to shape my submission for the next stage of my PhD. Yup, I’m doing a practice-research based PhD with RMIT. I’m exploring different forms and facets of artistic collaboration, and I’m very honoured to be journeying along with fellow students Alvin Pang, Sandra Roldan, Laurel Fantauzzo and Jhoanna Cruz.
2. I step back in a junior college for the first time in six years, this time to be a poet-in-residence at Eunoia Junior College. Looking forward to dreaming up a lot of fascinating workshops and working with bright young minds to spread the seed of poetry.
3. The Arts House has invited me to curate Note for Note again in 2018, but this time, there’ll be three different showcases throughout the year. Poets for the first session in March include Theophilus Kwek and Charlene Shepherdson. (And me!)
4. Three books are going to come out in 2018!! The first is Waypoints, published by Math Paper Press. This is a collaborative photo-poetry book between Tay Tsen-Waye and myself. I respond to 36 film images of travel from all around the world with 36 poems of my own. The book will be launched during the BuySinglit Campaign weekend in March.
5. A dream of mine is finally coming true! I’ve had the incredible good fortune to work with a bunch of crazy talented artists such as Dan Wong, Neo Anngee and Chen Yanyun, among others, and they are all working to illustrate and produce a small book based on my rewrite of William Blake’s Auguries of Innocence! Auguries of Modern Innocence will be an exhibition and a zine and it’ll be launched during the BuySinglit Campaign weekend as well. The exhibition will run until early April at the Arts House.
6. Come August, Ethos Books will be launching Vital Possessions, a brand new collection of poetry that has been lovingly worked on over the last three years, through two residencies and with the help of editors Mrigaa Sethi and Aaron Lee. You could say this is my fourth ‘major’ title, after Along The Yellow Line, Chai and Postal Code. Each of these books took three years to realise, and I’m very excited, to say the least.
7. In between all this, I’m busy recording and hoping to release a new spoken word album, tentatively titled ‘No Place Like This’, sometime in the middle of the year. Collaborators who will be on this include Dawn Fung, Deborah Emmanuel, Lydia Tan and Daniel Tan.
8. In March, Intersection will be headed to Yangon. Nicola Anthony and I will be staging a two-week long exhibition at MyanmArt and will be giving talks and workshops. And we’ll be making brand new work on the spot as well.
9. As part of my PhD research/practice, I’m embarking on an ambitious prose-poetry/dance project with Sudhee Liao, titled A Manual Performance. We hope to showcase this in HK end 2018 and SG sometime in 2019. Fingers crossed for funding! Actually, I should say fingers crossed for funding for a number of these projects.
10. Finally, work continues apace as Joshua Ip, Chong Li-Chuan and I continue to lay the groundwork for Farquhar: The Musical. Coming soon (hopefully sometime in 2019) to a theatre near you.
The new Singapore Tourism Board video (above) is all about hip people in pretty places. The average tourist will never see any of these people. And if they do go to these locations they certainly will not get these perspectives.
The feel is gritty, the soundtrack grooves to the refrain ‘this is the place’ and builds an anticipation to be blown away by the unseen. The sparse spoken word voice-over hints at a country of edgy, defiant possibilities.
The reality is that these human possibilities are colorfully engineered constructs of ideals. The entire video is a freeze frame homage to the mise en scene of social media. It’s guaranteed to get a lot of likes. And hopefully some package tours.
Yes, we have to sell Singapore. And perhaps it is true, Orchard Road is no longer current and the theme park has lost its thrill. But there are other things to feature beyond this slick selection of experiential moments that seem to comprise the passion of this country.
Passion also means suffering, and that word is indeed apt, as there are whole swathes of people who will never be cool enough for this country.
There is no place like this
with flattened ideas, hearts and hills
There is no place for those
who deny the whitewashed will
This is the place
where passion is a mod-sin word
raised up to be worshipped
by an undercut, lit shook herd
But passion is also suffering
frustrated from raids
on dreams disappeared
A wish to have a full meal,
lights on at night
make good on impossible loans
no rats gnawing at toes
To love who you want to love
But this is a place
where you cannot love freely
So when people visit
what is it they really see?
They won’t hear about one people,
one nation, they don’t care for our songs
of celebration, they only see success
stories, buildings that clip the clouds,
shops full of bright baubles
trains that wear no frown
They don’t see the offerings
swept up by workers
with no minimum wage
behind maximum fences
When race is not about the finish line
but the colour of our skin,
all of the Others
are washed away by the spin
When the boxes that keep us apart
help to keep our nation smart
When the leaders that we need
are voted least likely to succeed
This is the place
with world-class education and
bad grammar littered everywhere,
where schools are processions of paperwork
real learning is after school tuition-care
This is where we live
amongst a splendour of trees
but insist on double-bagging
styro-foamed plastic wrapped packaging
This is where creativity becomes a hashtag
and then a graded course in five sessions
with a complimentary tote bag
This is the place
where gambling is never as bad
as honest questioning
Where we’re encouraged to spend
without worry, but the interest
on our lives grows daily
This is the place where we roll dice, leave on the red lights
patrol with swagger, check IDs to prevent terror.
where we claim to be secure, claim to endure,
but will not stop to ask if people are ok;
we’re messaging the monsters in our heads
Where backstreets are abandoned trolleys and non-existent homeless,
where graffiti is state-sanctioned, toe the line wholeness
where nostalgia is best sold with one story-line
where we’re told what to do, and do what we’re told
time after time
and any other way out needs a license
and any other opinion means silence
Where impossibilities lead to endless possibilities
and then censorship and then fewer possibilities,
until all that’s left is a national education lesson on harmony
Where who you were will not be who you will become,
not unless your name is Meritocracy
This is where compassion should be made compulsory,
but all we get is a country we love to hate, and passion
becomes just another word for never being sorry
Every now and then, a horror story of the inequalities and inadequacies of how Singapore treats its ‘underclass’ emerges. Domestic helpers are often abused or ill-treated and construction workers are denied basic medical and legal recourse if they get injured. Essentially, construction companies see them as gross liabilities and don’t want to waste a cent on their medical expenses. Organisations like TWC2 though continue to do sterling work in helping these disenfranchised workers, often incurring the ire of private companies.
Hossain Md Alamgir is one such victim. Read his full story here. The original page has been removed, but the cache remains. Inspired, and horrified, by his story, here is a poem for him and everyone else who comes up against the dark side of this city, lauded globally for providing an excellent quality of life … for those who can afford it.
Hossain with broken foot
Hossain with broken foot
Hossain cracked safety boot
Hossain met metal plate
Hossain bevelled by fate
Hossain swells with the pain
Hossain must work again
Hossain would sign a lie
Hossain should not know why
Hossain takes boss to court
Hossain finds they forgot
Hossain arms for a fight
Hossain holds up his rights
Hossain sweeps up the floor
Hossain can’t keep the score
Hossain back home you go
Hossain someone we know
Note for Note takes place this Saturday, 25 March, at 8pm at the Arts House. Its been a project I’ve been working on since last December, and it certainly hasn’t been easy to pull together all these talents onto one stage! But I think the end result will be very satisfying. Think of this as a teaser into the larger body of work of each poet and musician. And after listening to them, go forth and buy their books and music!
When ST interviewed me for this show, I said something to this effect:
Music often elicits an emotive response while poetry demands an intellectual affectation. When the two are brought together it is my hope that a new space is created, one that offers a creative insight into the intellectual workings of the poem through the emotional resonance created by the music.
Besides Note for Note, there are a bunch of other stellar performances, exhibitions and screenings going on as part of the House Party weekend, so do take some time to hang out at the Arts House.
Intersection is a project that has been three years in the making. Often, ideas are birthed from an offhanded remark in the heady rush after a successful show or exhibition. But it takes a certain doggedness to nurture that idea, coax it to life and rally the relevant forces to keep it blooming until it finds its perfect space to breathe and bloom. This exhibition and book was the result of never letting go of that idea. Nicola and I had this grand plan to create an artistic map of three neighbourhoods in Singapore, London and Yangon. The ensuing poems are artwork would resonate across themes common to all three cities. And through this process of intersecting various threads, we would hopefully find some nexus of meaning.
As a result, we’ve created 24 poems and 33 artworks. The exhibition opens on 10 January at Intersections Gallery, 34 Kandahar Street, and runs from 11 January – 12 February and 22 February- 5 March 2017.
There will be an artist talk on 17 January and I will be running a photowriting/walking workshop at the gallery on 11 February.
The book is a 60-page, limited edition risograph print of images from Nicola’s art together with my poems. Here’s what the cover looks like!
Here’s a sneak peek of one of the poems, accompanied by Nicola’s art.
We used to play at founding Singapore;
someone had to be the Temenggong, ceding
everything he could see, never pushing back.
The rest of us were British, asking obvious
questions about the trees; why gelam
bark was used for sails, why frangipani trees
always grew in the cemeteries. Not once did
we think these roads and schools and
rules encircled the kampung. We believed
in the glittering crown of the colony, so we
banished rogue tigers across the water,
stooped to serve an empire of khaki and tea.