THE NOISE DOWNSTAIRS
SINGAPORE: The City of Poets
Award-winning Singaporean poet NG YI-SHENG responds to that eternal question: why is Singapore writing so dominated by poets?
I’M A SINGAPOREAN POET, and I’m proud of it. On the other hand, I’m actually a little amazed at how our English literary scene has become pretty much overrun by poets.
It wasn’t always like this. In the 1980s and early ’90s, loads of people were emerging as novelists and short-story writers. This was an age of classic, popular works, like Catherine Lim’s Or Else, The Lightning God and Other Stories, Adrian Tan’s The Teenage Textbook and Johann S. Lee’s Peculiar Chris.
But somewhere along the way, the ground shifted. Today, poets rule the scene. Scan the shelves of local writing in bookshops and libraries, survey the applicants of National Arts Council Literary Arts grants, check out the Singapore delegations at international writers’ festivals—almost everywhere you look, it’s poets and poets and poets.
How did this happen? Well, the easy answer is that poems take less time to write. Singapore’s a busy country. Most of us have day jobs; those of us still in school often have night tuition. It’s hard to carve out a chunk of time to write the Great Singapore Novel, or even a full-length play. It’s much easier to scribble out a poem on the bus in between stations, or while waiting for our systems to defrag.
Another answer is that communities of poets have developed. The seminal moment for this was the Singapore Literature Prize in 1995, which allowed unpublished poetry manuscripts. The official victor was Roger Jenkins’s From the Belly of the Carp: Singapore River Voices (1996), which has faded into literary obscurity, but the runners-up were a band of 20- and 30-somethings, eager and determined to develop Singapore literature anew.
The Class of ’95, as they call themselves, were Alvin Pang, Aaron Lee, Boey Kim Cheng, Yong Shu Hoong and Heng Siok Tian. They organised readings, lobbied bookshops to stock their works, travelled overseas for literary festivals and put together grand, ambitious anthologies (e.g. No Other City, a collection of urban poetry where names of poets were relegated to the index, so that laureates and neophytes rubbed shoulders to form a polyphonic national epic).
I was lucky enough to be present in those early years: an awkward, closeted schoolboy, chanting my free verse at Chijmes, the old National Library, Borders and the old MPH bookshop. What was really great was that these guys were approachable and inclusive, paying for our dinners at mid-priced Indonesian restaurants while they discussed politics and culture, bringing us along on overnight train rides as part of poetry delegations to Kuala Lumpur. Without their encouragement, I might never have dared to publish my verse.
And today, it’s the same story. The Class of ’95 and the poets who followed them continue to be the crusaders of homegrown lit. There’s Cyril Wong and Toh Hsien Min, who run online literary journals Softblow and Quarterly Literary Review of Singapore respectively. There’s Chris Mooney-Singh, who hosts poetry slams and coaches students in performance poetry. There’s Enoch Ng, a Chinese-language poet, who cranks out award-winning volumes of verse in Mandarin and English from his one-man publishing house, Firstfruits.
Poetry in Singapore is alive and well, not just because of our preference for bite-sized creations, but because poets are working hard to make themselves heard. Thus, we’ve got communities, not only of writers, but also of readers, willing to support us as well as the newer poets who emerge year after year.
But not everything’s hunky-dory. First, the media aren’t that interested in us. Just take a look at the coverage of the Singapore Writers Festival in 2009. Several news sources zoomed in on short-story writers Wena Poon (Lions in Winter, The Proper Care of Foxes) and O Thiam Chin (Never Been Better) as evidence of Singapore’s emergent literary scene. The fact that someone like the poet Felix Cheong was launching his collected works was pretty much ignored—as was the fact that poets have been the driving force behind many aspects of the festival.
Second (and I hate to admit this), people aren’t that interested in us. Yes, we have cult followings, but we’re far from populist. When you actually count the number of copies sold, we look pitiful. An average print run is only 500 copies. I won the Singapore Literature Prize for my collection, last boy, in 2008, yet I’m only in my second print run. Simply put, not that many people are reading our poems.
Third, it’s a troubling truth that this renaissance in poetry isn’t matched by a similar flowering of fiction. More power to Wena Poon and O Thiam Chin, but they’re very lonely figures in their scene. In fact, I can’t think of a single other Singaporean fiction writer who’s emerged and published in the 2000s.
(Go ahead and quibble with me on this. Yes, I know there are self-published novelists like Michele Koh and Poppy Pachinko, and there are forgotten émigrés like the US-based Vyvyane Loh, and there are residents who haven’t taken on citizenship like the Malaysian crime writer Shamini Flint, and there’s a fair number of children’s writers. Yet fundamentally, I stand by my words.)
The world of Singapore fiction today is still pretty much ruled by Catherine Lim and Suchen Christine Lim, authors who sprang up in the 1970s and ’80s. This mightn’t be so bad, if only there weren’t so many fiction writers of yesteryear who’ve fallen mysteriously silent: Philip Jeyaretnam, Claire Tham, Hwee Hwee Tan, Colin Cheong, Dave Chua and Damien Sin. A few, like Gopal Baratham, Rex Shelley, Goh Sin Tub and Goh Poh Seng, have already passed on.
Thus, there’s currently a fiction famine—possibly one worse than what’s happening in Malaysian English literature. You guys have at least the shining expatriate successes of Rani Manicka, Tash Aw, Tan Twan Eng, Tinling Choong, Chiew-Siah Tei, Preeta Samarasan and Shamini Flint to spur you on. Who’re we supposed to emulate?
Yet there’s hope for the future. The literary agency Jacaranda Press is actively seeking out Singapore fiction for a global market. There’s a new grant from the National Arts Council called the Arts Creation Fund, supplying enough cash for people to actually to take a long-term break from their jobs and churn out a humongous tome. November has even been declared a NaNoWriMo: National Novel Writing Month, an exercise wherein participants are committed to churning out 50,000 words of fiction in 30 days.
Not surprisingly, the Class of ’95 has also leapt to the rescue. Poet Alvin Pang has teamed up with The British Council in Singapore to set up a week-long writers’ retreat on the island of Pulau Ubin, with novelist coaches from the UK’s Arvon Foundation to goad us into writing fiction. I attended the retreat myself in October 2009, one of 12 participants gathering in pondoks with laptops and notepaper, five of whom were fellow poets. I’ve borne witness to the workshops, and I can assure that there’s some great prose bundled up in some of us, waiting for a moment to break free.
One guy was actually way ahead of us: this year, Cyril Wong released a collection of beautifully grotesque adult fables, Let Me Tell You What Happened That Night. He’s not exactly in the same community as Wena and Thiam Chin, though, as he remains resolutely a poet.
Given these factors, I’m pretty confident that the harvest of fiction will return. And that’s a great thing for Singapore literature—we need to reach out to audiences who’re already out there through a genre that stands a chance in hell of being mainstream, of being popular.
Till then, dear reader, spare a thought for our poems. They’re the fruit of 15 years of concerted literary passion. They’re the weapons that somehow managed to kill off a burgeoning fiction scene. They’re prizewinning, they’re googleable and they’re available in the better bookshops (and, in some cases, via online order).
Like I said, I’m proud to be a poet. But I’ll be prouder if you read me.
NG YI-SHENG is the author of last boy, a début collection of poems that won the 2008 Singapore Literature Prize
Reproduced from the January-March 2010 issue of Quill magazine