by Samuel Lee
Who says that poetry is dead? Going by the crowd that turned up for The Beholder Has Many Eyes—a free fringe event at the Singapore Writers Festival, held last Wednesday at a lively (and rowdy) Irish-themed pub a short walk away from the main festival grounds—poetry is alive and well in Singapore, and could do with a stiff drink or two. Featuring the work of new and unpublished poets from the Image-Symbol Department and the Ministry of Noise (two cheekily-named groups of writers, which started after Singapore Poetry Writing Month in April), the evening saw the theme of beauty being taken up, stripped apart, challenged, and re-consolidated into visions that entertained, provoked thought, and gave the public an inkling of SingLit’s bright and shiny future.
Jennifer Anne Champion, a poet familiar to those keeping a tab on the local spoken-word scene, opened the evening with a stripped-down rendition of Guns N’ Roses’ “Paradise City“—where “the grass is green and the girls are pretty.” Launching into poems such as ‘Unicorn Dreams,’ in which the speaker describes herself as a kind of mythical and misunderstood creature, Champion maps ideas of physical beauty onto questions of personal identity through music and spoken word in ways that never seem monotonous or trite. Here, the poetic form, brought to life on stage, seems to avail itself to the confessional “I”, who engages in monologues that disclose the contents of the inner life (for even the inner life of a unicorn yields cutting insight into the life of the individual in modern society).
Keith Tong, who took to the stage immediately after Champion, provided another illustration of the form’s predisposition to the confessional mode. “Fuck your goddamned hashtags”—hisses the speaker in a poem titled ‘Zing’—“a social mercenary I am not … I move and breath and dance in my own way.” Tong explained that the poem was written in response to the circulation and reception of hyper-aestheticized images on social media platforms such as Instagram, and it is interesting that he chooses to articulate his critique through the figure of the Facebook-weary subject: the “I” who desires to preserve the “authentic” self over the beautiful, though bland, images he condemns as “scripted drama” and a “tableau of forgery”. For a generally-youthful crowd of 20- and 30-somethings, the melodrama employed by Tong is apt, and reflects in no ambiguous terms the experience of encountering “curated” online personalities.
As the evening went along, and as the after-work crowd began filling the venue, the pieces that stood out had witty and subversive things to say about beauty, and bridged questions of physical appearances with larger themes of transcendent beauty found in landscapes and lived experiences. Perhaps the most memorable line of the night was delivered by Muslim Sahib, who, in a poem about body hair removal, asked: “Do you want to fight ideology with pink wax or blue wax?” This fight was taken up by Teh Su Ching, who wryly concludes a sonnet about beauty regiments: “chained daily to my dressing table/ in the eighth ring of Dante’s fable.” Indeed, images of the body prove time and time again to be a productive resource for poets, and one recalls Cyril Wong’s “Calm Embrace of Bone” from the end of his orbit (2001) and Jollin Tan’s excellent debut, Bursting Seams (2013), as examples of presentations of the body in Singapore poetry. Rounding off the night, David Wong’s ‘Seoul: Three Scenes’ returns the body to its context. Stating that “behind fake eyelids/ are real eyes;/ behind composite breasts/ first breasts of fat” the speaker calls attention to the body as a site of constant renovation, and where socially-constructed standards of beauty meet embodied subjectivities, who negotiate the urban spaces of Seoul. It is quite remarkable that Tan managed to encapsulate the constellations of desire, love, beauty, subjectivity, pain, popular culture (and so on) that unfolded throughout the evening—evidence, perhaps, of a line-up planned carefully in advance, and certainly of a serious commitment to developing the craft of poetry in Singapore.
Besides questions of content, the event called to attention questions of a “literary audience” and what might constitute a “literary venue”—where should poetry be read/performed/heard, and who might be affected by these decisions? Poetry readings in Singapore have been held in the most diverse spaces and environments, for example, in smaller intimate spaces such as independent bookshop BooksActually, or Artistry Café’s Speakeasy series curated by Pooja Nansi, to larger venues like The Arts House, and unconventional ones such as Lai Chee Kien’s installation National Theatre@50. How might this proliferation of venues affect the development of a literary community (or, indeed, culture) in Singapore, and what can we expect the literary scene to look like in the future? The upshot, though, is that this reading was held in an Irish-themed pub to large and bustling audiences both eager and accidental, and gave these up-and-coming voices in Singaporean poetry the attention they deserve and will probably remember for a long time.