Sunday, 9 November 2014

Singapore Writers Festival: New Books from Ethos

On the last day here at Singapore Writers Festival local publishing house Ethos launched two new poetry titles - with a twist.  Each anthology was produced entirely by Singapore's next generation of poets, fresh new voices from the creative writing programmes at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and The National University of Singapore (NUS).

NUS students offered Red Pulse 11: poetry to a local beat, edited by Kevin Lam and Tan Xian Yeow. Thanks to Singapore's minuscule size on the world map, its inhabitants often refer to it, affectionately, as The Little Red Dot. Kevin and Xian Yeow explained that their title turns the dot into a pulse, to reflect Singapore's dynamism, the furious pace of life here, and the constant movement.

You can't get much faster than an F1 race. Kevin presented his wonderfully zooming poem The Singapore Grand Prix - presented, not read, because this is a poem that has escaped text, and gone roaring off into the digital world.  You can experience its multimedia energy by clicking here and scrolling down 

Xiang Yeow read Definition of Long-Kang noun. A long-kang is a monsoon drain, and in the poem a man recalls the pleasure he derived, as a boy, from catching guppies in a long-kang, and his disappointment when his mother rebuffed his gift of those guppies by warning him long-kangs are dangerous.  In the present, he is disturbed to find the long-kang has been cemented over. 

NTU students offered Kepulauan, edited by Zhang Jieqiang, Hidhir Razak and Marcus Tan Yi-hern. Hidhir explained that pulau is Malay for island, whilst kepulauan is Malay for archipelago, their title thus plays with ideas about insularity and isolation, as well as making a geographical reference to the once Malay, now Indonesian, archipelago.

On Tuesday the Singapore Literature Prize for English language poetry was awarded jointly to two men,  Joshua Ip and Yong Shu Hoong, much to the disgust of Grace Chia, who was a contender for her collection Cordelia - click here for full details. Consequently, accusations of gender bias in the local poetry scene have been flying about all week.  At this evening's launch, the moderator, Ng Kah Gay, from Ethos books, alluded to the controversy when he challenged all the editors to explain why neither anthology had a single female editor. Hidhir and Xian Yeow each denied there was anything sinister going on. Hidhir said Kepulauan had initially had some women editors, but they had dropped out for various reasons. Xiang Yeow said Red Pulse 11 had plenty of female input from NUS staff.

Given this background, it was great to hear young women poets taking to the mic with confidence. Debra Khng, a contributor to Red Pulse 11, sang a poem about Robert Frost, to the accompaniment of a guitar. Shane Lim Han Jung, a contributor to Kepulauan, read a spiky challenge to unthinking acceptance of the strategies of nation building - a live subject of discussion in Singapore, which won independence only 50 years ago. The Merlion, a mixed creature, half lion, half fish, dreamed up by a marketing man, was for many years used by the Singapore Tourist Board as logo. Shane Lim Han Jung's poem Merlion addressed ideas about Singaporean identity, and explored the extent to which manufactured myths are believed.

At the close of the evening Ng Kah Gay commented that anybody wanting to get both anthologies signed by all the authors would have a long time to wait.  Likewise, it is difficult to mention all the contributors in a single blog post. But Red Pulse 11, and Kepulauan show the future of poetry in Singapore is, as they say, as bright as the tropical sun!

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