Asian Books Blog is based in Singapore. Our regular column, Lion City Lit, explores in-depth what's happening in the City-State lit-wise. Here, Elissa Viornery interviews Eric Tinsay Valles, Festival Director of the National Poetry Festival (NPF). This will run from July 29 to 31 at the National Museum, Lasalle College of the Arts, and other venues.
Now in its second year, the NPF will include a vast array of activities, exhibits and recitals drawing on Singapore's rich multilingual culture. It will comprise a main three-day festival of poetry events at the National Museum of Singapore on 29 July (6pm to 9pm) on 30 July (9am to 6pm) and at Lasalle College of the Arts on 31 July (10am to 6pm). There have already been fringe events leading up to the Festival, and those to come include Reflecting on Love and Laughter, on 9 July (4:30 to 6:30pm) at the National Library.
Eric Tinsay Valles, the Festival Director, is himself a poet, and his second collection, After the Fall: Dirges among Ruins, published by Ethos Books, is on the shortlist for the Singapore Literature Prize 2016.
Could you tell us about the origins and objectives of the Festival?
The NPF is a revival of an idea and project of four pioneer Singapore poets, Edwin Thumboo, Wong Meng Voon, Masuri S. N. and V. T. Arasu, who proposed it soon after independence. They envisioned a platform by which poets in all the island’s official languages could come together to create new work and promote the Singapore poetry scene.
The first NPF was held from July 24 to 26 last year. The country’s unofficial poet laureate Edwin Thumboo invited and encouraged poets and educators, namely yours truly, National Institute of Education professor Tan Chee Lay, National University of Singapore Department of Malay Studies lecturer Azhar Ibrahim, Singapore Literature Prize-winner and Tamil Murasu editor K. Kanagalatha, to form NPF with valuable events planning support from Lasalle lecturer Michelle Loh and other volunteer poets and teachers. Our disparate voices have become one in a poetic fellowship.
NPF promotes literary excellence in a multilingual, multicultural, multi-generational setting for poets and poetry enthusiasts. It aims also to develop an appreciation of the richness of the written and spoken word in Singapore.
We have organised a wide array of programmes such as poetry slams, multimedia exhibits, a travel poetry workshop, poetry readings and keynote addresses at Lasalle College of the Arts, Bukit Pasoh Road, the Singapore Botanic Gardens and Gardens by the Bay. People from all walks of life were treated to readings in English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil as well as Bengali and Tagalog in a multicultural reading at Gardens by the Bay last May 28. The related National Poetry Competition also saw more than 300 participants across the island’s four official languages in the past two years.
Is poetry popular in Singapore? If so, why?
Yes poetry is popular. This is because of the impression that it takes less time to write than fiction in a society where people are always “very busy.” It certainly takes less time to compile poetry than short stories in a collection. Statistics attest to the power of poetry. The Singapore Writers Festival doubled the number of its featured poets from 2012 to 47 last year, with 35 of them from Singapore. The Festival’s attendees tripled in the same period, with 2,030 at 37 poetry-related events. Last year, the National Arts Council funded more than a dozen poetry collections through publishing grants. There is a poetry book in Chinese launched here almost every week.
Is there a particular age group that poetry appeals to in Singapore, or is the interest across generations? How is the readership evolving?
School-age youths and young professionals make up the bulk of poetry readers, because they have more time to explore various literary genres. Most of those who joined the NPF-related National Poetry Competition belong to these age groups.
Singaporeans are curious to read poems in languages other than in English, either in translation or in their mother tongues. Migrants too have participated in this poetic renaissance and have shown a keen desire for integration through this art form with the very first Migrant Workers Poetry Competition. The winners were employed in construction and in a shipyard.
Do you believe that a Singaporean style of poetry writing exists?
Yes, like Singlish and Hainanese chicken rice, there are commonalities among poets writing in Singapore that may constitute a distinct writing style. Poetry writing here tends to be cosmopolitan while remaining rooted in the island. There are also common motifs such as the Merlion and the Singapore River, and themes typically include tensions between the individual and the collective as well as between tradition and change.
The theme of the first National Poetry Festival was Home, Nationhood, Identity. Could you share with us this year's theme and some of your thoughts about it?
The theme of NPF 2016 is Reflections. Reflections allow us to look back to the past or to take stock of the present in order to prepare for the future. Reflections represent thoughts, emotions and values, as in poetry. They are also images, especially of Singapore society, that NPF 2016 seeks to cast in verse.
Could you share a little bit about this year’s National Poetry Festival programme?
NPF 2016 holds true to its vision of integrating the rich multilingual culture of Singapore. Besides producing and facilitating collaboration across various media - e.g. print, broadcast and digital media - NPF also aims to organise associated events that promote greater cross-cultural and cross-discipline understanding and integration. There will be a film adaptation of a poem on the opening night; a pantoun art exhibit by Koh Buck Song and Suraidi Sipan and an ekphrasis event curated by Desmond Kon at the National Museum on the second day, July 30; a reading of spiritual poems from the island's various religious traditions and book launches on the third day, July 31, at Lasalle.
Will you be reading?
I will be reading a couple of poems from After the Fall: dirges among ruins, during the session dedicated to spiritual poetry inspired by some of the island’s religious traditions.
Is there anything you would like to add about the National Poetry Festival?
We are continuing to showcase the rich multilingual poetry of Singapore. We are doing so while reaching out to more demographic groups, including primary-school-age children and migrant workers, as well as exploring poetic collaborations with the other arts such as film, painting and music. It will be a fun poetic party with something for everyone.
About Elissa Viornery
Elissa Viornery has a passion for the arts. Before moving to Singapore two years ago, she was a member of a performance poetry group in France which put on shows at a local theatre around themes uniting poetry with other art forms such as dance, music, and painting. She was also a member of one of the book clubs choosing the winner of an annual French literary prize for the best first novel by an author in French. In Singapore, as a member of a writers group, Elissa writes poetry and short stories. She hopes to publish soon.