Tuesday 27 October 2020

Holding Hands: Five Singapore Poets on the first digital #SWF

The Singapore Writers’ Festival kicks off this week – and for the first time in its history, will be taking place entirely online. In these tumultuous times, we asked five Singapore-based poets about why literary festivals are important, what a successful literary festival looks like (to them!), and what they’re most looking forward to at this year’s #SWF:

Alfian Sa’at

Festivals are important because they are consolidations of intensities. There’s something about having wall-to-wall programming (with short breaks in between) that naturally creates excitement. “Which panel or talk to attend next? How did yours go? I binged out on three events today and I think I’ve maxed out.” You get to chart out your day based on your curiosity and desire, while the unexpected lurks in all corners, like the sea monsters in ancient maps. The much-feted author turns out to be fatal bore, while the bunch of unknowns, a group you wished you were at a dinner party with.

I’m really not the kind to go gaga over superstar writers, and anyway those don’t need any more boosting—they’ll sell themselves. I’ve been really interested of late in exploring history in my playwriting, so two events which I’m really keen on are ‘Long Before Your Time’, which examines how poets deal with historical material, and ‘Hidden Extraordinary Histories’, which looks at fictionists exploring similar ground. If anyone goes into Hayden White territory and starts discussing metahistory, I’ll be rapturous. Even if they don’t, I’m really keen on hearing how the panellists negotiate tensions between artistic license and empirical facticity.

Alfian Sa’at is the Resident Playwright of Wild Rice. His published works include three collections of poetry, ‘One Fierce Hour’, ‘A History of Amnesia’ and ‘The Invisible Manuscript’, a collection of short stories, ‘Corridor’, a collection of flash fiction, ‘Malay Sketches’, and three collections of plays.


Stephanie Chan

I think literary festivals are an important way to bring people together and share ideas and create memories. They are a great way to bring people from different disciplines and countries into one place to inspire one another, find things in common and exchange stories, strategies and ideas, as well as dream up new projects and collaborations. I think a successful literary festival is one which highlights a wide range of voices and allows a diverse group of people to come together; one that puts people from different backgrounds and stages of their careers on the same platforms, whose audience members leave inspired.

I am excited to see how it will come together as an online Festival, how people will find new ways to create a sense of community and buzz. I am excited for a Festival that is more accessible than ever, where people can participate without getting (too) exhausted. I am very excited to hear from Zadie Smith and Naomi Klein. I am also excited to see how video editing could enhance the panels and talks. I am also excited for people to watch the panel I moderated about the joy and power of the connection between people dogs (‘For The Love of Dogs’ ft. Eric Khoo, Daniel Boey and Fiona Foo) to be screened online. I am also extremely excited to be speaking live! onstage! At the Victoria Concert Hall! on the closing debate ‘This House Believes That Singapore Will Survive A Zombie Apocalypse’ with my illustrious team members, Arianna Pozzuoli, Suffian Hakim and Imran Hashim!

Stephanie Chan is a poet, stand up comic, and educator who runs a monthly online poetry night called Spoke & Bird. Their first poetry collection ‘Roadkill for Beginners’ was published by Math Paper Press in 2019.


Lawrence Ypil

Lit festivals have always been, for me, a chance to see some of my favourite writers engage in animated conversation with each other. Sometimes these pairings work so well they are encounters we have always dreamed of. Other times, they are such beautifully tragic disasters. Either way, they’re unforgettable!

I’m looking forward to listening in on Teju Cole—— and of course I’m selfishly anticipating fielding audience questions for my interview with the amazing Tracy K. Smith where she reads new work, talks about jazz, and the work of poetry and history.

Lawrence Ypil is the author ‘The Experiment of the Tropics’, winner of the Gaudy Boy Poetry Book Prize and finalist for the Lambda Awards. He holds an MFA in Nonfiction from the University of Iowa and an MFA in Poetry from Washington University. He is the creative writing track coordinator at Yale-NUS College.


Mok Zining

Reading and writing are often solitary acts, but at festivals they become processes embedded in a community. I love going to festivals because, for however many days, you get to just think and talk about literature with your fellow festival-goers full-time. The jam-packed schedules give me a sort of caffeine rush, as well as the energy to read and write for the next few months.

I'm really excited about the SWF's lineup this year – there are so many writers I love to read! I’m looking forward to the panels that the SWF has put together, which do an amazing job of drawing voices into conversations that are especially pressing for our time. Personally, I can’t wait to engage with questions concerning solidarity and the ecology during this time of global crisis.

Mok Zining is obsessed with random things: orchids, arabesques, sand. ‘The Orchid Folios’ is her first book. Currently, she is working towards an MFA in creative writing at the university of Minnesota, where she teaches writing. Zining spends most of her free time dancing.


Cheryl Julia Lee

In bringing people together, in body or in spirit, festivals remind us that we are always part of a community and that we are, to some degree, always already beholden to one another. More than that, festivals celebrate this idea of community. Panels, dialogue sessions, live performances, streamed events—all of these make the coming together of people an opportunity for joy and creation. The solitary genius is a myth. Our most loving, most empowering, and most lasting projects stem from collaboration. The best of literature understands this: that we are most of us driven by a desire for connection, a desire to simply hold hands.

I see this desire for community in every iteration of the Singapore Writers Festival that I have had the pleasure of attending, particularly in this year’s with its theme, ‘Intimacy’. This year, I am especially looking forward to hearing from literary greats (Sharon Olds! In conversation with Cyril Wong!) as well as important and necessary conversations on regional culture such ‘The Southeast Asian Novel is a Thing’.

Cheryl Julia Lee is an Assistant Professor with the English department at NTU, and critical editor of prose.sg. Her poetry collection, ‘We Were Always Eating Expired Things’, was published in 2014, and was shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize.