Monday 23 August 2021

On Being Blue: In conversation with the editors of 'Atelier of Healing'

Editor's note: Given the upheavals of the past two years, a theme that has surfaced repeatedly at discussions and readings of poetry is the power of the form to comfort and restore, especially when solutions or explanations seem out of reach. At an event organised by the Migrant Writers of Singapore last month, for instance, many poets responded directly to the themes of 'anguish' and 'loss', reliving and sharing catharsis through poetic encounters. 

For this month's poetry column, I spoke to the editors of a recently-launched online anthology on trauma and recovery, Desmond Kon and Eric Valles (who both previously featured on the blog here and here). Published by Squircle Line Press, Atelier of Healing is a free e-anthology, and may be accessed at this link


Congratulations on the launch of Atelier of Healing! As you both write in the introduction, this is a digital anthology representing more than a hundred writers from around the world. To get the most obvious question out of the way—how has COVID-19 influenced the book's format and ambition?

Desmond Kon: In the last year, we’ve witnessed economies plunge and businesses pivot online. Atelier of Healing was meant to be a print edition, but going with a free e-anthology just made solid sense. We discovered that hosting literary events online brought unanticipated, astonishing viewership numbers, previously unheard-of in physical settings. The world is experiencing great suffering during the pandemic. There’s pain and grief. We’d like our e-anthology to reach far and wide, to let its stories be received and read by whomever would want access to them. It’s our labour and gift of love.

Eric Valles: The pandemic has reinforced our choice of format and sense of purpose. People are making fewer trips to brick-and-mortar bookstores. Suddenly more of them are attending online open mics and workshops around the world at odd times of the day. Our experiences of loss and depression during the various  ‘circuit breakers’ make this project all the more urgent. People need assurance that they are not alone. We are providing them hundreds of poets for company, whatever predicament they are in.


Perhaps the most prominent feature of this anthology (to me at least) is how blue the anthology is: each chapter is represented by a range of shades of blue. I adore the colour blue, but could you tell our readers a bit about why you decided on this visual/metaphorical direction, and what are the resonances behind the choice of colour(s)? 

DK: Our design aesthetic is a loose impression or enactment of William H. Gass’s On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry. It’s a lovely book. Blue has a wide palette of colour variations, which speaks to the broad range of traumas tackled in the poems. Our chapter titles frame a similar tract of blues, intentionally not represented in the chapter visuals, to convey irregularity and slight disarray—writing about trauma can, after all, be an untidy muddle of a process.

I was thrilled to find Michelangelo’s David—set against beautiful blue, to add—and chose it for the biblical figure’s triumph over Goliath. Eric called the Renaissance masterpiece the height of sculpture. For a strong female icon, Eric suggested Donatello’s bronze Judith slaying Holofernes, but I thought it too gory. I was ecstatic, then, to locate the Castel Sant’Angelo statue of St. Michael the Archangel, also set against sky blue. There’s a miracle behind that iconic statue. The plague of Rome, circa 590AD, ended with Pope St. Gregory the Great’s vision of an angel standing atop the castle of Crescentius. This chapter, for me, was the high point of designing this e-anthology.

EV: Let me add that it is an opportune time to celebrate the colour blue. It’s the 50th anniversary of the release of Joni Mitchell’s landmark album,  a musical exploration of love and loss. Soon, we will commemorate the centennial of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, which reimagines classical music with elements of jazz and the blues. Blue stands for the richness of the imagination and suggests trust and authenticity, which are essential for any testimonial about trauma.


Now to get to the meat of the anthology: it is a book about trauma and recovery, and in the introduction, you also write about poetry as a "healing art". What kinds of healing do you think are enacted through the work of these poets—and if it is possible to say—who is the healing in this book intended for?

EV: The healing we hope to achieve through the poems is invisible but restorative nonetheless. Whatever psychological wounds that the readers suffer from are given. What poetry and the other arts can do is give the readers the permission to accept those wounds as the poets have done in the act of writing. Poetry provides a template for working on one’s growth as a person despite one’s trauma. It makes one let go of negative feelings and explore one’s strengths. It can encourage readers to do free writing and cope with their wounds.

DK: Any measure of healing will be unique for each writer and reader who remains open to such ameliorating effects of poetry. Most probably, these will reveal themselves in stark and surprising ways.


It's also fascinating to me that within each section, all the poems are paired, which presents two poems in conversation, as it were, on each webpage. Could you share the thought process behind this, and were there any surprising or especially notable pairings that stood out to you as editors?

DK: Moving beyond monologism, Bakhtin’s dialogism receives thought and voice as multiplicities. Discourse is not declaratory; rather, it interacts in the relational. In the numerous poetic utterances, I perceived a vast fretwork-openwork of laced signifying practices. The dual-author display is, in factwoefully inadequate to reflect such complex reticulation, but it hopefully avoids easy closure of meaning for readers. Approach the whole opus as a verse novel, I recommend, as if working through its heteroglossia and polyphony, even as each authorial speaker does reify itself, turn up boldly in the speech acts. Feel the shifts in sense, that persistent drift.

EV: The entire history of ideas, especially in the West but true as well in the East, is a series of conversations. Since Atelier of Healing is a working out of thoughts and feelings about strands of trauma, it is natural that the poets are paired to simulate conversation. It is only when trauma sufferers attempt to articulate what is essentially inarticulable that they can begin the long process of therapy. Making poets dialogue with each other provides at least one more perspective on the same themes or experiences. I find the pairing of poets from East and West particularly illuminating. Lebanese American Hedy Habra, for instance, is a visual poet who writes most poignantly about family and friends. She is paired with Singaporean Phan Ming Yen who relooks global historical events with the journalist’s objectivity. Such pairings are magical in terms of style and concerns.


The anthology is accompanied by a long list of sources and resources: some on writing, and others on avenues of support that could prove timely for those in a difficult situation. How were these curated, and how have these sources also informed the work of putting the anthology together?

DK: The resources page was a late addition. The list of helplines seems common knowledge; yet, these important contacts may remain remote to those who need such help. The two directories are excellent. On the MSF website, you can key in your postal code to locate the nearest Family Service Centre. Mental Connect provides a service directory for mental health resources in Singapore: you discover leads on art therapy, music therapy, occupational therapy, play therapy, and loads more.

EV: The list of writing references is mostly from my post-graduate research on trauma poetry in English Literature and Creative Writing at the Nanyang Technological University. That could help scholars who would like to jump into the rich, complex field of trauma studies. The sources, especially Walter Benjamin, Paul Celan and Charles Reznikoff, could also provide poet readers a whole slew of ideas and approaches for their own writing.


Finally, the fact that this is an online anthology provides the tantalising opportunity for it to continue evolving as a living document. Do you foresee continuous or future updates to the anthology, or is the work neatly bookended for now? What's your eventual hope for this project?

EV: Trauma writing is always open-ended. It marks a beginning for this genre to be explored in a big way in this part of the world. We hope that the readers will be gentle with themselves and explore their own atelier of healing in their own writing spaces.

DK: This project took two years, and several conceptual overhauls. We were prudent with selections, given the initial print ambition. There’ve been requests to include new work after we went live, but I fear the precise framework might unhinge itself, and rupture! The chapter structure is set up to house exactly seven pairings. Architecturally, it seems pretty done—an ironic unity, no doubt, in light of the dialogic principle. Energy-wise, I’m quite spent. And this godfather-godson duo is already neck-deep in putting together our next tome, A Given Grace: An Anthology of Christian Poems. It’s a commemorative publication to mark Catholicism’s bicentennial and quincentennial celebrations in Singapore and the Philippines respectively.


Eric Francis Tinsay Valles draws inspiration from all the places that he has called home. He has published the poetry collections A World in Transit and After the Fall: dirges among ruins as well as co-edited Get Lucky: An Anthology of Singapore and Philippine Writings, Sg Poems 2015-2016, Anima Methodi and The Nature of Poetry. His poetry has been featured in Southeast Asian Review of English, Routledge’s New Writing and other journals. He has won a Goh Sin Tub Creative Writing prize. He has been invited to read poetry or commentaries at Baylor, Melbourne and Oxford Universities as well as the Kistrech Poetry Festival. Eric received his PhD in English, with a specialisation in Creative Writing, from Nanyang Technological University. His dissertation focussed on mediating trauma through short and long poetic forms. Eric is a director of Poetry Festival (Singapore).

Desmond Francis Xavier Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé is the author of a novel, a quasi-memoir, two lyric essay monographs, four hybrid works, and nine poetry collections. A former journalist, he has edited over twenty-five titles. Recipient of grants from the National Arts Council and Singapore International Foundation, he has enjoyed literary appointments at the Notre Dame Poetry Fellowship, NAC Gardens by the Bay Writing Residency, and NTU-NAC Creative Writing Residency. Among other accolades, Desmond is the recipient of the IBPA Benjamin Franklin Award, Independent Publisher Book Award, National Indie Excellence Book Award, Poetry World Cup, Singapore Literature Prize, and three Living Now Book Awards. He helms Squircle Line Press, and can be found at