Tuesday, 22 November 2022

The Fringe and the Fabulous: (Personal) Highlights from the Singapore Writers Festival

Poet Ng Yi Sheng (front row) snaps a photo as Claudia Rankine and Nate Marshall share a lighthearted moment during their dialogue at the National Gallery

For the first time this November, the Singapore Writers Festival served up a three-weekend extravaganza of readings, workshops, launches and discussions that seemed even longer for being the first (almost) fully in-person edition since 2019. 

The Festival has always been special to me – a time of friendships minted and renewed in the snaking queue for a Jeanette Winterson panel, of ideas seeded and watered on the grass outside The Arts House – and I've written elsewhere about how my first taste of this in 2009 turned out to be one of the formative experiences of my writing life. This year, even as I joined the ranks of seasoned festivalgoers pacing ourselves through the initial excitement (all the better to muster up energy for last night's closing party), the Festival made good on what it does best: making room both on- and off-stage for new voices, daring and more than deserving to be heard. 

From the start, this year's Festival felt distinctly... young, if only for the sheer number of teens who turned up (some in school attire!) to the Youth Fringe events, and spilled happily into sessions on the Festival's main track as well. At a panel I moderated last weekend, fellow poets Robert Yeo, Christine Chia, Tse Hao Guang and I were gearing up for what we feared would be a somewhat technical conversation on the "slash, line break, comma, [and] caesura" in poetry when the room filled suddenly with boisterous chatter – and the average age dropped below twenty. Even better, the students were armed with startlingly incisive questions as well as notebooks on which every word and reference was scribbled, certainly putting their elders to shame. 

I learned after the panel that some of them had their Festival passes paid for by their schools: all power to the teachers who made this possible, though one wishes that we could make Festival events freely accessible to young audiences by default. 

Youth Fringe panel 'It's not a phase, Mom!', moderated by Jocelyn Suarez

First launched in 2019, the Youth Fringe has by now come into its own as a Festival fixture, pulling an impressive all-age crowd with this year's Festival Gala: New Issues for a New Generation (featuring Dustin Thao, Chloe Gong and Jessica Bellamy). Slipping into another Youth Fringe panel on the second Sunday of the Festival, co-presented with Sing Lit Station and featuring queer writers Muslim Sahib, Stephanie Dogfoot and Kevin Martens Wong, I found myself buoyed by the savviness and panache of the audience, who applauded and oooh-ed their way supportively through a zesty Q&A. 

That same teen spirit was also to carry me through my own half-hour workshop as part of the '25 Pauses in Mid-Thought...' series, one of the quirkier parts of this year's Festival – where I (and 24 other writers) led 30-minute 'interventions' against the dim, lo-fi backdrop of a glowing orange digital installation. Thankfully, a couple of my own former students showed up and brought their friends, gamely cheering me on as I intoned poems by Daryl Lim, Amanda Chong and Esther Vincent.

Of course, there was also an unofficial fringe to the Festival, put together by poet Ng Yi Sheng under the (inevitable?) banner NSFW: Not the Singapore Festival of Writers. I made it to the second of its two events, a session on 'Writing as Activism' with Alfian Sa'at, Kokila Annamalai and Subhas Nair, which threw up fascinating questions around whether – or when – a writer could claim the identity of an 'activist'; Kokila, for instance, favoured the term 'organiser'. 

In some ways, the panel (and its afterparty, where visiting US poet Nate Marshall made a surprise appearance) formed an essential counterpoint to the conversations at the Festival. After all its many, many ephemeral discussions about how questions of identity, image and inequality played out in literature... well, what then? The NSFW discussions seemed to carve out a space some distance away from the din, where we could begin to translate the Festival's rich surfeit of language and ideas into life. 

NSFW: 'Writing as Activism', hosted by literary nonprofit Sing Lit Station

To end as I began, on a personal note: if I had to pick a Festival favourite, it would be the hour I spent at the Migrant Writers of Singapore's Slam Poetry Festival, which was being held under the Singapore Writers Festival's auspices for the first time. 

Though inexplicably programmed at the same time as another slam poetry showcase, the migrant writers' event saw a healthy queue snaking across the foyer of the auditorium at the Asian Civilizations Museum. Tasrif Ahmed delivered a playful love poem that drew cheers from the crowd, followed by standout solo readings from Ma Jolie Fille and Max Pasakorn, as well as two group performances. One of the unexpected pleasures of the afternoon came during the open mic segment, where the poet and artist Noor Iskandar took the stage with these soulful and unforgettable lines: "My poem is a city in a state of emergency... My poem is a mosque you break into". 

Among all the readings I heard over the past three weekends, I couldn't help but feel that the poems shared that afternoon took me most unequivocally into new territory. And in a different way, the event had done the same for its poets too. 

Later that evening, I saw Tasrif – who was both helping out and performing for the first time this year – on stage again, this time at the Festival's closing bash where TS Eliot Prizewinners and Festival directors danced alongside students, press and volunteers to ABBA and other party standards. Like all of us, he'd never looked so happy. 

ICYMI: Read our interview with Festival Director Pooja Nansi here

Tasrif reads his love poem at the Slam Poetry Festival – he still won't tell us who it's for!

Theophilus Kwek is the poetry editor of the Asian Books Blog.