Sunday 19 February 2023

Make It New: A warm welcome for Gaudy Boy's 'New Singapore Poetries'

A gathering of new names

One July evening, I took the chance to ask Jee Leong Koh – an editor of the new Gaudy Boy anthology New Singapore Poetries – what exactly was ‘new’ about the selection, slated for a pre-Christmas release in December 2022. The list of poets who’d made the cut had just been announced, and though all qualified on the same basis of having published not more than one poetry collection, some (including Jee’s co-editor Marylyn Tan, also a winner of the Singapore Literature Prize) were by now firmly established in the narrow stratosphere of Singapore writing.   

July 2022: Jee and Laetitia,
in a reading with Victor Ocampo
Jee’s answer focused on lineage. Compared to those of an earlier generation who took after the traditions of British poetry, he said, these new voices hewed closer to contemporary American writers (Ocean Vuong, Maggie Nelson, Ada Limón), while also reflecting Southeast Asian and other cultural elements.

The truth of this observation was to bear itself out on a balmy night two weeks ago, when a full house squeezed onto the carpet of the Saga Rector’s Common at Yale-NUS College to hear five of the ‘new’ poets read. I arrived late, but well in time to catch moderator Lawrence (Larry) Ypil – himself the inaugural winner of Gaudy Boy’s Poetry Book Prize – quizzing his guests on their influences. Nelson’s Bluets was ardently recommended by Christian Yeo, while Vuong’s and Limón’s names both came up in conversation later on. Laetitia Keok read a majestic poem, ‘Maxwell Food Centre (1997)’, inspired by Sharon Olds’ ‘I Go Back To May 1937’. And perhaps because I was minded to look out for these parallels, Kenneth Constance Loe’s painterly selection seemed to summon Richard Siken, replete with the latter’s penchant for the sexy and sardonic in verse.

Though by now the fourth in a series of launch readings for the anthology, the audience at Yale-NUS was still keen to join Larry in interrogating its title (as admittedly I, too, was). What did ‘Singapore’ mean to these writers? And a question from novelist Daryl Qilin Yam: what about ‘poetry’?

Beyond Jee’s generational characterisation, the poets’ responses spoke to the ‘newness’ that each was trying to pursue: from Laetitia’s deliberate, formal lyricism (“poetry is my way of moving through the world with intention”), to Izyanti Asa’ari’s patient rewriting of the cityscape (“no, not that kind of Singapore River poem!”). What I found oddly comforting was the absence, in sharp contrast to readings by poets who had come to prominence in the late 90s or early 00s, of any overarching anxiety about belonging in Singapore or the loss of some ineffable Singapore soul. Instead, a simple confidence that the messy realities of each individual life would, in the end, add up to ‘Singapore’. “I live and write in Singapore,” said Lisabelle Tay. “So – these poems are Singapore poems”.

Feb 2023: Reading at Yale-NUS, 
a view from the windowsill

From my perch on the windowsill in the Rector’s Common, I spotted a handful of other Singapore poets among the audience: Yeow Kai Chai, Yong Shu Hoong, Ng Yi-Sheng, Laura Jane Lee, and Nathaniel Chew (also included in the anthology), cheering the readers on. The vast majority, though, weren’t your usual poetry crowd, or even Yale-NUS students. Some I spoke to over kueh and green tea afterwards were at an event like this for the first time. Hearing poetry out loud, and – to borrow Yi-Sheng’s words – not in a performative or “slammy” way but with the sort of plainspoken intensity one might associate with late-night pizza and beer, was an entirely new experience, and one they’d relished. I ran short of metaphors. Much less like an evening of standup, was the conclusion. More like Real Talk.

And for me? Returning to the anthology after the reading was like walking home with a bunch of pals, along the River where it fades into the Alexandra Canal, after a particularly uplifting party. Patter of late-night runners in the background, faint city glow above the blocks, and close by, the comfortable, hard-won disclosure of bosom friends. “Encountering you,” writes Anurak Saelaow, “I extend / my arms: their wingspan scrapes the edge / of our enclosure, the width of a world”.  


New Singapore Poetries, ed. Marylyn Tan and Jee Leong Koh (New York: Gaudy Boy, Dec 2022) is distributed in Singapore by Word Image, and also available at Kinokuniya here

More information at Singapore Unbound's website here

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