Sunday, July 26, 2015

Things about Madrid I Will Not Forget

Things about Madrid I Will Not Forget 

So many sex workers. South of Gran Via, the women are mostly white, north they are mostly dark, or trans. A melon is called melón but a watermelon is called sandia. In the morning, when the day is fresh, I love running shirtless along Gran Via and all around Retiro Park.

Given the wrong drink and too shy to ask the muscle waiter to change it. Tinto de verano, con limón. In a plaza chanced upon one night, Chinese schoolchildren kicking around a football and speaking Spanish, of course. Which of them will be the next David Villa? Which the next Lorca? Who will come first? Woken up at 4 am by the cigarette-edged talk of kids outside the club opposite my apartment.

The dark pearl on the outside of razor clams. A cruise club called Organic, equipped with a cross, resting horizontally, and revolving, on one leg. Goya’s Black Paintings.

¿De donde eres? The same younger Asian with the older white man sighted in Buenos Aires, London, Paris, and Tokyo: somewhat shameful still, that. A white man in his forties begging outside a tourist hotel. No, he’s not disabled or ill. I pass him on my runs. Liquid siftings in my favorite beige shorts from Embajadores to Valverde, after a bad lunch.

Yesterday, at Mercado San Fernando, I bought Elogio de la Madrastra by the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa, and paid for the secondhand book by weight. It cost only 2.20 Euros. In English, it’s called In Praise of the Stepmother.


Leaves on the sidewalk
color of a Guinness bottle—
moon waxing overhead

Friday, July 24, 2015

Segovia and Haiku

Visited Segovia yesterday, just half an hour by train from Madrid. When the bus from the train station approached the old city, everyone was immediately struck by the grand Roman aqueduct running across the public square. The aqueduct also ran underground to the castle.

At the museum of contemporary arts, I saw the show of Esteban Vicente's works. Born in Turégano, Spain, he studied art in Madrid, remarking on his experience at the Academy: "It doesn't give you any ideas about anything. It gives you tools, and teaches you about materials. Academic training is safe. It prepares you to be against." He moved with his American wife to the USA a few months after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. One of the first generation of American Expressionists, he knew artists such as De Kooning, Pollock, and Rothko. His works in the Segovia museum were constantly evolving, but maintained a delicate sense of balance. I liked his drawings best: their austerity was sensual and spiritual.

The Cathedral was very grand. Many beautiful chapels with impressive altarpieces and paintings. Most astounding was the Chapel of the Descent from the Cross. The painting at the top of the altarpiece showed Christ on the cross. The painting below it showed the dead Christ being brought down from the cross. Both paintings are by Francisco Camilo. Following this dramatic line downwards, one saw next the polychrome "Recumbent Christ" (by the Baroque sculptor Gregorio Fernández), lying with his lifelike wounds in a glass case. A single euro dropped into the meter brought the lights on to this visual theater.

At the Plaza Meyor, I had tapas in two different bars. In the second one, I saw this splendidly dressed older woman sitting by herself in a corner.

Nursing her beer
woman with a bib necklace—
late morning in Segovia

I walked to the castle but did not enter it. Retracing my steps, I stumbled on Mesón Don Jimeno, where I had a most delicious lunch of cochinillo asado (suckling pig). Two older ladies provided no-fuss and friendly service. The restaurant had a quaint family atmosphere. My best meal in Spain so far, I reckon.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Flamenco en viva

Had a dinner of grilled octopus and pickled pork skewers last night at Casa Patas before watching the flamenco show. Raquela Ortega the dancer was mesmerizing. She showed why duende could only manifest at a mature age, when the artist brought all her life and training to the performance of a moment. The male dancer Sergio Aranda was virtuosic in his technique but he looked too young to be dancing with Ortega. The three singers, Tomasa Gabriel, Jesule Utrera, Fernandez de Antonio, were very good, as was the guitarist, the very handsome Yeray Cortés.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Sunday, July 19, 2015


Taking my heart
to the Sunday flea market—
what will it fetch?

Taking my heart
to the Sunday flea market
south of La Latina

Taking my heart
to the Sunday flea market
instead of the post office

Saturday, July 18, 2015


They're thinking aloud,
the old zuihitsu writers,
but where are they?

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Diary and Haiku

Found the lovely little garden in El Museo Nacional del Romanticismo yesterday. The high walls provided shade while the trees provided airy perches for birds. It had a small fountain with a Cupid in it.

On the algae running
down one flank of the stone Cupid
a bee cools its feet

In the evening, NT brought me to La Latina. I had razor clams, fried in olive oil and parsley, for the first time. It was the speciality of the restaurant called Bar Cruz, also billed as Las Casa de los Navajas. We walked to the ethnically diverse neighborhood of Lavapies, and ate again at Restaurante Baobab. The menu was African. We had couscous negro and curry goat. It went down well with tinto de verano con limon.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015


Yesterday's highlights both involved eating. Lunch at a local chorizo restaurant with James Womack​ and Terry Andrew Craven​. James is a poet, translator, and publisher, originally from Cambridge, UK, now based in Madrid. Terry moved from Leeds to work with Shakespeare and Company in Paris before taking over the cave of treasures called Desperate Literature​ Bookshop with his wife Charlotte four months ago. Wonderfully easy conversation. Among other things, we talked about how different cultures invite people home, or not. And the arms race of giving birthday presents to one's spouse. My sausage was delicious. The other highlight was dinner by myself at 11 pm. Out on a walk, I was enticed by the sight of so many people eating and drinking outdoors at that late hour to wander into Plaza Juan Pujol, where I sat and had a good risotto, washed down with chilled red wine. The restaurant was aptly named El Balcón de Malasaña. I perched on that balcony and watched the world enjoy themselves.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Diary and Haiku

After looking at Guernica, the crowd at my elbows, their tour guide in my ears, I am coming out against history painting. The magniloquence of terror. The demand for submission. Far more delightful is the magic of Joan Miró, whose rooster crows in a landscape with it in it.

On the balcony
carrying a bowl of cereal

Monday, July 13, 2015


This far south
the day becomes light later—
the wavy darkness of his hair

Saturday, July 11, 2015


Yesterday's highlight was a visit to Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. Was surprised to see a number of Lucian Freuds, including his Retrato of the Baron himself. Really liked Michael Andrews's "Portrait of Timothy Behrens," which shows the young man standing pensively at the entrance to the bathroom.

An unusual view of Saint Sebastian, tended by Saint Irene and her maid, attributed to Dirck Jaspersz. van Baburen:

Had lunch at La Cueva, with all male patrons, including construction workers from a nearby site. Used la lavadora successfully. Napped. Went for an walk at nine, when it was cool, and discovered the lively night life of Chueca and its surrounds. Lots of restaurants, outdoors and in. Sex workers plied their trade at street corners, a few transvestites. Men clustered in sociable groups along Calle Pelayo, the gay drag.

NT and his course mates were in the apartment when I returned. I joined in their discussion about the existence of god. Since it was past midnight, NT was officially a year older. We all wished him happy birthday.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Prado and Haiku

Yesterday was my first full day in Madrid. Woke up at my usual time and worked on the Mothership interview. The gym on my street, Calle Valverde, opened at 9 am. A cute young gay guy was working out there when I arrived. Four other guys came in after me. The equipment was rather worn, but I managed to put in a good workout. Then I went for a run. I had walked around Chuecas on the day of my arrival in Madrid. Yesterday, I ran to the west of my street, and looked around Malasaña. The neighborhood, with its alternative shops and wall posters, reminded me of the Lower East Side. Like the LES, it was also gentrifying, art galleries and such.

I decided to walk to the Prado instead of taking the Metro. At the museum, I saw Titian's wonderful "A Knight of Malta with a Clock." Everywhere I was looking for portraits of men in their handsome prime, Caravaggio's young "David with the Head of Goliath" proving an exception. Velazquez was a star of the show. His "Las Meninas" proved equal to its reputation: a completely absorbing work. I also liked very much his paintings of the dwarves at court, especially after looking at too many Italian idealizations of beauty. He was clearly a painter of immense sympathies and a philosophical bent. Goya was the other star. His historical paintings "The Second of May 1808" and "The Third of May 1808," which commemorate the uprising against the French that sparked the War of Spanish Independence, went far beyond their occasion. The Black Paintings were fantastic and surreal, their animalistic faces reminding me of Bacon. Originally wall murals, they were transferred to canvas by another painter. The most affecting painting was "The Witches' Sabbath, or The Great He-Goat." A girl in black veil to the right of the painting was waiting to be initiated. The nightmarish quality reminded me of Hawthorne's short story "Young Goodman Brown," published in 1835, some ten years after the painting.

I had a lunch of huevos rotos (broken eggs) that came in a sarten (saucepan). I did not understand the proprietress when she tried to tell me that "postre" was included in the set meal. A man at the counter kindly explained to me in English. I think I will have big mid-day meals and very small suppers while I'm in Spain. It is too hot even at 7 pm to think of eating much. Drink is another matter.

Malasaña lives—
workmen holed up in the shade
she still works the street

Wednesday, July 08, 2015


At Gatwick South Terminal waiting for my Norwegian Airlines plane to Madrid. Last night's reading at the London Review Bookshop must rank as one of the more memorable ones. Tickets were sold out and the bookshop packed with about 80 people. Michael Schmidt spoke about the net of PN Review/Carcanet that welcomes all schools of fish. The first to read, I had a slight sore throat and so paused a couple of times, but carried on like the National Service-trained soldier that I am. The most enjoyable moment for me was to refer briefly to the banning of Lee Tzu Pheng's poem "My Country and My People" from the airwaves because it was deemed insufficiently enthusiastic about nation-building. It was a pleasure to hear the four contributors to New Poetries VI, Rebecca Watts, Joey Connolly-Wright, Vahni Capildeo, and John Clegg. Get the anthology to hear the most exciting poetic voices now in the UK.

After the reading, I met Richard Price and enjoyed talking to him. Also spoke briefly with Kei Miller, and wished we had more time. Was chuffed that Richard and Kei bought my book. Also managed to tell Alison Brackenbury how much I loved her horse poems even in Singapore, before I left for NY. Song-Khoon Lim, your signed copies are waiting for you at the bookshop. Afterwards, Paul, Alphonse, Mary and I went for drinks at The Admiral by Trafalgar Square. Delicious Pimm's, made with sloe gin instead of lemonade. Paul and Al brought us to the rooftop bar of the Hilton, where they are staying, and we enjoyed a sweeping view of the area, the National Portrait Gallery in one direction, the London Eye in another, and Big Ben in yet another. We were nearly as tall as Lord Nelson, not quite, but nearly nearly. One more reading. Hola, Madrid!

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Kensington Gardens and Haiku

Had been eating too much. Had an enormous Polish dinner with MJ and DW last night. Went for a run in Kensington Gardens to work off all that food. I ran along the Serpentine, looping back to the Italian Gardens, at the head of The Long Water that becomes the Serpentine in Hyde Park. Then I went for breakfast at this little bakery I spotted yesterday at the end of Queensway Street, where I saw this morning a construction worker pass by.

At the head of the Serpentine
the Italian Gardens
symmetrical as push-ups

Workman carrying
an attachable barrier
past a blonde

Monday, July 06, 2015

Tate Britain and Haiku

Saw the special Barbara Hepworth retrospective at Tate Britain yesterday. The exhibit showed her moving from early figurative works into abstract forms. The early abstractions explored single and double standing forms: self and relations. Both became interiorized, it seemed to me, in later abstractions that explored the relationship between her inner and outer worlds, in her response to the seascape of St. Ives, for instance. The later sculptures, often round in shape, were punctured or gorged with holes, as if to allow light (and eyes) in. At the same time, these holes functioned as framing devices, through which one could see the other side. One of the most powerful sculptures had a punctured ball sitting inside the puncture of another ball. It was also a fine example of her move late in her career into bronze, after working mostly with wood and marble.

Really enjoyed the show "New Brutalist Image 1949 - 1955: Hunstanton School and the Photography of Life and Art." The show highlights the collaboration of architects Alison and Peter Smithson, artist-photographer Nigel Henderson, pioneering structural engineer Ronald Jenkins and sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi. The show could also be called Structure and Materials. The room installation was centered by a long boxy steel structure, which housed glass cases displaying photographs, the architects' student works, their proposal for the school, notebooks, posters, and memorabilia. Mounted on the structure at different points, three projectors threw images onto the walls. The images from the first projector moved across a corner of the room, so the image was first seen frontally before it slanted and sped up on the next wall. Another projector threw a triptych of changing images of worksite materials, patterns found in urban areas, and children playing on streets. The last projector showed a slideshow of more abstract images. Small concrete slabs deeply incised with figures lay in a row along one wall. They were matched on the opposite end of the entrance by a long orange collage mural with multiple viewpoints. The architectural plans for the school - top and side views - were mounted on the wall, next to a video showing an interview with the project architect. The entire room gave me many ideas for the possible collaboration with Boedi Widjaja.

From the permanent galleries, Eric Gill's heart-stopping "Ecstasy" (1910 - 11) and Ivon Hitchens' "Autumn Composition, Flowers on a Table" (1932). The Henry Moore gallery was full of wonders of form and space.


Hard to count
sheep in the shade
day dreams

Sunday, July 05, 2015

STEEP TEA and Haiku

Hurtling on the Virgin East Coast train from Edinburgh toward King's Cross, London. Last night's reading at The Sutton Gallery went well, I think. About 40 people packed the place. Colin Herd, the owner of the gallery, was a sweetheart. David and Eric were there. It was lovely meeting Henry King, my fellow contributor to New Poetries V.

I have known Rob A. Mackenzie, my host, on-line for about 15 years, first through an Internet poetry workshop, so it was a real pleasure to meet him in person, and to hear him read his work. The other readers Janette Ayachi and Tessa Berring were a terrific contrast in styles, and rendered their poetry very individually. Afterwards a group of us went to the Star Bar, and I got to know more of Rob's friends. Many interesting conversations, among which I picked up the factoid that Scotland exports its excess energy to England.

Rob and I walked back to his home in Leith. On the way, we passed through the pink triangle, the gay area in Edinburgh. Leith, built around a port, has long been incorporated into Edinburgh but retains an independent spirit. It reminds me of Brooklyn, with its ethnic restaurants and shops, and young writers and artists roaming its streets.

Crows in the distance
barb the telephone wires
hi, anyone there?

Crows in the distance
barb the telephone wires
sheep or lint?

Crows in the distance
barb the telephone wires
since he left the train

Tuesday, June 30, 2015


Flying to the UK tonight to launch my new Carcanet book of poems. Bittersweet feeling, actually. 12 years ago, when I was deciding between moving to the UK or the US, I plumped for the latter because it was terra incognito to me. It felt right to start a new life in a country completely new to me. The US has since given me so much. The encouragement and opportunity to come out as a gay man. Superb poetry teachers and exemplars. Friends and lovers. New York City.

But the US has not embraced my poetry. I'm grateful to Roxanne Hoffman for publishing my first chapbook and to various fine independent journals for publishing my poems. My work had not, however, found favor with any of the big poetry journals and publishers. After years of contest submissions and payments, I decided to self-publish my books and found a great deal of satisfaction in the process and result. I'm ever so pleased, and surprised, when individuals tell me how much they like my work. Still, the niggling feeling persists, why the disconnect between my work and this country? Is the disconnect a matter of aesthetics, history, politics, or sheer lucklessness? I have found a home here but my work is still homeless. There is this homeless guy in Central Park, near where I live, who keeps a golf club close to him and, every now and then, hits around an invisible ball in the long grasses.

So I'm flying tonight to the country to which I could have migrated but did not. For personal and historical reasons, the UK is the natural home for my work. The British understand where I come from, without too much explanation; they understand too my resistances and ambivalences as a postcolonial subject. In contrast, the Americans, by and large, don't even understand that they are an empire. I owe a great debt of gratitude to Michael Schmidt who saw it fit to publish my work in PN Review, New Poetries V and, now, a book. This faith, so incredibly important to a writer, makes me wonder if I should have migrated to the UK instead all those 12 years ago. Would I have gotten further there, not just career-wise but, more importantly, in the growth of my writing? Or would an earlier endorsement have stunted my writing, have brought any development to a halt? The game of counterfactuals.

The one thing certain is that I'd have been a different writer. My work is now such a compound of Singaporean, British and American elements that it is hard to distill one thing from another. Or to conceive of it in another way, it is unassimilable to any one tradition. That has a heroic ring to it, that makes me want to laugh. All to the good. A good laugh chases away any pre-flight blues.

Monday, June 29, 2015

STEEP TEA: Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin

The poetry of Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin (1942 - ) is populated by religious and folkloric motifs and so it reads like a world outside, beyond, beside, the ordinary world. This alternative world could be seen as a critique of the common world, but it is also vital in its own right. Her poem "St Mary Magdalene Preaching in Marseilles" inspired me to depict a Hell's Kitchen panhandler as St. Thomas the Skeptic. Her ekphrastic poem "Fireman's Lift," with its Virgin Mary spiraling upwards, reminded me of the beautiful old-fashioned lift in Singapore's St. Andrew's Children's Hospital, where my mother used to wash laundry.

I am most pleased, however, with my poem "In His Other House," which borrows inspiration and title from her poem "In Her Other House." Taking for the epigraph these wonderful lines: "In this house there is no need to wait for the verdict of history And each page is open to the version of every other" I describe my own alternative world, in which Singapore bookstores shelve not only books on the stock market, self-improvement and the supernatural, but also works of poetry; my father reads to me, my dead grandfather approves of my father; and my beloved does the dishes.

From Poetry International: "Ní Chuilleanáin was born in Cork in 1942, educated there and at Oxford before spending all her working life up to the present as an academic in Trinity College Dublin. Ní Chuilleanáin’s first book Acts and Monuments was published in 1972 and her work has been much admired ever since, resulting in her being described variously as one of Ireland’s best poets and Ireland’s best woman poet.

... Ní Chuilleanáin comes from a family of writers and musicians. Her father, a famous academic and combatant in the Irish War of Independence, her mother, a classic children’s author. She said she became a poet because her mother wrote prose and because she thought poetry was more difficult."

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Saturday, June 27, 2015

STEEP TEA: Li Qingzhao

I read the poems of Li Qingzhao in the translation by Kenneth Rexroth and Ling Chung. Li (1084 - c.1151) is "universally considered to be China's greatest woman poet," according to Lin Chung. "Her life was colorful and versatile: other than a great poet, she was a scholar of history and classics, a literary critic, an art collector, a specialist in bronze and stone inscriptions, a painter, a calligrapher and a political commentator." She is reputed to be "the greatest writer of t'zu poetry, a lyric verse form written to the popular tunes of the Sung Dynasty (960 - 1279)."

Li was born into a well-known family of scholars and officials. Notably, her father was a member of Su Dongpo's literary circle. She was a precocious talent. When she was seventeen, she wrote two poems in competition with a poem by her father's friend. This female boldness was not acceptable to the society at large, but was encouraged by her father's unconventional friends. Living so close to political power, Li's life underwent ups and downs in accordance with the factional strife at court.

When she was eighteen, she married Zhao Mingcheng. They shared a happy married life that revolved around the study of the classics and the appreciation of poetry and fine art. When Zhao died of an illness, probably typhoid, on his way to a new official post, Li was heartbroken. Her t'zu poem "On Plum Blossoms," written to the tune "A Little Wild Goose," expresses her deeply felt grief. All is stale, cold and empty. "I have no words for my weary sorrow."

I hope some of the previous happiness and present grief comes through in my poem "Black Dragon Pool," written for a dear colleague who lost her daughter to a skiing accident. The title and the trope came from my first visit to China, when I first heard the awful news. The poem was one of the hardest ones that I have ever written. It was difficult to strike a balance between sympathy and presumption. Li's words - "I have no words for my weary sorrow" - were not only expressive of my colleague's state of mourning, but also indicative of the poverty of my poem.


Open along the edge
for the movie about a gay marriage
this is also your return envelope

Friday, June 26, 2015

STEEP TEA: Leong Liew Geok

Another Singapore poet quoted in Steep Tea is Leong Liew Geok. My poem "Singapore Catechism" rings changes on an evocative phrase in her poem "Exiles Return." From her "laterite roots," I go from literal to lateral to littoral to literate to lottery to latterly to litany and back to laterite, in trying to answer the Singlish question "You go where?"

Born in Penang, Malaysia, Leong moved to Singapore in 1981. Thereafter, she published two important collections of poems, Love Is Not Enough (1991) and Women without Men (2000). The gardening poems in her second book represent a signal achievement in Singapore poetry. Alternating between lyrics and dramatic monologues, they are a sustained engagement with the cultivation of both self and environment.

Singapore Poetry is reprinting the informal sequence of poems as the first of its "Special Focus" series. An avid gardener, Leong shot photographs of her garden for the series.


A butterfly and I pass each other
my pearl anklet
its morning brush with death

Thursday, June 25, 2015


The estate cat
is stalking the ducklings—
a gymnast flexes his six pack

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

STEEP TEA: Lee Tzu Pheng

Five poems in STEEP TEA take for their epigraph a quotation of Anne Lee Tzu Pheng, who is widely considered to be the foremost woman poet of Singapore. Her "Neanderthal Bone Flute: A Discovery" meditates on the invention of art, in the form of the bone flute. "To see for the first time a thing other / than the mire of food," she wonders, and simultaneously criticizes Singapore's immigrant obsession with material wealth. My poem "Useless" imagines the first bone flautist to be a woman who discovers belatedly how long her ex-lover was sleeping with her replacement before breaking up with her.

Lee is best known for her 1976 poem "My Country and My People," which was banned from the national airwaves for reasons that are unclear, but may have something to do with the poem's ambivalence towards Singapore's nation-building project. For me, such ambivalence is a vital attitude that is sorely missing from other more straightforwardly patriotic poets. My poem "Recognition" spins changes and questions on two less well-known lines from Lee's poem: "a duck that would not lay / and a runt of a papaya tree." The figures of duck and papaya tree speak powerfully of the spiritual sterility and handicap behind Singapore's economic growth. To pay tribute to her patriotic ambivalence, my poem is written as a series of questions. Another well-known poem by Lee is "Singapore River" in which she laments the neglect of human ties and feelings in the cleaning up of the river. As she wryly observes, " the heart / can sometimes be troublesome" in the dispassionate rush to modernize. My poem "Bougainvillea" responds to hers by depicting, and questioning, the modern society that we have "achieved."

The last two poems have to do with the heart. In a more recent poem "Tough, Love," Lee speaks of the difficulty of loving "no matter how many turns / you make." The trope of turns reminded me of a childhood game "Reversi, Also Called Othello," played with pieces that are white on one side and black on the other. The short lyric plays with the idea of flipping things around, all kinds of things, including coffee mugs and photo negatives. My last quotation comes from a very early poem by Lee, from the title poem of her first book "Prospect of a Drowning." Written while she was still an undergraduate, although published only 8 years later, this first book is full of untamed passion. Her speaker wanders, lost and afraid, along the seashore, looking for "some curio of the change." It is a beautiful phrase, which I used for my poem "Hong Kong," when I turned to writing about a change, a good one, in my relationship with my lover. Hong Kong was full of curiosities for us, and we brought home a token of its effect on us. Lee Tzu Pheng has been much lauded for her poetry. Her first three volumes all won National Book Development Council of Singapore Awards. She was awarded the Cultural Medallion, the country's highest honor for an artist. In 1995 she was one of six writers from the Asia-Pacific region and one of fifty writers worldwide to be conferred the Gabriela Mistral Award by the government of Chile.

Haiku and Reading

Daylilies by the lake
a bouquet of sunsets
but not a lullaby


Last night I read at a PrideWriters event, organized by Kevin Scott Hall, to benefit New Alternatives, a non-profit working for LGBT homeless youth. The upper bar at the Duplex was filled, though not to capacity, partly because of the heavy downpour just before the reading. GH, WL and JH came. Kevin read from his memoir about taking in a homeless black man from New Orleans. Ricardo Hernandez read several poems, the best of which was a beautiful one about Rene Magritte and his mother. Kate Walter read from her memoir about going back to the dating pool after a long-term relationship broke up. James Gavin read from his biography of singer Peggy Lee, a well-crafted extract about the encounters between Lee and Madonna. Sissy Van Dyke was hilarious as she translated her comedic flair into print and read from The Adventures of Sissy Van Dyke. I read three poems from Equal to the Earth. During the reading I could feel the house becoming absolutely still. A woman paid me a huge compliment afterwards, something about weighing every word and embodying my poetry.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

STEEP TEA: Aemilia Lanyer

As far as we know, Aemilia Lanyer wrote only one book, but a big and ambitious one. Published at the age of 42, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (1611) is a Christian defense of women's virtue against interpreters such as St. Augustine. It is made up of several parts but the most interesting for me is an apology for Eve. The defense, imaginative, ranging, and vigorous, may be summed thus: Eve's fault was only too much love. This idea I took as the premise of my opening poem "Eve's Fault," in which Eve has not one but three lovers, God, the snake and Adam.

Lanyer's editor Danielle Clarke is certainly right to point out in her introduction that Lanyer's "feminism" must be carefully understood within the contexts and terms of her time. For instance, a revision of biblical tradition regarding Eve's culpability was not necessarily subversive. Lanyer was in fact very traditional in seeing the representative woman in Eve. My poem does not seek to depict Eve as a universal type so much as a "historical" mother, from whom we inherit our inclination to love too much.

Clarke reads the poem as primarily an act of Renaissance self-fashioning. To claim virtue and authorship, Lanyer had to proclaim virtue and authorship through her long poem, which includes ten dedicatory encomia, all addressed to noblewoman, beginning wth the queen. The personal impulses behind such strenuous effort may be guessed at from the few known facts about her life. Clarke: "... she was raised in the household of the Countess of Kent. She had an affair with Lord Hunsdon, the Lord Chamberlain, bore his child and was married off to a musician, Alphonso Lanyer. She clearly spent time with the aristocratic northern Clifford family (mother and daughter) at Cookham ..., but the circumstances surrounding this are unclear." Illicit love, social disgrace, unhappy marriage, desire for vindication, these are powerful forces propelling the wish to speak.

Mothers and Haiku

The Carcanet blog has published my essay "Mothers, Not Muses" on my new book Steep Tea.

Poets make the best mothers. I can pick up their books and be inspired and instructed. When I tire of them I can put them down.


In duty red trunks
the lifeguard on his high chair
zaps away the scuds

Monday, June 22, 2015

STEEP TEA: Kimura Noboku

"Born and brought up in a farming village in Ibaraki, Kimura [Nobuko b. 1936] attracted attention with poems that mix folkloric and dream elements. "A poem is born, not so much because I make one," she once said. "It's just that something spurts out of me and hurriedly presses me into writing it down." She started publishing her poems in her twenties and came up with her first book in 1971. Five books followed. Since the 1980s she had also published books of poems for children. A housewife since her marriage, she has remained independent of any poetry group."

--Hiroaki Sato in a preface to his selection of Kimura's poems in "Japanese Women Poets: An Anthology."

Hiroaki Sato stated somewhere else that while translating Kimura's poems for this anthology, he was so taken by her work that he translated and published a separate book of her poetry called "The Village Beyond."

Kimura's short poem "Mundaneness" evokes perfectly the dream-like domestic life that I was beginning then to share with my lover, the fierce desire to tear out of the solidifying substance of reality. I wrote "Broccoli" in protest against my life.

Lake Carmel and Two Movies

GH and I spent a lovely weekend with C and B at their lovely new home at Lake Carmel. C drove us to the Chuang Yen Monastery, a huge Buddhist temple complex, with a great Buddha hall and a Kuan Yin hall, and 225 acres of land. On our return to their house, we met their friends who drove from Queens for dinner. B went with GH and me on a walk around the lake. Dinner was fun, although we had to move the barbecue indoors when it started to drizzle. J had been working as a tailor since eight. His current job was for a TV series on hip hop from South Bronx. A was a currency trader whose bf G was white and worked as a loans officer for a bank.

On Sunday, B cooked a breakfast of eggs, sausages and peppers. We went for another walk around the lake, this time in the other direction. Many lovely lookouts. The day turned warm enough for a swim at the small artificial lake in front of their house. It was my first time swimming in a lake. G and I enjoyed the time away from the city. It was lovely to rest the eyes on so much greenery and water. We had not known that part of the state to be so saturated with lakes. I'm glad to re-connect with C and B after so many years, when they put up this hapless conference volunteer at their home in Forest Hills.


Last Sunday, we watched the movie Stealth (2006), written, directed and acted by Lionel Baier. He plays a Swiss man who discovers his Polish roots and becomes obsessed with being Polish. Behind the unlikely premise lies a critique of the ennui resulting from the mainstreaming of gay life and the determined neutrality of Switzerland. History, or family history, is not dead yet, and the proof can be found in Poland. Lionel the protagonist drives there with his more down-to-earth sister (Natacha Koutchoumov), who is pregnant. They find the Polish branch of the family, but more than that, they finf the adventure of living history.

Last night, the movie Beloved/Friend (1999) was also an interesting feature. Directed by the Catalan director, Ventura Pons, the movie centers on a dying gay professor who falls in love with a bi-sexual student. More than sex, Jaume the professor (Josep Maria Pou) wants David (David Selvas) to be his spiritual heir. The parallel plot involves Alba (Irene Montalà), whom David has gotten pregnant, and her mother, Fanny (Rosa Maria Sardà), who talk over whether Alba should get an abortion. In a thematic connection, the mother projects onto her daughter her own desire for her youth and her fear of dying, by encouraging Alba to abort. The last member of the fine cast is Mario Gas playing Pere, husband of Fanny, and the youthful love of Jaume. The complications play out in the course of a day. Time runs out on Jaume, as it does for all the characters in some sense.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

STEEP TEA: Mimi Khalvati

A villanelle is a tricky form to pull off. The challenge is to make the two repetends look inevitable and earned. I I wrote "Novenary with Hens" as part of the Poetry Free-for-all Apprentice Contest. The participants were given a choice of two odd titles. I had to look up the meaning of the word "novenary." Hens reminded me of the time when I was a kid and stepped on one of my chicks. It died on me and I have never had a pet since. While I was writing about this experience, two lines repeated themselves in my head: "I couldn't count to ten till I turned eleven" and "One, two, buckle my shoe, nine and a big fat hen." Surrealistic, rhyming dissonantly, they became the repetends of my poem, an elegy for the deaths of a pet and childhood innocence.

Mimi Khalvati's line "No one is there for you. Don't call, don't cry" is the perfect epigraph for the poem. Repetitively in Khalvati's own villanelle, titled simply "Villanelle," the line evokes the child's helpless loneliness acutely. In my poem, Mother is part of the cause of the death. Father is not around to fix it. The Shopgirl adds horror to the trauma. I have never forgotten this incident, and I hope the repetends fix the poem in the reader's mind too.

Mimi Khalvati is an Iranian-born British poet. She was born in Tehran and moved to the Isle of Wight for boarding school at the age of six. A feted poet, she has published many collections with Carcanet Press. Her skill with poetic forms appeals to me strongly. Her sense of not belonging can be deduced from the name "Theatre in Exile," a theater group that she co-founded and directed and wrote for. I found her "Villanelle" in the Everyman's Library edition of the poetic form, edited by Annie Finch and Marie-Elizabeth Mali. Given the closeness of our last names--Khalvati and Koh--our poems were only separated by one other poem. Close but not together. Similar but not the same.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Back Cover of STEEP TEA

I've just seen the back cover of Steep Tea. It looks mighty fine to me.  Huge thanks to Gregory Woods and David Kinloch for their recommendations.

Friday, June 12, 2015


Lambda Literary has just published my essay on Pauline Park, my friend who identifies as a Korean adoptee and a transgender woman. Thanks, William Johnson, for accepting the essay.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Pre-order STEEP TEA

"Here are short, deft narratives that map the mismatched patterns of male and female desire grounded in partial understandings of love. The author’s native Singapore sounds out sharply, often ironically, in counterpoint to the intimate domestic interiors that help to constitute what will surely be recognised as some of contemporary poetry’s classic love poems." – David Kinloch

My new Carcanet book Steep Tea is now available to pre-order at the special price of £8.00 with free UK postage and packaging. Discount code KOH03 (case sensitive) at checkout.

Friday, June 05, 2015

STEEP TEA: Yasmeen Hameed

Every Singapore poet has an airplane poem, my friend and writer, Ruihe Zhang once said to me. It's an observation that stuck in the mind. Yes, Singaporeans love to travel out of their tiny island-state, and the quickest way to go abroad and back is to take the airplane. I wanted to write an airplane poem too, but for a long time did not know what it would be about.

Then I discovered the poems of Urdu poet Yasmeen Hameed in MODERN POETRY OF PAKISTAN, an anthology edited by Iftikhar Arif and Waqas Khwaja. Yasmeen's voice, quiet as the night, was utterly compelling. I felt strongly that the voice, like Cavafy's, was not lost through translation into English. The poems in the anthology are concerned with the appearance and disappearance of things, often evoked through the tropes of sleeping and waking. The powerful poem "Who Will Write the Epitaph?" imagines the loss of all "the earth-born." The tone is not melodramatically apocalyptic but poignantly elegiac.

The self-questioning in the poems is also immensely attractive. "I Am Still Awake" begins with lines that speak in the tone of near-disbelief:

I am still awake
like my eyes
and speak
in my own voice
my own dialect

Then the speaker explains why the self-alienation: "I have only now become acquainted with the meaning of migration." And it hit me that my airplane poem is about the difference between travel and migration. As Yasmeen puts it so eloquently, "When, sometimes, snow knocks a hole in the wall of night / I fill the hole with my body." Migration opens up a hole in one's life that migrants try to fill with all kinds of things, including a poem such as my "Airplane Poems." The attempt is futile, of course, but the gap is productive.

Yasmeen Hamid has published five books of poems in Urdu, and received several prizes for her work, including the Allama Iqbal Award, the Fatima Jinnah Medal and the Tamgha-i-Imtiaz (Medal of Excellence). She is also a translator and anthologist. Her PAKISTANI URDU VERSE was published in 2010 and DAYBREAK: WRITINGS ON FAIZ in 2013, both by OUP. She teaches Urdu Literature at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

STEEP TEA: Sarah Josepha Hale

Do you know who wrote "Mary Had a Little Lamb"? She's Sarah Josepha Hale, a remarkable New England woman who lived from 1788 to 1879. The nursery rhyme, originally titled "Mary's Lamb," appeared in her book Poems for Our Children. Before that book, she had published a collection of adult verse, titled confidently The Genius of Oblivion. She was one of the earliest American women novelists, publishing her anti-slavery, pro-union novel called Northwood: Life North and South in 1827. By the end of her life, she had written nearly 50 books, while bringing up five children and editing a national women's journal. As the editor of, first, the Ladies' Magazine, and, then, Godey's Ladies' Book, she was an influential arbiter of the nation's taste and a powerful advocate for change. Though she did not support the vote for women, she believed fervently in equal education for them. She helped found Vassar College. Her 17 articles and editorials about women's education prepared the nation for the establishment of a women's college.

Her passion for women's education lends a vital context to my poem "Paragraph" written about teaching in an all-girls, K-12 school in Manhattan. The poem describes one of my favorite lessons at the start of the sixth-grade Language course, which is, despite its name, not about French, Spanish or Chinese, but grammar. In that lesson, I ask the students to write a paragraph describing their favorite word. This assignment is not only pleasurable but also revealing, of their temperament, interests and language ability. To help them get started, I would reel off a paragraph about my favorite word off the top of my head. The students are usually lovely enough to be impressed. "Paragraph" is not, however, about what a teacher can do; rather, it is about what a teacher cannot do. One is the flip side of the other.

Young Eliot and Haiku

Robert Crawford's Young Eliot makes very good use of recently released materials, including letters by Eliot and by others to him, to show the vital importance of his growing-up years in St. Louis and Cape Ann to his poetry, not just his Unitarian and privileged upbringing, but also his social shyness and sexual self-doubt. Crawford is probably right that Eliot wrote his best poetry when he was in crisis, whether sexual or health-wise. The rest of the time he was too busy being the responsible machine to his wife, family, bank job and literary journalism. This part of his life is almost unbearable to read, the steeling of the self against tremendous pressures. He and Vivienne should never have gotten married, but if they did not, he would have gone back from Oxford to America and become a philosophy professor, not a poet. She believed in his poetic genius, and that must count for a very great deal. I learned a great deal from this conscientious biography. The style is unnecessarily convoluted in places.


for your buttonhole
a summer flower called

Tuesday, June 02, 2015


Exchanged Facebook messages with John Clegg, with whom I will read at the London Review Bookshop on July 7. When he mentioned my "Translations of an Unknown Mexican Poet" and his PhD in pseudo-translations, he gave me the idea of treating my haiku as pseudo-translations of an insignificant Japanese poet.


the rain knows
only one way to behave
not the pin oak

Monday, June 01, 2015

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Hike and Haiku

GH, WL, CC and I went to Cold Spring yesterday. We walked around the West Point Foundry Park, which was less a hike than a stroll. Some pretty views of the stream and the ruins of the red-bricked company building. We ate lunch at the viewing deck overlooking a pond covered with green scum. Wanting to hike more, we walked into the park opposite the Breakneck Ridge hike, and found a local beach. The water of the Hudson was clean enough up here for swimming. Then we hiked the White route below Breakneck but couldn't find the Yellow trail to lead us back to town, and so we back trekked and reached la Bouchon in time for our early dinner reservation.


as green as hot
through the taconic range
or was it bukit timah

Friday, May 29, 2015

STEEP TEA: Jorie Graham

GH started an Easter tradition: host brunch for a group of friends and then go for a walk in Central Park. These walks encourage intimacies. On the very first walk, which is the substance of my poem "Easter," two friends shared personal stories of an isolated childhood and a health problem. The stories became emblematic in my mind of the dying body, which will not be resurrected, unlike Jesus'. Threaded through these stories in my poem is a strong unease that came from the early days of living with GH. It's hard to join two separate lives into one. The surreal feeling of that attempt informs the strange atmosphere of the poem. I was writing differently.

The epigraph - "your body an arrival / you know is false but can't outrun" - is taken from the poem " "The Geese" by Jorie Graham. In the poem she compares the goal-directed movement of migrating geese to the texture-thickening work of spiders. She concludes that we live in between the geese and the spiders. When Graham achieves the right blend between philosophy and imagery, as she does in this poem, she is marvelous. Her poem is consolatory, finally. Mine refuses the consolation of the everyday in order to walk the tightrope of the body.


a soap bubble
splits the sun
by the black walnut

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Wednesday, May 27, 2015


late spring
the white flowers can barely lift
their heads from the dust

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

STEEP TEA: Mary di Michele

I am not the first, nor will I be the last to write poems in response to another writer's work. As Elaine Scarry wrote, beauty begets beauty. I don't know if my poems may be described as beautiful, but they are begotten by beauty. My poem "In Death As In Life" was written after Mary di Michele's translation of a poem by Pier Paolo Pasolini, that great Italian poet and filmmaker. Pasolini's poem speculates about the day of his death, how he would die and where, "in some city, Trieste or Udine," in di Michele's translation. The poem inspired me to make an important decision about my final resting place after living a migrant's life. I wanted to put on record the place to scatter my ashes.

Di Michele has a special link to Pasolini as she explained in her book of response poems THE FLOWERS OF YOUTH. After reading the book, I wrote this review on my blog:

You read up on a great writer and director, what he wrote and what others wrote about him. You find affinities in thought and temperament, though you live in different times and places. You fly to Italy for an academic conference and make the pilgrimage to the writer's grave at Casarsa. There, sitting on a bench shaded by cypress, weeping for a man you have never met, you hear a voice whispering to you in Italian, which you don't know how to write, but find yourself transcribing. Translated into English, the voice said,

I leave the city and discover the sky,
The world is bigger than I realized,
Where there's nobody the stars are myriad.

That was what happened to Mary di Michele, according to her book's prologue, and what inspired her to write The Flower of Youth. The title is the same as that of the volume of verse Pier Paolo Pasolini wrote in dialect about his coming of age in the countryside during World War II. The verse that di Michele heard at Pasolini's grave speaks of the affinities that she found in the Italian writer. The usual migration goes from the country to the city in the search of a bigger world. di Michelle and Pasolini, however, found their world enlarged by leaving the city for the countryside. In her case, that journey is also a return, a homecoming, from Canada to Italy. Born in Lanciano, Italy, in 1949, she moved with her family to Toronto when she was six.

The Flower of Youth is organized in four parts. The Prologue narrates in verse and prose di Michele's journey to Pasolini's grave. Part II "Impure Acts," the bulk of the book, speaks in the voice of Pasolini about the struggle between his sexuality and his faith. Instead of fighting in the war, he followed his mother into the countryside to set up a school for boys too young to be conscripted. di Michelle's poems take off from his own memoir about that period of sexual awakening. In Part III "After Pasolini," she translates the two very different versions of the poem that Pasolini wrote about his death, and she adds what she calls a permutation, a poem of her own about the reported circumstances of his death that deploys motifs from his poems. Part IV the epilogue explains the structure of di Michele's book.

The poems in Part II reproduce what di Michele discovered to her surprise when she read Pasolini's memoir. The World War is sidelined in favor of the internal battle. The bombs keep falling, but the real devastations are those of the heart and its desires. Most of the poems are written in quatrains with the last line of each quatrain shorter than the rest and indented. This stanzaic form proves to be admirably malleable and musical in di Michele's hands. The opening stanza of "Postscript(s)" introduces gently yet pointedly Pasolini's story in di Michelle's chosen form:

The fall of '47 I was 25 and still living
in Viluta. What made me stay so long?
What made me linger in that nothing place,
xxxxxxxxxxxthat hamlet of ten houses?

The enjambment after "living" subtly reminds us of the casualties of war. The repetition of "What made me" fills out the entire length of the third line and the next, which also contracts to round up the small hamlet. di Michelle is also fond of breaking a line between an adjective and its noun. That device works well in many instances to maintain narrative momentum, but may seem arbitrary in some places.

The sentiments traced in these poems are not extraordinary, but they are delicate. Sexual rendezvous takes place in discreet fields and secret woods, to which the reader's eyes are not privy, though enticed. In a few places, the plain language descends into conventionality, as when de Michele's Pasolini complains of a boy that "He erected invisible walls/ against me" ("Spring Far Behind"). The same poem, however, quickens in the end when Pasolini dreams of lying with him again in "a familiar bed," which for them is "some ditch fragrant with primrose." The invisible walls are unreal, a mere idea, but the ditch smelling of primrose brings the country and the sex to the nose.

In like manner the best poems of the book bring to life the physical environment in which the drama of love not only takes place but finds its embodiment. In "Hidden Corners/The Earth Moves," spring has returned and so has B. naked to the waist. He leads Pasolini into the woods, where

The dew had dried but the stones, gravel
from the river bank, still glistened; in the grove
where we lay together the Earth trembled
xxxxxxxxxxxxxwith the passing trains.

The trains unexpectedly and perfectly convey the temporary vibrations of the encounter. In "A Thousand Birds," it's summer and the boys go back to swimming naked at the pit, their playful cries harmonizing with birdsong. Sitting by the pit, distracted from his Tasso and Tommaseo, di Michele's Pasolini is keenly aware of his envy "for those meadows where B. stepped/ shoeless into the long grass." The mixture of the sacred ("shoeless") and the sensual ("the long grass") is captured vividly in a memorable image. With such images the book convinces us that the country is more bountiful than the city.

The Clark, Stonybrook and Haiku

Visited T and D on Memorial Day weekend. On Saturday we drove more than two hours to the Clark Museum, newly redesigned by Pritzker Prize-winning architect, Tadao Ando. GH and I liked the Lunder Center at Stone Hill more than the main museum itself. The Center had a pure and simple form. The museum was cluttered with too many pools and differently colored walls. Great small collection of art, especially portraits by Renoir, Gainsborough, Delacroix, and Théodore Géricault. Also Piero della Francesca's "Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels" and William-Adolphe Bouguereau's "Nymphs and Satyr." George Innes's atmospheric landscapes were very beautiful.

On Friday night we watched a documentary on the La Sagrada Familia, but I was too tired and fell asleep for most of it. On Saturday night, we watched François Ozon's Time to Leave (2005), about a young gay fashion photographer who learns that he has only three months to live. He pushes away his sister and his lover cruelly, and confides only in his grandmother. The film ends with him agreeing to have sex with a waitress and her husband so that they can have a baby. Survival of a sort.

On Sunday, we moved to stay with DM at his home in Stonybrook, Long Island. Had dinner, sang karaoke and watched two episodes of Sex and the City, including the one on threesomes. The next day, Memorial Day itself, we spent on Fire Island. It was chilly in the morning but very quickly heated up. DM drove us back from Sayville to Ronkonkoma Station, where we took a train to Penn Station. DM was very amiable company.

At home, GH and I watched Mark Thiedeman's Last Summer (2013), about two Arkansas boys about to separate because the smart one is getting out of town to go to college whereas the dumb one will remain stuck in their small town. Ravishingly cinematography. The unspoken and the unseen became utterly eloquent. The most erotic scene shows only their caressing shoes while they lie in bed together. Samuel Pettit plays Luke who remains, and Sean Rose plays Luke who leaves.

We also enjoyed Four Moons (2014) directed by the young Mexican filmmaker Sergio Tovar Velarde. imdb: "Four stories about love and self-acceptance: An eleven year-old boy struggles to keep secret the attraction he feels towards his male cousin. Two former childhood friends reunite and start a relationship that gets complicated due to one of them's fear of getting caught. A gay long lasting relationship is in jeopardy when a third man comes along. An old family man is obsessed with a young male prostitute and tries to raise the money to afford the experience." The many phases of a gay man's life.


silken orchids
cut from the spring rain
by bandage scissors

Friday, May 22, 2015

Monkey Business and Haiku

The panel on Haruki Murakami at the Japan Society was related to the journal Monkey Business as editors and writers. Intent on introducing new Japanese writing to an English-reading audience, Motoyuki Shibata and Ted Goossen founded the English-version of the annual journal in 2011. Volume 01 has a long interview of Murakami by the younger novelist Hideo Furukawa. The interview spans the course of Murakami's career. The chief impression is of a steady worker who keeps himself healthy to continue writing more and more ambitious books. 

I particularly like the collection of vignettes by Hiromi Kawakami called "People from My Neighborhood." Atsushi Nakajima's short story "Sandy's Lament" brings the characters from Journey to the West to life. "The Tale of the House of Physics" by Yoko Ogawa, about a retired editor who remembers his first book, is delicate and moving. 


the bald cypress
will lose its leaves in winter
its fern-like leaves

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Coin of the Realm and Haiku

After reading Carl Phillips' collection of essays, Coin of the Realm, I see more clearly what draws me to his poetry. His poems aim at seduction of the reader, through beauty that comes from authority that, in turn, comes, from athletic thinking. There are fine essays here on individual poets, such as George Herbert and T. S. Eliot, and on individual poems, such as George Oppen's "Psalm," Gwendolyn Brooks's "A light and diplomatic bird," and Sylvia Plath's "Winter Trees." There is also a long substantial essay on the Psalms. These essays give a strong sense of the poetic qualities that Phillips value: besides beauty, a prayerful attitude akin to desire in its openness; an exquisite control.

Fine as these essays are, I prefer the essays on poetics, which are illustrated by a wealth of examples from a wide range of poets. In defending the use of association in poetry, Phillips also points out its limits, of final clarity and ultimate pattern. His examination of what makes a prose poem is judicious and thoughtful, in the course of which he throws out this gem:

... the lyric poem is a torso. Without the extremities of arms, legs, head, the torso has to serve as representative of all that's missing, has to resonate in the manner of Rilke's archaic torso of Apollo. 

In the essay "Abstraction on Parnassus: American Poetry of the 1950s" he looks at the poetry of Ginsberg, Levertov, Creeley, Orson, Berryman and O'Hara to show how the post-war Americans wrote on the assumption that content determined form. It is clear that Phillips sees himself in the same American lineage.

Most valuable to me is his essay "Boon and Burden: Identity in Contemporary American Poetry." He begins the essay by describing how his class responds to a poem by Langston Hughes called "Island." Before he reveals the name of the poet, the class dwells on its "existential" meaning. After he tells them that the poem is by Hughes, the class becomes certain that the sea voyage in the poem is a veiled reference to Middle Passage. When Phillips adduces the fact that Hughes was gay, the inability to reach the island becomes, for the class, a metaphor for socially enforced isolation. Phillips thus shows how poetic identity can narrow the interpretation of a poem. He is against such narrowing.

I also enjoyed his coming-out essay "Sea Level." His interview, however, I find evasive. The two essays on books and reading do not give anything very new.


i tear the lid slowly
off the can of soup for lunch--
the mounted cop squeezes his thighs

Tuesday, May 19, 2015


I wrote "Talking to Koon Meng Who Called Himself Christopher" in response to a challenge during the Poetry Free-for-all Apprentice Contest. The challenge was to write a poem using dialogue. I still remember vividly a conversation with a student when I was teaching in Chua Chu Kang Secondary School in Singapore. Koon Meng was in the Normal Technical stream (a vocational track). Once a student was placed in a stream, it was nearly impossible for him to transfer to a better one. Koon Meng's lament to me reminded me of Caliban's words to Prospero, which go something like, you taught me to speak and my only profit on it is to learn how to curse. It was clear to me that Koon Meng was bright; the stumbling block was the compulsory study of the English language, for which his home did not prepare him.

The poem tries to dramatize the fraught issue of English in Singapore by having Koon Meng speak in Singlish and the teacher-speaker in standard English. This difference was true to life, but also thematically significant. Singlish is still seen in some quarters as incorrect or inferior, but in Koon Meng's mouth, it is a lively and idiomatic patois. The poem does not rest, however, upon a simplistic division between native adaptation and colonial imposition, for Koon Meng wants to get on in life and love, and to do so he must "improve" his English. He adopts a Christian name "Christopher" for it sounds more cool. So the poem displays, I hope, not a false dichotomy, but a spectrum of imperfect adaptations of Singapore's colonial heritage, its economic and social advantages, but also its personal and cultural drawbacks. The poem speaks of ambivalence.

I learned of Cai Yan (T'sai Yen) while reading A BOOK OF WOMEN POETS: FROM ANTIQUITY TO NOW, edited by Aliki Barnstone and Willis Barnstone. The irony of discovering this long-ago Chinese woman poet in an anthology edited by a pair of contemporary American editors was not lost on me. Cai Yan was no stranger to cultural dislocation. She was already a widow when she was captured by the Huns during a raid on the Chinese capital. Taken north to a harsh and alien land, she became a concubine to a Hun chief and bore him two sons. 12 years later, she was ransomed by the Chinese. Her great joy at returning home was mixed with great sorrow over leaving her young sons.

The daughter of a famous scholar and poet, Cai Yan was an accomplished poet herself. Only two poems survive from the destruction that raged throughout Chinese history. Another poem, the most famous, is of uncertain attribution. This is "18 Verses to a Tartar Reed Whistle" (as translated by Kenneth Rexroth and Ling Chung, in the Barnstones anthology), otherwise known as "Eighteen Songs of a Nomad Flute." In the poem, Cai Yan speaks with raw emotion and telling detail about the anguish of being separated from one's home, and, then, being separated from one's children. The poem is also appealing in its self-reflexiveness. Each verse, or song, ends with a reference to the poet as a singer, her musical instruments and the emotion that the verse aims to evoke. For instance, the second verse ends:

As I sing the second stanza I almost break the lutestrings.
Will broken, heart broken, I sing to myself. 

The parallelism of Chinese verse reinforces the identification of the will and heart with the lute, and springs the sting - "I sing to myself" - at the end. 

For the epigraph to my poem, I took the self-reflexive reference that concludes the first verse: "I sing one stanza to my lute and a Tatar horn." The lute here is technically the zither. The Tartar horn is a reed pipe known for its plaintive sound. Cai Yan was a singer with two very different instruments, a poet of two mutually hostile cultures. I hope some sense of that is carried over into my poem, which orchestrates its Singlish in iambic pentameter.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Other Love Songs and Haiku

The Cheah Chin Duo presented a concert of love songs yesterday afternoon at the Church of Saint Luke in the Fields. Trudy Chan and Conrad Chu were on the piano, with soprano Kathleen Cantrell, mezzo-soprano Catherine Hedberg, tenor Dennis Tobenski and bass Phillip Cheah. They presented Brahms's Liebeslieder, Op. 52, and Neue Liebeslieder, Op. 65, and John Corigliano's Gazebo Dances (1972) (Waltz and Tarantella) and Liebeslied (1996). Also influenced by Brahms was the middle set of art songs by American pianist and composer Stephen Hough. Other Love Songs (2010) set to music poems and texts by Claude McKay, Julian of Norwich, Langston Hughes, Laurence Hope, A. E. Housman and the Gospel of John. I especially liked the musical setting of Housman's poignant poem "Because I liked you better."

Because I liked you better
Than suits a man to say,
It irked you, and I promised
To throw the thought away.

To put the world between us
We parted, stiff and dry;
'Good-bye,' said you, 'forget me.'
'I will, no fear,' said I.

If here, where clover whitens
The dead man's knoll, you pass,
And no tall flower to meet you
Starts in the trefoiled grass,

Halt by the headstone naming
The heart no longer stirred,
And say the lad that loved you
Was one that kept his word.


an owl's calling
wakes up a late spring morning
to wit, who who who

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Chelsea, Disturbing the Universe, and Haiku

The weather forecast forced us to cancel a hike, so GH and I went round the Chelsea galleries instead yesterday. We both loved Erin Shirreff's show of Arm's Length at Sikkema Jenkins & Co.. Relief consisted of photographs of "handmade sculptural maquettes and assembled composite images." I loved Drop (no. 12) and Drop (no. 13), "hand-cut paper scraps [that] are translated into large sheets of hot-rolled, cold-rolled or Cor-ten steel, and hang in simple layered arrangements on steel rods. Also absorbing were the four new sculptures titled Catalogue (Object Lesson). They are composed of "shaped blocks of graphite-pigmented plaster balanced atop one another and along and underneath flat plants." The large-scale cyanotype photograms showed geometric forms and arrangements that echoed other works in the show. Born in BC, Canada, Shirreff now lives and works in NYC.

We also liked British painter Chantal Joffe's Night Self-Portraits at Cheim & Read. The women in the portraits were not conventionally beautiful, but their awkwardness and lack of proportion compelled attention. The coloring of chairs and fabrics reminded me of Matisse. Figure Ground, at Lennon, Weinberg, Inc., revisited a show that the gallery put up when it was in Soho 20 years ago. The current exhibition grouped together color lithographs, a charcoal-on-paper work, and a painting by Joan Mitchell, Willem de Kooning's lithographs, and Raoul Hogue's wood sculptures for an interesting meditation on the relationship of figure to ground. Over at Lori Bookstein, Henry Rothman's collages, using found scraps, displayed a keen eye for pleasing juxtaposition of colors, shapes and edges. GH liked Robert Motherwell's Opens paintings at Andrea Rosen Gallery, but I thought they did not give enough to the eye or mind.


On hearing that I am working on a book of essays, WL lent me Freeman Dyson's Disturbing the Universe.  He was a professor of physics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. "Born in England," the biographical note continues, " he came over to Cornell University in 1947 as a Commonwealth Fellow and settled permanently in the U.S. in 1951." A summary of his career, the next paragraph also indicates the topics of his essays: "Professor Dyson is not only a theoretical physicist; his career has spanned a large variety of practical concerns. His is a unique career inspired by direct involvement with the most pressing concerns of human life, minimizing loss of life in war, to disarmament, to thought experiments on the expansion of our frontiers into the galaxies."

From his essays, it is clear that Dyson is that rare thing, a man deeply passionate about both science and literature. His essays make reference to Goethe's Faust, Auden and Isherwood's The Ascent of F6, H. G. Wells's The Island of Doctor Moreau, John Milton's great defense of press freedom Areopagitica. The title of the book comes from T. S. Eliot's poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." The first essay "The Magic City," my favorite of the book, is a meditation on the frightening pertinence of  Edith Nesbit's children's story of the same name to the abuse of science in our contemporary world. Dyson himself is a very good writer, lucid and graceful.

The force of the writing comes not only from style, however, but also from the moral discrimination that Dyson wields in confronting his life and the world's problems. He blamed himself for not taking any action though he knew as a civilian statistician in Research Division that the Allies' strategic bombing of German cities in the last years of WWII was not only unconscionable but also ineffective and lethal only to the lives of RAF pilots. He made the interesting argument that it was the Americans' success at firebombing Tokyo that paved the way to the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima. Having built up a Strategic Bombing Command at great cost, the Allies were almost bound to use it.

In another fine essay, "The Blood of a Poet," Dyson paid a heartfelt tribute to his Winchester schoolfriend Frank Thompson whose intelligence and liveliness marked him out as a leader of men. He was a poet too. He joined the Communist Party and enlisted in the war from the start in 1939. While playing the dangerous role of the Allies' liaison with Bulgarian partisans, he was captured and executed by the Fascists, but not before giving his audience their common sign of liberty, a salute with a clenched fist, and thus inspiring the men captured with him to do the same and march to their deaths with heads held high.

The other portraits in this book are of his fellow physicists at Cornell and Princeton. Dick Feynman and his intuitions. His opposite, Julian Schwinger and his mathematical equations. The mercurial arrogance of Robert Oppenheimer. The humanity of Hans Bethe. Dyson contrasts the egotism of the physicists with the cooperative spirit of the engineers. He also astutely observes how all the Los Alamos alumni spoke nostalgically of the A-bomb project as a time of thrilling camaraderie. He is clear about the constant temptation facing scientists of treating all questions, even those with vast moral consequences, as merely technical questions. He humanizes the public perception of Edward Teller, who spoke against Oppenheimer at the latter's security hearings. The scientists, all intellectual giants, are shown to be human and fallible. The portraits, however, are not malicious. They are suffused with affection and admiration. Dyson is not therefore blind to faults.

The last section of the book, which takes up the subjects of space exploration and extra-terrestrials, is less interesting to me than the two earlier sections, "England" and "America." Someone of a more speculative cast of mind will enjoy these essays. When Dyson shades into mysticism in the last essay, finding a Mind behind the mind at work in making quantum observations, and the mind beyond brain cells and synapses, he loses me.


braving mid-may green
moving beds of flowers
aids walkers of new york

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Stephanie Blythe and Haiku

Heard Stephanie Blythe, mezzo-soprano, with LW at Carnegie Hall. The last time I heard her, she was singing Fricka, Wotan's wife, at the Met Opera. Last night's program was very different, a night of French mélodie and chansons, and English cabaret numbers. The moment she walked on stage, even before singing a note, the audience gave her a round of warm applause. She thanked us and said that everyone should have the same experience as she just had.

Then she launched into Francis Poulenc's Poèmes de Ronsard (1924-1925). I enjoyed the art songs, or mélodie, but liked the next set even more. It comprises Léo Ferré's "La vie antérieure" (1957) and "L'invitation au voyage" (1957), both based on poems by Baudelaire. According to the concert program note, Ferré (1916-1993) set out to challenge the distinction between mélodie and his chansons (lyric-driven French songs). I especially loved Blythe's magical rendering of "La vie antérieure." It was the best thing of the evening.

After Ferré, we heard three songs by Jacques Brel (1929-1978). "Les pieds dans le ruisseau," about a boy daydreaming by the river, was enchanting in its innocence. "Ne me quitte pas," a series of pleas to a lover not to leave, each one more self-abasing than the one before, was sung with much feeling. The next song "Amsterdam" was completely different. Blythe rendered the song about the sailors of Amsterdam and their eating and drinking and whoring with requisite gusto and appetite.

 The English came on after the intermission. The difference in national temperament between the French and the English was never brought home to me so forcefully as last night. Benjamin Britten's Cabaret Songs and Noël Coward's songs from his operettas and shows are witty, ironic, and sentimental. They don't begin to touch the depths of even the French chansons. Cabaret Songs (1937-1939) comprise "Calypso," "Johnny," "Tell Me the Truth About Love," and "Funeral Blues." The last two are based on Auden's poems. From Coward, Blythe sang "Zigeuner" from Bitter-Sweet (1929), "Nina" from Sigh No More (1945), "Mad About the Boy" from Words and Music (1932), "Mrs Worthington" (1934) and, to cap a beautiful evening, "The Party's Over Now" from Words and Music. She did oblige, however, with three encores. For the last one, she got us to join her in singing Irving Belin's "Always" (1925), which he wrote as a wedding gift to his wife.

Blythe was accompanied on the piano by Warren Jones. Before each set, they recited the English translations of the lyrics. Blythe was a good reader of poetry too.


in the yiddish songs
on public radio
i hear my father's hymns

Friday, May 15, 2015

STEEP TEA: Diana Bridge

I have made two visits to China so far, in 2010 and 2012. On both trips, I was chaperoning a group of students on their travel-study program. As a chaperone, I was supposed to be the responsible adult when what I wished to be was the irresponsible student. We saw a lot of temples, the most impressive, to me, being the Temple of Heaven in Beijing. I did not know how to write about what I saw, until I read ALOE AND OTHER POEMS by the New Zealand poet Diana Bridge. I bought the book after reading her lovely poems on trees in PN Review.

After reading ALOE, I wrote this response in my blog:

"Bridge is a poet of seeing. A scholar of Chinese culture and Indian art, she writes her finest and most ambitious poems by viewing and reflecting on ancient artifacts. Her poems are about Chinese vases, Japanese prints and Indian temples. Her descriptive powers are considerable, and her meditations never uninteresting. "Sequence, Sarnath" in the early part of the book is even stronger than the concluding sequence "Temple," perhaps because the earlier poem focuses on a specific temple instead of allegorizing explicitly a ritual of worship.

In the Sarnath sequence, Bridge first sees the statue of a seated Buddha by turning a corner, then measures the real distance to the base of the statue. In the second section, she contrasts her companion who likes to theorize and herself, who is "simply addicted to looking." Looking at Gupta sculpture, the third section considers the postmodernist dictum that "to look is never/ neutral" and then observes that the circle of stone closest to the head of the sculpture is completely free of ornamentation, "a plainness which stands in for silence." The final section is transformative. Changed herself, the speaker takes the sky for the stupa and grasps, without grasping, that all is changing: 

You think you're getting closer to it, to what is real--the re-
arrangements of your mind like leaves adjusting to the light.

If some poems in this book follow a predictable order of description first, reflection next, at her best Bridge fuses observation and meaning into a whole of looking and thinking."

The way she measures the real distance to the base of the statue speaks of the respectful restraint in her poetry. In my poem "Temple Art" I turned that restraint into something quite different, the inability to consummate an overpowering desire. By comparing a scorpion tattoo on a muscled back to the stone lions guarding a temple, I tried to give voice to a strong but delicate sense of sexual frustration.

The poem is dedicated to Katherine H. who was my co-chaperone on the first China trip, and who taught me to relish China's many delights.


Two men love the trees in Central Park so much that they have made a map. They spent two and a half years of their lives and $40 000 of their savings to produce the two-sided, waterproof, 36-by-26 inch map called “Central Park Entire: The Definitive Illustrated Folding Map.” 19 993 trees from 174 species are captured in detail.

overcast morning
i pay my debts to the park
by drawing up a calendar


at the end of may
the smell of new books
for summer reading

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

STEEP TEA: Rachael Briggs

I first met Rachael Briggs on-line, over at the internet poetry workshop Poetry Free-for-all. I have been a workshop member for years, even before I moved to the States in 2003. When Rachael found us and started posting her poems for critique, I was drawn to her voice (witty, interrogative, unafraid) and her artful ways with poetic forms. Once PFFA opened its Collaboration Ark, she and I decided to enter Howard's ship and write a renga (Japanese linked form) together.

At that time, having moved from upstate NY, she was living in Australia, and so was leading an expatriate life, as I was, and still am, in NYC. She loved the natural environment down under, and many exotic animals, birds and plants soon found their way into her poetry. We thought we could carry our antipodean seasonal references into the renga, and thus convey the enormous distance that was covered by our collaboration. The renga "Steep Tea" has become the title poem of my new book. We enjoyed writing it so much that we wrote another one.

We met in person twice, both times in NYC. The first time, she met two of my colleagues and delighted them with her intellectual liveliness. She and I read together at the Jojomukti Tea Lounge. She turned in a performance honed by experience in the Brisbane poetry scene. By then she had published her award-winning book of poetry FREE LOGIC. The second time, she stayed with me. I remember that visit chiefly for a memorable breakfast at Barney Greengrass, where Rachael ate her bagel and cream cheese with evident relish. We bonded over talk about poetry and love.

I hear she is moving back to the States. It'd be lovely to resume our conversation.

Rocket and Lightship and Haiku

Adam Kirsch discusses both ideas and literature in this enjoyable collection of essays. The first two essays examine the life of Charles Darwin and his legacy on the study of the arts, in particular, literature. The next two essays are on the end of history, seen in very different ways by Francis Fukuyama and a trio of European novelists, Houellebecq, Sebald and McEwan. Kirsch explains in an essay Hannah Arendt's antipathy toward the Jewish community. In the case of Walter Benjamin, he highlights how reading is for the German writer always a matter of interpretation. Kirsch is especially good on the multifarious ways in which a writer's Jewish identity may inflect his or her writing. The masterpiece in this mode is his essay on Susan Sontag.

If the first part of the collection examines the impact of ideas on literature, the second looks at the reverse, how literature may shape and present ideas in its own fashion. Kirsch is a very astute critic of fiction. He argues, quite convincingly to my mind, that E. M. Forster did not stop writing novels solely because he was tired of composing heterosexual romances. Forster felt the falsity of his rentier status too. In another essay, Kirsch traces sympathetically Cynthia Ozick's agon with Henry James. The essay on Bellow focuses on what Kirsch calls his "turbulence," imaged forth by the clatter of sewing machines all going at once in a garment workshop. Bellow is great because of his vitalism. There are many virtues in these essays, but the most important one, I think, is the supposition, which is also a hypothesis, that literature is an autonomous value. It cannot, finally, be explained and reduced to ideas. There is always something left over.


newspaper critics
get the best seats in the house
starling in hawthorn

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Village Voice Reading and Haiku

Joshua Mehigan curated a selection of poetry for The Village Voices. Many of the contributors read last night at the KGB Bar. John Marcus Powell read his remarkable poem about running into Quentin Crisp on the bus in New York, and another poem about another encounter. There was a woman who read some lovely odes to ordinary things, in imitation of Neruda. After the reading, Adam Kirsch signed my copy of his book Rocket and Lightship, which I had been reading avidly since Sunday.


spring evening
the pink flower has no smell
till it's crushed

Monday, May 11, 2015

Sunday, May 10, 2015


street lamps lighting up
the spring evening mist
a woman's hair in curlers

Saturday, May 09, 2015


the spring grass
has a new haircut
and an ancient smell

does grass sweat
when it is cut in the spring?
the smell says yes

Friday, May 08, 2015

STEEP TEA: Elizabeth Bishop

What to say about Elizabeth Bishop that has not already been said? What I find most valuable in Bishop is her strangeness, in poems such as "The Man-Moth," "First Death in Nova Scotia" and "Sestina." These poems are strange, it seems to me, because they retain a childlike innocence that all of us lose by growing up. Even the famous observational powers have something of childish wonder in them, as if the world is seen by a precocious child.

I wrote several poems in response to her work, but in the end only two made it into my book STEEP TEA. My poem "The Clocks" tries for Bishop's tone of astonishment. In her early poem "Paris 7 A.M.," the child-speaker makes "a trip to each clock in the apartment." It is so characteristic of her to describe her movements inside the confined space as trips. More, she has to check whether every clock in the apartment tells the same time, as if half-expecting some discrepancy, some fissure in time. This idea inspired my recall in my poem of a trip to Changi airport in Singapore, when I stood before the wall of world clocks, "all different and all right."

Her poems chart a love of travel, but also a skepticism about its value. Most potently, in "Questions of Travel," she asks, "Think of the long trip home. / Should we have stayed at home and think of here?" My poem "Kinder Feelings" is my personal reply to her question. When I first arrived in the States, I took the airport bus to Grand Central Terminal, where I would catch a train to Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville. I still remember my intense excitement standing in the middle of the grand hall, pushed here and there by the peak-hour commuter rush. I was where I longed to be, but, as Bishop knew, the moment of arrival is always backward-looking too. My poem ends with the patently naive attempt to find Singapore in the train timetables. Strangeness. Wonder is a bottomless well.

The Magical Art and Haiku

Last night WL and I attended the talk "The Magical Art of Translation: From Murakami to Japan's Latest Storytellers" at Japan Society. American translators Jay Rubin and Ted Goosen spoke about their personal encounters with Murakami. Motoyuki Shibata, the eminent translator of American literature into Japanese, gave the most interesting talk. He told the audience that Murakami wrote the earliest passage of his first novel in English, in order to try to get away from the decorum and burden of past literature. In this, he had a predecessor in a late nineteenth-century writer, who wrote the second part of his book in Russian, for the same reason. Aoko Matsuda, a young novelist, grew up with Murakami the classic at school. Satoshi Kitamura, a children's book illustrator based in London, showed slides of his very beautiful work, illustrations of poems by Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, Charles Simic, Edgar Allen Poe, amongst others. I am very glad to discover Monkey Business, the only journal featuring translations of contemporary Japanese literature in English. The journal, founded by Motoyuki Shibata and Ted Goosen, has just published its fifth annual edition.

the venerable translator
cannot explain murakami's appeal
welcomed as a check in the mail

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Sergio Ramirez

Went to the Americas Society last night to hear Sergio Ramirez, the great Nicaraguan writer, and Nick Caistor, the translator of his masterpiece Divine Punishment. The novel concerns a trial in Nicaragua in the 1930s when a man was charged with the murder of two high society women and his employer. Ramirez read the opening of his novel, about a pack of stray dogs, and the poison that people want to buy to kill them, like a lawyer, careful and emotionless. Later he revealed that he was trained to be a lawyer, although he never practiced.

Born to a merchant father and a headmistress mother, Ramirez grew up in a small town by the Pacific Coast. He was the first in the family to go to the University at Leon, to be trained for a profession. At college, he became involved in politics, quite against his will, for his mind was set on writing. He presented his first book of short stories to his father before he could present him his college degree. He joined the Sandinista movement to overthrow the Somoza dictatorship. When the revolution succeeded, he rose to become Vice President of the country for a number of years. He wrote Divine Punishment while in office, waking up at 4 am every morning to write until 9 am.  He did not regret leaving politics, for he was eager to return to full-time writing.

I did not buy a copy of the book because I hope to become proficient enough in Spanish to read it in its original language.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

STEEP TEA: Polina Barskova

Born in 1976, Polina Barskova is reckoned to be one of the best of the younger generation of Russian poets. Her work has been shortlisted for the Debut and Andrei Bely Prizes. A child prodigy, she began publishing in journals at the age of six, and released the first of her six books when she was 15. Two volumes of her poetry have been translated into English. I found a signed copy of her selected poems THE ZOO IN WINTER while browsing in St. Mark's Bookshop, and bought it on the strength of the opening poems.

In THE ZOO IN WINTER, Barskova, an associate professor of Russian literature at Hampshire College, looks to her tremendous native literary tradition. Her poems engage in a very lively manner with canonical writers such as Pushkin, Nabokov, Akhmatova and Brodsky. In the sequence "Pantheon," she riffs off the name of Pushkin by inventing poetic lookalikes such as Khlopushkin, Pliushkin and Peshkin.

Her engagement with the tradition is at the same time deeply personal. On a visit to Prague, she writes movingly in "Motherhood and Childhood" about the death of Nabokov's mother in that city. The very stark line "And they told him that in Prague his mother died" is very moving for the multiple dislocations that it conveys. It reminded me of my own mother's phone calls from Singapore, and I imagined her calling one day to tell me that she has died. (Two nights ago, she called me to say that one of my paternal uncles had died suddenly.) My poem "Singapore Buses Are Very Reliable" is all about immigrant guilt, as Nabokov and Polina would understand it.

The 79 poems in THE ZOO IN WINTER were selected by the translators Boris Dralyuk and David Stromberg to convey Barskova's range of subjects and tones. Barskova also writes classically restrained poems, and one of the finest is "Reflection." As the speaker and her lover gaze at their reflections in a piano, they enter a chasm, "And the further, the deeper, the darker the lacquer." Barskova seems to be pursuing a course into the depths while ranging high and free over the steppes. She is a very stimulating writer to read.