Saturday, November 28, 2015

Thanksgiving 2015

So I returned from my Thanksgiving getaway to learn that my book Steep Tea has been listed by the Financial Times as one of four best books of poetry of 2015, along with the new annotated Poems of T. S. Eliot by Christopher Ricks and Kim McCue; Horace: Poems ed. by Paul Quarrie; and Citizen by Claudia Rankine. Completely unexpected, completely floored.

"The Singapore-born poet’s first UK publication is disciplined yet adventurous in form, casual in tone and deeply personal in subject matter. Koh’s verse addresses the split inheritance of his postcolonial upbringing, as well as the tension between an émigré’s longing for home and rejection of nostalgia." - Maria Crawford in UK's Financial Times

The time away was otherwise dominated by reading Amy Sueyoshi's study of Yone Noguchi's romantic relationships in a book aptly titled Queer Compulsions. Through the study of the correspondence between Yone and his lovers, Sueyoshi persuaded me that his most passionate and most sustained feelings were for the older white writer Charles Warren Stoddard. His love for Ethel Armes was full of ups and downs, and starts and stops, until she ended their engagement finally when she learnt that Yone was "married" to Léonie Gilmour and had a son (the sculptor Isamu Noguchi) with her. Ethel herself had passionate feelings for other women. As for Léonie, she realized from early on that Noguchi did not love her and so took the difficult independent path of raising Isamu by herself. Yone's marriage in Japan to his domestic servant Matsu Takeda was a matter of convenience, as the poet turned himself into a strictly heterosexual and stridently nationalistic writer. Throughout the study, Sueyoshi showed sensitivity to the ways in which race, nation, and sexuality (as the sub-title promises) affects an immigrant hungry for love and literary fame. She underlines, in a clear-eyed manner, how same-sex desire is not necessarily revolutionary even when it is in revolt against social norms and moral mandates.

Of all the movies we watched at Ty and Di's place, the best was Out in the Dark (2012), directed by Michael Mayer. The lovers, coming from opposites sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, quick discover that being gay complicates the already messy situation. Nicholas Jacob plays the Palestinian student Nimr Mashrawi with just the right touch of resignation. Michael Aloni's Roy Schaefer, a young Israeli lawyer, discovers the need for moral compromise in order to save them both. Deepa Mehta's Midnight's Children (2012) was, however, a big disappointment. The problem lay in having Salman Rushdie write the screenplay. The novelist had no clue how to structure a film, and so threw in everything and the kitchen sink. The novel should be made into at least three feature films. If the Hunger Games series is made into four films, why should the Booker of Bookers deserve a less epic treatment?

On Friday, we drove to Hudson to visit the Basilica Farm and Flea. The line wrapped around the beautiful old forge and foundry, and so we gave up trying to get in and went antiquing in a nearby warehouse instead. My discovery was a newly opened print studio called Inky Editions. Artists can produce fine art prints there by working with non-toxic intaglio-based techniques.

Basilica Hudson

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

A Student's Response to "Eve's Fault"

Two weeks ago I held a Skype discussion with eleventh-grade students of Garden International School, Kuala Lumpur. Under the guidance of their teacher Renie Leng, they had been studying two poems closely, Derek Walcott's "Adam's Song" and my poem "Eve's Fault." I was chuffed to be studied alongside the great Walcott. Over Skype, the students asked me many keen questions from theme and characterization to the use of particular words in my poem. The questions spoke very well of their thoughtful preparation for the discussion. Afterwards, they wrote an essay analyzing and comparing the two poems. The essay is for their CIE IGCSE coursework teacher's choice component. Contrary to current educational thinking in Singapore, the Malaysian and International students proved more than capable of enjoying and learning from poetry. Shame on Singapore schools for abandoning the teaching of literature at the higher levels. The whole exercise also showed me the power of giving effective teachers autonomy in their pedagogy.

I enjoyed reading many of the essays submitted by the class. Of particular note is the following essay by Jonathan Chin, reprinted with his permission. His response is alive to not only the complications of poetic language but also its implications.

How do the poets powerfully present the experiences of Adam and Eve in the poems Eve’s Fault by Jee Leong Koh and Adam’s Song by Derek Walcott respectively? 

In the poem Adam’s Song, Derek Walcott closely follows the story of Genesis, exploring Eve’s sin with themes of betrayal and regret, illustrating her as the villainous protagonist of the story. However, Adam is elevated to the reader through Walcott’s portrayal of his love and forgiveness towards Eve. In contrast, Eve’s Fault by Jee Leong Koh has a subversive take on the book of Genesis, presenting Eve simply as a character journeying through love, deciding between three of her suitors. Jee Leong Koh further reinvents Adam, opposing the traditional ideas of him, transforming him into a flawed being.

Koh humorously presents Adam’s experience of himself to be one of imperfection, contrasting the traditional portrayal of a flawless being. The first of Adam’s flaws, described as being “inarticulate”, shatters the reader’s conventional image of a perfect man and instead replaces it with a man that is blemished in his ability to express himself. Adam is further characterized as “a terrible speller”, adding to the semantic field of imperfection in Adam’s personality. Koh uses the humour evoked by this phrase to accentuate Eve’s scholarly characteristic, reversing the biblical notion of Adam being superior to Eve. The effect of the humour is further empowered by “terrible”, exaggerating the degree of his unlettered mind. Koh continues to apply humour while describing Adam’s body to be “precariously balanced on his feet”. This phrase exhibits Adam’s physical appearance to look strange and unsymmetrical, contrary to the illustrations of the original and perfect body of Adam. The depiction of Adam’s imbalance could also represent his adventurous and unpredictable personality. The phrase is also the only physical representation of Adam suggesting that the flaws that humanize us are ones to do with personality instead of physical appearance. Adam’s narrow minded trait is denoted through “mind made up”, convincing the reader that Adam is more closed to ideas in comparison to Eve, adding to the subversive concept of Eve being superior to Adam. The bombardment of Adam’s flaws is then followed up by “he needed her”. Eve knew this as through her perspective, Adam was dependent on her, incapable of living without her either due to his undying love for her or because he was inferior to Eve and needed her guidance, much unlike God and the serpent. Adam might have been ashamed of this fact which is why he “scratched down… the story of the rib”. Koh intends on altering the reader’s view of Adam thus making him seem insecure about his defects and therefore wrote a historic event that never happened to heighten himself above Eve. The poet’s powerful portrayal of Adam’s experience circulates the emphasis on Adam’s faults, drawing the reader into the importance of Adam’s humanity and juxtaposing the biblical illustration.

Koh powerfully presents Eve's experience to be a journey to find love, meeting a variety of partners before discovering her true need and thus discovering herself. The epigraph denoted that Eve’s fault “was only too much love”, highlighting the theme of love to the readers as well as alerting the reader to the irony in the title, being that the poet’s ultimate message is that Eve is not at fault. The first of Eve’s partners-God-is exemplified as the stereotypical high school jock, attributed to be charming and fun, evident at his attempt to win Eve using flamboyant gestures such as “whipped...a bouquet of light” and “told her the joke about the Archaeopteryx”. The bombastic action of something being “whipped” creates an energetic and magical atmosphere. The “bouquet of light” signifies an act of love in attempt to pursue Eve. A “bouquet” depicts the image of flowers-a sign of affection. However, God takes this common expression and erupts it with the glamour brought by “light”, which further reinforces his ostentatious personality, wanting to win Eve over with ornate displays. God then proceeds to tell a “joke”, revealing his childish side, contradicting the traditional idea of an almighty and wise God. In addition, the “joke” relates to the “Archaeopteryx”, a prehistoric dinosaur, integrating humour yet again, as the “Archaeopteryx” holds no biblical connotation since it was not present on Noah’s arc. It also validates God’s childishness as dinosaurs are often a popular topic amongst children. The complexity brought by “Archaeopteryx” symbolises the convolution within the relationship of Eve and God, insinuating that they could not be together as Eve did not want someone as captivating and dominant as God, especially with his childishness. Her next partner, the snake, was an opposite to God, described as a “quieter fellow” in the beginning of the stanza, already juxtaposing the personality of God. The snake being “quieter” impels a sense of mystery onto the reader, causing them to see the snake as an inscrutable individual. This also foreshadows a sense of danger that is often associated with the snake as “quieter” would imply that the snake was sneaky and cunning. Moreover, It connotes the snake to be sophisticated as “quieter” people are stereotyped to be intellectual. Nonetheless, the snake “gave her up” to Adam at the end of the stanza. Despite it being in the name of love, Eve could not be with the snake as he did not need her, allowing him to give her away. Eve had then realised that what she really needed was “Adam’s need”, which is personified as Eve. Eve chose Adam over God and the Snake because unlike them, “he needed her” and that was all that she required. The poet gave each of Eve’s partners a similar structure in their respective stanzas to indicate that each of Eve’s partners were whole, having both strengths and weaknesses, highlighting that Eve chose Adam not because he was the strongest but as the result of his personality. Eve’s adventure through the garden of Eden is presented by Koh as an expedition to find love and is displayed to the readers through her experience with three partners.

Walcott powerfully presents Eve’s experience as torturous and agonizing as a result of her betrayal through his usage of vivid imagery. Eve is depicted as an “adulteress stoned to death” arousing a gruesome illustration that invokes disgust and horror into the reader. The phrase is a reference made towards Eve’s sin that stained the innocence of humanity, and therefore despite Eve not committing adultery, she is still to be blamed for the crime. Eve is symbolised as the “adulteress” as it signifies the betrayal she committed against God. It also insinuates that she is despised by others because of her deed and the title will remain on her forever as it did with women who committed adultery during those historic times. The strong imagery brought by “stoned” accentuates the brutality of the punishment Eve had to endure. A morbid atmosphere is created by “death”, emphasising the savage nature of “stoned”. Walcott further outlines the permanence of Eve’s judgment in the phrase “films her flesh with slime”, alluding to the evidence of her sin written in the Bible. The soft consonants brought by “films” “flesh” and “slime” creates a smooth flowing tone, suggesting that Eve’s torment will never end and will be ongoing. The action “films” induces a sense of insecurity and vulnerability, that Eve will never be spared a hint of privacy. The perpetuation of this agony is elicited through the idea of hopelessness as it is impossible to remove “flesh”, therefore her sin is now part of her. A sense of repulsion is further invoked into the reader through the imagery brought by “slime”, also contributing to the permanence of her sin insinuated from the sticky properties of “slime”. The blame is showed to be entirely put on Eve when Walcott described her to have “horned God”. Eve’s betrayal to God is represented by “horned”, depicting her as having horns similar to the devil, therefore associating her with the devil and her actions deemed evil. Eve’s experience is portrayed as coated with suffering and regret, as well as inheriting the blame for all the sin in the world.

Adam is presented to be cowering his end, caused by his strong devotion to Eve, until he experiences the forgiveness granted to him by God. Walcott uses sibilance in “men still sing the song that Adam sang” to create a ghastly tone, notifying the readers to the presence of the serpent. The feeling of the serpent's proximity in the evoked in the phrase foreshadows danger and further summons a deathly atmosphere. Adam’s personal forgiveness of Eve is evident in the phrase “the world he lost to vipers”, connoting that Adam takes blame upon himself and is aware that Eve should not be blamed for men’s sin. Furthermore, the zoomorphic representation of the devil as a “viper” conjures a sense of ominousity amongst the readers, reinforcing the previously foreshadowed danger and death. Walcott further speculates on Adam’s fear in the phrase “panther in the peaceable kingdom”. A plosive alliteration is used to shift the tone from a softer one to a harsher one, signifying that Adam is overcome with fear. Walcott manipulates the reader into resonating with Adam’s fear through creating a contrast between “panther” , symbolised as danger and death, and “peaceable” denoting a safe and secure environment. The imagery of darkness and hopelessness is also conveyed through the “panther”, with it’s dark fur. The use of enjambement in the following stanza is intended to insinuate Adam’s panic at it’s limit, forcing the reader into a quickened pace, intensifying the moment. Walcott powerfully induces the experience of Adam’s crippling fear of his death and God into the readers, creating a tense and desolate atmosphere.

Both Walcott and Koh revolve their poems around the book of Genesis, specifically the story of Adam and Eve. Despite Walcott having a conventional approach in Adam’s Song, Koh still chooses to implement a subversion of the story in Eve’s Fault, showing a shift of themes from betrayal and suffering to themes of love and humanity. Walcott forces the readers to empathise with Adam and Eve, alerting them towards the pain of their experience through powerful imagery. Whereas Koh reverses the reader’s perception of a perfect Adam as portrayed by the media, into an imperfect being.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Andalusia: A Zuihitsu

"Andalusia: A Zuihitsu" has just appeared on Concis Journal. Thanks, Chris Lott, for accepting it.

Brearley Book Festival

Last night read from Steep Tea at The Brearley Book Festival. Couldn't have imagined it ten years ago when I was hauled up to defend this racy blog. It was a pleasure to read with seven other authors (faculty, alum and parents), particularly with Rachel Urquhart (The Visionist) and George Hagen (Gabriel Finley and the Raven's Riddle).

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Jane Routh reviews STEEP TEA

"Eavan Boland is the poet he responds to most frequently – probably because she understands the subtle oppressions of colonial rule, one of his main preoccupations. He also uses her as a springboard in a different direction: “The toxins of a whole history” leads into a poem about the history of relationships for gay men, looking beyond his immediate personal moment. Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin sparks a fair few poems too – but I’m also introduced to a much wider range of poets like Tzu Pheng Lee, a Singaporean poet whose phrase “some curio of the change” provokes ‘Hong Kong’, a poem about choosing a keepsake, and the Mayan Xunka’ Utz’utz’ Ni’, whose poem about a new house has the poet echoing her prayers. Both entertaining and thought-provoking, this book is also a serious conversation between poets and cultures, and an education."

-- Jane Routh on STEEP TEA. Read the rest of the review in MAGMA 63, and poems by Eoghan Walls, Emma Wilson, Michael Henry, Sophie Baker, Raymond Antrobus, and Angela Kirby.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Sonny Liew's "The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye"

A biography of the artist as a hero, The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye is full of swagger even as it pays tribute to its comics predecessors. The virtuosic display of different comics styles, the mind-boggling meta-meta-meta narratives, the political satire. The result is an astounding feat, which sets a high bar not only for Singapore comics, but also for Singapore fiction. Yet much remains familiar. Singapore history may be re-interpreted but its periodization is not challenged. The reading of the historical protagonists may be flipped, but there are still clearly heroes and villains. And the greatest hero of all is the artist, who is depicted as uncompromisingly dedicated to his art. Singapore art needs such a heroic image, perhaps, given its frequent and forced accommodations to authority. Still, the terms of the artist's exaltation are traditional: he foregoes a love interest; gives up having a family; disappoints his parents. Heterosexual love, family, and happy parents are self-evident goods in the graphic novel; they are not subject to the kind of interrogation that the novel applies to political history. The artist is essentially male, as are all the politicians. Women are peripheral characters to the political and the personal stories. Having surrendered his claim to a place in bourgeois, Chinese, Singaporean patriarchy, the hero-artist reasserts his maleness in his art, ending aptly with a page of nine panels, eight of which depict the phallic instruments of his art.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Saturday, November 14, 2015

STEEP TEA poems in Asia Literary Review

Four of my poems from Steep Tea appear in Asia Literary Review, edited by Phillip Kim and Martin Alexander. You can read one poem for free, and take out an e-book subscription for the other poems and the rest of the issue. Enjoy!

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Open Letter to Singapore's National Arts Council

Open Letter in Response to National Arts Council CEO Kathy Lai’s Letter to the Straits Times (November 7, 2015)

I am greatly saddened by the NAC CEO’s defense of censorship in response to Ong Keng Sen’s radio interview and Haresh Sharma’s Cultural Medallion speech. In his hard-hitting interview, Ong Keng Sen criticized state censorship of the arts for infantilizing the populace. Haresh Sharma, in his speech, called for unconditional support of our artists. In response, NAC CEO Kathy Lai wrote a reply that managed to be obfuscating, ingratiating, and high-handed all at once, with the sole aim of defending the status quo. Jason Wee has rebutted the letter soundly in a Facebook post, so I will not repeat the objections here. What’s worth remembering is the recent actions taken against the arts. If we remember them, we will know to take the letter for what it is: a whitewashed tomb.

There were high hopes in the last days of Lee Kuan Yew that Singapore society would breathe more easily and freely. This was not to be. First, the government restricted the screening of Tan Pin Pin’s documentary film “To Singapore, With Love” about Singapore’s political dissidents and exiles. Then, NAC, under Kathy Lai, withdrew the publication grant from Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, because the graphic novel was deemed politically sensitive. These actions may seem to show the lightening of the censoring hand, since neither film nor book was banned outright, but they do not. They are, instead, carefully calculated to mute any protest from the artistic community and to prevent the dissemination of film and book to the populace. The state is not bothered by film screenings to small groups of like-minded individuals. It knows that they are a lost cause and, anyway, their opinion leaders depend on it for arts funding. By restricting screenings, the state has achieved its purpose of restricting the exposure of the populace to what it considers to be undesirable ideas. The same goes for the graphic novel. Withdrawing funding is a sufficient warning to schools and other institutions to stay away from the disapproved publication. The strategy is clear: let the tiny liberal fringe protest while watching their film and reading their book, but cordon off the populace from any liberating ideas. As playwright Tan Tarn How observed on Facebook, “things are changing, but backwards.”

That the NAC is one of the state instruments for carrying out this policy is clear from Kathy Lai’s letter. After dividing the “well-traveled, deeply engaged” arts lovers from “others who want the arts to uplift them, to be simple expressions of joy and beauty” (meaning the heartlanders), she warned that “The one thing we won’t – and must not – do is to be patronising or even insulting to audiences and potential audiences on their choices.” By her twisted logic, to encourage Singaporeans to eschew the ersatz and the simplistic, to appreciate the profound and the complex, is to patronize (even insult!) them. This statement alone disqualifies her to be the chief of the National Arts Council. But we must not overlook the political hackwork done by the statement. In political terms, the statement says to artists and art lovers, do what you like but leave the electorate alone.

Just as insidious, and even more upsetting, is her argument that artists’ complaints about censorship are exaggerated. Look at “our lively theatre scene,” she wrote. “Similarly, the marketplace has never seen a more diverse range of Singaporean-authored and published books than today - from the reverential and celebratory to all manner of contrarian narratives.” In arguing thus, she is using works produced under a restrictive regime to prove a lack of restrictions, conveniently ignoring the fact that many of the most vibrant works were produced despite of these restrictions. What she argues is tantamount to saying that queer writers cannot be oppressed in Singapore since they can publish their books in the country. This kind of logic is what stops LGBT writers such Cyril Wong and Ovidia Yu from representing their country. To display the vitality of Singapore writing is to contribute to their own oppression. You can write and publish, right? So you cannot be so badly off. In the meantime, 377A, the law against sodomy, remains on the books, and prevents any progress towards achieving equality. Kathy Lai seems oblivious to the irony in her phrase “all manner of contrarian narratives.” What did she do to The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye on her watch? Whitewashed tomb.

Because of the reasons above, I have decided to embark on a policy of non-cooperation with the NAC until it changes its approach, until it champions freedom of expression. I have managed thus far to be an independent writer, having self-published my books of poems, or having them published by US and UK publishers. I have also been running the arts website Singapore Poetry without any funding from the NAC. Only recently have I received monies from it: funding for the Steep Tea tour in the UK and payment for participation in this year’s Singapore Writers Festival. I’ve written to the NAC to return all the monies received. From now onwards, I will not participate in any NAC events nor have my work included in any NAC-funded publication. I do not wish to contribute to my political oppression.

I wish, instead, to heed Haresh Sharma’s clarion call, given in his speech on receiving the Cultural Medallion: “The most fundamental frontier of change is the mind. If our mindsets can’t change then there is very little hope for our attitudes to change. Our attitude towards censorship and regulation, our attitude towards openness and dialogue, our attitude towards risk-taking, and ultimately, our attitude towards the value of the artist in society.” I wish to decolonize my mind.

Koh Jee Leong
New York City
November 12, 2015


Sole dry thing
in the rain-soaked park
an inkling of death

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Arthur Miller at Lyceum

Saw the Young Vic production of "A View from the Bridge" at the Lyceum Theatre this afternoon, with Mark Strong as Eddie, Nicola Walker as Beatrice, Phoebe Fox as Catherine, Michael Zegen as Marco, and Russell Tovey as Rodolpho. Gripping but finally unsatisfying.

Monday, November 09, 2015

Skype Lesson with Garden International School (KL)

The students of Garden International School (Kuala Lumpur) had such good questions about "Eve's Fault." One asked why I chose the Snake, instead of God and Adam, to be Eve's intellectual lover. Another asked about the possible meanings of "God entered her." Yet another wondered if I intended to criticize patriarchy when I wrote that Adam scratched down and believed his own story of the rib. The students had annotated and discussed the poem before the Skype lesson, so they came very well prepared. The hour flew by. It was a lovely way to spend a Sunday evening. Thanks, Renie Leng, for arranging for it.

Friday, November 06, 2015

Eshuneutics reviews "Steep Tea"

"Each of the forty-six poems begin with an act of reading: the resultant creations aren't reactive fictions or attempts to better the originals. They are, to carry on with Duncan's ideas concerning poetic (gay) creation, extensions of a ground, acknowledgements of the fault-lines where poems break from." Eshuneutics reviews Steep Tea

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Singapore Launch of Steep Tea and SWF

Thanks very much, everyone who came out to the Singapore launch of Steep Tea tonight. You were, in a word, overwhelming. Your support, love, and friendship. I am so grateful. I'm just sorry that there wasn't time to talk to everyone properly. I hope we will see one another when I visit again next summer. If you fancy hearing me talk cock sing song about "Raising the Profile of Asian Literature" (10 am) and "Getting Published Overseas" (2:30 pm), come to the Singapore Writers Festival at The Arts House tomorrow (Sat). For those of you who couldn't get a copy of my book tonight, it will be available at the festival bookshop at The Arts House from tomorrow to the end of the festival. Thanks again, Boedi Widjaja, for the cover image and for coming out tonight. Thank you, Anthony Koh Waugh, for hosting the launch at your wonderful bookstore. You are a sweetheart.

At the Singapore Writers Festival, I was a panelist in two sessions.

"Raising the Profile of Asian Literature" with Linh Dinh, Laksmi Pamuntjak, and Eun Heekyung (Eun's interpreter on extreme left) (not pictured: moderator Desmond Kon).

"Getting Published Overseas" with Toh Hsien Min and Alvin Pang, moderated by Fong Hoe Fang.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Pittsburgh and Haiku

Just returned on MegaBus from Pittsburgh. Last night I read with Jason Irwin and two other poets at Classic Lines Bookstore for the Under the Sign of the Bear reading series, organized by Michael Albright. It was good to hear Jason read again, so sturdy and genuine is his poetry. It was lovely also to meet Jenny Ashburn, and Jason's friend Scott Silsbe, and to spend the day with Ian.


Full moon
through the blue moorings

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Sunday, October 18, 2015

NY Launch of Steep Tea

Thanks, everyone, for celebrating my new book "Steep Tea" with me last night at Book Culture. The trains were acting up, the night was cold, but you came, some traveling for more than an hour, at least one person whom I know of walking 24 UWS blocks because of Sabbath. Your presence made the event special. Thank you, Cody and the team at Book Culture, for hosting the launch. A big thank-you to Simpson from Chomp Chomp for sponsoring the delicious reception. Thank you, Doug and Chris, for bringing the food to the reading. Thank you, Raj, for the Tiger Beer sponsorship. And thank you, Meiko, for helping with the reception.

It was wonderful to hear Cindy Arrieu-King again. Thank you, Cindy, for coming in from Philly to read with me. Your poems are beautiful and brave. They confront the horrors of our contemporary world, not in some far-off war-torn country, but right here among our daily struggles. Softness, you remind us, is a form of kindness. Your soft touch is born of great toughness.

I have so many people to thank for my book. Last night, I had the chance to thank my New York friends, in particular. Below is what I said from the heart:

I’m very pleased to be reading for you tonight from my new book "Steep Tea." The book bears my name on its front, but it owes its life to many people. I am very grateful to Michael Schmidt, the editor of Carcanet Press, for his belief in my work. I first came across his name in Singapore when I was studying for my GCE ‘A’ Level Examinations at the age of 17. He was the editor of the anthology "11 British Poets," which was an examination text. That anthology changed my life. After my encounter with Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes, and R. S. Thomas in it, I wanted to be a poet too. By publishing my new book, Michael has made me a poet twice over.

Before leaving Singapore for New York, I submitted a manuscript to Carcanet. It was duly rejected, for the poems in it were bloodless things. It is New York that gave me the needed blood infusion. I am so grateful to friends here who have supported my writing over the years. I’m sorry that Eric Thomas Norris cannot be here. As an editor, he has championed my work. As a poet, he gave me superb advice on a draft of "Steep Tea."

I also want to thank my dear friend and colleague Tara Neelakantappa Safronoff, who is here tonight. Over a series of early mornings, before her children woke up, she read a draft of my book. Her warm and honest response helped me cut down the manuscript from 160 pages to 60. I was so pleased when Tara told me, after reading the published book, that it had no filler!

I owe so much to another dear friend and colleague, Helaine Smith. She has been an invaluably keen reader of my work. Her detailed comments on individual poems in "Steep Tea" made them better. She saw, just as Paul Muldoon did in a workshop that I attended, that the opening poem “Eve’s Fault” did not move forward sufficiently from its first line. Helaine’s ingenious suggestion, offered so tactfully and gently, was to remove the first line. So now the collection begins with the word “God” and not with the word “Though.” So much better!

Most of all, I want to thank my love, Guy, to whom the book is dedicated. Guy has supported my writing in big and small ways, all significant. He advised me on my writing career. He threw parties to celebrate my books. When I needed someone to manage the reception tonight, he stepped in. We celebrated our fifth anniversary this year. The last five years have been a time of personal growth for me, as I learn what it means to love another person. I’m so grateful that he allows me to write about our life together, both the darkness and the light. It is a profound mark of his trust, and I can only hope to be worthy of such loving trust.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Richard Scott reviews Steep Tea in Ambit

"Koh is at his best when he’s writing about lust; his massively understated poems detailing homosexual desire are marvellous."

Thanks, Richard Scott and Ambit, for this no-holds-barred review of Steep Tea.


They have torn up the surface of Lexington Avenue again.

Tar dust in my nose
after twelve years
I'm still walking home

Monday, October 12, 2015

"Telltale: 11 Stories" edited by Gwee Li Sui

A fine selection of short stories by literary critic, poet, and graphic novelist Gwee Li Sui. I appreciate the emphasis in his introduction on the humanistic dimensions of these stories, instead of their representations of Singapore. Powerful stories by Alfian Sa'at, two from his collection Corridor, and one new story about a man waiting on death row. Dave Chua is represented by his moving story "The Drowning" about the impact of the Asian tsunami on a family. My biggest discovery is Tan Mei Ching, whose story "In the Quiet" rings absolutely true about how a precocious teenage girl learns about death. Jeffrey Lim's stories "Haze Day" and "Understudies" are clever constructions but somewhat thin in characterization. Still, they display an experimental daring not usually found in the Singapore short story. They push against the social realist tradition of fiction-making that the other stories in this anthology exemplify.

Dia: Beacon

Visited Dia:Beacon for the second time yesterday. Enjoyed looking at John Chamberlain's sculptures of crushed and twisted auto parts, Imi Knoebel's wooden forms stacked against the walls, Robert Smithson's glass and sand sculptures, in particular, "The Map of Glass (Atlantis)" and Joseph Beuys's piles of felt weighed down or pedestaled by copper plates. Two very different artists brought close to home the feeling of the sublime. Richard Serra and his colossal elegant forms. Fred Sandback and his drawings in space using yarn. As Sandback himself said, he does not aim to transform the space so much as to co-exist with it. His yarn sculptures do not take up room but they are as solid as Serra's thick sheet metal. How to write and present haiku like that?

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Friday, October 09, 2015

Thursday, October 08, 2015

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Saturday, October 03, 2015

Ian Pople reviews STEEP TEA

"In these poems, the grace and elegance mentioned above mix with Koh’s imagination, to create a fine sense of play in his material. The final effect is a charged, nuanced lyricism."

- Ian Pople in The Manchester Review. Read more.

Friday, October 02, 2015

Singapore at 50 and Haiku

"Singapore at 50: Reflections on the Local, Global and Postcolonial," organized by Jini Kim Watson of NYU, was a thoughtful and stimulating presentation of work by academics from Singapore, the US and Canada. Joanne Leow, from the University of Toronto, read Singapore's Gardens by the Bay together with Kevin Kwan's novel Crazy Rich Asians and highlighted the uses of excess. E.K. Tan, from Stony Brook University, argued for a more complicated and expanded notion of Sinophone literature by looking at two poems written in a hybrid of Chinese and English. From Singapore's Nanyang Technological University, C. J. Wan-Ling Wee looked at the distinct character of the 1980's for Singaporean cultural productions, created during a fruitful gap after the state began to focus on high culture but before it produced its Renaissance City report and poured huge amounts of money into the arts. Cheryl Narumi Naruse, also from NTU, examined the transnational mobility of Singaporeans and its creation of a new coming-of-career genre of writing.

I was the odd duck of the evening, very pleased to be included, and warmly welcomed. Before I read "Attribution," "Recognition," and "Talking to Koon Meng Who Called Himself Christopher" from Steep Tea, I gave this somewhat tongue-in-cheek preamble:

None Can Tell: On Poetry and Plagiarism  

I’m here as an imposter. I’m not a scholar, I’m a poet. I’m here to practice fraud on you. I’m here to say, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” and confuse the two on earth. I make copies of copies, and so should be thrown out on my ear from the philosophers’ club. Thank you for not throwing me out. Thank you for welcoming me into your midst. Perhaps you are not followers of Plato but of Aristotle. You see poetry, and aesthetics in general, as a species of knowledge. Well, in that case, we are still diametrically opposite: poetry, to me, is a species of ignorance. A poet does not know many things; a post-colonial poet does not know many special things, things peculiar to his historical condition, to the long shadow of Western imperialism, in my case. I’m convicted on both counts, by Aristotle of ignorance, by Plato of plagiarism. Perhaps you are not a philosopher at all. Like me, you have wandered into this place by mistake. You just wish to be entertained, before the break for wine and cheese. If so, you are just the person to whom I will read.


Cheep cheep
the small plagiarist bird
rips off its head

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Tuesday, September 29, 2015


Last Sunday, the NY launch of UNION, an anthology that celebrates 50 years of Singaporean writing and 15 years of seminal American journal Drunken Boat. I read from The Pillow Book at Singapore: Inside Out, with Alvin Pang (editor), Ravi Shankar (editor), Sharon Dolin and Amanda Lee Koe. Photos by GH.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Mystery Plays and Dancing Space

TLS July 24, 2015

from Gerard Kilroy's review of Mortal Thoughts: Religion, secularity and identity in Shakespeare and early modern culture by Brian Cummings; The Bible in Shakespeare by Hannibal Hamlin; and A Will to Believe: Shakespeare and religion by David Scott Kastan:

Cummings explore the "condition of soliloquy" in the Confessions - "et cum ipso me solo coram te" (with myself all alone in front of you) - in one of the most rewarding chapters in the book, "Soliloquy and Secularization". Augustine is seen as the source both of the word "soliloquy" and of the genre. The soliloquy is both a meditation and a dialogue between an interior self that is true, and an interior self that is mutable and transitory. Long before Hamlet's most famous of soliloquies, Cummings finds Augustine in De libero arbitrio, meditating on not being: "It is not because I would rather be unhappy than not be at all ... , that I am unwilling to die, but for fear that after death I may be still more unhappy".  
In "one of Shakespeare's favorite books", Arthur Golding's translation of Calvin's Sermons upon the Booke of Job (1574), humanity is described as "sullyed and full of all fylthe", and Golding uses the world "solydnesse [i.e. sulliedness] in his translation of the sermons in Calvin's Psalmes of David (1571). Orally and in print the two words were "sometimes indistinguishable", making them ripe for punning.  
Hamlin (following Jones) notes that the greeting "All hail" in Macbeth and several plays including Julius Caesar, echoes Judas's kiss in the York Cycle [of mystery plays].... Hamlin has now discovered that this greeting became so "conventional" that the phrase "All haile maister" was attributed to Judas in many sermons between 1571 and 1599. While the received opinion had been that the last recorded performance of a Mystery Play was in Coventry in 1579, recent work has shown that they continued in small towns, and (as Phebe Jensen has shown) in Catholic country hourses like Gowlthwaite Hall, "well into the seventeenth century".


from Kapka Kassabova's review of Dancing Tango: Passionate encounters in a globalizing world by Kathy Davis:

One of Davis's conclusions is that the milonga is a rare space in our globalized and yes, unequal world, where men and women - especially heterosexual men and women - can safely perform gender roles, explore desires that in the rest of their lives have become outdated, and even fall in love - for fifteen minutes. In that sense tango remains subversive, as it was always meant to be. Should a feminist dance tango? The overwhelming evidence here shows us one thing: in tango, there is no such thing  as "should".

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Erica Wagner's "Ariel's Gift"

In Ariel's Gift, Erica Wagner composes a running commentary on the poems in Ted Hughes's Birthday Letters. The commentary calls on Sylvia Plath's fiction, journals and letters, and on Hughes' few public statements after Plath's death, in order to shine a light on the poems. Wagner is particularly good, I think, on Hughes's sense of fate in the making of his and Plath's poems, and in the events that overtook them. Critics of Hughes may see the avowals of ignorance and helplessness in the Birthday Letters poems as evidence of blame-shifting and self-justification, but the poems themselves convey the ignorance and helplessness in a very palpable way. To enter the poems at all, one must enter them, suspending one's judgment. Wagner tries to be very fair-minded but it becomes clear in the course of her book that she is more sympathetic toward Hughes. The last chapter shows the pain that the living (Hughes and the children, Plath's mother Aurelia) have to bear when the dead is still capable of screaming from her grave.

Perhaps in response to the accusations of self-justification against Hughes, Wagner quotes Seamus Heaney's verdict on Plath's poetry. In his lecture "The Indefatigable Hoof-taps," Heaney explained what he saw as her limitation:

There is nothing poetically flawed about Plath's work. What may finally limit it is its dominant theme of self-discovery and self-definition, even though this concern must be understood as a valiantly unremitting campaign against the black hole of depression and suicide. I do not suggest that the self is not the proper arena of poetry. But I believe that the greatest work occurs when a certain self-forgetfulness is attained or least a fullness of self-possession denied to Sylvia Plath. . . . In "Lady Lazarus" . . . the cultural resonance of the original story is harnessed to a vehemently self-justifying purpose, so that the supra-personal dimensions of knowledge--to which myth typically gives access--are slighted in favor of the intense personal need of the poet.

If Birthday Letters is not a great book of poems because self-justification diminishes it, the same caveat must be applied to Plath's poetry.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Tara Bergin on Steep Tea

Tara Bergin, a poet whom I admire greatly, mentions Steep Tea in her reading list for POETRY magazine's Editors' Blog: "Particularly striking about this book is the way that every poem has an epigraph; brief quotations chosen from a diverse set of sources. The impression is of a writer for whom reading represents a vital part of the creative process."

Monday, September 14, 2015

Singapore Symposium and Haiku

Yesterday's Singapore Symposium was an experiment and a gambit. To host speakers from the different fields of academia, the arts, and social work, with their different concerns and languages, was to take a risk. I think the bet paid off handsomely. Adeline Koh's work on digitally archiving "Chinese Englishmen" provides a necessary counterbalance to the current focus on the major Victorian authors, all white, mostly men. Listening to Jini Kim Watson, I was struck by how many countries in the world aspire to build modern cities like Singapore and so replicate its social control and public order. E. K. Tan spoke about the politics of using dialect in Singapore's Sinophone literature. I especially enjoyed his close look at xinyao (Singapore ballads) and Kuo Pao Kun's play "Mama Looking for Her Cat."

The artists came on next and spoke passionately about why they write plays, make ceramic works, and compose music. Damon Chua, Hong-Ling Wee, and Eli Tyler, you were so inspiring! So were Kavitha and Shahrin, who spoke about making dance with children with special needs.

In the evening, the writers took to the stage. I read from Steep Tea and then introduced the other authors. Amanda Lee Koe read a searing story about a woman who found herself loveless in old age. Jeremy Tiang's story about a young woman who decides to turn vegetarian rang true in its every wonderful turn of phrase. Yen Yen Woo and Colin Goh did a very Singaporean thing and gave us all a test - on their Dimsum Warriors comics and on Singlish. I failed the test but laughed very hard.

During the Q&A afterwards, someone from the audience asked about the impact of New York on our work. Colin's answer stuck with me: in New York, you don't have to be just one thing - lawyer, teacher or dentist - but you can be many things, an actor-waiter, a lawyer-writer or, in their case, teacher, lawyer, graphic novelist, illustrator, yoga studio owner, and parent.

Into the forest 
of video equipment
grey-green eyes

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Opening Party and Haiku

Last night was the opening party of Something to Write Home About, the Singapore arts festival in New York wholly organized by Singapore creatives and volunteers based in the city. The basement of La Mama Theater was transformed into an art gallery. There was plenty to drink. Peranakan food was served. The festival director Hong-Ling Wee was, naturally, flushed with excitement. I was again impressed by her ability to connect with people when she spoke to the room. It was lovely to see friends again and to meet new people, among which were an Indian classical dancer born in Ferguson, MO; a young Malaysian diplomat; and a Singaporean new-media artist based in Chicago.

Today, I'm speaking on the arts practitioners panel at the Symposium on Singapore Studies, and reading in the evening, with four other writers, at the Literary Arts event. I'm looking forward to stimulating conversations with the scholars, artists, writers and audience. It's my way of participating in the on-going project called Singapore.

Plop! Plop! Plop!
the first rain of the season—
bubble wrap

Wednesday, September 09, 2015


Shirt off
he drinks from the water fountain
sparrows make tiny splashes

Monday, September 07, 2015

Carol Rumens on "Steep Tea"

"In His Other House" is Carol Rumens' Poem of the Week in The Guardian. So happy about it. Thank you, Ms Rumens, for your insightful reading of "In His Other House" and your sympathetic response to Steep Tea.

Poem: "The Book of Nature"

The Book of Nature 

What if the wind is a hint
of the coming fall of leaves
so greenly gleaming, fully
numerical, I swear, they
read like everlastingness?
In print so fine it can’t be
seen, the wind annotates
the assertion of the green
or else it is to be, or not,
read between the lines.

Sunday, September 06, 2015



I run so fast I leave the past behind,
the carrom board under my parents’ bed,
the uniforms I grew out of, the kind
evenings after the moon swung overhead,

I leave behind the blistering army songs,
the young man’s sense of being in the right,
the young man’s rights and the young man’s wrongs,
the wind keeping aloft the fighting kite,

behind, the smell of rain before it rains,
behind, the thousand gaudy island cast,
behind, the globe-spanning spinning planes,
I run so fast I run into the past.

Saturday, September 05, 2015

Coleridge's "Biographia Literaria"

Edited by James Engell and W. Jackson Bate (Princeton University Press)

Our genuine admiration of a great poet is a continuous under-current of feeling; it is every where present, but seldom any where as a separate excitement. I was wont boldly to affirm, that it would scarcely be more difficult to push a stone out from the pyramids with the bare hand, than to alter a word, or the position of a word, in Milton or Shakspeare, (in their most important works at least), without making the author say something else, or something worse, than he does say. 
And therefore is it the prime merit of genius and its most unequivocal mode of manifestation, so to represent familiar objects as to awaken in the minds of others a kindred feeling concerning them and that freshness of sensation which is the constant accompaniment of mental, no less than of bodily, convalescence. 
I regard truth as a divine ventriloquist: I care not from whose mouth the sounds are supposed to process, if only the words are audible and intelligible." 
But the poison-tree is not dead, though the sap may for a season have subsided to its roots. At least let us keep watch and ward, even on our best feelings. I have seen gross intolerance shewn in support of toleration; sectarian antipathy most obtrusively displayed in the promotion of an undistinguishing comprehension of sects; and acts of cruelty (I had almost said) of treachery, committed in furtherance of an object vitally important to the cause of humanity; and all this by men too of naturally kind dispositions and exemplary conduct. 
Only in the self-consciousness of a spirit is there the required identity of object and of representation; for herein consists the essence of a spirit, that it is self-representative. If therefore this be the one only immediate truth, in the certainty of which the reality of our collective knowledge is grounded, it must follow that the spirit in all the objects which it views, views only itself. If this could be proved, the immediate reality of all intuitive knowledge would be assured. It has been shown, that a spirit is that, which is its own object, yet not originally an object, but an absolute subject for which all, itself included, may become an object. It must therefore be an ACT; for every object is, as an object, dead, fixed, incapable in itself of any action, and necessarily finite. Again, the spirit (originally the identity of object and subject) must in some sense dissolve this identity in order to be conscious of it: fit alter et idem. But this implies an act, and it follows therefore that intelligence or self-conscious is impossible, except by and in a will. The self-conscious spirit therefore is a will; and freedom must be assumed as a ground of philosophy, and can never be deduced from it. 
A poem is that species of composition, which is opposed to works of science, by proposing for its immediate object pleasure, not truth; and from all other species (having this object in common with it) it is discriminated by proposing to itself such delight from the whole, as is compatible with a distinct gratification from each component part.  
"The man that hath not music in his soul" can indeed never be a genuine poet. Imagery (even taken from nature, much more when transplanted from books, as travels, voyages, and works of natural history); affecting incidents; just thoughts; interesting personal or domestic feelings; and with these the art of their combination or intertexture in the form of a poem; may all by incessant effort be acquired as a trade, by a man of talents and much reading, who, as I once before observed, has mistaken an intense desire of poetic reputation for a natural poetic genius; the love of the arbitrary end for possession of the peculiar means. But the sense of musical delight, with the power of producing it, is a gift of imagination; and this together with the power of reducing multitude into unity of effect, and modifying a series of thoughts by some one predominant thought or feeling, may be cultivated and improved, but can never be learnt. It is in these that "Poeta nascitur non fit."

Friday, September 04, 2015


So many seeds
in the self-seeding spider flower
pushing through the fence

Thursday, September 03, 2015

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Progressive Poetics

"What must or might be said now about poetry?" I might have said something to the Progressive Poetics project, initiated and organized by H. L. Hix.

The Progressive Poetics project asks each contributor to respond, in light of something she or he has already said in print, to this question: 
“Poetry makes nothing happen.” (W. H. Auden, 1939) 
“To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” (Theodor Adorno, 1949) 
Though often cited as timeless, authoritative truths about poetry, those two pronouncements were made at particular historical moments, in particular cultural contexts, and from particular subject positions. But we (choose any “we” from those of us alive now) occupy various subject positions, live in various circumstances, and stand nearer the mid-twenty-first century than the mid-twentieth. It is not self-evident that we should (continue to) defer to Auden and Adorno, so: 
What must or might be said now about poetry?

Friday, August 28, 2015

Yoko Ono Haiku

After seeing the Yoko Ono retrospective at MoMA:

painted half a moon tonight
Yoko Ono

Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Sense of Style and Haiku

WL recommended Steven Pinker's The Sense of Style. Pinker is a graceful and persuasive advocate for what he calls the classic style. To write clearly and expressively, as if showing a reader a view outside the window, or engaging a reader in a conversation of equals, one can do worse than consult this book. My one reservation is that the classic style is not the only style of value. Pinker admits as much, but he is a partisan.


Summer sunset
smelling of oranges

Friday, August 21, 2015

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Censored Again?

A Singapore news website requested a copy of my book STEEP TEA, and an email interview with me. They have now decided not to run the article because "this may not be the best time to publish an article about your book (it's elections period here)." The other reason given is that the article will not attract the kind of people who read the website. The explanation smacks of both self-censorship and dumbing-down. The journalist involved is not at fault; he has been helpful and professional throughout. I also find it hard to blame the website for caving in to political pressures to self-censor. Since the interview will not be used, I regard my answers as my own intellectual property, and so will publish them here. You will have to imagine the questions yourself, and view their absence as a sign of the censorship that Singaporean writers and artists endure. If you read my answers, you will see how innocuous they are, and therefore how afraid we are.

About Steep Tea. 
1. Question 
Steep Tea is divided into two parts. The first part looks at my life in New York City, the second at my life in Singapore. You can say that the book is a Tale of Two Cities. I moved from Singapore to New York 12 years ago, and I have been looking for connections between them ever since. The connections have to do with love, sex, family, job, travel, in other words, the stuff of daily life. The art is to try to stamp this stuff into a memorable form, which is what poetry is to me. 
2. Question 
I’m not proud of it, but I’ve always been ashamed of my mother. For the whys, read this blog-post (…/mothers-not-muses-by-…). Because of this shame, I’ve always been looking for surrogate mothers. Poets make good surrogates. So, in Steep Tea, I quote 34 women from 14 countries, ranging from the sixteenth century to the present day. The poems are my replies—in the form of agreement, qualification, rebuttal, change of topic—to them. Two Singaporean poets are quoted: Lee Tzu Pheng and Leong Liew Geok, for their work calls out for a response. 
3. Question 
Sheer pleasure. I like what the former US Poet Laureate Donald Hall said: ““The pleasure of writing is that the mind does not wander, any more than it does in orgasm, —and writing takes longer than orgasm.” I have poetic orgasms most mornings and they last for about two hours. This does not mean that my poems are about happy things. They are about angst, frustration, rage, guilt, fear, but the experience of writing transforms them into pleasure. The American poet Charles Simic describes this process very well: “Imagination equals Eros. I want to experience what it's like to be inside someone else in the moment when that someone is being touched by me.”

About yourself 
1. Question 
When I was in Secondary One, I wrote a poem about rain, which was read over national radio. The check that arrived in the mail confirmed my vocation as a poet. 
2. Question 
I was too afraid to come out as gay in Singapore, so I had to move to New York to be who I am. I was also too busy working in Singapore to write, so I had to move to New York to find out if I was any good as a poet. I came out as a gay man and a writer at the same time, so to speak. 
3. Question 
I have cravings for noodles. There is this wonderful ramen place on the Upper West Side, where I live. I go there often for lunch, to get my fill of spicy tonkotsu, kimchi and miso ramen. I love going to Malaysian restaurants when I travel. In London to launch Steep Tea, I broke fast with Malay and Indian Muslims in a restaurant called The Flavors of Malaysia. The restaurant was owned by a Malay family from KL. I thought that was unusual. The Malaysian restaurants in NYC are Chinese-owned. To paraphrase Cleopatra, I have laksa longings in me. 
4. Question 
I was one of the featured readers at ContraDiction, a gay pride event. The censors banned me from reading aloud the poem on the excuse that it promoted “the homosexual lifestyle.” Ng Yi-Sheng, one of the organizers, had the brainwave of passing out to the audience handouts of the poem, so that everyone could read it for him or herself. To the ban, and other bans such as the one by National Library of the three children’s books that depict non-traditional families, and the ban of Tan Pin Pin’s film “To Singapore, with Love,” I say: Grow up, Singapore! If you don’t agree with something, write your own book or make your own film. Don’t stop the conversation. 
5. Question 
There is no doubt in my mind that Cyril Wong is the best living poet writing in Singapore right now. His poems are deeply felt and imaginatively wrought. He is very versatile. There is nothing in Singapore poetry like his long Zen poem Satori Blues or his satirical fantasia The Dictator’s Eyebrow. A more recent favorite is Yeow Kai Chai, whose writing keeps pushing forward the boundaries of lyric poetry. Alfian Sa’at would have given both a run for their money, had he not gone over to the stage.

The bizarre 
1. Question 
Noodles! See above. 
2. Question 
I admire Edwin Thumboo’s early work. His poem “Gods Can Die,” for instance, is a powerful statement about the alienating effects of power. Then he became one of the gods and lost his lyre. Have you read his poem from the recent LKY anthology, A Luxury We Cannot Afford (Math Paper Press)? It’s terrible: servile and smug, deaf to its own diction. A huge disappointment from someone who reshaped his poetic career to be the national poet. 
3. Question 
Broccoli. Don’t you think it’s such a weird-looking veg? I was going to do a stir-fry one night in the apartment that my boyfriend and I just moved into. As I was cutting up the vegetables, I had the strong sensation that I was becoming my mother. The sensation was so hateful that I almost walked out of the apartment. I did not. Instead, I wrote a poem called “Broccoli” and put it in my new book.

New development:

All right, the journalist has just written back to say that by his statement "this may not be the best time to publish an article about your book (it's elections period here)," he meant that the news website readership is more interested in the elections now than anything else; he did not mean that the website is censoring itself. He also says that his editors consulted him on publishing the article and he decided to withdraw the article as he deemed it not interesting enough in the election season to their readership. Now I'm not sure what to think. What he says is plausible enough, maybe even probably true. If so, I leapt to the wrong conclusion, and am suitably embarrassed. In my own mitigation, I'd say, however, that past and recent past acts of government censorship gave me cause to jump.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

A History of Clocks

Look what came in a blue starry bag in the mail. Jennifer Anne Champion's beautiful chapbook A History of Clocks, a postcard from Tel Aviv, another postcard titled "Jiak Gan Tang" for the Angmoh Singaporean, AND a poem written for me!

First, to find the blank page.
Not as some would say to confront the notebook
Recently acquired from the store.  
The slate is already filled with someone else's opinion
Someone you should love a little less or perhaps
A little more?... 

Thanks, Jennifer!

Monday, August 17, 2015

Thanks, Patty!

A lovely congratulatory note from my dear friend and colleague, Patty. It's so nice to get a real letter in the mail. She wrote from Narrowsburg, NY.

The Columbia Anthology of Japanese Essays

A stimulating selection of zuihitsu, the Japanese essay form that is, as aptly characterized by the editor Steven D. Carter, the anti-method method. Deploying a broad definition of zuihitsu, Carter includes not only the canonical such as The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon and Yoshida No Kenko's Essays in Idleness, but also haikai prose by Matsuo Basho and Natsume Seibi, and some tales of the unusual. Four qualities unite this diverse collection of prose: the writing is personal and casual, instead of formal and scholarly; the subject matter is not restricted but includes anything that occurs to the writer; the writing aims to entertain and impress; the purely fictional is excluded. The selection of works is generous also in terms of the time period covered, from the Heian period to the twentieth century. I'm particularly pleased to make the acquaintance of Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801) in "Jeweled Comb Basket"; Tachibana Nankei (1753-1805) in "Idle Chats Beneath a Northern Window"; Matsudaira Sadanobu (1758-1829) in "Blossoms and the Moon"; Uchida Hyakken (1889-1971) in "Idle Fantasies," "Bumpy Road" and "A Long Fence" written under the pseudonym of Master Hyakken; Osaragi Jiro (1897-1973) in "Sleepless Nights" and "A Bed for My Books"; Shono Junzo (1921-2009) in "The Road"; and Sakai Junko (1966- ) in "On Zuihitsu."

Friday, August 14, 2015

Things about Costa de Barcelona I Will Not Forget

Things about Costa de Barcelona I Will Not Forget 

Not the taste of paella marinera but the taste of anticipation. Anchovies.

Beach that smells of cigarette ash. Men, like so many beaten up luxury boats, cruising in the lap of the Mediterranean. The water is so clear off Platja des Cavallet that I see the ghost of the fish that I ate last night.

Eight years ago, you treaded the narrow walkway around the construction scaffolding inside the Sagrada Familia. Now the nave is polished to a shine, the light streaming through the stained glass windows as if through water. It’s all too bright and clean to you. When the church is finished in ten years’ time, it will be just another church, Gaudi dead as a saint in the basement.

What chance! Meeting B and J on the train to Sitges. I first met them in Madrid a month ago, when we were standing still. Lying in an enormous bed with our new friends, in a restaurant overlooking the sea, we drank too much. Nothing happened, but a morning hard-on-and-on.

Another night, grilling a sea bass over a charcoal fire on the roof. Adding eggplant, peppers, onions bought from the local market. B says that they usually walk around their apartment in the nude. On his last visit, a beautiful boy rode a bike in his direction. He dismounted only three feet away and took off his shirt.

The ferry to Formentera.

After half an hour, the paella is still not ready, and I’m glad that you are not here with your impatience. Happy birthday, love. The day will soon be over.

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Steep Tea in Desperate Literature

Guy visited Desperate Literature Bookshop, where I read from my book STEEP TEA. He took these photos. When you are in Madrid, be sure to visit this lovely bookshop and get a copy of STEEP TEA from Madrid! We're leaving for Barcelona tomorrow morning.

Saturday, August 01, 2015

Things about Andalusia I Will Not Forget

Things about Andalusia I Will Not Forget 

So many palm trees, shooting up like fireworks. A courtyard of orange trees. After harvest, the sunflower stalks stand alert as otters.

The Alhambra is a mosaic of not two, not three, but four dimensions. After moving through its fountains, gardens, and palaces, I see on the way home the tessellation of leaves and the space between leaves. I see the tessellation of leaves and the time between leaves.

Riding pillion behind my host on a motorbike and slipping through the streets of Sevilla.

In Murillo’s great painting, the child gives his coin to his mother, with a look of tenderness that only a child can give, just as the towering saint gives his money to the beggar man. Outside the cathedral, one night, the guitarist waved away the coin proffered by a child. He did not want charity but to sell his compact discs.

Mecca is east-southeast but the Mosque of Córdoba faces south because its royal builder was homesick for Damascus. Representing the earth, its perfect square dances in red and white arabesques, until it is severed in the aorta by the flashing sword of a Cathedral nave. I could not bear to look around the church. How could an architect destroy the best work of another architect? A king, a bishop would, yes, that is the way of the world, but an artist?

In the Alcázar del Rey, in the oldest part of Sevilla, there is a garden that remembers the meeting in friendship of the Spanish poets called the Generation of ‘27. Will I be remembered? And whom will I be remembered with?

Friday, July 31, 2015

Los Gallos

At the Plaza de Santa Cruz, I watched the Los Gallos (The Cocks) tablao flamenco last night. Great singers and guitarists. The male dancer was terrific, as was one of three female dancers. The oldest one, of course.

Loud as castanets
the dancer snaps her fingers—
fish, fowl, and flesh

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