Reviews / June 2015 (Issue 28)

Singapore, Anthologised: A Luxury We Cannot Afford and SingPoWriMo

by Collier Nogues


Christine Chia and Joshua Ip (editors), A Luxury We Cannot Afford: An Anthology of Singapore Poetry, Math Paper Press, 2014. 127 pgs.

Ann Ang, Joshua Ip and Pooja Nansi (editors), SingPoWriMo: The Anthology, Math Paper Press, 2014. 264 pgs.


Math Paper Press makes beautiful books that are slim and well-designed, and it publishes some of Singapore's best poets. With the arrival of A Luxury We Cannot Afford and SingPoWriMo: The Anthology, it is safe to say that the press publishes some of Singapore's best-curated anthologies, too. Despite their radically different thematic conceits, both are concerned with poetry's place in Singapore, and both make strong arguments for its continued relevance to Singaporean writers, readers and culture.

A Luxury We Cannot Afford, edited by Joshua Ip and Christine Chia, collects 65 poems by 56 writers on the topic of "The Man," Lee Kuan Yew, whose memorable dismissal of poetry lends the collection its title. Though nowhere is his name spelt out, Ip and Chia dedicate the anthology "to the Man, with love and honour," and the subject of these poems will prove a mystery to no one after reading Gwee Li Sui's Foreword, titled "No Man But One is an Island." It's important to note that the book came out months before Lee died, though as of the publication date it was not news that he was ailing. Especially in the wake of Lee's passing and the public and international reactions to it, including pointed questions about where Singapore is headed, this book is timely and necessary reading.

Of course, it reads differently if you are Singaporean, or closely familiar with Singaporean literature and politics, than if you are an outsider. For Singaporeans, the references to milestone quotes like the title, or images like Lee's famous tears while announcing Singapore's expulsion from Malaysia, will be familiar. As Gwee Li Sui points out, Lee Kuan Yew's "backstory is heard a million times if one has grown up on the island." For someone who's relatively new to Singaporean literature and the intricacies of its politics, A Luxury We Cannot Afford is an ideal way to begin understanding Lee's significance in shaping the city state and the range of ways Singaporeans have responded to his always-visible hand.

At the most basic level, the reader is treated to a poetic review of Lee's biography as it intersects with the biography of Singapore as a society and a state. The editors have organised the poems so that the first of three sections traces milestone events: his secondary-school competition with Kwa Geok Choo, his future wife; the televised moment he announced Singapore's expulsion from Malaysia; his wife's death and wake; his refusal to allow a mausoleum for himself to be built.

In the second section, poets grapple with the relationship of poetry to the state, and in the third, with Lee's legacy. Across the sections, a few themes emerge. One striking pattern is the series of titles suggesting the inescapable ironies and contradictions of Lee's influence: "Unaffordable Sonnet," "Impossible Biography," "Early Elegy." Even more striking is the intimacy with which many of these poets project themselves into Lee's life and mind. In the first section alone, there are six poems which use second person's direct address, ranging from Edwin Thumboo's defense of Lee:

Among early leaders who clenched our
Stiffening ambitions amassing drive
To freedom and nation for our tribes,
You helped clear the shanks off one
Small dawn.
These children of success never knew broken
Bowls, tight choices, many mouths, loss of

to Koh Jee Leong's less hagiographical stanza-by-stanza comparison of his life to Lee's:

Like it or not, I'm more like you than I'm like Mao,
Mahatma Gandhi, Mahathir, Major or Madison.
Less like the Ghost than we are like the Holy Goh,
you are much more like me than God is like his Son.

to Shawn Hoo's "02/10/10," a direct address not to Lee, but from him in first person to his wife Kwa Geok Choo on the date she died:

You left, knowing the way things work
Between us: one always a step ahead
Or behind the other. Then it's true—
I don't trust novelists enough to know—
That life does turn out like the literature
You loved to read, to hear.

Hoo's poem, like many in this anthology, pointedly refers to Lee's famous lack of interest in literature's relevance to a developing nation. But literature is powerful, Mr. Lee, suggests poet after poet. They address him directly in second person, or speak as him in first person, or watch him and his thoughts in intimate, omniscient third. Poetry allows a writer to inhabit someone else, to project, to seek to understand decisions made from inside, and these poets inhabit Lee as he inhabited Singapore: pervasively, powerfully, with a firm hand coaxing real gardens from imagination.

There are so many standout poems here, in a range of forms: the aforementioned sonnet, a ghazal, haiku, excerpts from verse plays. Some of my favorites are epistolary: Daryl Yam's "Love Letters to H" and Amanda Lee Koe's relentlessly interrogating and funny "Last Night I Dreamt That H Was In Love With Me." ("H" stands for Harry, Lee's English name, which his familiars used all his life.) Yeow Kai Chai's anagrams of "A Luxury We Cannot Afford" push systematic organisation to its limits, insisting that when structured bureaucratically, nonsense becomes something other than nonsense (and yet of course, still is nonsense).

There are barbed edges, too—Cyril Wong's "Threshold: or an Early Elegy" cuts sharply, for example. But the playfulness at work here is important; it's clear that the writers are largely in line with the editors' declaration of "love and honour," though sometimes those feelings are directed more at Singapore itself than The Man. And across the board, as Gwee notes, "this anthology is as much a social document as it is artistic pleasure." It is a portrait, a biography, an anti-hagiography and it should be required reading.

SingPoWriMo is a different sort of anthology, one organised by process rather than by theme, though it is as interested as A Luxury is in how poetry fits into Singaporean life. This collection is based in the first annual Singapore Poetry Writing Month, and so is explicitly focused on dailiness, or integrating poem-writing into daily life as a community-building challenge. Last year, the event's first, 454 people participated, writing and posting hundreds of poems to the SingPoWriMo Facebook page.

This collection aims for democratic representation; as editor Ann Ang points out, the event "brought together anyone and everyone who has made a small shady spot in their lives for a well-turned line of words." Rather than the conventional title/author listing in the Table of Contents, SingPoWriMo lists its authors only in an index; even the biographies, unlinked to any particular piece of writing, come before that information. Leafing through the biographies, it is striking how many young poets there are; this is a collection of poetry by Singaporeans rather than by acknowledged Singaporean poets. That, along with the book's organisation (30 brief sections, each headlined by that day's prompts), makes this book a particularly useful classroom or workshop teaching tool for all age ranges. The prompts run the gamut from, as editor Joshua Ip describes Alvin Pang's contributions, the "micromanagement of the individual word," to Pooja Nansi's more "macro-concept" prompts, like "write a poem about yourself in which nothing you say is true."

Not only are the prompts great, but so are the examples of how different poets have made use of each of them in radically different ways. For example, here are two excerpts from Day 4 (in the spirit of the anthology, I'll not share the authors, except in endnotes)[i]. The prompt words were "set, force, lick, skin, fear, land." Both poems are rhyming couplets, and the second fulfills Bonus 1: "use only words of one syllable in your poem."

From "Chief Clerk":

She's one of the men, but not quite.
Her uniform's been modified,
With its green secretary skirt,
Though the hem is set at anti-flirt.

And from "Pulse":

Get Dressed. Set Song
Sing Loud. Drag Long.
Cheap Wine. Cab Shared.
Tight jeans. Set Hair.

Or take Day 25, whose prompt "write a poem without verbs" yielded "Greener Pastures," a poem laid out like a menu; a three-stanza, 29-line poem called "Migration" and this poem:

"excerpt from longer poem"[ii]
Us stardust.
Us, stardust. U star d us t.
Dust, s t ar d us t d u s t d u s t.

What's remarkable about this anthology is that it is able to preserve, in a print anthology published months after the event, the feeling of impromptu, energised, collective work that must have been present as SingPoWriMo progressed on Facebook. Readers will get a strong sense of the interweaving themes and forms (Haiku from Hamlet!), of poets building on each other's work (rewritings of Edwin Thumboo and Alvin Pang poems) and incorporating their poetic lives off-site (Christine Chia's references to Dickinson and Jen Bervin), and of new forms infiltrating poets' practice as the month went on (the liwuli was introduced as the prompt on Day 22, and shows up later in the advice poems of Day 28).

And it should be said that a certain playful cynicism sounds familiar here, after reading A Luxury We Cannot Afford. Here's that Day 28 "advice" liwuli:

"How to Win at Managing Crisis"[iii]
Activate relevant personnel. Issue conflicting statements, preferably
at the same time. Assume people are bodoh.
Maintain dodging
Questions altogether.
Engage bomohs.
Who cares whether
The whole world is watching?

Ultimately, both of these anthologies establish the truth of Ann Ang's description of SingPoWriMo: "it's obvious … that poetry is still relevant in our city. More than ever, poetry is a means of confronting ourselves."


[i] "Chief Clerk" is by Alfian Sa'at; "Pulse" is by Pooja Nansi

[ii] by Grace Chua

[iii] by Low Kian She

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All poems, stories and other contributions copyright to their respective authors unless otherwise noted.