Poetry in Singapore

The poetry scene thrives in cafés and on the internet, says Alvin Pang



Due to our colonial heritage and English-based education system, Singapore is one of the few territories in Asia with a strong tradition of writing in English. This dates back to at least the late 19th century. Perhaps the first significant native writing occurred in the '50s and '60s, energised by the independence movement, and the decades of "nation-building" which followed. Many writers (mostly poets) active at the time, soon came to occupy influential positions in academia. These scholar-poets – among them Edwin Thumboo, Arthur Yap, Lee Tzu Pheng and Kirpal Singh – still receive critical attention internationally, but are less well-known outside the university and literary circuit, although they exert a palpable influence behind the scenes.


Poetry in the late '90s enjoyed something of a renaissance, with the happy confluence of several positive factors: the rise of the internet, the emergence of small literary presses, and the arrival of a new generation of young poets. Radically, none of the new poets of note are academics: typically in their twenties to early thirties, many are professionals in fields far removed from poetry. Several have been educated at top schools overseas. I believe their very different backgrounds allow this new breed of Singaporean poets a fresh perspective and energy that has been lacking in the scene for decades. The new poetry is wonderfully diverse, yet distinctively urban and cosmopolitan, modern, frequently street-wise, often startlingly intimate (even solipsistic, some have protested). The celebrated literary prodigy Alfian Saat is a prime example. Still in his twenties and a medical student, his deeply politicised and highly articulate poems, fiction and plays have attracted much adulation, from teenagers to university professors. Other names of note include: Cyril Wong, Felix Cheong, Toh Hsien Min and Paul Tan.


It wasn't all easy going. Market forces being what they are, poetry seldom makes the headlines: there is no longer even a literary section in the national broadsheet. As elsewhere, the literary arts play poor cousin to glitzier genres such as the performing arts, visual arts and music – hence attracting a miniscule fraction of an already shrinking arts budget. Local writing is also glaringly absent from our schools, which at any rate are steeped in the Cambridge exam syllabus and tend to eschew the "difficult" subject of literature. Astonishingly, we've nevertheless managed to spawn quite a few gifted student writers, including several Foyle Young Poets.


Our poets have had to stake their claim on the cultural map by becoming outright literary activists over the past eight years. They started and hosted readings, such as the monthly Subtext reading at the boutique Book Cafe (hosted by poet Yong Shu Hoong). They pushed small presses, notably Ethos Books, Landmark Books and Firstfruits, to publish a steady stream of high-quality, very well-designed volumes of poetry. Some of these books have gone on to win commercial design awards. Younger poets have also fronted a slate of non-scholarly anthologies such as Capsule and No Other City: The Ethos Anthology of Urban Poetry, and launched what I'm tempted to describe as aggressive tours to America, Australia, Asia and the UK (including the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2003). They even put together Singapore's first international poetry festival, Wordfeast (www.wordfeast.com) in January this year, and started a Literary Centre (www.literarycentre.com). We've seen readings in restaurants and wine-bars, by the sea, on roof-tops, even at the zoo. And poetry slams (a recent phenomenon) attract hundreds each month to Singapore's top clubbing joint, Zouk.


The internet has also been a godsend. As high-impact, low-cost platforms for publication, publicity and public discussion, our literary websites attract thousands of readers from all over the world, and have become the primary means of spotting new talent or showcasing the latest events. Toh Hsien Min, a former Oxford University Poetry Society president, is the founding editor of Quarterly Literary Review Singapore (www.qlrs.com), the premier literary journal on and off the web. Other lit-sites include The 2nd Rule (www.the2ndrule.com), The Poetry Billboard (www.poetrybillboard.com), and the Literary Singapore Infodesk (www.writer.per.sg), a literary news service.


Where is it all going? There's definitely an audience for poetry now, but perhaps not yet a discerning readership. And something needs to be done about the dearth of new women poets (there are successful women novelists but hardly any published poets. Heng Siok Tian and Madeleine Lee are two exceptions). I'd also like to see more fertile exchanges between literary communities – it's absurd, in a multi-cultural city like Singapore, that writers in our major language groups know so little about each other's work. Interdisciplinary experiments between poetry and the other arts have only just begun. Drop by in person – or online – and see for yourself: there's plenty brewing in this giddy, infuriating, unsentimental city on the edge that's always on edge.


Poet, editor and webmaster Alvin Pang read at the poetry cafe in 2003. His most recent volume is City of Rain (ethos books 2003).