The Struggle of Poetry October 07, 2017 22:49

by Tse Hao Guang

There’s a paradox in today’s poetry that, at least for me, won’t go away.

It seems most people who are interested in poetry view it as a writer's attempt to bring a singular thing to the world, through the most accessible medium of written or spoken language. No expensive musical instrument, canvas, ballet shoe, or actor is needed beyond this language; at the most, you’d need paper and pen, or a functioning throat.

Going further, a good poet isn’t necessarily a linguist or someone with a large vocabulary and impeccable grammar. Although it might help, we don’t require poets to be technical masters of language to be good. We like to think a poet can be anyone, even someone like Yu Xiuhua, who never completed formal education but used the Internet to teach herself how to write poetry, including her now-famous piece “Crossing half the country to sleep with you”. (Some would go further to say that anyone can be a poet).

Yet, clearly, not everything is poetry. We prize uniqueness; plagiarism, imitation, doggerel, and cliché is usually seen as antithetical to it. Even in places where appropriation is the point, it is really—if you think about it—the singular that readers look out for.

In erasure, we see how the poet has transformed an old text. In parody, the poet celebrates the distinctive “voice” of the figure she imitates, to humorous, poignant, or satirical effect. Certain kinds of conceptual poetry, like Kenneth Goldsmith’s “Uncreative Writing”, are controversial and open to attack precisely because they aim for other goals besides uniqueness.

For the most part, poetry seems required to fill dual opposing roles. On one hand, poetry seems to assume a social, almost universal function—this recalls the earliest forms of poetry, the utterances of the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Jewish holy writings, the Sumerian priestess Enheduanna. In these, the beliefs and worldview of an entire people is articulated and made sacred; the work presumes to speak for everyone. Closer to home, this tendency manifests as nationalistic poetry, where the need to create a Singaporean identity drives much cultural production post-independence, and continues in every appeal to ‘Singlit’ as important because it tells Singaporean stories to Singaporeans.

On the other hand, in the wake of Romanticism and the rise of the lyric, the conceptual, and the swing towards playing with language itself, readers also demand from poetry an asocial, even antisocial function, where the poet’s “voice” or “process” or “point of view” is valued for its inimitable or groundbreaking or marginal nature. The poet could care less about a national mythos; she speaks only to herself.

This paradox is recognised and fully exploited in the best poetry. 

One way to understand the paradox is through formal poetry. Traditional form (say, haiku) may be used as a way to invoke a widely understood set of assumptions (short, imagistic, nature, cutting word, 5-7-5), while content may then assert the genius of a poet who makes new things in spite or because of formal restrictions. Here is Angeline Yap’s take:

Newel of a stair,
Your emptiness is central
And extends (UnFree Verse, p. 80)

The final reduced line is interesting precisely because we know the rules of the haiku (three, not five syllables!). It becomes meaningful when we sense the poem speaking of a certain nothingness that is nonetheless at the core of things. The poem stops at the word “extends”, spitting in the face of its shortening.

Another aspect of this is English-language use in a context like Singapore’s. English originated from a faraway place, and become a colonial, then world language, accessed by billions. At the same time, it seems possible to speak of specifically Singaporean or Malayan situations in such a language, with some writers challenging Standard English doing so. Here’s how Hamid Roslan ends his “Mak Kau Punya Manifesto”:

[ … ] Use your brain. If got formula
we sure export already lah bodoh. Kan dah
kena bodoh. Don’t ask me for footnote. When
you read English you look up. They always
tell you speak up boy, speak up. Now I speak up. (OF ZOOS 5.1)

UnFree Verse is concerned with both formal poetry and Singlit in English, and this is partly the reason why I embarked on such a long and laborious project. Looking for poems which exemplified the tensions laid out above was my way of struggling through the paradox in my own writing. I asked: how have others struggled too?

UnFree Verse edited by Tse Hao Guang, Joshua Ip, and Theophilus Kwek

I believe the struggle is significant only because it parallels an aspect of the human condition. That is, humans are social creatures, bound by society’s attendant assumptions and limitations. Yet, part of being human is being individual, and reconciling this is a force that propels us through life.

This is, in general, why I think a good poem should give both the shock of surprise but also the profound stillness of inevitability, and why reading such poetry indirectly gives us, human beings, some insight into what it means to be us. I hope UnFree Verse does that, even if imperfectly.


Read next: Selected poems from UnFree Verse.

Tse Hao Guang was assembled with parts from Hong Kong and Malaysia. His first full-length poetry collection, Deeds of Light (Math Paper Press, 2015), was shortlisted for the 2016 Singapore Literature Prize. He co-edits the cross-genre, collaborative journal OF ZOOS, and serves as the critical essays editor of poetry.sg. He is a 2016 fellow of the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program.

Why do poets use Rhyme? August 23, 2017 14:00

What is the purpose of rhyme in poetry? How does rhyme effect the meaning of a poem? Joshua Ip, one of the editors of UnFree Verse, looks at 5 examples of rhyme poetry to decode their music and the evolution of rhyme in Singapore poetry from 1967 to 2015.

UnFree Verse edited by Tse Hao Guang, Joshua Ip, and Theophilus Kwek

It seems a pity that in reply to a young Prof Koh Tai Ann in 1967, Mr Lee Kuan Yew adopted the attitude that "poetry is a luxury we cannot afford." Perhaps his impression of poetry had been shaped by the rough-at-the-edges, nonconformist free verse of the Beats. Such a wild-haired, untamed genre had no place in the rigid social structures of Singapore then. But the history of poetry in Singapore and beyond had always been scaffolded by the pillars of rhyme and meter, long before free verse was a twinkle in a modernist's eye. Had he considered the rigorous patterns of a rhyme scheme as a symbol of order imposed upon linguistic chaos, or the soothing, familiar effects of repeated vowel-sounds as a metaphor for the repetitive mantras and sutras that were our nation-building tenets, he too might have turned in his hatchet for a quill.

Rhyme lingers in our deepest mind after the noise of rhetoric has long faded away. It worms its way into our inner ear and whispers at us years after we first met. And in typical Singaporean manner, it provides comfortable expectations and a conservative sense of certainty, just as "forevermore / give your best and more / give a little more" must inevitably follow some lines after an end-stopped "Singapore" in a National Day song. A rhyme scheme serves the same purpose as a chord structure in music—a naturally pleasing form of repetition mixed with just the right amount of complexity and variation.

Examine the first stanza of Hedwig Anuar's “Love Match” (1956)

The lady says she’s willing
She declares the prospect thrilling,
But the gentleman isn’t quite so sure.
He’s not quite so romantic,
He’s driving her quite frantic—
Can it be that she lacks enough allure?

The rhyme declares itself unabashedly from the first line to the last—it calls attention to itself, it reminds us clearly where each line ends, and drives the punchy satire home with every echoed vowel and consonant pair. Anuar even uses the flashier feminine rhymes—two-syllable pairings such as "willing"/"thrilling" and "romantic"/"frantic", which are doubly musical, doubly ostentatious—and are appropriate for the snarky humour of the piece comparing Singapore and Malaysia to two somewhat star-crossed lovers. We know exactly what we're getting, and we know how to read it with style. The aab ccb rhyme scheme, alternating side-by-side feminine rhymes and distanced masculine rhymes, is as familiar as an old jazz standard, and has long been used for light-hearted ballads and plays.

Over time our taste for chord structures has grown more advanced and demanding, so too has our taste for rhyme. The simple end-stopped hard rhyme of "hear the lion roar" and "We are Singapore" no longer excites—rather, it becomes so predictable it bores. This has led many poets to abandon rhyme completely. But sound still underlies poetry—the challenge has just been taken to a higher level for modern day wordsmiths to interweave the pleasing chimes of rhyme in their works in subtler ways.

Robert Yeo employs a few strategies to muffle the sounds of too-obvious rhyme in “Phnom Penh I” (1977):

Embattled, the city shows no obvious sign
Of war. But queues of Vespas and Hondas,
Wide, bare boulevards, the silence after nine,
Point to the plight of the reluctant of Khmers

"Sign" and "nine" are rhymes as perfect and hard as two cymbals. Leaving them at the end of two lines with full-stops after them is equivalent to bringing the cymbals together with a giant clang. But Robert goes on after "sign" in the first line—he enjambs, or runs-on the sentence into "Of war" in the next poetic line, before taking a pause. Instead of a glaring clang highlighted by an open silence after, we get a light clash within the rhythm of the whole band.

Do "Hondas" rhyme with "Khmers"? The second "uh" vowel does, depending on differing regional pronunciations of these non-English-origin words. So this is a half-rhyme, and doubly halved by the rhyming syllable being the shorter, unstressed syllable of "Hondas" (and few readers being able to pronounce "Khmers" accurately on first viewing ...)—despite both coming at the end of a line, the "uh" rhymes slide into the background like the shimmering tingle of an open high-hat in the flow of a line.

UnFree Verse—Singapore's literary history through formal verse

Ee Tiang Hoong's “Epilogue” (1985) offers a different set of strategies to sneak the rhyme into the poem.

Or if it does attend,
we may not tell
how mind or heart
should turn its meaning
but where it will.

And some there are
who have denied us all
fellowship and identity
reserved their rank
in the national roll.

But should you read these lines,
and if they move,
I would you share their longing
with a friend, our people,
and all who love.

The rhymes appear, but not in every line, only the 2nd and 5th of each stanza. Separated by three lines, the ear struggles to hear them with the same regularity, especially with the absence of a strict meter to regulate the repetition. And as further diversion, each of the stanzas is a single sentence, eliding the ripple of each rhyme into the wave of the long run-on.

Contrary to the previous example, the rhymes here ignore the vowels in favour of matching consonants: "tell"/ "will", "all"/"roll", "move"/"love" are consonances or consonant-rhymes. The last ("move"/"love") is a subset known as eye-rhyme, where it looks like it should rhyme normally—but doesn't. The rhyme becomes even less obvious when it loses the open vowels, and retains only the percussion of the consonants—closer to the rhythmic "chck" of a closed high-hat.

Twenty years later, the rhymes in Eddie Tay's “Beginning His Day” (2005) are barely noticeable if read out. 

His arm nudges her pillow-creased body.
She grimaces at the naked ceiling
while the clock plays a pressing melody.
Seven, for her, is like every morning.
She proceeds to the kitchen for breakfast.
Shells crack on rim. She knows he likes them raw.
Yellow blends meekly when beaten. The past
was never like that. But marriage is law.

Who would notice the eye-rhymes of "body" and "melody", or "breakfast" and "past"? The last is even less noticeable as it enjambs into the next sentence—reading this poem out loud, one barely hesitates on the line break at "The past" to ruminate on that subject, before the poetic line sweeps on into a disavowal of what the present is. Even where Tay adopts perfect rhyme with "raw" and "law", with two end-stopped sentences, he prevents them from being predictable by breaking the line in the middle with a caesura after "Shells crack on rim" and "was never like that". Instead of head-wagging, five-beat lines of iambic pentameter, the end-stopped full rhymes come after fragmentary sentences in a series of enjambed interjections.

I liken this to rhythmic syncopation the sharp emphasis of the down-beat happening not where you predict it, carrying past each bar into the next with a sense of off-balance surprise.

David Wong takes this to the next level in "The Inquisitor's Lover" (2015)

I am a collector of sins par ex-
cellence. I am an apostle of lax
living. While wisemen and salarymen
paint over the cracks of dead monuments
I made ronin of your serotonin, your

In the first six lines of this sonnet there isn't a single end-stopped line—every line runs on! Not content with breaking the sentence across the poetic line, he breaks a word - "ex-cellence" across the first two lines so he can rhyme "ex-" with "lax." Read it out: it's a faint, barely audible internal rhyme, yet tickles visually when it's read on the page. Rather than the subtlety of enjambment, this technique calls attention to itself, and deliberately so! 

Does "salarymen" rhyme with "monuments"? Both have "men" in them, so should we call this consonance or assonance or half-feminine rhyme? Why should we care, when we can just appreciate how "salarymen" lines up perfectly with "monuments", with one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed? And what about that splatter of "ronin", "serotonin" and "oxytocin"? The last two riff in the language of science, but the first hops registers to Japanese to achieve internal feminine rhymes that bridge not only cultures but a startling metaphor.

UnFree Verse—Why do poets use rhyme?

UnFree Verse, featuring a Cherub on the harp in the background.

This is bebop at its finest—the familiar tools of enjambment and internal rhyme taken to the next level of virtuosity, where flash and pizzazz is the name of the game rather than mere subtlety.

These five examples illustrate how different takes on rhyme can be used to convey a variety of moods: a familiar, pleasing standard; subtle, laid-back grooves; or an experimental freestyle riff-off. So the next time you hear a poem read out loud, listen for the rhymes—whether full rhymes, feminine rhymes, consonances or assonances. No matter if the poem purports to be free verse or not—every song has a chord progression and a chord structure, and every poem has hidden music lurking between or at the end of its lines.

Read next: Selected poems from UnFree Verse.

Joshua Ip is the Singapore Literature Prize-winning author of sonnets from the singlish upsized edition (2015), making love with scrabble tiles (2013), and sonnets from the singlish(2012). He has placed in three different categories of the Golden Point Award. He co-edits two series of anthologies: A Luxury We Cannot Afford and SingPoWriMo; and edits Ten Year Series, an imprint of Math Paper Press. He is working on a graphic novel, Ten Stories Below. He is the founder of Sing Lit Station, a non-profit that runs multiple community initiatives, including SingPoWriMo, Manuscript Bootcamp, poetry.sg, and several workshop groups. www.joshuaip.com.

Where does Singapore poetry begin? July 20, 2017 17:00

Theophilus Kwek, one of the editors of UnFree Verse, traces the roads leading to formal verse in Singapore and why it’s time to dissociate it with the establishment, colonial or otherwise.

Where does Singapore poetry begin?

When I was last in Singapore a year ago, the room I’m sitting in now didn’t exist. In its place, a cluster of low buildings – including the old Thomson Road Post Office (which opened in 1958), and several three-storey bungalows – lined the road up a lightly-wooded hill, overlooking the shophouses and eateries below.

The address itself holds a mystery. ‘Bright Hill Drive’ stops short over the crest of its slope, tantalizingly close to where Ethos Books is based today. Petering to a footpath, flanked by a metal fence and plucky tufts of grass, it reappears inexplicably some distance away, as a tributary of the meandering Sin Ming Avenue.

As it turns out, it matters how far back you look. In 1921, around the time my grandma’s grandma made her cramped voyage to Nanyang, an itinerant missionary (who was, like her, from Fujian) founded the Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery on land donated by a wealthy businessman. Though newer blocks now truncate the old thoroughfare, Kong Meng San – “Bright Hill” – remains the largest Buddhist temple in Singapore; a significant landmark in lived experience, and no doubt a source of local pride. 

So often, the streets themselves remind us of what lies beneath the simple topography of an online map, or road atlases updated year-by-year. In much the same way, putting together the manuscript for UnFree Verse demanded that we run our hands carefully over a familiar, too-flat city plan, if only to feel for the rough edges of another Singaporean landscape.

Too many brochures and book-jackets present what one might call the ‘Visitor’s Guide’ view of Singapore literature: as a neat trajectory taking shape from a wave of ‘new writing’ in the last ten or twenty years. Some look, more circumspectly, into the era before Ethos (or at least BooksActually), but rarely venture beyond the political milestones of the 1960s.

Drawing a map

When we began thinking about UnFree Verse, It was clear to us that another history needed to be pieced together, and one that traced a slightly different story.

We wanted to assemble a biography of formal verse in Singapore, a genre that has received some bad press in relation to its counterpart (and erstwhile nemesis) free verse. But neither is it the underdog of Singapore poetry. Often associated too easily with the establishment, colonial or otherwise, formal verse – in all its shape-shifting permutations – deserved to have its own tale told.

And what a tale it was. Across the decades, formal poetry appeared in the writings of dissidents and diplomats, professors and Presidents from all backgrounds and persuasions. It was also a strikingly global story: many of these forms are rooted in traditions from elsewhere, but live on in the voices of Singapore’s immigrants and exiles alike, blurring the line between our proverbial ‘stayers’ and ‘quitters’.

Many beginnings

A first, natural milestone is 'FMSR', a book-length poem published by Francis P. Ng (alias Teo Poh Leng) in 1937. We’ve chosen four sections of this visionary work, which can best be described as a rich palimpsest layered over a single train journey on the old Federated Malay States Railway, to open our anthology; its memorable opening lines (‘Millionaires from the New World with nothing else to do / Wander the Old World…’) speak directly to the unaffordable luxuries of the poet’s interwar context as well as our own. 

But even 'FMSR' is, by most measures, far too late a starting-point. Structure travels with speech, and formal poetry has arguably been part of the cadences of these parts since before the 14th Century royals of Singapura held court. With the East India Company’s signature cocktail of trade and conquest in the early 19th Century came another potent mix: the mongrel heritage of the English language, filtered through Europe’s past.

One poem that gestures to this earlier inheritance is Shirley Lim's 'Ah Ma' (pp 143-144), written in 1998. Its plainspoken opening lines ('Grandmother was smaller / than me at eight. Had she / been child forever?') come across as stiff – almost stilted – in comparison with FMSR's dynamic stanzas, but serve to ease us into a delicate terza rima, full of feminine endings and half-rhymes ('all / girl', 'young / sarong').

This form, in which the first and third lines of every tercet are rhyming, was famously pioneered by the medieval Italian poet Dante in his masterpiece The Divine Comedy (not long before Parameswara fled this island stronghold to re-establish his court at Malacca), and first used in English by Geoffrey Chaucer, who also wrote the Canterbury Tales. Lim uses it to frame this intimate portrait of a grandma against the same tradition, an epic of the everyday. Perhaps we should look to real-life ‘grandmother stories’ for our heroines.

Treading new paths

Other formal adaptations, such as Alfian Sa’at’s ‘The Electric Ghazals’ (extracted on pp 201-203), look even further back, to traditions originating across the Mediterranean from classical Europe. The ghazal, with rhyming couplets sharing the same ending refrain, has pre-Islamic roots, and flourished during the heyday of Sufism in the 12th Century – during which it crossed linguistic borders into South Asian traditions.

Electric Ghazals by Alfian Sa’at, taken from UnFree Verse

 In his long poem, Alfian borrows the form into English, adding a tender twist: each ghazal in the sequence is both dedicated (in its epigraph) to someone else, and addressed (in the text) to Alfian himself. Each becomes a dialogue, held in the quiet symmetry of its couplets, while the whole poem is a conversation of many voices.

Such processes of adaptation and cross-pollination, of course, involve bending age-old conventions. But there’s no reason why these forms of poetry should be static: poets in Singapore, after all, are occasionally best known for breaking rules as well as lines. As Alfian writes to Alfian: 

Alfian, how wantonly you break the rules of the ghazal.    
But if it makes you happy to call this one, then be happy.

The few pieces mentioned here are by no means an exhaustive survey of a new, quirky history of Singapore literature that, we hope, will find a place on your bookshelves (and in your hands). But the greater hope is this: that the oft-misunderstood story of formal verse in Singapore can – like other untold histories, like Bright Hill Drive – resurface to claim its place as part of a steadily expanding canon.

It is, after all, part of the road we know well; a landscape we live and make new.   



Read next: Selected poems from UnFree Verse.

Theophilus Kwek has published four volumes of poetry: They Speak Only Our Mother Tongue (2011), Circle Line (2014, shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize), Giving Ground (2016), and The First Five Storms (2017, winner of the New Poets’ Prize). He
recently won the Berfrois Poetry Prize, and was placed Second in the Stephen Spender Prize for Poetry in Translation; his work has also been widely published in international journals and anthologies. He served as President of the Oxford University Poetry Society, and is currently Co-Editor of both Oxford Poetry and The Kindling. He is the Chief Executive Assistant at Asymptote, a journal for world literature.

Why writing as resistance is not just about defiance February 27, 2017 08:00

by Foo Peiying

(Image credits: Klaas)

Mention writing as resistance and one of the first thoughts that comes to mind is defying the authorities, and having the police knock on your doors in the dead of the night. But Clara Chow believes in resistance of a different kind. In the first AfterWords of the year, she shows us how resistance can be an internal battle to come to terms with what has passed, and how the ideas that live on in our writing may be more important than the change it brings today.

What can an individual do in dark times; when one’s world is seemingly out of one’s control? Writing can be an act of resistance in such instances – a legitimate private response to outside forces.Clara Chow, author of Dream Storeys

What is resistance?

Clara begins the evening with definitions of resistance but it’s the one on physics which throws everyone off:

The degree to which a substance prevents the flow of an electric current through it.

To resist something, she says, you have to let it pass through you first. Instead of being pushed along by the waves of change and the indifference of justice, the human spirit is capable of first, taking it in, and then resisting it. For Clara, it was the feeling of alienation in a fast-changing city which drove her to write Dream Storeys. For others in the group, it ranged from environmental destruction, death of dialects, the survival of a writer in Singapore, one’s usefulness to society, loss of religious places (particularly Hindu shrines), death of music, to the 'disposable culture' that brought them to the session.

We then looked to Jim, who most recently published Payoh.

“Years later, when my publisher at Ethos Books asked me what inspired me to write Payoh, I dug into my memory, all I could remember was this particular incident, being told that I had to pay interest on my overdue income tax when I was in financial straits. The officer was polite. She was merely pointing out the rules and regulations. I did not argue. Instead I sat down and wrote a book…” – Jim Tan, author of Payoh

And a book on a political fable of birds at that.

Forms of written resistance

Using allegory in Payoh provided Jim the “freedom to write fantastical things without getting into trouble”, just as George Orwell got around censors and avoided offending people in Animal Farm. Clara suggests that allegory makes the work timeless: it transcends the settings and the moment when the author wrote it. As people continue to read it over different time periods, there will be new meanings which can be read from the story. We see how Animal Farm and 1984 continues to be relevant, and will be for a long time to come.

But sometimes, telling the truth may be even stronger than satire or allegory. When a person in power is able to dispel facts and figures, nothing will be a greater counter-spell than presenting reflections of reality which are hidden from sight. Paul Stroller in the Huffington post, Writing Resistance in the Age of Trump, suggests ethnography narratives to resist these false truths.

In ethnographic narratives, writers (journalists, dissenting officials and scholars) describe the conditions of social spaces and places to tell the stories of a person or group of people. How will their lives be inalterably upended by Trump’s proposed policies on health care, taxes, the environment, foreign policy or civil liberties? What are the human costs of living in a mythical world constructed of Big Lies? Put another way, ethnographic narrative dramatically links personal experience to larger social, political and economic issues. A continuous stream of well-crafted ethnographic narratives can have a powerful effect on general audiences of people who read blogs, listen to podcasts, or watch short and/or feature films on social platforms like YouTube or Vimeo.” – Paul Stroller, Writing Resistance in the Age of Trump

Other forms to resist these false truths that are mentioned: Journalism, poetry, science & speculative fiction, storytelling movements, social media, talking through an issue with a friend, praying.

And there is an interesting observation for us here: poetry is the most prevalent form of written resistance in Singapore. There lives the poetry group SingPoWriMo, provocative poetry book titles like A Luxury We Cannot Afford, and Singapore being the only country (to our knowledge) to produce more poetry than novels. And we’re writing to resist heartbreaks, inter-racial discord, technology, terrorism ... these are just a small sampling of what's out there.

Clara wraps up this section with a gem: Writing as resistance doesn’t just happen when you write a novel – every small piece of writing you do is a piece of resistance: in a podcast; on a Facebook status update; a personal blog post. It doesn’t have to be epic.

But are all forms of writing resistance?

Complaining, hate speech, baseless ranting, misrepresentation, and propaganda speech. We all nod in agreement that these forms are not considered resistance. Then, a contentious point arises: Can a completely bleak and tragic tale be a form of resistance? Someone says a hopeful ending will be encouraging, while another’s comment leaves the group in quiet contemplation: “Sometimes hope comes when it’s not a reality yet.”

What do you consider as forms of resistance and which ones are not?

We'll be continuing the conversation in Writing As Resistance <Part II> with Clara Chow on 9th March 2017, 7:30PM, at Marine Parade Library. Slides and writing exercises can be found here.


We’re revamping our monthly AfterWords sessions! We will be breaking down the year into three parts and each third will be moderated by one of our authors. Clara Chow, author of Dream Storeys, will be the first moderator from February to April. 

This session is part of #Whydoesthecagedbirdsing inspired by our new book, Payoh by Jim Tan. 

More event details >

Why the Caged Bird Sings February 20, 2017 18:00

Singing Birds illustrated by Morgan Chua

This week, veteran poet Felix Cheong, who's always quick on his feet to give social commentary and quib words of wit gives us his take on "Why does the caged bird sing".  

Why the Caged Bird Sings
by Felix Cheong

Because singing sounds deep
When talk is cheep.

Because songs mark time
In their keepsake of rhymes.

Because it's easier behind bars
Wishing upon stars.

Because Cage is in the John
Four minutes thirty-three too long.

Because to be still
Is watching, waiting till.

Because God listens to prayers In the Sabbath of His lair.


Felix Cheong has never considered himself a funny writer. Until the Singapore Siu Dai stories hit him in the head, he was known more as a writer of poetry and fiction. Felix has published ten books, including four volumes of poetry. His collection of short stories, Vanishing Point, was longlisted for the 2013 Frank O’Connor Award.

He is currently a lecturer in journalism and a weekly columnist with news website The Middle Ground. Nothing surprised him as much as the satirical short, short stories that came together in a rush in Singapore Siu Dai.

This piece was written as part of #Whydoesthecagedbirdsing inspired by our new book, Payoh by Jim Tan. 

I Think I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings February 13, 2017 18:00

by Loh Guan Liang

'Three skeletons at a piano' taken from The National Archives UK

(Photo credits: The National Archives UK)


Of the Same Feather

Little bird, little bird, why do you sing

over rooftop, vale and sea? Your quill shakes

with so much fury. Foul tidings you bring

to the neighbours below for complaint’s sake,

soiling your cell with the spitter spatter

of long letters. Nobody sees your chicks,

your debts, your pay gone to seed. No matter

the fuss, no one here cares for politics.

Little bird, little bird, why do you sing?

The monkey’s gone packing and the rooster

goes pecking for whatever’s worth crowing

this year. Pay my talking cock no utter

heed. Keep singing, the day is far from done!

The door swings open, gone is the jailor

but we’re watching the door, watching the sun.
Cagey bird, cagey bird, time to be heard!    


Other than the faint echo the theme “Why does the caged bird sing?” bears to the title of Maya Angelou’s autobiography, I find it apposite to be writing about my poem “Of the Same Feather” in the Rooster Year. Given recent developments in politics and society, it has become all the more pressing—not to mention depressing—for poetry to engage with world affairs.

The first half of “Of the Same Feather” is an exercise in cheerlessness. The opening line’s singsong quality hardly mitigates the protagonist’s bleak life. We are no strangers to his situation. There’s even a figure to denote those of his ilk: 99%. In Singapore there is a tendency for the 99% to fly off the handle at the slightest provocation. A fishball skewer on a footpath. Foreigners. Curry-cooking neighbours. Sex education. Chickens. Kicking a ball at the void deck. Singaporean discontentment finds release in disseminating pictures, stomping on keyboards and lobbing missives at media outlets. (The Straits Times Forum page is a case in point.) Alas complaint letters do not a revolution make; the battle cries we hear are but squawking birds rattling their cages.

Feathers get ruffled because there is the prevailing sense that no one cares a hoot about the lives of common folk. Economic sentiment is grim. Wages are stagnant even as living costs are soaring. Workplace morale is at an all-time low. The cage shakes but no one listens.  

Sometimes positive things come out of all this shaking. Take the French Revolution for example. Pink Dot. The Umbrella Movement. Black Lives Matter. The Women’s March. Organised action demonstrate the power of numbers in the fight against inequality and injustice. Behind every protest sign or pink hat is an unflappable flock.

But the reactionary heart is dangerous. It is a powder keg capable of deflagrating into mob action with a well-timed fact. Liberal sensitivities take offence too readily, and social media only serves to fan the ire. Heartstrings risk becoming puppet strings in the hands of a select few. How can the heart lead the charge in a post-truth universe when it is susceptible to manipulation? Little wonder that the body part responsible for protecting, and entrapping, the heart is the ribcage.

That said, let us return to the poem. The tone shifts from gloom to hope. The door opens, unmanned; liberation is within reach; all is not lost! Yet the protagonist remains doubtful. Are you sure there are no government agents outside? Let’s wait and see. Singaporean society organises itself around that which is safe and respectable: racial quotas, CMIO, heartlander, heteronormativity. The list goes on, of course, but the point remains that institutions reinforce the status quo so the masses are free from danger. Nobody gets hurt because the cage they are in is so strong they forget that they can transform their circumstances. For it is not the material cage that bars the bird, but the treacherous one the mind keeps.

Like Barack Obama said, yes we can. Change will not come from a single tweet. Change needs to be sustained and resolute in the face of harsh headwind. Why does the caged bird sing? It sings for a far nobler purpose beyond the confines of the cage. It sings for the world. 


Loh Guan Liang is the author of two poetry collections, Bitter Punch (2016) and Transparent Strangers (2012), and the co-translator of Art Studio (2014), originally written in Chinese by Singapore Cultural Medallion recipient Yeng Pway Ngon. Winner of the 2011 Moving Words poetry competition organised by SMRT and The Literary Centre, his work has been featured in the Singapore Memory Project and The Substation Love Letters Project. He updates at http://lohguanliang.weebly.com.

This piece was written as part of #Whydoesthecagedbirdsing inspired by our new book, Payoh by Jim Tan. 

Get this for someone who ... November 27, 2016 11:36

A festive gift guide to help you decide what to give to who this year.

Get this for someone who likes to post photos of buildings on Instagram: Faith in Architecture, edited by Gul Inac

Architectural fanatics will be head over heels for 50 new places to explore and Instagram with Faith in Architecture.

Get this for someone who is always looking for the best buy: Union, edited by Alvin Pang and Ravi Shankar

UNION : 15 Years of Drunken Boat, 50 Years of Writing From Singapore is an impressive tome collecting over 120 of the best writings from Singapore and America (curated from Drunken Boat, an online literary journal). The best of the best, for the one who researches hours on end before they buy anything.

Get this for someone who is Cabinet-material 

For the friend who gets into intense discussions about parliamentary sessions, and always has ideas about how Singapore can be a better place, The Birthday Book, will be a dream-come-true of finding like-minded individuals. 51 others, to be exact.

Also consider: Troublemaker

Get this for someone who is in the process of applying for a BTO: Dream Storeys by Clara Chow

Get ready for more quizzes, questions, and paperwork in the title story of this stunning debut by Clara Chow. A quirky reinvention of Build-To-Order (BTO) as we know it—and check out the bonus: no waiting time needed!

 Get this for someone who needs to get out of their comfort zone

Sometimes, strength is drawn from knowing others have been there and made it through. The twenty-seven stories in Body Boundaries spans three generations of women's experience navigating life and growing into the person they are today.

Also consider: First Fires

Get this for someone who is a philandering scion of a tycoon

Just for laughs, as one of the protagonist is a philandering son of a tycoon. The Inlet is, however, based loosely on the true story of a Chinese lady drowning in Sentosa Cove in 2010.  

Get this for someone who is a cheong-ster

Whether your friend is a nightclub chiong-ster, or an everyday life chiong-ster, we think there'll be something for them in this epic 3-in-1 box set of Singapore humour.

Get this for someone who is an adventure seeker

For that one friend who would be ready to fly to the moon with you anytime, if you said you have the equipment and know-how. this is how you walk on the moon will take them into 25 different realms, and keep them entertained till you find that space machine.

Get this for someone who is always on the go

 For the friend who's always travelling to places, and feels straddled between the universes they've been in. Unhomed and Crossing Universes may be a thin chapbook set, but don't let its thickness (and the endearing bear on the cover) fool you for its heavy works. 

Get this for someone who aims to be a plant

For the nature-lover, or someone who desires to be patient like plants (growing at the same place and at their own pace). Or perhaps, they often wish that they could photosynthesize to make their own food. From Walden to Woodlands affirms the awe for plants and nature.

Get this for someone who needs a carthartic experience

For a friend who could use a metaphor or imagery to identify with things happening in their lives. Separation weaves the divide of Singapore and Malaysia with Christine's personal experience of her parents' divorce.

Also consider: Pulse, Me Migrant

Get this for someone who likes myths

For the friend who's not only excitable about all kinds of mythology, but is a walking encyclopedia of it too. In 3, Krishna Udayasankara—master of mythofiction—reimagines the life of Sang Nila Utama.

Get this for someone who regularly indulges in a dose of "The Good Old Days"

Set in a kampung on the verge of being pushed out to make way for land developments, Cherry Days will bring them back to the joy of climbing trees to pluck fruits, and how things used to cost cents. 

Also consider: My Mother-In-Law's Son, When A Flower Dies

Get this for someone who loves void decks and rooftops

Or if they've stolen pebbles from neighbours' plants when they were growing up. Gone Case is a non-cringing story of growing up, and growing up in the heartlands.

Also consider: Corridor

Get this for someone who likes "magic tricks"

The bonus of Smokescreens and Mirrors? Secrets behind the execution of these "magic tricks".

Also consider: Beyond the Blue Gate

Get this for someone who loves the naked truth

And especially if they are skeptical of the local newspapers. Riot Recollections charts the voices of people present at the Little India Riots to debunk the idea that all migrant workers were part of the mob, or want to incite unrest. 

Also consider: Living In A Time of Deception, The Invisible Force

Get this for someone who is a rebel at heart

And fights with a fiery passion for the things they believe in, like our Kampung Boy, M Ravi.

Also consider: Priest in Geylang

Get this for someone who has a love/hate relationship with their father

And not just fathers in the biological sense. Godsmacked explores the impact of LKY on the one's childhood and world views. 

Get this for someone who is against the construction of the Cross Island Line

And all MRT/LRT lines which plans to cut across nature reserves and heritage sites. Spaces of the Dead will be an eternal memory of the spaces which existed once before.

Also consider: Remains, World War II @ Bukit Brown, Tigers in the Park

Get this for someone who always complains about Singapore but will never leave it

Because the city's quirks and imperfections make it home after all (even if they deny it). There is No Other City.

Also consider: This Is Not A Safety Barrier

5 books about growing up in Singapore August 09, 2016 11:29

 National Day 2016 Spotlight

Part of the Ethos Books National Day 2016 Spotlight (sale ends 21 Aug) 

When it comes to memory, it's natural to recall the big milestones and indulge in nostalgia: childhood games; the terror of PSLE; the joy of the first job; holding your first newborn... the rest of the details are lost and scattered in the wind of memories blowing by. But look closely at the discreet details of our lived experiences; each one moulds us like the single, gentle stroke of the potter’s finger, turning clay into pottery—the particular neighbourhood you grew up in, your parents' beliefs, the band of friends you hanged out with when you were 17…

Here are 5 titles that tunes the mind to focus on the details of growing up in Singapore:

1. Pulse by Lydia Kwa

Tucked neatly along Joo Chiat Road is an old and boarded up Cosmic Pulse, the only outfit in the area that sold traditional Chinese medicine back in the day. Though it has faded with age, Natalie cannot forget the childhood she spent growing up there among the shelves of herbs, the chanting of her fortune-telling grandmother, and the asthmatic rasp of her Conrad-quoting grandfather. She mustn’t.

We find ourselves drawn into Natalie’s story as she retraces her life in the past in order to understand the death that has assaulted her in the present. Accompanying her, we revisit Singapore through the eyes of someone who has spent almost twenty years beyond its shores, practicing acupuncture far, far away in Canada. Natalie recounts her memories without waxing lyrical about ‘the old times’ in Singapore. Instead, we see how each precious detail of her pastfrom her habit of peeling the skin off her hands to her gawky but heartwarming crush on her classmate Faridahholds a key to answering the mystery at the core of Pulse.

The dark truth that was bound up while she was growing up, must become unbound in order for her to set herself free.

2. Gone Case by Dave Chua

One phrase that often pops up about Dave Chua’s novella is “quietly disturbing”. What does that say about this story of a young boy, living in Singapore’s heartlands, and going to take his PSLE in a year’s time?

Yong is at the top of his class in Primary 5. His best friend compulsively steals stones out of their neighbour’s garden. His grandmother wears angel wings to sing in the choir at church. He wishes he knew why his father had to move out, and why a strange man from China has taken a room down the hall. He fights with his brother when he makes too much noise, and he can’t take his eyes off his best friend’s sister.

Yong is, by all accounts, an average Singaporean boy who is learning to grow up in the 80s, and Gone Case is his unsentimental and unromantic story.

3. No Other City: The Ethos Anthology of Urban Poetry

If you cannot learn to love
(yes love) this city
you have no other.

 —Simon Tay, "Singapore Night Song"

No Other City stands at the turn of the millennium, with one eye on Singapore's morphing landscape and another stealing glimpses into deeply personal vignettesbe they on the MRT or in the parents' bedroom. Works of established poets are placed in dialogue with those of students, creating a richness and discernible warmth. Re-reading this anthology 16 years after it has been published is a nostalgia trip, as acts of looking back are compounded, illuminating lost details of city life thengiant trees, IRC, walkmans, Marine Parade beach and playing police and thief. The grandeur and dazzle of urbanity is offset by tiny, intimately felt moments: time spent at a jazz bar, contemplating the skyline, or sitting in an empty cinema. Such poetry will delight in its simplicity, honesty and timelessness, now and always.

4. First Fires by Jinat Rehana Begum

Does the ridiculous squeaking of slippers that toddlers prod around the playground in sound familiar to you? What about the cross-stitch puzzles your home economics teacher used to assign to the class? Such insignificant memories are littered throughout First Fires, allowing us to experience a very familiar Singaporean childhood through the characters’ eyes. It becomes hard not to grow with them as they move from fearing the longkang, to lighting cheap paper lanterns in the park, and to protecting each other from their mother’s bamboo cane. First Fires portrays a very real family, where the tiniest pieces of each characters’ story make up the most significant parts of their Singaporean childhood.

5. They Speak Only Our Mother Tongue by Theophilus Kwek

They Speak Only Our Mother Tongue follows Theophilus Kwek when he is transiting from the young innocence where the world blurs by to becoming keenly aware of the people and places he's surrounded by. Theophilus walks to observe the city but the poems suggest more than just a passing observer—something has clicked and changed within the poet with each scene that he chances upon: the quiet family dinner after the passing of a relative, hostility towards foreign workers on a train; the diverse paths of a tourist, a mother and a maid on leave at a Orchard Road crossing ... each poems ends like the quiet contemplation that descends a late-night conversation with a friend at a park bench.

Check out the full National Day 2016 Spotlight Collection here

What to read next if you liked ... August 01, 2016 18:36

Do you read lots, love reading, but don't know what to read next? Want to enjoy a story close to home but don't know where to start? As part of the National Reading Movement (but really for the love of books, yours and ours), the team at Ethos Books has chosen some great titles you may have read, and paired them with titles we think you will enjoy.

These deeply engaging books were chosen for their varying narrative styles and scopes, from the intimate portraits of Alfian Sa'at's Corridor to the sweeping epic myth of Krishna Udayasankar's 3. We believe in these stories and want to share their wonderful worlds with you, even as they bear uncanny, thought-provoking resemblances to ones you may already know.

Do leave any other recommendations or book pairings of your own in the comments! Happy reading!


If you liked Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng, you might like…

If you liked Everything I Never Told You by Celest Ng, you should read First Fires by Jinat Rehana Begum

First Fires by Jinat Rehana Begum

From family tensions to jumbled flashbacks, Celeste Ng’s novel Everything I Never Told You and Jinat Rehana Begum’s novel First Fires are similar in more ways than one would first imagine. These two emotionally complex and multigenerational novels tell different stories of silence, alienation, lies and disorientation—giving readers a peek into the life and expectations within a minority family. Shifting between character voices that speak from both past and present, these novels show how a family makes sense of their lives after one of their daughters disappears. Pick them up if you enjoy heartfelt stories about family and culture that grip the reader with its unfolding mystery.


If you liked Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri, you might like…

If you liked Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri, you should read Blood Collected Stories by Noelle Q de Jesus

Blood: Collected Stories by Noelle Q de Jesus

Thousands of people migrate across the world every year but how easy is it to assimilate into a foreign land which doesn't care for the cultures you've brought along with your suitcase? Jhumpa Lahiri and Noelle Q de Jesus delve deeply into the migratory experience and how the prospects of life in new lands is not always warm like the soft morning light on one's skin. The Interpreter of Maladies and Blood: Collected Stories are also anchored by each writer's realisations to the depths of the human soul—how does a card of kindness play out in a game where everyone plays to win? The careful dealing of characters in each writer's short story leaves you with a hand of mixed cards, enough to make you stop and contemplate this particular combination of life, before you make your next move.


If you liked Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders by Neil Gaiman, you might like…

If you liked Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders by Neil Gaiman, you should read These Foolish Things & Other Stories by Yeo Wei Wei

These Foolish Things & Other Stories by Yeo Wei Wei

Wei Wei's short stories, like Fragile Things, are thick with the clutter (or, if you like, thingliness) of everyday life—song lyrics, food, art, household items—yet charged with the mystery of the fantastic and folkloric. Gaiman's shamanic slipping between worlds is recalled in the imagination and whimsy of this collection, where a mynah sings a Beatles' song, a ghost hides in an umbrella, and a clock tower's watchman reappears at airports. Where Fragile Things parades pop cred, These Foolish Things portrays the messy, charming detail of Singaporean life in a way that will make you smile, not cringe. Delving deep into its characters' memories and private longings, these stories are exact, darkly humorous, and unexpectedly emotive without being over-sentimental.


If you liked Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia, and other fantasy novels, you might like…

If you liked Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia, and other fantasy novels, you should read 3 by Krishna Udayasankar

3 by Krishna Udayasankar

Don’t venture into 3 by Krishna Udayasankar looking for the same beats and characters. 3 puts a refreshing, mythohistoric spin on an important, but rarely retold story. Instead of focusing on demigods and magical beings, 3 is a gripping, coming-of-age tale about prince Sang Nila Utama. Set against the vivid, historical background of the Srivijaya empire in the 13th century, 3’s political intrigue and sea adventures sweep us into another world and time, where the people lived and dreamed differently. Its spirit of epic adventure breathes new life into the events that happened right in Singapore’s backyard, centuries ago.


If you liked Corridor by Alfian Sa’at, you might like…

If you like reading Corridor by Alfian Sa’at, you should read Moth Stories by Leonora Liow

Moth Stories by Leonora Liow

How much can we know about a person when we have a glimpse of them behind closed doors? Corridor by Alfian Sa’at has been a long-time local favourite for our readers as the author explores the interiority of multiple characters in an undeniably familiar Singaporean landscape. These short stories ask us to come closer and have a listen to the voices dwelling within our HDB corridors.

In a similar but separate strand, Moth Stories by Leonora Liow distinguishes itself with its haunting stories and how it makes us feel like intruders, crossing paths with characters who have so much to hide. An old man’s muted bitterness, a mother who is unwilling to let go of her son—we catch them in their most vulnerable states as we ghost through each narrative. Leonora guides us into the individual worlds of a varied cast, whose shocking decisions and fates make us squirm with discomfort, yet yearn for more. 




The Ethos of Ethos September 17, 2015 16:58

Letter from Mr Fong Hoe Fang on the 18th birthday of Ethos Books.

Letter from Mr Fong Hoe Fang on the 18th birthday of Ethos Books.

Ethos 18th Birthday September 08, 2015 18:11

Dear friends,

Ethos Books was conceived in 1997 to give a platform to aspiring and unknown Singapore writers. We were specifically inspired by the works of 2 young writers in their early twenties who had come to us, each with his own collection of poems, which they felt established publishers would decline.

At that time, poetry, writing and even literature had been worn down by the incessant waves of “tangible outcomes” in our education system. I felt that we would be just trying to hold back the waves over which we had no control. But the energy and enthusiasm of the young writers were strangely rejuvenating, and more important I could imagine the fun we would have, trying to push back the waves.

And then, a new community sprouted. More and more writers came forth, feeding on goodwill and good literature and good writing.

Today, these 2 fine young men, together with a whole host of others, are among the most highly regarded writers in Singapore. Today, we have a thriving community of Singapore poets and writers, booksellers and small independent publishers. And I am pleased to say that at one of our recent events “5 Under 25”, even more young writers have surfaced to join hands with those before them.

In the same way, Ethos Books itself has seen a new, a young and a vibrant group of colleagues populate its ranks. New ideas, new ways of doing things, new relationships. Whether they are full-time or just passing through, they have made this journey even more meaningful for Ethos. I invite everyone here to continue with us on the new adventures that lie ahead.

The sea will always be there. And with it, the waves. Sometimes we want a destination against the flow. We swim against it. We stand and with hands and bodies push forth. Then tired, we sometimes have no choice but let the waves carry us back. Then rested, we stand and push the waves again.

But always, we must have fun. Always, we must remember our final destination.


With best wishes and gratefulness to the Singapore literature community

Hoe Fang, Ethos Books

(For more pictures, visit our 18th Anniversary album on Facebook!)