Interview with Phillip McConnell and Genevieve Wong

For spending so much time with our English Literature teachers desperately trying to figure out how to face unseen prose and poetry, we certainly don’t know all that much about them beyond the classroom walls. Surely, someone who nurtures an ability to read between the lines would be great at expressing them too.

Sound of Mind: a teacher-writers anthology of poems and prompts—launched yesterday at Singapore Writers Festival—features poetry from the very red pen that marks our examination scripts. The anthology also includes poems from familiar, published writers like Ann Ang, Ken Mizusawa, Heng Siok Tian, David Leo (Shakespeare Can Wait) , Oliver Seet, Christine Chia (Separation: A History) and Eric Tinsay Valles (After The Fall).

We speak with the editors of Sound of Mind: Phillip McConnell and Genevieve Wong, both from the English Language Institute of Singapore (ELIS) to find out more about the process of sieving through such strong voices.

What was the main drive for publishing of Sound of Mind?

Phillip: I’d already read some outstanding work by writers who are also teachers—they are represented in Sound of Mind.  I wanted to provide an opportunity to demonstrate what teachers of English with a passion for language can achieve, given the chance, and I hope this anthology encourages more teachers to put pen to paper. I also feel that if you teach writing you really should try to write yourself—who’d take driving lessons from someone who had only ever studied driving but never got behind the wheel?

Genevieve: Having a publication of the work that we had started during ELIS’s Teacher-Writers’ Network sessions was probably a natural progression for the group, but the speed and ease of the whole process of actually publishing the book was the result of a shared vision between ELIS, Ethos Books and the brave bold group that is the Teacher-Writers’ Network to showcase teachers’ writing on a wider platform. When teachers willingly give up precious hours of their Saturday afternoons to write, you somehow feel that you want to do something for them in return. Teachers who are passionate about both writing and teaching, and who treat both crafts with equal respect—I think that was the main drive for the book.       

Did you have students in mind when editing the book? How did it affect editing?

P: Not really—I thought we’d have to be realistic about content that might be controversial, but it didn’t arise. It was a question of the quality of the writing, not the subject matter.

G: I think we did bear in mind the need to make the book accessible to students in terms of presentation, but we also did not want to compromise on the quality of the book as a literary work. I think a book of this nature needs to be able to stand on its own to have any value in the classroom. I wanted a book that fellow teachers and those outside the teaching fraternity would enjoy. (Ethos was a great help in terms of designing a text layout and cover that would be non-threatening, I must say!)    

How did you come up with the prompts?

P: I didn’t! Kah Gay created the themes for grouping the poems so maybe he could explain? The suggestions for use in the intro for teachers are just the product of my experience of what gets students interested in the classroom.

G: Yes, we are really thankful that Kah Gay suggested the themes and the prompts. That he used to be an educator and was (and is) so involved in the Teacher-Writers’ Network has been a huge boon for us. The prompts can definitely be used very easily in any classroom regardless of the level of the students.  

Note from Kah Gay: Very much inspired by the group’s aspiration to write alongside their students, I suggested to Phil and Genevieve that we group the poems according to creative prompts. They were amazingly receptive as always. I then proceeded to print out each poem, laying them out on the worktable in the foyer of our Ethos Books office. It then became an exercise in clustering the poems according to their approach towards their subject matter. Very pleasurable!

What were some difficulties faced while editing the book?

P: There were a large number of poems competing for limited space. Every teacher writer deserved to be represented, so we had to put a cap on the number for each writer. Some tough decisions had to be made, but we hope to publish more online so they can reach a wider audience.

G: I guess the first difficulty was not knowing what to do with so many poems; how to organise them, etc. I would have loved to include more people and more poems—perhaps in an online form or (cross fingers) Volume 2?

What do you hope your readers will achieve from reading the book?

P: I’d prefer to say what I hope they might gain—first and most important, some pleasure in the way the language is used with such variety and effects. Similarly, the ideas and points of view are very original. I’ve been here for nearly 25 years and I feel that Singapore is enjoying an explosion of literary talent. If teachers and students who read the anthology feel stimulated to write or to read more Singaporean writing, that would be something to celebrate.

G: One: that Singapore teachers are a talented, passionate bunch. Two: that we can, and should contribute to local literature. Three: that there is value in writing, and in reading good writing, because like good teaching, good writing moves and inspires you.    

Sound of Mind is available for purchase at BooksActually, Booktique, Books Kinokuniya, MPH, and here.