Loh Guan Liang on experimenting with different writing genres — Singapore Lit Prize feature

This July 2018, in light of the biennial Singapore Literature Prize (SLP), we’ll be featuring our writers who’ve had their works shortlisted for the SLP 2018! Ethos is proud to have five titles on the shortlist this year—Phedra, 17A Keong Saik Road, Bitter Punch, The Magic Circle and Giving Ground—and beyond the SLP, we’re most interested to find out what went into the creative process behind these books.

Today, we have Loh Guan Liang, author of Bitter Punch. He talks us through how he pieced his poetry collection together and the most surprising thing he's heard from readers.

 Listen to Guan Liang read "Knockout" from his shortlisted work, Bitter Punch.


Damn it’s ridiculously quiet at this time. Why of all times 
now, Syaheeda, when the department is already low on
staff? Babies and that kind of stuff can wait! Wait for my
turn? When I stop turning in circles and get the minutes
done, that’s when. Minutes take hours to type. He was
never my type, you know. But I don’t know how to break
it to him. He’s asleep. Maybe if I slip in next to him
something might happen… must be out of my head. I’m
already way over my head with the project proposal as it
is. Yes, I proposed sleeping separately in the first place.
Stupid placeholders. Must hold on. Proposal on Bernard’s
desk at ten. It’s now ten minutes to two. Remember to
save. Your marriage? The file. Should I file the papers?
Is he sleeping with somebody else? If nothing else works
maybe Red Bull will. I used to think Red Bull with vodka
was the perfect excuse for careless love. I would love Red
Bull in my latte. Mustn’t be late for work. Shit this is not
working. Give me coffee, hot, bitter as a black punch to
the face.

Tell us more about this excerpt! Why is it your favourite and what is its significance? Do you remember how you felt when you wrote it?

“Knockout” is an attempt to present a woman’s stream of consciousness in a monologue fashion. It’s not so much my favourite as it is a significant piece, because the poem represents a style of writing I have not tried before.

As to how I felt when I wrote it...I was excited by the act of creating something new. I remember asking myself as I was assembling the manuscript what title to give my book. I needed something that captures the mood and spirit of the collection. Then I saw the last line of “Knockout” and said, "Let’s go with Bitter Punch."

Some of your poems in the collection delve into very personal spheres such as relationships and love. Did you set out to write on these themes when you started the book?

Themes emerge when we consider multiple poems as a single entity. While some of the poems in Bitter Punch deal with personal material, I didn’t set out to write with a theme in mind. The pieces began as discrete, individual responses to what was happening around/to me; they were windows and doors that either opened out or in. It was only when I started compiling poems for Bitter Punch that certain patterns began to appear. Suddenly, I wasn’t staring at windows and doors anymore—what I had in front of me was a house. This house is Bitter Punch.

What was the hardest thing about writing Bitter Punch and why?

Going through a really rough patch and somehow still continuing to write, in spite of myself.

If Bitter Punch was a form of martial art, which would it be?

Boxing. Definitely the sweet science. The poems in Bitter Punch fit nicely within a page or two. Compared to a thick novel, my book is lightweight. A poem in Bitter Punch is like a boxing round: when you read the title it’s gloves on, ding ding. A Bitter Punch poem is compact; wordplay keeps it light on its feet. Figurative language takes jabs at life. Line breaks string you along and you pivot at turns of phrase in order to catch up. You continue reading until BOOM! Uppercut to the chin. Lights out.

There are a number of prose poems in your collection. Have you ever considered writing prose?

Definitely. I don’t believe in restricting myself to poetry. As a matter of fact, I’ve written some short stories and flash fiction. Not all of them are good, I must say; prose remains a hit-or-miss, but I enjoy the challenge and experimentation that comes with crossing genres into unfamiliar terrain. I plan to keep working at prose.

Lastly, what is the most surprising thing you have heard from readers about Bitter Punch?

Readers saying they enjoyed Bitter Punch. It’s surprising because I set out writing the poems to make sense of and come to terms with what was happening in my life. I certainly bore no intention to please! But to have people tell me they liked certain pieces in Bitter Punch, even going so far as to have the collection shortlisted for the SLP... it humbles me to know how far I’ve come and how much farther still I must go.

Bitter Punch is available on our webstore, and in all good bookstores.

P.S. For the first time and in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of Singapore Book Council, the public is invited to attend the SLP awards ceremony. Come meet your favourite authors! Free registration here