Interview with Madeleine Lee

by Arin Fong
When one thinks of poetic subjects and themes, mathematics is often the furthest thing from the mind. Funny enough, Madeleine Lee and Cake Theatre will be stretching the mind even further by staging a theatre adaptation of Lee's latest poetry collection, square root of time.
With about a week to go to the full-house performance at The Arts House, we talk to Madeleine about the various convergences of poetry, pain, math, theatre, and life. 
Where do you see poetry in your everyday life as an investment manager?

I see poetry in lots of places and lots of moments. Not just as work or in investment. There is poetry all around, if only people would stop to look or listen. In fact I rarely write about investments. I do that, yes, but in investment essays, quite different. If I had to answer your question directly, then the poetry is in the numbers. You need to ask yourself, what is poetry?

How do you choose your poetic subject matter? What is your thought process like when conceptualising a poetry collection?

The subject matter chooses me. I find myself a scribe, a recorder of all around me which appear with poetic beauty.

In this particular volume, I have veered away from my normal narrative, writing about things all around me – trees, birds, architecture, people, conversations, colours, trees, again. This book is rather unusual in that it is an abstract of an abstract. It is all in the mind, if you would.

As I said, the subject chooses me. I was at a (dull) conference on financial risk management when the term ‘square root of time’ popped up in the conversation. This is an accepted rule in the mathematics of risk – I won’t go into the definition here – and it struck me that in itself the term was poetry. I mean, how does one apply a mathematical function to the concept of time? And what is the concept of time? So in fact I wrote the final poem in the book first. Quite quickly and more importantly all the math and numbers had to work perfectly. And they did.

After that, with the conference still being dull, I designed an entire arc for a collection built around these statistical concepts.

The poems in this collection reflect difficult moments or moments of discomfort.

This is my 9th volume and mostly for the last 8, they have been at one level, quite equanimous. But this one is different and quite dark. It is in fact completely out of character for me to have written this way. It is also a second derivative – an abstract to the power of 2 – mathematics and pain.


What draws you to writing about them?

Injustice and unfairness bother me. Especially if one of the parties is unable to speak up or defend itself, against a bigger and stronger party. This happens everywhere to everything. For e.g. in nature, in the migration of the wildebeest, or simply between partners. So somewhere in the writing there is always a small left hook, if you would. A complain from the poet.

How did your collaboration with Cake Theatre come about?

I first collaborated with Cake Theatre in 2007, with my work y grec, co-written with Eleanor Wong. Ostensibly it was about a Greek holiday but as usual, I wrapped mine up in lots of Greek myths and history, as a device for holding my thoughts together.  It was an ‘accidental’ book, in that neither of us planned it, but upon our return, Enoch from Firstfruits read our work, separately, and told us it was a book waiting to happen. Anyway, I pitched an idea to Singapore Writers Festival 2007 to turn the book into a performance and dragged in Natalie of Cake. 

The second time was with 1.618, my book of poems about migration – of the wildebeest, of the egret and of the human emotion. Again, it was [a closed-door performance] at SWF, in 2012.

So this is my 3rd one. In fact, having written the work I realise that all 3 fit together, like a triptych. Indeed these 3 episodes reflect my own personal journey. I didn’t know it when writing, but I do now.

What was the process like turning poetry into theatre?

Natalie from Cake Theatre did the adaptation – I just wrote the book! But for me, as an author, I was curious to see the interpretation. Most of the time, readers read in their room and never tell you what they think. To see an interpretation ‘writ large’, as it were, is very fulfilling.

What kind of relationship do you hope the reader would have with square root of time?

See the pain. Feel the dilemmas. Touch the hurt. If we can crisscross the various parts of the brain to take the numerical concepts along with the emotional, I would have achieved something.

How do you convince a math hater of the poetic quality of mathematics?

I think you do not hate maths. You probably hated the teacher and the homework. Mathematics is very beautiful to me. It is a logic that is unto itself, as it is made up of rules derived from observations. So, in itself it is very resolved. Like music – if musical sounds are arranged in a resolved manner it becomes very, very beautiful. Math and Music are the same to me. Words, when arranged precisely and beautifully becomes poetry. Same for dance and painting. See it. Don’t hate it.


Madeleine Lee is an investment manager who also writes poetry. She has been writing poetry since she was 13. square root of time is her 9th volume of published poetry. She lives in Singapore.

square root of time is available on our webstore.