Adam Aitken interviews Alvin Pang and John Kinsella
Over There: Poems from Singapore and Australia
Edited by John Kinsella and Alvin Pang,
Ethos Books (2008) / 324 pages / SGD 35.00
Readers looking for cross-literary collaboration between Singapore and Australia will find Over There: Poems from Singapore and Australia, a valuable addition to their poetry library. How do we name and represent the other? What does it mean to poeticise other cultures whose territories are not necessarily close enough for us to identify with? Or is it perfectly satisfying to find a common humanity that crosses national boundaries? Over There provides answers to all these questions and more. With a growing sense of the need to understand our Asian neighbours in a deep way that goes beyond touristic stereotypes, I was pleased to discover that there existed a collection that brought together the poetries of Singapore and Australia. I was hoping to find that cultural differences between Australia and Singapore produce a synergy between two poetries, and for me, this collection stimulates thinking about how national literary canons construct and defend certain perceptions of nationhood and racial/ethnic identity in an era of globalisation and cross-border desemination. If the local is global and vice versa, how does the poetry in this volume transcend the particular provincialisms of our respective literary worlds? What does it mean in to be an “Australian” or a “Singaporean” poet? What does it mean to be nomadic in the era of globalised cultural exchange?
I was moved to engage with this anthology (and to defend its existence) after reading a rather critical review of the collection in a recent issue of Quarterly Literary Review of Singapore (QLRS). Reviewer Gwee Li Sui was hoping that the collaboration between editors Kinsella and Pang could “succeed on at least a level of an envisioned dialogue between spaces which, as both admit, need to communicate more deeply. Its nation-building value is also flaunted through the editorial reminder in the introduction that such work will become key documents as "political desire in both Australia and Singapore to constitute nation as ‘history’ increases" ("Beyond Colloquial Prowess," QLRS, Vol. 7, No. 8 2008).
Gwee was disappointed with the anthology for a number of reasons, though not because of the quality of the poets and poems, but in the main by the collection’s perceived lack of coherence:
Stripped of an overt chronology, we meet an intriguingly dominant sameness… the Singaporeans almost all write striking grammatical poetry that does not inhere essences and is linguistically more conservative than its counterpart. The two competent halves are bridged by not one, as the contents page wants to suggest, but two Australians raised in Singapore: Miriam Wei Wei Lo and the supple Boey Kim Cheng.
His main complaint was the anthology’s
lack of ground for actual comparison, considering that similarities are what the editors manifestly claim. I’m not advocating that multiculturalism be its subject matter, but one is precisely left guessing whether it is meant to be. The Australian section certainly lets culture actively modify the rhythm, sensibilities, and use of English in a way that then leaves the Singaporean section, in the manner it is edited, look vastly monocultural. (personal correspondence,1 September 2008)
Gwee’s review concludes that there really needs to be two volumes of verse as there is no unifying factor to bring them together: “[h]ere exists no unifying subject except the selections’ mere framing beside each other, what now seems to be all the title means.” In other words, according to Gwee, the volume does not really give the reader any idea how the two territories intersect, or how the gap between two separate nationalisms is bridged:
Multiculturalism may have been a feature through which the two could provoke ideas about how far their national identities actually intersected, but this was left unevenly pursued…. So the two editors keep to their own aesthetic beliefs, administer their own domains, and leave unshaken the internal relationship of their own national poetry.
Alvin Pang and John Kinsella have clarified some of the issues aired in the QLRS review. Their key aim was to deterritorialise their respective literary spaces. Deterritorialisation – or what Kinsella calls the “un-nationing” function of poetry – is surely crucial. By conjoining two national selections into one the editors hoped to a) break down the protectionism in the English language, even amongst the English-speaking nations; b) create more interaction between two countries with strong bonds, interactions, shared history – but spaces need to communicate more deeply; and c) show that the poets of both territories have something to say about each other.
But rather than deconstruct the boundary, does the method of merely juxtaposing two selections confirm national differences? Kinsella explains his project is a kind of literary activism:
I am anti-nation but pro-communities… poetry is a community of sorts – or crossings of communities. There’s a language that evolves that crosses all languages. That interests me. Presenting such a ‘cross-section’ of Australian poetry, from all over the landmass, from different cultural spaces, and juxtaposing it against the work of another ‘nation’ immediately alters the perception of ‘Australianity’ in itself. Australia is no greater place than Singapore because of its size and eco power, any more than the US is greater than Australia etc. My intentions behind the anthology were to alter the co-ordinates of investigation and context re: these factors. (personal correspondence, 15 August 2008)
Certainly, cross-literary exchange between the countries has been sparse in recent times. It is disappointing to realise that with the exception of major Singaporean poets like Edwin Thumboo and Cyril Wong most rarely appear in Australian journals, while none of Kinsella’s selection made first appearance in a Singaporean journal. If both Singapore and Australia are both marginal to centres of world influence – if both are islands speaking from margin to centre – a greater collaboration will help poets gain a cross border readership. This result would, in the end, pay far more dividends than the outmoded framework of national literatures.
One would expect that while Australia and Singapore share a colonial legacy, our respective poetries would speak more often to each other. But both editors share a common resistance to the blanket term postcolonial, and their collection shows that no existing terminology quite sums up the similarities and differences in the two post-British colonies. Both were after all very different kinds of colonies, with the dominant population in Singapore being Straits Chinese, while that of Australian was for almost a century Anglo-Celtic, and then Anglo-European following post-war migration.
The editors stress important commonalities, for example the ‘commingling of ancient and immigrant cultures’. Kinsella has selected Australian poets for whom indigeneity connects modernity with the ancient, and for Pang’s Singaporeans express a sense of “ancient times”, a historical foundation for the intersection of Malay, Indian, and Chinese histories. While it is clear that both Singapore and Australian are immigrant cultures, it is interesting to compare disparate narratives of the ancient through the collection. I found that whereas the idea of an ancient pre-colonial culture and influence is part of the literary territory of Australia’s Indigenous poets like Lionel Fogarty and Charmaine Papertalk Green (and also for the indigeno/ethnopoetics of Peter Minter) for Singaporean poets, ancestral links in southern mainland China figure prominently. There were 12 mentions of grandparents and 30 or so mentions of China and Chinese in the poems. Malay or Malaysia was mentioned 18 times.
Of particular relevance to shared heritage was the Australian poetry of John Mateer who provides a textual and affective bridge to Singapore, where the visiting poet feels a sense of filiality and nomadic connection or brotherhood with one of the city-state’s ethnic Malay residents. Singaporean/Australian Miriam Lo is another sensitive conduit, a poet who was born in Singapore and who has made Western Australia her permanent home. Another is Boey Kim Cheng, editor of this journal, who now lives and works at the University of Newscastle.
So does this anthology succeed in creating a resistance to a poetics of “mono-history”, where myths of nationhood dominate freer, or perhaps more hybridised imaginaries? Are poets from both sides constrained by borders, and write as outsiders looking in, or is there a greater mixing going on? What follows is an edited transcript of my interview with John Kinsella and Alvin Pang.
I have a question that focuses on the differences between your editorial policies and John Kinsella’s. QLRS reviewer Gwee Li Sui wrote that John deliberately omitted the “visitor genre" while you were happy to include poems about travel. Gwee wrote:
The two editors have not communicated well, and it shows: although John Mateer’s poems are generously all about the island-state, Kinsella declares that his own general principle is to exclude writings belonging to what he calls the "visit" genre. Yet, Pang blissfully includes such pieces, as his entries for Kirpal Singh, Colin Tan, and Yong Shu Hoong show, and even extends the space to Singaporean adventures in all parts of the globe.Do I understand this correctly? Which Australian poets wrote about Singapore or Malaysia in a way that wasn’t touristic?
Well John and I selected our own territories completely independently, actually. So we had different priorities. Nevertheless, the Australian section selected by John had John Mateer and Ouyang Yu writing about Singapore based on their travels here recently. And Miriam Wei Wei Lo (improbable odds: we went to school together in Singapore and were active together in the Creative Writing Club!) writes about one of her visits as well.
I’d say Miriam’s deconstructs very nicely the notion of "visiting" since Singapore is both her home and not; she gets mistaken for a tourist etc etc. Ouyang takes a potshot at cultural representation and mistranslation, and Mateer riffs off on his own in a piece that almost has little to do with physical Singapore itself!
But why did the reviewer say John had rejected the "visitor genre"? It sounds like the visitor genre is well represented.
I think the reviewer missed the point actually. As JK himself argues, this ISN’T a book of "Singaporean poets about Australia; Aussie poets about Singapore". There just happen to be some poems that cross over, as almost inevitably there would be.
And indeed, where it has occurred, the poets/poems are (rightly) interrogating larger issues of identity, power, and cultural negotiation that go way beyond the territories that happen to be represented. That such frisson has occurred in poetry between Singapore and Australia is to me nothing to be apologetic about — simply means there are things we can reveal to each other, about ourselves.
How does the anthology interrogate issues of identity, power and cultural negotiation?
The short answer from me (JK would have his own view) would be thus:
Few or no cross-territorial anthologies of this kind agree, which has always puzzled me. There are unspoken boundaries (including the book trade cartel and other economic and political barriers) that fence literary communities. This book is an attempt to bridge those glaring gaps, between two relatively neighbouring communities that (1) both use English as a functioning as well as literary language, for what that is worth; (2) have various sorts of ties and a more or less equal level of affluence — that means that we stand in a certain economic relation to each other as peers and partners, in trade, education, emigration etc.; (3) we are also starting to have an influence on each other as bodies of writing — perhaps one direction more than the other — but to a degree that bears further conversation.
Both territories are grappling with identity and cultural issues, albeit different ones, with different agendas and starting points and outcomes. I was thinking that as we look at ourselves, through poetry, that we might have things to say of relevance to our counterparts. But really it is allowing the works to stand and spark rather than directing the fireworks. That in itself I think stands in defiance of a certain type of more didactic, directive publication.
There is a "nationalising" imperative going on in both territories that I think bear resistance. Singaporean writers are almost obsessed with it to the point of refusing to contribute to the national discourse head-on. To my mind, our writing at least in my generation has taken on the "small is large" paradigm – reclaiming the personal (sex, language, religion etc) that has been colonised politically. This is expressed in so many different ways throughout the book.
The other point I’d like to make is that for a group of Singapore poets (or poets from/in Singapore) to even make a claim to stand and hold their own in an anthology of this nature is itself a deeply audacious assertion. It challenges preconceived notions about literature and publishing in English, and about what sorts/sources of writing are supposed to go together, for example.
We’ve also spoken before about the absurd lack of literary traffic across the Pacific and how it has to do with the way the book trade is organised. Well, this is the sort of writing that these insidious fences have been keeping apart.
I wonder, John, if Gwee, as a sympathetic and informed scholar, might have missed the whole point of the audacity of putting these two bodies of work together in one book 🙂
As an anarchist (vegan pacifist) I, of course, perceive what has been done as an un-nationing, an unbuilding of nation. The process of decontextualising out of Australian mythologies of canon and self-perception (on a nation-making level – esp re govt versions of, and lit official versions of…), of juxtaposition, change the reading habit and consequently undoes things, at least in part. Presenting such a ‘cross-section’ of Australian poetry, from all over the landmass, from different cultural spaces, and juxtaposing it against the work of another ‘nation’ immediately alters the perception of ‘Australianity’ in itself. Australia is no greater place than Singapore because of its size and eco power, any more than the US greater than Australia etc. my intentions behind the anthology were to alter the co-ordinates of investigation and context re these factors. Yes, it does leave the book open to criticism re what you say, but dialogues have to begin somewhere. Just placing the work side-by-side, and having it read in that context, alters the statute of limitations that sadly guides the reading of ‘national poetries’. Still, there is much further to go…
Clearly, John’s own poem in this anthology breaks down canons by directly addressing Singapore’s controversial approach to crime and punishment. It’s anyone right to question injustice, whether that’s happening in your own country or not.
Yes, John’s sequence is nominally “about” the death penalty and its application to the Vietnamese drug trafficker in Singapore but really goes beyond the specific case that sparked it off.
And how are Singaporean poets taking on Australia?
Yong Shu Hoong’s “Adelaide” isn’t really about Adelaide at all but addresses (among other things) the Chinese cultural diaspora and its impact on the evolution of language; dialect and the way it (echo) locates itself and its users; family and an almost genetic (or mimetic?) sense of self that goes beyond political or even linguistic borders.
Chinese-Australian Ouyang Yu’s two “Kingsbury Tales” are nominally set in Singapore but really, deconstruct English/language and its contemporary twists, the value-systems of diaspora etc.
And Miriam Lo of course. I should add the story of how her mother made her promise never to read the poems included in Singapore (for fear of arrest!)
I like that: a poem about Adelaide that’s not really about Adelaide! Only a non-Adelaidean could do that ;=). It’s interesting that Miriam’s mother read her poems as subversive. I had not read them as subversive at all, but now that I know this, I can read them that way.
Actually we’ve moved on… they’d no doubt be taken as subversive not all that long ago just on twitch reflex coz of mention of politicians’ names… these days this sort of thing is nothing special…which is another kind of interrogation I suppose.
In what ways are the poets gathered in your anthology resisting the old nationalisms that have come to define notions of "Singaporean literature, and "Australian Literature"?
For some Singapore writers such as Edwin Thumboo, their selections in the book represent significant (and welcome) departures from the canon of work which has defined them in the past, and it’s just begging for a re-examination of their entire oeuvre and contribution. Not to mention that the poems themselves deconstruct the poets’ own earlier positions.
Singapore writing as it is known outside Singapore has been really narrowly defined for the past few decades. As with all my anthologies, I’ve attempted to broaden the sense of play and expand the known palette of what’s available in contemporary poetry.
Also, with so many expatriate/trans-territorial writers, what does it even mean to be a Singaporean poet? Plenty of interesting exceptions and questions arise. The poets included in the anthology include some teaching/working/living abroad (not just in Australia), for instance.
The concerns that Singapore poets take on have also changed – I’d argue that we are writing a self-consciously un-nationalistic writing in reaction to previous imperatives at the same time that many writers are re-claiming spaces that have hitherto been annexed, really, by political discourse. They/we are writing "between the country / that will not remember our love / and the sea", to quote Cyril Wong.
In relation to questions of form, use of language, style and register, are their synergies between the two literatures? What are the crossovers? I am thinking of issues to do with the vernacular, the demotic, and the ceremonial/vatic registers of language.
I think there is a fair variety represented, including some use of the vernacular. I don’t think the two literatures converge in any narrow or easy way, however, and I’m not sure that is a bad thing.
Today I heard Lee Kwan Yew say on Bloomberg or BBC World: "Singapore is cool". In the context of recent upsurges in nationalism over the Olympic torch relay, LKY was comparing Singapore’s advantage as a country that had learned to play the Westerner’s game, while the PRC had not learned to play the game, and therefore lacked a sense of how to deal with "the West".
The question is: is Singapore poetry "cool" in the sense LKY expresses: because it takes on the West with all the latest intelligence, organisation, and technology?
Actually that is precisely the sort of appropriation that I think our best writing resists. And it shows just how insidious the whole enterprise is — how creativity has become cultural manufacture; the arts have been appropriated as industrial design, authenticity and identity yoked in service of tourism.
It’s also a bit of a trap statement/question to address, because it is not as if one should completely write off "the West with all the latest technology" in poetry. That’s not the point at all. I think the real question is, who decides what is "cool" and why is it important to be "cool" in a particular way? And when our poetry does something, is it doing so in service of the "cool" or to other agendas that have not been acknowledged or given their own separate or even opposing validities?
It’s so funny, though, to hear LKY adopting the idiom of the "cool" just to help sell us. He, of all people! Then again, he’s also speaking as the former leader of a tiny nation-state which (a) always had artificial and somewhat arbitrary borders (b) always had to adopt a certain position of subservience, to "play another’s game" just to get by. China doesn’t really have to in the long term.
If your point then is whether Singapore poetry can break free of the geopolitical constraints of Singapore the country/territory? I’d argue it is one of the few things that can, should, has, will and no apologies about it. Not even about breaking free, but alternative definition. About re-imagining. About acknowledging a different sense of "country" and "land" and "people" and "history" that has nothing to do with 1965 and the flag.
Caveat re: what I said: of course, varying degrees of success or intent are at play. Mileage may vary, agendas differ.
Alvin, returning to Miriam Wei Wei Lo’s work and the question of national allegiances/resistances, I feel that she sums up the conditionality of being both Australian and Singaporean. It seems that yes, inserting the word "national" in front of "poet" does not interperpolate the migrant’s identity any more. She writes
caught between sinking and swimming,
as I am caught now. As if rhetoric mattered.
As if this place gives me a name for myself.
Which leads me to ask: this feeling she expresses of being "caught between’, neither here nor there; or perhaps caught in language and the rhetoric of identity. Do you identify this a perpetual theme in contemporary Singapore poetry or have the locals really found their home though an identification with a singular, or essentialised identity?
I’d say absolutely NOT "an identification with a singular, or essentialised identity", inasmuch as such a construction is identified with the rhetoric of the political establishment. Quite fiercely an anti-identification actually, a "this is not who I am" rather than a firm "this is me" one way or another.
Some writers no doubt experience that as a kind of imbalance and ambivalence. Others may well assert an alternative identity (one rooted in individual and family experience rather than in public or political expression of particular espoused traits). But it is certainly not singular or essentialised.
And in fact, this is why I respect Gwee’s review, because he too is trying to resist the normalisation of Singaporean literature, although I don’t think that is what Over There (Singapore) is trying to do at all.
I’d argue that this anxiety of identity is a trait of a certain generation of writers (Lee Tzu Pheng’s "my country and my people" being perhaps the more well known and early example of this), and that more recent works have simply taken it as a given and moved on.
I was once at a festival in Darwin where one of the writers (Jan Cornall, I think) argued that we are all "mongrel" beings. And I remember saying, on the contrary, that the term was somewhat meaningless to me because it implies a certain essentialist purity exists to which mongrel would be a useful relative term. I don’t feel mongrel at all, and it is an (offensive) assertion of power to say "look, you guys are basically a mix of X + Y", as if X + Y were the only possible terms, or were not in themselves a function of a diverse and complicated history.
I was at that conference too. I remember you face when you heard that comment! (We both had terrible hangovers!) I asked about Miriam because it seems to be a very strong feeling – this caught in-between thing – for her. But an interesting contrast is Mateer’s interpolation of himself as a metaphorical brother to a Malay in Singapore and the Real. Mateer was born in South Africa and has an Afrikaans background, but Mateer as the poetic persona is a nomadic visitor or outsider with a particular insight into the places he goes to. Mateer can interperpolate himself into the position of the insider, or at least speaks of finding the exiles like himself. Mateer becomes textually Malay. I quote:
As if he wasn’t waiting for me he was, on Armenian Street
in the kopitiam, rising from a circle of familiars,
gliding towards me like the Orang Laut
for whom he once waited on a beach in Riau year-long
until that one dawn. Extending his hand, we greet like Malays everywhere;
he a nomad, I an exile, both of us friends in a poem by Rumi.
And we speak of histories before the city-state,
(‘Singapore and the Real’)
I am struck how Mateer sees the Malay as a fellow nomad because it could be a bit of stretch to describe Malay citizens of Singapore as nomads. Or is this the predicament of the Malay in Singapore? They ARE seen as outsiders on account of race?
There is definitely that sort of action going on… Alfian Saat (who isn’t in the book unfortunately) makes references to the Prince of Palembang and all that, invoking the spirits of “histories before the city-state”. But actually other Malay writers can be quite a bit more subtle.
Also, I suspect they would take issue with being too closely interpolated with Arabic culture (Rumi, Nomad) – Southeast Asian Islam and culture as practiced by the indigenous Malay community is quite different from that of the Middle East and it can sometimes be quite a touchy issue because of the undue influence of Wahabist/Arabic Islam on indigenised Southeast Asian Islam (equivalent of how the charismatic churches from the US are taking over Anglican congregations in the UK). Malay is NOT = Muslim or to be more specific, Muslims everywhere are NOT alike. BUT perhaps what Mateer writes is correct for the specific individual he met and is writing about.
Yes, I too would be disturbed if readers misread Mateer’s subtle naming strategies here. It would be wrong to assume Malay (specifically the cultures of a very much grounded grouping of Southeast Asian/Polynesian peoples) is identical to that of the Arabic Middle East, simply because they happen to share a religion. If Malays were nomads, the whole indigenous politics of “bumi putra” (sons of the earth) that is so fraught in Malaysia would not make sense at all!!!