Poetry In Motion

(clockwise, from top left) Poets Desmond Kon, Yong Shu Hoong and Joshua Ip, Pooja Nansi and Paul Tan have put Singapore on the world map and encouraged greater cross-cultural understanding through their work.


“Words are words. Except for us. They are not personalities. We make them into poems.”

Local veteran poet Edwin Thumboo’s comments act as an appropriate backdrop for the currently expanding poetry scene in Singapore.

Attend one of many poetry events like Speakeasy at Artistry, a gallery and café, or an open mic night at BluJaz cafe, which welcomes poets to share their work in front of an audience, and an encouraging trend presents itself — crowds of 50 or more frequent these poetry events regularly.

Singaporean poet, writer and artist Desmond Kon is one of those who has noticed the changing landscape of poetry in Singapore.

“Ten years ago, you’d be lucky to have an audience at a poetry reading. Now, events are well attended. When schools started inviting literary organisations to give talks, we saw greater interest in the literary arts,” said the former journalist and associate lecturer at Ngee Ann Polytechnic.

This, coupled with a greater and growing appreciation for the arts, and the increase in the number of artistes who commit themselves to their work, is a positive sign for the poetry scene in Singapore. Also, there are more artistes who are serious about their craft, like Joshua Ip and Yong Shu Hoong, joint winners in the English poetry category at this year’s Singapore Literature Prize, a biennial award organised by the National Book Development Council of Singapore. The competition recognises published works — poetry, fiction and non-fiction — by Singaporean authors in English, Malay, Chinese and Tamil.

Published poetry is also growing. Homegrown publishers such as Epigram Books, Ethos Books and Math Paper Press, Books Actually’s printing arm, are supportive of local poetry, publishing collections of works. Books Actually, for instance, has put out more than 20 compilations of local poetry.

Building on a history of established writers and poets like Lee Tzu Pheng and Arthur Yap, the growing collection of young poets and their work is continuously augmenting Singapore’s poetry archives.

Young local poet, Pooja Nansi, had her first collection Stiletto Scars published at the Singapore’s Writers Festival (SWF) in 2007. Her follow-up effort, Love Is An Empty Barstool, on love, heartbreak, life and discovery, was published by Math Paper Press last year. “For a small city, we have a good number of awesome poets,” Pooja says. “Readership is alive and thriving as well. Publishers like Math Paper Press do 1,000-copy print runs, and sell out their second editions.”

Paul Tan, writer, poet and Festival Director of the SWF, is also encouraged by the growing literary and arts scene. The Deputy CEO at the National Arts Council, is glad to see more of an appreciation for poetry within Singapore. “As a poet, I am glad there is so much interest in Singaporean writing. I am always happy when someone engages with a poem and asks a thoughtful question, or makes a meaningful critique.

The National Arts Council has played a modest part in promoting Singapore writers, whether introducing them to literary festival directors or international publishers, or working with the Ministry Of Education to get Singapore writing into the formal syllabus or enrichment programmes. I hope more Singaporeans will read literature. There is indeed something for every reader.”

Other veteran poets, Alvin Pang and Cyril Wong, continue to inspire younger Singaporean writers.

Complementing the changing means by which we communicate and appreciate art, a growing number of platforms both on and offline allow poets to showcase their work in new and creative ways. From the SWF to the ongoing and personal relationships the poet forms with readers through the use of technology where they present their work, the scene in Singapore is becoming more inclusive, engaging and vibrant..

The SWF, a literary event organised by the National Arts Council, promotes Singaporean writing to an international audience through activities such as panel discussions, workshops and meet-theauthor events. The SPH-NAC Golden Point Award, organised in conjunction with SWF, is a national literary writing competition for poetry and short stories in Singapore to encourage budding writers. Many past winners, such as Alfian Sa’at, Cyril Wong, are now wellestablished writers.

Also, free mobile apps such as Text in the City promotes Singapore poetry by allowing users to read and listen to 100 poems by 50 poets in their original languages, including those by Alvin Pang, Alfian Sa’at and Edwin Thumboo. It also features a writing competition and allows users to instantly upload their own poems.

Poetry readings by university students are held as part of the Singapore Writers Festival 2014.

The app is by The Arts House, a multidisciplinary venue for arts performances.


All these developments have been keenly observed by Kirpal Singh, an Associate Professor in English Literature at the Singapore Management Univerity.

Singh, himself a veteran poet whose works have been celebrated internationally, is glad to see Singapore maturing as a society, and as a people who appreciate poetry. He sees Singapore’s growing appreciation of poetry, and the enthusiasm with which poetry readings are attended, as important and encouraging.

“As a nation matures, so do the people’s need to know (the nation) better, in deeper and more personal ways. This results in writers, especially poets, becoming more widely read and their readings attended with zest. I have seen poetry audiences grow healthily over the years and this is good,” Singh says.

Even before Singapore gained independence, our roots had begun to shape the words that would follow. Given its diverse and multi-cultural heritage, Singaporeans’ beginnings remain a strong starting point for our local poets.

One of Singapore’s celebrated poets is Edwin Thumboo, who Singh describes as “a poet whose love poems, especially, struck me as being among the best around the region and as a teacher insisting on the craft of words”.

Thumboo once said: “History enters my writing, as it ought to enter the writing of others, because of its importance in our lives.

“As a former British colony, and a multi-racial country, we need history for a sense of things; to re-inscribe ourselves; discover and, in certain areas, define ourselves as individuals, as groups in a society.”


Local poets are bringing their works to life through dynamic poetry sessions, engaging their audiences by incorporating drama and music.

When poet Nansi performs her work at a poetry slam, a competition where poets recite original works, she occasionally collaborates with her best friend and musician Anjana Srinivasan. Under the name the Mango Dollies, Nansi recites her poetry while Srinivasan sings and plays Blues and Folk music on guitar.

Says Nansi on the importance of audience engagement: “What I think could help is when people see poetry as a living, breathing thing that is happening now, rather than something in a dusty book or something lofty. I think poetry is an incredibly accessible medium.”


Pooja Nansi at a poetry competition.


Singapore poetry has also caught the attention of the international audience.

Kon recently won the World Cup poetry challenge, a competition organised by arts and literary journal The Missing Slate. It challenged 32 poets around the world to share their poems. In a knockout style path to the finals, decided by votes from the public, Kon’s free verse poetry titled gǎn qíng yòng shì (Chinese for “impulsive and impetuous”) came out tops.

“We’re witnessing the emerging literature of a very young and flourishing nation, so it’s a very exciting time to be a man or woman of letters here,” Kon says. He is keen to see Singapore’s story continue to be documented through the arts. Poems and stories help form the literary and cultural record of Singapore, he says.

Kon’s works have gone as far as Canada, England, France, Greece, Ireland, Israel, Nigeria, Scotland and the USA, and he won numerous awards including the PEN American Center Shorts Prize, Swale Life Poetry Prize, Cyclamens and Swords Poetry Prize. Along the way, Kon has made many new friends overseas.

Pooja, too, has ventured overseas. She was part of a group of young Singaporean poets who represented the country in New York at the Singapore Literature Festival, in October.


NAC’s Paul Tan recognises how poetry inspires the writer, the reader, as well as the society it is created and appreciated in. “It helps poets organise how we see the big ideas — self, family, nation, religion and more — in all its complexities and paradoxes.

“Through the kneading of the language, we chronicle important moments and particular emotional states, and escape into a truly private space to synthesise and create, hopefully something that will reach and connect to another human being.”

Kirpal adds: “It is clear that when people begin to really appreciate the writers in their midst, their sensibilities change and conversations become more mature and engaging.

“I can see that in the last few years this has begun to happen in our beloved island-nation and this augurs well for the making of a rugged and robust society imbued with a culturally alive sense of their world.”


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