Working with found text, the climate of fear, and why I’m back

It’s taken a while, but this blog is back, complete with drop-down menus and updated pages linking to my poetry, translation and journalism elsewhere, and selected press (I’ve finally uploaded coverage of They hear salt crystallising, including a review and an article about the Singapore Literature Prize nominees). In the five-odd years since my first post, I haven’t been completely silent – a handful of opinion pieces have been published as Facebook notes – but it feels like time to have a more consolidated platform. For the past few years, Facebook has scratched my itch to express my views on a (semi-)public platform,  and I particularly like being able to conduct conversations at varying levels of privacy, but getting instant gratification like that is basically what made me procrastinate writing  the kind of long-form commentary I’ve wanted to write for years. But it feels like something I can’t put off any longer; perhaps it’s the effect of creeping towards my mid-thirties. I hope this blog will provide the necessary push and the equally necessary space for me to work on what interests me – no deadlines, no restrictions, but still reaching readers in some way.


I’ve been writing poetry since I was fifteen, but this year was the first time I’ve tried writing poetry that engages with a physical space, and I might be hooked. Earlier this year, I was invited to participate in the Singapore Writers’ Festival’s invitation to participate in their Poets Among the Stars event on June 4th, and write something in response to the Science Centre’s Omnimax show, “Cosmic Surfing”. I accepted, albeit with a tinge of arghwhatifican’tcomeupwithanything – I’d only just started collecting bits of text, and wasn’t even sure if anything would ever find its way out as a poem ever again. Notwithstanding that, I couldn’t pass up the chance to work with a space as amazing as the Omni-Theatre, and I guess it unlocked something in me. By the time I got to see a preview of their “Cosmic Surfing” live show in April, I felt that I had to see this through. The visuals was pretty spectacular – we were taken through outer space, moving away from Earth to see constellations, then away from the solar system into the Milky Way, then circling other galaxies, plummeting down black holes (one of the most vertiginous effects), and so on, in a flurry of gorgeous colours (lots of neutral tones and black, which is very much to my taste!). The segments where we were floating among the stars were particularly pretty:

The perfectionist nerd/model student side of me wanted to write something that would explore all these different concepts, but after dutifully mugging up on astronomy, I accepted that I would have to actually narrow things down, since I didn’t have time to let the ideas percolate deeply enough to come up with a nuanced exploration of all of them (see aforementioned model student syndrome; let’s just say I never had issues with minimum page requirements for my college essays). Now that I think about it, the sequence in which my piece developed was slightly different from what I said in Kitaab – I collated all the lines from They hear salt crystallising with images taken from astronomy before I settled on constellations as a conceptual framework. I think the constellation metaphor from “The Evolution of Language” stood out somehow, and the more I read about the history of constellation maps, the more I could see parallels to the ideas explored in the original lines. Humans have used constellations and stars to locate themselves for centuries, yet the stars remain unimaginably (if not immeasurably) distant from us. our relationships with other people are a huge part of how we locate our identities, yet for me, no matter how close or longstanding the relationship is, there’s always something about the other person that we can’t quite engage with, even if we can sense what we can’t access.

Reconfigurations fragment

My reconfigurations attempted to explore those ideas further, and as I obsessively cut and pasted the words into different combinations, changed line breaks and stanza breaks, etc, I started finding different and darker resonances. (It’s pure luck that these lines could be rearranged into more or less coherent lines, with only the occasional change in tense.) This process was part of what got me thinking about constellations as a concept behind the form of my poem, not just as a metaphor – I wanted to constellate selections of words created many years ago, and find new meanings and narratives. But it wasn’t until I picked up NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! again (someone scanned the first few poems in Zong! here) that I decided to go beyond left-aligned lines on a portrait-oriented page – it gave me the idea of using vertical proximity and clustering to create micro-poems and new moments within the original lines, especially since the effect would be amplified by the Omni-Theatre screen. This was my first attempt at writing something that depended on a less orderly way of reading to generate more resonances, and it was incredibly fun to experiment with different layouts. The challenge was to guide the audience while also leaving them space to make unexpected connections between what they were hearing and seeing; I liked the fact that wherever the audience was sitting would also influence which clusters stood out to them first.

Once I decided that words would serve as the visual core of my presentation, I started choosing the music. I knew I wanted my reading to be bookended by songs with lyrics that picked up the themes but didn’t directly allude to love/loss or have too pronounced a beat. I’d also decided that Mandarin songs would be more distinct, in order to further separate the music from my text. I’ve been listening to the music of 梁靜茹 Fish Leong and 陳綺貞Cheer Chen a lot, so they both ended up in my performance. The first verse of  〈不為失戀說抱歉〉[Don’t be apologetic about your heartbreak] by 梁靜茹 Fish Leong (full lyrics here) was the perfect opening song, since it evokes the themes of location and memory (plus a bonus reference to books of poetry and a past self):

Translation - Fish Leong 不為失戀說抱歉

The background music was the dreamiest, most ethereal Sigur Rós song I could find – “Untitled #1 (A.K.A Vaka)”. Which meant that the closing song, which would play while my audience read the end credits, had to mesh well with that, but it could have a little bit more of a beat. 〈靜靜的生活〉 [Live in silence] (note: the title’s translation is taken from Wikipedia; I’m assuming the translator wanted to highlight how the original sounds like both a noun and a verb) by 陳綺貞 Cheer Chen fitted the bill in terms of its instrumentation, and the second and third verses had the tone of ambivalence I wanted:

Translation - Cheer Chen 靜靜的生活

Unfortunately I didn’t have the foresight to make sure I documented the visuals properly during rehearsals, or assign a friend to do it for me during the performance, so only the first three photos (taken by a friend) and the sixth one (taken by the NAC staff) were from the actual performance, hence the lack of the brownish glare of the aisle lights. I took the remaining photos during various rehearsals, taken from a bunch of different places in the theatre, so I’m afraid the fourth section of the poem needs to be pieced together from the fifth and sixth photos, and the last few words of the final section are cut off because I didn’t manage to scurry to the back of the theatre in time. Then again, even the good photos can’t evoke the immersiveness of the Omni-Theatre, so this is the best you’ll get on the internet – just imagine being in a dome, surrounded by these words.

It was such a luxury to be able to magnify the distances between the words, and to have those distances be filled by constellations and stars. And I mean, I guess there’s a reason why galaxy prints were so popular a couple of years back – there’s probably some scientific reason for this, but stars in the night sky are just an aesthetically pleasing image. (I decided against wearing my galaxy print top to the event – too literal!) The Omni-Theatre’s system was also able to incorporate the zoom-out effect I wanted as a transition between each section, and I loved how it felt like the reader was travelling from galaxy to galaxy. By the end of the event itself (I was tagged in quite a few photos on Facebook, and I reshared the SWF album), I wasn’t the only poet who was not-so-secretly hoping that the Science Centre would invite us to reprise our pieces – having so many more ways to add dimension to our text was intoxicating for quite a few of us.

Gesturing emphatically, as always

Gesturing emphatically during the post-show panel, as always.



Working on “Reconfigurations” has made me realise how deeply I’d internalised the Romantic notion of literary creation as an act of solo creation. Quotations were acceptable only when they were epigraphs; anything more than that was “cheating”, even though some of the later poems in They hear salt crystallising rely heavily on found text. Ironically, I am completely enamoured of found text in other people’s poetry and visual art – I think Zong! and Janet Holmes’ The m s of my Kin are genius, and reading Graham Rawle’s Woman’s World is such a rich experience. Yet when it comes to how I feel about my own work, it’s hard to let go of the idea that the poems I create “from scratch” are inherently superior to found text pieces. I wonder if this notion of creativity is a warped variant of the myth of meritocracy, where genuine talent is supposed to exist in this free-floating vacuum, unaffected by anyone else’s work, and being strongly influenced by another writer is equated with being derivative. I have no problem tearing down the myth that regardless of one’s socio-economic circumstances, true ability should be capable of manifesting itself unaided by external resources (books, enrichment classes, encouragement, validation, etc), but clearly it’s seeped into my identity as a writer. It didn’t help that the Singaporean elite schools I went to rewarded individual achievement far more than collaboration, so I suppose it’s no real surprise that using found text makes me feel guilty, even when the text I use was written by me!

Having said that, now that I have some experience of the amount of effort required to put together a complex found text piece, it’s kind of satisfied the part of me that buys into the puritanical mindset that any worthwhile achievement shouldn’t be too easy. Found poetry has been more difficult than writing poems that sprang forth fully formed, perhaps because I am involving another person’s voice; writing “Reconfigurations” ended up being a weird sort of collaboration with the 19- and 20-year-old selves who wrote the poems I took those lines from. Occasionally I’d feel irrationally guilty – was I disavowing her by demolishing the original order of her words? – but it was pretty liberating to release those lines and phrases from their histories, and my feelings about the people who prompted then-me to write those poems. I feel that the poetic form of my earlier work (mostly full sentences generated by a single speaker arranged in left-aligned stanzas) are no longer the right form for what I want to say now, and I’m excited about experimenting with forms that give a better sense of the messiness of things, and push readers to work a bit harder to find connections. I’m very drawn to the techniques of fracturing that NourbeSe Philip employs in Zong! because they have so much potential to unsettle, regardless of the subject of the poem; I think it’s both because it allows the poem to resist our impulse to order, but also because it gives ‘the sub-units of a text, whether that means sentences, lines, or stanzas, a level of autonomy’, as Rae Armantrout says in this interview (she was referring to Language Poetry, but it certainly applies to Zong!). And as all repressive governments know, when once-docile units start gaining autonomy, it can be profoundly discomfiting.


Although the debate about the police harassment of Teo Soh Lung and Ngerng for breaching Cooling-Off Day regulations has died down over the past few days, I’ve been thinking about the symbolism of these actions, and their implications for civil society and the climate of fear in Singapore. Kirsten Han writes::

Seven police officers searched the home in which Teo lives alone. Her desktop, laptop and mobile phone were seized. Meanwhile, Ngerng’s two laptops, two hard drives, mobile phone and some memory cards were also confiscated at his home. There was no search warrant or warrant to seize; the police said that there was no need for such warrants as it was all part of the investigation process.

It goes without saying that it’s unacceptable that the police are able to seize the electronic devices of private individuals without needing to provide any official justification, and that “part of the investigation process” seems to be a go-to clause exempting them from any accountability. And of course, it is blatantly clear that this was not actually necessary for the investigation of the Facebook posts – the posts, the time they were posted and their popularity are all publicThat is the point of Facebook and the reason that these were reported as breaches of Cooling-Off Day regulations. The nature of the offence completely undermines the claim that confiscating their computers and mobile phones would add any new understanding to their posts.

But that’s the point, isn’t it? By doing things like this, the Singapore government flaunts its immunity from any form of accountability, and reminds us that they can choose not to listen to any calls for change. (Oh hell, let’s just name the perpetrators as the People’s Action Party; the Workers’ Party has issued a statement criticising these investigations.) In its most recent press statement, the Elections Department and the Singapore Police Force merely reiterated: ‘As part of the investigations, the Police need to examine for evidentiary purposes electronic devices used to publish the online postings.’ In an academic essay, this would be marked as needless repetition. (On a side note, isn’t it ironic that humanities students who can produce exam essays containing well-developed ideas are more likely to get into the civil service, yet the skill becomes redundant if their job has anything to do with writing press releases?) But not for the first time, this serves to remind us that empty repetition is all we will get when the PAP’s practices are challenged.

In many ways the seizure of Teo and Ngerng’s electronic devices reflects the PAP’s longstanding sense of entitlement to interfere Singaporeans’ private lives and decisions. The policies which do so less directly, like the discrimination against the unmarried in access to public, have become so normalised that even I can only occasionally manage to call up the outrage they deserve. But this time, their blatant invasion of people’s private archives chilled my blood –  the thought of a bunch of police officers and who knows how many civil servants having access to the private thoughts I share with my friends over online chat and email, not to mention all the writings I have on my laptop, fills me with a profound sense of violation. Maybe the police aren’t going to bother reading 99% of the private material on Teo and Ngerng’s devices, but that’s irrelevant. The terrifying thing is that the PAP does not hesitate to exercise its power to seize this material on the flimsiest of pretenses, the moment it feels threatened by those who “regularly engage in the propagation, promotion and discussion of political issues“.

(Yet again, the term ‘political issues’ becomes distorted into code for ‘critical of the PAP’, contributing to the illusion that the PAP’s statements are neutral, and only views that deviate from theirs are defined as “political”. Every piece of state-created promotional material, every civil service press release, every state-sponsored scheme is political. And come on, Vivian Balakrishnan also “regularly [engages] in the propagation, promotion and discussion of political issues”.)

I think what worries me most is how seeing this happen again and again over the course of years normalises a sense of powerlessness. When I was talking to a friend about this, I found myself getting defensive when he observed in a mildly critical tone that the general tone in discussions about this issue was one of resignation. I don’t actually agree that this is the tone (and the question of the impact of internet commentary is a separate one), but it made me realise the extent to which a sense of resignation has seeped into my mind in between bouts of frantic reading and discussion. It’s not surprising, given my experiences with criticising PAP policy on and off since my teenage years, and my observations of the difficulties other activist friends have encountered over the years, but this resignation is something I want to resist; I know it makes me dismiss a lot of possibilities out of hand, and narrows my view of how I can contribute.

Yet I still felt an intensely visceral panic when I first heard the news about Teo Soh Lung and Roy Ngerng – my mind went off on a frantic tangent about what might happen after I read politically critical poems at the National Poetry Festival reading next month, and if I blog about Parliamentary sessions. But this is precisely why I’m announcing all this on a public platform – I want to illustrate the absurdity of a society where such fears aren’t particularly exceptional. The undercurrent of anxiety shows me how much I’ve absorbed the message of intimidation after 15 years of engaging in Singaporean civil society, in a way which 18-year-old me would not have recognised, but I’m trying to regain some of her determination (I’m not sure whether to call it courage, since a lot of it was due to ignorance about the history of political repression in Singapore, and the belief – subsequently proved wrong, but that’s another story – that there would be no concrete consequences) to speak out.

It’s been many years since I’ve felt compelled to write critiques on a regular basis, due to being completely drained (though extremely fulfilled) when I was teaching full-time, needing time to find my words, and a lot of Life Stuff.  And it was satisfying enough to read what was said in articles by Kirsten Han, AWARE and other alternative news platforms. But it feels like the right time to join the debate in a more sustained way, and find my voice again. (One thing that occurred to me when following the GE2015 news was that there is a need for more critical pieces that also explain how state organisations and schemes work; the amazing article about town council management and funding was a godsend.) I also want to write more about what it could mean in practice to,  as Alfian Sa’at urged in his poignant Facebook note about having tea with Teo Soh Lung, “be a little less afraid”.

A couple of days ago, I was discussing Ursula K. Le Guin’s story, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas“, with a young student, and it got me thinking about parallels between Singaporeans and the citizens of Omelas. In the story, only two choices are presented: live with the fact that your country’s prosperity and happiness is founded on tremendous suffering, or leave. I have always been dissatisfied with these options, so when I used this story a few years ago while teaching IP secondary school kids Language Arts, one of my assignments was to get them to write a proposal to the Omelas government arguing for the freedom of the child in the basement. Examining the story again with this new student, I pointed out to her that it’s important to pay attention to whether statements like “The terms are strict and absolute; there may not even be a kind word spoken to the child” are presented as facts, or the narratives imposed by the Omelas government.

If we interpret the walking away as literal, one could say that the tragedy of Omelas is both the suffering of the child in the basement and the passivity of its citizens; in the story, Le Guin does not even hint at the possibility of some citizens staying to challenge the terms dictated by their leadership. I think I understand why she omits that; the lack of explicit state coercion better highlights how seductive stability and material comfort are when you’re not the one trapped in a basement (and presumably the one in the basement isn’t your child).

And that is where the similarity to Singapore ends. At least here, there are people who stay and challenge the oppressive terms of the state, and the larger social norms that amplify their effects; some of these people have poured their lives into advocating for the children in the basement. When I feel helpless, I go on Facebook and scroll through their timelines, or read their work, so as to remind myself I personally have choices other than accepting my helplessness or walking away from this country. It is because of this community that I don’t think I could bear to do the latter.


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Filed under freedom of expression, lack of state accountability, my work, poetry, political repression, singapore under the pap, They hear salt crystallising

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