Category Archives: They hear salt crystallising

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

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First launch, best preface

My first book of poetry, They hear salt crystallising, will be launched with several other books published by firstfruits publications on Saturday 6th November 2010 at the National Museum Salon, from 7.30-10.30pm. More information about the event can be found at the Facebook page for this group launch.

When I was discussing my manuscript with poet and publisher Enoch Ng (there’s an extensive interview with him and Yeo Wei Wei at Full Tilt), he suggested that I get someone to write a preface, and suggested Philip Holden. Philip was really the perfect person for the task – he’s steeped in Singapore literature, has written extensively about postcolonial and gender issues (including a book on W. Somerset Maugham, whose fiction I read far too much of as an adolescent). Just look at his introduction on his NUS staff homepage:

My previous work has been on colonial modernity, autobiography and transnational literatures, and I’ve published a number of articles on Singapore Literature and Culture. I have recently been teaching introductory modules and modules in Singapore Literature and Culture, although my primary interest hasn’t so much been in establishing a Singaporean literary canon as in thinking about how such texts might make us engage more deeply with the society in which we live: my own thought is that questions raised by Singapore writing are best informed by regional and comparative perspectives, rather than simply national ones.

Philip has since become a good friend who is, thank fortune, very aware of the privilege he has in Singapore as a white middle-class male academic, and one of the few people I know who really gets the noxiousness of the kyriarchy. Due to various production issues, this preface ended up being cut from the actual volume, but he has given me permission to publish it here. I feel pretty lucky to have had my work discussed so lucidly, particularly by someone I have great respect for; this combination doesn’t occur that often for most writers, I think.

By Way of Introduction
Philip Holden

In her poem “British Concession,” Teng Qian Xi describes acutely a central paradox of Singapore modernity. As a student at what was then Hwa Chong Junior College, a modern offshoot of Chinese High School, historically one of the most important centres of Chinese learning in Singapore, she entered the elite Humanities Programme. Yet in the programme she did not study Chinese culture but rather took Cambridge University Literature ‘A’ and ‘S’ levels under the tutelage of British expatriate staff whose terms of employment were much superior to their local colleagues. They deepened her understanding of English Literature, and with kind condescension, complimented her on the wonderfully unSingaporean nature of the poetry she began to write.

At first sight, such a situation seems to be a colonial hangover, a remnant of what Martiniquean anticolonial activist Frantz Fanon had characterized as the “unqualified assimilation” of a coloniser’s culture. Yet here the paradoxes begin: the Humanities Programme was not a colonial remnant, but a new programme with specific aims of creating an elite hosted by a relatively new institution–the Junior College–which itself was produced by postcolonial education reforms. And the programme was part of a much larger, and more complex, reworking of culture by the state in postcolonial Singapore. As “Casualties of the Efficient World” testifies, the bilingual policy and the Speak Mandarin Campaign reconfigured Chinese and other cultural identities: the vision of Chinese culture encouraged by the state relegated other Chinese languages (or “dialects”) to obsolescence. At the same time, Singapore’s rapid economic development resulted in an amnesia concerning the complex struggles of the past, and a simplified narrative of national development. Qian Xi’s engagement with the valences of many literary contexts and traditions needs to be seen in this context.

As the poems in They hear salt crystallising reveal, Qian Xi is a political poet, but a poet with a new and versatile politics. Earlier generations of English-language poets in Singapore engaged with the politics of nationalism. The poets at the University of Malaya in Singapore in the 1950s dreamed of a shared Malayan culture, while for two decades after Singapore’s independence 1965 poets faced a choice between a public politics of national pronouncement and a more private concern with aesthetics. From the late 1980s onwards, however, things changed. As a developed country dependent on capital flows, Singapore is caught in a web of relations with the region and beyond. On one level, literary production has become increasingly transnational in scope; on another, it has become possible to explore local, distinctively Singaporean spaces that are relatively unmarked by national concerns. Current Singaporean literary production, of which Qian Xi’s collection is an important example, thus looks both beyond the nation and below, seeking out settings both outside the island’s geographical boundaries, and Singaporean settings which are always already marked by the global.

This is a political poetics, then, but it is a poetics of situations. In Qian Xi’s poetry, the universal signifiers of literary traditions are decomposed and reconfigured. In “three love objects” the work of poets from different continents over two millennia is cut up and interleaved with the writer’s own words. Ekphrastic poems such as “An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump” and the paired “Two Afterlives of Medusa” reconfigure the paintings to which they refer: Boyle’s air pump figures an attempted suicide, while Medusa’s gaze moves from the petrified heroes of Greek mythology inwards into meditation on appearances, desire, and transgression. Such concern with transformation of literary signifiers is also apparent in the more assertive gender politics of “Caeneus to Caenis: Reminiscences,” and also, more meditatively, in the domestication of the scholar Xu Xian from the story of Madam White Snake, trapped in a Singapore condominium and condemned to weekly rounds of golf.

In other poems that make less obvious intertextual literary reference, the personal and political in engage in complex ways. Poems such as “Truth Swings By the Neck,” “Trees,” and “Rescue” are much more intimate in tone, but are marked by a poetics of metamorphosis, in which the persona or loved ones transform into trees, animals, or other natural objects. Other poems are more public: “On History” memorialises the life of the leftist political leader Lim Chin Siong, following him from his release from prison in 1959 to his later exile in London; “Wrestlers” commences with wry reference to Speakers’ Corner, established in 2000 in Hong Lim Park as a designated place of free speech in Singapore. Yet even these poems shift in register, moving from a political event or policy to its reflection in a private life or lives. In “On History” the celebratory dove released by Lim on being freed from prison returns again in the “fattened wings” of contemporary citizens who “no longer sing at twilight.” “Wrestlers,” ends more ambiguously, moving from Hong Lim Park to “an image of strength” that loses its coherence in mediation: flickering wrestlers seen on television by old men, their “skinfolds” now “like dead petals under the sun.”

Technically, the poems work in two related ways. First, they look obliquely at familiar objects or relationships, and thus defamiliarise them. Most of the poems are conversational in that they are written in the first person, and are often addressed to a third party, someone other than the reader. “Crossings at the Green Man” is exemplifies this. It begins conversationally with a question, recalling the experience of waiting with a friend at a pedestrian crossing on the way to school. Yet it quickly moves, through a revisioning of the image of the green man on the crossing, beyond this immediate situation. The green man becomes the Green Man of the English Middle Ages, whom the speaker then connects with the English poet John Clare, a figure who in turn becomes an icon of a poet who insists on his own particular identity and vision despite social ridicule and mental illness, even after his popularity has waned. And then the poem returns to the situation it has left, filling it with new meanings. The meetings by the green man, we are told, were only temporary, part of a much larger story of a life in which many things remain hidden “behind a wild green coat”: there seems here to be a hint—and it is nothing more– of a public meeting place of conformity and acquiescence that covers over the contours of individual lives. A quotidian meeting is thus seen obliquely, and in invested with a new, troubling, significance.

In a parallel manner, “The End of Every Field” begins with a mother’s words to her daughter, then extends and supplements them. The metaphors of both a kite on a string and a horse on a tethering rope are held in suspension for most of the poem, and united in the image of a scissored umbilical cord. We return to a physical origin that is both a moment of separation and of renewed dependence, as evinced in the image of the “breakable child bones” of an infancy now left behind.

A second way in which the poems are distinctive is in their use of juxtaposition and transposition; two subjects that seem distinct, or indeed opposed, are brought into collision by formal elements of the poem. At times this technique works simply through the interpolation of intertextual elements: quotations from King Lear in “Eye and Tongue” that enter a very different, contemporary, father-daughter relationship, or the interleaving of two different poetic voices in each section of “three love objects.” At others, mythical elements intrude: in “Independence” the Chinese immortal Zhangguo Lao’s habit of riding a donkey backwards contrasts with parental and social expectations placed on “gifted” children, their faces “turned always to the shore” of a future career. Such transposition is precise enough to give aesthetic pleasure, but not fully determining in terms of meaning: the result is an open text which the reader can enter and discover significance of her own. “A Bridge of Birds,” for example, uses the motif of birds flocking together to link together two apparently unrelated events: flag-raising in the morning at school, where the Singapore pledge is recited, and the Milky Way as a “highway of wings” formed by magpies in Chinese mythology, uniting two divided lovers once a year: the result is an unsettling conflux of the mundane and the aspirational, neither of which entirely cancels out the other. “Who Subtitles Fireworks” yokes together Stephen Sondheim’s encyclopedic musical Into the Woods, a bricolage of fairy stories assembled into a new narrative, with contemporary Singaporean filmmaker Tan Pin Pin’s Singapore GaGa, which pushes fractured, marginal experiences of Singaporeans who occupy liminal spaces in the built environment to centre stage.

Most readers of Singapore poetry will have encountered Qian Xi’s writing before in fleeting glimpses over the last decade: in the press, anthologies, or online sites such as the2ndrule, Slope, and QLRS. The glimpses we have had have hinted at astonishing sophistication and variety in terms of formal construction, intertextual reference, and engagement with social and political issues in Singapore and beyond. They hear salt crystallising as a collection now offers something additional: the possibility of placing the elements of a body of work in comparison, and the volume is thus very much more than a sum of individual parts. Like the kite string of “The End of Every Field,” Qian Xi’s poems draw us after them, but we do not need to let go: as they pull us out of our own experience into the beautiful discomfort of their various settings, they also cause us to reflect on our own society, the communities we belong to, and above all ourselves.

© Philip Holden 2009

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