First poetry festival for Singapore

Fifty years ago, a group of Singapore writers came together to discuss organising a poetry festival, with the vision of strengthening ties between different cultures and languages. The idea never took flight because the literary scene then was not active enough to support a festival.

But the dream did not die and the inaugural Singapore National Poetry Festival is finally taking place this weekend. It will feature activities at various locations, from the main venue at the Lasalle College of the Arts to Gardens by the Bay.

More than 35 poets, including Singapore Literary Prize 2014 joint winner Joshua Ip, will deliver speeches and readings and conduct poetry workshops.

The organising team consists of festival director and poet Eric Valles, Cultural Medallion recipient Edwin Thumboo, Tamil poet and journalist K. Kanagalatha, Malay poet Azhar Ibrahim and Chinese poet Tan Chee Lay, alongside educators from Lasalle College of the Arts, National Junior College and Tanjong Katong Secondary School.

They conceptualised the event in February while selecting poems for the National Library Board's Poetry On Platforms initiative, which sees 82 poems being displayed at City Hall MRT station platforms.

  • VIEW IT / SINGAPORE NATIONAL POETRY FESTIVAL

  • WHEN: Tomorrow, Saturday and Sunday, various timings

    WHERE: Lasalle College of the Arts, 1 McNally Street

    ADMISSION: Free

    INFO: nationalpoetryfestival.sg/

In 1965, Prof Thumboo and writers Wong Meng Voon, Masuri SN and V.T. Arasu had tried in vain to hold a poetry festival.

The organising team for the festival, which includes Prof Thumboo, decided to revive the idea, with a focus on Singapore's identity as a multicultural and multilingual city, and how that has influenced local poetry.

Prof Thumboo, an emeritus professor at the National University of Singapore, says: "This three-day festival is important for a number of reasons. Poetry in our four official languages get to share a platform, which it rarely does. The festival will boost the writing, reading and appreciation of our poetry in all forms and languages."

The themes are home, nation- hood and identity. Prof Thumboo and poet Gwee Li Sui will talk about the themes in local poetry over the past 50 years. Other speakers such as BooksActually owner Kenny Leck, educator Ian Chung, and poets Cyril Wong, Aaron Lee and Jollin Tan will discuss the theme of nation-building in poetry.

How does the festival differentiate itself from the annual Singapore Writers Festival, held later this year? Mr Valles says: "It will focus solely on poetry, particularly local poetry, and how Singapore's unique cultural identity has allowed poetry in our four major languages to flourish over the past 50 years.

"We're appealing to a local audience, while the Writers Festival has an international approach."

Poetry in other languages will be featured too. On Sunday, there will be programmes held in Malay and Tamil.

For Mr Tan, the festival is an important addition to the Golden Jubilee calendar."It's a timely reminder that we can, and should be, proud of our rich multilingual literary heritage, besides our rapid social and economic progress," he says.

Mr Valles adds: "This has been a labour of love for the team. We're not being paid to do this, but it's worth it for what poetry means to us."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 23, 2015, with the headline 'First poetry festival for Singapore'. Print Edition | Subscribe