THE READ INTERVIEW

Poets get their big break on social media

Clementine von Radics. -- PHOTO: ANDREWS MCMEEL PUBLISHING
Clementine von Radics. -- PHOTO: ANDREWS MCMEEL PUBLISHINGPHOTOS: ANDREWS MCMEEL PUBLISHING PHOTOS: COURTESY OF WONG SU ANN, ETHOS BOOKS
Wong Su Ann. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF WONG SU ANN
Wong Su Ann. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF WONG SU ANNPHOTOS: ANDREWS MCMEEL PUBLISHING PHOTOS: COURTESY OF WONG SU ANN, ETHOS BOOKS

Australian poet Lang Leav's popularity on microblogging platform Tumblr led to a publishing contract and two best-selling books of verse. SundayLife! interviews two other poets who found their audiences online

Wong Su Ann

"All these 20-year-olds writing about heartbreak. What do we know?" says Wong Su Ann, laughing over the poems in her debut collection, Equatorial Sunshine, brought out in April by Ethos Books.

Such touches of self-awareness make Equatorial Sunshine more than a jumble of twee verse, even if Wong, 24, did begin writing poetry three years ago after breaking up with her then boyfriend.

In a new relationship now, she still writes verse "to try and gain control of my feelings", juggling this with full-time pupilage in a local law firm.

Equatorial Sunshine has the obligatory rants and raves about love but also wry meditations on femininity and feminism. The Wild 20s sends up the fabled single life - "I spend many a young single night cohabiting with Jane Austen, cuddling up to hot Milo and having regular threesomes with Loneliness and Depression" - while The Edible Woman is inspired by Margaret Atwood's novel of the same name - "So I made him a sandwich but/He's already made a snack out of me/ To be tasted, devoured, kissed for free".

Some of the verses in the book were shared online during Wong's three years in law school and were popular enough that at press time, her new blog set up only seven months ago to promote the book, equatorialsunshine.blogspot.sg, had close to 900,000 page views.

Some of her readers contributed a verse or two to Equatorial Sunshine but the bulk are Wong's, written while she was an undergraduate at the National University of Singapore and inspired by her loneliness during an exchange semester in the University of Nottingham. It was her first long stint away from home. The oldest of two girls born to a retired businessman and a bank worker, she studied in CHIJ Katong, Tanjong Katong Girls' School and Victoria Junior College.

On the recommendation of a friend, she sent some of her verses to Ethos Books, the publisher which gave Singapore stalwarts such as Alvin Pang and Aaron Lee their start. A spokesman for the imprint calls Equatorial Sunshine an "experiment" to add to the diversity of its stable and it appears to be a successful experiment so far. The book launch in April attracted about 100 readers, a sizeable number for an unknown debut.

"I didn't expect this. I know it's a different kind of poetry I write, not like Edwin Thumboo's or Cyril Wong's," Wong says.

As for Lang Leav, Wong says the Australian poet's success carved a path for her as well "but we write about different things".

She also enjoys the verses of Rumi and Leonard Cohen, quoting them in conversation as benchmarks she aspires to. "There are limits to my language still," she says.

Equatorial Sunshine ($14 before GST) is available at MPH Bookstores, Books Kinokuniya, Cat Socrates and online from www.ethosbooks.com.sg


Clementine von Radics

Five months after she began posting her work online, performance poet Clementine von Radics was able to quit her day job with a non-profit group and live off the sales of her self-published collections of verse.

Three years later, the 23-year-old is championing other social media poets through her independent imprint Where Are You Press. The 10-title outfit has sold 25,000 copies this year alone, while von Radics has a two-book contract with Andrews McMeel Publishing, which also put its weight behind Tumblr poetry sensation Lang Leav.

Von Radics' first collection with Andrews McMeel, Mouthful Of Forevers, became a top seller on Amazon as soon as it was released in April, testifying to the strength of the new business model espoused by writers like her and Australian poet Leav: Give away content for free online and trust that there will be a market for the print version.

"I love having a book in my hand," says the California-born and Oregon-based author in a telephone interview. "All of our Where Are You Press writers provide their content for free online but there is something different and precious about having the book in your hand."

Her press has three other full-time employees who handle layout, shipping and distribution but no marketing staff as each writer has "a direct relationship with readers" through social media.

Words and rhythm run in the von Radics family: Her grandmother was an English teacher, her mother a copyeditor and her father a songwriter who teaches guitar. Von Radics worked in her father's music store for a while, moved to Berkeley after a failed relationship and began her love affair with verse. "I've written a note for a poem in the URL bar of a computer screen. I've written them on napkins, wherever I get the idea that I want to turn into a poem," she says.

As readers responded to her work on Tumblr, she began selling up to 500 copies of her self-published work a month - these two collections are no longer available, having been absorbed into Mouthful Of Forevers.

She also attracted submissions from other young women writers and decided to publish them. "I was interested in editing other writers' work. A collection is a work of art. The selection of the poems and how they relate to each other is such a different process from posting on a blog."

Today, she sells up to 5,000 Where Are You Press titles a month and credits Australian poet Leav as the trailblazer for the business model she follows. However, if Leav's work is "deceptively childlike" and made up of "beautiful love poems", as von Radics says, her own verses are outspoken and feminist.

In Advice To Teenage Girls With Wild Ambitions And Trembling Hearts, she writes to her younger sister and two godsisters, referencing other teenagers known for their strength, from Joan Of Arc to education activist Malala Yousafzai: "You are the first drop of rain in a hurricane./Your bravery builds beyond you./You are needed by all the little girls/still living in secret, writing oceans/made of monsters, and/throwing like lightning.You don't need to grow up/to find greatness."

Her work runs the gamut from love poems to reactions to date rape and often reads as if it is confessional. She says it is not autobiographical. "I'm kind of defensive about that because I get feedback from people treating me as though they know me, but there is a distinction between what I write and what I am. I certainly don't define myself by my poems."

However, she is always moved when readers write to her about how her verses helped them through their personal tragedies. "I feel strongly about women and how to empower them," she says. "I'm very touched that people are so touched by my work."

Mouthful Of Forevers by Clementine von Radics ($25.50 before GST) retails at Books Kinokuniya, Times and Popular bookstores.

akshitan@sph.com.sg