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Poetry on the MRT and in the foreign worker dorm

Suddenly, it seems, Singapore is awash in poetry.

Have you seen the MRT map of poetry? 

This started from a challenge by Joshua Ip, a young poet, to fellow writers to pick one MRT station and write a poem about it. He posted in on Saturday, April 23.

 

By the end of the weekend, there was a poem for every station.

Some, like the one on Yio Chu Kang, convey in a few lines what it’s like to take a train from that station northwards: that interminable single-stop gap between Yio Chu Kang and Khatib

For others, the MRT station appears to be a launchpad to showcase the writer’s verbal dexterity.

One can spend a pleasurable hour or two clicking on the buttons to read the poems.

April, it appears, was Singapore Poetry Writing Month, SingPoWriMo, which is also the name of a Facebook group to promote this.

Last Saturday,  April 23, which happens to be the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare, was also the day The Straits Times launched  Rhyme and Reason, a literary series featuring prose and poetry over 15 weeks.

I wrote then that we wanted poetry in the Opinion, or Op-Ed pages, because: “Good prose and poetry stir the heart and quicken the soul, while teasing the mind. When they dwell on national or current affairs issues, such writings, at pivotal times, can speak for an epoch, to an entire generation, and indeed can speak for an entire nation.”

The first instalment of the series included a poem by Edwin Thumboo, Say SG and a prose essay by Meira Chand on her journey of identity to Singapore.

Readers have responded warmly to the series. Throughout the week, I would open my e-mail and read readers’ missives with a smile, because a few took the trouble to share poems with me, or send me poetry they had written.

Reader James Lo emailed his response in rhyme:
“Thanks for such breath of fresh air, the new addition is only fair. My background is in science and math, to compose a passage was near death.
“I know not what is poetry or prose, but both will easily make me froze. Yet how could I express my innermost thoughts, only through keen interest from self taught. Beauties lie in the eye of the beholder, I can at least tell and share, think and ponder.”

Another reader wrote:
“A 15-week series of prose and poetry is simply not enough...Expression of ideas comes in many forms. Some have even placed poetry at the highest literary level - 'novels being good, plays being better and poems the best'.”

She shared her 13 year old daughter Janie Tan’s poem on Cinderella which included these lines:
“In a flash of bright light, her fairy godmother appeared. 
Just with a simple wave of her wand,
Kitchen clothes and tattered slippers gone,
Light enfolded her,
Magic stepped in. 
None looked as beautiful as her that night. “

Australian photographer and writer Ed Stokes sent me pavement poetry from Brisbane, which sparked an e-mail exchange on MRT platform poetry, and park bench poetry on the banks of the Charles River in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

I was delighted too to hear from  Koh Tai Ann, the well-known literature professor.  She told me the origin of the famous quote on poetry attributed to Mr Lee Kuan Yew, where he is reported to have said in 1969 that poetry was a luxury Singapore cannot afford.

“As a then fresh Eng Lit graduate, I was so struck by it that I had to record in my notebook this off-the cuff comment made at a Q & A after a speech, and subsequently quote it to explain the state's then lack of support for literature.”

She went on to say: “I recorded it for posterity( so to speak) and first used it in a 1980 article, "The Singapore Experience: Cultural Development in the Global Village", for the ISEAS annual publication, Southeast Asian Affairs. It's on p.303.”

So there, it’s official. Mr Lee did make that remark; and Prof Koh was the one who recorded it for posterity.

The second installment of the Rhyme and Reason series was published yesterday, April 30. This consisted of a poem Family Values by Tania De Rozario and an essay by Adeline Foo on cabaret women in Singapore.

Adeline ventured beyond her usual teen fiction (she created The Diary of Amos Lee series) into non-fiction social history, drawing on research she did for a National Library Board Lee Kong Chian Research Fellowship.

And in the mailbox on Wednesday, a press release came my way, announcing  the publication of a new volume of - you guessed it - poetry. 
One written by a migrant worker, no less.

Titled Me Migrant, it is “a collection of poems born of the friendship between volunteers of community clinic HealthServe and foreign construction workers,” according to publisher Ethos Books.

It is by Md Mukul Hossine, and is translated from Bangla with help from Fariha Imran and Farouk Ahammed. Singapore Literature Prize-winning poet Cyril Wong “transcreated” it, helping to write and  edit the poetry in English. It is being launched today (May 1) at The Arts House.

The eponymous poem is here:

“Me migrant
Live overseas
Thousand thousand miles away

Me migrant
Beyond borders
Mislaying smiles
Dawn to dusk then dawn again

Bearing sighs and a cry
Inner heart
Love, compassion, kindness
Lose their meaning
Be careful: no one here
And nobody
To see and know such pain

Me migrant

Live outdoors
Outside from you.”

And in the poem addressed to "Golden Mother", one feels the migrant poet’s sense of isolation:

In the bottomless heat of this distant land,
life burns towards its end.
Come see where I am?

Uncountable pain, wails by the thousands,
I weep alone mother.
Nobody looks at me.”

That line - "nobody looks at me" - got to me. Mea culpa for I too have averted my gaze from that of a migrant worker.

Poetry has the ability  to move us, surprise us and in the end, to make us remember the common humanity that binds us.

muihoong@sph.com.sg

Chua Mui Hoong blogs regularly on notable commentaries and issues.