Singapore Writers Festival: Poetry now reigns supreme in Singapore, say panellists

Next generation poets on the You're Up Next panel discussion agreed that social media has democratised writing. PHOTO: ARTS HOUSE LIMITED

SINGAPORE – Perhaps the biggest insight to come out of two Singapore Writers Festival panels last Saturday was that poetry might now be the most accessible form of literature here, contrary to what the late Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew believed. He had once said “poetry is a luxury we cannot afford”.

All five panellists on You’re Up Next: Voices Of The Future From Sing Lit were poets. In what was dubbed a “coming-of-age” panel for aspiring Singapore writers, they said social media, for all its ills, has democratised what has traditionally been regarded as a more off-putting, erudite form.

This is notwithstanding unhealthy pressures on poets to fit their writing into an instagram grid or for virality. At least two panellists cited Facebook community SingPoWriMo (Singapore Poetry Writing Month), which has provided room for people of all ages to participate by simply reacting to daily prompts.

There was discussion, too, of Canadian poet Rupi Kaur’s visit to Singapore next year, with tickets starting at $98 for the event to take place at the Esplanade Theatre.

Andrew Kirkrose Devadason said: “Distancing myself just a little bit from how she writes, I think it’s great that we’re training Singaporeans to pay money to see writers. I think that’s a good habit to encourage.”

Particularly memorable was Laili Abdeen, whose poem – I want to fall in love in the way Deepika dances in Deewani Mastani – blended humour, pop culture references, insight and rhythm. Shawn Hoo’s poem Mempat, too, mesmerised, recontextualising the queer myth of Hu Tianbao the Rabbit god in a way that does not allow for easy analysis “the way A-level students are taught to”.

Jonathan Chan said poetry has been the more powerful way by which post-colonial writers have historically found a language for themselves. “It has been a medium that allows that slipperiness of language, ways of incorporating different sounds, that constitute our multilingual environment. Maybe we could see ourselves as part of that lineage or trajectory.”

In A Southeast Asian Map For The Science Fiction Future, moderator and author Victor Fernando R. Ocampo said Singapore is probably the most receptive to poetry among the 11 South-east Asian states.

But speculative writing, including fantasy, science fiction and horror, especially in poetry form, remains slightly sidelined and requires more exposure. “It used to be that anything that had a ghost or spaceship, no matter how well written it is, is junk,” he said.

Panellists said speculative fiction as a genre remains the best way to re-imagine the past or dream about the future. By incorporating in it South-east Asian sensibilities, such as by centring on a South-east Asian hero or villain, instead of using them as a prop or portraying them as people to be saved, writers can effect changes in perception, blurring the line between entertainment and “literature”.

Ocampo reminded the audience that the potential reading public in the region is 655 million people. “If we actually write for ourselves, it is twice that of the United States. In every genre, there is something that you write that is for entertainment, and there is something that has a deeper message. That depends on the writer.”

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