Singapore Writers Festival

Simon Armitage, Lee Li-Young among more than 80 poets at Writers Festival

British poet Simon Armitage (left) was elected as Oxford Professor of Poetry - one of the most highly regarded positions for a poet in Britain, after the Poet Laureate - two years ago.
British poet Simon Armitage (above) was elected as Oxford Professor of Poetry - one of the most highly regarded positions for a poet in Britain, after the Poet Laureate - two years ago.PHOTO: PAUL WOLFGANG

Prominent poets Simon Armitage from Britain and Lee Li-Young from the United States are among the more than 80 poets lined up this year

In its 20th edition next month, the Singapore Writers Festival will be featuring a wealth of eminent poets, from Pulitzer Prize winner Rae Armantrout to Cultural Medallion recipient Lee Tzu Pheng, the Singaporean literary pioneer that the festival will be showcasing.

The festival, which takes place from Nov 3 to 12, will focus on the theme of Aram, a Tamil word meaning "goodness" or "doing good".

More than 80 poets from at least 15 countries will be in Singapore for the event.

The Straits Times speaks with two prominent poets - Simon Armitage from Britain and Lee Li-Young from the United States.


Lee Li-Young's family moved from China, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Japan to the US

Writing a poem, for Lee Li-Young, is like playing hide-and-seek.

"The poem says, 'Come find me', and I go looking for it," says the American poet. "In the wind leafing through the treetops. Down the throat of one bird, another bird, another. In the changing clouds, in the sound of children playing in the street, in the sounds of my wife going about her day throughout the house, opening and closing doors, humming to herself, talking on the phone.

The family of poet Lee Li-Young (above) relocated from China to Indonesia, before moving to Hong Kong, Japan and finally the United States.
The family of poet Lee Li-Young (above) relocated from China to Indonesia, before moving to Hong Kong, Japan and finally the United States. PHOTO: CUIRT INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL OF LITERATURE

"I seek the poem in childhood. I peer over the lip of my death. I look for it in the time before I was born. I look in God's right ear. I seek in God's ninth eye."

The 60-year-old father of two is renowned for his philosophical poetry that draws on his Chinese heritage and experiences as an exile.

"I prefer to write in a mode where I'm a stranger to myself," he tells The Straits Times in an e-mail interview. "Where even my own hands seem like another's, not mine."

Lee returns to the Singapore Writers Festival more than a quarter of a century after he attended its fourth edition in 1991, when it was still the biennial Writers' Week.

He has written four books of poetry, including The City In Which I Love You (1990) and Rose (1986), which won the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Award, as well as a memoir, The Winged Seed: A Remembrance (1995), which won the American Book Award.

His next collection, The Undressing, will be released next February.

He was born in Jakarta to Chinese exiles. His great-grandfather was Yuan Shikai, China's first Republican President. His father was a personal physician to Mao Zedong in China and later relocated the family to Indonesia.

After his father was arrested under President Sukarno's regime and spent 19 months in an Indonesian prison camp in Macau, his family fled to Hong Kong, Japan and, finally, to the United States.

Lee's earliest memories are of exile - "fear and helplessness fed to me in my mother's milk, my father's frustration and powerlessness irradiating me". He adds: "I'm not sure I turn memories into art so much as certain memories assert themselves and haunt the poems."

  • BOOK IT /THE RESPONSIBILITY OF ORIGINS AND IDENTITIES

  • WHAT: Lee, American novelist Xu Xi and Canadian novelist-poet Lydia Kwa will give a triple-bill lecture on cultural and racial identity.

    WHERE: Chamber, The Arts House, 1 Old Parliament Lane

    WHEN: Nov 11, 10am

    ADMISSION: $20 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)

    INFO: www.singaporewritersfestival.com

  • CREATING THE POETIC MIND

    WHAT: A writing workshop with Lee

    WHERE: Timbre Music Academy, 02-01, 1 Old Parliament Lane

    WHEN: Nov 12, noon

    ADMISSION: $20 from Sistic

  • SWF 20: THE ROLE OF A CRITIC

    WHAT: A panel discussion among Lee and American film critic Dennis Lim, Singaporean comics historian Lim Cheng Tju and Australian poet-art curator John Mateer.

    WHERE: Play Den, The Arts House

    WHEN: Nov 12, 5.30pm

    ADMISSION: Festival Pass event, $25 from Sistic

Growing up in the US, he struggled with English, an experience he recounts in poems such as Persimmons (1986), in which his sixth-grade teacher punishes him for not knowing the difference between "precision" and "persimmon".

His entry into the book industry was hardly a glamorous one.

As a struggling young poet, he attempted to get a job as a proof-reader or editor, but was sent down to the warehouse in the basement and put to work packing books.

He did this on and off for nine years, standing for eight hours a day putting books into boxes, boxes onto trucks and so on.

Since his days on the warehouse floor, his own books have made him one of the ground-breaking figures of Asian-American literature, which he says is in a golden age today. "It is definitely burgeoning, even at the beginning of an explosion."

But though he writes about his experience as a Chinese immigrant and also draws on classic poets such as Li Bai and Du Fu, he cautions against reading his work solely through the lens of his "Chinese-ness".

"I seek to account for all of who I am, which necessarily includes my embeddedness in the cosmos and eternity," he says. "I would hope that a reader reads my work for what it enacts, what it manifests, of that condition of embeddedness in the eternal, as much as what it might say about my ethnicity and history."

The former refugee feels that under Mr Donald Trump's presidency, the experiences of his family are suddenly what many more people are going through - and that it has been an inevitable development.

"There was a moment a few years ago when I heard some nonsense, particularly among the supposed intelligentsia, about people in the US living in a post-racial world," he recalls. "I had no idea what they were talking about. What I knew was that there was growing fear and hatred, subtle and not so subtle, all around me."

As for the festival's 20th anniversary theme Aram, a Tamil word meaning "goodness" or "doing good", he believes it poses a question that is complex, perhaps unanswerable.

"Since the world has no common idea of 'good' and each of us treats as good what seems 'good' to him or her, everyone in the world is as 'good' as Buddha or Christ," he says. "Making 'good' represent what any one group or one person thinks only holds what's good hostage.

"And yet, it does seem a profoundly important question to ask."


Simon Armitage says poetry can exist in other context like sculpture

Can poetry be mainstream? Sometimes, says British poet Simon Armitage, but mostly "it's not meant for everyone". He adds: "Generally, its job is to exist at the edges and corners... It's an alternative."

The notion of poetry in the mainstream is a divisive one. This is the age, after all, of the Instagram poet, when the likes of Rupi Kaur and Lang Leav reign. Kaur's best-selling, bite-sized brand of confessional poetry has its detractors, but she also has 1.7 million Instagram followers and is outselling Homer 10 to one.

  • BOOK IT /GETTING POETRY OUT OF THE BOX

  • WHAT: A lecture by Armitage about writing for the media beyond the printed page.

    WHERE: Chamber, The Arts House

    WHEN: Nov 4, 2pm

    ADMISSION: $20 via Sistic

Armitage, 54, dabbles with Instagram as "a space for broadcasting occasional ideas or as a gallery of thoughts", but it stops there for him.

"I like the image-text combination, something I don't get to play with elsewhere," he says in an e-mail interview. "But I don't want dialogue through Instagram, except by implication and juxtaposition."

But he also wants more people to know that poetry does not have to be confined to the space between the covers of a book. "It can have a place in the hearts and minds of non-specialist readers, as long as it's used caringly and sparingly."

He straddles both popular and critical acclaim. Two years ago, he was elected as Oxford Professor of Poetry - one of the most highly regarded positions for a poet in Britain, after the Poet Laureate.

He has authored more than 10 poetry collections, two novels, a memoir and noted translations, including one of the mediaeval poem Sir Gawain And The Green Knight.

He is working on stage versions of Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 film Vertigo and Greek playwright Euripides' drama Helen, and poems for a book called Flit, in which he emigrates to a fictitious mid-European country.

He wants to take poetry out of its comfort zone, to demonstrate that it can "exist and operate in other contexts" - television, radio, theatre, broadcast and even as sculpture.

In 2012, he launched the Stanza Stones project, for which he wrote six new poems - each about a different form of water - to be carved on stones across a 75km route through the Pennine region in Yorkshire, forming an unusual walking trail.

Two years before that, he himself walked more than 400km of the Pennine Way from the Scottish borders to the Yorkshire Dales. Like the troubadours of yore, he started with no money and held poetry readings in pubs, hostels and private homes in exchange for food and lodging.

The West Riding of Yorkshire is Armitage's birthplace. He describes it as "a kind of theme park of water, moor and sky" that would become his "thesaurus and encyclopaedia".

A country man, he says he is looking forward to being "bewildered" by the "bright lights and the high buildings" of Singapore, which he will be visiting for the first time when he comes here next month.

Armitage, who is married to BBC producer Sue Roberts with a teenage daughter, has a fatalistic outlook of the future. It is evident in his work, such as the grim visions of dissolution and decay in his latest collection, The Unaccompanied, released this year, or even as early on as Five Eleven Ninety Nine, a long poem published in 1995 about a bonfire at the turn of the millennium.

"That poem predicts a future of ashes and smoke," he says. "I don't expect everyone to share my feelings. In fact, I hope they don't, but I'm pessimistic about the world. We're setting fire to it, one way or another."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 17, 2017, with the headline 'Get up close with famed poets'. Print Edition | Subscribe