Poetry lets me develop spiritually, says veteran poet Lee Tzu Pheng at Singapore Writers Festival

Veteran Poet Lee Tzu Pheng advises young writers in the audience that a love of words is insufficient to make one a poet.
Veteran Poet Lee Tzu Pheng advises young writers in the audience that a love of words is insufficient to make one a poet.PHOTO: SINGAPORE WRITERS FESTIVAL

SINGAPORE - It is "not by bread alone" that we can grow as human beings, said Singaporean poet Anne Lee Tzu Pheng on Sunday (Nov 5) at the Singapore Writers Festival (SWF).

"Poetry does not feed a physical hunger," she said. "But I persisted because of how it has allowed me to develop as a person spiritually."

Lee, 71, is the literary pioneer this year for the festival, which is in its 20th edition and runs until Nov 12.

The 10-day SWF, organised by the National Arts Council, opened on Friday and features more than 300 programmes.

A Cultural Medallion recipient, Lee has written eight verse collections, including Prospect Of A Drowning (1980) and Lambada By Galilee & Other Surprises (1997).

A retired senior lecturer in English from the National University of Singapore, she modestly described her 50 or so years writing poetry as "50 shades of puzzlement".

She struggled with the voices in her poems at the outset. Different voices emerged and she felt they sounded phoney.

Although she was skilled at poetic technique, she said, she was a "novice at how to bring real life into poems".

"If you are too focused on the technical elements - getting the how and what right - you can forget the why. The why, for me, is what makes the poem succeed.

"I have learnt to be schizophrenic," she added, "both as writer and critical reader of my work."

She recalled the difficult early days of the literary scene in Singapore, where writers like herself still had their imaginations "locked in a foreign landscape" without local predecessors to look up to.

At readings, the number of writers reading often outnumbered the audience.

An early anthology of Singapore poetry, The Flowering Tree (1970), got filed in local bookstores under the gardening section.

Lee's poem My Country And My People, which she wrote in 1967, met with backlash despite its patriotic-sounding title, because of the frank way in which it questioned her national identity. It was even banned from being read on the radio.

Lee, who has one daughter, underwent a hiatus from poetry for many years due to domestic crisis, during which she became almost a "non-person" from lack of writing.

It was her Catholic faith that helped her return to writing and reclaim her personal identity.

"Writing is a form of prayer for me," she said.

She expressed concern that technological advancement is changing our vocabulary, with mechanical discourse becoming the new normal.

"We need to hold on to and map interior realities with a language that builds us humanly," she said.

She advised young writers in the audience that a love of words is insufficient to make one a poet. "It could turn out to be a love affair and not last the course. And if words are what fuel your life, you must accept they will burn you and be a constant source of pain.

"It is never about you as the writer, but the art you bring to society."

More than 340 writers from Singapore and abroad will take part in this year's events. They include acclaimed names such as Pulitzer Prize-winners Junot Diaz, Rae Armantrout and Ian Johnson.