It was a gathering of an all-star cast of Singapore poets and writers under one roof. From Emeritus Professor Edwin Thumboo to author and poet Felix Cheong, the event was a celebration of our literary scene and proved that with their vibrancy and creativity, Singapore’s literary minds have much to share with us all. The event, Celebrating Words: A Symposium of Poetry Readings by ELL Alumni and Friends, was held on August 23 in NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. Thirteen prominent writers were invited to share their experiences and answer questions from eager students and members of the public. The fourteen prominent poets, all alumni and friends closely associated with the Department of English Language and Literature (ELL), were Felix Cheong, Elangovan, Gwee Li Sui, Heng Siok Tian, Aaron Lee, Lee Tzu Pheng, Oliver Seet, Kirpal Singh, Paul Tan, Edwin Thumboo, Eric Valles, Cyril Wong, Wong Phui Nam, and Yong Shu Hoong. Celebrating Words was co-sponsored by the Tan Chin Tuan Foundation.
In his opening address, Emeritus Professor Edwin Thumboo reminisced about the “old days” decades ago with a whole gang of young poets who loved and honed their craft through the years. Some, as he noted, are not known for their poetry, but for other aspects of their public life, yet he remembers their creative output fondly. In the panel sessions, the thought on not being known for their poetry continues to be echoed. Lee Tzu Pheng spoke of no one in her parish knowing that she wrote poetry, almost for a decade. Paul Tan added that he wears the hat of a poet “awkwardly” especially as our day jobs may be most “unpoetic”.
In the next panel session, a student raised the very pertinent question about what the hardest part of writing poetry is. To Kirpal Singh, the greatest challenge to poetry was being honest, echoing Hemingway’s insistence on writing words that are honest and true. For Cyril Wong, it was to continue writing despite social rejection of his poetry and even being turned away from events and sessions. On the other hand, Elangovan found poetry writing not a challenge at all, because to him it was “zen” – something to bring peace and calm in routinely crafting a work to represent the communities he was looking at. Yong Shu Hoong agreed that if a poem took a great amount of effort, it might not be meant to be. These insights were very illuminating in showing the students in the audience what it takes to be a poet and how these local literary greats honed and perfected their craft.
The final panel launched into a spirited discussion on gender. A member of the audience enthusiastically brought up the male gaze, used in poetry and prose when the female is objectified as the target of the male character. In response, Felix Cheong discussed one of his works where he took on the point of view of a woman and turned the male gaze on himself in that sense. The discussion also delved fruitfully into the purpose of poetry, when Oliver Seet very aptly pointed out that the purpose of poetry is to project oneself into different points of view and cultures and take on varied voices.
In sum, the stellar cast of local literary greats provided the audience with a session of poetry and enlightening discussion. Ultimately, they prove more than ever, that the local literary culture is not just existent, but flourishing. As Prof Thumboo noted, poetry is about passion. With passion in the human psyche, there will be words to translate that passion into poetry.
Celebrating Words (from left): Organising Committee member Vincent Ooi, Cyril Wong, Kirpal Singh, Yong Shu Hoong, Elangovan, Wong Phui Nam, Kirsten Law from the Tan Chin Tuan Foundation, Edwin Thumboo, Oliver Seet, Lee Tzu Pheng, Heng Siok Tian, Eric Valles, Paul Tan and Aaron Lee. Absent from photo were Felix Cheong and Gwee Li Sui.