Six years after his last book was shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize, poet Aaron Lee has published a new collection, but feels he has a "missing book". Meanwhile, this year's poetry prize-winner Joshua Ip explains why he will give away his winnings.
After the missing book
With three collections of poetry out in 17 years, poet Aaron Lee Soon Yong feels he might be missing at least one book.
His third and newest collection, Coastlands, released last month by Ethos Books, comes six years after the Singapore Literature Prize-shortlisted Five Right Angles.
Although he continued to write in the interim while working full-time as a lawyer for a German bank, Coastlands came into being only after he was drawn to Hawaii in 2011, as his wife and muse Namiko Chan Takahashi became the disciple of a noted hula dancer.
"This book could not have been written any earlier than this year. It's very nourishing to my soul to be surrounded by nature," says Lee, 42, adding that Five Right Angles showcases some of his stress at living in a concrete jungle.
Coastlands contains references to Hawaiian legends as well as his journeys both artistic and personal. "I regard myself as a pilgrim," says Lee, who spent his primary school years crossing between his Johor Baru home and Woodlands Primary School. He became a Singapore citizen in 1996, a year before he and fellow poet Alvin Pang convinced local publisher Fong Hoe Fang to set up Ethos Books and publish their poetry.
The middle child of a businessman and geography teacher, Lee discovered poetry in secondary school and found writing cathartic. His first poem eulogised a teacher who killed herself after a love affair.
"I was always moody and sensitive," he says with a smile - a tendency he pokes fun at in the poem Lament, about the three titans of Greek legend.
During national service, he and Pang put together an anthology of poetry to raise money for their secondary school, Raffles Institution. "I don't remember how much we raised, but I remember the principal was pleased," he says.
Inspired by TV series such as Paper Chase about law school, he read law at the National University of Singapore, but ended up in the corporate world right from his first job at an aircraft leasing firm. His wife, an award-winning painter two years his junior, was at university with him, but they actually met only after graduation, at the launch of their mutual friend Jeffrey Lim's short story collection Faith And Lies in 1999.
Lee dedicated both Five Right Angles and Coastlands to Chan - they met two years after his debut A Visitation Of Sunlight was published.
He says: "She's the most inspiring person I know. We have a life to make as artists together."
She surfaces in Coastlands in love poems such as I Sing The Domestic as well as the seemingly autobiographical The Poet In Hawaii, which addresses writer's block.
"It felt good to be back in the saddle," Lee says of putting Coastlands together in the past three years. Although he is a mentor in the Ministry of Education's creative arts programme and the editor of poetry anthologies, he worried: "Am I really a writer or am I faking it?"
This was even though he continued recording verses inspired by daily life, or social commentary, on his cellphone. What was missing was the "narrative" his mentor Lee Tzu Pheng once told him about. "She told me: 'It's got to have a story, a personality, so people can go on this journey with you.'"
Naturally then, Coastlands is about journeys, including the one that he has taken from the deeply personal and "narrow vision" of A Visitation Of Sunlight. "There were many poems in that about writing and the act of writing, which I think is common for the budding writer. I've evolved not to be confessional, but to be real."
Among the most powerful poems in Coastlands is A Letter To My Unborn Son. He and Chan are childless but the poem is also, he says, about his childhood relationship with his parents and the possible gaps in his oeuvre.
"Is there a missing book between 2007 and now? I think there is and I think that's probably the unborn child."
So will he look at the many verses that did not make it into this collection?
"I might, but then again, I might just want to move on," he says.
Coastlands ($17.12) is available at major bookstores and online from www.ethosbooks.com.sg
Joshua Ip's debut collection of verse, Sonnets From The Singlish, shared the Singapore Literature Prize for poetry this year and he will donate his winnings to other writers.
This is common practice for the 32-year-old, who won Golden Point Awards for poetry (2011) and fiction (2013) and donated part of the prize money to his publisher, Math Paper Press. This helped the imprint bring out two poetry anthologies this year - A Luxury We Cannot Afford, which Ip edited with Christine Chia, and SingPoWriMo, co-edited with Ann Ang and Pooja Nansi.
"I think the arts deserve money and private individuals should give money to the arts," says Ip. He has also refused to encash roughly $1,600 in royalties from 2012's Sonnets From The Singlish and his second collection, last year's Making Love With Scrabble Tiles.
"If I forego royalties and the publisher can then publish someone else's work, that's my contribution," says the writer, who is a civil servant working in administration. He declines to name his workplace.
Sonnets From The Singlish shared the Singapore Literature Prize for English poetry in November with poet Yong Shu Hoong's The Viewing Party. Ip's $5,000 share of the prize money will be used to fund female writers. This comes after a post-prize kerfuffle when another poet on the shortlist, Grace Chia-Krakovic, posted on social media accusing the judges of gender bias.
Chia-Krakovic took the post down a day later and Ip now dismisses the incident.
"Grace and I have cleared the air. I don't think it was malicious. Everyone has had the experience of posting something stupid on Facebook."
As for donating his winnings to other writers, he says: "It goes back to my missionary upbringing."
He is the eldest of four children born to missionaries from Christian ministry group The Navigators. The siblings were taught to share, but he also recalls battling for prized dishes at the dinner table.
Growing up in an HDB flat near Bukit Timah Plaza, he was a self-confessed geek who read J.R.R. Tolkien and the fantasy adventures of the Dragonlance series.
He began writing while in the creative arts programmes at Anglo-Chinese Secondary School and Raffles Junior College. Mentors such as poet Lee Tzu Pheng and Heng Siok Tian were succeeded by popular poet and conceptual artist Kenneth Goldsmith at the University of Pennsylvania, where Ip did a liberal arts degree majoring in English, international studies and business.
Under Goldsmith's tutelage, Ip did modules such as "uncreative writing" where students strung coffee shop menus or Google search results into verse.
"It was good mental stimulation, but it stopped me from writing because you can just manipulate the Internet to write."
In 2011, he began writing poetry again for the sake of entering the National Arts Council's biennial Golden Point Award.
"I'm living proof that the system works. I write when the deadline strikes, self- imposed or writing competitions," he says with a laugh.
He won second prize in 2011 for English poetry with his poem, the droplifter, inspired by independent bookstore BooksActually, also run by his publisher Kenny Leck.
Last year, Ip took first prize in the award's short story category for his quirky tale, The Man Who Turned Into A Photocopier. He writes about finding whimsy in everyday life and enjoys riffs on Singaporean oddities. These surface in poems such as Chope from Sonnets From The Singlish, where a marriage proposal is likened to the habit of reserving tables with tissue paper packets, as well as an upcoming graphic novel project with artists Timothy Wang and A.J. Robert. Ten Stories Below is a dystopian tale of a drowned Singapore and due out next year.
Ip, who is single, finds inspiration in British poet Wendy Cope, whose verses parody or drolly comment on dating, sex and other writers. Though popular, some accuse her of not being cerebral enough.
"She's been accused of writing light verse her whole career. She writes poems that appeal to a wide audience, but this goes back to the origins of the form, poetry that was performed."
He brings up popular Sydney-born poet Lang Leav, whose simple verses are popular with the teenage set, but make the highbrow raise their eyebrows.
"Like Lang Leav is a gateway drug to Wendy Cope, to Sylvia Plath, who write with more depth, I'm totally happy with being the gateway drug to more reading."
This article was first published on Dec 28, 2014.
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