Epigram Books Blog

Interview with Prof. Edwin Thumboo January 11 2013

Last September, Epigram Books launched the Singapore Pioneer Poets series, which features the poetry of Edwin Thumboo, Kirpal Singh and Robert Yeo. In today’s blog post, Wei-Ling, our editorial assistant, asks Professor Edwin Thumboo (unofficially known as “Singapore’s Poet Laureate”) some questions about his life, work and Time Travelling, an exhibition about him currently on at the Lee Kong Chian Reference Library.

Wei-Ling (WL): Place has always been important to you, and many of your poems are about a specific place. I also found it interesting that the Time Travelling exhibition highlighted your workspaces, both at home and in the university. Do you think you’d be as concerned about the issue of place if you were not from Singapore?

Prof. Edwin Thumboo (ET): Yes and no. Personal space is a matter of serious interest wherever you may be. There is that other sense of the nation and space, which you become aware of more acutely, where and when in a nation such as Singapore whose physical statistics are small. You feel hemmed in. Territorial issues become sharp reminders. Some of our neighbours guard their air space. Fortunately, neighbourliness and other conventions allow us to fly across their territory. Moreover, if we were a homogenous society, satu bangsa, satu agama, satu bahasa, sharing a national unity and identity, our sense of space would be less visited by difference, by the presence of others, who are equally of Singapore. The facts—which need no extended reminding—are that this little red dot had to make, evolve, innovate in every area of national survival, starting with a multi-racial population, no natural resources apart from its people, in a geo-political and socio-economic setting that was often hostile. Converting place and people into nation was and is utterly crucial.

WL: At the Time Travelling exhibition, it was interesting to see both your handwritten and typed manuscripts on display. Do you now write your poems on a computer, or do you still use a typewriter or pen? Do you find that each medium affects your poetry-writing process, and if so, how?

ET: I now use my computer, the pen only rarely, when I have a hard copy while the poem is in progress, or when it is a manuscript being prepared for publication. These changes are then transferred to the final soft copy. Using pen and paper, a typewriter or a computer makes no basic difference to the act of writing/composing a poem, though with a typewriter or computer, I had to get used to the system first. When using either a pen or typewriter, the revisions, including the arrival of new words, phrases, lines and punctuation, were done by pen and pencil. When the hard copies became cluttered, neat copies were made. The process was repeated till I felt I had done enough, or could do no more, and that the poem was OK. I continue to believe that, “The perfect poem is future tense. Meanwhile, neat incompletion must suffice. Life goes on.” ( “A Poet Reading”)

With the computer, the poem’s growth and expansion, including revisions, are neatly there in the text/version of the moment, with each sequentially marking its progress. I save them as separate drafts, each numbered alphabetically and mostly dated.

WL: Do you write many drafts of your poems? What is the longest amount of time you have spent on a poem?

ET: The number of drafts range from six to twenty-six; time from five to twenty-five hours, scattered in a day, two, three days or more; sometimes a week or more. Occasionally a draft is abandoned.

While every poem in the making is demanding, each in a unique way, there are a few which are especially so. It seems to be the case with long poems. I recall the difficulties I had with “The Cough of Albuquerque” in 1957. “Bukit Panjang”, which I wrote last July, is less ambitious. Its geological, historical and contemporary parameters are limiting, defined by time and place, and their inter-connections and continuities. When I started on “Bukit Panjang”, the pre-thinking began to link with memories of contact with it. The earliest was just before WWII, part of an idyllic childhood, then a 1955 hike with fellow hostelites along its slopes and ridges when it was dominated by a massive radar installation in the middle of a British military base. “Bukit Panjang”  enveloped me when I mounted successful moves—helped by others—to restore Bukit Panjang as the official name for the Housing Development Board for the whole area, replacing the little known, un-historic Zheng Hua, whose adoption, in my view, reflected a painful, disappointing chauvinism. By this time we were part of Bukit Panjang, having moved into Phoenix Heights in 1975. I adopted the growing village and was adopted by it.

Each part of “Bukit Panjang” had its foci. Just to illustrate, Section III attempts to profile the Village at its height, at the time when it was earmarked for development:

Those PAP days were rapid fire; heaving.
Planners with satellite towns itching
In their brains, came super charged.

The heart of Bukit Panjang then consisted of two rows of shophouses, a mixture of wooden and brick buildings tapering off at either end. Behind these were lanes, unpaved firm in dry weather and sloshy if there had been a spell of rain. One had a cinema, and a cluster of food stalls. The other, across the main road, roughly the eastern side, was dominated by the market with fish, meat, and vegetable stalls and regular road-side pitches set up by the farmers from the surrounding areas, offering the freshest of tree-ripened fruit and live poultry. You could buy toys, kites, tops, and fighting and other fish in glass bottles. There were plants and shrubs for the gardening crowd. Nothing plasticky yet. A meeting place for friends, mainly women, including those who were re-settled because their farms were about to be replaced by flats. As I speak Teochew and understand Hokkien, I found their very public conversation animated and fascinating, recalling Mandai days.

Old ladies return to hungry dogs, harvest
Memories, whatever hangs, then head to
Market to sell to chat to meet old friends.
'Has Ah Noi given birth? How much did
You get for those ducks? These spectacles?
Too modern!' Enjoying a circuitry grown
Over years, but now declining, as another
Wooden shed is shredded in just hours.


WL: When we were compiling The Best of Edwin Thumboo, you expressly told me not to format “foreign” words such as angpow, gongsi, gopi etc. in italics, as tends to be the convention. Can you explain your reasoning behind this?

ET: You are right to put foreign between quotation marks. But most of the words, phrases and references in my poetry are not foreign to most of us. They are part of our experience, our discourse. If you format in italics, the question is, who are you formatting it for? In any case, formatting disturbs and interrupts the flow of the lines. I accept the need for readers to be given some help to understand the “plain meaning” to help them get to the poetry. Most of us will remember the footnoting and annotations when we studied literatures set in other cultures. Hence the inclusion of a glossary which, incidentally, indicates the spread and reach, the sense of history and the contemporary, the topicality underpinning some of my poems. And let us not forget that there are now World Englishes, each with unique linguistic and metaphorical components. If the reader is interested enough, he/she will seek the necessary explanations/information.

WL: You once said in an interview that “the art of writing and the art of living—the two must come together”. What did you mean by that?

ET:

A City is the people's heart, beautiful, ugly,
Depending on the way it beats. A City smiles
The way its people smile. When you spit,
That is the City too. A City is for people, for living,
For walking between shadows of tall buildings
That leave some room for living…A City
Should be the reception we give ourselves;
What we prepare for our posterity.

A City is what we make it,
You and I. We are the City.
For better or for worse.

(“The Way Ahead”)


Hopefully, that living, so substantial a part of our lives, has found an appropriate, though not the only, language. The way of living should become the way of art. Life is sometimes silence waiting to be broken.

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Preview poems from The Best of Edwin Thumboo here and view video from the launch of The Singapore Pioneer Poets series here. An exhibition about Edwin Thumboo's life and work, Time Travelling: A Poetry Exhibition, is now on view at the Lee Kong Chian Reference Library, level 8, the National Library Building, until 7 March 2013.




A Day in the Life of Michelle October 19 2012

It’s time for another instalment of A Day in the Life! Read on to find out from Michelle about marketing efforts and events at Epigram Books.
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It’s been six months since I joined the publishing industry as an Editorial and Marketing Assistant for Epigram Books. To date, I’ve worked on or organised seven book events, emceed at four of these events and performed spoken word with a jazz band at our very own ‘Evening of Poetry and Music’ to celebrate the Singapore Pioneer Poets Series featuring the best of Edwin Thumboo, Robert Yeo and Kirpal Singh.

At last count, together with my manager Felicia I’ve launched, promoted and written to the press about our first graphic novels, three children’s titles, two food titles, one photography title, one travel book and one literary non-fiction collection. That’s a total of 29 books I’ve worked to promote in the last six months. Phew. On average that would make about four books a month but in reality, our publishing schedule does not work according to an average each month. Oh, and I’ve also co-produced three book videos to date with Meteor Workshop for our books. That was just too much fun to be called work.

Rock musician and friend Mik meets Singapore literary giant Edwin Thumboo
Rock musician and friend Mik meets Singapore literary giant Edwin Thumboo

Coming from a background of teaching drama, arts administration and a short stint in journalism and copywriting, a mid-career switch to publishing was a surprise just out-of-the-blue for me. I had just reconnected with my childhood love for comics and graphic novels having discovered Koh Hong Teng and Dave Chua’s Gone Case as well as Sonny Liew’s works. When a school friend with an illustrious career in the books industry called me about a part-time position in the publishing house she had moved to, something in me jumped. Before I knew it, I was tearing joyfully telling my soon-to-be employer why comics trump films any day. Before I knew it, I had my foot in the door of the enigmatic business of publishing. Before I knew it, I was hosting events I organised for books such as the never-before-published Mimi Fan, Singapore’s first English language play by a local, penned in 1962. I had come full circle from treading the hallowed boards as an actor since school days, to teaching students drama, to marketing plays and encouraging people to read Singapore literature and to buy books written by Singaporeans.

Actress Karen Tan, who once played Mimi Fan, at our event

Watching Karen Tan, who played Mimi Fan in a 1990 TheatreWorks production, tearfully express love to the late playwright Lim Chor Pee in the company of his family and friends meant something to me. I felt the same kind of gratitude as she did to him, as someone who also fell in love with the theatre and who never got over it. So did interviewing my local comic artist idols Koh Hong Teng and Sonny Liew who had been supporting me even before I joined Epigram Books at my jazz gigs at The Old Brown Shoe. Still, the most nerve-wracking experience I’ve had to go through apart from speaking in front of the likes of Singapore’s Ambassador-at-large Chan Heng Chee, was performing selected poetry by the likes of Edwin Thumboo, Kirpal Singh and Robert Yeo. It was a great honour to be trusted to present their works musically with my chosen genre of jazz and I will always be deeply humbled by the experience. If you’d like to see it, here is a preview on Epigram Books’ very own YouTube channel.

My best friend recently said to me, “I always see you posting about your work and photos of your events, glam glam all lah…” I related to him the analogy of the pretty-looking Mandarin ducks swimming on the lakes – elegant and calm above water, frenetic paddling below water. If you can see me as a Mandarin duck, that just about sums up this six-month-long Day in the Life of Michelle. This explains too why my blog post reads more like a retrospective than a Day in the Life account. It was six months in the making (or rather writing) as I just could not have written it until today.

For a taste of what the journey has been like for me this past year at Epigram Books, this is what it looks like above the water at least, in the public eye. Watch out for more Epigram Books titles and book events in 2012 and 2013!


With Denise Fletcher, author of Mum's Not Cooking: Favourite Singaporean Recipes for the Near Clueless or Plain Lazy, after a successful event!


A Day in the Life of Sok Wan March 28 2012

Rejoice! It's the latest of instalment of A Day In The Life. Sok Wan talks about her life of Editing and spills the beans on our top-secret upcoming launches.
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One of the perks of my job is that I often get to meet and work with some very interesting people, with fascinating stories and backgrounds. Tomorrow I will be meeting Ernest Goh, the photographer behind The Fish Book, to discuss on future marketing plans for the book, and he will also be showing us samples shots from his new project! His photographs have never failed to amuse and amaze me and I very much look forward to seeing what he’s been up to after wrapping up The Fish Book. (Felicia and I couldn’t help bursting out in laughter when Edmund shared with us the subject for this new project. It’s unheard of and Edmund even came up with a hilarious title for the project. I’d love to share, but I have to keep mum for now to protect Ernest’s interest!) Later this week, I’ll be meeting a famous local comic artist to discuss on publishing his comics, and also a local celebrity chef to have a follow-up meeting on publishing his cookbook. Plus many more meetings with poets, artists, photographers and chefs in the following weeks.

Besides these prospective projects, here’re the statuses of the ongoing projects I’ve been working on for the week…


1.Uncle Lau’s Teochew Recipes by Lau Chiap Khai and Lau Lee Leng.

This book was supposed to go to print like…two weeks ago? But that didn’t happen because we had to make some last minute changes to the illustrations. Last week, Lee Leng requested that we use illustrations done by her late husband (renowned local architect Mr Jack Tan). It’s quite problematic as our publication deadline will need to be pushed back for at least a month and our ongoing promotion and publicity plans halted. However, after seeing the illustrations, I believe the delay will be well worth it. Mr Jack Tan’s food illustrations––stunningly intricate and lovely––are perfect accompaniment to the delicate and refreshing Teochew recipes in the book! But don’t take my word for it, grab a copy of the book when we launch it late April and see for yourself!

2. A series of poetry collection by Professor Edwin Thumboo, Professor Kirpal Singh and Mr Robert Yeo.

This landmark poetry series will showcase the best works by Singapore’s Pioneer Poets. To ensure that the poems included in the collection are indeed the ‘best of’ their works, the poets have been working hard, and I have been working closely with them to re-re-re-revise their selection. Mr Robert Yeo dropped by in the afternoon to pass me his revised poetry selection, which was all hand-written. I spend about an hour typing it out, but, I quote my managing editor, “For you, Robert, anything!”  (see A Day In the Life Of: Ruth) But, seriously, Mr Yeo is a very nice person to work with and I’m really grateful that he has been dutifully keeping to the timeline of the project. And today, I finally manage to confirm a date for the book launch event! Given the busy schedules of the poets, finding a suitable date for the launch is no easy task—it took about 20 emails back and forth and frantic flipping of the calendar to confirm a date that is three months in advance! Yes, the series will be launched in July!

3. Graphic novel series (or comics series, but calling it graphic novels does make it sound more ‘atas’ and serious, because we are a serious publisher!)––Epigram Books’ new imprint!!

I’m real excited and looking forward to this project. Who knows? This could just be Singapore’s first successful graphic novel series that breaks into the international market! We have big plans to sell rights of the series to the US where the comics industry is burgeoning. Details of the graphic novels or identities of the comic artists that we are working with will be announced via our blog and Facebook. So hurry and ‘Like’ our Facebook page right now! And stay tuned!