This week, local literary giant Robert Yeo shares some thoughts on his work and his process of writing. At this juncture, Mr. Yeo has published The Adventures of Holden Heng and The Best of Robert Yeo with Epigram Books.
You write in many different genres: poetry, plays, fiction, memoir, libretti. Why have you explored so many different genres of writing over the course of your long writing career, rather than sticking to just one? Do you, for example, find yourself writing in different genres at different points in your life? And do you feel more comfortable in one genre over another?
I enjoy writing in a variety of genres because each genre poses challenges. Sometimes I go into another because of neglect for instance my plays, and then some one asks me to write a libretto, and I jump at the opportunity. Leow Siak Fah , founder of the Singapore Lyric Opera, asked me and John Sharpley to jointly write an opera sometime in 2003/04, and I welcomed it as I felt it provided me with the chance to combine the skills of poetry and drama. We co-wrote the opera Fences which was staged in August 2013.
Writing in several genres often overlap. I do not favour one genre over another, although poetry is a sentimental favourite because it is the first, whilst plays and opera are exciting because they get performed. Fiction, because it is now a dominant form, travels the best, I think. Memoirs represent another challenge, of selective remembering and also because, with exceptions, most autobiographies in Singapore are not well written.
There’s always been a performative aspect to your writing –playwriting, librettos. Was this an accident, or has there been a conscious decision on your part to explore writing for performance?
My interest in the performative aspects of writing was triggered by listening to the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg read in the Roundhouse in London in the late sixties. Ginsberg took reading out of the book, made it hip, spouting words to be performed rather than read between covers. I was thrilled, and after that my poems became freer, conversational, more aware of a live audience.
When I went on to write plays, and my first play was staged in 1974, it meant writing dialogue and being aware of the immediate impact of words as spoken.
I’m often struck by the links between poetry and music, or between poetry and spoken word and even rap music, in that poets, even more so than prose writers, have to pay a lot of attention to rhythm. What do you perceive are the links between poetry and music, or poetry and libretti, for example?
I learnt, early in writing poetry, of the importance of writing regular, employing the metres of English poetry. Writing free verse was a late development. Using regular feet in poetry imparted to lines a pronounced cadence, a musical quality approximating to music.
In writing libretti, especially arias, I used the various feet of traditional verse consciously. As an example, when I wrote my second libretto called Kannagi, performed in 2009, I combined the anapaestic and iambic feet in a line like this: “In the flush of first love when days were honey”.
There’s a very romantic, and even sensual aspect to many of the poems in your Best of collection. You mentioned in a recent interview that two subjects important to young men growing up are “love and death”, and that your first collection of poems was very concerned with these themes, but that one also has to be conscious of the fusion of the personal and the public or social. Do you think writers or poets have a responsibility to their readers to get outside of themselves? To engage with larger issues or reach wider audiences?
I will address the items posed in the last two questions in your long question. Yes, I think writers ought to address societal issues: by that I mean going beyond self, family, to nation and the world. The current word for this view is ‘global’. Thus my poems reflect my growing up in Singapore, residencies in England, Thailand, travel in Europe, America, Australia, engaging in international issues like the Vietnam War etc…In my case, it has all to do with fusing private and public concerns and thus investing my writings with concerns beyond the individual. I have spoken of this before often.
How many years have you been writing? What inspires you to keep at it, year after year after year?
I have been seriously writing since I graduated in 1962. Through the sixties and seventies, I had poems published in Singapore, Malaysia, US, New Zealand and India, and my first book, poems entitled Coming Home, Baby, was published in 1971 by Federal Publications. So, if you date my writing career from tht year, then I have been writing for just over four decades.
What inspires me to keep on going? Enjoyment, including the lonely moments of struggle with words. Keeping boredom at bay. A little vanity, I suppose.
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?
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.
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.