I ain’t afraid of no poem

Sep 30, 2016 05.00PM |

by Alvin Pang

“As poet Lee Tzu Pheng mentioned at the festival’s opening night in July, poetry tends to scare the general reading public because it is often incomprehensible, impenetrable and thus avoided,” he adds.

“Painted in oil or about experiences that echo those of the public, poetry need not spook the heartlanders. From there, they can go on to more challenging verse.”

The Straits Times, September 30, 2016


NOW, I didn’t hear the speech, and I am not sure if ST misquoted or miscast what was said, but really, now:

I was raised by my grandparents in a two-bedroom Circuit Road HDB flat, and then stayed with my parents in a three-bedroom Toa Payoh North flat when I hit secondary school.

I went to “neighbourhood” primary schools and had no idea you had to get your boy into posh places like St Michael’s to have a shot at RI.

I spent a lot of time reading because that’s what kids in the 1970s and 1980s did between homework and episodes of Sesame Street, Electric Company, M.A.S.K., He-man, Scooby-Doo, or whatever was allowed to baby-sit us on TV.

I don’t know if that’s enough to qualify me as a heartlander, but I can tell you this:

We LIKE to be spooked. We PAY to be spooked.

Just look at Haw Par Villa. Train to Busan. Hotel/Saw/The Ring I through XXI. Twilight (the horror, the horror).

Just look at who we think fit to call our heroes.

My father, who used to be a school Discipline Master, once told me about how he would close an eye to some of the more raucous boys who’d sneak home early (or skipped school) to prepare for, and then recover from, carrying the sacred kavadi at Thaipusam.

Dad had been a rough kid in his day and he understood, without saying as much, that whoever you are in life, sometimes you need to go off and do some extraordinary thing, something that will blow your mind and shake you out of your comfort zone and flush you from the inside out.

And then you come back to real life, spooked. Challenged. Changed.

It could be anything. For some of us, it was books, literature, poetry. Words so *outside* our daily experience that they pulled us a little out of ourselves, instead of assuring us that the way things were was all the way things would ever be.

The strange can rearrange us. That’s kind of the idea.

My point is, I don’t believe we should be too quick to assume what the “general reading public” wants or needs (or that we should therefore serve it up, for that matter).

My point is, yes it’s important to be more plural in our ideas and methods and approaches and stories and the way we tell them, because life is complex and heterogeneous and scary and strange. And people do need to listen to different voices in order to one day hear something that speaks to them.

My point is, echoing what comforts is not the same as echoing how things are.

My point is, we don’t actually know what people need to read at any particular moment in their lives, and neither do they. I turned off from the stuff that was supposed to be “suitable” for me at my level. I think many kids do.

Maybe the problem is trying to simplify the menu, instead of opening up the buffet.

And maybe there is never something that is going to be right for entire categories (of age, culture, language, background, ability) of people. As if poetry can or should even engage people as categories in the first place.

My point is, some young person in a HDB flat somewhere in Sengkang may want and need to encounter something that gets their pulse (and only their pulse) racing but which they don’t fully understand.

It may give them permission to read, think and imagine beyond what they’ve been told to. And that can be scary, for everyone, sure. Growth often is.


Alvin Pang was Singapore’s Young Artist of the Year for Literature in 2005. As a poet, writer and editor, has been published worldwide in over 15 languages, and is one of a handful of Singaporean poets listed in the Oxford Companion to Modern Poetry in English. A former teacher, journalist, civil servant and IT developer, he is currently pursuing doctoral studies in creative practice.


Featured image by Sean Chong.

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