SINGPOWRIMO 2016: THE ANTHOLOGY
EDS. JOSHUA IP, RUTH TANG, DARYL QILIN YAM
SINGAPORE: MATH PAPER PRESS, 2016
Math Paper Press, an imprint of BooksActually, is a small press publisher of poetry, new wave novellas, full-length novels, and essays. Its eclectic range of literary and visual works also includes photography collections, memoirs and young adult fiction. Math Paper Press also distributes books by selected small presses.
Singapore Poetry Writing Month, or as we affectionately call it, SingPoWriMo.
Write one poem a day for thirty days in the cruel month of April: that was the challenge we gave the Internet in 2014. In its third year, our anthology gathers the best of the 5,110 poems that were submitted in 2016. Daily challenging prompts reflected on the Singaporean condition, with verses written for every MRT and LRT station, poems that upgraded other poems that upgraded other poems and so on. We are proud to feature first-time poets beside established bards, a wide swath of languages – with poems in Minion next to poems in HTML – and the recently-revived form of the udaiyaathathu alongside the ground-breaking twin cinema and asingbol.
INTRODUCTION: a foreword to the anthology by Daryl Qilin Yam
The following conversation took place in a group chat on Facebook Messenger.
Alvin Pang, 4/29, 10:09am
Meta madness closing weekend
Deadly prompting homage poems
Horny youngsters hookup verses
Usual suspects crowding newsfeed
Spacetime warping modding migraine
Serious antho compile problem
Joshua Ip, 4/29, 10:09am
Alvin Pang, 4/29, 10:31am
Feisty flameball culture warrior
Noobie casual freespeech lawyer
Joshua Ip, 4/29, 7:01pm
poetry devours itself
… #SingPoWriMo2016 was basically out of control.
If you have been following the SingPoWriMo story from its very beginning, you would have noticed several differences. When the initiative first took off in April 2014, its challenge to Facebook was to write a poem a day for thirty days, from the first of April to the thirtieth. It was called Singapore Poetry Writing Month, in full, and we had around 500 members in our Facebook group. Things were a lot simpler back in the day, and way more chill about how things ran: you could either follow the prompt of the day, or go off-prompt however and whenever you felt like it. There were days when you received 10 likes on a poem, perhaps even 20, which was enough to make you feel like you were doing something right, for once. If you had hit anything in the 35 and above region you were practically a superstar. Your job for the day was done.
Needless to say, things are a bit different now. When we kickstarted #SingPoWriMo2016, we had 1,771 members on the eve of April Fools’; by the end of the month we had ballooned to 2,592 members and counting, making it a 54.38% increase in eyeballs alone. We’ve generated an entire sandpit of poems that referenced, consumed, and made entire scaffoldings out of one another. We’ve had entries and prompts that went viral on social media, and had even appeared in several news outlets as an example of what local literature can do in the modern age. And it is all due to the interconnective, interactive force of the Internet, and the rallying cry of a passionate community. It’s basically unprecedented, how far we’ve come as a group, which makes it a tad overwhelming.
Thankfully we had several teams running the show this year. The first comprised of the moderators, who provided general guidance in the form of likes, comments, unusually cute emojis and kamikaze challenges as bonus add-ons to their daily prompts. The second comprised of the junior moderators, of whom there were about a dozen or more, who worked tirelessly behind the scenes to archive every noteworthy and popular entry made each day according to a rotating roster of four-hour shifts. (Their names can be found in the “Acknowledgements” section of this book.) The third were a selection of local companies, namely Squircle Line Press, TypeSettingSG, BooksActually, ElliaWrites, Ethos Books, Hunter's Kitchenette and TheShirtCanvas People, who had kindly sponsored prizes for what the moderators and junior moderators had deemed to be the best poems of #SingPoWriMo2016.
It began on a rather festive note, with Pooja Nansi as our first moderator of the month. Our prompt on Day 1 asked our participants to write a poem that included the four words “Singapore”, “poetry”, “writing” and “month”. We begin the anthology with Abdul Hamid’s “Not English English”, about a Singaporean stranded in Waitrose, wandering its aisles as he ponders about post-colonial identity:
Sometimes it happens between aisles in Waitrose.
I mistake marmalade for kaya, think of toast, mouth
“nonsense”—but not alamak. It leaves slowly, see: trust
God to curse the tongue with groceries. For even
an epiphany needs some state between betweens.
Over the following five days Pooja continued to produce prompts that ranged from the earnest and heartfelt (look at Day 5: “Write a poem that states the things you know to be true”), to the downright naughty and suggestive, such as in Day 3, after a prompt that got participants to write about “the last thing they put in their mouth” inspired an entire series of haikus referencing the smell of fishes and the salty taste of seawater. For instance, go look up Pamela Seong Koon’s “Fish” online and witness the chaos that ensued.
Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingde’s term as moderator commenced on Day 7, and anybody familiar with his work as both a teacher and an experimental riddler of language would have easily found his signature style interwoven into his prompts. Inspiring participants to produce list poems, diary-like entries, and even artist’s statements about their own poetics, Desmond’s approach was consistently methodical and sought to guide participants through the process of putting together their individual pieces. But perhaps his most vital contribution to SingPoWriMo would have to be his discovery of a long-forgotten poetic form known as the asingbol, which he introduced to the community as follows:
It is the expedient poetic form created for our expedient society. It’s also essentially an “impossible” poem, befitting of our “impossible nation”. [...] It is written like a dictionary entry espousing a single definition. It is also incapable of being read as symbolic. It celebrates the text as pure object.
Featuring 140 characters (with spaces included), the perfect asingbol features a single clause of entirely un-capitalised words, devoid of irony or metaphor, the sentence “always end-stopping on a period to emphasize its statement of exposition and assertion”. For amusement we’ve selected Christopher Quek’s pun-tastic “ASeNGBOi”, and for the heartstrings there is Faith Christine Lai’s “Commitment”, which states simply yet effectively:
commitment is the promise of your toothbrush balanced besides mine on the edge of the sink; me turning it over so the bristles face upwards
Yours truly stepped in as moderator for Days 13 to 18, and it had fallen into my hands to help this year’s participants rethink the possibilities of what a poem could or could not be, and I had enlisted the help of Tse Hao Guang and Ruth Tang. Of particular note are Kendrick Loo’s heartfelt “Examination Questions (50m)” and Luke Vijay Somasundram’s “F.A.Q.” on racial injustice, in response to Day 13’s Q&A prompt; Janice Heng’s “the government we deserve” and Ng Yi-Sheng’s sassy “*BTBS*” in Day 14; and Letitia Chen’s illuminating (haha) “Today I Am Glad For My Photoreceptors” in Day 17. What I found particularly memorable, however, was Stephanie Chan’s Framfield Road, February 2010”, an unfolding series of revelations in accompaniment to its photo. Moving from evocations of “wet feet, stale cigarette smoke” and “crème brulee” to gossip about mysterious seances, the poem shuffles sensory experience with memory as it paints intimate connections within a photo that is already rich with precocious warmth.
Joshua Ip took over as our fourth moderator on Days 19 to 24, and that was when things got really out of control. Inciting participants to take past poems and “upgrade” them, a flurry of intertextuality, cross-referencing and hotlinking ensued and soon took over the Facebook group, creating long chains of posts that also became opportunities for poets to speak to one another via their own creations. Several poetic forms were also encouraged during Joshua’s tenure, including the recently revived udaiyaathathu (or, “the unbroken chain”) and the visually appealing twin cinema, with Janice Heng’s “i have” on Day 22 going completely viral across social media as a testament to her incredible talent. Finally, Joshua’s final prompt pushed SingPoWriMo into the cultural spotlight, with features on The Straits Times and Mothership.SG chronicling our collective effort to write a poem for every MRT station in Singapore. Qamar Firdaus Saini’s “how to breathe – bakau (for H)” in particular is a moving tribute to an oft-forgotten LRT station, its slimness of form capturing similarly transient moments of tenderness:
This is how
I come: in the day,
before Ma gets home.
Where we hide, away from
others. Below, a bus stop
to Jalan Kayu, where we
have dinner; sometimes,
how I leave. Near the door,
an altar mirroring self.
I watch you pray.
Below, a bus stops
and leaves. A door closing.
Alvin Pang was our fifth and final moderator of the month, choosing to frame his prompts in alignment with the seven deadly sins: on Day 25 we have Ng Yi-Sheng’s impressive “*Burn After Reading*”, which chronicles in ten sections the pain of death and the difficulty of paying penance, and on Day 26 we have Natalie Wang’s “After Sodom”, in which two sisters plot their mother’s death to feed their hunger, resulting in a series of stunning lines:
Her hand broke off in mine, and hours after,
when we had finally stopped running I realised
I was still clutching it like a lifeline.
Or an afterthought.
When my older sister told me her plan,
I cried more salt than I held.
Days 28 to 30 picked up where Joshua left off, with Alvin constantly inspiring participants to read, critique and respond to one another’s work as a way to cap off SingPoWriMo. Benzie Dio wages #CivilWar against Ruth Tang’s “Crabs Against Slow Cooking” with his own “carbs against slow cooking”, while Ang Shuang pits and pairs Janice and Ruth’s work against each other in her own seamless twin cinema. And on Day 30 we’ve chosen to end our anthology with Joseph Ong’s “Larkin Express”, referencing Min Lim’s adroit use of mantous in her poem “crazy susan” while spinning a swan song to affection, marred by the ever increasing lengths of time and space.
This year’s anthology marks the second time I return as co-editor. It will also be Joshua’s third and final go at the job, and Ruth’s first stab at the putting together of a manuscript. From what I’ve gathered, Joshua would like to hand the reins of the anthology down to younger, fresher blood, and that three also happens to be a nice number to round things off. Ruth, in the meantime, probably feels excited at the prospect of tackling #SingPoWriMo2017 and beyond, and I say “probably” because it’s hard to gather what she’s actually feeling at any point of time, having constantly claimed to have no real feelings. In any case, Ruth’s love for language is a constant, unwavering thing, and she has taught me and Joshua much in how to have a sharp and exacting editorial eye.
Echoing the more fluid structure of 2014’s anthology, we’ve decided to spread our selections of Days 1 to 30 over the course of the book, with three carefully curated sections interspersed in between: Joshua has put together a #languages sidebar showcasing the sheer variety of lingo that had popped up this year, while I’ve got a sampler on various poetic #forms both fun and somewhat outrageous. Ruth is in charge of #noprompt this year, a series of poems that didn’t necessarily answer the moderators’ prompts but were nevertheless wonderful in their own right. As usual, we have chosen to present the poems sans names in order to let the words speak for themselves, with work properly credited in our “Index” section at the back of the book.
As the editors of this anthology, Joshua, Ruth and I hope that you’ll enjoy reading what’s to come in the following pages. Come join us again next April, and remember – #poetryiscoming.