Sunday, 16 November 2014

Singapore, Thursday through to Saturday night:
Talks and Dancers

A quick reflection of three events since my official NTU duties are now over. On Thursday afternoon a two hour masterclass, a term that bears a variety of interpretations. Some twelve people including two poets who teach here, Divya Victor who is originally from India, then studied and taught in the States and Yong Shu Hoong who has just won one of the major poetry prizes in the country. That left about ten or eleven students. I began with discussing the nature of poetry, why people write it, what people get from it etc etc. That's about an hour then we looked in some depth at one of the student's poems, a very sophisticated piece of writing about women turning into trees, glanced at another and read round the rest. People were quiet at first but it grew more animated as we went on. Still, I wasn't sure whether it had been an altogether successful session, then, without being asked, people said they enjoyed it and there seemed to be a fair mount of enthusiasm about, so I felt better altogether.

Then came my reading, occupying an hour but talking quite a lot between as is only fair. I varied it from early poems, pieces of middle period and including some later work. Clarissa thought it was good. I am not nervous about readings and have grown quite accurate at judging and timing them so it is down to the material to stand up for itself. By the time the reading comes there is nothing more I can do about the material except have faith in it. We had some drinks afterwords and a number of us rode over to Two-Faced Pizza in Tiong Bahru where we had walked with Alvin. It seems to be one of the hip areas of town. Beside Clarissa and I there were Barrie, Jen and Nick, Divya and Josh, Miguel (novelist and also writer-in-residence) and Shu Hoong who, I discover has been a film critic. Miguel too being a film devotee, we naturally, we go on to have a longish conversation about movies. Later it turns out Miguel - handsome, dapper, charming, very young -  has a daughter of university age. He looks barely out of university age himself so it is quite a surprise.

The next morning, three hours of Divya's second year class. It's terrific and includes some of the same students as had been at the masterclass and the reading. First they revisit their early ideas on poetry and discuss them (I have kept the sheet of their first ideas). I am then invited to comment and,  since they had been dealing with the theme of the Holocaust via Reznikoff, to talk a little about Metro. That spills over a little because the first part in which I respond extends, but leaves enough time for the students to recite the 'bad poems' they had been invited to write, it being my job to award prizes for the two worst. I very much warm to this group and offer them individual chats if they have time or inclination. Time will be the problem since there are only exams left and exams mean enormous pressure in Singapore.

I have quickly grown very fond of the students and indeed of the staff. It is good to be here.


Thursday and Friday were the busiest from the official point of view. I also spent a token hour so in my office, complete with name on door, though there is nothing specific for me to do there except be sociable. I can work just as well at the hotel from whose window I can see the skies changing, the clouds building, smearing, and darkening ocasionally going into their monsoon fit complete with thunder and lightning. NTU is a long way from town, about half an hour or more by taxi depending on the traffic.

Eating and poetry seem to be the chief cultural preoccupations of the island though both follow a long way behind the overriding preoccupation of making money. (The banking district is ultra-spectacular in architectural terms, albeit soulless in its internationalism). There is nothing fancy about the eateries. They are not restaurants in the sense we think of such, involving carefully chosen decor, subtle lighting, attempts to render character, quirkiness or sheer swoosh. The eateries are mostly cheap plain tables and chairs with rudimentary cutlery and look more like canteens, but they are bustling. The food not the decor is the point. The question here is not so much 'What shall we do?' as 'Where shall we eat?' The pizza joint is out on the pavement and is something else by day but produces some exotic pizzas with a local flavour by night.

Yesterday we had an invitation from our friend Annaliza to join her and her friend Emelda for an evening of open air dancing in the harbour. The dancing is done in full costume by a range of people across the culture, from Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and other places. Those who dance are mostly students of one or other institution, one of the most appealing by students of engineering, both male and female. The dances and musics are various, between the traditional, the old popular and the contemporary. The traditional moves occasionally acquire a flavour of breakdance (all in the beautiful traditional costumes) and the music too, provided by a large and changing band, make use of violins, electric guitars, synth and accordions as well as gamelans and so forth. The evening is three hours long but it zips by. We sit in the front row on stone steps but can't help wanting to dance. Many of the girls are stunningly beautiful in full make up and there are beautiful young men too. Their movements are lovely. Little things go wrong - a parasol snaps - but it does nothing to distact from the popular delight. The place is packed. If a storm broke on us we'd quickly get soaked and there are some flashes of dry lightning. At one point it is hot but then it cools down again and it feels pleasant.

Annaliza, Emelda, C and I stroll along the street towards an open street eaterie. They order things, we eat them. Soon it is gone 1 in the morning. With some difficulty we find a taxi back to NTU.

Annaliza and Emelda with dancers

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