UnFree Verse Editors' Note

La Gerbe , Henri Matisse, 1953, 2.94m x3.5m, Gouache and Paper. Shot by Thomas Hawk.

La Gerbe, Henri Matisse, 1953, 2.94m x3.5m, Gouache and Paper. Shot by Thomas Hawk.

This is a first draft for a forthcoming anthology UnFree Verse.

UnFree Verse was born out of a double lack. The first, a realisation that there are no Singapore anthologies organised by form. The second, that very few Singaporeans—even those who consider themselves well-read—know anything of their literary history. UnFree is a book that deals with formal poetry as much as with its development over time, from Francis P. Ng’s long poem F. M. S. R. (1937), to its contemporary efflorescence with the rise of online platforms such as the Facebook-driven Singapore Poetry Writing Month. It is our hope that the book becomes evidence for a lithe and vital strand of local poetry in English. This poetry is neither merely imitative of ‘Western’ metrical verse nor expressed in free verse—arguably just as ‘Western’—but it does embody the tension between repeating and repudiating colonial history. This is a tension that Singapore politics and culture at large has also had to grapple with.

Before moving on, we have to answer a fundamental question. What is form? What is formal poetry? Our answer, hardly authoritative, but useful for our purposes, has been poetry that has a recognisable and repeatable structure, or that varies such structures for effect. Broadly speaking, two kinds of formal poetry exist: received and nonce forms. Received forms are those which possess a history of use and whose ‘rules’ have already been agreed upon, such as the tanka, the sestina, the ghazal. Nonce forms are simply those which possess the potential to become received, given time and usefulness. Under this definition, a whole range of poetic devices might be employed: rhyme scheme, regular meter, repeated syllables per line, concrete and shape poetry, the volta of the sonnet, anagrams, the liwuli’s third questioning stanza, as well as formal parody or experiment.

We then tried to define ‘Singapore’. We believe that poetry by anyone who has a meaningful relationship with the nation-state should be included, and we are pleased to showcase diasporic work, as well as so-called expatriate work by those who made Singapore their home and their muse for a time. With that, we began reading Singapore poetry wherever it appeared, from old University of Malaya periodicals to published books to online journals, and extracting every formal poem, masterwork or doggerel alike. Sorting through the mass of stuff has been a laborious but rewarding process, giving insight into old literary quarrels, unearthing long-buried gems, throwing out unexpected names. With a civil-servant mentality, we recorded it all in a spreadsheet, and used a rating system to determine which poems should make it through to the anthology.

The reason why we are three comes from this sorting process—the odd number makes it impossible to be deadlocked, and over the course of selecting the pieces we have had fierce disagreements. We have three criteria for selection. First, harmony between form and content, whether, say, this villanelle’s subject matter fits its repetitive structure. Second, sound, especially in those poems that employ fixed meter and rhyme. Third, historical or cultural value. These rules, needless to say, are imbued with a great degree of subjectivity, and we are the first to deny that the project represents any serious attempt at canon-making. On the contrary, we hope that UnFree Verse becomes canon-breaking, opening up possibilities for future generations of writers to consider the strategies and motifs of their predecessors, to avoid reinventing the wheel. There are pieces that individual editors feel have been left out, and vice-versa. Hopefully we collectively moderate each other’s tastes.

The next task, of course, is arrangement. For the most part, we realised that the best way to present the work had to be chronological, in line with our original aim of presenting one aspect of literary history. Poems in the first two sections of the book are arranged by year of composition, if known, then earliest year of publication, then by last name of poet, then by the order with which poems appear in the poet’s work. This more-or-less mechanical approach has led to some felicitous resonances, the most striking being Edwin Thumboo’s “Friends” appearing next to Arthur Yap’s “some friends”. The long third section, roughly marking the moment where more poetry and more formal poetry has been published, is instead divided up by form, the better to trace developments within different subsections. Within these categories, we have created a largely chronological progression, while also recognising that, especially in recent years, it is impossible to speak of any singular development in Singapore poetics.

Section 1 begins with extracts from F. M. S. R., possibly the first book-length book of poetry published by a local. We know that Alvin Pang has done some work on individual poems published before this in school journals, and hope that a second edition might incorporate his findings. Section 1 ends in 1969 with Paul Theroux’s masterful “Other Lovers Matter,” published in Focus, journal of the National University of Singapore (NUS) Literary Society. We chose to break at this time, instead of, say, 1965, recognising a certain transition in the material, from a heavily expatriate-involved body of work to a more locally-driven selection in Section 2 from 1970 onwards. Section 2 ends in 1994 with two poems by Toh Hsien Min, one of a few local poets with a commitment to form. In deciding how the subsections of Section 3 should be arranged, we move away gradually from form driven by rhyme and meter, towards other characteristics such as repetition, syllable count, shape, alliteration, and so on. The principle has been to section by looking at the evidence, not by political development nor by arbitrarily engineering literary history.

That is not to say that politics (or indeed, content) has no place in UnFree Verse. By virtue of the selection criteria, which privileges no theme or style, we have political poems of every stripe next to humorous poems next to lyrical meditations next to avant-garde language poems. Sometimes, a poem might be all of these things at once. What has emerged as a successful poem in our eyes is one which understands the colonial history of the English language in Singapore, and tries to do something new with it. This might be new content, as in Malayan landscapes, situations, people, and concerns. This might be new or re-discovered forms, such as the twin cinema, the liwuli, the empat perkataan, and Jennifer Anne Champion’s singular venpa. The final poem of the book is Yeow Kai Chai’s “From A to Z, a Glamorous Zoetrope Names Parts of Singapore’s Latest New Town via Gemstones, Female Singers and Outer Space Phenomena,” which does exactly as described, bringing the local and the international into fresh relation.

We are indebted to Professor Koh Tai Ann and her team, whose Singapore Literature in English: an Annotated Bibliography made it possible to read for the anthology systematically. It was at the National Library of Singapore and the NUS Central Library where we accessed rare books and periodicals, including the bulk of Singapore poetry in English which is, for better or worse, out of print. Special thanks goes to Doreen Soh and Tim Yap of the NUS Central Library for their assistance with request items. To Ethos Books, for publishing our vision, and to the National Arts Council of Singapore, for funding it. To Angus Whitehead, for gracing us with an incisive foreword. To our hardworking editorial interns Shawn Hoo and Ruby Thiagarajan. Thanks is also due to various friends and family of those poets who have either passed or remain difficult to contact, for giving us leads, permissions, and well-wishes. Last, and certainly not least, we would like to acknowledge every poet within this book. You are, collectively, the reason UnFree Verse exists.

Hao Guang Tse