A para-literary fable


The poet had almost all the traits necessary to become a Bill Gates, or at least, some early dot-com millionaire. He was geeky and too clever by half, a loner who spent too much time in libraries or in front of the screen. He wore thick glasses and never had a girlfriend.

But tragically, the poet sucked at math – a prerequisite subject for any would-be computer scientist. He simply couldn’t get his head around calculus. Trigonometric equations made him break into a sweat. Log tables gave him anxiety rashes.

So he winded up at the back of the class, writing little parodies in rhyming verse. Boy’s school stuff.: Limericks about the body parts of classmates. Couplets about copulation.

He also discovered that reading and writing were about the only thing he was actually getting good grades for. Which was a change from seeing “talkative” and “needs to study harder for math” on his report card every year. What fun he had when he persuaded his parent to buy him a computer so he could write essays and earnest stories, while sneaking in the latest computer games.

At least writing and especially poetry, was like computer programming, also a way of codifying reality through language to invite certain responses from an audience. A different school of the same sorcery.

At the end of junior college (senior high), the poet found himself the dazed recipient of a government teaching scholarship to read Literature in England. His father, a teacher himself, was appalled at the prospect of having another teacher in the family, and vetoed the option, wanting him to accept a place to read Law at the local university. (A path many a writer in Singapore has chosen – much to the detriment of their writing).

Thankfully, his years of playing with words had taught him how to bend the truth to his advantage, and he managed to change his parents’ minds by convincing them that government teaching scholars would rise eventually to becoming ministers of education in due course.

Then, having read far more books than was useful or advisable, and possessing a solid education with no practical skills whatsoever, having perfected the art of lying beautifully in public, he graduated and became a teacher.

To his pleasant surprise, the poet rather enjoyed corrupting bright young minds and messing around with their notions of reality, even though, as a Chinese man teaching literature in English, he was taken far less seriously than his expatriate colleagues. Yet imagine the opportunity that was laid before him, a chance to relive his youth, to alter the destiny of those who would otherwise have taken the fateful path he chose. Turn back, he could tell his young charges, it’s not too late to stop writing poetry. Try fiction! Read Tom Clancy! Read Amy Tan!

Of course he did nothing of the sort, and as soon as his competence as a teacher and his incompetence as a productive member of society was confirmed, he was plucked out of service and put into good use as a high-flying civil servant, policy-maker and occasional speech writer for ministers and other senior officials. A panderer of words for political profit.

Anyone who has seen the British “Yes Minister” series would have a fair grasp of the trauma involved, the subterfuge and sly rhetoric, the bad food. With an English degree and no governing experience, the poet was of course put in charge of a high-level program meant to reform, modernize and reinvent the entire civil service from the ground up. It was called PS21 (Public Service for the 21st Century). His job title was an acronym of an acronym of an acronym: CPSO (Coordinator, PS21 Office). His trade was fine speeches full of business school jargon and consultancy hype. His literary heroes were Jack Welch and Gary Hamel and Dilbert’s pointy-haired boss; 6 Sigma and ISO 9000, not sonnets, were his chosen forms.

The odd thing is that it could all have worked out: After all, Singapore is a bizarre creation, in a sense the product of a mad artistic genius. Only an epic sculptor could have dreamed up the sweep and arch of its highways, the Grecian hubris of its towering skyline. And how else could the opium dens in Chinatown have morphed into salmon-pink walkup studios and Taiwanese tea houses? What but a playwright’s diabolic imagination could have let the Arts Ministry regulate the Internet and the police license theatre?

And who but a closet poet could have come up with all those national metaphors politicians love to doll out in every other speech: Singapore Inc., Singapore as a football team, an air-conditioned nation, as wafer fab plant, as stock market, as Disneyland, as a boat (as in don’t rock it) ?

But the poet as bureaucrat found that he could influence either the language or the agenda of change in his city-state, but never both at once. He was as impotent as a Hollywood screenwriter, as an unpublished novelist, as a sonneteer waiting for royalty checks.

And then a bizarre thing happened. In one rather expensive management class (run by folks from the Society for Organisational Learning at MIT), the poet found an improbable link between corporate spiel and poetry. Poems were written and read by high-powered management trainees to inspire their deepest passions and best performance.

(Some of his sappy poems from that period are still being circulated in the Army edition of the same management course.)

The poet and his course-mates read dramatic monologues, held hands, visualized their futures, regulated their breathing, had group hugs and stuffed toys and inspirational posters.

They read American poet David Whyte’s book, THE HEART AROUSED: Poetry and the Soul of Corporate America – which for all its soggy earnestness made a stirring case for the need to reconnect the jaded contemporary, industrialized salaryman to some sense of the spiritual; to remind them as Gibran had, that Work is Love made visible and that what we do soon becomes who we are. In the hardnosed, business-minded Singapore Civil Service, this was a shattering revelation. Statistics show that over 50% of the participants in the course either quit their jobs or became pregnant. It was potent stuff.

The poet realized that he could no longer work in a position – whatever the prospects and paycheck – which failed to honour the imagination, creativity and structured logic he loved in both computers AND poetry, but which sought instead to bend them to Machiavellian ends.

So even though he accepted, and even to an extent respected the inherently dirty task of realpolitik and pragmatic governance, he jumped ship after two years and joined an edgy new print-and-web newspaper called, unfortunately, PROJECT EYEBALL, as a web producer.

Apart from managing the online edition of the publication, he soon became also a tech columnist, copy editor, arts columnist, political commentator, gender analyst, book reviewer, film critic, news reporter and editorial stand-in for the editor. For the first time in his life, his multiple hungers could be satisfied, all the divergent threads of his creative life woven into the vital tapestry of 24/7 journalism. He had range, he had mojo, he was in a half-way house with fellow word addicts. The online news wires were like an intravenous drip, feeding him hour after rich hour of stimulation and story.

My colleagues in the IWP can best appreciate how profoundly satisfying it is to work in a community of peers with a common quest – like-minded souls who for all their personality quirks and idiosyncrasies and sins, appreciate good writing and good work, give credit where it’s due, regardless of the source, and who accept you as you are, a confused human being with diverse and unorthodox interests, fraught with prejudices and passions but one of their own.)

Of course it was too good to be true -- the newspaper folded due to financial pressures after the dot-com crash. This is of course what happens in fairy tales after the “happily ever after” bit.

An afterlife, then:

In 1997, while looking for a publisher for his 1st volume of poetry, I stumbled upon this little advertising and design called Pagesetters. The managing director of Pagesetters is a real fan of poetry, and being a bit of a restless activist himself, decided to sit down with us and start a movement instead of just publishing a couple of poetry books. We started Ethos Books, driven by a belief that good writing deserves to be heard, deserves a market, deserves the best creative effort in terms of design and packaging and marketing. Because Pagesetters was a commercial advertising and design house, it had the expertise and budget to design and produce good books. I think that transformed the publishing market back home. But as with all public literary activity, the fate of an indie small press is very much tied to the financial health of its sponsors. I work for Pagesetters as its Head of New Media and dabble in its publishing arm from time to time.

As for the poet, he has turned ad man, become publicist, impresario, entrepreneur, webmaster, literary activist, both road-builder and road-hog, the salesman and the sold. He has, at last, become a visible enough target of derision for a new generation of hip young writers who believe (and in some cases, have demonstrated) that all it takes to be a successful full-time writer is to want it hard enough and leave the country as soon as possible.

Once again the poet folds his many lives into the same geometry of day, and struggles to juggle the mathematics of his fractured selves, the calculus between profit and pleasure. Once again, he is making a living as perhaps the wrong sort of geek, who can’t get his sums right. The secret formula to a livable literary life remains elusive. Year after year the words add up, while the days count down to zero.