Time to perk up the writing scene

All right, I admit it: There might just be some perks to being a writer.

Local wordsmiths have yet to shake off their dowdy image as stuffy closet scribblers
But let's not kid ourselves.

Literary pursuits - especially poetry - still rank way down in the unspoken hierarchy of the arts scene.

Theatre and the performing arts come out tops, of course.

But as one associate dryly remarked, in the eyes of the public and funding bodies, literature probably comes a close second to recreational basket-weaving.

There may be historical and economic reasons why writers aren't rolling with groupies and in freebies, despite our Renaissance aspirations.

But one reason why we don't enjoy a higher profile and support in Singapore is that we aren't asking hard enough.

Here's the rub: For years we've wanted to have a writers' retreat - where fellow wordsmiths could take time out from busy schedules to talk shop and ''just write''.

Over the past weekend, poet Yong Shu Hoong managed to get a hotel to sponsor just such an event for a dozen writers. Gratis.

End result: Generous facilities for an overnight get-together in the quirky new Hotel Gallery Evason in Robertson Quay, complete with rubber duckies in the lifts and a fish-tank swimming pool.

Sure, we bards had to sing for our supper.

By the end of the retreat, we'd served up one new poem each - composed overnight on the premises.

We also created a collective sestina for the hotel, using the keywords telescope, Mondrian, lines, flame, inescapable and smoke.

Dressed up on art paper with our signatures flourished at the end, the poems - waiting to be framed and hung on a hotel wall somewhere - looked like, well, art.

Suddenly, we felt hip.

Not that the outing was a fraudulent junket for poseurs, mind you.

In fact, the closed-door discussions were overdue chances to air meaty issues, from politics and patronage to funding and literary development.

And getting away from the daily grind did set the creative juices flowing.

The event was a classic win-win: Writers needed a place to chill out for a day or two, and the fledgling hotel wanted to reinforce its artsy, urban-chic image.

As was pointed out during one of the sessions, writers really need to get a lot more thick-skinned about promoting themselves and their field of work.

Fair point.

Most local wordsmiths have yet to shake off their dowdy image as stuffy closet scribblers, unlike authors abroad - think Arundhati Roy or Michael Crichton - who might enjoy the kind of celeb status usually reserved for movie stars.

Good marketing need not compromise the quality or integrity of the writing

In contrast, their publicity-savvy and stage-smart pros in the performing arts have refined their sales pitch and branding over time.

Small wonder that they're foremost in the minds of policy makers and the public as far as the arts are concerned.

Some may find it distasteful for writers to pander to the market.

But there's something to be said about making it easier for the public to access our work. And there's no reason why, should we need support - such as funding or a place to hold a retreat - not to come out and ask around.

There's even a subtle danger in humility: If good writers prefer to lie low, the profile of Singaporean writing will be dominated by the loudest - and not necessarily the best - voices.

The idea is to approach literature as a product that can be branded and promoted using techniques gleaned from the marketplace.

Good marketing need not compromise the quality or integrity of the writing; newspapers around the world, for instance, do it all the time.

Forget glamour makeovers.

Why not package literature with other art forms, through media like SMS, MP3, or even MTV tie-ins?

How about user-friendly ''teaching kits'' on local writing, pitched at schools - which apparently theatre practitioners are already doing for drama?

Such non-traditional approaches have already yielded results.

SIA's in-flight magazine SilverKris carries a well-received section that showcases local writing to an international audience.

PlanetMG.com carries MP3 recordings of readings by young poets like Alfian Sa'at and Daren Shiau.

And there's the Gallery Evason retreat, of course.

At least the younger set are going ''public'' with their art, judging from recent initiatives that help keep local writing in the public eye.

It's a start.

Even if it's just for the perks.

© alvin pang
clm : rvw : esy : rfl