Everyone's a poet these days
Men have been giving me funny looks for years.

Here's how it goes: Run into a friend you haven't seen for some time. Trade the usual pleasantries: ''How are you?'' ''What are you up to nowadays?''

He tells you about his latest dotcom venture, his MBA.

He vaguely remembers seeing your face in the papers once or twice, so you must be doing well, right? ''How do you do it?'' he asks.

You tell him you're a poet.

The poor chap blinks. He pretends not to have heard you correctly. It does not compute. You look so normal.

''Er, right, I'm sorry,'' he says finally, tries to smile. Escapes first chance he gets to his BMW, and that's the last you'll see of him.

Try it - works wonders on insurance agents.

I think it's time I came out of the closet.

Yes, I'm a P-O-E-T.

It's not contagious. I try to mate words and combine ideas in relationships no one has thought of before.

It's not like I'm having unsafe sex with pencils.

Outside the page, I'm really quite tame. Nerdy, even. I won't steal your girlfriend (or boyfriend).

I don't wear earrings, keep long hair, dress grunge or bleed gratuitously from the wounded vestiges of my tortured soul. I behave at dinner parties. I shave.

It's bad enough what our cosmopolitan urban society is built upon; it's obsessed with and feeds on material success.

Quietly and without protest, we've allowed our social and sexual identities to be defined in economic terms: So and so falls into the right demographic, X is our target audience, Ms Y is an engineer making a Z-figure salary.

In this equation, poets, honestly, don't cut it.

They're an anomaly, they fall outside the drop-down list. Try looking under Hobbies/Arts/Others.

Used to be that men were expected to bring home the bacon, so any non-revenue generating activity (like, oh, say the arts) was reserved for bored wives and unmarried daughters.

Poetry was something embroidered badly into ''Home Sweet Home'' decorations.

It wasn't real men's work.

Or so the story went.

Never mind the grand old tradition of Byronic word warriors, or the gritty trench verse of war poets like Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen.

Mention that you're a poet and your manhood is immediately in question.

A gruff young poet I once met was so anxious he came to a gathering in a rugby jersey looking like a jock: ''Er, excuse me, is this where the *ahem* poets are meeting?'' You could read the italics in his body language.

All that mucking about with verse and music and soulful contemplation is supposed to rub away some of the rough macho edges afflicting the male half of the species.

Bad idea if you're gunning for Commando training. But great, apparently, for chatting up women.

Now that women pull their own financial weight, the theory goes, they can have the pick of the crop instead of staying home sewing blankets.

Strong-minded, independent women don't want to be manhandled.

Instead, they're looking for Sensitive New-Age Ga-whoops - Guys to treat them right.

Intellectual conversation, shopping companionship, taste in curtains, the works. Here's where poets and other arty types are supposed to score big-time.

Which, perhaps, explains the sudden rash of young male, conspicuously ''poetic'' types at readings, in bars, off the shelf in recent years.

And I'm not talking about the limp-wrist pale scholar types.

Nowadays, you've got to be controversial, have 'tude, or be gay in order to be a bona fide poetica.

It's cringe-worthy, the kind of adulation or distaste poets get at some of these karaoke gigs, coyly labelled ''poetry readings''.

Even the dingier specimens among us are supposed to be suffering fashionably in honour of bohemia.

No one's simply sloppy anymore.

Everyone's got to be a walking commercial for some lifestyle trend.

Look at me, I'm a POET. Buy my CD.

If poets are an endangered species, the genuine poet-slob must top every last-chance-to-see list on the planet.

Will the real poets please stand up?

The ones I know in Singapore, mostly male, have families and respectable jobs - as engineers, lawyers, teachers.

A couple have even infiltrated the civil service. Not exactly your Cyrano de Bergerac types.

Some might be gay, sure, but then again, some drive Hondas - that's just not what being a poet is about.

And the women aren't bra-burning ''feminovelists'' either.

Thing is, poets are ordinary people addicted to words, and like junkies everywhere, tend to indulge their habits in private and wash their hands afterwards.

We have man-in-the-street problems, like COEs, housing loans and bad hair days.

We don't have time to be someone else's fashion statement.

Maybe we shouldn't take it lying down.

Maybe Poets of the World should band together and assert our right to be messy, bad spellers, poor cooks, have mousy hairdos and steady jobs.

Maybe - er, that's my wife knocking - well, it's something to think about after I've made dinner and fed the cats.

© alvin pang
clm : rvw : esy : rfl