Poetry in Singapore has gotten a bad rap over the years, but it has a way of striking back. In 1969, founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew famously called poetry “a luxury we cannot afford.” Poets responded with two poetry collections, A Luxury We Cannot Afford (2015) and A Luxury We Must Afford (2017). Poets like Lee Tzu Pheng found their early work banned for being anti-national. Lee’s poem later became the theme of the 2020 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival.
Every April since 2014, the poetry-writing challenge SingPoWriMo brings a Singapore-based Facebook Group to life with thousands of lines of poetry. Written in response to daily prompts (though with no obligation to do so), many of them fiendishly challenging, the forum has grown to play a crucial role in Singapore’s poetry scene. In the group, seasoned poets and novices alike write and share poems, but also react to, comment on, and constructively critique others’ work. The group has over 6,400 members and, as Singapore literary voices never tire of pointing out, its total output each April is greater than the total published corpus of Singapore poetry.
As I write this, the second week of the 2020 challenge is just drawing to a close, but already poets have been asked to write questions and answers; describe places in Singapore that have disappeared; and research obscure historical figures. Unprompted, a new poetic form—the coronasonnet—was also born.
This piece isn’t about “resilience” in the face of crisis. “Resilience” narratives often divert attention away from systemic, structural violence and disadvantage. Nor is it a rebuttal of a longstanding narrative about a lack of creativity in Singapore. I won’t even dignify that with a response.
Rather, this piece is about humility: the humility to acknowledge that as anthropologists we enter into social worlds in medias res. There, we find conversations taking place and connections being made without us. Yes, our presence can (and does) alter situations, but our practice relies on these social worlds, not vice versa. We are not the only analysts in the (frequently metaphorical) room.
Viveiros de Castro has said that anthropological concepts are “relative because they are relational,” emergent out of the ways people, places, practices, and institutions are made to relate. Put differently, following Susan Gal and Judith Irvine, the analyst isn’t so much an individual as it is a stance that anyone can perform in interaction.
As I see it, this is analogous to the difference, articulated by the scholar Jay Ruby, between speaking for, speaking about, speaking with, and speaking alongside. It contests a longstanding assumption at the core of anthropological praxis that, through our research, we are “giving voice” to another. I like the way Ruby’s early formulation has recently been extended by Stephanie Takaragawa and collaborators as “speaking nearby.” The approach of “speaking nearby” acknowledges that the goals that drive analytic stances will differ from moment to moment and person to person, but we who are in institutionally privileged positions as professional analysts don’t have a monopoly on analysis or concept production.
In SingPoWriMo, poets are analyzing. Events are digested and reconfigured as interpretations, but it’s not reactionary in any sense. This year, there are predictably many Covid-19 poems and poems on related topics: social distancing, quarantine, work from home, generalized senses of malaise and anxiety. However, there are also innovative explorations in form and medium, and reflections on phenomena at various scales—explorations and reflections that are incisive, insightful, rigorous, and often humorous.
In the spirit of speaking nearby, I won’t tell you what the poetry is “about,” or do it the disservice of clumsy formal analysis. I’m not here to give anyone a voice. They definitely don’t need my help to do that. There are several anthologies that have been published from SingPoWriMo over the years, and now an online platform. I encourage readers to check them out.
In many ways, this year’s SingPoWriMo seems very much like the last, largely because most of the event occurs online. Still, other differences remain to be seen. Before, I got to see SingPoWriMo poems circulate beyond Facebook: poetry that appeared in my Facebook feed one day would be read aloud at an open mic or poetry slam a few weeks later. I’ve also encountered countless published poems that got their start at SingPoWriMo. Now that most physical events have been suspended, the circulations and forms of reengagement will also shift, in ways that are still unfolding.
Josh Babcock is a PhD candidate in sociocultural and linguistic anthropology at the University of Chicago. Since late 2018, he has been conducting research on the role of language in the multimodal production of the image of Singapore.
Cite as: Babcock, Josh. 2020. “Poetry over Panic in Singapore.” Anthropology News website, April 20, 2020. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1381