Tag Archives: friends

The Venus Flytrap: No Wider Than The Heart Is Wide

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Once, when I was much younger, someone laughed because I said I loved Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem, “What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why”. He did not know that I could see the future. I did not know until I was in that future that Millay had only been 28 when it was published in November 1920. Perhaps she too could see the future, or perhaps for her too, the future had come too soon. So young, and already, to quote the sonnet’s last lines: “I cannot say/ what loves have come and gone, I only know that summer sang in me/ A little while, that in me sings no more.”

Millay characterised herself as a lonely tree in winter, when to many she must have seemed to still be in the prime of her life. I thought of this when my friend, a wonderful middle-aged woman I’ve known for years, asked me what my age is now, then took my hand and huffed as if to say “Don’t be ridiculous” when I told her. This was after I had spent several minutes nostalgising the liberation I had felt in my mid-20s. Past, present and permanent had come together that morning. I had met this visiting friend in a part of a city I rarely go to anymore, but in which I had spent many meaningful nights and days at one time in my life. Being there, I was reminded of what once was, but which I doubt is likely to ever be again. The boughs of the tree of my life were so laden with flower and fruit that they broke.

Earlier, I had also asked my friend whether she will always live in her 3rd floor Paris walk-up, because of the stairs. It was an impudent question, as I realised only upon asking it, and it said more about my preoccupations than her abilities. Having just turned 60, my friend has already outlived Millay by a couple of years. Is it normal to be this morbid, to seek such calculations and measure against them? I count other years: I am as old as my mother was when she had me, I am as young as Christ was when he was crucified. I have either stopped lying to myself that I haven’t been keeping count, or else I started to without quite knowing why, the way a season can leave your landscape before you’ve even sensed the next one. Some things have wintered in me too. And I don’t wonder what made the young Millay so cold in her foreknowledge when she wrote that poem.

But I am older inside than most people will ever be able to relate to,” I had told my friend, in explanation. But clearly, others can or did. Rereading “What lips…” today, I discovered another poem of Millay’s. “Renascence” was published even earlier, and is about a frightening mystical experience which left her all-knowing. In it was one answer to the question of bitterness, an almost inevitable corollary of wintering: “The world stands out on either side / No wider than the heart is wide.”

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 16th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: These Unspeakable Things

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In the two years I’ve been writing this column, I’ve tried to be honest. I’ve tried to share my life in ways that might be meaningful to strangers. I’ve written about things that might be controversial, if not in themselves then in their autobiographical quality – depression, death, violence, desire. While writers’ block might have resulted occasionally in pieces I can best defend by quoting Maugham – “Only a mediocre writer is always at his best” – never have I known exactly what I had to write about and yet felt so sickened, fearful or bereft at the thought.

How many ways can I tell you this story?

I can tell you the facts: two weeks ago, a close friend of mine was sedated, taken into custody on false claims, and detained in a mental ward where he was sexually abused and improperly diagnosed. I can tell you that this was orchestrated by collusion between his family (who had disowned him months earlier), the hospital, and the police. I can tell you, so that you don’t write to me with information that can’t be used, that this happened in another country, with a different set of laws.

I can tell you about the distance, about the bafflement and panic that ensues upon receiving an alarming text, from a number that cannot be reached afterward.

I can tell you again about human circuitry, the connectivity I always feel to my dearest ones, and how it came alive. I was the first person he texted with his last cents of phone credit – and the only one who came through. All the way from here, I tracked him down. The activist who advised him on his rights, the social worker whose care he is under now, the writer who helped him get down the unspeakable in a police report – every person came through me. (“You texted INDIA?” he was asked over and over, once he was released and seeking legal aid, and in his typically dramatic way, he said, “I was semi-sedated and even then I knew the best help I could find was half a world away, but the closest thing to home”.)

I can tell you about the complexity of emotions that come with being in a situation like this, struggling to protect someone very far away. The uncertainty over what to write – and whether to. The gratitude at the help that arrived. The dismay at how eager people are to turn a person into a poster boy. The outrage at Dr. Siras’s suicide, so closely timed to my friend’s own persecution, and for the same reasons why his family turned against him. The chills I still get thinking of how much hinged on me receiving that one text and taking it seriously. The disgust. The anger. The fear.

How many ways can I tell you this story? Trying to tell it at all cleaves me – do I conceal in poetry, rage in polemic, inform as a journalist, or tell it like I just have – a story about which I am only one part, one participant.

How many ways can I tell you this story? Is it enough to say: these unspeakable things are no story. This is reality. My friend has a witness to the world. There are others who have no such testimony.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

The Definitive Cure For Penis Envy

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If you’ve followed my columns, you will know I am a major faghag and have occasional penis envy.

Bitching with one of my beloveds on chat today, I said, “I am so glad you are gay and I don’t have a dick, so that we never fuck up our wonderful connection with sexual tension.” Eureka moment.

Ah, thank god for anatomical incompatibility. Happy Valentine’s, my loves, you know who you are!

The Venus Flytrap: Just Ask Jeeves

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I hired my first secretary last week.

Unlike most other collaborations in this book publishing process, I got exactly the person I wanted. She’s smart, young, confident, and the sort of girl who actually prints out an agenda when her grandfather holds a magic show at his apartment. She is also – fortunately – the kind of secretary I can hug, which was pretty high on my requirements list.

If you have met me, you may know that I have a famously fuchsia business card, and it was only fitting that she carry something suitably reflecting my, um, values too. This led to the question of what her official job title would be. As a relatively benevolent megalomaniac, I naturally opened the subject to debate.

There came the fictional character suggestions. Could she be the Smithers to my Mr. Burns? The Alfred to my Batman? The Herbert Cadbury to my Richie Rich? The Jeeves to my Wooster? And of course, there was the hardcore literary reference that’s actually been adapted into common lingo: Girl Friday.

I liked the Robinson Crusoe analogy, but Girl Friday was slightly sexist, and reminded me for some reason of Helen Gurley Brown’s 1960’s instructions to the working gal (“In taking a man to lunch, I suggest you not reach for the check with your limp little arm in his presence” would be an example). My secretary didn’t want to be named after a butler, so that knocked Cadbury, Alfred and Jeeves off the list. As for Smithers and Burns, well, the whole one-sided infatuation thing didn’t go down too well with her. Too bad, I personally quite liked the allusion to the fact that I am actually very much a sinister, balding despot with a prominent overbite and hands perpetually in the scavenger mudra.

“Would you like to be my right hand man?” I asked, hoping to slide a bit of subversion in sideways.

“Um… no?”

Then came the absurdly fancy and meaningless titles. I once held an NGO job in which I was officially the “Communication Rights and Media Advocacy Officer”. In other words, I did the press releases and copywriting. So we came up with: “Liaison Coordinator”, “Administrative and Liaison Manager”, “Administrative Specialist” and “Associate Publicity and Public Relations Aide”.

She said, “My god, when I submit my resignation, I would probably die of exhaustion before I finish typing that.”

Bringing up a resignation was not a good sign. So we moved along.

I summarily dismissed the demeaning options – minion, underling and gofer – because I’m a TV villain despot, people, not a bitch, and those are not even remotely endearing.

Which brings us to the mummy-baby names. I have the kind of megalomania that makes me sometimes think I’m the Messiah and sometimes His mother. Tyra Banks has the same kind. Fortunately, I happen to know this, so I refrained from suggesting “descendant”, “sishya”, “poppet” and “protégé”.

In the end, we settled for something suitably professional, not too pretentious, and which will not result in poor Shilu having to tell people she works for a crazy lady – Executive Assistant. The name came courtesy of our friend Anand, a former child actor who is soon going to outdo and exceed his claim-to-fame of having danced on a table with Silk Smitha, and will need his own secretary then.

So, friends, frenemies and future patrons of disorganized poets: if you want to schedule in some face or phone time with me in the next few months, kindly consult my Executive Assistant.

Now excuse me while I go and enjoy feeling smug about the fact I can actually say that.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

The Venus Flytrap: Surrendering To Serendipities

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A dear friend of mine resigned from her job today to be with her toddler – and see where life takes her next.

This is no small step for my freespirited friend, someone widely acknowledged as the blithely charming PR queen of her country, someone who has chased eclipses in Iran, honeymooned in Iceland and worn a dress of orange and blue to her wedding.

“I will honour my promise to you,” she said. “But I will be a humble stay-at-home mum from now on.” She had told me some time before that she was considering taking up an artform, an idea I had applauded. The truth is, other than her beautiful house décor and uncanny ability to pick the perfect present for anyone, I have no idea what her creative talents might be. But what I do know, and what I told her, is this: if she does art, she is an artist. No gallery, committee or critic needs to sanction her – or anyone – as such.

I wanted to be an author since I was seven years old. By my late teens, thanks to a series of serendipities catalyzing around my discovery of the magic of spoken word, I already had some semblance of a cult following. But I kept dreaming of having a book – a book would be evidence. A book would make my writing real.

I had the good sense, however, to not jump at the first fishes that bit. I rejected at least two offers to publish a collection because where they came from didn’t sit well with me: a print-on-demand run by a communist with a fetish for hijab-ed women in high heels, and a representative of a multinational that packages spirituality with pyramid schemes.

When I finally found the combination of people and promises that suited me best, I thought the rest would be quick and easy. Little did I know I had more to learn: three months ago, the funding for the book was abruptly withdrawn.

There was the brief, requisite shock at this bad fortune, but what alarmed me most was my surprising ambivalence. The ground had given away not because I’d lost my long-cherished dream, but because I was forced to acknowledge that it was no longer my dream. Other people wanted to see this book much more than I did – I was more infatuated with the process than the project. “You wanted to be a writer, right?” I asked myself. “Well, you already are. Book or no book.”

But this story doesn’t end with an excuse. When I finally, wholeheartedly, accepted that my book wasn’t going to happen (at least, not the way I wanted it to), the miraculous happened: a new investor showed up. Just like that. I hadn’t looked. I had asked only in the silence of my own heart. Most of all, I hadn’t expected.

And this is what I think holds me in good stead as I prepare to leave familiar waters. Whatever happens to this book, I am what I am. What I wanted in the first place was not fame or wealth. It was to write. I will do just that, and trust that all else will follow. I am humbled by this journey enough to see that I do not control it at all.

In Om Shanti Om, Shah Rukh Khan says that when you want something enough, the whole universe conspires to give it to you. What I’ve found to be truer still is that if you are something enough, if you own and inhabit that skin in a way that doesn’t fixate on its outcome, the universe aligns itself in equally serendipitous ways.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

Jerome Kugan’s Songs For A Shadow

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In Indonesia. Two more famous poets were cropped out. Teehee.

Have you ever experienced a piece of art and become overwhelmed with the amazement that someone you know, a beloved friend whose fridge you’ve raided, whom you’ve fought with, whom you’ve travelled with, produced so breathtaking a creation?

Because that’s what happened to me when I heard the album version of “Flowers”, from Jerome Kugan’s debut album Songs For A Shadow, to be launched on Saturday April 12. I’d long admired him as a singer-songwriter, but to hear his familiar folksy, acoustic tunes given an electronica spin blew my mind. “Flowers” was suddenly like the moment when something cracked in me while listening to Boys For Pele that turned me into a devout Toriphile. It was some sort of breakthrough; it was the moment I realised the culthood my friend is destined for.

If I could pinpoint a single person whose impact on my life radicalised it for the better, it would have to be Jerome Kugan. I met JK when I was 15. I had just finished school and was working at a bookstore in Kuala Lumpur. I was heading nowhere, in that cute, quirky, blasé, dishonest way that precocious and rebellious teenagers head nowhere, and had no idea how that point in time and the couple of years they precipitated were going to be so pivotal for me. JK had moved to the city fairly recently. He edited and published a photocopied zine of writing and illustrations, called Poetika, which lasted for a good 9 months. He was also organising these indie events, in which people performed music or read from their work. I don’t know how many people took all these efforts seriously in the beginning, but for me, it was a whole new world. A world in which I belonged.

It was because of Jerome’s early efforts at sparking off an underground poetry scene that I have a spoken word career today. Being a part of that scene in its newborn years, before the British Council’s involvement and the visiting poets and the slams with crowds of hundreds, put me in a position I am privileged to have had. The right place, the right time, and rewards for years to follow. Through him, I met countless people, some who became confidantes or collaborators. Heck, it was because of Jerome that I met my closest friend. But above all was the chance he took on me, a kindness I try to keep in mind when I meet younger aspiring writers.

When I had to leave Kuala Lumpur last year, Jerome’s farewell present was a CD with the rough cut of the album as of September 30. Since then, I’ve listened to parts of it nearly every day. My morning auto ride to work feels incomplete without one of my favourites from it.

The album is hypnotic, addictive, mystical to a surprising depth. Omens and miracles, calls for guidance, the mysteries — all have a place. From the dangerously brooding undertone in the hum in Jerome’s voice in “Song For The Service Industry” to the alluring a cappella of “Lightfalls”, there is a powerful quality in this work that defies terminology. Jerome Kugan channels the duende, alright. Only abstraction can describe it: you either feel it or you don’t.

And of course, Jerome as poet and Jerome as troubadour are inseparable. His lyrics are complex, but not overly obscure. Conveniently, he discusses the experience of creating and recording each individual song on his blog (see sidebar index Lyrics and Notes).

My three favourites from this album are “Song For The Service Industry”, “Tomás” and “Flowers”. The first two incidentally have strong political undercurrents. There is something a little manifesto-like in the quiet conviction with which the persona in “Song For The Service Industry” says he will wait (for the day when the tables turn), and “Tomás” was written for Tomás Diego, a Cuban persecuted for his sexuality, and who was immortalised before this song in a small part in the film Before Night Falls. “Flowers” is a spiritual song, an acknowledgment of a power, higher or equal to the creator in his/her element, that will guide and allow the fullest experiences.

And so it is with every happiness that I congratulate Jerome Kugan on the launch of his first album, Songs For A Shadow, on April 12. I’m so proud of you!

Below is the video for “Tomas”. The album is available for sale in Malaysia, will be available shortly in Chennai (I am a pimp, remember?), and for you lucky credit card holders, via digital download.

“The Lovechild of Anaïs Nin and Johnny Cash. Pure Sin on Amphetamines.”*

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(Or, Contrary to popular belief, I am not in love with the sound of my own voice.)

But I enjoy using it, especially in artistic expression. And there is some evidence (occasionally culled from speaking to distracted drivers from the backseat…) that shows that there are folks out there who kinda like it too.

No hidden brag posts here, just a nice dose of the shameless usual. I resurrected my Myspace account as a musician one, so as to upload spoken word recordings. You can find me here. Two poems are up now: Karna Considers Yuanfen and And If You Still Must Leave, both recorded by Kieran Kuek at 2am studios, Kuala Lumpur, last year. The latter poem is up in two versions — the violent rendering, in which I usually perform it, and a colder, more controlled one, which Kieran encouraged me to explore as an alternative method of delivery.

To be honest I wouldn’t say that it’s these two poems that should introduce people to my work, but those are the ones I have good recordings of.

I’ve found that I don’t enjoy recording in studios, or for the sake only of recording, very much at all. I slip up more. I feel less in my element. There is an absence of a certain haphazardness, which gets lost in multiple takes. I remember something I read in a magazine maybe a dozen years ago, when I certainly could not relate but was intrigued enough to keep it in mind — the singer Jewel in her pre-sellout days likening recording in a studio to faking an orgasm.

Nonetheless, there are more recordings in the works. The final cut of Poem, which I did with Kieran and also in a different persona, hasn’t grown on me enough for me to upload it. I did some recordings for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation last month, and if any of that is workable, will definitely upload.

I recommend using headphones, and listening to them loud.

Find me. Add me. Listen. If you like.

* That would be a quote. The subject line is because I think Jerome’s line, “poor man’s Kylie in shorts” is way cool. My friend the actor and credit card abuser Branavan Aruljothi offered me the above for a “sounds like…” comparison. It is not nearly as cool. But neither am I.

Three Poets: Amirthanayagam, Nansi & Ng

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One of the privileges of being a poet is getting to know the poets whose work you love as people. These are connections formed on many layers: how you know them as poets, as friends, as lovers, as contemporaries, as critics, as travel companions and sometimes as foes.

Two of these three friends of mine who are poets (or maybe poets who are friends of mine) have new books out. The third has a not-so-new book going into its second printing shortly. I’m one of those people who just rave about the things they love (you may have noticed, if you’ve been following my blogavatars for some time). So here are some favours for them as a friend, and some word-of-mouth as a fan.

INDRAN AMIRTHANAYAGAM’s The Splintered Face: Tsunami Poems

Indran is a mentor, in some ways. He’s writing the foreword for my forthcoming book, after all. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t trust my opinion of his work: you only have to ask him to know that I have disagreed with some of his word choices, syntax, punctuation, whole poems — just as he has with mine.

What most struck me about this book of poems, written in the aftermath of the Asian tsunami of 2004 and focusing on its impact on Sri Lanka, was the attention to detail. Not just circumstancial description, but mainly emotional mapping of a subtle yet distinct variety. A substantial number of the poems adopt a persona, an eyewitness view, and there are moments at which the poet convinces the reader totally of having had the experience. The poet himself was in the United States at the time of the disaster, but you would never be able to tell, were it not for this admission in his introduction to the book.

These are far-ranging poems of much thought and great insight. Granted, their topic is one of pathos by default, but the true success of this book lies in the fact that the maudlin is a sentiment that occurs rarely. Amirthanayagam’s style is spare, his lines pared down, their enjambments numerous (I have wondered about this before — perhaps it is the poet as performer who dictates this style). My favourite lines from the collection are those that form this striking image, from the poem “Bosched”: “the city, machan,/like a virgin delivered/to her husband/on the wedding day.”

The Splintered Face: Tsunami Poems was published by Hanging Loose Press, New York in January 2008. You can buy it online from Amazon, among other places, as well as from the publisher itself.

PoojaThe Splintered Face

I scoured the newspapers
and Web this morning
but did not find the 76th day
anniversary of the tsunami
cited. Difficult to keep
daily pooja, cut
jasmine flowers
and break coconuts
at the temple doors.

In these mountains,
coconuts are a specialty
item at the HEB, and
Catholic churches
do not encourage
heaping servings
of rice, plantains
and yogurt at the feet
of their images.

If I could take India
into my hands like
a ball of rice and curry
and eat in front
of everybody, pierce
the billion names
of god into one god
ring rattling
from my nose

that would make
my neighbors swoon
and me feel at home
in the silence of canyons,
church naves open
only on feast days,
Sundays, where the ablution
of holy water has been
removed for questions of hygiene.

POOJA NANSIStiletto Scars‘s Stiletto Scars

I first met Pooja at the KL Literary Festival in March 2007, where we “sparred” at a poetry slam. I was captured by her warmth and her gutsiness. We spent some time together when I was in Singapore last month, and I am hugely proud that she’s brought out this honest, sassy book. I’m not the first person to say it, but she’s a ray of sunshine amidst the generally excellent but rather sombre contemporary poetry of Singapore. Stilleto Scars was published by WordForward, Singapore in December 2007.

How To Be A Stiletto

Give the gift of power.

Not just by rising up to heights but by knowing
that pain can be overcome with
stubborn audacity.

Show that appearances are more important than reality.

That the blistered, chaffed parts of you
must at all times be covered in
sequins, so that even if you feel battered,
you look invincible in all your glory.

Reveal all that has been hidden deep inside.

Expose the seduction, spunk, spirit that’s been
quashed by the lazy wandering of easy flat planes.

Remind everyone that safe
is not wondrous.

Gratification is not the same as contentment

and that gracefulness has
nothing
to do with
ease.

Recognise that red is your best colour,
that you are a tool and a weapon all at once.

Harness your ability to keep someone
under your heel and grant freedom
from the same point
of your existence.

Walk low self esteem enlightened
into the night.
Make sure they wince
only once the music dies,
when they are saf
e
from the public eye.

Lead hearts on to dance floors.
Lift them into the promise
of the music to the understanding that

a life lived afraid
and in comfort,

is no life at all.

 

NG YI-SHENG’s Last Boy

Yi-Sheng and I met last month at the Singapore Writers’ FestLast Boyival. I was blown away by his performance poetry, and flattered that he remembered having seen a copy of my chapbook at Books Actually some months before. Yi-Sheng is really something to behold onstage. He brings across both quiet, emotive poems and loud, performative ones so convincingly — and is equally impressive on the page. I was so enamoured of the copy of Last Boy that he gave me that when we met for supper (crocodile meat in Geylang — and sad to say, it does taste just like chicken), I kept associating things he said with the poems in it. Only later did I think that in his place, I would have been weirded out. Most impressive about this book is Ng’s wide range of inspirations and images: from history to anatomy to mathematics and more, his poems are layered with knowledge — meaningfully. Last Boy was published by Firstfruits, Singapore in 2006, and will be reprinted soon. You can buy it online from the publisher.

Shirt
for QX

Sometimes the reason the girl will not speak
is that she is weaving shirts out of nettles
for eleven swan-brothers. This is why midnight
calls her to the churchyard, a sickle in her hand
as she sleeps in the bedchamber. People will call her
a witch, but really, she was stitching them long
before you found her, ragged-haired, swollen of hand
at the lake, waiting for rescue.

Sometimes the shirts are spun badly
and will not save her, even when flames lick her thighs.
Sometimes the brothers are not yet born
and the swans are inside her.
Sometimes she is a witch indeed,
and has had her eye on you since daybreak
and you need only lift the shutters
to break out in feathers, stiff as paper.