Geraldton was reckless enough to ask me to give their keynote address over the past weekend at the Big Sky festival, and I’ll leave it to Andreya to give you the scoop on how that went. I won’t repeat myself.
I never know what to say about myself at Writer’s Festivals or anywhere really. So I’ll just say this:
MEN have been giving me funny looks for years.
I run into a friend you haven't seen for some time. We trade the usual pleasantries: ''How are you?'' ''What are you up to nowadays?''
He tells you about his latest business venture, his MBA, his posting to Shanghai.
You tell him you're a poet.
The poor chap blinks. Maybe he hasn’t heard you quite right. It does not compute. You look so normal.
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 put ideas together in relationships no one has thought of before. I try to make a space where we can take a bit of a breather, a bit of legroom and headroom so we can consider what we’re about and think about what we could be. It's not like I'm having unsafe sex with pencils.
Outside the page, I'm really quite tame. 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.
But I am not what they call in Singapore a “high net worth individual”.
Bad enough that I’m not a novelist. At least Stephen King has a manly, regal ring to it, and Tom Clancy gets to play with guns. And if you're a rock star like Bono, well you can get away with the occasional profound lyric by taking your shirt off, shouting really loudly and being Irish.
Singaporean men are traditionally expected to build up the family fortune. So non-revenue generating activity (like, oh, say the arts) used to be reserved for bored wives and unmarried daughters.
It isn’t real men's work. It’s suspect, a cop-out, a decadent sport for eunuchs, prodigal younger brothers and over-educated under-married sisters.
Where I come from, we seem to have forgotten the grand old tradition of Byronic word warriors, the gritty trench verse of war poets like Sassoon and Owen. Never mind also the Chinese legacy of scholarly mandarins like Li Bai and Du Fu penning eternal verses between getting drunk and governing a province or two.
Not to mention Asian types, even college grads from former Brit colonies, aren't supposed to even speak proper English, much less write poetry in it. It's kind of hard to explain the post-colonial intertextual Focaultian ironies of your epic verse to someone who thinks you just can't spell.
But these days, 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.
Will the real poets please stand up?
The ones I know in Singapore, (and yes we have real writers), they all have respectable day jobs - as banks, lawyers, engineers. I myself have been a feckless teacher, an occasional journalist, an itinerant marketing man and an authoritarian bureaucrat.
We have man-in-the-street problems, like housing loans and bad hair days.
We don't have time to be someone else's fashion statement.
Maybe we should remember that good writers address audiences but great writers invent them.
Maybe we’re just ordinary people with an extraordinary addiction to words. We should indulge our habits in private and wash our hands afterwards.
Maybe its all going to come crashing down as the climate falls apart and we smoke ourselves into extinction, and take our place in the fossil record.
But I’d like to think that poets and writers still have something to say that’s equal to the moment. That an ordinary boy who’s grown up on a tropical island nation far away from the centres of power in the world, has something worth remembering and writing down.
Maybe it’s as simple as that: here we are on the edge of a precipice, but here we are. We lived, we loved, we fought, we died, we were.
Maybe it’s about “making strange”, as the Irish poet Seamus Heaney says, keeping things a little off kilter, unbalanced, and moving forward.
When we’re given funny looks, maybe our job as writers is to give funny looks back.
I hear that there’re over 50 book groups in Albany so you know much more about books than I do so you tell me about it. Come up and chat, I promise not to bite. I look forward to a wonderful time in Albany and at Sprung. Thanks for having me.