My Growth As A Poet

Recently, I took a module on writing poetry. As part of the assessment, I was supposed to reflect on what I've learnt.

My feelings came out, crashing. After typing out the last phrase, I felt like paper - frail, thin and all too transparent. So much ink has flowed, a splattered mess.

My Growth As A Poet

At the start of the semester, I received an email from USP. Out of idle interest, I clicked on a weblink and began to read an article. It was an interview of Professor Shirley Lim by then poet-in-residence Jay Bernard. I was fascinated by the interview and wondered, could I handle the workload of a module that I did not need to take but want to. Perhaps I should try. Anyway, I can always drop it by the third week of school if it isn’t what I expect.

Fortunately, this module wasn’t what I expected. It was so much more. I learnt to allow myself to make mistakes, to allow myself to continue writing even when the first word, the first line was imperfect. I learnt to be more comfortable with failing and struggling. I have also learnt to be humble in my choice of words, to speak without affection or pretention, to write with clarity and an economy of words.

But this module is more than just writing poems. It is an experience all the more richer and beautiful because we have a community, a safe space where we can examine our experiences, dreams and disappointments. We deal with issues that trouble or inspire us – our parents whom we’ve argued with, the Jaguars prowling the roads, the relentless competition in school. We are able to do that because we trust each other. There is a safe space where we can be.

Once, at night, a group of four male friends crowded around my laptop and, with their relentless stream of ‘encouragement’, I read some of my poems aloud. One friend commented that my poems are nice but they’re hardly memorable. Another friend told me that I ought to have two beautiful lines per poem that readers can remember readily. Well, it’s always good to know where I can improve. However, the conversation – only because it was an all-guys conversation – quickly moved on to comments like why are you forever writing such sensual and sexual poems? Are the molecules having sex? Is that poem about a French kiss? I was being trolled by playful, albeit somewhat immature, guy friends. I smacked my forehead and left my palm there while I tried to suppress a grimace. How can a poem on repressed, ambivalent answers become one on a French mouth-to-mouth? Urgh.

During Recess Week, while waiting at the bus stop, I saw Peter and we chatted. We started talking about this module and our chapbooks. Peter asked me if I wrote poems before this class. How should I answer? We aren’t very close friends and I’m fearful of being vulnerable. Back when I was serving national service, my bunkmates Googled my name and found a poem – a really bad one on the summer breeze – that I wrote when I was in secondary school. They had a field day making fun of me.

“Yes, I did write poems before this class.” It turned out that many of us were already writing ever since we first encountered literature in our secondary schools. It was as though we were quietly writing poems in our little corners, waiting for someone to come along and guide us.

In the deserts, there would be sudden thunderstorms unleashing copious amount of water. Seeds that have been lying dormant would suddenly sprout leaves and flower magenta blossoms. The entire landscape, once barren, sandy and desolate, would be a purple sea. It feels as though that’s what that had happened for this class. We were ready for the nourishing rain.

One moment that I could remember was the night Stella and I arranged the poems for Red Pulse. We were tired but thought that we ought to write a filler for the Editors’ Note before posting the manuscript online. She tossed out one line and I added another. Line by line, our ‘prose poem’ (or what Cara called the ‘Faux Editors’ Note’) took shape:
It has been a life-changing experience and we were shaped into sculptures symbolizing universal equality and brotherhood of Mankind. As Universal Scholarly People, we were – and still are – appreciated like the sculptures of elegance and beauty that we have been chiseled into. In our sacrificial service as Editors, we have grown green and strong under the brilliant sunlight of the Shirley, just as the grass in Town green has so thrived on the soils of Knowledge. This anthology heralds the winds of change that will billow throughout NUS, Singapore, its hinterlands and the Milky Way.
Thanks, Prof Lim, we aren’t joking when we said that ‘we have grown green and strong under the brilliant sunlight of the Shirley’.

My heart (er-hem) began to hum a song, one that I couldn’t mute. I’ve spent much time running away from the arts. It is impractical and doesn’t bring in the moolah. I’m from an average family. I need to do well academically. There are so many starving artists, so many stories of starving artists.

Yet, the heart sang. I wanted to ignore the song, to stifle or suffocate it. It wasn’t because I didn’t like this melody. I loved it. But it was because I couldn’t afford the time or energy or money to enjoy its cadence. There were lab reports to do, research to conduct, papers to read, a new language to pick up, a Chemistry professor to placate, five students to tutor on the weekends. There were roles that had been scripted for me, that I was supposed to fit and play out accordingly. How I wish that the song could be recorded and replayed at will.

Have I allowed what I wanted to slowly wither away? Too tired to push against the circumstances, too timid to resist the expectations? I think so, I really think that part of me had went away, been lost along the way. This module – this opportunity, this gift – has reminded me that I once dreamt and ought to continue dreaming. So, thanks, thanks, Prof Lim, for radiating light and guiding us to become better people.

Ever Pulsing. Cover art by The Gentlemen's Press.