No Other City: The Ethos Anthology of Urban Poetry. ed. Alvin Pang and Aaron Lee. Singapore: Ethos Books, 2000.
“Don’t say anything at all,” was my first response, since I had nothing nice to say about this collection. And anyway, what could I have to say about Singaporean poetry as I sat reading this anthology of urban poetry, an attempt to render the city-state of Singapore, while I was holed up in a cottage in Snowdonia. The poems are by professional and amateur poets, commissioned by the editors as a communal project, a building and cementing process.
The foreword describes the peculiarity of living in Singapore, its claustrophobia, and the need for a special poetry that addresses this, what the introduction describes as “a handle on life”. This is actually best depicted in some beautiful prose that makes up the afterword, rendering what rests between these two bookends – that is the poems – pointless since the poems themselves don’t have much to offer. There are good poems here, but overall the quality left me feeling frustrated as I trudged from one end to the other.
I decided what went wrong here was the decision to make such an anthology in the first place. It is hard to criticise what strikes me as an essentially worthy idea, to promote Singaporean poetry and raise awareness of established poets and give amateurs encouragement. However, when I pick up an anthology I do so for a particular reason. I want to be able to flick to any page and find a poem that is interesting on its own and also in the context of the collection.
Readers expect an anthology to contain the cream, the very best. If they enjoy what they are presented with in the anthology they are then persuaded to approach other poems. If an anthology that claims to contain the poetry of a certain place, culture or group doesn’t display consistently engaging and well-crafted poetry then it risks putting a reader off from the moment of initial contact, ultimately alienating them altogether. Perhaps the only way of avoiding this is to collect finished poems rather than commissioning. This not only ensures the quality will be high but means that the falsity inherent in a planned out project for poetry – an approach that becomes wish-fulfilment rather than a true reflection of the poetic scene – is evaded. An anthology of urban poetry from Singapore along these lines would convey the vibrant and varying nature of the city and its poetry far better.