Tuesday, 15 January 2008

Emily Hasler - What Should an Anthology Be?

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.


Anonymous said...


Thanks for your views.

1. The poems weren't commissioned but they were volunteered contributions. Many of them are "finished" poems from previously published collection

2. The intention of the anthology was not necessarily to present the "cream" of Singapore poetry, but to document, in a sense, what was being written at a time. So poems were chosen that might not have gone into a BEST OF 2008 anthology, but which, in the context of the larger narrative of the book, added to the conversation

3. The book is a reflection of its times (2000). A 2010 or even 2008 edition of a similar book would show the tremendous developments that have taken place in Singapore over the years since. Yet in 2000, there was no real challenge to the traditional, decades-old canon of Singapore writing. It was an attempt to uncover a groundswell of emergent voices, many of whom have since matured along nicely

Emily said...


I take you're point. To me it is an issue of what a reader may expect from an anthology of poetry; which may, especially from this title, be more than simply 'a reflection of its times'. It is perhaps my failing that I failed to see the attempt at countering the canon but then I approached the book honestly as a newcomer hoping to discover something of Singaporean poetry. I found I was much better served by this tackling individual poets. Alvin Pang's poetry particularly I found rewarding, looking at its maturing especially.

As a side point, Singapore poetry publishers seem to pay a lot of attention to issues of typography and presentation. I find this curious and also very attractive.