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JOSHUA Ip is an office worker by day and a poet at night. At his most inspired, he can write a sonnet a day and has already published three collections of poetry. On top of that, the 34-year-old somehow finds the time to host writing workshops, edit anthologies, and is also the founder of Singapore Poetry Writing Month (SingPoWriMo) - a Facebook-based movement that prompts people to write a poem a day every April.
This year, SingPoWriMo drew 2,800 writers, some of whom produced poems which went viral, garnering over 500 likes and more than 100 shares. It concluded last Saturday with SingPoOnTheMRT, a poetry reading on the train.
Ip recalls the event with fondness: "Towards the end, people started singing along to a ukulele and it evolved into a mass sing-a-long," he remembers. "I was expecting to get Stomp-ed and complained about, but commuters did not run away and appreciated it!"
Live feedback loop
Ip is just one of many younger writers who are changing the way poetry is consumed, tapping on their social media savvy and the appeal of quirky pop-up events.
It's a far cry from the days when book-signing was the only kind of promotion that writers could do.
"Nowadays, literary trends are amplified by social media, and the brevity of poetry is aligned with social media - you can consume a poem on Facebook pretty fast, whereas prose demands longer attention spans," observes Ip. "In the past, writers didn't have this live feedback loop; now, people throw out their own ideas, and concepts that gain enough traction become very visible."
The MRT reading, for instance, was inspired by one of SingPoWriMo's daily prompts, which encourages the online community to pick a train station and write about it. The results were turned into an interactive map.
"The MRT prompt was the most popular day for SingPoWriMo in terms of engagement and enthusiasm," points out Ip. "I thought it was important to hold on to the momentum and positive energy - hence the MRT reading - and it's also about experimenting and seeing what sticks."
Also, noteworthy pieces from SingPoWriMo will be published as an anthology, with the costs (S$4,000) paid for through crowdfunding.
Such initiatives give budding poets a chance to experience the process of writing, from conceptualisation to publication.
"Ultimately not everybody will publish, but we want to attract a large group of aspiring writers, and to grant them some input and feedback," adds Ip. "It's a pyramid structure, and it's for sustainability."
While Ip is making poetry writing more accessible and fun for a younger generation, fellow poet Tse Hao Guang is focused on educating them. The 28-year-old is the editor of poetry.sg, a sleek Web encyclopedia of local poets.
A revamp of a dormant Nanyang Technological University project, poetry.sg attracted S$9,500 in funding from the National Arts Council last year, and it's spearheaded by a team of around 10 young poets and editors which updates it twice yearly.
Says Tse: "Academic writing about poetry is usually hidden behind paywalls, or hidden in universities, and I thought it was important to bring a critical examination of Singapore literature to the Web where anyone can access it."
He adds: "We try not to overuse jargon, and to appeal to the layman interested in poetry, so it's friendly and demystifies poetry for people - you don't need to have a PhD to understand literature!"
It's positioned as a resource for students from secondary schools and up, educators, and also foreign writers who "want to get insight into Singapore's scene", notes Tse.
"To be honest, throughout my whole education right up till university, I rarely encountered Singapore literature, and with poetry.sg there's now no excuse not to include local literature in the syllabus."
But far from focusing only on "page poetry", poetry.sg also archives "spoken word" performances - a relatively new form of punchy poetry meant to be performed live. It's a form that's fast gaining traction with millennials here. Under multimedia editor Jennifer Anne Champion, 28, the website shares videos of performances by the likes of Pooja Nansi, Cyril Wong and Deborah Emmanuel.
"Contemporary poetry is appearing globally in all sorts of media - movies, commercials and even on Beyonce's latest album," says Champion, a performance poet herself. "It's not all that surprising to see poets taking advantage of the technology."
The idea is to use popular platforms like SoundCloud and YouTube to extend the reach of poets. "People have been learning everything online, from make-up tutorials and decluttering tips to Ikea furniture hacks on YouTube - it's important poetry finds its way there too!" she adds.
Even the Singapore Writers Festival (SWF) has jumped on board. Director Yeow Kai Chai notes that the festival started deepening its cross-disciplinary approach last year, and will continue to explore new ways of engaging with text.
For instance, the latest instalment of SWF POP - its year-round pop-up programme - was Poets Among The Stars, a multimedia poetry reading held at the Science Centre's Omni-Theatre. Poets such as Christine Chia and Desmond Kon wrote pieces inspired by visuals and videos of the stars, and performed them to a synchronised visual and music display.
"We want to make literature come alive, and to show how it's exciting, creative, challenging, and thought-provoking," says Yeow. "Our assertion is that writing is the core of almost every art form - whether it's music, theatre or dance."
Participating writers for Poets Among The Stars also laud its mix of science with art. Says Loh Guan Liang: "Singapore society tends to box disciplines into discrete categories, but through this collaboration, we took one brave step out of the box."
Adds teacher and writer Christine Chia: "Many of us read widely and are interested in communicating the wonder of the universe, in a meaningful way both the layperson and the scientist will appreciate."
Such movements seem to be working, if Math Paper Press's sales figures are anything to go by. This literary press dedicates 20 out of 30 titles published per year to poetry collections, which sell an average of 800 to 1,000 copies within the year.
"We're the envy of bigger cities like London, and in the States," says founder Kenny Leck, who also runs indie bookstore BooksActually. "Even agents from publishing houses like Picador and Faber & Faber find our numbers for poetry perplexing - it's a challenge for them to even sell 1,000 copies of, say, TS Eliot a year, even though those are classics."
For Mr Leck, publishers are also responsible for creating a reading culture. "Books have to be accessible. We need more points of sales - though brick-and-mortar stores are expensive to run - or even same-day shipping for online orders. Ideally, you buy a book before 2pm, and I'll get it to you by 8pm."
That's partly why BooksActually is launching book-vending machines, an almost S$30,000 investment that's funded in part by Spring Singapore. The initiative has already made global headlines, though Mr Leck expects it'll take at least two years to break even. "It's more of a talking point, and we can do various marketing campaigns with special editions."
While they are rolling out the machines in three locations including the National Museum of Singapore, Singapore Visitor Centre at Orchard Road, and later this month, Goodman Arts Centre, the dream is to install more at train stations and bus interchanges.
Apart from Math Paper Press, Ethos Books is perhaps the only other literary press committed to publishing poetry in Singapore, pushing out around six collections a year. They have also jazzed up their book readings by collaborating with art collectives and artists.
Earlier this year, tapas bar Lepark became the unlikely venue for the launch of poet Loh Guan Liang's collection Bitter Punch, which also saw a performance from spoken-word artist Benjamin Chow.
Says associate publisher Ng Kah Gay: "As publishers, we celebrate the evolution of poetry; for poetry to stay alive, it needs to constantly renew itself, and draw young writers and readers." He observes that some new writers also ride on their existing online following. For instance, Ethos Books' 2015 title Equatorial Sunshine, by blogger Wong Su Ann, sold 700 copies, no mean feat for a debut effort.
But Mr Ng adds that "just because these individuals already enjoy a following, doesn't automatically translate into their popularity as writers. It's the accessibility and relatability of their poems that enable their voices to connect with readers."
However, serious readers may take umbrage at how poetry has gone vapid and "pop". Celebrity poets often draw young groupies who go as far as tattooing themselves with favourite verses, and sharing the results on Instagram. That's a phenomenon both publishers have observed with interest, though both agree that there's no major cause for concern.
Says Ethos Books' Mr Ng: "Rather than evaluating poetry against established standards, we are open to giving all forms of poetry a chance at survival. Diversity makes our body of literature stronger, and less susceptible to extinction."
Adds BooksActually's Mr Leck: "As with music, poetry has its Nirvanas and its Britneys - tastes will evolve and change over time. Poetry is already very hard to get into, and we really need to reach beyond the echo chamber."