Why Singapore writers are largely unknown abroad

From poetry, photography and songwriting, to being the co-founder of culture magazine Mackerel, this multi-hyphenated spoken word poetry veteran has his fingers in many pies. Marc Nair is also one of the most prolific young poets in Singapore, and has represented the country at international arts events in cities like London, Amsterdam and elsewhere. He recently completed a writing residency at Gardens by the Bay and is launching his seventh book, Spomenik, a collection of poems and photographs from the Balkans, in March. 

My childhood was in the 1980s, which was the turning point of Singapore’s transformation into a metropolis.

The first significant experience I’ve had with poetry was learning nursery rhymes from my mother. And later on, memorizing and reciting the whole book back at her. I must have been all of four years old.

I often feel that I live in a country where fewer and fewer people actively read. We face a disparity between a very high rate of literacy and an equally high rate of disinterest in literature. It doesn’t help that many schools have dropped literature as a serious subject, and get “vendors” instead to teach students how to write a poem in two hours.

This attitude of treating words as an addendum after core subjects like Math and Science persists into adulthood. That’s why so many people automatically associate poetry as “cheem,” or difficult, when they simply haven’t been given the right tools to understand it.

I write about many things: quirky commentary on popular culture, observations on the road but also about things that are very local and contemporary.

[Singaporean writers] are largely unknown abroad, to be honest. I think a few writers do get taught in schools, or make their way occasionally onto the syllabus at Western universities, but because we don’t have agents. We rely on the limited distribution networks of our publishers, and often, we just don’t have the connections or weight to break into more established markets overseas.

The book which I produced from my residency at Gardens by the Bay was something I had to come up with in six months! It was a little stressful for me, as I like to have space to think about whatever I write. The work that has emerged out of that residency constantly negotiates between this amalgamation of natural and constructed beauty. I see it being analogous to Singapore.

We are a garden city after all, but the garden is very much manicured in the shape of our economic desires. And from that unlikely marriage, a number of poems that tackle issues of identity, language, culture and nature have emerged. It might only be published in 2017 though.

I write differently for page and for stage. For stage, the voice is as important as the text. While page poems do have a poetic voice, there are nuances of pace, tone, volume and emotion that enter into spoken word or slam poetry. And slam was where I got my start and found my first audience; so performing poetry will always be an integral part of my practice.

Poetry, especially local poetry, doesn’t often feature on the to-do lists of people here. But Singapore seems to have birthed more poets than novelists, so perhaps we aren’t the minority genre. Nevertheless, Singapore literature isn’t something that is the topic of many dinner conversations, and when I tell people I write poetry, they often remark that I’m the first poet they’ve ever met in their lives. I’m not entirely sure if I should be flattered or saddened about that.

When it comes to the relationship between artists and state funding, I think you have to deal with the cards you’re given. I have writer friends in Indonesia and the Philippines who stand no chance of getting any state funding to publish and struggle to work on their own. But then they don’t have to worry about censorship either.

If you want state funding, you have to play by the rules. If you want to walk your own path, don’t take someone else’s money then turn around and whine when things don’t work out. But honestly, I do think more state funding should be directed towards building new audiences. We can do so much more to engender a love for reading in our people.