My Poetry And Me

Poet and academic Dr Kirpal Singh says he has never been afraid to say what he feels and thinks

11/2/2016 4:52:57 PM
written By : Nithya Subramanian Print

Outspoken and respected, Dr Kirpal Singh, is one of  Singapore’s pioneering poets who chose to make a career in writing and teaching literature at a time when these were  considered ‘girls’ subjects.’

Walking off the beaten track, Singh narrates an interesting anecdote that led him to be a writer. “Growing up in a village in Batu Gajah, Malaya with my grandma one Sunday, when I was dressed in my best, I met an Englishman, a George Orwell type of character with a topi, cane in hand. He stopped and tickled my nose with his cane and said, ‘How are you my boy?’ Something got me. Much later, I had a chance to speak at the House of Lords, and I thought to myself that I had come a long way to master English.”

His tryst with writing poetry began in school when he was asked to write a composition on ‘My Teacher’. He decided to write a poem and his debut got him into trouble. “The lines were something like this - My teacher is Miss Lao, her face is like tau sar pau… (red bean bun)… I thought it was a nice beginning, but she got upset with me… it was a case of total misunderstanding, because I loved eating this sweet bun, but she thought I was trying to call her round and fat, so I can say that I learnt my lesson early on,” chuckles Singh

Through his school days at Raffles Institution in the 1960s, Singh was a budding editor, collating the works of Singapore writers and publishing Singapore Pot-pourri (1970). As an undergraduate, Singh continued to push the Singapore writing agenda, publishing Articulations, an anthology of seven rising poets in 1972.

During his days at the National University of Singapore, he was influenced by Singapore literary icons Lee Tzu Pheng and Edwin Thumboo. Today he is an internationally renowned  poet with more than four collections to his credit. His  poems have received global attention and been the subject of class-room teaching, scholarly criticism and literary acclaim. A regular at various literary fests, the  68-year-old is sought by many universities and literary organisations to conduct Creative Writing workshops/classes/seminars. Currently he is the Director of the Wee Kim Wee Centre at the Singapore Management University where he also teaches Creative Writing. His next collection, scheduled for 2017, is titled Nestled Dreams.

Born to a Sikh father and a Jewish-Scottish mother in Singapore in 1949, the author has been a great mentor to India Se’s 1st Asian Women Writers Festival (AWWF) held in July this year. Singh was, as usual, at his sharp and witty best in an exclusive interview with the magazine.

India Se: The most debated topic these days is Bob Dylan’s winning the Nobel Prize in Literature. What are your views as a poet and a literature teacher?

Dr Kirpal Singh: Ever since I came into contact with his work when I was young, I have admired his words. In fact, many years ago, the New Paper did  a large article on Michael Jackson as a poet and I  said, ‘Yes, some of his lyrics could be poems,’ though some of my colleagues thought I was as usual provocative. But the Nobel prize committee should be commended because they are breaking boundaries. This  opens the appeal of literature to a wider spectrum. 

I think it is niggardly to quibble over whether  Dylan can compete with (Haruki) Murakami and others. They will have their time. I think Dylan deserves it, because he changed the sensibility of millions of people around the world. How often we have broken into ‘The times, they are a-changin’ without knowing who the composer is. It’s almost like quoting Shakespeare or something from the Bible or the Gita. In that way I’d say, ‘Well done’!

India Se: In that case, can we expect a rapper to be a winner in future?

Dr Kirpal Singh: Why not? If a rapper produces a work that is highly regarded by those who judge, if the intention is to ‘heal’ rather than just to be naughty, cheeky, provocative or perverse, why not?   The problem with rappers is that very often they are seen to be perverse in a way Dylan never was. .  If a rapper reaches a stage where he is contributing to the greater good of mankind, and millions of people are experiencing the impact of the rapper, I don’t see why, in principle, the prize cannot be given to the rapper. I know I’m on the edge on this one.

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