Chew Hard and Swallow
Poet offers literary analysis, personal reflection and political call to action
By Helaine L. Smith
Bite Harder: Open Letters & Close Readings
Singapore-born, New York-based poet, publisher and activist Koh Jee Leong (Steep Tea, 2015) has added essayist to his accomplishments. His tastes are eclectic and his approach generous, making him an ideal figure to introduce poets who might be insufficiently familiar to both Western and Singaporean readers; but what really gives Bite Harder: Open Letters & Close Readings its special power is its ongoing concern with the intersections of identity, poetry, and freedom. And in choosing Bite Harder as the title for these literary essays and letters of personal reflection and political urgency, Koh consciously pays tribute to -- and casts himself as the partial disciple of -- the late Malaysian-American writer and performer Justin Chin, whose 1997 verse volume Bite Hard explored his identity as a gay Asian-American artist.
Divided into four parts, the structure of Bite Harder at first appears casual. But part of Koh's art is to be found in his subtleties of connection. One of the delights of Bite Harder is the imagery of eating that runs through the volume, reminding readers, in serious and comic ways, of how to live and how to write -- biting harder into life and not being afraid to taste it all. Among the "open letters" of Part II is one that advises artists to respond to censorship on the part of the National Arts Council by not seeking funds from it. Koh boldly entitles that piece, "Stop Sucking the Teats" -- a food image if ever there was one.
"Bitter", almost a homonym for "bite", is itself a reference to taste. In "The Bitter Part: New Year Letter to Lovers of a Better Singapore", the echoing sound of "bitter" and "better" is hardly accidental. They suggest the great irony Koh sees and the great hope he cherishes: that what now is "bitter" might become "better" if we "bite harder". Speaking of Singapore's "minoritized citizens", Koh echoes James Baldwin in Notes of a Native Son, arguing that "we must hold onto our bitterness, the taste of our disappointment. It's too easy to exchange it for the sourness of cynicism." And then, as if that deeply perceptive and compelling statement were not enough, Koh adds, "When I was young, I hated to eat bitter gourd... As I grow older, I discover a growing taste for everything, including bitter gourd, because everything tastes of the world... What is bitter nourishes, too, if we chew hard and swallow it." Koh's imagery here is also his political message: exclude no one, stigmatise no experience. These qualities of heart and mind and the grace and wit of their expression are, of course, the very things that make Koh's own poetry startling, beautiful and necessary.
Part I of Bite Harder is its literary foundation. In vivid and aesthetically refined essays, Koh analyses the works of five male ethnic Chinese poets from Singapore and Malaysia, who turn out to be very different kinds of poets. As he unfurls the richness and range of their verse, what is particularly striking is Koh's chameleon-like ability to replicate their very styles. Discussing Goh Poh Seng's "Lines from Batu Ferringhi", a poem of setting and travel, Koh's analytical terms are themselves marked by the sort of subtle beauty and quietude he finds in Goh. In Yeow Kai Chai's "Memento Mori", Koh's energy in searching out every one of its possible pop-culture references replicates the near-manic energy of Yeow's poem itself, and then concludes with the sobering, utterly non-manic admonition: "A charge often leveled at experimental poetry is that it... is not about common human experience… I am concerned that in our advocacy of accessibility… we undervalue the achievements of our most interesting poets."
For those with more traditional tastes, there is the analysis of a lovely short poem by Joshua Ip called "explaining a thousand cranes". Koh quotes Ip's poem in full (would that volume length allowed him to do the same for other poets), and follows with a lengthy look at a meditative Buddhist poem by Cyril Wong called Satori Blues. Satori Blues begins: "The way is every place," and contains such lyrically evocative phrases as "Light carves my shadow into a rock" and "our minds fill with inaudible music." It is perhaps ironic that to Koh, who himself grapples with foreignness, nothing is foreign.
Last comes an examination of Justin Chin, as different from Wong in tone and content as one can be. Chin's verse is sexually graphic and physically brutal, and in it Koh finds a bedrock honesty. And it is fitting that Chin, a gay poet whose poetry fuses the personal with the political, should provide the segue to Part II of Bite Harder: essays and letters about urgent questions of freedom and repression in present-day Singapore, in which Koh honours artists who have been dishonoured or regarded dismissively. The open letters of Part II, to the uninitiated, occasionally appear repetitive; but to those affected by and engaged in the struggles Koh describes, they are each necessary.
In the latter half of the book, Bite Harder tends towards the personal. In "On Being Chinese: A Conversation with Jee Leong Koh," Koh briefly mentions his friend Pauline Park, the author of the essay "Homeward Bound: The Journey of a Transgendered Korean Adoptee"; and in "Pauline", Koh describes a casual lunch in which he and Park catch up and speak about her latest work, a story based on a painting by the French artist Antoine Watteau. This develops into a discussion of identity, authenticity and belonging, with anecdotes from both Park's and Koh's lives. At the end, Koh excerpts this passage from Park's essay:
"I bought a piano and thereby filled my little apartment with the music of my childhood and the spirits of those since lost to me. Sometimes when I play a Bach prelude, a Schubert impromptu, or a Chopin etude from my childhood or youth, the distinction between my past and present dissolves… My piano represents 'home' in its fullest sense... it is an instrument of the art of memory, a tool to be used in the archaeology of the self."
In a sense, this is what Koh does in Bite Harder: he integrates cultures and he uncovers in the art of others a collective archaeology, a shared search for identity, truth, and home -- however hard that home is to reach or define.QLRS Vol. 18 No. 1 Jan 2019