By Toh Hsien Min
I'm the sort to always bring with me a few manuscripts and loose leaves of paper when I travel, but like the books that I also carry with me they have as good a chance of being barely touched by my return flight. It probably doesn't help that the books I choose have to be light but dense, as I travel in fear of running out of reading material, which of course creates the opposite problem of being a little too daunting for a holiday. Besides, if I've travelled halfway around the world, I should be properly immersing myself in the local experience rather than burying my nose in a book. The imperative to do something, see something, outruns easing into reflection.
So my last block leave over August and September was unusual in that I had gone out of my way to be somewhere with nothing to do: I did my first formal writing residency, in a small town in lakeland Finland called Sysmä, which has only slightly over four thousand people in the wider municipality and probably only a thousand or two within the recognised confines of the town itself. I had arranged this not without a little trepidation, seeing as the last time I took an extended break with the express purpose of writing my nerves quickly grew frayed by the stress of not writing. As such, my original proposal had been as much around editing my work as about primary writing. The wonderful surprise was that mornings in Villa Sarkia spent sitting at the kitchen table with a coffee and a breakfast of rye bread with jam or smoked salmon were extremely conducive to poetry, and I ended my two weeks having written a dozen poems, some of which were extended, multi-part pieces. If mornings were fertile for poetry, night-times were for experiments in fiction, especially in the sauna when, for want of anything else to focus on, my thoughts would circle around a given theme until it had a beginning, a middle and an end; and during the day there would be a combination of primary writing and editing.
The key theme of that time in Sysmä seemed to have been this: it was the simplicity of living and the lack of distractions that gave rise to the concentrated and sustained experience of writing momentum. I've never been on an overseas trip before where I've gone two weeks spending an average of twenty euros a day all in. The theatre next door was an architectural gem rather than a functioning theatre, and the nearest fine dining restaurant was probably three hours away. It wasn't difficult under those circumstances to convince myself that this was a work trip albeit for writing, which pared down my days to a simple but effective routine of breakfast + poetry, lunch + bike/hike, writing/editing + cooking dinner, sauna + prose.
And Finland is a beautiful country for a residency. During the afternoon breaks from writing, I hiked through the woods, cycled to Päijätsalo to look at Lake Päijänne and along the shores of the Majutvesi and Ala-Vehkajärvi lakes, went searching for prehistoric cupped stones and burial sites. It's not just breathing clean air, drinking straight from the lakes and gazing into skies so clear I have never seen more stars at one time. The Finns are exceptionally gracious and civilised; I do not know of any other country in the world where it is normal to park your bicycle unlocked at your destination, even in Helsinki, and I can hardly sit in a pub without falling in conversation with a local. Moreover, Finland may be the most literary country in the world; a poetry reading is attended by hundreds of people, who listen critically, and even as small a town as Sysmä can sustain a bookshop twice the size of Books Actually. What's not to like?
I suppose it's partly that experience that has drawn me this issue towards poems contemplating civilisation and social design, and I was pleased with how poems that were individually good came together with a little more flow than usual. For Short Stories, Kai Chai's half dozen is a selection from an exceptionally large crop, of which my pick would be Jeremy Tiang's nicely nuanced narrative. In Essays, chance has brought about the juxtaposition of two essays on Goh Poh Seng the poet and Goh Poh Seng the novelist. There are reviews of Claire Tham, Troy Chin and Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh, and, just ahead of the Singapore Writers Festival, interviews with Icelandic writer Sjón, speculative fictionist Ken Liu and Singapore poet Koh Jee Leong. Nauti!QLRS Vol. 12 No. 4 Oct 2013