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First-Hand Experience


The latest issue of the NIE student publication on Literature, enl*ght, is available at the following link. The first article, by playwright Zenda Tan, features interviews with myself and Gemma Pereira, titled "First-Hand Experience". I hope many teachers will find the ideas and experiences shared. Here's the full interview:


1. How did you start writing (poetry, or in general)? Growing up, what was your relationship with English and Literature like? Were there any teachers that helped you develop these interests?


I think the first poem I ever wrote was when I was in JC. My JC Literature tutor--the lovely Mrs Nicola Perry--peeled and cut an onion in class to illustrate a metaphor from a Carol Ann Duffy poem ('Valentine'), and she challenged us to write a poem à la Duffy. It was also around that time that my sister bought me my first anthology of poems from Borders (it had the rather grandiose title of The 100 Best Poems of All Time). Since then I've challenged myself to read and learn as many poems by heart as possible within the constraints of time and circumstance. Even during NS, I remember reciting Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’ to myself amidst the rapid rattle of bullets at the firing range, and performing William Cullen Bryant’s ‘Thanatopsis’ to my bemused army mates. Those were fun times. In general, at various points in my life, poetry has been a sanctuary in times of both crisis and celebration. It's like when Mary Oliver says that poems are "fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry". Yes.


2. Does being a poet yourself influence the way you teach poetry to your students? Do you think it has an effect on the kinds of poems that you hope to expose your students to?


Poets are generally aware that a poem is, as Kim Rosen puts it, a physical event. So I do my best to impart a sense of the rhythm and melody of poetry when reciting or performing poems in class (or better still, getting students to perform those poems). Because poetry is 'words music-ed', as Amiri Baraka says. So students need to acquire a sense of the musicality and physicality of poems (so the choice of poems is important, e.g. 'Tarantella' by Hilaire Belloc; also the activities conducted, e.g. 10-Seconds-to-Make exercises). 


Another effect might be the ethical aspect. It's like when Geoffrey Hill says that 'the shock of semantic recognition must be also a shock of ethical recognition' (to quote him loosely). So just as quite a few of my poems have been preoccupied with ethical concerns; likewise I've introduced lots of poems that provoke students' thoughts about their own ethical selves (e.g. 'Made of Gold' by Alvin Pang, about migrant workers -- so apt today).


3. Do you teach your own poetry to your students? If so, what has that experience been like?


Generally I try to avoid teaching my own poetry as a lesson in itself, lest it becomes too much of a narcissistic fawning session for students to marvel at how wonderful Mr Ow Yeong is :D But I have used my poems for lesson starters, or to model how students themselves can write. There was one year when I surprised them by including my poem as part of their holiday lesson package -- it was during the haze season, so the poem was 'Homichlophobia' (which means 'fear of haze'). It was all good fun and the students enjoyed responding to it.


4. You mention in your Q&A on your poem “Gone Viral” that your choice of poetic form was in part an “homage” and a “tribute” to Singaporean literary antecedents and the local literary culture. I believe that, for many students, and maybe even some teachers, reading your poem will be their first encounter with this poetic form. Could you share a bit more about the meaning and value of twin cinema to you, and perhaps what students can stand to gain from studying the form?


It's like what was mentioned in the MOE Facebook post: the interesting trait of ‘twin cinema’ is that it features (at least) two columns of text that can be read horizontally across both columns, but also vertically down each discrete column. So the form of the poem dramatises the dialogue between differing voices that adopt opposing perspectives. That means that it's an ideal form for exploring different points of view (which are juxtaposed side by side). I was heartened by how 'Gone Viral' brought greater attention to this form, because I'm far from the first to have used it; lots of other established writers have written outstanding twin cinema pieces. So twin cinema poems like these can inspire students to consider alternative points of view, and to deepen their empathy for others, which is so important given how -- in this polarised age, so many voices, both online and offline, can sometimes be so stridently self-assertive, so belligerently self-righteous. We can afford to be kinder, gentler, more open to different perspectives. Poetry helps us develop that capacity.


5. Do you have an established method or procedure for unpacking a poem with your students? Are there any specific practices or dispositions you feel teachers should adopt in order to best help their students study poetry?


I don't really employ any fixed method or procedure. Naturally I can understand if some teachers are fierce believers in systematic acronym-based templates for analysis (especially for writing), like SPECS and SLIMS and all that. But from my observations, these kinds of systems tend to lead to artificial and superficial discussions. It's like one lesson I once observed, in which the teacher--to my horror--distributed copies of the poem to be discussed, and said, "Now the first thing I want you to do is to highlight all the similes and metaphors." Oh goodness no. Of course the students switch off. It was like a real-life instance of the image in the Billy Collins poem 'Introduction to Poetry' (which I usually use as the first poem I introduce to my upper secondary students): "all they want to do is beat [the poem] with a hose to "find out what it really means"".


This isn't to suggest that there should be no structure. Of course we need to be rigorous in our analysis. But the questions are crucial. The very first question that students need to ask and answer should not be 'what are the techniques used in this poem'. It has to be 'what is the poem about?' Then, and only then, can we begin to discuss other important questions like "why is this happening" or "what are the feelings I can sense". Usually I begin the year by modelling think-alouds, and practising two types of annotation: conflict annotations and language annotations. Usually with pens of different colours. Then as students build confidence, they work on annotations in groups, before they take the lead and present to the rest of the class. We empower them to take charge of the text and the meaning-making process.


6. How did you help students, if any, who either disliked or struggled with the study of poetry? Or, more broadly, how do you encourage students to learn to appreciate poetry?


When I encounter students who tell me that they don't like poetry, I usually ask: 'Do you dislike all of poetry, or do you dislike the poems you've come across?' They are often confused by this. 'Cher, got difference meh?' Yes, there is a difference. It's like they've just arrived at a huge buffet, and they tell me they don't like what's on offer. Have they even tried the food? And they don't have to like everything. Most of the time, students haven't read very much poetry to begin with. So of course they dislike poems, because they completely 'catch no ball' with the few highfalutin poems they've encountered in class. Text selection is crucial. We need to start simple. It's like giving them food that they tend to like, e.g. ice cream. Start with fun poems like Craig Raine's gem of a poem -- 'A Martian Sends A Postcard Home'. Let the text direct the activity. And then, throughout the year, I share specific poems with students based on their personal interests and personalities (which demands knowing not just about poetry but about the students themselves).


7. Is there a poetry lesson you have conducted with your students that immediately stands out in your mind, and what was the lesson like?


There are many such lessons! I suppose one of them would be when I conducted a lesson on Kay Ryan's 'Turtle'. So I conducted a DART (Directed Activity Related to Text) but linked it to students' responses based on my given objective. So in the case of 'Turtle', my objective was for students to appreciate how hilarious and yet tragically accurate the poet's descriptions of the turtle were. I didn't start by giving out copies of the poem and asking them to highlight similes. Instead, I brought in a cuddly soft toy turtle (they quickly named him 'Gui Gui') and I asked them to work in pairs to come up with funny comparisons of the turtle (e.g. its shell is a bowl) -- like in Whose Line is It Anyway. Then we brought in the actual poem for the students to complete a table about the kinds of comparisons used, before they presented their findings to the rest of the class. There was focus and structure (which is critical for lessons to work). And there must be follow-up for the learning to be consolidated. So the students wrote their own verses, in the style of Kay Ryan, comparing other animals to various other objects and scenes. And we published those verses in the school arts magazine. The students had so much fun and they learnt so much about style and imagery.


8. Do you have any tips or pieces of advice for teachers who want to teach your poems to their students? Are there any particular features/qualities of your writing that you hope will be teased out in the classroom?


I wouldn't presumptuously assume that I can dictate any tips or advice per se! Once a poem (or any text) is out of the writer’s hands, it enters the world like a newborn, with a life of its own. But of course I'd be heartened if any teachers would like to use my poems for lessons. It'd be helpful to let the planning derive from the poem itself. There was one lesson by Mr Ebby Adukkalil of GEMS World Academy who cut out lines from the poem 'Gone Viral' and had his students work in groups to piece the lines together like a jigsaw puzzle. So students gained a much keener appreciation of how different perspectives worked in the poem by thinking about which side the lines belonged to etc. I thought it was brilliant. Because the process of meaning-making is like assembling a puzzle, a game played between the reader, the text, and the larger interpretative community.


9. Your prose-poem “In Memoriam: Dust”, which was written in response to Burmese artist Min Thein Sung’s Time: Dust series, is an example of how poetry can be zany, effervescent, and welcoming. Do you have any advice for teachers who are intimidated by the genre? Were there specific works that helped you develop a more comfortable relationship with poetry?


I'm a little wary of the word 'comfortable', because one key role of poetry is to move us and make us feel a healthy sense of discomfort. But starting with poems you like can be helpful. And guides to poetry are indispensable. So I have returned to Mary Oliver's A Poetry Handbook repeatedly, and it has never failed me. Also now there are so many guides on the market; we are spoilt for choice. I wish I had these to read years ago. Like Gwee Li Sui's Fear No Poetry. Also Teaching Poetry to Adolescents by Chin Ee et al. Local Anesthetic by Pooja Nansi and Erin Woodford. ku-lit by Dennis Yeo et al. Sense and Sensitivity by Suzanne Choo and Robert Yeo. Just start reading. Getting to know poetry is like building a lifelong relationship. It takes time, effort, and patience. But you will be richly rewarded.

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