The Singaporean published poet talks all things poetry, religion and the queer scene of her city
BY YAIZA CANOPOLI
Singaporean poet and artist Marylyn Tan made the news in August last year with a historic win. Not only is she the first woman to win the Singapore Literature Prize for English poetry, but her collection is also provocative, boldly queer and occasionally sacreligious. DIVA had a chat with the witchy writer to discuss poetry, religion and the queer arts scene in Singapore.
DIVA: You recently won the Singapore Literature Prize for English poetry (congrats!). What does it feel like to be the first woman to achieve this?
MARYLYN TAN: Thank you! I feel as if it’s been a long time coming, but is at the same time symptomatic of a larger shift within the current climate of Singapore, our relationship to literature, and politics all over the world. Time to celebrate occultist dykes and dismantle the patriarchy one poem at a time, I’m assuming!
How did you celebrate your big win?
I had a large argument and a bunch of people I barely knew asking me ‘how to publish a book’. I also took my parents out for dinner because Lorde knows they’ve suffered enough.
What do you think drew the judges to your book?
Kai Chai has this absolutely generous statement in which he says: “Gaze Back is unlike any other poetry title this year—a clarion call for gender and linguistic reclamation, searing in its sassy confidence and universal appetite. It reminds us of the responsibility of poetry to confront and contest the power of language to determine who we are and what we desire.” So, something to do with my voluptuous scale of ambition and willingness to decapitate language?
You’ve stated in the past that you wrote Gaze Back for yourself and for other queer and marginalised women, because you believe that we need to “write for each other” as no one else will write for us. Do you feel that writing brings you closer to your community?
I am absolutely socially awkward and would have a very unpleasant time making friends in the community otherwise, so I don’t just think that writing and creating brings me closer to a queer or artistic community, it is pretty much the only line I have to community.
You’ve talked in previous interviews about how your family doesn’t approve of some of the themes you explore in your writing. What was their reaction to the prize?
Momma loves a winner. But for real, even though my parents have attempted to shew me towards wholesomeness or a more palatable aesthetics, they’ve been very supportive of what they don’t understand.
Many of your poems tackle religion head-on. You even go so far as to reimagine Jesus as a young girl walking home late at night, a victim of the male gaze. How did you first come up with this image?
I may have been thinking about something I read once in the Catholic News, a long time ago, which said “Catholicism is a sensual religion.” And that line just lodged in me—in my flesh, you might say—wherein I began thinking about my work with embodiment and what it means to have a subjugated body, in parallel to a religion that centres around one horrific episode of someone’s body being brutalised to death.
You said in a previous interview that your religious upbringing influenced your writing, making it more poetic. Are there certain moments when you look at your writing and can see the hymns and psalms poking through?
I still can’t write a rhyming couplet without it sounding like an old-fashioned prayer, so yes. I’m obsessed with tearing apart the hymnal book and seeing what new and improved collaged spells we can make from it.
You position yourself as a witch in Gaze Back, the book being your grimoire. How do you hope that it inspires its readers?
I hope it tears you from your trauma. I hope it helps you remember your body and what it needs. I hope it reminds you to take pleasure seriously. And I hope it helps us all step away from being complicit in oppression.
You revealed in the past that your publisher, Ethos Books, was reluctant to take on your book at first, deeming it vulgar and risky. Seeing how well the book has done since, do you think they’ll be encouraged to take more risks in the future?
Ethos has traditionally taken risks in publishing, because they believe in the merit of a story, not its saleability, I think. But maybe we’re widening the parameters of what’s considered too vulgar and obscene to be of artistic merit? Kicking down the door for other experimental young femme poets? That was my hope for the book, anyway.
What has the international reception of Gaze Back been like? Has winning the Singapore Literature Prize magnified your book for readers in other countries?
I’ve been very lucky in that international writing organisations like Asian American Writers’ Workshop and Singapore Unbound have reviewed my book, as well as it having been shortlisted at the Lambda Literary Awards in 2019, but that’s all been pre-SLP. I’d love to bring my book to a more international audience, but I don’t know how.
Despite Section 377A still being in place, Singapore’s literary scene is remarkably queer. Why do you think this is and how do you think you fit into this scene? Where does Gaze Back stand in the SingLit canon?
I’m taking a wild guess that (a) it’s a lot harder to censor poetry as an art, which it’s why it’s always been the voice of insurrection, and (b) poetry is just a generally very homo thing to do. It is. Sorry to the straights, I don’t make the rules. All that yearning? Gay. Cunning wordplay and metaphors upon metaphors in order to talk about something without talking about something? Ultra-super-gay. Besides my friend and publisher calling me a ‘goth poetess priestess,’ I’m just the dyke letting a stream of Gay Content(™) trickle through me from the endless reservoir of shitposts I’m holding back. If a canon is a body, Gaze Back is the little skin wart dangling from the nipple of the SingLit canon body, frightening and arousing whomsoever it might meet in the confessional booth.
Which is your favourite poem in Gaze Back and why?
It’s got to be Cursing the Fig Tree, because I feel like it really represents who I am as a person. Long-winded, four-parter, extremely Catholic, and sacrilegious.
What are you working on now? Will you keep exploring similar themes and ideas in the future?
If I tell you, it’ll be a lie, because I have strict rules about disclosing pregnant projects that haven’t come to fruition yet. But I’m most excited about having newly founded my art collective, dis/content (instagram.com/hellodiscontent), which purports to create a space for interdisciplinary, collaborative art. We’re working towards a showcase for February, and we have ceremonial rituals, linguistic experiments, object-oriented ontology, and collective dreaming in the mix. Come play.
Finally, can you recommend a poetry collection and/or a prose work for people who loved Gaze Back and want to read something similar?
I really loved Andy Tubig’s They Placed A Shrike Inside My Ear, as well as Georges Bataille’s Story Of The Eye, which influenced Gaze Back in its treatment of obscenity and the scatalogical/perverse.
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