Voices of Bettering American Poetry 2015 — Jee Leong Koh
Who would you have nominated for this anthology? Is there a poem you have in mind that you could link to?
I am a longtime fan of R. Nemo Hill. He has many poetic gifts, an alluring ability to tell compelling stories, a great ear for the music of verse, a keen eye for the right detail, a sharp nose for bullshit, a sure feeling for living form, but he has not received the recognition that he deserves. There are many reasons for this, I think. He lives out on Long Island, but even when he used to live in New York City, he did not pander to others for attention. He does not write about hot-button issues, but on permanent themes. His enviable skill with meter and rhyme is unfashionable. He is also old, not a sweet young thing, who can be touted as some magazine editor’s or prize judge’s discovery. How many awards are given in this country for a first book? And how many awards are given in this country for a third or fourth or fifth book? The whole system is like a series of escalators. You win a Whiting or Discovery/Boston Review award and you are on your way to a prestigious first-book prize. If you don’t fuck up, like post a homophobic tweet or criticize a bigwig editor, you start to accumulate awards, because awarders like to give awards to much-awarded awardees, since everyone is proven right. But what if you do not get on the first escalator? What if you turn your back on the whole shopping mall? Nemo does not do malls. In fact, he sells scarves that he dyes in his own backyard, and chases craft fairs all over the country, in order to make a living. He does not have the time, nor the inclination, to attend the AWP conference. He has always done what he wants, instead of playing by the rules. His independence gives his poetry its pristine quality, as is beautifully manifested in his great poem “For a Gardener.”
What would you like to see change in the literary world, or how would you “Better” American poetry?
The literary world is a very big place and American poetry a very big beast, so it’d be presumptuous of me to try to “better” American poetry. If I have any suggestions for American poets, it is to read contemporary poets from other parts of the world. And I don’t mean Ireland, England, or France. We know the classics, the Bhagavad Gita, the Tang dynasty poets, the triumvirate of haiku greats, the old Sufi and ghazal singers, the twentieth-century Eastern European and Russian cloud of witnesses, the Latin American revolutionaries, but we don’t know what the current Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, Polish, Russian, and Chilean poets are writing, let alone the current poets from Singapore, Benin, and New Zealand. If they don’t write in English, ask for translations. Journals such as Asymptote and Modern Poetry in Translation are great places to start. We could read a book by a living non-American for every American book we read. That would still tilt too much towards America, but it is a start.
VIDA has recently expanded their annual count to include race, LGBTQ+ identity, and ability, using self-identification surveys to collect some of this data. What are your feelings toward self-identification in author bios? Do you feel editors and readers approach your work through a lens that you don’t control?
When my publisher asked me for a back-cover description of my book Steep Tea (from which my poem in Bettering American Literature is taken), I wrote that Jee Leong Koh was a “postcolonial queer poet.” A number of friends took my publisher to task for applying that label to me when actually I wrote it. I guess they thought that the label was limiting, but I didn’t think so, still don’t. The poems in Steep Tea do speak about my postcolonial and queer experience as a gay Singaporean living in New York City. Furthermore, my self-identification was deliberately political. I knew people back home would be pleased and proud that a Singaporean was being published by the esteemed UK publisher Carcanet Press. I wanted people to know, even if they don’t open the book, that this Singaporean is proudly gay. The anti-sodomy law, an inheritance from the British, is still on the books, and the LGBT community in Singapore still faces all kinds of discrimination and prejudice. If the country wishes to embrace my book, it will have to embrace my sexuality.
I also self-identify as postcolonial for political reasons. Not only do I wish to assert my independence against the British empire of letters, I also want to protest the neo-colonial apparatuses of oppression inherited and exercised by the Singaporean state. These apparatuses include not only the anti-sodomy law, but also state control of the press, and detention without trial. Formal colonialism is over but its tutelage remains strong in the minds of the governing class. Singaporeans are still struggling against the long shadow of colonialism. This is not to mention our vulnerability to American political and cultural imperialism.
So, in short, self-identification for me is never merely personal, but always also political. I may self-identify differently in different situations, but I’m not contradicting myself nor changing my mind. I’m, instead, responding to the political exigencies of that situation. For this anthology, which aims so idealistically to make American poetry better, I identify as a Singaporean in the hope of expanding the definition of American poetry. A Singaporean poet, grateful and horrified by life in the United States of America, can write American poetry too.
JEE LEONG KOH is the author of four books of poems and a book of poetic essays. His latest book of poems Steep Tea (Carcanet) was named a Best Book of 2015 by UK’s Financial Times, and a Finalist of the Lambda Literary Awards. His work has been translated into Japanese, Chinese, and Russian. Originally from Singapore, Jee lives in New York City.
This interview series is conducted with authors from the anthology, Bettering American Poetry 2015. As Bettering’s editors wrote in their call for nominations, “Our efforts will intentionally shift favor so that the literary landscape within this anthology reflects a ranging plurality of voices in American poetry and illuminates the possibilities of sharing space … This anthology represents just one concerted effort to better American poetry, but it is one that we hope will resonate.”
Bettering has sought to delve deeper with the poets selected for the anthology. These questions are composed collectively by the editors, with the belief that the literary community needs a polyphony not only of poems but of poets’ voices.