Poet Of The Week

Rachel Kuanneng Lee

     February 8–14, 2021

Rachel Kuanneng Lee is a Singaporean poet. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in journals including Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, wildness, trampset and carte blanche and appears in the Live Canon 2020 Anthology as a shortlisted finalist in the Live Canon 2020 International Poetry Competition. She is also cofounder of a data science startup and hopes that someday, she might be able to avoid using each of her career choices as reason to procrastinate doing work for the other, even if today is not quite that day. This past fall, Lee was named a Brooklyn Poets Fellow for study in Natalie Eilbert’s MFA Application Bootcamp.

Place Name: Bishan
          after Kei Miller

pronounced bee-shun, from the Mandarin 碧山, from the original name 碧山亭, which points to a pavilion on a green mountain. I could tell you it is green as in jade-green, in the ornamental stone so treasured and worn. It was for nobility and immortality that some buried their dead in suits of jade, and the lesser adorned themselves with a bangle to the wrist, an inch-long cutout hung around the neck. If you will, consider the word ‘country’ (国), which is the word ‘jade’ (玉), surrounded by a wall of us who protect the jade that protects us. So, when they begin to ship the jade out on their own accord, perhaps the green becomes a sea-green. As in the sloshing crests and troughs that spilled over my ancestors on their way to this new shore. As in the color their faces turned when the teakwood junks bounced along the waves. In time, this passed into Islam’s paradise-green, greeting them when they first found themselves moored to this feverish port-town on the foot of the Malayan Peninsula. They would’ve seen a forest-green, a moss-green of the tropical sort. Into this, they gladly enfolded. Did Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles of the British East India Company, when he later arrived, think how lucky he was that our wilderness did not bite back? That the Singapore River is short and straight? That, in the intervening years, no creeper of resentment then snaked around the native heart? Here—let me paint you the better picture of colonialism they’d hoped to see but couldn’t ask for in review. A picture wherein, a century and a half later, when the green beneath the pavilions is trampled by the green of army fatigues under the standard of the rising sun, we still believed that they would save us. A diptych wherein a green poet writes and she writes in the language of her colonizer, believing herself to be the master. A triptych wherein two centuries have passed and our institutions hold fast to the copper-green glory of the Raffles name. But it is none of these greens that is the green of Bishan, which is a softer, gentler green. This is the same green of the pasture in which my British lords’ Lord will lead them to lie. And though there are, in truth, a want of mountains in this land, my people, too, dreamed of laying their kin to rest in lush fields of green.

—Originally published in the Live Canon 2020 Anthology.

Brooklyn Poets · Rachel Kuanneng Lee, "Place Name: Bishan"

Tell us about the making of this poem.

This poem was written based on an assignment from the very first poetry writing course I have ever taken—“Coming from Where I’m from” with Rachel Long via Spread the Word (a writers network out of London). The course was designed around writing poetry about and through place. As part of the final assignment, we looked at Kei Miller’s “Place Name: Oracabessa—,” which this poem is written after.

Rachel’s instructions were to hone in on a district we grew up in, to try to be specific, and to look into the etymology and the history of its naming. I’d known for some time that large swathes of Bishan, where I grew up, were burial grounds but through the assignment, I found out that the name itself comes from the Mandarin 碧山亭, which is a euphemistic reference for cemeteries in Cantonese. The euphemistic name directly translates to “green mountain pavilion” and I was very drawn to the lushness of that image. And so I took reference from “Place Name: Oracabessa—,” which looks at the gold in Oracabessa’s history and wrote about the greens in my country’s history.

What are you working on right now?

On a collection that centers my experiences in South Korea. I studied Korean for about two years, then moved there to chase dreams of becoming a translator. That didn’t quite work out and I’ll put this in the words of a Korean teacher who really looked out for me while I was there: she said, in the kindest way possible, “Rachel, it’s your choice, but I don’t think it’d be easy for you to live in Korea with your personality.”

Succinctly put, the values I prize and prioritize are different from the ones generally valued in Korean culture. And over time, this resulted in a greater and greater sense of alienation—a theme that features a lot in the collection. More broadly, I’m working on articulating the profound impact living there has had on my psyche, both through and apart from the collection. 

What’s a good day for you?

I don’t really have good (or bad) days because a day seems like a very long unit of time!

I’m in a good place when I get to do the things I enjoy without any pressure whatsoever to be good or proficient at them. I recently started picking up skateboarding and Latin. I’ve been trying for weeks to do a good manual (at this point, even a bad one will do) and I still have to keep one tab open to remind me how to decline even first and second declension nouns but it’s wonderful that literally nothing depends on my being good at these things. Spending time pursuing things like a true amateur—that makes for a good day.

Where’s home for you? How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other places you’ve lived?

I’m back in Singapore now. I’ve been here a good part of my life. It’s hard for me to talk about what I like here without sounding superficial because I’ve always felt a sense of belonging and attachment to the people I love, rather than to this country or this place. I’d end up telling you what’s good or admirable about the country (healthcare, the public transportation system, how I can leave my laptop at a café and go to the bathroom and it’ll still be there when I get back … ) rather than what I like about it. And then I’d be battling with myself, thinking maybe I should love it more.

I think people are becoming more vocal and our civil society is gradually becoming more robust. It doesn’t feel like enough because we still have laws that make sex between two consenting men illegal and just two weeks ago a trans student spoke about how her school prevented her from accessing the drugs she needed to transition. People are fighting and speaking up against these issues but the rhetoric in parliament remains the same, so I often wonder if I’m in an echo chamber.

As to how it compares … truthfully? It compares just as well to many other cities in the world. There are things that are run well, and others that require so much improvement. The real difference is that I am much less forgiving of the flaws of Singapore than I am of the other places I’ve lived. And perhaps, in some twisted way, that’s when I know a place is home—when I can criticize it publicly knowing no one can say to me, “You don’t know the real Singapore; you don’t belong here.”

Spent any time in Brooklyn? If so, when and where? Share with us your experiences, impressions, etc.

No, I’ve not spent any time in Brooklyn. I found Brooklyn Poets through my search online for poetry courses.

What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that where you live? Why or why not?

I’m in this poetry group that was born out of a poetry class I took last year. We’re a group of six. We take turns to host each month. When we meet (over Zoom), we talk about what’s happening in our lives and we workshop the poems we’ve written based on the prompt the host provides at the start of the month. We’ve never met physically and everyone is based in various time zones (they’re largely spread across North America). We’re in such different stages of life and of career, but somehow we make time and we make space for our selves and our poetry each month. Our poetry evolves, maybe patterns start to emerge—and we witness that and nudge each other into growth. That’s what a poetry community has been for me thus far.

I haven’t found this where I live physically. I actually only started writing poetry a year and a half ago. I started wanting to attend classes precisely when the pandemic hit, and everything started going online. In some ways, I feel like my poetry journey was built on the pandemic. There aren’t many adult poetry classes in Singapore, either physically or virtually. And if the pandemic hadn’t happened, I don’t think I would’ve had access to most of the classes I ended up attending in 2020, which is mainly how I’ve experienced community.

I am … wildly thankful for what I have now. It scares me a little, when I think about the counterfactual in which the pandemic does not happen, and the world is not thrown into this terrible state, but also in which I likely lose this poetry journey.

Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.

This is horribly embarrassing, given that I’m writing this for Brooklyn Poets (and I considered Googling and working backwards to an answer) but I don’t have any idea at all where most poets hail from. If they don’t stay in Brooklyn anymore … do they still count as Brooklyn poets? What about if they grew up somewhere else but made their career in Brooklyn?

Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?

I only started attending poetry writing classes about a year ago and haven’t had any long-term mentors yet. That’s why I applied for the Brooklyn Poets Mentorship Program with Jay Deshpande, but that just started earlier this year! In the last year, I’ve attended online and asynchronous classes with Rachel Long, Megan Fernandes, Tatiana Johnson-Boria and Natalie Eilbert. And while I’ve learnt different things from each class, I think the greatest thing they’ve all done is to convince me that I can write poetry.

I also have to give credit to my high school English literature teacher Donald Whitby, even though he taught critical analysis and not creative writing. The curriculum for our year covered twentieth-century literature and I still carry a lot of Wilfred Owen around in me today. I think that’s quite a feat—getting a teenage girl who’d never experienced war to understand to some measure not just its visceral horrors, but the alienation, the psychological isolation of the soldier returning from it. Of course, Owen was masterful in his own right, but if I know anything about the craft of poetry now, I have Donald Whitby to thank—for having spent that many hours a week getting us to analyze the effects of all those literary techniques. He used to joke that it was like pulling teeth.

Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.

Kaveh Akbar’s “Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Inpatient).” I just read it last Saturday at breakfast and was struck by how much I recognize myself in the speaker, especially the idea of trying to name one’s flaws in an attempt to seek resolution but holding it so close to oneself that the two become indistinguishable.

It reminds me also of the constant commitment I have to myself to approach poetry and community with openness, tenderness and kindness. I have baked in me the same coldness Akbar’s speaker tells of but with practice, I am hopeful that I can change this.

What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?

I’ve had Ulysses on my shelf since high school. One of my literature teachers then mentioned it in passing. He said something about the sex bits and made stream of consciousness sound fascinating. I haven’t even tried to read it again in recent years. Maybe I will once I’m done with these questions!

Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?

These days, I read several at a time, but usually only one from each category. For example, right now I’m reading Cathy Park Hong’s Engine Empire for poetry, Kikuko Tsumura’s There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job for fiction and Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s World of Wonders for nonfiction.

It sounds ridiculous now, but I spent many years barely reading for leisure because I felt betrayed by a bad English literature grade in my A-level exams. It took me ten years to undo the damage of my teenage stupidity and a grades-focused education. Now I am constantly struck by how much I have not read and the feeling that I have so much catching up to do, which means I have lists and lists of books I want to read. I try to plan it out in advance, but if I manage to borrow something from the library, I only get it for three weeks, so it has to take priority over the books I’ve purchased or the ones I have access to on Scribd.

I like the feel, smell and familiarity of physical books but I can’t deny the portability of digital texts. One e-reader or tablet is definitely lighter than three physical books.

Generally, I am not a note-taker, although I do have some notes in the margins of my copy of Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist—one of our first English literature texts from middle school. Beside the sentence “He told himself he would have to start reading thicker books: they lasted longer, and made more comfortable pillows,” I confidently wrote “likes to read” in ink.

What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
A lot of my poems are brought along by narrative and logic, even when I’ve tried to move them forward by sound or image. I don’t think I’ve ever written something that made people go, “I have no idea what you’re doing here and/but … ” So I’d like to try that.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?

I am not particular about location, but if I’m serious about doing either of those things, I prefer reading and writing without any companions present. Otherwise they tend to want to talk to me, or I to them!

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate the skin on my knees,

And what I have left you will get tomorrow,

For every cell on me as good as a sacrifice withheld from you.

Why Brooklyn?

If you’re Brooklyn-based and you make friends with me, I promise you I’ll go straight there and find out once we get to travel again!