On The Inside Of Life – Alvin Pang

This is a column by Vinita Agrawal. 

   “Truly, he said, it is what we love that gives us our names.”

                                                                –  Alvin Pang, What Gives Our Names 

Alvin Pang, has a first class honors degree in English Literature from the University Of York. A Fellow in Writing from the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program (2002), he is listed in the second edition of The Oxford Companion to Modern Poetry in English (Oxford University Press, 2013). A poet, writer, editor and translator, he is active in literary practice both in Singapore and internationally, with over a dozen books to his name.  He appears regularly in major festivals and publications worldwide. Among many engagements, he is editor in chief of a public policy journal, Ethos, and teaches creative writing at Yale-NUS College. His publications include City of Rain (2003), Over There: Poems from Singapore and Australia (co-edited with John Kinsella, 2008),  Tumasik: Contemporary Writing from Singapore (Autumn Hill, 2010), What Gives Us Our Names (Math Paper Press, 2011), Other Things and Other Poems (Brutal, Croatia: 2012), and When The Barbarians Arrive (Arc Publications, 2012), a volume of new and selected poems, published by Arc (UK). His contemplative and ruminative poetry has touched readers across the world over. His award winning poems have been translated into over fifteen language and featured in publications such as The Wolf (UK), English Review (UK), Salt (Australia), Paper Tiger (Australia), Australian Poetry Journal and Washington Square Review (USA).  In 2005, he was Singapore’s Young Artist of the Year for Literature. Through his passion for encouraging new writers, he created The Literary Centre (Singapore), a not-for-profit organization dedicated to literary development and positive social change.   His first volume of poems, Testing the Silence (Ethos Books, 1997), was listed as one of the Top Ten Books of 1997 by The Straits Times and was short listed for the National Book Development Council of Singapore (NBDCS) Book Award in 1998/9. City of Rain (Ethos Books, 2003), his second volume of poetry, was the only Singaporean book to be named to the Straits Times Top Ten List for 2003.

Born and brought up in Singapore, Pang’s poems attempt to explore the  psychological, emotional, and political contours of his country, seeking a new urban paradigm free of the classic, rural nostalgia characterizing most literature up until a point in time. He is a self confessed, “restless, easily distracted city person, who wants it all” and the parenthesis of humanity that such an upbringing nurtures is, and bound to be, distinct from an upbringing in surroundings vastly opposite in nature. Pang’s second book titled, City of Rain is an endeavor to define the roots to which he belongs.

Pang was an only child till he was 9. So he took to scribbling short stories at an early age. He first encountered formal poetry in the secondary school literature class at age 12-13 when the class was asked to compare two poems about the seas.

He admires authors like Murakami for profiling the Asian urban male psyche and Jim Crace “for his ability to write very different books, all of which are good in their own unique way.”

One of Pang’s most renowned poems, “Candles,” takes the form of a skit, writing in Singlish ( distinctive street patois of English infused with the grammar and diction of other, mostly Asian, tongues). It was inspired by his father’s childhood in postwar Singapore—his family was so poor that he took candles from the nearby church and read and studied by its light. The image is a milieu far removed from the typical affluent reality but for Pang, the write carried ” the heft of familial intimacy and the force of a good story.” – an opportunity to retell his father’s story before his world is forgotten.  Here is an extract from the poem:

oi, ah pa know you take candle from the church again, you going to get it.

nevermind i bring them back when you study finish. you dont say he dont know. so dark how to read, how to study?

got moon tonight can see a bit. ah leong house got light, i use mirror can borrow a bit of light. good enough. candle you bring back. i dont want wait get scolding because of you.

i bring all the way home you ask me to bring back for what? anyway tonight good fridaychurch got so many candles they where got notice nine less?

notice dont notice also wrong. you bring them back.


dont want.

go now. late already, wait ah pa come home you die.

dont want. wait the sisters see me bring back so many candles they know i took them.

just say you give them to baby jesus lor.

so stupid, baby jesus is christmas lah. good friday is dead jesus!

For a while now, Singapore has been a topic of discussion vis-a-vis its censorship policies and  curtailment of the freedom of expression. In Pang’s opinion,  the situation is “not quire as dire as all that – we’re not talking about people being put in jail to rot for their beautiful but politically incorrect poems. ” Pang has expressed views that the impact of censorship “has mostly been on issues of sexual  or religious or political identity, trying to push back against social conservatism but with hands tied behind their backs. “
In a prose piece titled “Courage”, from his book, What Gives Us Our Names, he says:
“Those who felt stuck only had to speak with Courage to find themselves already making a first step towards progress.”
Perhaps the relationship between the state and its citizens is subtle. Many of the most censorious societies in recent history have produced the most startling literary work:  Poland, Eastern Europe and other countries under former Soviet influence, and also Myanmar. Perhaps repression gives a new angle, a new edge to writings, in a sense deepening all that they have to say. Besides, there are few restrictions on independent publishing, which is thriving and active in this geographically small country. In Pang’s opinion, the publishing industry has “been much more open in the past 10 years than in the preceding decades.”
Pang defines poetry as “language that has been designed so that the precise choice of words and their relative positions are central to what is being conveyed; there is usually some attention paid to structure, pause, length, repetition, diction, sound etc. in ways that deliberately distinguish the text from common prose.” He recommends anthologies, such as The Rattle Bag by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes, as good points to start reading poetry.
Other Things

“To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow”— Amana Colony, Iowa, Sept 14.

To buy a potted plant is to admit both

faithlessness and need. To water the plant,

 perhaps daily, perhaps once in a while when

you remember and the leaves start to droop,

is as close to love as it gets.

Other things mean other things.

To light a lamp is to hide darkness in the same

closet as sleep, along with silence, desire, and

yesterday’s obsessions. To

read a book is to marry two solitudes, the way a conversation

erases and erects, words prepare for

wordlessness, a cloud for its own absence,

and snow undresses for spring.

The bedroom is where you left it, although the

creases and humps on the sheets no longer

 share your outline and worldview. In that way,

they are like the children you never had time for.

A cooking pot asks the difficult questions:

what will burn and for how long and to what end.

TV comes from the devil who comes from god

who comes and goes as he pleases. To hide

the remote control in someone’s house is

clearly a sin, but to take the wrong umbrella home

is merely human.

The phone is too white to be taunting you.

The door you shut stays shut. The night is

reason enough for tomorrow, whatever you


Remember, the car keys will be there after the dance.

Walls hold peace as much as distance.

A kettle is not reason enough for tears.

The correct answer to a mirror is always, yes.

In The End

the things we love give back
our names. One handed me a
plain stone to carve into something
better. Another returned the long
lost user guide to my left brain.
Someone passed a slip of paper,
my inscrutable handwriting
on one side, and on the other
in bright colours, the words
“I Want It All”. Others brought
flowers – irises, daffodils,
the soft unpeeled heart of a rose.
None of the clothes fit any longer.
I put aside the books I’d read,
and hadn’t read, they took flight
as endless stairs, circling
beyond my years. But I loved
most of all the quiet
Sundays, when fingers of rain
would write themselves
on the clear page of my window,
dying to tell me their stories.

(published in City of Rain (Ethos Books, 2003)

vinitaagrawalprofilephotoAuthor of three books of poetry, Vinita is a Mumbai based, award winning poet and writer. Recipient of the Gayatri GaMarsh Memorial Award for Literary Excellence her poems have appeared in Asiancha, Constellations, The Fox Chase Review, Pea River Journal, Open Road Review, Stockholm Literary Review, Poetry Pacific, Mithila Review and over a 100 other national and international journals. She was awarded first prize in the Wordweavers Contest 2014 and won the 2014 Hour of Writes Contest thrice. Her poems have found a place in significant national anthologies like Suvarnarekha and Dance with the Peacocks in several international anthologies compiled in Australia and Israel. She was co-judge for the Asian Cha Poetry Contest, 2015. 

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