Koh is the author of Steep Tea (published by Carcanet), named a Best Book of the Year by the UK’s Financial Times and a Finalist by Lambda Literary in the USA. He has published three other books of poems and a book of zuihitsu, the last shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize. His work has been translated into Japanese, Chinese, Malay, Vietnamese, Russian, and Latvian.
Koh left Singapore in 1989 to read English at the University of Oxford, and returned to teach English Language and English Literature at a secondary school, where he later became Department Head, and later Vice-Principal. In 2003, he undertook, and completed in two years, an MFA in Creative Writing at Sarah Lawrence College. He later moved to Queens, New York, and then to Manhattan, where he now lives with his partner and teaches in a private school. He heads the literary non-profit Singapore Unbound, dedicated to the struggle for freedom of expression and equal rights for all. Towards these ends, he organizes the biennial Singapore Literature Festival in NYC, edits SP blog, and publishes authors of Asian heritage, from Asia and America, under the imprint Gaudy Boy. However, he returns every summer to Singapore and continues to engage with the country in his critically acclaimed verse.
Shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize for English poetry in November 2014, Koh says he ironically found his voice only after Singapore in 2003 to study in the United States.
Equal to the Earth
The move from Singapore to New York was, in Koh’s words, for the purpose of “build[ing] a new life for myself [that] does not only include the poetic vocation, but also a new identity as a gay man” (“A Conversation with Jee Leong Koh”), and it is this process of “coming out” in a double sense—out of the closet and to New York—that energises his first full-length poetry collection, Equal to the Earth. This energy, however, is a force characterised by unbelonging and a perceived sense of unfruitfulness, for “citizenship doesn’t follow coming out, / but childlessness does” (“7. Actual Landing”). Thus, in this volume, he attempts to negotiate between places of origins in order to find his bearing, vacillating between an insistence on New York as “my new birthplace” (“1. To Hotel Peninsula,” “7. Actual Landing”) and an acknowledgement that it is a “temporary place,” where “Liberty became the grayish granite wall / guarding the entrance into the American base” (“2. Visual Sense”).
Seven Studies For A Self-Portrait
The Pillow Book
Take the collection Steep Tea, to be published in July by UK publisher Carcanet Press. It is partly Koh's response to women poets such as Ireland's Eavan Boland or American Rachael Briggs, who co-wrote the titular poem as a call-and-response Japanese "renga" form.
The collection also includes Koh's reactions and thoughts on Singaporean icons such as the old KTM Railway Station at Tanjong Pagar and poet Lee Tzu Pheng's well-known and much-discussed poem about life here, My Country And My People.
"When writing my poem Recognition, I found myself trying to find the details of my own life in her life and writings," says Koh, 45, who came to poetry through the writings of Philip Larkin and other English poets and did his degree in English literature at Oxford University. Though he had read and loved the works of Singapore-born Boey Kim Cheng many years ago, he encountered Lee's work only recently.
He says he felt an instant connection to her poem and plans to send her a copy of Steep Tea.
"I grew a bean plant as a school science project. Did she? I reared a chick in my then-new housing estate. Did she? Nothing is certain until the final comparison, that I have written poems, just as she did. I am less interested in the details of her personal life, than in the fact that we both write poems, that we both try to make sense of ourselves and our country through our imagination."
Another long-established trope of Singapore life, the tendency for students to copy and regurgitate model answers and essays, is dealt with in Attribution. He recalls being caught out for plagiarism while in Oxford because he took sentences from a book of criticism without citing his sources. Luckily, his tutor's punishment was merely the eye-opening task of writing a second essay, on the poet John Donne, without relying on secondary sources.
"Plagiarism was rife in school when I was studying in Singapore," says the former student of Radin Mas Primary School and Raffles Institution. "My classmates would copy one another's lab reports. We were given model history essays to memorise and regurgitate for the GCE-O level examinations. When I read a beautiful sentence about Ben Jonson's verse, I copied it into my essay, knowing that its expression was perfect. I should have attributed it, of course, but then I would not have thought of attributing a graceful expression or pungent idiom that I copied into my Chinese-language compositions at school."
After university, he taught for eight years at Choa Chu Kang Secondary School, but found the pressures of teaching left him no time to write or write well, especially as he was promoted to a vice-principal's post.
Back in Singapore for Chinese New Year last month, he threw out all the poems he wrote during this time, calling them "bloodless".
Later works were more provocative, with sexual themes and playful raunch. Koh in fact made news in 2006 when a poem April 13, Wednesday, with homosexual themes, was banned from being read aloud at ContraDiction, a gay pride event in Singapore. Organisers passed around copies of the verse instead and it is collected in Payday Loans, published first in 2007 by small American imprint Poets Wear Prada press and last year by Math Paper Press. The collection was written in the month before he graduated with his master's of fine arts from Sarah Lawrence College.
New York-based Singapore poet Jee Leong Koh's fifth poetry collection Steep Tea has been selected as one of four works on the international daily The Financial Times' Best Poetry of 2015 list, part of its list of the year's best books.
The other three poetry works recognised were: The Poems Of T.S. Eliot: The Annotated Text, Volumes 1 And 2 (Faber & Faber), edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue; Horace: Poems (Everyman's Library), edited by Paul Quarrie, and Jamaican poet Claudia Rankine's Citizen: An American Lyric (Penguin Poetry).
Steep Tea, published by the British publisher Carcanet Press in July, is Koh's first poetry collection published in the United Kingdom. It sees Koh addressing themes such as identity, home and nostalgia, and features epigraphs by poets ranging from Cultural Medallion recipient Lee Tzu Pheng to the Irish writer Eavan Boland.
A poem from the collection titled In His Other House was also chosen as a Poem Of The Week in September by British newspaper The Guardian.
The FT's assistant arts editor Maria Crawford praised Steep Tea for being "disciplined yet adventurous in form, casual in tone and deeply personal in subject matter".
"Koh's verse addresses the split inheritance of his postcolonial upbringing, as well as the tension between an emigre's longing for home and rejection of nostalgia," she wrote.
Koh, 45, told The Straits Times via email that he was "amazed" and "humbled" at the recognition by the newspaper.
"I couldn't have written Steep Tea without moving to the US to come out as a poet and a gay man. The poems reflect the experience of finding my rightful place in New York. They were written over 12 years... You might say that I had to steep myself in hot water before brewing this cup of tea," he said.
Koh, who has a degree in English literature from Oxford University and now teaches at a private school in New York, is currently working on a book of haiku, tentatively titled Does grass sweat, as well as a book of essays.
He is also actively involved in promoting Singaporean writing abroad. He runs the biennial Singapore Literature Festival in New York and the arts website Singapore Poetry.
"Singaporeans should embrace our own writers. This involves reading, viewing, hearing, and discussing their works until they become an integral part of us," he says.
Steep Tea is available from Carcanet Press (8.99 pounds) or Amazon (US$14.99).
Another collection, The Pillow Book (2012, Math Paper Press), was shortlisted last November for the biennial Singapore Literature Prize in the English poetry category. The prize was won jointly by Joshua Ip (Sonnets From The Singlish, Math Paper Press) and Yong Shu Hoong (The Viewing Party, Ethos Books).
Recognition has been intermittent for Koh. Two other collections, Equal To The Earth (2009) and Seven Studies For A Self-Portrait (2011), were self- published. Though individual poems in each were accepted by journals, no publisher seemed interested in bringing out a body of work.
It was a far cry from his first success at age 15, when a poem he wrote on the rain was broadcast on Singapore radio and netted him a cheque for $20.
"To have a response from the world, that we think this is worth buying and broadcasting - I thought: 'I have to keep doing this,'" he says with a laugh.
His parents were not great fans of poetry - his father is an electrician and his mother a gas station attendant-turned-housewife - but a green, cloth-bound book of English poetry at home led him to discover the writings of war poet Wilfred Owen.
Next came a volume of 11 British poets, which introduced Koh to sardonic wordsmith Larkin and sealed in him the love of poetry.
"Being shy in real life, writing is kind of a substitute for me. I can say what I don't dare say in real life," he says.
Interestingly, the editor of that book, British poet Michael Schmidt, is also the founder of literary journal PN Review, which first published Koh's poems from The Pillow Book, and also founded Carcanet Press, which is bringing out Steep Tea.
Koh, in turn, has been passionate about spreading the love of poetry, notably since 2013, when he met poets such as Christine Chia while back in Singapore for a holiday and started the website Singapore Poetry to introduce writing from the country to people in America.
Last year, he co-organised the inaugural Singapore Literature Festival in New York, with readings from more than a dozen Singapore writers. An offshoot of that is an ongoing monthly reading featuring Singaporean and American voices at various locations in New York.
"I find it extremely satisfying to bring writers and readers together. It is very special when Singapore writing reaches out beyond our shores, not because we need external validation, but also because our local writing has more than local resonance," he says.
Anti-gay discrimination in Singapore
During one of his summer holidays in Singapore, Koh turned up at his regular gym on Thursday, 13 July 2017 wearing his usual tank top with the words "GAY BUT NOT YET EQUAL" printed in bold lettering on the front. He was told that some gym users at SAFRA Mount Faber were not happy.
According to Koh, a few people had previously complained to the gym manager, accusing him of "trying to change a sensitive social policy or issue."
"I asked him how many people complained. He repeated, some, and elaborated, more than one but not many...He (the gym manager) also said that 'the social issue' was sensitive nationally, and that SAFRA could not allow any social advocacy", Koh wrote in a Facebook post. The latter was widely shared:
"A few users of the SAFRA Mount Faber Club Gym complained about my tank top to the gym manager. They accused me of trying to change a sensitive social policy or issue. My tank top says, “Gay But Not Yet Equal” on the front, and “Equality For All” on the back. I learned of their complaint when I arrived at the gym this morning. I have been using this same gym when I visit Singapore every summer. On this trip back to Singapore, I had gone to the gym three times; today was my fourth visit only. The gym manager had tried to call me about the complaint but could not reach me. He spoke to me on the phone in the gym.
I asked him how many people complained. He repeated, some, and elaborated, more than one but not many. He also said that “the social issue” was sensitive nationally, and that SAFRA could not allow any social advocacy. I explained that I was not trying to change any social policy, but I was just wearing a tank top specially designed by a New York designer. I should have pointed out, but I didn’t at the time, that the tank top did not refer to Singapore at all. I should have also said that I wasn't standing by the water cooler and passing out flyers, I was just working on my pecs and butt, like other gym users. I did say that the complainants were not objecting to social advocacy per se. They would not have complained if my tank top had promoted a national heart campaign. They were, in fact, complaining about my being gay.
The gym manager agreed that the complaint was subjective, but said that he still had to take it into account. I said that although a few people complained, the majority of the gym users did not complain, showing they had no problem with my tank top. The gym manager pointed out that the majority could be dissenting quietly. I replied that they could also be approving quietly. He said, and I agreed, that we were not about to take a poll.
I asked him what he would like me to do. He said he was not going to ban me from the gym but would ask me to be sensitive to other gym users. When I asked him what that meant, he repeated himself, and then said that as the gym manager he had to mediate between the complainants and me. I told him I understood he had a job to do. He and his staff were totally courteous and reasonable throughout the 15-minute interview. I was feeling very conspicuous at the front desk, and was surprised to find my hand holding the phone shaking a little, more from the desire to say the right thing than for any other reason. He told his staff to let me into the gym dressed in my tank top as usual.
I don’t think this is the end of it. I suspect that the complainants will complain to the gym manager again, and if he does not take stronger action against me, they will turn to his boss, the manager of the SAFRA Club. SAFRA stands for Singapore Armed Forces Reservist Association. They provide, among other benefits, recreational facilities for National Servicemen and their families. I have done my National Service and Reservist training: I finished as an infantry company commander with the rank of captain. I had not come out as gay then. The Armed Forces require all self-declared gay men to serve National Service, and so it would be wrong to deny these gay servicemen, self-declared or otherwise, any of the benefits afterwards.
It would be an injustice to stop me from using any of the facilities of the SAFRA Recreational Clubs just because a few members do not like my tank top. Or, to put it more bluntly, just because they do not like gay people. And if I’m not allowed to wear my tank top to the SAFRA gym, would I be allowed to wear it walking about Singapore, or would the same people who complained to the gym complain to the police about my “social advocacy on a sensitive social issue”? It’s a tank top, for goodness sake. Would you want to take me in for a tank top? Singapore would be a laughing stock to the world."
He said he explained to the manager that he was not trying to change any social policy. "I was just wearing a tank top specially designed by a New York designer, I should have pointed out, but I didn’t at the time, that the tank top did not refer to Singapore at all," he wrote.
He added that the gym manager agreed that the complaint was "subjective," but also pointed out that "the majority could be dissenting quietly."
"I asked him what he would like me to do. He said he was not going to ban me from the gym but would ask me to be sensitive to other gym users," said Koh.
"We have also spoken to the gym users who gave the feedback. From our conversation with Koh, we believe there was no intent to cause discomfort to other gym goers so we hope this can be resolved amicably," said SAFRA.
It added that when there were disagreements between gym-goers every now and then, SAFRA tried to mediate to the best of its ability.
As at 10pm on Thursday, Koh's post has been shared more than 300 times and chalked up nearly 900 likes.
"The complainants ... would not have complained if my tank top had promoted a national heart campaign. They were, in fact, complaining about my being gay," he argued.
Koh said his conversation with the SAFRA gym manager lasted about 15 minutes, describing him and his staff as "totally courteous and reasonable throughout." He was also allowed into the gym dressed in his usual tank top.
This article was written by Roy Tan.