Time Out Singapore: ‘Singapore Writers Festival 2013’ Preview

Back for the 16th edition, Singapore’s largest literary festival returns this month with a host of talks, workshops and events to inspire the country’s love for the written – and spoken – word. Gwen Pew speaks to the Singapore Writers Festival’s programme director, Paul Tan.

Workshops, author's talks, meet and greet sessions - this is a bookworm's dream come true. Image courtesy of the Singapore Writers Festival.

Workshops, author’s talks, meet and greet sessions – this is a bookworm’s dream come true. Image courtesy of the Singapore Writers Festival.

25 Oct 2013: Back for the 16th edition, Singapore’s largest literary festival returns this month with a host of talks, workshops and events to inspire the country’s love for the written – and spoken – word. ‘The Singapore Writers Festival has always sought to connect our audiences with literature in diverse ways, and through topics close to their hearts,’ says festival director Paul Tan.

This year’s theme is Utopia/ Dystopia, which Tan explains: ‘We picked the theme to shine a light on the darker side of humanity, through accessible topics such as crime, violence and war.’

Amongst the exciting line-up of over 190 authors this year are appearances by the UK’s first female Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, journalist, children’s author and daughter of physicist Stephen Hawking, Lucy Hawking, and best-selling crime fiction writer Peter James. France-based Chinese Nobel Laureate Gao Xingjian will also be premiering his documentary Requiem for Beauty, while philosopher AC Grayling will present a lecture on our interactions with the world.

Of course, it’s not just about bringing in the big shots from overseas – plenty of local talents will be showcased too. ‘Some of the highlights include a revisit of classics like Animal Farm and Brave New World through the lens of Singaporean writers Gwee Li Sui and Adrian Tan and “guerrilla” literary performances around the Singapore Biennale installations,’ says Tan.

‘Other interesting speakers come from the associated genres of film, visual art and music such as Anthony Chen, Bani Haykal and Yusnor Ef,’ he continues. ‘We promise a lot of food for thought, catering to many different appetites.’

Time Out Singapore: ‘Lit Up Singapore 2013’ Preview

One of the hippest events on the indie literary arts calendar is back. Gwen Pew speaks to Marc Nair, local spoken word poet and one of the main guys driving the whole event.

A performance from Lit Up Festival. Image courtesy of Word Forward.

A performance from Lit Up Festival. Image courtesy of Word Forward.

19 Jun 2013: 

How did Lit Up begin?
Lit Up was started in 2009 by Word Forward. Chris Mooney-Singh and Savinder Kaur, the directors, envisioned an emerging writers and performers festival. This was the form of Lit Up from 2009 to 2010. Starting in 2011 and carrying on to 2013, Lit Up began to take on a more multi-disciplinary form, and incorporated visual art into its line-up. The focus also shifted from overseas artists to local artists, as we began to see the need for a platform to support and provide opportunities to young and capable artists.

What will be different about Lit Up this year?
This year, Lit Up pushes the envelope of collaboration in both the visual and performing arts. This year’s Visual Arts program includes a cross-disciplinary segment, Tête-à-tête. It brings together three pairs of artists who primarily work in different mediums. This dialogue – between poet and painter, photographer and sound artist, graphic designer and installation artist – will be presented at the exhibition. For the performing arts, we have Echo, a multi-disciplinary devised performance incorporating poetry, music and movement as well as a regional collaboration for one of the key performances, ‘She Walks Like A Free Country.’ This spoken word show brings together seven female poets from Singapore and Malaysia.

Tell us more about the theme of ‘Progression’ – why was it chosen and how will it be portrayed?
I chose ‘Progression’ as the theme for Lit Up 2013 because it felt like a word that was timely in the context of Singapore’s push to raise its population to 6.9m by 2030 as well as the slew of fractures, whether socially or infrastructurally, that has risen of late. Economic progression seems viable but is not without its fault lines. So I was interested to see how ‘Progression’ is applied in art, and how artists would interpret both positive and subverted notions of ‘Progression’ in Lit Up.

How do you decide the line-up and events of the festival?
A majority of the performances and visual artists were approached for this year’s festival. We felt that a curated approach is still necessary as we don’t have the resources to put out an open call. We also had some artists approach us to request to be featured in Lit Up. We accepted based on the quality of their work and relevance to the theme for this year. Most if not all of the invited artists are creating work specially for the festival, and we are very excited to present such a huge body of work.

How is the festival structured?
The festival operates holistically across a number of spaces. The majority of the performances are at Aliwal Arts Centre, although we do have talks and video installations at Orita Sinclair School of Design. Visitors to Lit Up will be able to attend back-to-back performances as well as take the time to walk through the visual arts gallery, featuring 13 installations.

Are there any highlights at the festival that should not be missed?
Everything at Lit Up is important! But it really depends on your taste. If you want interactive activities, workshops take place on both Saturday and Sunday mornings. We also have a great line-up of bands playing on Sunday evening as part of The Sarong Party, the closing event for Lit Up 2013. Our headline acts are Mosaic, a play by Joel Tan, and She Walks Like A Free Country. However, there are numerous smaller plays and performances that you should check out as well.

Focussing on the spoken word scene in Singapore – has it changed a lot over the past few years?
The spoken word scene has burgeoned over the past few years. For many years, there was only Poetry Slam to hold up the flag of spoken word, together with the occasional performance by visiting poets. But in the last couple of years, a number of both curated and open-mic events have sprung up, like Destination Ink, Singapore Arts Salon and Speak, and all these help to encourage and grow the scene by providing more avenues for writers to share their work.

Do you think Lit Up has contributed to that change?
Lit Up has always had the word at the core of its existence. Whether written or performed, we aim to centre every performance and exhibition around this ethos. Many of the artists involved in running and performing in various open-mic events are also part of Lit Up, and we hope to give them greater exposure and opportunites to further their craft. Additionally, the National Poetry Slam, which has been held annually at Lit Up, is also a key event that in many ways reflects the continued emphasis on the power of the spoken word.

Time Out Singapore: Sarah Kay and Phil Kaye

Phil Kaye and Sarah Kay, both in their mid-20s, are established spoken word poets in America for years. As the power duo hit our shores this April, Gwen Pew catches up with them to find out what slam poetry is really all about.

American Spoken Word Poets Sarah Kay and Phil Kaye.

American Spoken Word Poets Sarah Kay and Phil Kaye.

26 Mar 2013:

How did the two of you meet?
Sarah Kay: We met during the first week of our freshman year of college. There was a talent show for freshman students, and we were both performing spoken word poetry.

What first drew you into spoken word poetry?
SK: I have always loved poetry, but I never performed my poetry until I was 14. The first time I performed a poem was because I was signed up for a spoken word poetry slam. Somebody signed me up for it, and to this day I still don’t know who it was. But I decided to give it a shot, and ended up falling in love with the experience.
Phil Kaye: I first saw spoken word poetry when I was 17. I saw another 17 year old doing it, and I was completely blown away. The idea of getting up on stage and talking about whatever was important to you, in whatever way you wanted to – that kind of freedom was something I had never seen before.

Would you say that it’s a difficult scene to break into?
SK: It often starts as a regional art form. Which means there usually needs to be a physical centrd for people to gather and share work. That can be at a school, a bar, a community centre. Once there are enough people interested and invested, a ‘scene’ often builds around itself.

How do you come up with your topics? Do you tend to draw from personal experiences, or are they all fictional?
SK: I write poems when I have something I am trying to figure out. It is the way I navigate the world and the issues I am struggling to understand. There is a saying that another poet taught me which goes, ‘Poetry doesn’t have to be fact, but it does have to be true’. That is important to me. Sometimes my poems dive into fantasy or fiction, but there is a truth within them that is very personal to me.
PK: Topics come from anywhere and everywhere. Something your friend said to you in passing. A childhood memory that all of a sudden comes rushing back. Some stupid video you saw on the internet. You never know where inspiration may come from – the trick is letting yourself be open to being moved.

It’s hard enough to do spoken word by yourself, let alone for two people to do it together! How do you guys make it work?
SK: In terms of performing together, it’s like performing a duet with instruments. You learn the rhythm of the piece, and can be on-beat together. In terms of working together, we were friends before we were business partners. So all of the things that make a friendship work we carry into our work. Mainly, good communication. Sometimes we aren’t on the same page, of course, but that’s ok. That’s what we communicate for, to work through those moments.
PK: We’re honestly a lot like siblings. So there’s all the stuff that comes with that – the familial love, the occasional squabble, the desire to support each other. We’re trying to bring the best out of each other – as poets, friends and people.

How many times would you rehearse a poem before taking it onstage? Would you practice it in front of anyone or anything? Family members? The mirror? A pet…?

SK: I don’t practice in front of a mirror, because it doesn’t reflect – no pun intended – the reality of what a performance will end up being like. When you perform for a mirror, you are performing for an audience of one, and that one person looks like you. When I actually perform for an audience, there is more than one person, and they often look nothing like me. So a mirror-rehearsal doesn’t help me prepare. It’s really important to me at every performance that I am very present in the room. I wait until I hit the stage before deciding what I’m going to perform. I want to know what kind of space it is, who is in the room, what they are in the mood for, etc. I think it is my duty as a performer to entertain and challenge and impress an audience, and I can only do that if I am tailoring each performance to the group I am with. I do practice on my own, and I practice with a very small group of family and friends whose critical feedback I trust.

Have you ever forgotten your lines on stage? What do you do in that situation?
SK: Of course. The good news is that the audience usually doesn’t know what the lines are supposed to be. It is my responsibility to take them on a journey with me. We are going to get there no matter what, even if we have to take a momentary diversion. The key is not to panic. Part of what is exciting about this art form is the fact that there is a performer sharing themselves ‘live’. That means they are human. Audiences know that. You don’t have to be a robot. You’re allowed to stutter or pause. Sometimes people envision an audience as a group of people who are waiting to pounce as soon as the performer messes up. But that’s entirely unrealistic. The audience wants to enjoy themselves, not feel uncomfortable. The audience wants you to do well. And as long as you remember that everybody is rooting for you, messing up one line isn’t going to be a big deal.
PK: Definitely. But most of the time the audience doesn’t know. The only time I had a real train wreck was once at a solo show a few years ago. I had just written a new poem, and hadn’t quite memorized it as well as I thought I did. About two thirds of the way through, I completely froze up. But the amazing thing was that, after a few moments of silence, I couldn’t help but laugh – and the rest of the audience laughed with me. I explained the situation, got my sheet of paper, and read the poem. And it was the biggest hit of the set. Audiences want to see real people in front of them, even if that means messing up. That’s part of the magic.

Who are some of your personal idols?
SK: Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz. Jeanann Verlee. Tina Fey, Laura Brown-Lavoie. Lin Manuel-Miranda. Anthony Veneziale. Rives. Hans Rosling. Maira Kalman. Sir Ken Robinson. Joni Mitchell. Aaron Sorkin. Jeffrey McDaniel. Sara Ruhl. The list goes on. PK: Dave Eggers, Martin Luther King Jr, Jennifer Egan, Anis Mojgani just to name a few.

Tell us a bit more about what Project Voice is exactly…
SK: Project Voice is an organisation that uses spoken word poetry to educate, entertain, and inspire. We perform in venues and schools around the world to introduce folks to the art form of spoken word poetry, and we teach workshops so that people can start trying it themselves. We try to create communities around spoken word poetry that are supportive and safe, full of people who are excited about creating, sharing, and listening to each other.

If a young slam poet wannabe asks you for a top tip for the art form, what would it be?
SK: Don’t be tricked into thinking that some people ‘have it’ and some people ‘don’t’. You don’t have to be ‘born a poet’. Half of being a poet is just having the courage to write your way through the bad poems, without quitting. You should not give up just because it might be hard. It takes work, it takes practice, it takes dedication. It is full of joy and celebration, but it is also a craft that involves skills. Skills that you can hone. Other than that: keep learning by watching other people, reading a lot, and figuring out what works for you.
PK: Go on YouTube and watch a ton of poems. Don’t stop at the first one or two people you like. Find people you can’t stand – identify why you can’t stand them. Find people you love – write down what you love about them. Aspiring directors go out and watch a bunch of movies – it’s the same thing with poetry! If you’re trying to be a spoken word poet, go out and watch a lot of poems. They’re only three minutes each!