Why you should care

Because finding poetry that cuts to your everyday life can sometimes be tough — but this stuff does it.

Part of a weeklong series on poems and poets, sounds and sense.

Discovering a favorite poet is rare. It happens to me once every couple years. This despite the fact that I receive a poem in my inbox every day. I read attentively, but I am impatient. If something does not immediately fit itself into my lazy mental grooves, I am apt to move on. It’s not fair, but there you have it.

Alvin Pang, however, would not let me move on. Each poem of his that I encountered caused me to read and reread, and I could not abandon his work on a screen or on the page. I’ve found myself living with more than a few of his poems for weeks since first reading them. Singaporean Pang has shit to say, plain and simple — about modern identity in his country and worldwide, about what it takes to be a poet in a tiny country. And he won’t waste your time with elegy or prettiness for its own sake.

Pang shared some of that shit with me in person. He is lively and far from dreamy eyed: He answers emails faster than some startup founders and is on Twitter, and he keeps a day job as an editor of a public policy journal, rather than following the well-trod American path of teaching in a creative writing program while penning verse. This, he tells me, is probably better for his work, keeping him out of the vortex of artistic angst. Pang muses on the “scholar-poet-administrator tradition of Tang China — these were people who had other things to do,” which gives a kind of “groundedness to his work.” That sense of relevancy has paid off; Pang was published in the United Kingdom in 2012, an (unfortunately) huge and rare achievement for a poet from a small Asian nation, which was a kind of “vindication” after more than a decade of writing.

What else gives Pang’s work a sense of the now? Perhaps the ethnic mélange of Singapore, its ancestry as a British port city. Pang grew up around Malaysians, Indians and Chinese, and he takes me through a sophisticated history of the country, its “traumatic divorce” with Malaysia, its odd utopian “obsession” with racial harmony that requires every student to learn their “ethnic mother tongue,” but which oddly has someone like Pang — whose family spoke Cantonese — learning Mandarin, or north Indians learning Tamil. The country, he says, is “very stage managed.”

But Pang can do himself justice, so we’ll yield the floor to him. He reads five of his poems exclusively for OZY — five portals for you to enter his world, which feels a bit like sitting across from your most insightful friend at a café.

“Success” — This is the poem to give anyone stuck on the question, “What do I do with my life?” It’s from Pang’s collection What Gives Us Our Names, which is 42 pages long and turns abstract qualities such as passion and complacency into characters.

“Race” — A self-explanatory title, from the same collection as “Success.” Hand this poem to anyone who isn’t sure what it’s like to feel other.

“Candles” — Pang writes this poem in “Singlish,” Singaporean English, a much-maligned local slang.

“Other Things” — This is one of Pang’s most popular poems; people from India to the U.K. love it at readings. He tells me he doesn’t know why exactly, but perhaps it’s because it combines beauty and relatability so easily. And yet, it’s not a simple poem.

“So Many Ways Our Fathers Mark Us” — Ah, yet another poem with a title that tells you why you should read it. Pang thinks about fathers often in his work.

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