Five Reasons I Couldn't Let This Poet Go
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because finding poetry that cuts to your everyday life can sometimes be tough — but this stuff does it.
By Sanjena Sathian
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.