Three poets and their take on intimacy

Three poets and their take on intimacy

One of Asia’s premier literary events, the Singapore Writers Festival returns for its 23rd edition from 30 Oct to 8 Nov. This will be the first time the multi-lingual literary festival will take place online, interspersed with a few interactive events in analogue formats. 

Organised by the National Arts Council as part of the #SGCultureAnywhere campaign, the theme for this year’s festival is “intimacy,” and it explores the notion of closeness in a time when safe distancing and quarantine measures remain in place due to the pandemic.

image of pooja nansi director of Singapore writers festival
Poet Pooja Nansi is the festival director of the Singapore Writers Festival 2020. 

On embracing the digital medium, festival director and poet Pooja Nansi says: “This digital direction marks a turning point for us. We had to experiment with new formats and innovate closely with the local literary community.

“We are thrilled to offer our audiences a strong mix of online and offline touchpoints, and we are excited to see how digitalisation can bring about greater convenience to festival-goers, who will be able to attend a wider range of programmes.”

The festival line-up includes international headliners such as Canadian author Margaret Atwood of The Handmaid’s Tale, Chinese science-fiction writer Liu Cixin of The Wandering Earth, New York Times bestselling author Cassandra Clare of The Mortal Instrument series, and Pulitzer Prize-winning poets Sharon Olds and Tracy K. Smith. Closer to home, Singaporean writers O Thiam Chin, Cyril Wong and Aidan Mock will also be speaking at the festival. 

Festival highlights include its signature literary workshops and the Literary Pioneer Exhibition featuring Tamil literary pioneers P Krishnan, Ma Elangkannan and Rama Kannabiran. There will also be a festival radio station, Night Spin 182.7, playing nightly podcasts and vodcasts. For youth looking to discuss issues close to their hearts, they can sign up for panel discussions on topics such as romance in the young adult genre and the impact of social media influencers on audiences. 

Ahead of the event, we ask the festival’s featured poets Cyril Wong and Jaryl George Solomon, as well as festival director Nansi, to share their thoughts on the topic of intimacy. 

image of poet jaryl George Solomon Singapore writers festival
Poet Jaryl George Solomon will be part of the panel discussion, The Literature of Social Pressure, which will examine the impact of social pressure on a writer’s work. 

What does intimacy mean to you in your daily life? 

Nansi: In this time of quarantine and social distancing measures, intimacy has been the buzz word as we reflect and rethink our relationships. A lot of us are consciously exploring how we can engage digitally and connect with one another despite being apart. During the Circuit Breaker, I enjoyed performances by legendary international spoken word artists online – experiences I would otherwise not have had. This is one version of what intimacy looks like in this new normal, where we are allowed increased access to works internationally from the comfort of our homes.

Solomon: In a world where signs and floor tape demarcate my physical proximity with people, my level of intimacy has shifted towards very millennial ways of communication. I feel especially close to my chosen family when we share ridiculous Twitter or TikTok videos, when we belly laugh over silly memes and when GIFs and emojis rightly encapsulate how we feel at the moment. Intimacy over technology has helped me survive through the anxieties of our new normal. 

Wong: Intimacy for me is best expressed through bodies meeting in real time. Heartfelt conversations. No games and no agendas. Intimacy is the music of listening and touching and the art of a comfortable silence. When we are genuinely intimate, time briefly stops.

image of poet Cyril Wong Singapore writers festival
Poet Cyril Wong will be speaking in the panel discussion, An Interiority Complex, which will look at the interiority of characters. 

What form does intimacy take in your craft? 

Nansi: The COVID-19 crisis has been surreal and challenging for the world, but we have seen diverse communities lifting each other up with empathy, and engaging in varied forms of self-expression. As Festival Director, I’m focusing my attention – my craft, if you will – on making sure that our audiences and participants are engaged meaningfully. I invite everyone to join us in capturing this shared human need for intimacy through candid conversations and our shared love for stories.

Solomon: The very essence of storytelling is steeped in intimacy. When I unravel myself and pluck out the seeds of my being as inspiration for my plays and poetry, I’m allowing readers to closely inspect my life. Though sometimes layered in fiction, I still seek out emotional intersections and parallels with those who engage with my work. Similarly, as the poetry editor of Mahogany Journal, I see these ideas mirrored by the poets who bravely confess and acknowledge the cruelties and celebrations that come with being a minority in Singapore. At the end of it all, I (just like many others) write to feel less alone in this world.  

Wong: As a confessional poet, intimacy is honesty, vulnerability, and emotional nudity. A bare shoulder, an open hand – glimpses of the body are crucial aspects of my craft, my writing. Metaphors must dare to reveal, to step free from clothing inside the bedroom of my poems. I try to erase time’s passing by reconciling bodies in my sentences. When I talk about heartbreak and departure, it becomes the truest form of intimacy. 

Replies have been edited for clarity. 

(Photos: Pooja Nansi, Jaryl George Solomon, Cyril Wong)

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