Koh Jee Leong (b. 1970)
Written by Zhang Jieqiang
Dated 4 Nov 2015
Born and raised in Singapore, Koh left the country 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, then 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 and teaches.
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”).
New York, as a provisional home for Koh, functions also as a space for him to explore sexual desire, as suggested in “5. Galapagos,” and he does not shy away from tackling its different aspects. In fact, one might say his poems revel in such an exploration. When asked if he had any inhibitions in writing sexually explicit poems, Koh replies, “Coming out is speaking out. It feels like the most natural, the most liberating, thing in the world” (“An Interview with Jee Leong Koh,” The Shit Creek Review). He also believes that “writing about sex was like documenting a new city, more, a new country” (“An Interview with Jee Leong Koh,” The Shit Creek Review). Hence, he speaks out, against the backdrop of New York, as an immigrant and a gay man discovering new realms, geographical and (homo)sexual, driven by a desire for integration in both. The dual impulses for cultural and sexual integration are expressed and united in “Taproot,” “which ends with anal sex in a public bathroom, trac[ing] the journey of its immigrant-writer to its logical consummation” (“An Interview with Jee Leong Koh,” The Shit Creek Review). In this manner, the poem manifests the gay immigrant’s desire for integration in the image of him penetrating a white man, establishing the parallels between the desire for sexual union and the desire for cultural assimilation.
However, just as some of Koh’s work is fraught with the anxiety of not fully belonging to the new country, there is a sense of displacement in poems that deal with his experience as a gay man. For example, the speaker of “Chapter Six: Anal Sex” attempts, but fails, to have anal sexual intercourse with his partner in a poem which, interspersed with excerpts from a book on anal sex, interrogates the dynamics of gay sexual roles as a way to question the nature of lust and love: “Having ripped the Bible’s scripts, / I groped and throbbed for vital signs in sex: / what part of love is will, what part, contractions?”. However, in the end, even “[t]he manual had no message for the top / who is not hard enough to penetrate”. Neither biblical text nor sex manual will do, but only the lived realisation that love will not abide the violence of lust, for “in love, unlike in war, / lust stops where local will asks it to stop”. The tearing apart of the Bible and the inadequacy of the sex manual suggest that religion, or anything else, in a codified form, has failed to provide answers to Koh’s questions. But the concluding lines do not provide the answers either; they do not resolve the problems raised by the poem, but merely shed light on some of the reasons underlying these problems.
This lack of resolution, coupled with a discarding of systematised religion, is another characteristic of Koh’s poetry, in which uncertainty is a mark of the kind of spirituality he tries to create. Koh grew up in an Evangelical Protestant church, but later “left the church in order to come out as gay” (“An Interview with Jee Leong Koh,” Eclectica Magazine), and chooses now to align himself with the way of the tentative. His poems therefore propose different ways to address, but never unambiguously answer, the problems at hand. He says, “Having been seared by certainty, I prefer to stay with the provisional, the preliminary and the problematic. Christian symbols appear in my poetry but with revised meaning” (Eclectica Magazine). On this view, the ripping of the Bible’s pages, then, is not just a rejection of dogma but also an embrace of the liberating search for a new spirituality. Since “poetry is now, for [Koh], [his] form of spirituality” (“Cameron interviews poet Jee Leong Koh”), his poems are thus his particular form of prayer: “These verses, smoothed by sweat and prayer, are Dolor beads” (“Bead Ghazal” from “A Lover’s Recourse”), whose gods, beauty and truth, can be glimpsed through eros. This is exemplified in the sestina “Cold Pastoral,” in which sexual desire points the way to the truth of beauty as the fragment of unfulfilment stirs the imagination to aspire toward a conjured whole: the speaker, hearing but not seeing a man masturbating at the Met, likens himself to being “stirred by a torso’s mutilated beauty, / an echo of the whole, sufficient man / for him to recreate the missing stone”. In the same way the last word of each line in a sestina’s stanza is repeated in different orders at the end of the lines of its other stanzas, with all of these repeated words later rearranged and assembled in its final tercet, Koh’s poems can be said to be repeated attempts to gesture toward the imagined whole of his version of beauty and truth. This is also demonstrated in “A Lover’s Recourse,” a sequence of 49 ghazals in Seven Studies for a Self Portrait, in which the ghazal form, repeating the last word in the second line of each couplet, allows the speaker to meditate over and over, but in different ways, on that one word, before it ends with the speaker’s self-address. There is no one way to apprehend the world.
The provisionality of these attempts is what gives Koh the freedom and mobility to address his subject matter in more ways than one, and this unfixity can also be seen in Koh’s use of both free verse and formal verse in his poems, as he is committed to “get beyond the old distinction between free and formal verse, to work with disciplined openness to poetic possibilities” (“An Interview with Jee Leong Koh,” The Shit Creek Review).
Besides employing the sestina and the ghazal in his poetry, Koh also uses, and sometimes reworks, the sonnet, the villanelle, and the riddle, as well as deploys rhyme schemes to provide a taming structure in poems such as “For Lonely,” in which the speaker discovers that the way of love is sometimes the way of restraint or “New Year Resolution,” in which the speaker tries to hold out against being borne away by the hurricane of loneliness. His rhymes, too, can be effective, as when “I am” is rhymed cleverly with “Digicam” in “2. Visual Sense” to suggest the similarity between the contingency of the self and the way one is able to capture, store, and erase images on a digital camera with an easy click of a button.
This fluidity of selves is another of Koh’s preoccupation as he assumes multiple personae in many of his poems, like the “Grand Historian” Sima Qian, a “Scholar Minister,” an “Emperor’s Male Favorite,” a “Taoist Magician,” and a patron of a gay brothel in the sequence “Hungry Ghosts” from Equal to the Earth. Seven Studies for a Self Portrait takes up this approach even more fully, as Koh writes from—and playfully appropriates for his purposes—the perspectives of seven artists, abstract concepts, a sexually ambiguous “he,” parts of vegetables, “an Unknown Mexican Poet,” and Ted Haggard, an American evangelical pastor involved in a highly-publicised gay sex scandal in 2006. Koh has acknowledged that “[m]ost of the time I experience both the world and myself as contradictory fragments. Poetry is a place where I put the pieces together” (“Cameron interviews poet Jee Leong Koh”). If so, this obsession with different lyric “I”s perhaps constitutes Koh’s quest to navigate and assemble the self by exploring it more thoroughly from various lenses, in another attempt to situate his bearings, but this time on an existential level.
Koh has shown himself to be a poet who is not afraid of uncertainty, and is comfortable with switching between free verse and formal verse, and between different lyric subjectivities. As a gay immigrant poet, he might not find complete integration, but it is this unbelonging and unfixity to any one point which makes him an effective poet. According to Iain Chambers, “[m]igrancy [ . . . ] involves a movement in which neither the points of departure nor those of arrival are immutable or certain. It calls for a dwelling in language, in histories, in identities that are constantly subject to mutation” (5). This is precisely Koh’s project, and he has made a home for himself, and is at home, in the language of poetry.
Chambers, Iain. Migrancy, Culture, Identity. New York: Routledge, 1995.
Chin-Tanner, Wendy. “A Conversation with Jee Leong Koh.” Lantern Review Blog. 19 Oct 2011. Web.
Conaway, Cameron. “Cameron interviews poet Jee Leong Koh.” Examiner.com. 31 Mar 2011. Web.
Kelleher, Rose. “An Interview with Jee Leong Koh.” The Shit Creek Review 12. Jul 2010. Web.
Miller, Choé Yelena. “An Interview with Jee Leong Koh.” Eclectica Magazine 14.2. (2010). Web.
Koh Jee Leong. Equal to the Earth. New York: Bench Press, 2009.
—. Seven Studies for a Self Portrait. USA: Bench Press, 2011.