Written by Ng Yi-Sheng
Dated 4 Nov 2015

Marc Nair is one of Singapore’s premier performance poets, and arguably the central figure of the local spoken word scene today. Much of his work consequently reflects the demands of the stage: “Smoking a Poem,” for instance, from his first collection Along the Yellow Line, employs rhyme, repetition, and a vivid, sensuous immediacy in its imagery:

I want a poem to sear miracles of metaphor in my brain,
I don’t want menthol lite concoctions of neat little verses
with pop song end rhymes that carry little deterrents from the poet.

I want to smoke a poem that doesn’t bow to warnings,
that knows it’s dangerous, and makes me dangerous, and

I want to smoke a poem, make sure everyone knows
every word I inhale is poetry, not prose.

Nair’s later work similarly reflects his transmedia practice. His second collection, Chai: Travel Poems, has also been released as an EP: a musical collaboration with his band Neon and Wonder. His third collection, After Class: photohaiku, pairs haiku with iPhone photography. Fans of Singapore’s spoken word scene will also be familiar with his crowd-pleasing, unpublished light verse: hilarious, sometimes musical riffs on current events such as the MRT-themed “Love Your Ride” and the piracy-inspired “O Holy Torrent”.

Yet his literary practice is more than simple lyric-making. As H.S. Shiva Prakash notes, “Marc Daniel Nair is a wanderer poet, yet he has no map”. His published oeuvre represents an ongoing exploration of poetic possibilities, including concrete poetry (as seen in “scenarios” and “Casual Curses”) and structured verse (as seen in “Senryu for Singapore” and “Quatrains for a Vietnamese Emperor”).

There is also a thematic thread uniting his first two books: a quest for identity, on both an individual and a national level. His debut collection opens with “The Yellow Line,” describing his personal cultural crisis (“Malayalam, our ethnic group, is to me / another word, like radar, that can be spelt backwards [ . . . . ] Perhaps my IC should read ‘Others’: / an unidentified cultural composite”). The volume goes on to document his personal relationships with the country’s geography and soul, in pieces like “Ang Mo Kio” and “Poetry Is A Luxury We Cannot Afford–Singapore, 1968”.

But it’s only in Chai that he gives us resolution to this odyssey. Wandering as a backpacker through Bali, Vietnam, North Luzon and India, he describes his encounters with the foreign with sensitivity and detail, paying particular attention to human stories: the tragedy of village girls turned sex workers in “Sapa”; the triumph of the Indian labourer doing landscape work in Singapore in “The Woodcutter”. Then, in “Light, From Another Land,” he experiences an epiphany, identifying for the first time with his ancestral home of Kerala while in a taxi cab:

Then the music stops, and I see him slipping
a CD labeled ‘Malayalee Songs’ into the player.
I want to laugh and tell him, “I’m off to church,”

but slowly, a raga builds, a veena road
leading to my unvisited motherland.
Kerala, why have I hidden from your rhythms

beating songs into my bones? How could I deny
your epics, unrolling swollen rivers through me,
strange tongues speaking through the string and quiver

that all this too is glory.

Many have praised Nair for his slam theatrics. Fewer have commented on this sense of spirituality, which surfaces again and again in his work: how he uses a gently passionate voice to convey moments of the sublime.

Works cited

Nair, Marc. Along the Yellow Line. Singapore: Word Forward, 2007.

—. Chai: Travel Poems. Singapore: Red Wheelbarrow Books, 2010.

—. After Class: photohaiku. Blurb, 2011.