Critical Introduction

by Tan Teck Heng, 4 Nov 2015

Joshua Ip is inspired by contemporary poets such as Wendy Cope and Philip Larkin; for sonnets from the singlish in particular, he has cited Robert Frost, E. E. Cummings, W. B. Yeats, Lord Alfred Tennyson and Gerard Manley Hopkins as canonic influences (“An interview with poet Joshua Ip”). However, his thematic references draw from popular culture in Singapore’s context. Chinese folklore is reimagined in poems such as “the education of monkey,” where the bildungsroman of Sun Wukongfrom Journey to the West parallels the development of an artist, or even in “twilight” where Chang’e, the goddess of the moon, is portrayed as sexually frustrated. There are various rewritings of Disney adaptations of fairy tales. These episodes transpose modern day romance and gendered issues, among others, into familiar frames with a touch of nineties nostalgia. There are also other references to mass entertainment, such as the Michael Jackson tribute “man in the mirror,” or “power levelling,” which compares the rat race to the repetitive nature of desktop videogames. Ip’s blend of art and pop culture is a demonstration of his poetics: “there is so much material that is poetry-worthy in the mundane and the everyday [ . . . ] all these can serve as metaphors for loftier, cheem-er [more profound] thoughts if that’s really necessary” (“Conversations with: Joshua Ip”). Tse Hao Guang takes these observations a step further, calling it “a radically democratising impulse [which] runs through the postcolonial sonnet”. He theorises that in the face of hyperpragmatic Singaporean consumers and a lack of demand for literary products, writers like Ip are making their work “accessible to the average local reader while at the same time exciting interest in advanced readers, whether local or from the wider Anglophone world” (Tse, “Postcolonial Sonnet”).

At times, Ip veers towards socio-political criticism. “homebuilding” as an allegory of nation building questions the need for a founding father, who is carried into the mansion-as-nation “limb by limb, / read his instructions and assemble him”. In “the old builder complains to the new town planner,” Ip suggests that national development has focused too much on providing material amenities to the people, and that we have missed the mark when it comes to building less tangible infrastructure for networks of communal interaction. Adopting the voice of an older-generation builder, Ip suggests that the emphasis on home improvement programmes which offer upgrades to residents living in government housing—such as “new lifts that stop on every floor,” or “convenient criss-cross paths”—are in fact contributors to the alienating experience of modern living. These upgrades do not contribute to “building a home,” but rather grant residents “faster / ways to get them to their homes”. The poem closes with a comically regressive solution, a parody of nostalgia for the good old kampung days — “turn off the taps, and sink a common well”.

While sonnets offers what Corrie Tan calls “cheeky (if a little too overt)” jibes at the state of Singapore’s tightly-wound and illiberal nature when it comes to social issues, politics, and artistic expression, it is the motifs of romance and the banal which are further explored and amplified in making love with scrabble tiles. His style in scrabble also makes extensive use of conceits reminiscent of the metaphysical poets. In the opening poem “making breakfast,” kitchen metaphors illustrate various passions between lovers. For instance, “pans cooling / in the sink” are “words / spoken in heat,” and a scene with “legs intertwined” is juxtaposed against “the golden / liquid dripping down / their thighs”. In “simultaneous equations,” courtship between students is improbably likened to the experience of standardised test-taking (in this case, mathematics), a familiar feature of Singapore’s education system. The male student sits behind the female, “his ragged breathing on her neck” — he is in pursuit, but clearly does not understand the inner workings of the female mind: “how’s a boy supposed to know what’s going on”? He cheats by glancing at the girl’s answer sheet, and the two thus “arrive / simultaneously at the same answer,” resulting in a perfect union in time and space, mirroring the absurd math problems presented in the poem. This is his rendition of the Spenserian epithalamium in twenty-first century Singapore — doe hunting is replaced by math problem-solving. The piece thus blends the heartwarming, sepia-toned shades of young love with a playful invocation of gender stereotypes.

At other times, Ip further riffs on the epithalamium with references to Andrew Marvell, also cited as an influence (“An interview with poet Joshua Ip”). In “first date at jumbo seafood,” the messy, carnal act of eating shellfish is likened to unsubtle sexual overtures. The male suitor peels prawns, opens oysters, and alliteratively de-shells all sorts of crustaceans—the reader’s auditory pleasure here doubles as titillating anticipation—all the better to “tease out sea-sweet, freshly shell-shucked flesh” with. The courted female resists, of course—with the ending pun of “some things work better dressed”.

Yet, Ip is more than bawdy cheekiness, preferring to emphasise endearing awkwardness in other poems. In “launch-surfing,” Ip relates the common experience of heterosexual young couples who “window shop” at new property launches, and captures succinctly the wistful, playful and aspirational mood with a pun in the final line: “we were spending time we couldn’t yet afford”. And in “right-sizing,” Ip uses the context of the commissioning ball, hosted for newly-minted army officers during National Service. The persona is a young man picking his date up in a car driven by his father because he does not drive. The entire experience is emasculating. The choice of persona allows Ip to capture a delicate coming-of-age period in the lives of Singaporean men, old enough to defend their country, but lacking the worldliness of stereotypical soldiers. Ip’s portrayal of awkwardness culminates in the selection of flowers. The persona’s bouquet, “largest veg / within my not-large budget,” “tumbled out / of my hands like stuttering small talk”. Here, the conceit of the oversized vegetable-as-bouquet metonymises all of the persona’s poorly-executed gestures, all part of a social script he has not learnt. His date receives his intentions with the necessary grace to allow for a beneficent conclusion: “you caught it in both hands [ . . . ] the whole wide world’s right-sized”. As with Carol Ann Duffy’s onion or Wendy Cope’s orange, an unlikely piece of vegetation becomes the emblem of a fondly relatable moment.

This elevation of the banal to the lyrical is best realised in “plastic bags”. Ip’s subject is the practice of folding plastic grocery bags into “housewife triangles” for storage. He re-imagines these “non-biodegradable artifacts” as all that is left of the human race in some post-apocalyptic future, where aliens “reconstruct the history of mankind / amazed at what wise culture could conceive / of such faithfully replicated folds”. Ip’s hyperbolical treatment of the triangulated plastic bags extends to the creation of cults, the rise of a tourism industry where intergalactic travelers “marvel at the terran triangles,” and the creation of a festival to commemorate the findings. These musings can also be understood as a parody of Singapore’s own rampant commodification of heritage, self-orientalising instincts, and the accompanying dilution or misinterpretation of history. Despite these jibes, we move towards the final, romantic image of the weaver girl and the cowherd (or the stars Vega and Altair), now reconfigured as “cold storage girl and ntuc boy / unit[ing] at last across the milky way / on a bridge of floating plastic triangles,” where Ip again demonstrates the craft of imbuing daily scenes with a gravitas blushed by gently disparaging humour.

The same humourous take on socio-political issues surfaces in “a find” (scrabble). The persona visits a church unfrequented by tourists, acting out a reverse colonialism with his “columbine” gait (a neologism Ip explains is the adjectival form of “Christopher Columbus”) and “rafflesian” posture — a nod to modern Singapore’s colonial legacy. The persona role-plays the colonial master who discovers not some idyllic Malayan village or Chinese temple, but a European church. Yet, there is no endeavour to write back to Empire; rather, the persona impotently “unlimber[s] his canon”: there are no ship cannons, only a brand name camera. The persona’s attempt at planting his flag is relegated to instagram, complete with “hashtag secret church”. The light mockery here raises questions about modern ideas of social justice and postcolonialism, and our limited and problematic participation or even complicity as consumers and tourists.

“Canon” also puns on the English literary canon—a tradition Ip is encumbered with as an Anglophone writer. In “k ge zhi wang attends a poetry reading,” Ip likens poetry writing to karaoke, where “originals are shunned. One is expected / to perform the standards before vent- / uring into new tunes” (sonnets). Here, Ip’s relationship with the literary canon comes sharpest into relief—he feels the pressure of writing in forms and genres which are familiar to readers and consumers, yet yearns to produce work which is radically original. The former impulse appears to have won out; both collections sport easily digestible poems, many with pleasurable, unchallenging rhymes, as with “a find,” where one “falters” after “a selfie at [the church’s] altar,” or where “taking aim” with his camera, he “claim[s] / her in the name of hashtag secret church”. If Ip is, as Tse puts it, one who “takes care not to venture too far out of the realm of formal innovation,” then perhaps this poem is to some degree an expression of Ip’s doubt over relying so much on received forms, or on short poems with breezy rhymes and rhythms which fall in step with the mass reader’s fast-paced, harried lifestyle. Ip self-reflexively wonders if his poetry, while designed to be relatable and pragmatic to suit the tastes of poetry-averse Singapore, is merely “Instagram poetry”.

Puns and conceits are mainstays in Ip’s poetry, but they are not limited to permutations of metaphysical wit and double entendres. In “ideograms,” Ip innovates with a series of haiku, which describe the pictographic nature of Chinese characters for different emotions. We are invited to reconsider these characters as rebus-like, concrete poetry. The character for “sorrow” (悲) is, for lack of a better word, transliterated as “”two opposed ladders / climbing, you discover all / that is not of her”. If these experimentations with cultural clashes from East-West, High-Low, Chinese-English, are anything to go by, Ip’s native tongue is the language of hybridity, and as he puts it in “tongues” (scrabble), he is indeed “learning a new way home” around the challenges of writing as an Anglophonic writer in the twenty-first century.


Works Cited

Ang, Ann, Joshua Ip and Pooja Nansi, eds. SingPoWriMo 2014. Singapore: Math Paper Press, 2014.

Chia, Christine and Joshua Ip. A Luxury We Cannot Afford: An Anthology of Singapore Poetry. Singapore: Math Paper Press, 2013.

Corrie Tan. “Sizzling Reads: September.” The Sunday Times 2 Sep 2012.

Balbuena, Myko. “I was in an ah beng Half-Life/Counterstrike clan for most of JC: An interview with poet Joshua Ip.” Rafflesian Times. Web.

Ip, Joshua. “Conversations with: Joshua Ip.” Tumblr. Web.

Ip, Joshua. making love with scrabble tiles. Singapore: Math Paper Press, 2013.

—. sonnets from the singlish. Singapore: Math Paper Press, 2012.

—, Timothy Wang, and A. J. Robert. Ten Stories Below: The Graphic Novel. Ed. Joyce Sim. Weebly. Web.

Loh Chin Ee, Angelia Poon, and Esther Vincent. Eds. Little Things: An Anthology of Poetry. Singapore: Ethos Books, 2013.

Sim, Raven. “Sonnets from the Singlish.” Linus: Newsletter of the NUS Libraries. National University of Singapore, 21 Jan. 2015. Web.

Tay, Verena. Ed. Balik Kampung 2A: People And Places. Singapore: Math Paper Press, 2013.

Tse Hao Guang. “The Postcolonial Sonnet: Problems and Strategies.” Unpublished MA Thesis.

Ye, Stephanie. Ed. From the Belly of the Cat. Singapore: Math Paper Press, 2013.