Thursday, December 2, 2010

A poem in a hdb playground

Dec 2, 2010

All it takes is one mum and Arthur Yap to spark the love of poetry

By Clara Chow

HEAT stroke, I dare say, is the least of worries for any spoken word artist.

Usually, there's the fear of being heckled by one's unruly audience in the middle of a poetry slam. The humiliation of being out-rhymed by a rival rhyme-meister or the ignominy of forgetting one's lines.

But few poetry reciters, like me, would be standing in the middle of a playground in Choa Chu Kang, in the middle of a blazing hot afternoon, preparing to open her mouth in front of two, gulp, hyperactive small boys with limited attention span.

Call it an experiment in service of poe-try: I was about to find out if it is indeed possible to introduce poetry - and post-modern, post-colonial poetry, at that - to preschoolers.

'Boys,' I announced, looking up at my four-year-old son Julian and his six-year-old pal Christopher, as they gazed with anticipation down at me from their crow's nest perch on the pirate boat-shaped playground equipment. 'I am about to read you a poem called '2 mothers in a hdb playground'.'

Christopher's mum, my fellow mother in the Housing Board playground, gave me an encouraging smile as she readied her camera to snap me in oratorical action. I took a deep breath. And began.

A bit of background is in order, on how I found myself in such a strange poem-reciting position. While other parents are busy hothousing their kids with reportedly genius learning methods, I like to use mine as literary guinea pigs, to find out whether it's possible to get them passionate about the pure sounds and playful syntax of verse.

After all, it is my belief that it is never too early to instil a love of poetry in children. If anything, poetry is simply there in our lives. It is there in the ta-dum, ta-dum beats of our hearts, the murmured lullabies before bedtime, the rocking motion of mother carrying child, and, cliched but true, the pitter-patter of little feet. Poetry is a game of language, and we all know how much young ones enjoy and learn through games.

Besides, poetry - while it never truly went away - is experiencing the kind of nerd-vogue that is behind the revival of old-school analog things such as typewriters, Atari machines and knitting. Just last month, Mr Scott Griffin, the founder of Canada's richest poetry prize, the Griffin Prize, announced that he was launching a bilingual poetry recital competition for high school students in his country. The C$10,000 (S$12,900) Poetry In Voices competition, which starts next year, will see students reciting both contemporary and classical poetry in English and French.

Last week, the shortlist for the inaugural Picador poetry prize was released, with a judge's enthusiastic pronouncement that it was 'a snapshot of a poetry in terrifically good health'. The 10 unpublished poets on the list ranged from a former forklift driver to an artist-gardener to a male model - a further nod to how cool and democratic poetry has become.

And recently, American writer Nicholson Baker's 2009 novel The Anthologist, a whimsical, metafictional treatise on poetry, managed to cut incisively through technical jargon like the iambic pentameter to herald the heroic beauty and pleasure of oft-heard stanzas for me. The time for introducing Junior to poetry is ripe.

Since Julian graduated from the babyish rhymes of Goodnight, Moon and Where The Wild Things Are some time ago, an age-appropriate poetry-shaped hole has appeared in his life, waiting to be filled. If poetry is a game and language a mental landscape, then whose landscape do I want my children to see in their mind's eye?

In Indian author Arundhati Roy's Booker Prize-winning novel The God Of Small Things, the headstrong, ill-fated mother in the narrative, Ammu, 'used Kipling to love her children before putting them to bed: We be of one blood, ye and I'. This emblem of poetic, if subconsciously Anglophiliac, maternal love moves me.

Better, I think, to start Julian on something he can relate to immediately. Something in his blood, in his ears - the Singlish of everyday speech, in the seminal poem '2 mothers in a hdb playground' by the late Singapore poet Arthur Yap.

For those who have not read this 1980 poem (and I confess, I discovered it only a few months ago, at a friend's recommendation), it is a playful imagining of a conversation between, well, two mothers in an HDB playground. In it, the mums compare their two sons in a subtle game of one-upwomanship ('ah beng is so smart/...your kim cheong is also quite smart,/what boy is he in the exam?') and talk about their terrazzo floors and Diethelm furniture, while calling out to their sons playing nearby.

In the two decades since the poem was written, much has changed. The playground I was preparing to read my poem in, for instance, was not made of mosaic tiles in dragon shapes. Christopher's mum and I are not as overtly kiasu as the mothers depicted. We worry less about force-feeding our sons the latest vitamins advertised on TV, more about nutritious, organic diets instead. Boys these days are also less likely to have names like 'Ah Beng'.

Standing in that playground, declaiming Yap's lines at the top of my voice as a few parents and domestic helpers looked on impassively from a distance, I tried to wrap my head around this and other little ironies and parallels. After a while, I realised that no one was batting an eyelid, and my mini, two-man audience was transfixed, because Yap's poetry had so perfectly captured the essence of how language is used here. From performing '2 mothers', I had unconsciously, unwittingly and easily slipped into the bodies and lives of those two mothers.

When I was done, the boys, who didn't even fidget once during my three-minute recital, clapped politely.

'Did you like it?' I asked, hopefully.

Yes, they answered genuinely (boys their age have yet to master the art of the diplomatic white lie).

'Can we go and play now?' asked my son.

I nodded and set them free.

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