Speakeasy: Joshua Ip and Joel Tan

by Lok Yu Xin Anette

On the 19th October 2014, I attended Speakeasy, held at Artistry Café, which featured two Singaporean writers, Joshua Ip and Joel Bertrand Tan. It being my first time attending a spoken word event (which had poetry and monologues that day), I was slightly intimidated and worried that I would not be able to relate to the topics read. Yet, my concerns dissipated as Joshua’s and Joel’s works left me in fits of laughter with their clever wordplay and wit injected into their writings, and at the same time, touched me as they discussed topics about love and Singapore and identity.

After a short introduction from Pooja Nansi, (who curates this monthly event), Joshua Ip was the first to share his works from Sonnets of the Singlish collection (2012), Making Love with Scrabble Tiles (2013), and even unpublished ones. Joshua began with a series of poems about love, such as “Sarah” which depicted his relationship with his girlfriend. In his discussion of love, what intrigued me was how the experience of love was processed in a new way, the entire poem being born of the prompt to “write a poem in which nothing is true”. Aside from the love series, Joshua also discussed topics relating to Singapore. Joshua read “I Will Get Up”, which was a tribute to Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, as it comprised of a collection of quotes of the Singapore leader. In this poem, Joshua once again displayed his wit as he transformed Mr. Lee’s commonly known strong-headed determination into a humorous persona, as he exaggerates how he will “get up” even from his grave.

Next was “The Ballad of Prince Ali Ababwa” from his Sonnet of the Singlish collection, where he challenges the Disney love fantasy as the persona recounts how love is now quantified by “bags of bags” and is unable to meet such material expectations, acknowledging that he “told a tale that is taller than it sounds”. After hearing Joshua’s poems, I was reminded of Shklovsky’s theory that “art removes objects from the automatism of perception in several ways” and allows one to view an object “as if he were seeing it for the first time”. Through Joshua’s poems on love and Singapore, I was enlightened to how these topics have been perceived in a unique way, such as how Joshua subverted the ideal notions of love in “The Ballad of Prince Ali Ababwa” by emphasizing the harsh reality of our materialistic world. Similarly, in “I Will Get Up”, the heavy dramatization and exaggeration of Mr. Lee’s determination defamiliarised Mr. Lee (as the object perceived) into a more light-hearted persona.

After a short break, Joel presented two of his works, “That Daniel” and “We Could Have Danced All Night”. “That Daniel” tells the story of a person who loses weight in order to win over a love interest and the result of conforming to such superficial expectations results in a bad case of gout. The story that struck a chord with me the most however, was “We Could Have Danced All Night”, where Joel recounts his personal experience in the gay club, “Play”, that has closed down. Here, I was made to recall Ricard’s notion of the marketplace for national literature. Since the topic is of the marginalized society in Singapore, one may assume that it would be limited the market space of those with the same orientation. Yet, I found myself empathising and identifying with Joel as he described his journey from being a self-conscious individual to one that was able to accept himself. The main theme of the pains and struggles of understanding one’s identity resonated with me and left me pondering how such issues that the marginalized experience are censored by the state, failing to meet the heteronormative standard of institutionalized national literature.

To conclude, I thoroughly enjoyed my very first Speakeasy event and was warmed by Joshua’s impeccable sense of wit and humour and Joel’s honesty in expressing his homosexual identity and journey and his determination in being a voice for the marginalized.