Singapore Writers Festival: Laying beauty bare

Among the  speakers was Pulitzer  Prize-winning Irish  poet Paul Muldoon.

Among the speakers was Pulitzer Prize-winning Irish poet Paul Muldoon.

Big-name writers discuss notions of beauty at the recent Singapore Writers Festival.

Beauty. Few words are both so simple and so complex at once. While most of us are able to recognise what we find beautiful – be it an object, a person, an experience or thought – very few of us are able to explain just what exactly beauty is. What’s more, each of us has entirely different interpretations of what we find beautiful, leaving us no further along on the path to unlocking what true beauty is.

The recently-held Singapore Writers Festival (SWF) 2014, however, seems to suggest the answer may lie at that murky intersection between life and literature; that perhaps our words, and our writings, may point to, if not what beauty is, at least what we make of it.

Of course, the festival’s theme, The Prospect Of Beauty, may not immediately appeal; it feels rather airy, even a tad twee. After all, aren’t there bigger issues our literature should be concerning itself with? Do we have time to loll about discussing the prospect of beauty when the world seems to be getting uglier around us?

Turns out, that may just be the point: to discuss, dissect, and subvert what these dichotomies represent.

Festival-goers at the Singapore Writers Festival 2014.
Avid listeners at a session. – Photos from the Singapore Writers Festival 2014.

With over 280 events featuring more than 200 authors through the 10-day festival, there was no shortage of ideas on and interpretations of this theme.

Feminist writer Naomi Wolf’s lecture, The Beauty Myth (based on her 1991 book of the same title), reiterated how standards of physical beauty functioned to subjugate women, while celebrated travel writer Paul Theroux, in his lecture The Roads I Travelled, sought a certain kind of beauty in the roads of the world.

Also bringing their own unique perspectives were the likes of Man Booker-nominated author Karen Joy Fowler, genre-bending writer Jonathan Lethem, science fiction/fantasy stalwart Raymond E. Feist, and environmental writer Barry Lopez.

Regional writers like Shih-Li Kow and Evelyn Rose from Malaysia, Conchitina Cruz and Paolo Fabregas from the Philippines, and Duncan Jepson from Hong Kong, meanwhile, provided views from closer to home.

In a word

Perhaps the most immediate connection with the festival’s theme, however, was the focus on poetry, which festival director Paul Tan said was an obvious fit from the beginning with the idea of beauty.

Among the notable poets in attendance was the Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Muldoon from Ireland, as well as Singaporeans like Edwin Thumboo and Cyril Wong.

Attending three-time US Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky’s “PoemJazz” session – a beguiling performance where the smooth rhythms of jazz are overlaid with Pinsky’s readings of his works – it is indeed difficult not to get swept away by the beauty of it all. This immediacy, it turns out, is highly prized by the poet.

“The more beautiful thing about poetry is that it involves the living person’s mind and body together,” Pinsky shared later in an interview.

“It takes place at that moment before you’re going to speak, where it goes from the brain to the body. And right at that moment, you start wondering how to say, ‘My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains my sense’, or ‘Three sorts of serpents do resemble thee’. And the beautiful thing is, right then, it is your mind and body, but you’re also recreating the mind and body of William Shakespeare, or John Keats, or Emily Dickinson.”

Comic book writer and artist David Hine at a panel session during the Singapore Writers Festival 2014.
Comic book writer and artist David Hine believes in ‘magic combination of words and images’.

Having authored 19 books, mostly poetry, Pinsky is also renowned for his translation work, particularly of Dante Alighieri’s The Inferno and The Separate Notebooks by Czeslaw Milosz.

Poetry, Pinsky believes, is far more accessible and wide-reaching than most people think.

“I think there is a comparison to be made here with dancing or sports. At a party or wedding, people will say, ‘I can’t dance’, and yet, a small child will just start moving to the music. Someone has to teach you that you can’t dance, or play sports, or read poetry.”

According to him, poems are meant to be read out loud, and as a former saxophonist, he brings an inherent musicality and immediacy to his works. His pet project, “The Favorite Poem Project” (, involves getting people from all walks of life in the United States to recite their favourite poems on video.

“The video and audio capacity of the Web brings a kind of restoration of poetry to the vocal. In the videos on you see construction workers, photographers, school custodians, reading poems. The thing I like about that is it’s not a performance; so much of our culture exalts performance, but poetry has an intimate nature, where anyone at all can give voice to a poem. It’s using one’s voice to manifest the beauty of this long heritage.”

That magic combination

Where some use words, others narrate with images. For graphic novel and comic book writer David Hine, beauty is created in the juxtaposition of words with pictures.

“The heart and soul of what I love about comic books is that magic combination of words and images,” says the British writer.

While best-known for his work on comics like X-Men: The 198, Spawn and Spider-Man Noir, Hine has an incredibly diverse body of work; his most recent titles include a graphic novel adaptation of Victor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs, interplanetary thriller series Storm Dogs, and meta comic-within-a-comic effort The Bulletproof Coffin.

US Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky performing PoemJazz, his unique combination between poetry and music, at the Singapore Writers Festival 2014.
Robert Pinsky offered a beguiling ‘PoemJazz’ performance, a unique combination of poetry and music, at the Singapore Writers Festival 2014.

Often overlooked in literary circles, comics, with their emphasis on the visual, have a more direct way of engaging with notions of beauty, allowing them to address issues related to it in a unique way.

Hine shares, for instance, his motivation for adapting The Man Who Laughs (1869).

“When I read the book, it was a very long, ponderous read, but there was such a wonderful story there. I wouldn’t have the kind of arrogance to say I could re-write Hugo’s novel, but I thought I could take that beautiful core story and turn it into something new. Hopefully, this would communicate with a much wider audience that wouldn’t have read it otherwise.”

Beauty, for him, isn’t simple.

“I have some pretty ugly characters in my works. I deal with mutilation, mutation, and I sometimes ask myself why I do that. But I do think I’m looking for beauty, for peaceful existence, all those things we aspire to.

“I don’t think you achieve that simply by drawing beautiful things or talking only about pleasant things. Confronting evil, temptation, disease, death ... the prospect of beauty lies behind that. The man who laughs, he’s so ugly because someone has brutalised him and disfigured his face, but that turns his face into a mask. And behind that mask is the true beauty of his soul, a heroic, humane, warm person. So I think ugliness can hide behind beauty, and beauty behind ugliness.”