We are very pleased to announce the results of the 5th Singapore Poetry Contest. Open to everyone who is NOT a Singaporean citizen, the annual contest seeks poems that use the word “Singapore” or its variants in a creative and significant way.
We received a total of 95 poems. The poems came from 21 countries around the world, one more than last year. The USA leads again with 39 entries (Pennsylvania 6, California 4, Alabama 3, Kentucky 3, New Jersey 3, New York 3, Colorado 2, Massachusetts 2, Texas 2, Utah 2, Georgia 1, Illinois 1, Michigan 1, Minnesota 1, Ohio 1, Vermont 1, Washington 1), followed by India 8, Nigeria 7, United Kingdom 6, Canada 5, the Philippines 5, Malaysia 3, Pakistan 3, Singapore 3, Switzerland 3, Brazil 2, Malawi 2, Australia 1, Austria 1, Bolivia 1, China 1, Ghana 1, Indonesia 1, Serbia 1, Spain 1, and Thailand 1.
First prize (USD100) goes to “At the Empress: An Epithalamium” by Mia Ayumi Malhotra (USA).
Second prize (USD50) goes to “What I Wrote Sitting at My Balcony” by Chinua Ezenwa-Ohaeto (Nigeria).
Third prize (USD20) goes to “An Elegy for Singapore, Michigan” by Cheryl Caesar (USA).
Congratulations to the winners! Enjoy their poems below. The Singapore Poetry Contest will return in May 2020.
At the Empress: An Epithalamium
by Mia Ayumi Malhotra
for V. and C., with lines
from Donne and de Bernières
Tonight, around this flowering tree, you’ve called forth
a family from across every sea. What draws us—not greed
but love—though aren’t we all a little touched by empire
on this island, where the simplest sentiment is complicated
by legacies of sultanates and settlements, invasions and trade-
winds across the South China Sea? Will we ever remake history?
This is a happy occasion, you say, but the words catch. How grief
cleaves the heart—or cleaves it to another. We are both one thing
and another—the beast’s fabled grimace, facing east across the bay.
At each table, the orchids’ flagrant, silky cheeks, arrayed
in decadent crests over the skin of a suckling pig, crisped
to a succulent sheen. Braised abalone, soup with sea whelk.
But this is no Far East fairytale. Your union’s a complex matrix
of geography, time zones—love’s practical, maddening calculus.
Your lives’ constant negotiation between Chennai and Changi.
What I wish for you: airiness—not a breach, but an expansion,
the ability to be more than one place at once. To be both soul
and substance—or rather, two souls, which are one—for always.
Can we still talk about beauty? Or truth? Maybe what I’m trying
to say is that on the banks of the Singapore River—flanked on
all sides by international titans of commerce, glittering cityscape
across the water—love isn’t breathless excitement, but roots
grown together, beneath life’s substrate—that which endures
after every other empire has fallen, been bought or traded.
The last song stills. We say our goodbyes. How to stand, ravaged
by distance, time—the ocean’s thunderous arc, breaking through
the lion’s teeth? Sometimes you have to break to hold the light.
This is not a poem but a prayer, a way to open the hands
and let the light in—take my whole life, too—there you stand,
hand in hand—dense evening air, birdsong, flowering tree—
not two but one—this, the moment—the choosing, the binding,
a flock of starlings, startled into flight—your roots entangled
beneath this new ancient city, built on the oldest foundations.
Judge’s comment: This large-sighted poem sets out to celebrate a marriage but finds itself entangled with the troubling history of the location of the wedding, Singapore within South China Sea. Powered by its questions and revisions (Will we ever remake history? Maybe what I’m trying to say is…), it seeks not just a celebratory song but also a tenable speech. The apt self-recognition that it achieves at the end is that it is a prayer. And how wonderful that the immediate trigger of that realization is an original perception of the Merlion statue, a perception that transforms an ersatz tourist attraction into a poetic icon for hope amidst the ravages.
Mia Ayumi Malhotra is the author of Isako Isako, winner of the 2017 Alice James Award, the Nautilus Gold Award for Poetry, the National Indie Excellence Award, and the Maine Literary Award. Her poems have appeared in numerous literary journals and anthologies, including The Yale Review, CALYX, and Indiana Review.
What I Wrote Sitting At My Balcony
by Chinua Ezenwa-Ohaeto
Each time I look at the mirror, I see
how my body can split into photographs.
And make an album of possibilities and retrospect.
Sometimes I wonder how I can be inside my dreams, yet outside it.
The rages of the moments I survive are stamped on my skin.
The earth spins: it doesn't change the price of tea in Singapore.
There is no one way into a home. no one way to reading a thing.
I read every poem the same way I look at people.
I read every poem the same way I look at myself.
I read every poem the same way I patch where I leak.
At the end, I will only become memories I have been carrying like a birthmark.
Judge’s comment: In our hyper-visual and hyperlinked world, what are we to make of the multiples copies of ourselves? How do we position ourselves in relation to our copies? How do we position poems, these things made of words, in relation to images? Ezenwa-Ohaeto’s poem asks these questions in the form of statements, and so achieves both a form of interrogation and a tone of quiet authority. The reference to Singapore adds to the centrifugal force of the earth’s spinning, but things remain the same in the country despite the spinning of the planet.
Chinua Ezenwa-Ohaeto is from Owerri-Nkworji in Nkwerre, Imo state, Nigeria, and grew up between Germany and Nigeria. After emerging a runner-up in the Etisalat Prize for Literature, Flash Fiction, 2014, he won the Castello di Duino Poesia Prize for a poem in 2018. He was the recipient of the New Hampshire Institute of Art’s 2018 Writing Award and 2018 scholarship to their MFA Program. His work has appeared in numerous journals.
An Elegy for Singapore, Michigan
by Cheryl Caesar
A city built on sand and metaphors,
as Petersburg was raised upon a swamp.
Your founding czar came also from the east:
Oshea Wilder tried to live his name.
Reaching peninsula, he called it island,
a hub to rival Asian Singapore,
and, more important, that big-shouldered burg,
the windy city built on mud, Chi-Town.
You had your little fifty years of fame.
At first you trapped small mammals for their fur.
And then you turned to trees, an endless fund.
Your wildcat bank made its own currency.
When bank inspectors came, you got them drunk:
brash as Tom Sawyer of St. Petersburg,
(Missouri) selling whitewash privileges.
And still you grew. They called you Ellis Island
of the Great Lakes.
And then Chicago won.
A brilliant sacrifice: by catching fire
she took your forests, leaving you the dunes.
You sold off every tree; thought they’d come back.
Or didn’t think at all, as people don’t.
Within ten years the sands had covered up
the last remaining building, though they say
one foolish Ozymandias stayed on,
acceding to his house by climbing through
a second-story window, while he could.
The literary ones called you Pompei,
though you had suffered no volcanic flow
but human greed.
But who are we to speak,
as we burn off the surface of our world,
as ice caps melt, and ocean waters rise
far past our second stories, and we stand
on rooftops and pretend it isn’t real?
Judge’s comment: Who knew that there once was a town in Michigan, USA, called Singapore? The relevant Wikipedia article does not explain why the founder chose that name. The history, so American, sounds so different from “Asian Singapore”’s. On another read, however, they don’t sound so different after all (“a city built on sand,” “a hub,” and even the “fifty years of fame”), as they are both enfolded, so the poem’s didactic conclusion has it, in the volcanic flow of human greed that wipes out the world before it.
Cheryl Caesar lived in Paris, Tuscany, and Sligo for 25 years, studied at the Sorbonne and taught literature, phonetics, and “civilization.” She now teaches writing at Michigan State University, demonstrates, and reads and publishes protest poems in the U.S., Germany, India, Bangladesh, Yemen and Zimbabwe.
Kid, People's Park Complex, Chinatown, Singapore, 2011. Copyright Jon Gresham. All rights reserved 2019. www.igloomelts.com.