The Reality Street: Book of Sonnets



This anthology of linguistically innovative sonnets written by British poets and edited by Jeff Hilson (a senior lecturer in Creative Writing in Roehampton University, London) is one of the books available for loan at the Leaky Pot Poetry Workshop recently.

It is not just another modern sonnet anthology. It delves more thoroughly into the myriad ways poets have stretched, deconstructed and re-composed the venerable form: free verse sonnets, prose sonnets, offbeat takes on the sonnet tradition and even visual and concrete sonnets.

Some points for me to remember:

  • The sonnet has become a focal point for some of the issues surrounding the so-called poetic wars.
  • As a form the sonnet is fiercely guarded; to disturb the sonnet form (14 lines, octave & sestet, rhyming couplets, volta etc) is to endanger the foundations of the wider poetic tradition.
  • Some sonnets are objects of fear and wonder.
  • Milton “cultivates” the Italian sonnet.
  • Wordsworth gives the form “organic life”.
  • Gerald Manley Hopkins gives more to a consideration of content.
  • Sonnets written by women poets are engaged in lyric ideology, beauty and pleasure. For example, Bernadette Mayer’s sonnets come in all shapes and sizes and refuse to be bound by conventional forms, except for her repeated use of the couplet.
  • The different linguistically innovative sonnet especially in other cultures such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Fro example, Peter Minter and Michael Farrell (Australians) use the sonnet to extend and consolidate, practise innovating with inherited form.
  • A radical defamiliarisation of the form, to “make it new” in poems by E E Cummings and Louis Zukofsky.
  • Syntax becomes increasingly disjunctive, disturbed by punctuation (hyphen-dashes, question and exclamation marks, italics, parenthesis, ellipses, colons, semi-colons and so on).
  • Effect is the opening up of a traditionally closed form. Content is led not by the traditional lyric subject but by letting language go.
  • Form is a heightening of poetic artifice but which the lyric subject is not natural or given by a performance.
  • Popularity of the sonnet sequence like those written in free verse and prose sonnets.
  • Sonnets are beautiful, as things “irritating annoying stimulating”.

Women on Men, Men on Women



I was attracted by the unusual design of the little palm-sized book called Women on Men, Men on Women compiled by Barb Karg – The front cover is in pink; flip it over and the back cover is in red. (It reads the same way – by flipping over.)

The first section (Women on Men)  contains quotes that show the battle of the sexes rages on as women continue to fight Napoleonic stigmas, such as

  • I resent men who are afraid of women’s strength. (Anais Nin)
  • Women are superior to men. I don’t even think we’re equal. (Barbra Streisand)
  • If you want anything said, ask a man. If you want anything done, ask a woman. (Margaret Thatcher)
  • Men aren’t necessities. They’re luxuries. (Cher)
  • Personally, I think if a woman hasn’t met the right man by the time she’s 24, she may be lucky. (Deborah Kerr)
  • Men are irrelevant. (Fay Weldon)
  • A man’s got to do what a man’s got to do. A woman must do what she can’t. (Rhonda Hansome)
  • Why are women so much more interesting to men than men are to women? (Virginia Woolf)

The second section (Men on Women) shows that the male species remains forever vexed by creatures of the fairer sex with quotes such as

  • Women are an alien race set down among men. (John Updike)
  • Being a woman is a terribly difficult task since it contains primarily dealing with men. (Joseph Conrad)
  • A woman’s guess is much more accurate that a man’s certainty. (Rudyard Kipling)
  • What would men be without women? (Mark Twain)
  • The society of women is the element of good manners. (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)
  • No one knows like a woman how to say things, which are at once gentle and deep. (Victor Hugo)
  • You don’t know a woman till you’ve met her in court. (Norman Miller)
  • Despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul, I have not yet been able to understand the great question that has never been answered: What does a woman want? (Sigmund Freud)

An interesting and easy read; good for relaxing the mind.


Unfree Verse



Unfree Verse: Singapore Poetry in Form is edited by Tse Hao Guang, Joshua Ip and Theophilus Kwek. Tse is the trainer for the recently concluded Leaky Pot Poetry Workshop series organised by the National Library Board. This book is among the first two recommended “texts”; the reason is quite clear:

The book deals with formal poetry and its development over time (the selection here is from 1937 to 2015) –

  • What is form? What is formal poetry? Poetry has a recognisable and repeatable structure, or that varies such structures for effect.
  • The two kinds of formal poetry are the Received and Nonce forms. The Received form possess a history of use and whose ‘rules’ have already been agreed upon, eg the tanka, the sestina and the ghazal. The Nonce form possess the potential to become Received, given time and usefulness; eg. ryhme scheme, regular meter, repeated syllables per line, concrete and shape poetry, the volta of the sonnet, anagrams, the liwuli‘s third questioning stanza.
  • Harmony between form and content (whether subject matter fits its repetitive structure).
  • Sound, especially fixed meter and rhyme.
  • Historical/ cultural value.
  • Humorous, political, lyrical meditations, religious devotions, avant-garde language poems; new content eg Malayan landscapes, situations, people and concerns, new/rediscovered forms eg Twin Cinema, the liwuli and the empat perkataan.

There is a Glossary at the end of the book. Some that I ought to note and remember are:

  • ABECEDARIAN (which is an alphabetical poetic form; the first line begins with the letter “a”, and the ensuing lines follow sequentially through the alphabet)
  • GHAZAL (A poetic form of autonomous couplets. Each line contains the same meter, each couplet rhymes, and the second line of each couplet repeats a refrain. The poet’s name is conventionally featured in the last couplet.)
  • HAIKU (A syllabic form consisting of three lines of five, seven and five syllables. the haiku is usually separated into two parts by a cut, which can be a “cutting word” or punctuation, across which there is sharp juxtaposition of images or ideas.)
  • SONNET (A 14-line form written in iambic pentameter and adhering to a strict rhyme scheme. The most common forms include the Petrarchan, which consists of and octet (rhymed abbaabba) and a sestet (rhymed cdcdcd or cdecde) with a turn in between; and the Shakespearean, which consists of three quatrains (rhymed abab  cdcd efef) and ends with a heroic (gg) couplet.)
  • TWIN CINEMA (A form originating in Singapore consisting of two separate columns of poetry of equal lengths. Each line of one column contains imagery relating to the corresponding line of the other. Variants are readable horizontally across both columns, as well as vertically down each discrete column.)
  • ZOETROPE (An abecedarian format originating in Singapore. It is a 26-line poem with each line comprising words containing a common letter. Words in the first line contain a, words in the second line contain b, and so forth, till the last line which comprises words with z in them.

19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei



19 Ways of  Looking at Wang Wei by Eliot Weinberger is recommended by Tse Hao Guang (trainer, The Leaky Pot Poetry Workshop series) for the segment on Crossing Languages. The 19 translations are “individual translations that are relatives, not clones, of the original. The relationship between original and translation is parent-child. And there are, inexplicably, some translations that are overly attached to the original and others that are constantly rebelling”.

Of all the translations in the book, I like only the translated one by Gary Snyder in 1978:

Empty mountains:

no one to be seen.

Yet – hear –

             human sounds and echoes.

Returning sunlight

             enters the dark woods;

Again shining

             on the green moss above.


The last piece of homework is to translate the poem. Though I’ve already got one done almost two years ago (Deer Enclosure), I still came up with four versions in the last few days:

1) No one can be seen on the empty hills

But  people’s conversations are echoed

The shadows return deep into the forest

Reflecting again the green moss above

2) No one on the empty mountain

But sounds of voices echoed

A brightness re-enters the deep forest

Again reflecting the black moss above

3) Empty mountains, no one in sight

The echoes of human voices are heard

A brightness returns to the deep forest

To shine again on the green moss above

4) Nobody is seen on the empty hills

But conversations echo through

A brightness enters the deep forest

Reflecting the green moss on top


I’m not sure which version, or any, to share at the session tomorrow. To be honest, I actually prefer the one I did almost two years ago.


Ravishing DisUnities



Ravishing DisUnities: Real Ghazals in English edited by Agha Shahid Ali (1949-2001; a poet from Kashmir who writes in Urdu and English) is one of the Recommended Texts for The Leaky Pot (a series of Poetry Workshops). The phrase Ravishing DisUnities is also used by the trainer of this series in his poem (line 16):



The ghazal is a traditional Arabic form of poetry. It has become popular among contemporary English language poets. It is widely misunderstood. Intricate and self-reflexive ghazals brings a unique set of challenges and opportunities.

Some points I gathered from the book:

  • A ghazal is a poem of 5 – 12 couplets.
  • It contains no enjambments between couplets. What links these couplets is a strict formal scheme; i.e. SAME rhyme and refrain.
  • Each line must be of the same length.
  • A ghazal requires internal rhyme, the inevitable refrain.
  • The scheme of rhyme and refrain occurs in BOTH lines of the first couplet and then ONLY in the second line of every succeeding couplet.
  • There is constant longing, immense lyricism, evocation, sorrow, heartbreak and wit.
  • Final lines (the last couplet) = signature couplet = invocation of tragedy; meaning an end is not in sight.
  • The very structure of the poem disallows closure.
  • Experiments must happen.
  • Introduce stability to a poetic form.

Tse Hao Guang (the poet’s first name, Hao, is blacked out in the poem above) has observed all these features in his Party Pooper Ghazal.

The Woman Left Behind


The Woman Left Behind is another compelling romantic suspense novel by Linda Howard.  The pace of the story is exciting, the characters likable and the thrills non-stop.

Jina Modell works in Communications for a paramilitary organisation and she really likes it. Then she is drafted for field operations as an on-site drone operator with GO-Team. She must go through and pass rigorous physical training to keep her job. Team leader Levi Butcher aka Ace dubs Jina Babe and does not have much confidence in her. A powerful Congresswoman works to set a trap to ambush Levi’s squad in Syria. When the base is suddenly attacked with explosives, Jina is alone and has to figure out how to escape the enemy. The team thinks she is dead but Levi never leaves anyone behind…

There is an instant spark between Jina and Levi the moment they meet but their professionalism means they concentrate on their training and job. So this is like a forbidden romance which adds to the force of attraction and tension between them.

Much of the story focuses on Jina’s training, getting in battle-ready shape, and overcoming challenges. Levi is hard, focused, protective and possessive, but a good man underneath it all.

I have always enjoyed Linda Howard’s books, but much as I liked this one, I wouldn’t say it is one of her best. But then perhaps it has something to do with the fact that I usually don’t like reading military-themed books. And perhaps because I hadn’t read the first book in this series, Troublemaker, which I hope to find at the library in the near future.


Camino Island



It’s been many years since I last read a John Grisham novel because I had had enough of his legal thrillers with a kind of “formula” at that point. However, when I saw Camino Island I told myself  I would read it because the synopsis sounded different from the rest. Am I glad I made that decision.

The focus here are stolen books, and I love books. The loot of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s five manuscripts (The Beautiful and Damned, The Love of the Last Tycoon, The Great Gatsby, Tender is the Night, This Side of Paradise) is insured for $25 million, but priceless to Princeton University. These are buried in a high security vault deep in the basement of the university which a gang of five thieves managed to remove in a daring heist.

Bruce Cable, a 40-something-year-old successful bookstore owner on Camino Island, is also a dealer in rare books who occasionally dabbles in the black market of stolen books and manuscripts. He is married to Noelle Bonnet, a designer/decorator/writer from France. She has a pivotol role in the plot which I shall not divulge.

Mercer Mann is 31, an adjunct professor of freshman literature at the University of North Carolina with two weeks’ tenure left. She has previously published a book, and takes a sabbatical to write, ending up at Camino Island in Florida, where she used to spend her summers with her grandmother.

Elaine Shelby is one of the many people Mercer meets on the island. Elaine offers Mercer a generous amount of money to go undercover to infiltrate the business and social world of Bruce. ……

The story gives an interesting insight into the craft of writing. The characters are an interesting mix, the plot transitions smoothly from the rough and tumble of a heist to a more peaceful and emotional setting. The reader is absorbed into Mercer’s inner turmoil and self discovery. The emotions and sentimentality are well balanced with the criminal element.

Some of my favourite passages from the book:

  • Some writers are seasoned raconteurs with an endless supply of stories and quips and one-liners.Others are reclusive and introverted souls who labour in  their solitary worlds and struggle to mix and mingle.
  • Writers are generally split into two camps: those who carefully outline their stories and know the ending before they begin, and those who refuse to do so upon the theory that once a character is created he or she will do something interesting.
  • Why do writers suffer so much? … it’s because the writing life is so undisciplined. There’s no boss, no supervisor, no time clock to punch or hours to keep. Write in the morning, write at night. Drink when you want to.
  • Cable’s Rules for Writing Fiction, a brilliant how-to guide put together by an expert who’s read over four thousand books … I hate (books that start with) prologues… something dramatic like a killer stalking a woman or a dead body, then will leave the reader hanging, go to chapter 1, which, of course, has nothing to do with the prologue, then go to chapter 2, which, of course, has nothing to do with either chapter 1 or the prologue, then after about thirty pages slam the reader back to the action in the prologue, which by then has been forgotten … Another rookie mistake is to introduce twenty characters in  the first chapter. Five’s enough and won’t confuse your reader. Next, if you feel the need to go to the thesaurus, look for a word with three syllables or fewer. I have a nice vocabulary and nothing ticks me off more than a writer showing off with big words I’ve never seen before. Next, please use quotation marks with dialogue, otherwise it’s bewildering. Rule Number Five: Most writers say too much, so always look for things to cut, like throwaway sentences and unnecessary scenes
  • There should be a rule in publishing that debut novels are limited to three hundred pages, don’t you think?

This is a novel about the world of bookstores, publishing and writers that is definitely worth reading. (Books mentioned include The Convict and Other Stories by James Lee Burke, In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, The Collected Poems by Emily Dickenson, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, Soldier’s Pay and The Sound and The Fury by William Faulkner, The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett, The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemmingway, The World According to Garp and The Cider House Rules by John Irving, The Lonely Silver Rain and Darker Than Amber by John D. MacDonald, The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer, Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West by Comac McCarthy, The Last Picture Show and Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry, The Moviegoer by Walker Percy, Goodbye, Columbus and five Short Stories by Philip Roth, Cup of Gold by John Steinbeck, The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron, The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan, War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler, A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf.)




Careless is Deborah Robertson’s debut novel, and the blurb looks promising enough for me to want to read it. The story follows the lives of four protagonists who have all been touched by grief and despair, drawn together by a tragic event. The intimacy of a family’s heartache is combined with the suspense of a thriller.

There are three story lines, and once they come together, dealing with grief, loss and the aftermath of traumatic events, the plot is rather intense. However, I somehow don’t like the style of writing, and I turn the pages quickly just to find out the ending, not really savouring the words.

As this book was published more than a decade ago, I’m sure there are other titles by the same author, but I’m unlikely to read any of them anytime soon.

Princess: Stepping Out of the Shadows


I consider Jean Sasson a good author, and I enjoyed a few of the books in the Princess series, especially the first one, A True Story of Life Behind the Veil in Saudi Arabia. (I read it more than two-and-a-half decades ago, and the fact that I still consider it one of the best books I’ve read says something.)

This book is told from the point of view of Princess Sultana, and is about her life, the history of Saudi Arabia, their lifestyle and changing social situation, and fighting for women’s rights. It is about how, despite positive news on civil rights reforms, Saudi women still suffer physical and psychological abuse and have little legal protection due to their archaic guardianship laws.

The book deals with the huge challenges faced by these women, their fight against discrimination, lack of respect, as well as legalised violence such as female infanticide as daughters are considered the greatest curse.

Extreme wealth seem to make life more bearable for Saudi women, but what about those who live outside the palace walls? Or even the Princess’s female servants?

Lighthouse Beach



Always on the lookout for new authors, my interest was piqued when I saw this book with a lovely cover. I looked at the blurb and it said something about friendship, love and a journey of self-discovery. Sounds promising. Alas, with great expectation comes great disappointment.

The story begins in summer in Maine. Lillo Gray has just arrived at the most exclusive hotel there. She has been invited to the wedding of Jessica Parker, whom she’d met when they were unhappy 8-year-old girls at fat camp in the summer, till they were 14. Two other friends, Allie and Diana have also been invited to the posh wedding. The four of them caught Jessica’s fiance flagrante delicto in the parking lot, but Jessica needed Lillo to stand up for her especially since Jessica’s parents are always trying to undermine her self-esteem. Jessica is docile, malleable, always apologising for her shortcomings and promising to try harder and doing whatever to please her parents. And her parents want her to marry this scum bug from a rich family. Jessica has always been insecure and always caved to a stronger person, and the three friends together are like the three witches in Macbeth. All of them escape to Lighthouse Island, hoping to figure out what Jessica should do next.

This is about the most interesting bit in the book, and it is just the beginning. What happens at the Lighthouse Beach are either too predictable or unrealistic. Some parts are too lengthy and the pace a tad slow. It is so ‘relaxed’ that it feels much longer than 400 pages. Even at the end, it feels like there are a lot of loose ends that still need tidying up. If this is a deliberate ploy to get readers to read its sequel, I’ll pass.

I’m not sure I would want to read the earlier books by the same author, either.