Cultural Medallion winner, Dr Anne Lee Tzu Pheng, speaking at CANA’s Talk of the Town event on Aug 20.Cultural Medallion winner, Dr Anne Lee Tzu Pheng, speaking at CANA’s Talk of the Town event on Aug 20.
What happens when you put a poet and a moderator armed with a psychology degree in a room full of people? Evidently a delightfully engaging evening where stories are shared, experiences recounted and, of course, the unique opportunity to hear the poet’s voice breathing life into written words.

CANA’s latest Talk of the Town event, featuring Dr Anne Lee Tzu Pheng, was held on Aug 20 at the Catholic Centre’s Crossings Café.

Dr Lee is one of Singapore’s pioneering poets who has nurtured and inspired a whole generation of poets. She was awarded the Cultural Medallion for Literature in 1985 and is a founding member of the Catholic non-profit organisation, CANA.

She is now a retired associate professor of the National University of Singapore’s English Department.

Dr Lee is also a professed member of the Secular Franciscan Order, and her Catholic faith was evident as she shared about the interplay between faith and poetry.

She candidly recounted two tough patches in her life, which she termed the “dark night of the soul”. It was coming out of the first that led to a sudden prolific spell of writing after 14 years.

The second was a serious three-year crisis of faith.

In both cases, the Word of God played a significant part in the recovery of her faith and writing.

When asked about evangelisation through poetry, Dr Lee said that for a Catholic poet, it is more important first of all to be a good poet, to learn and hone one’s craft. To write poorly does a disservice to one’s faith, she said.

One’s beliefs can only make an impact if they come through as a natural manifestation of who one is in the poetry, she explained.

Speaking of her constant awareness of the hand of the Holy Spirit in her writing, she shared how she believes the Holy Spirit provided her with some lines to end one of her poems when she was experiencing some difficulty.

The audience was also treated to heartfelt and nuanced readings of Dr Lee’s poetry by the poet herself. The wordsmith wove her spell and her poems coloured the evening with tongue-in-cheek sass (“Why is your poetry so normal?”), poignancy (“Carmelites At Auschwitz”), introspectiveness (“Revisioning”) and a touch of irreverence (“God”).

Mr Eddie Koh, a literature teacher and a fan of Dr Lee’s work since his undergraduate days, said the evening was “an insightful look into the person behind the books” and her “craft, faith and life experiences”.

Ms Ester Koh said she was deeply impressed by Dr Lee’s faith and how it connected with her poems.

Five of Dr Lee’s books are on sale at CANA, 55, Waterloo Street #02-01 (https://www.facebook.com/CANA.SINGAPORE).

They are Standing in the Corner (2014), $18; Soul’s Festival: Collected Poems 1980-1997 (2014), $24.95; Catching Connections (2012), $13; Short Circuits (2012), $18; and Sing a Song of Mankind (2012), $18.

By Michael Nathanael Chee

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