An Interview with Jee Leong Koh

Q: It takes guts to write a sexually explicit poem and put it out there for the world to see. Do you ever worry that certain relatives or colleagues might find your sexy poems and be shocked? And in general, how do you overcome your inhibitions when writing about something personal? Or is that even an issue for you?

A: It is not an issue for me. I wrote poetry when I was still closeted in Singapore, but those poems were bloodless things. I came out as a gay man in New York at the same time as I found my poetic voice. They are intimately related in my mind. My book Equal to the Earth testifies to that. Coming out is speaking out. It feels like the most natural, the most liberating, thing in the world.

At the same time, living far from Singapore, I am shielded from the immediate reactions of friends and family there. I do not have to put up with disapproving looks or snide remarks at work or during family get-togethers. The reactions that have reached me, from ex-colleagues, ex-students and cousins, have been uniformly thoughtful and encouraging.

What I struggled with was the effect of my openness on my love relationships. More often than not, I chose to publish at the expense of someone else’s privacy. I am not proud of this, but it felt like something I had to do. I have a strong will as a writer, and do not usually pass up a chance to make something interesting and beautiful.

Q: Some women poets I know of don’t like to be included in anthologies of women poets; they say it makes them feel ghettoized. You’ve been published in several gay-themed journals and anthologies. Don’t you realize those places are the ghetto, and that the only way to get out of the ghetto is to publish exclusively in journals run by good old boys?

A: I am very practical regarding this matter. As a writer relatively new to publishing, I submitted my poems to all and any places that might accept them, gay or otherwise. The more places I publish, the less I can be labeled as gay or Asian or what have you. I also do not wish to avoid publishing in gay places, as if I am ashamed to identify as such. I do want to take my place within the gay poetic tradition, enriching and complicating it. In this I take W. H. Auden and Thom Gunn as models, not only as writers of metrical verse but also as expatriate writers. I would like to think my work is individual enough to speak for itself, even when it appears between the covers of a gay anthology.

Q: Your first full-length collection, Equal to the Earth, was published last year by Bench Press. That’s you, right? Surely a poet with your publication history could have published a collection with a traditional press. Why self-publish?

A: The truth is that five years after my MFA I still could not find someone to publish what was substantially my thesis manuscript. I know of poets who try traditional presses for a much longer time, but I was impatient. I was nearing forty. Also, I could not get on with putting together my next book when the first still existed only in my hard drive. I finally decided to go with a small press, but the process proved frustrating.

Then I met John Stahle who designed and published the gay men’s journal of culture Ganymede. He encouraged me to self-publish using the print-on-demand online service called Lulu. Self-publication makes a lot of sense to me. I like having absolute control over the design and production of the book. I retain the copyright to my work and so can choose to reprint my poems in any format and medium. My work will never go out of print. Besides a reasonable commission to Lulu, all earnings come to me.

There are two common objections, I think, to self-publishing, one to do with distribution and the other with prestige. I do my own distribution, in a manner reminiscent of a door-to-door salesman. In my case, I use the online social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. I also keep an active blog called Song of a Reformed Headhunter. My aim is not to make huge sales, but to get my book into the hands of interested and discerning readers.

As for the prestige problem, I believe I am part of a trend towards self-publishing. Too many factors to recount here, many of which are familiar. But over time reviews, contests and fellowships will have to take into account self-published books, and I like to think I am helping that happen. And if it does not happen within my lifetime, still it can’t be too bad a thing to have done the same as Uncle Walt.

I’m glad that John Stahle persuaded me. A pioneer in self-publishing, he discovered and published many young gay writers, as well as reprinted gay classics for contemporary appreciation. He passed away in April, and is sadly missed.