An Interview with Jee Leong Koh

Q: You seem equally at home with free and formal verse. What appeals to you about rhyme and meter? What guides the shape of a poem for you?

A: A poem very often comes to me in the form of a first line, an iambic pentameter line or hexameter or free. Sometimes the poem comes as an image or idea, but I cannot begin writing until I have the first line. That first line guides the meter or the rhythm of the rest of the poem. And the first stanza dictates the size of the following stanzas.

I learned to write metrical verse under Stephen Dobyns, a free verse poet who has an uncommon grasp of his craft. Learning to write in meter has sensitized me to syllabic values, not just accentual qualities, but also length, timbre and pitch. Writing in rhyme has further developed in me an ear for poetry. Dobyns’s book of essays Best Words, Best Order meant a lot to me during my MFA.

I am also inspired by non-Western poetic forms I encounter. My next book Seven Studies for a Self-Portrait will end with a sequence of 49 ghazals. I have just finished a course with Kimiko Hahn on Japanese poetic forms. She introduced the class to The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, and that has inspired me to write my own zuihitsu, a miscellany that looks like prose but reads like poetry. The course has expanded my notion of form. I would like to get beyond the old distinction between free and formal verse, to work with disciplined openness to poetic possibilities.

Q: What did you study at Oxford?

A: English Literature. In the first year, I learned Old English and read Beowulf, as well as other poems and prose of that period. In each term I took one other tutorial, the Victorians in Michaelmas term, the Moderns in Hilary, and Literary Theory in Trinity. We met our English tutor in pairs, and discussed our reading and papers. The year ended with an examination called Honours Mods.

In the second year, like the other students, I read Chaucer in Middle English and medieval romances such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The other tutorials were on Shakespeare, literature from the Renaissance and from the seventeenth century. As in the first year tutorials, students chose the authors they wished to read from the period under study. At the time, we were either for John Donne or George Herbert. I was a Herbert fan, but now have switched to Donne’s side.

The third year was spent on the Augustans and the Romantics. The highlight of the year was the electives. For Special Topics, I studied American poetry: Whitman, Dickinson, Williams, Stevens, H. D., Plath and Sexton. I regret now not studying Pound then. For Special Authors, I read T. S. Eliot, and wrote an extended essay on him in place of taking an examination. I graduated in 1992 and there might have been changes to the curriculum since then. My studies at Oxford were traditional but they helped me see English Literature as a whole.

Q: I read an account online once of a student at Oxford whose professor wanted to flunk him out, but the student begged and pleaded for a second chance, so the professor said okay, but you’ll have to take a caning from me at my house after school. Did that sort of thing ever happen to you at Oxford, and if so, would you please describe it?

A: Unfortunately, no. A female friend did report that her male tutor’s trousers were unzipped during her tutorial. He was the same man who remarked that in my paper on love in Marlowe’s “Hero and Leander” I somehow managed to ignore Neptune’s lascivious attentions to Leander. I don’t think he was trying to hit on me.

Q: What do you do for a living? What do you think of as your primary vocation?

A: I taught for eight years in a public school in Singapore, and thought that teaching was my vocation. Now I think of myself primarily as a poet and teaching as an honorable means of subsistence. Teaching full-time in an independent school in Manhattan gives me the stability I need to write.