Writing Poems Doesn’t Pay The Bills, Yet Poet Marylyn Tan Continues. Here’s Why

Marylyn Tan Gaze Back Poet Singapore

“You write because it’s inside you. And it hurts if you don’t let it out. And like what Audre Lorde said—I’m paraphrasing here—your silence won’t protect you. You have to talk about the things that matter to you,” replies Marylyn, when asked what motivates her to write.

Around this time last year, Marylyn published her debut poetry collection Gaze Back. It was nominated in the US-based Lambda Literary Awards which celebrates LGBT literature. It also got this glowing review from her mother: “Eh, it’s not very nice to write like that.”

Marylyn’s poetry isn’t “nice”, and she has no intention of making it more palatable for any audience other than her own. In one poem, she talks about nasi kang kang (a Southeast Asian version of a love potion). In another, she explores female body hair removal.

“I don’t see any value in being ‘nice’,” Marylyn says about her writing. “I don’t want to waste my time; I don’t want to waste other people’s time, so I thought I’d talk about things that are important to me.”

“And very often, the conversations that are important are also the conversations that are difficult to have.”

Marylyn’s work is intrinsically tied to her identity and experience being lesbian in Singapore. And it doesn’t come as a shock that she had to deal with homophobia and bullying as a teenager. But this is precisely the reason why she feels the need to write. And be heard.

“I realised [from my own experiences] that nobody is going to protect you, and you have to say something for others to realise that ‘Oh OK, there are these people who exist’,” she says.

“I wrote this book for myself, primarily, and for the people whom I see myself in, and who see themselves in me—who know what it’s like to exist in a way that isn’t often acceptable.

“And I’m saying this as a cis-gender Chinese girl. I know there are people out there who have it much worse, and I wanted to pay homage to that existence of being in a body that’s so often policed, brutalised, and demonised, even,” she adds.

Marylyn Tan Gaze Back

The seeds for Gaze Back were planted four years ago, when Marylyn was studying linguistics at Nanyang Technological University. It was there that she met assistant professor Divya Victor, whom she says is instrumental in her growth as a poet.

Divya eventually connected her with Ethos Books, an independent publisher in Singapore. And it came as a pleasant surprise to Marylyn that they decided to publish her book, because it was met with divided opinions during the initial read.

“I sent in my manuscript, and apparently, they all sat around the table, and half of them were like, ‘No, it’s too vulgar, we don’t want it’, and half of them were like, ‘Yeah, we want the book!’” she recounts with a laugh. “It was a 50/50 split, so I’m very grateful to them for taking that chance.”

Marylyn is more than aware that her book may not be on a bestseller’s list alongside Rupi Kaur or Lang Leav. In fact, when Gaze Back was published, her father—who got her started on her writing journey by encouraging her to write a poem a day—asked her why she didn’t write something “that will actually sell”.

“Poetry isn’t just to salve your pain, show you the comforting side of rain or a hot cup of tea on a balmy evening. Yeah, sure, there’s poetry that does that and I happen to find that boring, and that’s OK.

“Other people might find my poetry nonsensical or indecipherable, and that’s OK as well,” she says, completely unperturbed.

“We write for the voices that resonate with us, and we write for the people that will react to our poetry and be changed by it in some way. If somebody is completely and utterly changed by a Rupi Kaur verse, then good on them!”

“If I get mainstream attention, then fine. That’s good. But that’s never been the goal,” she stresses.

So what then, is the goal?

“To say the things that I mean to say, while being free to say that… that’s always going to be the goal.”

Photography: Brendan Zhang
Styling: Cheryl Chan
Hair and makeup: Zoel Tee
Styling Assistant: Melissa Lee

WATCH: Marylyn reads excerpts from her poem, BLADES NAMED DELILAH

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