Marylyn Tan Reads at the Athenaeum

On November 1, the Athenaeum hosted a reading with Singaporean poet Marylyn Tan. Her visit was co-sponsored by the Athenaeum, The Georgia Review, UGA Press, and the Willson Center. Tan read from her collection Gaze Back, which was published in the U.S. by Georgia Review Books. This collection won Singapore’s most prestigious English-language poetry prize, marking the first time a woman has ever received the award. 

Sarah Shermyen, a graduate editor at The Georgia Review, introduced Tan, remarking on how Tan’s work is able to “give voice to shared trauma” and can function as “a manual for readers.” When Tan came to present her work, she thanked Shermyen and explained that she felt seen and understood by the introduction.

Tan began her reading with her poem “Bedroom Nude Coffee Table Book” and then read from her poem “Cursing the Fig Tree.” The audience was especially riveted by her second poem, which addressed her Catholic background. Today, she engages with the occult, but she said that her occult practice grows from the traditions of Catholicism. In this poem, she imagines Jesus as a teenage girl to raise questions about bodily autonomy and sacrifice. She concluded her selections from Gaze Back with “Unicode Hex,” which she called the most experimental part of her collection. Tan said she wrote this poem because she is interested in unconscious imagery and how the unconscious mind communicates with the conscious mind.

Following the reading, Tan answered several audience questions. Many people were curious about Singapore’s cultural, linguistic, and literary landscapes. One person commended Tan for her courage in publishing Gaze Back, but Tan asserted that her work is not courageous as much as it is necessary. Tan also shared a poem from her upcoming chapbook, which focuses on Catholicism, Oscar Wilde, and queerness. After the formal portion of the event ended, audience members were able to mingle and have Tan sign their books.

—Maggie Carlton