Kagan Goh’s breakout season
Vancouver artist connects with audiences through film, spoken word
My goal as an artist is to inspire excitement, fun and play. I also value the power of art to heal.
FILMMAKER/ POET/ ARTIST
“I see an escalator descending and ascending from heaven. The cogwheels turn and churn in a madness of productivity. And I am not riding on it! And I am not riding on it! The cast iron heart of the city pounds: CACHUNK! CACHUNK! CACHUNK! Driving a million iron nails into my head as the day grinds away oblivious to my existence.”
— From The Day My Cat Saved My Life, by Kagan Goh
Kagan Goh is having a good season. The Singapore- born, Ryersontrained filmmaker, performance poet and prose stylist will see two of his documentary films, Stolen Memories, and Breaking the Silence featured in a double bill May 17 at the Britannia Shipyards National Historic Site in Richmond. Both films deal with the internment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War. The topic is close to Goh’s heart.
In a work called Aki’s Poem, about the rebel Japanese internee who is the protagonist of Breaking the Silence, Goh writes: “He was not a criminal but he was treated like one/ His family considered him a black sheep/ The community was ashamed of him/ When he died lonely of a broken heart, the community buried him and hoped their shame would be buried with him.”
Festival Access Asie in Montreal will be screening Stolen Memories on May 15.
Goh, a soft- spoken man in his early 40s, has been honing his set of creative talents for decades, since his arrival in Vancouver in 1986. He has made provocative films on the proverbial shoestring budget, performed his signature brand of courageous, moving spoken word poetry at small venues and found adventurous publishers for his written work.
“My goal as an artist is to inspire excitement, fun and play,” he said in a recent conversation in a west side coffee shop. “I also value the power of art to heal.”
Goh was diagnosed with manic depression at the age of 23. The condition — which he chooses not to call an illness — has informed much of his work.
He comes from a family of artists. His father Goh Poh Seng was a writer and arts impresario in Singapore, and his mother a painter. One of his brothers is a visual artist and another is a successful architect.
Last year, Goh read at an event sponsored by a writers’ program at Simon Fraser University where he came on stage to perform The Day My Cat Saved My Life. He was the hit of the evening.
In performance, Goh is a living vortex of energy and bright, propulsive language — like being close to a fireworks show.
In a few short minutes at the SFU reading, he took his audience vividly inside a manic episode. Poetry may, as Auden contentiously wrote, make nothing happen. But that night at SFU, Goh seemed to have touched the hearts of everyone and instilled a deep but unsentimental regard for the radiant agonies and excitements of the bipolar condition.
The prose poem ends tenderly with these lines about his cat: “I pick her up and hug her fiercely. I am a balloon flapping in the wind. She is my anchor. I can feel her heart beating as I turn and walk back home. She’s holding onto me and won’t let me go.”
Ask around town and you are likely to receive rave reviews of Goh both as an artist and as a person.
Jill Ineson, who worked with Goh on a peer support and education project for people living with mental health issues, said she was immediately struck by her co- worker’s “depth of understanding and compassion.”
Goh said he often has the experience — after performing one of his poems that touch on mental health issues — of people coming out of the audience to tell him how much his poetry reflects their own struggles with the bipolar condition and how moved they are by his work.
“I live for those moments,” Goh says.
Noted Vancouver spoken word performer C. R. Avery said he first met Goh at the “great garden parties” hosted by Goh’s father. Goh Poh Seng, a pioneer in English language poetry and fiction in Singapore, became a much loved host and convener of local arts community events. Avery calls Kagan Goh, like his father, a “man of the arts,” expressing particular praise for Stolen Memories.
Jamie Reid, a poet survivor from Goh Poh Seng’s generation, also has praise for Kagan’s films, and commented on the younger Goh’s skills as a social organizer. Reid said Kagan is “persistent at whatever he does.”
The only question about Kagan’s future, Reid said, is which of the many irons he has in the fire will be the most productive.
It seems clear, based on his impressive performances in many media so far, that whatever arts project Goh turns his hand to next will be high energy, shapely and infused with compassion. Kagan Goh is a talent to watch.