Thursday 31 December 2020

'Cross Over To Me': Our favourite Asian poetry from 2020!

At so many uncertain points over the past year, I've found myself turning to poetry for its uncanny ability to cut through the chaos of the moment. So many friends too (both writers and readers), have told me of how poetry has afforded them words of comfort or moral clarity amid the chaos of 2020. To round up the year at the Asian Books Blog, we asked four poets from around the world to share their personal picks for the 'Best Asian Poetry from 2020': resonant voices from a difficult year, that will carry us forward into 2021.  

– Theophilus Kwek

Mary Jean Chan: 

I have a lot of admiration for Will Harris’s RENDANG (Granta Books / Wesleyan University Press), which won the 2020 Forward Prize in the Best First Collection category. This is a debut that is by turns philosophical, contemplative and revelatory, and which rewards re-reading. One of my favourite poetic sequences in this collection is “The white jumper”, which reflects on a dream in which a white jumper recurs, touching on themes as varied as video games, race, Nietzsche and of course, the colour white:


Lid and lip are little words. Little
things, too. The short i associated with
lightness and pith.

“The pith of my system,” said Coleridge,
“is to make the senses out of the mind
– not the mind of the senses.”

The mind’s white
  rind, not the white
    rind’s mind.


Friedrich Nietzsche recounts a dream:

Once the distance between us was so small
you could have crossed over to me
by footbridge. 

            Cross it, I said to you.
Cross over to me.
            But you didn’t want to. 

And when I asked again, you were silent.

Now mountains and rivers have come
between us, and at the mention
of the footbridge you cry.

                                             (from “The white jumper”)

Mary Jean Chan is the author of Flèche, published by Faber & Faber (2019). Flèche won the 2019 Costa Book Award for Poetry and was a Book of the Year in The Guardian, The Irish Times and The White Review. In 2020, Flèche was shortlisted for the International Dylan Thomas Prize. Chan is currently Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at Oxford Brookes University.

ko ko thett:

How does one reconcile contemporary American poetry with the pre-Buddhist nat cult of Myanmar? The answer is Storage Unit for the Sprit House by Maw Shein Win (Omnidawn). In this exciting new collection of nat-themed poems, interspaced with ink illustrations by Mark Dutcher, Maw Shein Win goes back to her ancestral home, at least, in spirit. Her poems traverse between tangible spaces (Inya Lake, El Cerrito) and intangible spaces (the realms of nats) , between memories (as a child, I did not climb trees) and lived experiences (a detachment of hips, Jimi Hendrix Experience!). 

I suspect the poet has been to Myanmar in the flesh, and yet, lines such as “childhood / a burning kingdom / slap clap // pearl lantern /  bruised hands / clung to rowboat” mean that her Burmeseness is not short-changed. Maw Shein Win is a poet who “often collaborates with visual artists, musicians and other writers”, and her visual imagery in this lovely collection continues to delight me. 

There is a genre of traditional Burmese poetry called natchin, songs dedicated to nats. I am happy to pick this collection of American natchins, which has already gathered some critical acclaim and appeared on PEN longlist, as my favourite for 2020.

ko ko thett is a Burma-born poet, poetry translator and poetry editor for Mekong Review. He lives in Norwich, UK, and writes in both Burmese and English. 

Melizarani T. Selva: 

Hands down, the most powerful poetic energy I witnessed this year came from Kuala Lumpur’s homegrown livestream poetry fundraiser, If Walls Could Talk - Fever Dream Edition. On April 9, during Malaysia’s Movement Control Order, 21 poets from 7 countries, namely Australia, India, Philippines, Singapore, Syria, USA and all over Malaysia, embraced the virtual stage to raise funds for 600 refugee families. Within 3 hours of non-stop poetry readings, RM7,890 was raised for the purchase of groceries and basic needs. 

Having run ‘Walls’ for more than 3 years, my teammates Afi Noor, Daniel Cerventus Lim, Lily Jamaludin and I are still in absolute awe of the poets’ tenacity to pivot their poems and presence online in spite of timezones and irregular internet connectivity. Nothing could stop them from crafting the most wholesome multi-lingual pandemic-y poetry performances. We were also amazed by the roaring kindness of 1,100 strong live global audience who offered generous applause, ringgits and even a word/sentence to complete a social distance inspired ensemble poem, prompted by the phrase ‘Though I am not with you, I am…”. Some of our favourite moments were captured within the verses of Takahara Suiko, Bani Haykal and Ila and Omar Musa. If 2020 could be truthfully summed up in a poetry anthology, this would be it. 

Watch the show here

Melizarani T.Selva is a spoken word poet and author of the poetry collection ‘Taboo’. She co-founded If Walls Could Talk - Poetry Open Mic and co-published an anthology of 100 poems by 61 poets from Malaysia titled ‘When I Say Spoken, You Say Word!

Marylyn Tan:

My pick for best Asian poetry of 2020 is Mok Zining’s The Orchid Folios (Ethos Books). With a voice both cutting and considered in its articulation, Mok intertwines technical floristry with lyric sentiment, then wields it to pry at questions of language, society and the body. Mapping personal disparagements and devastations onto a painstakingly researched, multitextual geography, she reveals a Singapore narrative as engineered as a commercial orchid. I particularly love how she uses the storied history of the Vanda Miss Joaquim, and its questions of who gets to claim ownership, conquest and discovery, as the fulcrum upon which her practice of docupoetics turns, in turn investigating and splicing side-by-side (de-)colonial concepts and emotional intimacies. 

I feel I must also mention two other poems/poets that have stuck with me: Darlene Silva Soberano’s 'The Weekend', whose queer poetics make me 17 and nervous to touch the first lesbian I’ve ever encountered in the wild again. The gay-ass yearning and singular intimacy of ‘after you leave i keep looking over / to see if maybe you’re still here’ is a feeling I guess I’ve been chasing over and over in a time where everything feels so fever-same and the sanest thing I can do is write myself out of it. There is also Innas Tsuroiya, whose gorgeous poem Your Name Means Garden holds the lines “There is a story of faith somewhere, like / magnificent clash. What if what remains / was only a door for departure not for / returning. What if there could be both but / after you molder the globe." which speak to me, personally—a line of inquiry that interrogates g*d and departures is something I’ve been wrestling with, in particular, this entire harrowing year. 

Marylyn Tan is a poet and artist. She aims to build community and emancipate the endangered body. Her first title, GAZE BACK (SLP 2020; Lambda loser), is the trans-genre lesbo witch grimoire you never knew you needed. Find her @marylyn.orificial on Instagram.