Showing posts with label Jennifer Wong. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Jennifer Wong. Show all posts

Wednesday 28 April 2021

Through Teachers' Eyes (Part 2!): Bringing Asian Poetry into the Classroom

Editor's note: In last month's column, we asked two writers and educators, Inez Tan (in California) and Ann Ang (in Singapore), to each tell us about an Asian poem that they loved teaching. Their reflections on poems by E.J. Koh and Toeti Heraty, respectively, proved to be a hit – so we're back this month with two other writers and educators, Jennifer Wong (in the UK) and Esther Vincent Xueming (in Singapore), writing about how they've brought Asian poetry into the classroom. Enjoy! 

Left to right: Jennifer Wong, Ocean Vuong, Esther Vincent Xueming, Ow Yeong Wai Kit


Esther Vincent Xueming on Ow Yeong Wai Kit 

I first stumbled upon Ow Yeong Wai Kit’s “Elegy for a Silent Stalker” when he sent it in to The Tiger Moth Review back in 2019. Written after Kay Ryan, who describes her own poems developing “the way an oyster does, with an aggravation” (Poetry Foundation), Wai Kit’s “Elegy” similarly aggravates the reader with its opening line: “Who wouldn’t be a polar bear in the tropics?” Perhaps what is so appealing to me about “Elegy” is its overtly critical attitude about the unnaturalness of keeping animals in captivity, which resonates with me as an animal lover.

Since then, I have used this poem at workshops for teachers, and written about it alongside Shucolat’s Tribute to Inuka in a recent issue of enl*ght. When the opportunity came for me to design a poetry unit for my Year 4 students this year, I decided to teach “Elegy” comparatively alongside a poem of mine, “Falcon” in an ecopoetry-themed lesson. I began the lesson by introducing the poets, and gave students a common working definition of ecopoetry. We noted that an ecopoem had to be both “environmental” and “environmentalist”, in that it had to be about the “nonhuman natural world”, “ecocentric, not anthropocentric”, and set in an environment “implicitly or explicitly, impacted by humans” (Poetry Foundation). Rhetorically, it should be urgent and unsettling. With these understandings in mind, I gave students a brief account of Inuka’s life, and shared some photographs that characterised Inuka in specific ways: as a cub bonding with his mother, relishing his (supposedly) favourite meal of watermelon ice cake and finally, with a strip of green running down his spine where algae had grown, to show how unsuited he was to a tropical climate. I cannot over-emphasise the importance of contextualisation, which helps students recognise how poems are cultural artefacts belonging to a larger ecosystem beyond the page and classroom.

We then read the poem and focused on two key themes: the ethics of keeping animals in captivity, and the relationships between humans and nonhuman beings (and our obligations towards them). The class was given a few minutes to share their responses with each other in pairs, and we then reconvened to look at the second poem, “Falcon”, in a similar way. After that, students were broken into larger groups to compare the two poems, using the following questions (from the Poetry Moves Teaser Booklet) as a guide:

  • What similarities do they share in terms of purpose, message, stylistics (literary features), theme?
  • How are they similar or different in terms of cultural and historical contexts?
  • How are they different in terms of purpose, message, stylistics (literary features), theme?
  • How does reading two poems together change/complicate/contradict your understanding of each poem’s purpose, message, stylistics (literary features), theme?
Using their mobile phones, they captured their group’s responses into a Google document in their Google Classroom, and in the interest of time, each group was then asked to choose one question from the four to present to the rest of the class. To consolidate their learning, I gave them a group essay outline task as an extension activity where they could choose to respond to either “Elegy” or “Falcon”. Interestingly, all except for one group picked the former with spirited essay outlines that demonstrated sound understanding of the poem’s themes and literary features. Their insightful personal responses passionately addressed the ethics of keeping animals in captivity.

All in all, teaching “Elegy” and “Falcon” comparatively allowed for students to deepen, expand and extend their understanding of the themes taught, and by comparing the two poems, they could refine and evaluate the poems’ differing perspectives. Not surprisingly, students’ responses are richer whenever they are able to examine a text in relation to other texts, making comparative teaching one of my favourite pedagogical approaches.

Elegy for a Silent Stalker
After Kay Ryan; for Inuka the polar bear (1990-2018)

Ow Yeong Wai Kit 

“Singapore's last polar bear Inuka was put down on Wednesday morning (April 25) after a health check-up showed that the 27-year-old animal's ailing health had not improved significantly... Inuka’s enclosure will be refurbished and might be turned into a sea lion exhibit.” – Straits Times, 25 April 2018

Who wouldn’t be a polar bear in the tropics?
A solitary last emperor, an Arctic ambassador
paddling a marionette dance in his own lagoon,
never to be laid adrift on dwindling ice floes
or having to forage for food scraps ebbing soon.
His shaggy pelt, his algae-ridden fleece glows
amidst rations of apples and fish. He lumbers,
the scraggly hulk heaving to bear his own weight.
Resting his neck on his hairy paws, he slumbers
in an air-conditioned palace, his jowls sagging
on artificial permafrost. He knows the tundra
is an inconceivable dream. He has no need to hunt
for an ursine paramour. Trudging across icebergs
of indifference, he licks his fur. Silently, he stalks
nothing more than his own shadow.

Jennifer Wong on Ocean Vuong 

My Father Writes from Prison’ is one of my favourite poems from Ocean Vuong’s collection Night Sky With Exit Wounds. Written in an epistolary style, it grabs the attention of the reader right away with the use of dialect, conjuring a sense of intimacy and an opaqueness of meaning. Here is the reimagined voice of a father writing from prison, and the use of the slashes helps to reinforce the fragmentary narrative, as if—traumatised by his experience of the war—the father cannot or will not be able to tell his son all that lies buried in his heart. From the confession of how ’I crushed a monarch midnight’ to the glimpse of ‘the moss-covered temple a shard / of dawn in the eye of a dead’, the images are tinted with feelings of guilt, sadness and tenderness. There is also the constant holding back of speech, of what is nearly on the tip of the tongue. The constant disruption of syntax helps to convey this, such as the way the slashes splice the poem into disjointed lines:

my hands that pressed the 9mm to the boy’s / twitching cheek I was 22 the chamber / empty I didn’t know / how easy it was / to be gone these hands

Through these disruptions, the reader realises—slowly and painfully—the level of violence being alluded to, and the father’s inability to tell the story. There is a visceral connection between the hands that destroy (‘my hands that pressed the 9mm’) and the body that is violated.  

Look at the way hunger is captured in the later part of the poem. The father addresses the son, saying:

I’m so hungry / a bowl of rice / a cup of you / a single drop / my clock-worn girl / my echo trapped in ’88 / the cell’s too cold

The longing shifts from physical hunger to the longing for family attachment, embodied in the imagery of ‘a cup of you’, while the body also longs for physical intimacy (‘my clock-worn girl’) in this unnatural and inhuman prison space.

When I teach this poem, I usually will ask my students to discuss and derive important elements of a prose poem based on Vuong’s poem, and how we can maintain a sense of coherence within the poem despite the seemingly disjointed narrative. I then ask them to write a letter to their family or their loved ones, revealing something that was hidden before. Afterwards, students are asked to break down the contents of the letter into more ‘poetic snippets’ by using slashes. Often, this will generate a fascinating jigsaw of meanings and metaphors.

You can listen to Ocean Vuong reading this poem here


Esther Vincent Xueming is the editor-in-chief and founder of The Tiger Moth Review, an eco-journal of art and literature based in Singapore. She is co-editor of two poetry anthologies, Poetry Moves (Ethos Books, 2020) and Little Things (Ethos Books, 2013), and is currently co-editing an anthology of ecofeminist personal essays entitled Making Kin (forthcoming publication, Ethos Books). Her debut poetry collection, Red Earth, which was a finalist for the 2020 Gaudy Boy Poetry Book Prize (New York), is also forthcoming with Blue Cactus Press (Tacoma, Washington) in Fall 2021. A literature educator by profession, she is passionate about the entanglements in art, literature and the environment.

Jennifer Wong was born and grew up in Hong Kong. She is the author of several collections including Goldfish (Chameleon Press) and a pamphlet, Diary of a Miu Miu Salesgirl (Bitter Melon Poetry 2019). Her latest collection, 回家 Letters Home (Nine Arches Press 2020) has been named the PBS Wild Card Choice by Poetry Book Society. She has a creative writing PhD from Oxford Brookes University and teaches creative writing at Poetry School and Oxford Brookes. Her poems, reviews and poetry translations have appeared in World Literature Today, Oxford Poetry, Magma Poetry, Poetry Review, Poetry London, PN Review and Asian Review of Books. She is currently also writer-in-residence at Wasafiri.

Read Nashua Gallagher on Jennifer Wong's latest collection here


Thursday 13 August 2020

Hong Kong, Inside and Out: Two Guest Poets Write Home

More than a year since pro-democracy protestors took to the streets in Hong Kong, the city has faded somewhat from headlines around the world, eclipsed by the uncertainties of a global pandemic and fast-changing events elsewhere. But for Hong Kongers at home and abroad, political and cultural upheavals on the island continue to take centre stage, while the fate of their city as they know it hangs in the balance. 

What does it mean to write from, to, and about a changing city? To start a conversation between writers within and outside the city, we invited two guest poets – one based in Hong Kong, to write about a fellow Hong Kong poet living abroad; and the other based overseas, to write about a fellow poet living in Hong Kong. Together, this pair of contributions reimagines Hong Kong as a larger, enduring community that transcends the island’s boundaries.