Showing posts with label Poetry. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Poetry. Show all posts

Monday 24 April 2023

Sensing Visual Forms: Tse Hao Guang’s 'The International Left-Hand Calligraphy Association'

Editor's note: We're delighted to feature a review of Tse Hao Guang's latest collection by another gifted Singapore poet, Mok Zining. Tse was previously featured on the blog here, and has also written for us here. Thank you both for gracing our poetry column! 

“The International Left-Hand Calligraphy Association is a real place,” read the epigraph. “Please come in and touch everything.” Turning the page, I stepped in, finding a miscellany of things hanging suspended in the shifting light: a dragonfly wing, the words of Simone Weil, a landfill of folded plastic triangles, a Chinese idiom unstrung and reworked, rust disappearing at the oxidation of starfruit juice.

Such was my first impression of The International Left-Hand Calligraphy Association (Tinfish Press, 2023), a collection rendered with lightness and light. This second full-length collection by Tse Hao Guang contains poems composed in a visual form that evokes fluidity and looseness; rather than verses of lines, each poem looks more like a constellation of words and phrases bounded by the page. Seen through the lens of the collection’s title, the visual form of these poems evokes the brushstroke movement in certain styles of Chinese calligraphy, in particular the cursive and semi-cursive scripts.

At the same time, these visual forms also call to mind such modernist poetic interventions as erasure and collage, as well as the Fluxus experimentation with concrete poetry, of which John Cage’s ‘Lecture on Nothing’ is a precursor. Notably, Tse does not seem interested in the practice and idea of Chinese calligraphy as a “traditional” art form or pinnacle of Chinese classicism. This decentering of a uniformly defined Chinese cultural inheritance is evidenced by poems like and ‘is Chinatown your burden? limitless like the universe?’ and ‘two minute Buddha Jumps Over the Wall’. Rather, Calligraphy seems more interested in the possibilities that can be opened by rendering these found objects and languages in the intermediate spaces Tse occupies. A poem that demonstrates this generative stance is ‘this moment’, a free translation of the Chinese poet An Qi’s 《此刻》(cike), excerpted here: 

I was struck by how naturally the syntax of this poem, though very much inflected by the Mandarin, fit in Calligraphy. This free translation also brings a visual dimension that isn’t found in the original, lineated text. In their delightful mirroring of the sunlight “threading/ through” the rooftop, the words “17th floor/ 16th floor/ 15th floor” themselves seem to direct the eye to fall, as light, upon the architecture of the poem. Like ‘this moment’, Tse’s two other “free translations” of An Qi’s poems, ‘so & so’s terrace’ and ‘hands part when day is not yet light’, are certainly highlights of the book.

Calligraphy signals quite a departure from Tse’s first full-length collection, Deeds of Light (Math Paper Press, 2015), which featured the poet at ease in a range of formal poems. Revisiting Deeds for this review, however, I was struck by the pertinence of its epigraph, taken from Goethe’s Theory of Colours: “Colours are the deeds of light, its deeds and sufferings.” What carries over from Deeds is Tse’s visual sensibility – his careful attention to the quality, color, and movement of light falling on an object or a landscape.

In Calligraphy, this sensibility is heightened and made performative. Images mutate and transfigure effortlessly. Reading ‘this morning I woke up w/ a quick laugh like the sun’, for example, I found myself thinking it read almost like a script or storyboard for a video poem:

In the space of a page, Tse weaves together a poem that morphs effortlessly from the image of nails (intimate, mundane) to the sun and moon (celestial, symbolic, grand) and back to dust (infinitesimal). Facilitating this cinematic effect is the loose visual form, which enables an image to shape-shift by unsettling the fulfilment of the poetic line.

The visual effect is more impressionistic in other poems, with their abilities to craft a sensation of visual form. A good example is ‘which is when charcoal was passed from her body to mine’:

While reading this poem, I felt as if images that rhymed visually – “chalk-lines,” “a solitary stroke,” the land “between river and river,” “that narrow stroke/ of road,” and the very action of paring – were rising to the fore of my mind. Unlike ‘quick laugh’, ‘charcoal’ uses few transitions and connecting words to create visual development. Tse instead pares each fragment down to its visual bone before composing them in a stream-of-consciousness logic. Indeed, the experience of reading Calligraphy feels like we are following the speaker’s mind as it moves about the world, picking up on and stringing together a range of found languages and images – including AlphaGo, Stephen Chow films, the work of artists like Ivan David Ng. The book’s title is in this sense less an overarching representation of the project than one of the many found poems gathered for this collection, as Calligraphy takes its name from an organization in Katong Shopping Centre that supports left-handers who wish to learn the art of Chinese calligraphy.

Something could probably be said here about how the collection exhibits a sort of “lefthandedness” in its occupying of the space between media, between Sinophone and Anglophone poetic traditions, and between languages. However, this was also where I, a maximalist, found myself wondering if there was an opportunity for the collection to experiment more with visual form in this intermedia space. What might a visual composition that plays with the type of typographic research undertaken in the concrete poetry movement and Chinese calligraphic scripts (which include not just cursive and semi-cursive scripts, but also the oracle bone and seal scripts) look like, for example? What are some possibilities between typographic poetry and the work of artists like Wu Guanzhong or Lim Tze Peng? What if the collection took its own epigraph at a more literal level and referenced not just the name of the organization, but also its locale in Katong? Still, The International Left-Hand Calligraphy Association contains many moments of brilliance, beauty and whimsy, and I would be interested to see how its experiments with the visual might shape poetic practices in Singlit. 


Mok Zining is obsessed with random things: orchids, arabesques, sand. Her first book, The Orchid Folios (Ethos Books 2020), was shortlisted for the 2022 Singapore Literature Prize in English Poetry. Currently, she is at work on an essay collection, The Earthmovers.

Tuesday 22 November 2022

The Fringe and the Fabulous: (Personal) Highlights from the Singapore Writers Festival

Poet Ng Yi Sheng (front row) snaps a photo as Claudia Rankine and Nate Marshall share a lighthearted moment during their dialogue at the National Gallery

For the first time this November, the Singapore Writers Festival served up a three-weekend extravaganza of readings, workshops, launches and discussions that seemed even longer for being the first (almost) fully in-person edition since 2019. 

The Festival has always been special to me – a time of friendships minted and renewed in the snaking queue for a Jeanette Winterson panel, of ideas seeded and watered on the grass outside The Arts House – and I've written elsewhere about how my first taste of this in 2009 turned out to be one of the formative experiences of my writing life. This year, even as I joined the ranks of seasoned festivalgoers pacing ourselves through the initial excitement (all the better to muster up energy for last night's closing party), the Festival made good on what it does best: making room both on- and off-stage for new voices, daring and more than deserving to be heard. 

Thursday 28 July 2022

'Possibility and Communion': An interview with Jonathan Chan

Editor's note: When I arrived at the launch of his debut collection going home a fortnight ago, the first thing that struck me about Jonathan Chan was his voice; thoughtful and even, but with a hint of the self-assuredness that characterises so much of his writing. In the days since, I've been fretting about whether you – the reader – will be able to "hear" his responses to my questions as I hear them, with the same gentle conviction. But reading the interview in full, I realise I needn't have worried: the responses speak for themselves.  


Friday 3 June 2022

Making a Scene: Literary magazines and the editors behind them

For all its prestige, the editor's role is one that often goes unsung. 

Frequently serving as proofreader, designer, gatekeeper and publisher (all rolled into one), these individuals – like the vast majority of staff who keep our publications running – are often unpaid volunteers. Those who have spent years in the job accumulate stories of strange writerly encounters, while picking up a host of unlikely skills (e.g. HTML coding, customer support) along the way. Yet, they also gain some of the sharpest perspectives on our literary landscapes, and help shape the platforms that define movements and nurture new voices. If poems are the best words in the best order, they are the ones who place them in their best light. 

In this month's poetry column, we go behind the scenes with some of the editors at beloved publications like Wasafiri, OF ZOOS, Mekong Review and the newly-launched PR&TA(Where these individuals are part of larger editorial teams, their comments represent their personal perspectives.)

Saturday 23 April 2022

'Tastes Like A Bot, But Is Not': New poetry by Daryl Lim Wei Jie

Guest post by Laura Jane Lee

Daryl Lim Wei Jie’s sophomore collection Anything But Human is a provocative incantation of sensations and sensuality, of detritus and the mundane. The volume hails a marked departure from the poet’s momentous first collection, A Book Of Changes, landing it more on the irreverent, tongue-in-cheek side of things, as poetry goes.

Anything But Human takes its title from Wang Xiaoni’s poem ‘A Rag’s Betrayal’ (一塊布的背叛), in which she writes, “Only humans want secrecy / now I’d like to pass myself off / as anything but human.” (trans. Eleanor Goodman). With this epigraph and title, Lim ushers the reader into an immersive vignette of objects made strange. Amongst these are snapshots which one perhaps can only describe as “delightfully unpleasant” – an oxymoronic feat within itself – evoking  incomprehensible sensations in the reader’s body with lines such as “The cough caught in my / throat flowers into a bulbous alien fruit”. Lim’s poems boldly traverse regions of distaste and pleasure, a pleasure rooted in physicality skirting but narrowly avoiding the sexual; as when he writes “They call me a daughter of disorder. See you / at the dungeon later, dry but preferably wet.” 

Another prominent theme of Lim’s poems is the thrill of lush decay, speaking of compostable orchids and orangutans, richly marbled and melting sleep, and silverfish unmaking knowledge out of circulation. These are poems which run rife with the postapocalyptic stench of late capitalism, in both the domesticity of the compliant toilet and the dying oranges in the fridge; to the Costco-like supermarket of ‘Junkspace Rhapsodies’. Not only does Lim conflate the mundane and the grotesque (which are often not so different). In the poem ‘Cloisters’, he invokes the toasts bearing images of Christ and the Virgin Mary fetching exorbitant prices on eBay, and in doing so juxtaposes food, spirituality, and capitalism, arguably the primary non-human mainstays of contemporary society. While these brilliant and humdrum idiosyncrasies running throughout the book easily set Lim apart from most of his contemporaries, it is also against the backdrop of such deftly woven paradoxes that his inventive reinterpretations of Bai Juyi pale in comparison. The lacunose translations seem to lack the same urgent yet languid flippancy of Lim’s original poems, and would perhaps find a better home in a separate volume of similarly reinterpretive poems.

These shortfalls are few and far between, largely outshone and more than redeemed by the experience that comes with reading the rest of the collection. The reader is served enthralling sensations of putrefaction alongside slices of the quotidian, societal observations of the variety seen on SINGAPORE ON PUBLIC NOTICE (@publicnoticesg), as in ‘Narrative (II)’, in which the persona asks permission to pee on insects before doing so, and closely observes the plastic packaging growing out of bushes. One wonders if Lim is the very prophet he writes of in ‘The Prophet’s Day Out’ (for Wong Phui Nam) and ‘The Prophet’s Last Warning’; the reader can’t help but notice that the collection, written pre-pandemic, speaks of occurrences such as “Parliament is closed today, but so are / the KTV lounges” and “The air-conditioning doubles as disinfectant… The air-conditioning doubles as reinfectant”. 

For all the simultaneous sharpness and listlessness of his poems, Lim’s Anything But Human features lines of strange, shaking tenderness, all nestled amongst the debris. For visceral human emotions to feature amongst things which are “Anything But Human”, is for them to be heightened and distilled to a singular shade of essentiality and desperation. Equally interesting is the handful of lines strewn carelessly across the poems, which provide a provocative political commentary, issuing from the mouth of what seems to be a half-hearted commentator. Anything But Human is not without surprises – it is at turns most ostensibly human.

Upon this reviewer’s first reading of the collection on the MRT line, somewhere between Tan Kah Kee and Chinatown, she scribbled the following comment beside the first poem, ‘Expression of Contentment’:

"Tastes like a bot"

Perhaps the comment would now be better revised to: “Tastes like a bot, but is not.”


Laura Jane Lee is a poet from Hong Kong, currently based in Singapore. Under her former name, she founded KongPoWriMo, Subtle Asian Poetry Collective, and is the winner of the Sir Roger Newdigate Prize.

Her work has been awarded in various international competitions including the Oxford Brookes International Poetry Competition, Out-Spoken Poetry Prize and the Poetry London Mentorship Scheme, among others. She has been published and featured in journals and newspapers such as The Straits Times, Tatler Asia, HKFP, HK01, QLRS, ORB, and Mekong Review; and will be reading at the 52nd Poetry International Festival in Rotterdam, Netherlands.

Previous pamphlets include chengyu: chinoiserie (Hedgehog Poetry Press, 2020) published under her former name, and flinch & air (Out-Spoken Press, 2021).

Read a review of Laura Jane Lee's 'flinch & air' here

Wednesday 19 January 2022

Mesándel Virtusio Arguelles, an introduction to his Filipino poetry in translation


Kristine Ong Muslim recently translated Hollow (original title, Guwang), a collection of some of Arguelles's early poems written in Filipino. Mesándel Virtusio Arguelles’s works and interests encompass books, conceptual writing, translation, film and video, installation, found objects, and text-based experimentation and the poems in Hollow range from ekphrasis to Philippine history. One sample poem, "Deep Well" can be read in Asymptote [] and another, "Curse", in Circumference Magazine []

Here, in a guest post for the Translation blog, she offers the Introduction to Hollow, written by Amado Anthony G. Mendoza III and translated by herself.

Saturday 9 October 2021

Making Sense of Memory: In conversation with Parwana Fayyaz

Editor’s note: Parwana Fayyaz’s highly-anticipated debut was released earlier this year, titled ‘Forty Names’ after a gorgeous poem (first published in PN Review) that won the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem in 2019. In this conversation with the Asian Books Blog, she unravels the many strands of tradition and translation woven into the fabric of this collection. This short interview took place over email, and has been lightly edited for clarity. 

Congratulations, once again, on the publication of Forty NamesI read all the poems in one sitting yesterday, and the most distinctive thing about these poems, to me, is the striking narrative voice that threads through them. At times, this voice seems to belong both to the child in the poems, listening to some of these stories for the first time, and to you today, re-telling them many years on. How did these poems take shape, and how long did that process take? 

Monday 23 August 2021

On Being Blue: In conversation with the editors of 'Atelier of Healing'

Editor's note: Given the upheavals of the past two years, a theme that has surfaced repeatedly at discussions and readings of poetry is the power of the form to comfort and restore, especially when solutions or explanations seem out of reach. At an event organised by the Migrant Writers of Singapore last month, for instance, many poets responded directly to the themes of 'anguish' and 'loss', reliving and sharing catharsis through poetic encounters. 

For this month's poetry column, I spoke to the editors of a recently-launched online anthology on trauma and recovery, Desmond Kon and Eric Valles (who both previously featured on the blog here and here). Published by Squircle Line Press, Atelier of Healing is a free e-anthology, and may be accessed at this link

Friday 30 July 2021

Poems from a pandemic: Starting notes on a new (sub)genre?


My trusty webcam: indispensable for Zoom poetry workshops!

Earlier this year, I invited four poets and teachers – Inez Tan and Ann Ang, and Jennifer Wong and Esther Vincent Xueming – to each tell us about an Asian poem they love teaching. As is so often the case with such conversations, I was led to reflect too on some of the poems I’ve enjoyed discussing with students, in recent workshops for younger poets, migrant writers, or communities like ‘Writing the City’, curated by Jon Gresham. In particular, I’ve been thinking about poems that speak to what has surely been the biggest elephant in the (class)room for the past many months: COVID-19.

Monday 21 June 2021

The Burden of the Language: A third-language poet speaks


Editor's note: Our poetry column returns this month with a guest post by Yulia Endang, an Indonesian poet who works in Singapore. The following is adapted from Yulia's remarks at the Singapore Literature Symposium on 9th May (organised by the NTU School of Humanities' Singapore Studies Cluster), where she spoke on a panel on translation and multilingual writing alongside Tan Dan Feng and Annaliza Bakri

More information about the Symposium, and selected proceedings, can be found here


I was born and grew up in a small village in West Java, Indonesia. Our mother tongue is Sundanese. During my childhood, we only used Bahasa Indonesia (our national language) at school. For us villagers, it felt quite odd to speak Bahasa in our daily life though it was alright when we were in the class. We started to learn English at Junior High School, without even any basic English in Elementary School. 

I had the impression that English was strange language because the way words were written was often not the same as the way they were spoken. I never thought that I would one day be working abroad in a country where English is being spoken. All I knew was that English was one of the new subjects I had to learn, so I could pass the exam. I hated English, I always did badly for it. It never crossed my mind that one day I would be able to write in English and even win a trophy for it in a foreign land.

When I decided to work in Singapore in 2006, one of the things that worried me was language. At that time, the Singapore government still required an English Test for all migrant workers to obtain a Work Permit. I passed the exam on my first try, but the first few years here weren’t easy. 

I still remember vividly that at the employment agency, one expatriate family refused to even look at the Indonesian workers' biodata, nor did they want to give it a try by interviewing us. They just insisted that they wanted a domestic helper with good English. Our grasp of English was often being compared to that of people from our neighbouring country.

It was like living a new life in a new place for me when I came to Singapore, communicating and adapting with people with different cultures, food, and beliefs etc. I learned how to learn things, in order to survive living and working here. 


Unfolding days like a map 
In an unknown country
I could see more colors to be picked 
To paint my canvas of dreams 
Yet, I feel hopeless
Shedding my tears in a place 
So called ’bedroom’

Miles away,
How could I give up?
How could I return empty-handed?
Even though day has become longer 
Burden on my shoulder is getting heavier
But, I shouldn't give up 
Like I have no choice but to keep on going 
Mastering the map and find my road 

I know, dreams seem fading sometimes
Endless obstacles waving from every corner 
Again, I'm being a stranger 
A stranger to unexpected reality 
Spend my night battling the language 
While is a must to conquer recipes 
In the midst of understanding my fellow's story 

I trapped again and again 
In the endless road in a foreign country 

Adapting to a new place with a different language is a struggle for us as migrant workers. I tried to observe and find a way to learn the language here. Something which helped me so much to cope with my English problem was ‘writing’. I met some Indonesian friends at the Sekolah Indonesia Singapura (the Indonesian School in Singapore) when I was studying there back in 2014, joined their writing group on Facebook, and started to learn how to write poems in Bahasa Indonesia. 

Later on, writing gave me the opportunity to meet new friends from different countries, and left me with no choice but to study English more diligently. In 2017, a friend of mine invited me to take part in the annual Migrant Worker Poetry Competition, and that’s how it all began.

I attended a couple of creative writing workshops at Sing Lit Station, conducted by Jon Gresham.  Google and YouTube helped me a lot too. I watched videos on YouTube and imitated them to help improve my listening and speaking skills. I also signed up for classes with Uplifters where lessons are in English, to help myself improve. 

I started to learn how to write in English not because I had confidence that I had enough vocabulary in my head, but instead as a method for me to get better at English itself. Writing is a force for me to keep on learning this new-tongue, until now. These struggles along the way gave me the idea to write this poem, which I recited at the Migrant Workers Poetry Competition 2019 and was awarded the second place: 


All the letters, the words, the sentences 
Jostling in distress 
Fear written all over her face
Demanding by the test 
She felt tension in her chest 
About dreams that she chases 

With all hopes swirling in her 
She sat in a corner 
Feeling heavy burden on her shoulder 
Tried to figure-out the future 
That seems to be a little bit cruel

Her past has brought her here in an unknown country 
Thought she could dodge from calamity and insanity 
Little did she know that she will be welcomed by catastrophe 
While she has no idea what’s gonna be

All the letters, the words, the sentences 
Did you know the difficulty 
To embrace new vocabulary 
In our memory which is troubled by unclarity 
And yes, I found smile on some faces in different places 
Broadly welcoming new guests 
Left me with questions in my head 
as I didn’t hear any syllable being stressed 

But why, why you’re late to compare 
And end up with being unfair 
And you keep on delay until all the letters,
 the words and sentences perish 
Then the rule you demolish 
But you forgot to unleash 
The burden of the language

I feel more comfortable and confident these days with using English, though there is still more to learn. It was a little bit of a struggle when I first worked for an expatriate family as they knew nothing about Singlish, but they have been my biggest support. I was able to talk things out with them, and we often share about our lives in the kitchen when I’m cooking, or about my Sunday activities. I think being able to build a healthy relationship has been one of the rewards of my learning journey. In the past, I would hardly share or discuss anything with my previous employers. 

I heard a saying: “teaching is one of the best ways to study”. So, I have been teaching English to a small number of migrant friends. It is just a small little thing that I share with them, as I am also still learning the language. Sadly this pandemic has hit us hard, but we try to keep on learning over Zoom, with a small number of students. 

I hope this will motivate them to keep going and improve themselves, especially now when study can be done online, and on their own pace.  I’m happy if there’s something I can do for them as I know how hard life here is. After all -- I've learned a lot from them too. 

Note: In Singapore, the term 'expatriate' is often taken to refer to higher-income migrants, while 'migrant workers' refers to migrants in low-wage occupations. 

Yulia Endang is from Ciamis, West Java-Indonesia and  has been working in Singapore for almost 15 years. In addition to writing she enjoys photography which she posted on her social media platforms. Yulia was awarded second place in Singapore’s 2019 Migrant Worker Poetry Competition. As an introvert, writing has been giving her another open door to communicate and express her feeling, opinions and responds. Currently she is one of team leaders at Uplifters (a nonprofit which provides free online money management course for domestic workers around the world) and she also shares English with a small group of migrant workers on the weekend.

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


Tuesday 23 March 2021

Through Teachers' Eyes: Bringing Asian Poetry into the Classroom

Editor's note: Growing up in Singapore, my high-school literature curriculum as far as I can remember it – consisted of a steady diet of Sophocles and Shakespeare. It was not till much later, rooting through the shelves at libraries and used-book stores, that I encountered many of the tongues and voices of Asian poets for the first time. In this month's poetry column (just in time for World Poetry Day!), we hear from two writers and educators who are working to bring Asian poetry into the classroom. 

Here are Inez Tan and Ann Ang, on the Asian poems they love teaching. 

Left to Right: Inez Tan, E.J. Koh, Ann Ang, and Toeti Heraty



Saying “Poetry is what gets lost in translation” is a boring dead end. Here’s what I propose instead: “Poetry is what gets made in translation.”

Enter “Beyoncé’s Single Ladies English to English Translation” by E. J. Koh – singing, dancing, and completely redefining what ‘translation’ meant to me. I vividly remember reading that title and feeling explosions going off in my brain. Who knew you could ‘translate’ English to English, pop song to poem, meaning to other meanings? But then again, why not? In poetry, we’re often taking emotions, experiences, beliefs, hopes – in short, every kind of ineffable thing! – and putting them into words. Isn’t that a kind of translation?

In Koh’s poem, ‘translation’ involves inviting in new associations and figurative meanings. The romantic language of “I’m the one you own,” translated to “president of your body,” now expands to interrogate darker ideas of political ownership. Even so, you can still hear the original in there. And best of all, you can hear it in new ways.

The etymology of the word translate is the Latin translatus, meaning to to bring or carry over, across, and beyond. E.J. Koh’s relationship to English, Korean, and Japanese has everything to do her efforts to carry over a transnational family history, with all its complexities of pain, shame, and difficult love. But Koh’s background also includes hip-hop dance, political science, and Dante’s Inferno, all of which went into her poetry. Translation’ then, is also a way we draw on our whole selves – every part of who we are and what we know – in order to write from that entirety.

At the start of my poetry classes, I ask my students what languages they speak, and I make the case that their linguistic background is a real resource for their writing. At that point, they don’t buy it. Although my students at the University of California, Irvine are incredibly multilingual, they usually describe themselves in terms of deficiency: they speak some rusty Spanish or Vietnamese at home, they took some high school French but they’ve forgotten most of it, English is their second language so they’re not as fluent as a native speaker… A few weeks later, we read Koh’s poem, and I ask them again what “languages” they know, inviting them to think about that concept very broadly. And suddenly the floodgates open, and their answers are incredible: love languages (like touch or acts of service), painting, computer programming, screenwriting, Voguing, retail, memes, puns, gothic horror… They have the same revelation I had from Koh’s poem – wait, this thing I know, this can be part of my voice? This experience I’ve had is something I can claim? This, too, is something I can include in my poetry?

Of course there will always be a place for translations that aim to render a text accurately in another language, striving to faithfully reproduce the original content, form, and register. But Koh’s poem taught me that there is also room for the many other acts translation can comprise – connecting, resonating, revealing, discovering. And it’s pure joy to see how many possibilities open up when students recognize that these are all things they can do in their own writing, too. When my students finally try their hand at “translating” an English poem into another English poem, I am always amazed at how their writing sounds. It sounds like nothing I’ve ever heard before.

Beyoncé’s Single Ladies English to English Translation
by E. J. Koh

All the big beautiful women, bondage women,
divorced women, bisexual, transgender women.
All drug-free, gay, non-religious, Latter Day Saints,
social drinker, straight, widowed-with-kids women.

Look at the blue ceiling.
Dance because the ghost is gone.
Your husk was brutalized. It’s gone too.
You’ve left the bear, the torpedo, the poodle moth.
There is someone else now.

The man is an almond in a bloom.
Don’t touch his childhood.
3 years is not like a straw, it’s a house.
Find liberty somewhere else.

You didn’t marry the bear.
You didn’t marry the torpedo.
You didn’t marry the poodle moth.
There was no ring for you.
There will be someone else now.

Remember the blue light.
Remember the man.
You can hear him thinking
until he forgets who you are.
Call him the president of your body,
then show him how it must be
to be a president without country.

First published in 'A Lesser Love' (Pleiades Press, 2017); reproduced with the author's permission. 



Pronouns are powerful. In a poem, “I” signals to readers and listeners that the speaker is present, whereas “You” immediately establishes a mode of address, filling the page with the charged energies of a distinctive relationship between addresser and addressee; between a speaker and an intended audience. Depending on the poem being discussed, the mode of address can be very revealing of attitudes towards self-and-other, especially when we further consider cultural attitudes towards naming and interaction in various Asian contexts.

In a recent online workshop on the anthology Poetry Moves, a cross-cultural educational resource for young people, participants and I enjoyed discussing an Indonesian poem, “Two Women”, by Toeti Heraty, in its English translation from the Bahasa. As the title suggests, the poem is about friendship between women, who are neighbours and the text delves into the shadowy undercurrents that belie everyday courtesies.

I wanted my participants to understand the various modes of address at play in the poem, as the speaker switches from talking to her neighbour to her internal thoughts, and to a third-person perspective that is more descriptive of the appearance of the living room. Together, we read a voice-script, which is a re-creation of the poem as a script where the lines are identified as spoken by different characters, or a narrator, complete with stage directions:

Woman A: Please — please come in.

Narrator: Easy smile, pregnant with meanings — masks on the back wall —

Woman A: this is an open house, my heart is open

Narrator: see all the flowers on the table

Woman A (to Woman B): — the phone is ringing, just unplug it — spacious and pleasant, here we can sit in peace beside the children playing on the floor

Woman A (to herself??) take off your armour, life's paraphernalia

Narrator: — the chaos of the city lies outside the fence —

With the poem and voice-script side-by-side, we could see how Woman A in fact has two faces, the everyday one that she presents to Woman B, and an inner voice that expresses a conflicting wish for a more sincere friendship amidst the busy-ness of motherhood. The humour of her excessive hospitality --“the phone is ringing, just unplug it” -- is also heightened in the voice-script. By going between the original text, and this dramatized version, we could better appreciate the complexity of Woman A’s position as expressed through the shifting modes of address. While I composed and provided the voice-script as a companion text, participants could also write their own version of a voice-script, which might throw up some interesting variations on the original poem.

Though we did not have the time to explore questions of translation in the workshop, as a further activity, one could also consider how pronouns, and by extension, modes of address are translated across languages. For instance, in Heraty’s original Bahasa poem, the phrase “this is an open house, my heart is open” is translated from “rumah ini rumah terbuka terbuka hatiku”. In the Bahasa, “my” is indicated by the suffix “-ku”, which leads us to question further if the customary courtesy of “terbuka terbuka hatiku” is truly addressed from Woman A’s heart. The last line in Bahasa “dua wanita bicara” carries undertones of negotiation in the verb “bicara” that “talk” does not quite convey. If these interlingual considerations could inflect the voice scripts that the class creates as a para-text, modes of address would be excitingly unpacked both as poetic technique and as cross-cultural learning.

Two Women by Toeti Heraty (trans. Ulrich Kratz, with Carole Satyamurti) Please — please come in. Easy smile, pregnant with meanings — masks on the back wall — this is an open house, my heart is open see all the flowers on the table — the phone is ringing, just unplug it — spacious and pleasant, here we can sit in peace beside the children playing on the floor take off your armour, life's paraphernalia — the chaos of the city lies outside the fence — here there is space, ease, refreshments on the table and we can be open with each other, entrust ourselves to words your life, my life in bright colours against an ashen backdrop, specks of black and crimson brushed off our clothes a fragrant mist enveloping the stage as coloured sparks circle, glittering words, reflections, are displayed on the table between the cups, car keys the good intentions that have come to nothing — the chaos of the city lies outside the fence — plans to chase up an hour, a day, the essence of life squeezed for an instant… Ah, this charade has been going on far too long whenever two women talk.

This translation first appears on the website of the Poetry Translation Centre, where you can also read the original poem. Reproduced with the Centre's permission.    


Inez Tan is the author of This Is Where I Won’t Be Alone: Stories, which was a national bestseller. She teaches creative writing at the University of California, Irvine.

E. J. Koh is author of the memoir The Magical Language of Others, winner of the Pacific Northwest Book Award, and the poetry collection A Lesser Love, winner of the Pleiades Editors Prize in Poetry.

Ann Ang is the author of Bang My Car, a Singlish-English collection of short stories, as well as the editor of Poetry Moves, Food Republic and PR&TA journal. Ann is currently reading for a DPhil in English at the University of Oxford. 

Toeti Heraty was born in 1933. An outstanding Indonesian poet with a powerful vision, she is also a philosopher, an art historian and a human rights activist who is well known for her opposition to the Suharto regime and for her feminism. (Bio and photograph from the Poetry Translation Centre).