Showing posts with label Teaching. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Teaching. Show all posts

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.

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).