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By Tammy Lai-Ming Ho and Jason Eng Hun Lee
Born in 1977, Alfian Sa’at is an accomplished and versatile Singaporean writer who has published across all three genres of prose, poetry, and drama, winning awards in each genre, including the Singapore Literature Prize, Golden Point Award and Singapore Young Artist Award. His three poetry collections, One Fierce Hour (Landmark Books, 1998), A History of Amnesia (Ethos Books, 2001) and The Invisible Manuscript (Math Paper Press, 2012) were mainly composed during his undergraduate days in Singapore, and he has since published several plays, translations and two short story collections, Corridor: 12 Short Stories (SNP, 1999; Ethos Books, 2015) and Malay Sketches (Ethos Books 2012; Gaudy Boy 2018). Alfian is the Resident Playwright at Wild Rice, a theatre company in Singapore headed by artistic director Ivan Heng.
As part of an ongoing collaborative project entitled Anglophone City Poetics and the Asian Experience, Alfian talks to Tammy Ho and Jason Lee about his first poetic journeys, his relationship with the city-state he calls home, and his reactions to globalization and the cultural imaginary of the Asian city.
Tammy Ho & Jason Lee: You are perhaps more renowned as a playwright these days, but can you tell us what inspired you to write your first poems?
Alfian: I think I was exposed to poetry through an anthology we used in my secondary school (Raffles Institution) called Touched with Fire. It was my first introduction to poets such as Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney, and, if I’m not mistaken, also Sylvia Plath and Philip Larkin. I think these poets left quite a significant impression and I started hunting for their collections in the school library. I was at that age when I took on melancholy as adolescent affectation, and I remember committing Larkin’s ‘Faith Healing’ to memory.
I probably started dabbling in poetry when I joined the Creative Arts Programme, which was a residential programme for students who displayed some aptitude in creative writing. This was when I was 15 years old. We spent one week staying at a hostel at the National University of Singapore. Every day, the other students would publish some of their writings in the daily newsletter. This was one of my earliest exposures to a writing community of peers.
Tammy & Jason: Can you list some important moments in your early experiences as a poet?
Alfian: I recall quite distinctly one moment in the canteen, when we were having our lunch. This was usually some rice with a side of meat and vegetables. Just the day before, one of the students had claimed to have found weevils in the rice, and all the complaints about how bad the food was took this rather nightmarish turn. On that day, the newsletter featured many poems, limericks, doodles about weevils.
So I went up to the lady who served us the rice (in styrofoam containers), to top up my drink. She seemed very pleased with the fact that I was returning ‘for seconds’ and asked me what school I was from. I told her, and her response was that I should eat more, since I was ‘so clever’ and used ‘my brain a lot’.
It was that gap, between the woman’s unguarded, even effusive interaction with me, and the fact that she was a target of parody, that made me return to my hostel room to write one of my first poems. I felt all these things that had to do with class and privilege and guilelessness and betrayal and it was something that I could only process through poetry.
Introduction and nine poems
New Brazilian Poems: A Bilingual Anthology after Elizabeth Bishop is a labour of love. When I came to Brazil in January, 2016, I had no idea about the rich world of Brazilian poetry or literature. I had read poems of Vinicius de Moraes and João Cabral de MeloNeto, fellow poet-diplomats of Brazil, thanks to The Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry edited by J. D. McClatchy. I was also e-introduced by poet-diplomat Indran Amirthanayagam to Marcos Freitas, a Brazilian poet whom I had requested to contribute a poem on Brasilia for CAPITALS – An Anthology on Capital Cities, I was editing those days. I had also read a poem on Brasilia by Sylvia Plath.
In my earlier stint in Nepal (2012-2015), I had been regularly hosting Poemandu, a monthly poetry reading event at the Nepal-Bharat Library in Kathmandu. I wanted to start something similar in Brasilia. So, upon my arrival in Brazil’s capital, one of the first things I did was to invite Marcos for coffee. Savouring aromatic Brazilian coffee I broached with him the idea of Chá com Letras, a monthly literary event at the Indian Embassy in Brasilia. This meeting proved to be of great value. I asked Marcos to invite poets for the first edition of Chá com Letras in January 2016. He invited Antônio Miranda, a well-known poet and the director of the National Library in Brasilia and a number of other poets for its first edition.
I moderated the program in English. Marcos introduced the poets and they read their poems in Portuguese. I did not understand or speak a word of Portuguese then, but I listened to their poems and paid attention to their sounds. After the readings, we enjoyed Chai and samosa and chatted, posed for photographs, exchanged books and became friends. This is how I became familiar with the works of contemporary Brazilian poets. I kept safely all the books I received as presents for reading them carefully, hoping someday I would become proficient in Portuguese.
I started learning Portuguese with a Brazilian teacher who came to the Embassy three times every week. I supplemented my learning by reading the Correio Braziliense, Brasilia’s leading daily, especially its art and culture section edited by José Carlos Vieira, a poet himself. In its pages, he regularly published poems by contemporary Brazilian poets. I read these poems and tried to translate them. After a year and half, when I started to get a hang of Portuguese language, I started thinking of reading all the poetry I had received as presents from Brazilian poets.
Later, I took Chá com Letras to São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, where I had the opportunity to meet poets from these two lively cultural centres. During the course of three years, I travelled to Manaus, Porto Alegre, Salvador (Bahia), João Pessoa, Recife, Belo Horizonte, Ouro Preto, Tiradentes, Paraty and interacted with local poets and learnt about their work. Most of the Brazilian poets continue to have some other job. Some are diplomats just like me, some teach at the universities, some are journalists, and others are lawyers. Nicolas Behr, a poet who has written mostly about Brasilia, runs a nursery called Pau Brasilia. Publishing poetry is difficult and most poets publish their poems with small publishers and sell them at supportive restaurants in Brasilia. There are no literary magazines of repute in Brasilia which publish poetry. Large publishing houses are mostly based in São Paulo or Rio de Janeiro. Some of them occasionally publish poetry. The idea of editing an anthology of Brazilian poems came to me after an anthology titled 100 Great Indian Poems edited by me with poems spanning over 3,000 years of Indian poetry and written in 28 Indian languages was translated into Portuguese and was published by the University of São Paulo. It felt natural to take Brazilian poetry to India and the rest of the world. So I decided to translate poems of Brazilian poets into English and the idea of this anthology was born.
Bhalla sahab was a dapper little man, always in immaculate suits and peering intensely through his fashionable gold rimmed spectacles. He was very popular among the students due to his conscientious, yet slightly eccentric personality. He would walk casually into the department with his hands held behind his back and looking around as if looking for something.
His name was Asghar Bhalla and he was a lecturer in the English department of the local university. He lived with his widowed mother and never socialized. He was content with his work and the company of his mother.
Shamoon had recently joined the faculty too.
Shamoon noticed that he would sit in the staff room quietly when not taking his classes and did not mingle with the other lecturers.
‘Sir, would you like a cup of tea’? Shamoon asked him as he went to the tea trolley for his tea.
‘Thank you! Yes, I would love it. Thank you,’ his eyes smiled through his glasses.
Shamoon sat down next to him with both the cups and informed him, ‘I have just joined the faculty and teach second year students.’
Bhalla sahab smiled.
Shamoon soon realised that he barely spoke and mostly communicated with his smile. It was a laugh, a grin, a broad smile or just a hint of it communicated by the twitch of his lips. His eyes were remarkably expressive; dark and twinkling with his smile or piercing and sombre.
Shamoon talk about the mundane and then touched on poetry and soon Bhalla sahab became animated. He would talk and gesticulate with his delicate, sensitive hands and move up and down while talking at length about different poets and reciting their poetry. His eyes would twinkle and glare and laugh!
Shamoon sat there fascinated. ‘What an animated and alive man,’ he said to himself; a treasure trove of knowledge and bursting to share it.
Shamoon would seek him out often after that first meeting and spent hours listening to him and watching him.
Bhalla sahab, though, always maintained a certain detachment. They never became friends.
Shamoon entered the gates of the university and walked towards the English department. He had returned after seven years to this place which was very special to him. This was where he had commenced his career, and had taught for three years; three delightful years of the onset of a journey of learning from his students as he taught them.
Kitaab is seeking short story submissions for The Best Asian Short Stories 2019 anthology, the latest in the […]
Reviewed by Paresh Tiwari
Title: Book of Prayers for the nonbeliever
Author: Dibyajyoti Sarma
Publisher: Red River (2018)
Pages: 128 (Paperback)
Price: INR 400
To read Dibyajyoti Sarma’s, Book of Prayers, is to see — in one’s own lifetime — the birth of a modern mongrel mythology, rendered skilfully on every page. Dibyajyoti’s poetry deftly fuses together bits from Mahabharata, ancient Assamese lore, and his own story. The terrain is one of love, loss and longing, and that in itself isn’t something new or particularly unique. What, however is, is his voice. Dibyajyoti’s poems are travellers. Brimming with symbolist images, the poems move deftly from deeply personal experiences to mysticism and fables, relentless in their pursuit of the self.
Dibyajyoti opens the book with a warning where he candidly owns the reader, when he says – this book is about you, and me. In this one sentence, so seemingly innocent, he establishes a tone of confession – almost as if he and the reader are lovers – and it is this tone of confession that roots the book in a pursuit of truth. With this one line, which isn’t even a poem but a precursor relegated to a page before you dig your teeth into his work, he joins the pantheon of Walt Whitman, striking an intimate relationship with his reader. And we gladly hold his hand.
Book of Prayers is divided into five sections, the first four named after an element each and the last titled ‘An Unfinished Yantra for an Unnamed Personal God’. In each of these sections, Dibyajyoti shines a light on humanity, in all its messy, heartbreaking, soaring glory. He gets down into the soil of his roots, digging with his bare hands. His poetry deftly navigates the history of an entire community, touching briefly yet deeply, myriad subjects and themes – love, lust, longing, pain, memories, to name but a few. And he juxtaposes them with mythology known and unexplored, which reminds us that the universality of human emotion is not even a factor of time, and in this timeless saga, life germinates over the pages one ink blossom at a time.
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