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.

ALFIAN
Alfian Sa’at

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.

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Introduction and nine poems

New Brazilian 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.

By Jonaki Ray

At the core of Rohan Chhetri’s poems are memories: his own and of moments—based in history or moments turning into history rooted within the intricacies and details of mundane daily lives–that transform into memories.

Reading these poems also strike a chord about the universality of death intertwined with the ways one tries to come to terms with it; of love that, even in its transience, creates something permanent, and of the impermanence of all the things that one wants to be permanent: family, home, country, and finally life.

“Every Thing for Me Is Something Else”, for instance, starts with the wind howling through the night, the tap-tap of it like ‘dragging its dirty fingernails’. The autumn light is gradually fading, ‘shortening like a deer’s eye dimming inside the red cave of a python’s belly…’. The light catches the ordinary scene of an urban landscape, ‘The night windows in city apartments overlooking the flyovers and that one silhouette, backlit by a mustard glow.’ Through the rest of the poem, the typical scenes of a day in a city—a couple arguing, a girl begging at the street-light corners through the rain—are described in a dazzling combinations of words, ‘Rainwater awning over her eyelashes, her hair plastered on her skull, & lips trying to spell something inconsolable’. The poem ends with a sudden, almost violent flashback to a scene from the poet’s childhood:

My mother rushing in through the smoke and the cindering floorboards.
Her screaming as she opens the window
& the cold wind howling in the voice of her firstborn, my stillborn brother.

Reviewed by Paresh Tiwari

book of prayers front and back

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.

Reviewed by Dr Faustina Pereira

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Title: Not Elegy, But Eros
Author: Nausheen Eusuf
Publisher: NYQ Books (US) and Bengal Lights Books (Bangladesh)
Pages: 88 (NYQ); 94 (BLB)

It has been at least two decades since my university days that I made time to go through a poetry collection as mindfully as I have recently. It is no accident that it is the newly published collected works of Nausheen Eusuf, Not Elegy, But Eros, that helped me emerge out of my doldrums on the poetry front. The title certainly played its part in drawing me to this new work. It was not long before I delved into it properly, that the full spectrum of what was on offer became apparent. Here was a fresh new voice of a global citizen who stirs up emotions against a universal backdrop which nevertheless reverberate at an individualised, atomic and primal level. Who would not be able to identify, in their own way, with, for example, the language of the trees that ‘held court with the birds, and drowsed at noon with the dragonfly’ or marking the passage of time through a thousand moons that ‘fattened and fell’?

Let me clarify at the outset that when I learned that the poet was born and raised in Dhaka, Bangladesh, I was intent on picking up deshi points of attachments from the get go. Part I, which barely contained the reference points I was looking for, initially almost disappointed. Then, of course, I came to “Ubi Sunt”, which chants an ode to the ‘ordinary sacraments’ of everyday life that are at once deeply personal and yet inherently universal. A poem woven intricately through shiny red seeds of sandalwood and garlands of jasmine freshly fallen after a night of rain, assures us of a continuity with all those who have gone before us and reminds us that sometimes the answer we are ‘hoping to find, if not what I seek, at least something that might suffice.’ “Ubi Sunt” is quickly followed by other gifts of homely indulgences – from the dining room and its many flourishes in “Musee Des Beaux Morts” to the almost delicious smell of Kiwi shoe polish and the rich feel of stiff-bristled horsehair brushes in “Shining Shoes”. What I found interesting in this particular clutch of poems is a quiet elusiveness of the poet herself. If it is by design, then it is pulled off cleverly – to invite the reader to such an intimate sanctum, yet remaining just beyond the line of visibility.

Reviewed by Vineetha Mekkoth

TheWhoAmIBird_print_02

Title: The Who-am-I Bird
Author: Anuradha Vijayakrishnan
Publisher: Bombaykala Books (2018)
Pages: 70
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As you read them, these poems by Anuradha Vijayakrishnan appear oddly familiar. Familiar like half-forgotten dreams, sometimes nightmares that tug at you from within as your eyelids flutter open. Lyrical and richly allegorical, Anuradha’s poems are diverse – they are poems of sisterhood, of coming of age, of warnings, of celebrating womanhood and freedom, of woman to woman sharing, of the vulnerability of being a woman/girl, of love and adventure, of temptation, passion, of family, of tender love, of death, of violence and more death, of life and minutely vivid observations on her journey as a poet. In Anuradha’s poems you will find the whole gamut of life as a woman.

A poem which first caught my attention was “Listen”. In this, the poet leaves unsaid the fears and warnings that rise unbidden when we see a girl unfettered, unaware of the dangers around her and of the choices she faces and her identity, as adolescence creeps upon her. Anuradha concludes the poem by freeing her own fear and repressions, thus giving and finding freedom.

 

Listen, listen. Or even better find your way, your unique gender,
your loosened tongue, your anger, your flawless game on the field,
streets, of the country you choose to be yours, not the other
way around. Forget we ever met
or that I tried to stop you. I did not.

There are the mother-daughter poems that resonate in you. Both, “The Woman Who Once Loved Me” and “What My Dark Mother Meant”, speak of the connect between the poet and her mother, of the love and of the prejudices faced. “Daughter” too belongs to this class of poems and is lyrical in its quality.

But remember, you were born of a woman.
Her love is the secret
you carry.
“Notes On Visiting Your Mother’s Grave” is a poignant poem. Remembrances that

She liked good things, handmade soap,
cowhide bags gifted by admirers, expensive
footwear. Her last pair was simple cotton
her skin could bear, but before that

By Mitali Chakravarty

He wears a tattoo of a typewriter on his right arm as a mark of his trade, as his “stigma”. He wrote a poem about his tattoo. He writes what he believes, no longer with a typewriter (as he did when he started to write in the 1980s). This is a writer, who, despite staying rooted to his surroundings, sees no boundaries in literature. He reads what comes his way and does not specifically think of literature in terms of regions, like ASEAN. That writing is universal and remains borderless is well borne out in his interview as in his writing and the influences they have had…

The author of 13 books across multiple genres, including five volumes of poetry, two children’s detective novels and a trilogy of humour stories, Felix Cheong has been invited to perform his works at international festivals all over the world, including Edinburgh, West Cork, Austin, Christchurch, Sydney, Bangalore, Hong Kong and Ubud. Cheong is the winner of Singapore’s National Arts Council’s Young Artist Award in 2000, and holds a Master’s in Creative Writing from the University of Queensland. In 2010, he was named by Readers Digest as the 29th Most Trusted Singaporean. He is currently an adjunct lecturer with the University of Newcastle, Murdoch University, Singapore University of Social Sciences and LASALLE College of the Arts. Felix Cheong’s latest collection of poetry is B-Sides and Backslides: 1986-2018.

Felix Cheong
Felix Cheong

 

Mitali: You have been writing poetry for more than two decades now. What made you start writing poetry?

Felix: Like sex, you always remember the first time. It began innocuously enough when I was in junior college (high school in Singapore). As a geeky teen blessed with all the social skills of a wallflower, I could only impress a classmate, on whom I had a crush, by writing her a Valentine’s Day poem. It was handwritten on a card I had made; such was the entrepreneurial spirit I had back then. But as Auden famously says, ‘poetry makes nothing happen’; so nothing happened. In any case, it was bad poetry at its finest hour, which I would have cheerfully disowned now!

Mitali: In your latest book, B-Sides and Backslides, you have spoken of how both T. S. Eliot and Beatles fascinated you. What is it in T. S. Eliot’s poetry or in the Beatles’ compositions that had this effect on you? Do they still draw you as much or do you feel that you have got over your fascination? In “We are the Salary Men”, you say that while ‘We may be the hollow men but the least we own is our honesty to know…’

Felix: Beatles’ music was instrumental in making me pay close attention to words and by extension, poetry. I remember spending hours – talk about the devil finding work for idle hands to do! – trying to write down what they were singing (thank goodness there was no Google back then).  Through the sheer act of transcription, I had my first lesson in poetic rhythm. I loved – and still do – the musicality of their lyrics, such as “A Day in the Life”, “Eleanor Rigby” and “She’s Leaving Home”.

Eliot’s poetry, particularly “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, affected me in a different way when I read it at the still-impressionable age of 22. It sprung me into a modern diction that spoke to my sense of alienation. It was also Catholic in the way it articulated spiritual emptiness. I recall memorising parts of the poem while preparing for my first-year university exams. His cadences and imagery would imprint themselves on my early poetry.

Reviewed by Bhaswati Ghosh

I Sing the Glory of this Land - Front Cover

Title: I Sing the Glory of this Land
Author: Bharathiyar, Translated by M. Rajaram
Publisher: Rupa Publications India (2018)
Pages: 240 (Hardcover)

Subramania Bharati first came to me in the arguably less-than-inspiring pages of my history- and-civics textbook in middle and high school. Though not exactly a footnote, without the presence of his poetry or the context of his scholarship and vision, his was merely another name to remember as part of the annals of India’s freedom movement. Such is the unfortunate, even exanimate nature of our education system. When his name reappeared in a series of interviews I did with former students of Tamil schools in Delhi in relation to a current non-fiction project, Bharati came across as a towering figure who continues to serve as the spiritual and linguistic compass for Tamil children similar to what Tagore does for their Bengali counterparts. Reading through I Sing the Glory of this Land, M. Rajaram’s recent book of translations of Bharati’s verses, I could see why.

While I’m disadvantaged by my lack of Tamil to appreciate the cadence and music of the original, the clear-eyed directness of Bharati’s (popularly known as Bharathiyar) verses didn’t fail to strike me. As did the expanse of his poetic canvas. The eleven sections of the book – including God, Freedom, Bharath, Women and Children and Nature – bear out this multiplicity of themes even as they trace their intersections. Kneading them together is Bharati’s unwavering accent on liberty, equality and fraternity — the three pillars of the French Revolution — as he envisioned them in British-ruled India.

Human dignity is one of Bharati’s preoccupations and manifests itself in poems like “Labour” with exuberance. In the scope of that single poem, he places workers, farmers and creative artists on the same plane — each group celebrated for its contributions to mankind.