Vital Possessions is a collection of poems, haikus, monologues and photographs by award winning Singaporean poet and photographer Marc Nair. The content reflects the tussle between city life and nature.
Marc Nair takes us on a journey through ASEAN countries — Taiwan, Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia and of course Singapore. He finds nature pushing its way through the crevices of city life. In one of his haikus, accompanied by a photograph of a worn out wall with grass growing out of the gaps, he writes,
“Nature never fails
to push against the grain
of forgotten cities.”
When I see the picture and read the lines, what springs to my mind is the St Paul’s church in Malacca, built in 1521, a forgotten church of a bygone era. The monument has vegetation growing out of crevices, which many old buildings would have. However, a sense unique hopefulness is brought to the fore by Marc Nair’s brevity of words to create a picture perfect perspective.
Vinita Agarwal is an award winning poet and translator. She has authored number of books — Words Not Spoken, The Longest Pleasure, The Silk Of Hunger and Two Full Moons,
Recipient of the Gayatri GaMarsh Memorial Award for Literary Excellence, USA, 2015, the second prize at the TallGrass Writers Guild Award, Chicago in 2017, two consecutive prizes in the Hongkong Proverse Poetry Prize for 2017 and 2018, and joint winner of the Tagore literary prize for 2018, her poems have appeared in Asiancha, The Fox Chase Review, Pea RiverJournal, Open Road Review, Stockholm Literary Review, Poetry Pacific, Mithila Review, The Bombay Review, Mascara Literary Review, The Blue Fifth Review and other journals.
She was on the panel of judges for the Asian Cha contest in 2015 and for RLFPA Awards (International category) 2016. She has conducted workshops in colleges and institutes of Mumbai.
She has read at Kala Ghoda, SAARC, 100 thousand poets for change, Lucknow Literature Festival, U.S. Consulate, Hyderabad and Mumbai, Max Mueller Bhavan Mumbai, Delhi Poetree, Pentasi India Cappuccino and Women Empowerment Readings. She was featured live in the global transatlantic poetry broadcast. She is on the Advisory Board Of The Tagore Literary Prize
Nalini: Your poetry is personal, intense, out there on the pages to shout out loud what is not supposed to be spoken, to change the way people perceive women and the narrative around them. That’s what I feel when I read your works. I’m not sure if you agree with my assessment, but, it might still be true if we talk about poems like Where I come From, Bespoken, Woman, Park Street Rape Victim in your latest book Two Full Moons. So, here’s the question: Why do you write poetry? What is your goal?
Vinita: I write poetry to vent the thoughts simmering inside me. For me, poetry is the best medium to put across sentiments and emotions. Through poems we build something new on the ground — something that will shine like a sliver of truth when darkness descends and envelops us.
Nalini: When is a poem done?
Vinita: When I can read it without a pause and when I do not need to tweak it or edit it.
Nalini: At some point, we all end up writing poems about writing poetry. You have a couple in your book. Why do you think it becomes pertinent for a poet to write such poems and what purpose do they serve?
Vinita: Writing poems about poetry provides a perspective to this very fine art. The art is validated in the poet’s own words. I too have written a few poems about poetry and tried to express the utter necessity of reading and writing poetry. I wish poetry would resonate with more and more people.
There is something about the autumn air in India, a general sense of leisureliness. The slow air touches you in a fashion that launches and fills festivity in your senses. No doubt there are so many festivals that queue up in the Indian calendar during this season.
Bidyut had joined the Durga Puja mass celebration near his ancestral home in his lane in Cuttack. There is a distinct trait to how people in old cities celebrate their festivals. The thousand-year-old city, where he had spent his childhood, was draped in a shawl dotted with countless lights. There was none in the city who was left untouched by the thrill. Everyone was soaked in the mood of the festival. But Bidyut was one who liked time alone. He preferred sombre darkness over light, which doesn’t let you hide. He knew many people in the city and was not really a shy person, but given a chance he liked to keep a distance. He enjoyed watching people celebrate but could never be a part of the party.
He moved away from the luminous surrounding to a hazy corner and lit a cigarette. The smoke that swirled up from his mouth formed different shapes. He raised his head, at an obtuse angle, to recognize the shapes – a human female without a head, very slender at the waist, followed by a broad exclamation mark, and then an irregular circle. Nothing finite, a figment of his imagination. He loved the moment.
“Got a light?” a female voice intruded into his zone of seclusion.
He passed the matchbox to the lady without a word. She was about the same height as he was. Maybe an inch smaller, but she had an erect posture and that, combined with her slim body, made her appear taller. Her hair was short and her head was a lovely egg shape. She must have been no older than twenty-five. She wore a pale yellow dress with a sapphire blue cotton jacket with lots of embroidery on it. She didn’t wear lipstick and her lips clearly indicated that she smoked a lot. She exuded confidence and freedom. An astonishing buoyant character. The first impression.
“Mind if I stand next to you?” she asked.
“Not at all.”
A minute or two of silence. Then a shrill alloy sound of conch shells, bells and hulahuli cries of women from near the Durga pandal, tore the stillness into hundreds of pieces. Both of them turned behind to the dissonance. Reflex action.
They nodded and smiled together. Bidyut folded his hands together as an obeisance to the goddess of divine Shakti, an old habit since his childhood. Though he was not religious, he loved the fun element of following a harmless tradition.
Bidyut made it a point to be in his hometown with his brother’s family during Puja. In this big world, they were the only ones he could call his own. His mother had succumbed to cancer while he was studying in Cincinnati and his father died a couple of years back. There was no way he would break his connection with his blood. His brother had a seven-year-old daughter and Bidyut was extremely fond of her. She was the main reason he kept coming back to Cuttack frequently, at least once in three months.
Title: That’s How Mirai Eats a Pomegranate Author: Namrata Pathak Publisher: Red River (2018) Buy
Mirai is a riddle.
The title of Namrata Pathak’s book of verse ― That’s How Mirai Eats a Pomegranate ― sets you off on a wild-goose chase. The question is, where do you eventually reach?
Along the way, you travel a new world of sweeping sights. Instantly you fall back on experience, your memory, to grasp the world you just found. Restless you are ― to consign what’s new to the realm of understanding, the mind’s habitual neediness to own everything in its path. But that’s not easy here. You are urged to open up to the stranger, and evolve a syntax of understanding beyond what’s known so far.
Pathak’s poetry marks a fresh voice ― mysterious, mystical, sometimes cryptic, inexplicable. It draws you out, with not a polestar in sight to find your bearing, an invite to a terrain not your comfort zone. In a world that hinges on hurry, time slows down in her verse ― you must look around, beyond you, a world lost long ago.
The verse rides on memory as its motor, I wonder if it’s autobiographical, the clue being the vigour, the lustiness in every line, too original to be imaginary. It is a miracle how things of the ordinary, the daily horror of living as well, how all those years of meanderings, the personal journey of coming into one’s own turns into a language at once original, yet unsettling.
Mirai is a trope that’s phantasmic. A likeness of what? It is the poet; no, it’s also the woman. One segues into the other. You know for sure, but you can’t pin it down. But isn’t it the language of all things that matter to this world yet are inexplicable, the things difficult to render in everyday conversation, the imagination of what moves and what doesn’t in a dim, murky wildscape, the eerie domination of the elements, the fear of the unknown.
Title: Green is the Colour of Memory Author: Huzaifa Pandit Publisher: Hawakal Publishers (2018) Pages: 64 (Paperback)
In a class on Mahmoud Darwish, we are reading aloud “Promises of a Storm” – a moment where the poet’s eyes search for flowers blooming beneath the ashes – ‘I will go on serenading happiness/ somewhere beyond the eyelids of frightened eyes.’
After class, I reach out for a borrowed copy of Huzaifa Pandit’s book of poems, looking for poetry as real as Darwish’s, and read the first poem, “A Kashmiri Fairytale”, pulled out as though from the same song of longing for happiness that Darwish sees in the future.
‘Green green grass will dance in the drowsy sun/ of warm, warm May/ we will quarrel and quibble night and day…’ writes Huzaifa in the poem which opens his debut collection, Green is the Colour of Memory. Consisting of 36 poems, this book stands out not just in the truth it aims to convey but in how it brings it to us through narratives that we don’t quite get to hear or read microscopically in newspapers or news channels that have promised a responsibility of recording history and have failed repeatedly. Little pieces of history are recorded in Huzaifa’s poems.
Huzaifa Pandit comes from Kashmir and writes poetry that deals with the everyday realities of those living in Kashmir, as well as what it is like to carry that identity into spaces like local train journeys, to having brief encounters with people outside Kashmir, to academic spaces, and it is themes such as these that appear most prominently in this collection as well.
Camus had once written, ‘Art cannot be a monologue,’ asserting that an artist cannot create in isolation and must speak of the ‘reality common to us all.’ Huzaifa’s work emerges as an excellent example then of this art, in the form of poetry that creates a tiny corner and opens its arms wide for a dialogue to begin; not only does he offer us a counter-narrative, he also engages with the reader through the sharpness of his language—sometimes you hear it from close quarters and sometimes it is a distant whisper making space for you to step in. Reciprocating then, it is in reading his poems slowly, that we’re in sync with their breathing, and it is in their breathing that we find our own lives momentarily paused. Yet there is transcendence, yet we are being transformed.
When the book opens, we find the poet addressing a denied harmony — a quarrel which is softened by love, a moment so far away, one may only see it in a fairytale. What does one do then? What does one do? It is perhaps in search of an answer to this question, that the poet begins many poems in the collection with dreams and returns to nightmarish encounters, or eventualities.
What is a poem? “A poem is a constant transformation of itself and every poem is a model of a possible world that only comes into being when reading is active, activated,” will be Charles’s answer. What is the relation between poetry and poetics? “Poetics is an extension of the practise of poetry, and poetry is an extension of thinking with the poems and also the reflection of poetics,” will be his answer. Bernstein doesn’t believe in any conventional poeticism, but his own Pataquericalism, as he explains in this interview, taken during the creation of the anthology, Bridgeable Lines: an Anthology of Borderless World Poetry in Bengali with American poets.
Charles Bernstein’s poetic idea is similar to the “Notun Kobita (New Poetry)” movement of Bengal, which was started in the ’70s by a group of Kaurab poets – Barin Ghosal, Swadesh Sen, Kamal Chakraborty, etc. in Bengal.
Charles Bernstein lives in Brooklyn, New York and is the Donald T. Regan professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Pennsylvania, as well as co-editor of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E (1978-1981), the Electronic Poetry Center and PennSound and co-founder of SUNY- Buffalo poetics program. He was awarded both the Janus Pannonius Grand Prize for Poetry and the Muenster International Poetry Prize. Bernstein is the author of Pitch of Poetry (University of Chicago, 2016) and Recalculating (Chicago, 2013), among many other books. In 2010, Farrar, Straus & Giroux published All the Whiskey in Heaven: Selected Poems. More information at writing.upenn.edu/authors/bernstein
Runa Bandyopadhyay: Tell us something about how you started your journey in poetry.
Charles Bernstein: The journey never started and so doesn’t end. It feels like it is an active presence. A river of words flowing through me, which I tap into, or perhaps which taps into me (which traps me).
Runa: Is there a relation between the poetic language and the body language of the word? Is a poetic idea revealed in the physical body of the poem?
Charles: Yes. Yes. I am interested in the body of the poem. This is not “material” body but as Blake says, “Spiritual Body”. That is to say, the poem is symbolic space, an imaginary space, where the value lies in not “representing” the world but exploring the “real” in and as language.
Runa: Poetry is form, or process, or [de-]construction or idol-making –– which one of these is closer to your way of writing and why?
Charles: I am interested in intensifying metonymy and iconicity. Not fragments but constellations of particulars. Not de-construction but re-constructions as a process without endpoint. In the Jewish tradition there is a prohibition of “graven images,” which is to say, images of idols. In my secular mutation of this idea, I would say –– in place of images are actions and processes that allow the readers/listeners a space to project their phantasies/desires/anxieties. But I do this not by minimalism or abstraction but by rhythm and association.
Runa: Poetry requires space, where the reader participates in the poem while at the same time remains outside it. What is your opinion on this dichotomy?
Charles: It’s possible to try to break down the divide between viewer/viewed, that is break down the voyeurism by eliding word and object. Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons is a key work in this respect, part of a “dialogic” space opened up also (in American poetry) by Mina Loy, William Carlos Williams, and H.D. and also such second-wave modernists as Louis Zukofsky and Charles Reznikoff. I explore this issue in Artifice of Absorption (http://writing.upenn.edu/epc/authors/bernstein/books/artifice/), in particular the possibility for rhythmic oscillation between inside/outside.
Runa: Is poetry a search for “reality” and existence, or a search for mystery? Or none of those? Then what is it?
Charles: Poetry isn’t one thing, even for an individual poet. “Reality” is perhaps always at issue, but whose reality, what aspect of the real? I don’t accept the “realities” imposed upon me by family, state, literary history, and convention; but then I can’t fully reject them either. In poems, I explore these “controlling interests,” to use the title of an early book.
Runa: Is Poetry more than resonance of ideas in the mind? If so, if more, what is it? Is poetry to be understood?
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.
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.
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.