Monday, September 14, 2009
Wednesday, August 5, 2009
Worlds and words collided at the Second International Poetry Festival this weekend. I attended two events - one of the two mainstage productions at the Palace of Fine Arts, and a more intimate reading at the Richmond Public Library. Hosted by the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library, the Festival ambitiously brought together leading poets from dozens of countries, largely reading in their native languages. On Friday night, the
English translations were projected on a screen behind the poets.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti opened with some poetry he'd apparently just written - he turned 90 this year! He looked and sounded great. He read on
e sarcastic poem about America in a Lady Liberty mask, and another similarly wry poem about the excesses of our materialistic lives which end with a "smiling mortician." The poets that got the biggest audience reaction were real performers - Roy "Chicky" Arad from Israel who used a portable keyboard, and Paul Flores of YouthSpeaks, who came clearly from the "Slam" tradition.
It was wonderful to hear so many languages. I loved the vowely lull of Spanish and Italian, while the Vietnamese (of poet Lam Thi My Da as read by my friend Nguyen Qui Duc) rang like bells. The Welsh poet Menna Elfyn read in Welsh, a banned language until this generation. Who knew that fake breasts financed by a life of crime
could sound so poetic in Welsh ("His fingerprints were all over them")? And where else would I hear Shona, a language of Zimbabwe? Every day, languages die; we need events like this to preserve and honor them.
However, I have to say that three hours of poetry in various languages was a bit long for me, as much as I love and enjoy poetry. An ambitious concept - but then, it's striking that a *free*, international scale event like this could only fill half of the Palace auditorium, that too with a largely older audience. Perhaps some events geared more to youth (an evening of slam/spoken word?), or with more English language poets, could bring more people in. There are a lot of ways to represent diversity.
Saturday, I went to hear Nguyen Qui Duc read his own poetry. He was also the host of the now -defunct Pacific Time on public radio, and now lives in Vietnam where he built a house in the mountains which serves as an artists' retreat , runs a bar (Tadioto), writes an occasional blog andis an all around good guy. Afterwards, we chatted over coffee and chai with Isabelle Thuy Pelaud, who runs the Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network. They are now at work on their own anthology. Perhaps we'll have a chance to collaborate some time? Or at least spend some times in the mountains north of Hanoi?
Tuesday, June 9, 2009
Q: Name one collection of poetry that you wish you had written and why.
Who am I not to covet brilliance? I would have been bliss-filled had I written many a collection of poems including Agha Shahid Ali’s Half-Inch Himalayas, Rita Dove’s Thomas and Beulah, Li-Young Lee’s Rose, Paul Monette’s Love Alone, Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf – or even the oeuvre of Lucille Clifton, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, and Emily Dickinson. And, yes, T. S. Eliot, Edgar Lee Masters, and Robert Frost too – and not just so that every school kid would be forced to ingest my work but for the love of rhythm, place, and the urgency of living.
My job is demanding. It leaves very little room for rest, much less room for writing poetry at leisurely stretches. So I write when & where I can – which is usually on the New York
City subway in my travels through the day. My poems often plumb aspects of migration – it’s fitting that I write on the move. I keep a small journal with me to brainstorm and to craft starts & shells of poems. On another trip, I’ll revise on the subway in this same journal. When the piece feels close to fruition – or when I’ve hit a wall – I’ll write up the work on the computer in my bedroom or kitchen. I’ll ponder ideas, sequences, & word choices, make edits and slash, and then print out the piece so that I can take it on the subway the next day to see if the poem feels ready or right. Mornings being with promise – that expectation of travel and the desire to see what arises in this room of journey.
The subway has become my writing sanctuary and taskmaster. Given time is tight, I focus and deploy short bursts of generating material and revising. Being in the world as I write brings me images, concepts, and words I would not necessarily have settled on had I been writing in the serenity of my home. Since my mind works through association and stitching information, the subway offers a vital space where I can gather and reflect. While I often seek a stretch of day where I could write and write and write, I know that my subway scribbling has a power of its own – and has brought me many an unexpected moment of excitement and joy in language, line, and poetic production.
Q: What South Asian themes are you interested in exploring in your work?
The poems in Terrain Tracks explore migration as potential and loss. They are keenly aware of the context of immigration – as highlighted by the “Immigrant Song” sequence. You can go to Sandhya Nankani’s Literary Safari blog to get one take on the final piece in this lyric sequence. As with other immigrant and/or postcolonial subjects, I’m interested in exploring movement, women’s shifting positions, and American culture.
I also love trains from my early memories of India riding the rails within the hubbub of milkwalas and fellow sojourners and the landscape shifting from dust to fields to dust. In America too, the journey by train carries you through landscape otherwise unseen and brings me a calm and unique topos of rumination. Those elements – as well as a love of nature, science, human exchange, and the urban geography – coalesce in my poems. For example, “Signs there is a hole in Manhattan,” reflects on 9/11 from the vantage of reportage, highlighting the confusion of subway travel – with the frame of a South Asian American New Yorker who lost a friend in that tragedy.This is to say, as we all know, that identity is complex and experiences (& insights) cannot be predicated on labels. And yet, identity cannot also be javelined. My new work – in conversation with visual artist Nandini Chirimar – examines faith and objects of Hindu worship. At day’s end (and start), what motivates my poetry is a quest for knowledge, a desire to map feeling, and a love of the sensual imagination. What I crave to hear most, though, is what as readers strikes you about my work. Poetry is an amazing avenue of exchange and dialogue – I feel most satisfied when I hear what my poems evoke. That is the subway reaching, after many twists & turns, its destination.
And here's a blog report from one of our audiences members (poet Barbara Jane Reyes):
Sunday, May 17, 2009
7:30 - 9: 30
Oakland Asian Cultural Center
388 9th Street, Suite 290
Oakland. CA 94607
$20 - $5 (sliding scale)
Friday, May 15, 2009
Until a few days ago, the race for this prestigious 300-year post was between the Indian poet Arvind Mehrotra, Derek Walcott and British poet Ruth Padel. Following a vicious smear campaign in which he was accused of sexual harassment 26 years ago, Walcott withdrew his candidacy. However, last night, the Evening Standard in London (http://www.thisislondon.co.uk/) published a report suggesting that the smear campaign of anonymous letters had actually been sent by Padel's campaign manager and former boyfriend, John Walsh.
Derek Walcott was formerly being supported by such well-known writers as Alan Hollinghurst, Marina Warner, John Carey, Jon Stallworthy, Jenny Joseph, Bernard O'Donoghue, UA Fanthorpe, Alan Brownjohn, Anthony Thwaite and historian Margaret MacMillan, while Ruth Padel is supported by numerous contemporary British poets, including Carol Ann Duffy (the new British Poet Laureate).
Indian candidate Arvind Mehrotra was supported by such noteworthies as Amit Chaudhuri, Toby Litt, and Tariq Ali. (For more information about Mehotra's work, see Amit Chaudhuri's report in the UK Guardian's column "A Week in Books").
Senior Oxford poets are now calling on the University to cancel the elections for this year.