We are living in an age where humans are swamped with more printed words than ever before, whether from Facebook, Twitter, text messages or email. And yet those words are fleeting. Poetry, with its slow-sinking gravity, can be really important at a time when so much fast language is being spewed. It can serve as a way to slow things down and let people appreciate every syllable, vowel, thought and sentence.
Colin Cheney reading the translated version of Zakariya Amataya’s poem.
A special poetry reading night was one of the highlights of the literary summit hosted by Chulalongkorn University, Asia Pacific Writers and the SEA Write committee last week. Several poets, Thai and non-Thai, gave readings, and we talked to two of them who helped organise the event and who aspire to blow poetic winds in the direction of prose-prone readers.
Colin Cheney is the main man running "Bangkok Poetry", a series of readings that feature not only poems, but also other art forms such as films, performances, music and novels. Happening every six weeks at Opposite at WTF Cafe and Gallery, the performers are an eclectic mix of locals and expatriates. An established poet himself, Cheney's debut collection, Here Be Monsters, was the winner of the National Poetry Series in 2009.
From the Thai side, Zakariya Amataya was the winner of the SEA Write Award in 2010. As the first Thai Muslim to receive the award, he also stood out from the norm with his free verse poems that caught the eyes and ears of the judges. His book, No Women in Poetry, shares the same title with one of his poems. He also hosts poetry nights in Thai once a month, at a different venue.
Why isn't poetry a mass art form?
CHENEY: I think that poetry, in Thai culture, has been regarded as a high art, written by royalty and people of a certain class for very formal occasions. Poetry was also a way of communicating the epics, where epic stories of Thai culture are elaborated. It's valued by Thai people, but not necessarily as something that is funny or accessible. But that's OK, even if you said you were going to a poetry reading in New York, people will still look at you a little funny.
Can you share some of your interesting poetry reading experiences?
CHENEY: I attended one of Zakariya's poetry nights in Thon Buri and there was a sense of community where writers of different ages come together to experiment and try out things. There was one person who recited a poem, then chewed on tomatoes before spitting them into a glass bowl, then proceeded to read some more, then spit some more, then drank it all up at the end. It was his performance.
What do you try to achieve by throwing these poetry nights?
ZAKARIYA: Poetry readings used to be done only by famous poets, but my friends and I have tried to put it into the mainstream. We try to change this and insist that anyone can come. Writing and reading poems is a normal human activity, not for a particular class of people. I want it to be a common thing, but until it becomes something people think of doing on a passing Friday night, that is when it will truly be part of our everyday lives.
What can poetry give you that other literature may not?
ZAKARIYA: When you read a poem, it will require your focus and attention to really enter the imagination and content, which requires a quiet space and that really lets you be with yourself. Try returning to yourself by reading poems. When you read, you will think along and it is a good time where you can be with yourself. We use so much time everyday and much of it is wasted by other silly things. Reading it and getting to think after that gives you so much more and also takes much less time than some two-hour lakorn.
Is the language barrier a problem at your events?
CHENEY: It can be hard for farang audience members but it's an interesting experience to sit and listen to art in another language. At the end of the day, what's most important is that it bridges the gap between both Thai and expatriate poets and lets them know of each other's existence. It doesn't seem in the spirit of literary and artistic exchange if it is only in one language. It's about creating connections and dialogue.
What do you hope your audiences get from your events?
CHENEY: I just hope they receive an experience that is unlike anything they've ever experienced in their normal everyday lives. That they feel differently, that they look at the world a little bit differently, that they get a glimpse into something new, feel challenged, uncomfortable, confused. Poems can put you in touch with emotions you haven't felt recently and can remind you how it feels to be passionate about something. There's real excitement and energy when you feel that.
Will poetry ever become widespread?
ZAKARIYA: It is difficult for it to become popular, unless you are [popular rock singer] Tul who does poetry as well. But the reason people show up is still because they primarily want to listen to him sing, rather than hear him reading his poems. My generation is trying to make it a common thing, but it is a task the younger generation will surely have to help out with and continue.
About the author
- Writer: Parisa Pichitmarn
Position: Life Writer