‘If one day you find you have nothing you want to write about, how would you feel?’ Poet Agnes S. L. Lam posed the question to poets in Macao, Hong Kong, Singapore, Manila, Mumbai and Delhi.
Some believed they would write ‘till death’, a few implying that writing poetry was a way to make sense of their lives. Others attributed less weight to their poetry. One or two claimed, perhaps in jest, that not writing would actually be a relief.
Indian novelist, poet and librettist Jeet Thayil says he never waits for inspiration. He sits at his table “every day, first thing in the morning” and works. Indian poet Rachna Joshi says it is common for poets to have “fallow’ phases”. But she trusts her inspiration to return. Singaporean poet Felix Cheong, on the other hand, isn’t afraid his creative well will run dry and he is happy to move on to other genres. Likewise, Macao’s Amy Wong doesn’t anticipate regretting a day when she has nothing to write about because she writes for her own pleasure, not necessarily for publication.
“The moment I tell myself I am only happy when my writing and music are going well, I am creating a trap for myself,” says Mumbai poet and musician Anand Thakore.
“Have the attitude that you’ve always already begun … because you’ve got a past …you’re not a blank slate and your writing is never from scratch,” advises Australian Kit Kelen, who has taught creative writing in Macao.
Singaporean poet Alvin Pang, editor of several anthologies, says he has learnt to “just sit and wait”. He finds pleasure meanwhile in other activities, like photography and cooking. Hong Kong poet and musician Arthur Leung is also happy to enjoy other things until inspiration returns. David McKirdy, a former director of the Man Hong Kong International Literary Festival, stresses the need to recharge and “to read as well as write’.
Madeleine Lee, another poet from Singapore, expects she will always write poetry, but if she stops she is grateful for the poetry she has produced. “Maybe I only have this period when I have lots to say,” she says.
Death of the poet
‘Why am I wasting so much time (writing poetry)? I could earn something by writing some articles … I can teach English … I can do something sensible.’ Indian poet Anna Sujatha Mathai once tried to argue herself out of writing with this logic. But she concluded: “If I couldn’t write anything any more, I would just die inwardly because writing connects me to life…It’s why my heart is beating.”
Her strong sentiment was echoed by Filipina poet Conchitina R. Cruz who has taught creative writing and comparative literature at the University of the Philippines in Diliman. She says that were she not able to write “that would be the end”. But Tammy Ho Lai-Ming, co-editor of Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, was more optimistic. While she found the idea of not being able to write upsetting, she didn’t expect it would ever happen to her.
The gift of words
When Heng Siok Tian began writing and publishing poetry, she looked upon it as “a gift or a blessing, probably from God”. All she had wanted to do was teach and she believes it’s not up to her to choose whether she retains “this specificity with words”.
A few poets, some perhaps with tongues firmly in their cheeks, said they’d find it a relief if one day they had nothing they wanted to write about.
To Elbert Siu Ping Lee from Hong Kong, poetry is sometimes “fun” but sometimes involves “a way of looking at life which,” she says, “is painful.”
Award-winning Filipino poet Marjorie Evasco, who writes in both English and Cebuano-Visayan, said it would be “such a relief” not to write, because then she could finally “just live”. Another Filipino poet, Paolo Manalo, thought the relief might not be so much for him as for those around him who worry that he will write about them!
Not having anything to write is for Delhi-based poet and scholar Rukmini Bhaya Nair ‘possibly the state of Nirvana’, although she finds it difficult to imagine.
Life actualised in poetry
Even if poets experience fallow periods before rejuvenation, most continue to write. To many poets, poetry is a way to connect with life. Poetic death is a myth. As long as there is life, inspiration may return.
Even if the poet does not actively produce poems, he or she can still read poetry and be part of the poetic community. Without readers, a poetic community does not exist; writing becomes meaningless.
Once a poem is created, it comes alive whenever a reader relates to it, even beyond a poet’s physical death. Ultimately, it is not poets as people but the life actualized in poetry, not necessarily the poets’ own, that gives poetry the power to touch other lives.
Agnes S. L. Lam is a poet, an Honorary Fellow in Writing by the University of Iowa and a former professor at the University of Hong Kong. These interviews are adapted from her most recent book, Becoming Poets: The Asian English Experience (Bern: Peter Lang 2014).