This article was commissioned by George Town Literary Festival (GTLF) in partnership with The British Council and The Poetry Society (TPS). If you require commission support to promote your arts & culture events in an engaging, fun, and insightful way to our 16,000 monthly readers, you can get in touch with us here!
“Sometimes it can feel like the world is closing in, with countries the world over becoming more inward-looking and solipsistic. Literature is the defence we have against that narrowing – it’s intrinsically an exercise in empathy and striving to understand experiences beyond our own,” remarked Judith Palmer, director of The Poetry Society (TPS).
This belief propelled TPS to collaborate with The British Council and George Town Literary Festival (GTLF) for ‘Dreaming, Thinking, Playing: Poetic Conversations’—a unique initiative that brought together two Malaysian and two United Kingdom (UK) poets. Their collaborative efforts aimed to craft new poetry that would be exclusively unveiled during a dedicated session at GTLF 2023, which would be held on 24th November at the Black Kettle. By the way, we also listed 10 sessions at GTLF 2023 that you shouldn’t miss here.
Kulleh Grasi, an Iban poet and musician from Sarawak, was paired with Aotearoa’s (New Zealand) Nina Mingya Powles, while Malay essayist and poet Qurratul ‘Ain collaborated with Malaysian-American poet Cynthia Miller. Together, they embarked on creating new poetry, exploring uncharted cultural territories, and resonating with GTLF’s 2023 theme, ‘terra incognita‘.
For Kulleh, the most thrilling aspect of the collaboration lies in the divergence of principles and backgrounds, expressed through words.
“To me, this collaboration symbolises a technical synergy, merging a deep comprehension of writing techniques. When addressing the geopolitical landscape between the UK and Malaysia, especially Sarawak, my writing naturally leans towards emphasising the practice of Oral Tradition. While this collaboration might not solely focus on fusion, it inherently allows me to showcase the finest elements from both realms, extracting and highlighting their strengths,” elaborated Kulleh.
Meanwhile, Qurratul ‘Ain, also known as Ain, shared that the initiative prompted her to reevaluate her perception of poetry. It encouraged her to embrace the liberating aspect of adapting to new creative processes and renewing her faith in poetry.
“Poetry is seamlessly embedded in the cultural background of the poet, so the process is also culturally shaped, and not everyone will have the same opinion. Nonetheless, such collaboration expands a poet’s heart and mind,” said Ain.
One impactful moment during the collaboration was discovering her partner, Cynthia Miller’s strong connection to Malaysia.
“She often visits her family in Malaysia for summer vacations. I remember her reading her poem about her experience, a poetic observation capturing Malaysia’s essence — the hawkers, the humid weather, the sidewalks — scenes familiar to me as a Malaysian. It was fascinating; written by someone who isn’t Malaysian, or perhaps partly due to her mother being Malaysian, the poem reflected Malaysia’s poetic imperfection. That moment profoundly impacted me, as a Malaysian. I pondered on expressing myself similarly. It illuminated how intricate writing poetry is: unconsciously, we train ourselves to be observant, sensitive beings, absorbing every detail. Her sensitivity in poetry influenced me – noticing the smallest details and cherishing everyday, simple things.”
Ain also emphasised the pivotal need to abandon an ‘Us versus Them’ mindset in cross-cultural collaboration.
“We have to agree that when poetry is the main language, we communicate through complex flows, and colourful accents, and no one is superior to the other. We mustn’t allow ideas of ‘inferiority or superiority’ to become barriers. Collaboration means equality, complementing each other’s differences and similarities, aiming to create work that emerges from a mutual understanding. This doesn’t imply complete similarity but rather a tolerance rooted in respect and passion,” said Ain.
In terms of challenges encountered during the collaborative process, Kulleh, who primarily writes in indigenous languages and Malay, found certain terms and words challenging to accurately translate to their nuanced meanings. Consequently, he opted to leave these terms or words unchanged, without attempting translation.
He shared a verse from his collaborative work:
berolok kemawan selut
tiap Bintang Banyak,
tiap bintang berarak,
mipih dari engkudu,
salut merah dari ungu“
“The dimming sun
a mimesis of abyss in the cloud
each Bintang Banyak
each flaming parade,
encircling from Engkudu, the noni –
splashed crimson from a violet hue.”
Annotation: Bintang Banyak refers to the Pleiades in the Iban language, while Engkudu in Iban is a type of fruit also known as Noni, a plant common throughout Southeast Asia and Polynesia. The Engkudu also forms a natural dye that gives the deep red or maroon colour of the Pua Kumbu, a traditional patterned multicoloured ceremonial cotton cloth used by the Iban people in Sarawak, Malaysia.
Judith highlighted that the impetus for these collaborations arose from various sources, eventually coalescing naturally. She explained her observation of a rising cohort of intriguing poets in the UK who shared Malaysian heritage.
“I’d become aware of a new wave of really interesting poets emerging in the UK who had Malaysian heritage. Often they had quite complex cultural identities, but I noticed that there was this thread of Malaysian heritage regularly running through a lot of the most exciting poets I was reading. So simultaneously it made me want to find out more about the poets working in Malaysia, and what sort of poetry scene was happening here, and also to find opportunities to work more closely with these UK-based writers,” said Judith.
Regarding the impact of the collaborative initiative on poetry and cultural exchange:
“The great thing about commissions and residencies is that they open up space for the unexpected to happen. They can nudge a poet’s mind down a slightly different path, than when working away on their own. It can be the same for audiences too. That’s why we come to literary festivals!
“You sit and listen, and something someone says starts a chain reaction in your head of new questions and ideas. Sometimes we don’t even realise it until years later, when a thought resurfaces and you can begin to trace its genesis back. There’s a particularly receptive state I think which we can enter into when listening to a poetry performance, or that concentrated atmosphere of shared attention of an audience listening together to a really engaging discussion, which can unlock imaginations and make things cascade. It’s a powerful energy.”
All images were sourced from the respective poets’ Instagram pages and The Poetry Society.