We should talk to each other

WrICE workshops, University of the Philippines, Diliman
Approaches to Contemporary Poetry

Ellen van Neerven and Nhã Thuyên

In the middle of a classroom, two poets are dancing. Ellen van Neerven and Nhã Thuyên – each holding handwritten signs – face each other and sway, back and forth, retreating and gaining. One sign says contemporary poetry; the other, reader. They are curious then wary, confident then timid. It becomes clear that the dance is a physical rendering of the workshop topic: Approaches to Contemporary Poetry.

There are twenty of us gathered in this classroom at the University of the Philippines – writers, readers, students, teachers – as part of the WrICE workshops, a day of literary events emphasising cultural immersion and exchange.

What is contemporary poetry? How can the reader reach it? Ellen and Thuyên pose these questions and – far from expecting definitive answers – they each spend some time prodding them. Ellen asks: ‘What is the now? How will we know it? When will we know it?’

For Ellen, a First Nations Yugambeh woman, poetry functions to create new archives, new records, new histories – to rewrite the past. She explains that, in her work, there’s not a clear line between what happened then and what’s happening now: ‘The past atrocities are still current atrocities.’

Nhã Thuyên, a Vietnamese poet and publisher, sees language as a living being. Working in close partnership with her translator, Kaitlin Rees – a recent recipient of the Pen/Heim Translation Grant – she is fascinated by how languages work, how they may be made to dance with one another. She describes the Vietnamese and English editions of her book of poetry as sisters. Thuyên shares that she feels a limit, both living and working in her language. She keeps herself distant from Vietnamese by reading in English. She sees her language better from a distance.

As an exercise, a newspaper is passed around and dismembered, its headlines transformed into prose poems and found poetry. Thuyên tells us that every word is out there, just waiting for us to use. Students and teachers step up to the microphone to read their work. Endless possibilities are in its words and lines, but many paths leads back to the news that broke earlier that day: President Trump’s immigration ban.

Both poets read to us from their recent collections. Ellen’s poems ‘Whole Lot’ and ‘Chips’, recently published in Comfort Food, are a response to country and identity. She tells us that she doesn’t want to write poetry unless she is trying to unravel a question. ‘I write to connect and be one with that land and language.’

Thuyên reads her poem, ‘Hours of the Ocean’, in Vietnamese. Ellen echoes her in English. The final refrain of the poem is repeated, taking on the weight of so many things: this cross-cultural experience, a Vietnamese and Australian poet sharing their work in a University of the Philippines classroom, a needed response to troubled times.

we should talk to each other, we should talk to each other…

The session ends and we all pile out to the corridor to eat lunch together. In light of what we’ve just experienced, it seems appropriate to return to Ellen’s work, ‘Whole Lot’:

what we eat comes from our roots
if we stop sharing there will be nothing

Susie Thatcher