An Economy of Words – Learning to listen to others
By Sarita Newson
“Poets are the economists of words, carving a fortune of meaning out of a frugality of words.” This was the introduction to an Ubud Writers & Readers Festival discussion on the 3rd October, 2014, led by a group of young poets who, “prune big stories down to size using the fine art of poetry.”
I was happy to soak up the aspirations and inspiring influences, words and thoughts of the five poets contributing to this session. In spite of their radically different backgrounds, their words spoke of their mutual love of language and an awareness of the importance of self-expression in people of all ages.
Carlos Andrés Gómez chaired the session and encouraged interaction, soliciting audience participation throughout. His questions “What’s it like teaching poetry? How do you want people to enjoy your writing? Do you worry that the meaning gets lost by the way they read/translate it? What does it mean to be a poet?” brought enthusiastic answers from the panel of poets and from voices out of the crowd.
Emilie Zoey Baker spoke about her own currently unfinished poem that might never reach completion. She brings into it a range of Australian characters, imbuing people’s names with their personality by her tone and rhythm of voice, richly depicting the evolving character of the Australian people.
Encouraging children to use their own expressions to communicate was very important to her, and this became a recurring theme throughout the session. She shared an experience of watching a child wildly shaking and twisting a tree in her garden and her subsequent amazement when the child told her, “I’m stirring the sky.”
“What are the stimuli that children learn from? What are we opening ourselves to? And how do our children respond to it?” These are some of the questions she asks herself, as a teacher of poetry and author of 18 children’s books. Children are the hardest to impress, she declares, and she endeavors to get through to them on their own terms.
Jesse John Brand performed a physically angry poem about his little brother Joshua’s mental health challenges. The poem tells how teachers misjudged the child as being dumb, oblivious to his magic and amazing creativity.
Jesse examines how typecasting absolves us of our responsibility to understand others, causing us to lose so much. He feels it is important for a teacher to understand the person being taught in order to bring out the best, no matter how different students may be. It is almost as if he feels the role of the educator should be to ‘channel’ the creativity of youth, instead of trying to mould it to a ‘standard’.
“There’s a depth in my art that comes from a personal understanding of suffering,” Brand says. “A lot of it is probably … my brother and my father’s hospitalization, my family’s health issues.”
When asked how he wanted people to experience his work, Regi Sastra Sena, the Indonesian poet in this session, replied that it is important to experience poetry in all ways, through reading, performing, even rewriting. He writes because he loves to and he tries to bring out the best of himself by working it over and over, trying to improve and distill his words into the finest possible form.
Indeed, Regi’s densely imaged poetry enriches the Indonesian language. It is suffused with expressions that seem to have been gleaned from a deep awareness of myth and language. His poems are inspired by ancient stories, and he formulates new expressions, some of made up from old or rarely used root words. For example, he changes menyanyi sumbang to menyanyi sumbing, expanding the meaning of ‘singing a false note’, to become ‘singing a false high note’ caused by a cleft palate (sumbing). He uses common words that describe one sense or organ to cover a wider region of sensuality within the physical being — for example his expression menyayukan kalbu. Menyayukan derives from the root word sayu, which is used to describe a dull sadness in the eyes, and he uses it to describe an effect upon the kalbu, an imagined physical organ perceived through an emotion that fills your chest.
In ‘Romantika Bisu’/’Mute Romance’, Regi speaks of love and loneliness, using primordial words from ancient mythology to unearth feelings that no longer have an outlet in this day and age, bringing to view the darkest and deepest longings of mankind. He talks about doubt and conceit as latent feelings that, “only emerge to ‘prickle’ the subconscious” in one’s, “drunken state”. In ‘Mute Romance’, the voice of the poet likens himself to Amba, the unrequited lover of Bisma in the Mahabarata, and Uma, thwarted consort of Siva in ancient Hindu Mythology. “Under a dark crouching sky the sunrise hangs half-beheaded, cracking to release droplets of rosewater tears, slow burning in the rice husk of the night.”
The voice of his mute lover is both elegant and mysterious, as he, “wraps all his desire around his little finger/satisfied by leftovers from yesterday’s trembling ache of longing/and resigns to a transitory world fragranced by sandalwood.”
Sudanese-born Abraham ‘Abe’ Nouk, who moved from a land of deprivation into a land of plenty, feels responsible for every voice that has ever been silenced. So many ‘aliens’ are refused entry to Australia, he feels responsible to earn and deserve his privilege. To those who were born with rights it brings a question — what is it about us that gives us more rights than people in other countries. Is it luck? Is it fate?
Abe asked the audience: “If we were trying to end war, and instead of guns we put musical instruments in our hands, how would we tune our instruments, and if we played together what would our music sound like?”
He too feels his students’ need to be listened to, and not be told how to tell their own stories. He prefers not to make them to conform to norms in writing; to enable them to share their different backgrounds.
The poem Stephanie Dogfoot read described the difficult age of puberty — that stage when you think everything is wrong: your hair, your body, your looks, nothing seems to fit anymore. As you grow you think things are going to become clearer, but they don’t, as you mature you realise and accept that you don’t actually have to fit in a certain box, and you stop being afraid of being the wrong shape. Death continues to occur (pets, friends, etc.) and it isn’t just a phase, life is like that. You don’t have to change yourself, it’s more important to find your own self-expression and not fear being wrong.
Stephanie believes poets should just keep on writing, regardless of what happens; she fears that if ever she stops she will no longer be a poet. Her writing draws out her essence and allows her to recreate herself: “There’s so much pressure from outside, it’s better to draw from within.”
After the privilege of listening to these young poets from all around the world I believe that ‘An Economy of Words’ does not necessarily happen because of frugality – it happens when the effect of the words is so great compared to their number, and the words chosen have the power to open doors to other realities.
Ubud Writers & Readers Festival is an annual literary event taking place in Bali’s cultural heartland.
Images by Aryo Bimo