This year’s Singapore Writers Festival featured an impressive lineup of both local and international talents. As well as the more publicised talks and performances by high profile literary figures, it also ran a great workshop and masterclass program with accomplished writers, poets, comedians, bloggers, and publishers.
With the ambition of one day publishing my own poetry collection, I jumped at the chance to attend the Singapore Writers Festival 2018 masterclass, The Art of Rewriting in Poetry with award-winning Asian-American poet Cathy Song.
Hailing from Hawaii, Cathy Song’s poetry is full of rich imagery sourced from her mixed Korean-Chinese heritage, her poignant observations about daily life, and her celebration of the human spirit. Her first book of poetry, Picture Bride (1983), won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition and brought her national recognition. Song has since gone on to receive prestigious American literary awards. You can read more about Cathy Song and her poetry here.
With a natural sense of flow and timing, Cathy Song led the packed class through a series of poetry readings, group recitations, and writing exercises. Stressing the importance of using potent words in our poetry, Cathy Song read out two poems inspired by emotionally-loaded, potent ‘trigger words’ for the writer.
The first poem, ‘Dodo’, by Henry Carlile, sees the narrator in the poem transposing his self-identity onto a stuffed Dodo (‘Bohdo’ in Singlish!) in a museum – stupid and redundant.
The second poem, titled ‘Pa-ke’ – from Cathy Song’s own book of poems The Land of Bliss was inspired by the negative connotations she had growing up and hearing the word ‘Pa-ke’ used in a pejorative way [to describe Chinese people]. Her poem retells how, as a child, she rejected overt signifiers of her Asian heritage – the foods, customs, traditions, manners, and motifs. (Something that now, she terribly regrets doing – especially as her family elders, custodians of stories and customs, have passed on).
Cathy explained that: “Initially, around the early part of the 20th c., the word [Pa-ke] was used as a signifier for Chinese immigrants by the Native Hawaiians who heard the Chinese labourers in the sugar plantation camps often use the word “bok gwai” or white ghost, in reference to the white overseers at the camps. To the Native Hawaiian ears this sounded like “pa-ke.” Due to the various ethnic groups who came to Hawaii as contract labourers to work the sugar plantations, very distinctive names evolved to identify the different ethnic groups. Many of these words became incorporated into the local lingo–Hawaiian pidgin creole–and often became code words to perpetuate stereotypes.”
To start us off on our own ‘potent word’ writing exercises, Cathy asked the class to “dig deep and find a word that elicited a personal, emotional response from experience.” She coaxed us to recall potent words from our own childhood that even today, so powerful that that they almost evoke tangible memories. From here, we were tasked with describing the smell and sound of these potent words, and to weave them into short poems for reading aloud to the class. Carefully listening to each student recite their work, Cathy provided astute and constructive feedback.
By the end of the session, which Cathy generously extended in response to our enthusiasm, we all felt we’d been taught the secret to sourcing poetic inspiration. In fact, I think we did.
Having found this Singapore Writers Festival masterclass a great help for my own writing, I’d like to share the top 10 lessons I learnt on how to write clear, emotive, and powerful poetry:
Mine your heritage and culture for poetic inspiration
Cathy’s first tip, which she also used to bring us back to the culturally-pluralistic theme of the Singapore Writers Festival 2018 (Jiè – The World(s) We Live In) was on where to find inspiration for your poetry. She asked us to:
1. Delve deep into your culture and heritage, and mine it for inspiration and ‘juicy things’ to write about. Choose a theme, a subject, a word that holds importance and specificity to your identity; to your experiences in life; to your beliefs. Tap into who you are to find your unique and authentic voice.
Use potent words as a starting point and as emotional hooks
Cathy emphasises that as a (written) poet you have only one means of communicating to the audience your world, your thoughts, and your feelings – through words. So, make your words count:
2. Avoid using abstract and showy words that confuse (or lose) your reader. Instead, use concrete words that make an image and which provide access to your world.
3. Choose words and subjects that are potent, loaded with emotional resonance and significance. When you are triggered by a particular word, it is very easy to describe how this word ‘feels’, ‘smells’, ‘looks like’.
4. As above, use the five senses – sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch – to provide a richer and more easily imagined description of your world.
5. Ultimately, choose the best words possible. If you are reading your poem out loud, use nouns and verbs (and don’t forget to ‘read from your belly’).
Re-write for clarity; don’t get stuck on a line, a start, or an ending
On re-writing and editing your poems, Cathy encourages poets to be courageous and bold. Consult your inner compass and take action as soon as you find yourself veering off the path from a great poem into word-wilderness. She says:
6. Don’t get stuck on trying to keep a line, a start, or an ending. You will box yourself in.
7. Start again if you need to…
8. Don’t just fix your poem at the point where it started to go wrong. “Take 2” and start at the top of the page again. When you re-write your poem from the beginning you might find that you need to get rid of your first sentences.
9. Write your poem out by hand (or stylus for environmentally conscious folk) and keep re-writing it, crossing out and re-ordering the lines until you have a finished poem. Write it out again in its final form on a clean piece of paper/screen.
10. Re-read your poem as though it is the first time you are reading it. Is it easy to understand? Are the images clear enough for the mind’s eye to see, to evoke an emotional response? Don’t rely on other people knowing how you feel or what you think. You need to tell them.
For aspiring poets who want to read or learn more about the craft and contemporary trends in local and US poetry or receive constructive feedback, you can check out the Singapore Writers Group and Math Paper Press and in the US, Poetry Foundation and Poets & Writers.
Look out for our other post about culture and identity. Follow our social media coverage on Instagram here and for Kerryn, here. You can also check out the festival’s programme of events here. If you’d like to read more of our artist interviews, look here and our blogposts here.
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