The auditory cortex is the part of the brain that performs the basic and higher functions of hearing such as language switching. In the case of an Asian English poet, a historical collocation of multilingual sounds likely interplays forcefully in the poet’s mind, often subdued somewhat by perceived prestige or inferiority. But poems are sounds that well up from the heart. As a phonologist (Lian-Hee) and as a poet (Tammy), we feel that these purest melodies must be given bandwidth. Auditory Cortex is therefore conceived as an invitation to a small oasis for the Asian English poet to let us hear. Thus, all submissions have to be accompanied by an audio recording of the poet. Celebration of this historical-cultural-linguistic diversity precludes exclusivity, and hence the moral obligation also to ensure that these wonderfully unique gems must share their brilliance with others: the language must be accessible to others in the world of Englishes while being Philippines, India, Singapore, Vietnam, Hong Kong, …
We received more than 230 entries, some from as far as the Americas and Europe, reached by diasporic lives that are a part of so much of Asian, and certainly of all human, history. The varied lives and scopes of the poets presented an amazing landscape that strengthens our convictions for the value of the physical acoustic manifestation of the poet’s inner voice. This is not revelation; anyone who studied James Joyce knows. Does one then not feel a sense of loss when a poet feels shy about reading the work aloud or when a reader is content to see the writing and not hear the sounds?
There is no lack of poems that touched us in one way or another among the submissions. The poems selected as winners or as highly recommended stood out because of their general wholesomeness as poems: the incisiveness of observation; the precision and music of the writing; the resonances of the local culture and languages as the work addresses the universality and individuality of the subject topic; the natural gravitation radiated by the work through the poet’s reading; and in all cases that elusive creativity that speaks at once to humanity while being so supremely idiosyncratic.
Eight pieces are showcased here, and we must bear the blame being unable to reveal the full tapestry of what was shown to us through the entire set of submissions. We call on ALL poets, not just for this contest, to alleviate that culpability by making recordings of your readings, and sharing. We call on publishers and those who can help fund literary projects, to come in aid of anthologies that offer something also to the auditory cortex.
Co-judge, “Auditory Cortex”
First Prize Winner: “Tiempo Muerto” by Rae Rival (Philippines) [Listen and Read]
Lian-Hee Wee’s commentary: Hearing and reading this poem takes one into the rural settings of the Philippines where one is reminded of the idyllic agricultural past that is buffeted by colonising powers of Spain and the United States that bring in the woes of economic struggles and the mix of culture and religion. The poet wove seamlessly translations of key terms that are in themselves a part of the poem so that those not familiar with the Philippines hear and feel the language while not being alienated by it. The poem makes no call for action, but incisively presents through the poet’s experience and observation aspects of Filipino lives that triggers reflections, not only on how one views the Philippines but also so much of the Asian experience might not be different. Whatever you think the sari-sari store is, was there not one in your memory that would hold the same, yet different, stories?
Second Prize Winner: “Hungry Decades” by Ng Kum Hoon (Singapore) [Listen and Read]
Lian-Hee Wee’s commentary: The Singapore English in this poem is so distinct, but probably only distinct to the Singaporean. It is likely that someone not from Singapore would read this and not realise the idiomaticity of “and then and then”, or the twisted rhyme of papillon and Babylon while themselves twisted in their references to the socio-political scene. The variety of references, from physics to seafood speaks also to how the Singaporean scene is one where everything from everywhere has to be slotted in place by micro-planning in the country, where the drama of not-supposedly-royal siblings unfolds with non-extant seasons. Hearing this poem performed by the poet reveals a sense of humour that might otherwise have been hard to discern. It underlines how phonology itself encodes also the poesy of the milieu from which the work germinates.
Third Prize Co-Winner: “Nostalgia” by Amrita Brahmo (India) [Listen and Read]
Lian-Hee Wee’s commentary: Beauty is found often in the humblest things in life. The elegance typical Indian art is portrayed in this poem with the humility and love that pervades home cooking. As un-noteworthy as second helpings are to those who enjoy them, when seen from the perspective of the person who ensures its availability, one suddenly smells and tastes all the cultural associations of the five-spice powder, the almonds, the mustard oil as one hears their crackling sounds under the closed lid, even when one is not in India, even when one is not Indian. Listening to this poem is best in a lazy afternoon, when one finds mental space, even if preoccupied but numbed by dread of work, for longing a little time with those who enabled us to soar from our childhood home.
Third Prize Co-Winner: “An Ode to the Street Bride” by Gino Paradela (Philippines) [Listen and Read]
Lian-Hee Wee’s commentary: Beauty is found often missed when it is among the humblest. One misses, or one misjudges. In this poem, the innocence of a fellow human being is unraveled in the two contradicting senses of the word: (i) undone and disintegrated by the injustices and lusts; and (ii) disentangled and transcended by tenacity and perseverance as observed by those willing to see them. The poet’s reading is calm, befitting the dark hours from twilight to twilight, but calm perhaps because there is such destitute.
Highly recommended: “Place” by Rochelle Potkar (India) [Listen and Read]
Lian-Hee Wee’s commentary: Are you dolphin or shark? Are you human or fish? Is home an enclosure or haven? Is liberty a trap strapped with responsibility? Is the museum a cemetery? This poem confronts the reader with the issue of humanity while also relating to the idea of belonging, be it one’s birthplace, one’s refuge, or a place colonized and then reclaimed and reinvented, but still ambivalent.
Highly recommended: “To Motion” by Ivan Emil Labayne (Philippines) [Listen and Read]
Lian-Hee Wee’s commentary: This poem is unusual and difficult to narrate. It is poetic in the range of imageries threaded together as mistakes of the calligrapher as the activities unfold on a Sunday, a day of rest, and eventually rested despite all the kinetics of yoga and and calisthenics. This mood is conveyed in a rather matter-of-fact reading, as one hears the poet describe these apparently non sequitur images of talking ink tasting like mango that was once mistaken for cauliflower, the latter somehow having become indigo.
Highly recommended: “How to Complete a Family Portrait” by Shobhana Kumar (India) [Listen and Read]
Lian-Hee Wee’s commentary: The poem is much like a soliloquy and animatedly performed by the poet. By artful portrayal of an eager salesperson, the poet presents before the reader an unconvinced buyer and a rather mindless and heartless industry of animal trade. Here we see how the struggles of a lowly stationed human being are played off against the even more exploited lives of animals sold as pets, as breeding slaves and objects that have been readily discarded when they are no longer fashionable or profitable. The title of the poem itself underlines this cruel irony as the completion of the family portrait is predicated on a profit-oriented and status-pursuing purchase of a life.
Highly recommended: “Don’t Pick My Flower” by Kylla Ruth Benlot (Philippines) [Listen and Read]
Lian-Hee Wee’s commentary: A disturbing poem thinly veiled for the modesty of virginal innocence betrayed by a lust that was paraded as love. Written from the perspective of one who knows both victim and abuser, the poet hints that this betrayal is common, if not prevalent, in the poet’s society–a horror that if it happened once, it is once too many. This common friend, familiar with all complexes of the abuser and the victim, comes across as the new targeted victim, because in the title of the poem is the rejection “Don’t …,” only to be followed by a longer engagement with the abuser where the blame shifted to the existence of rape at the end, unconsciously mitigating the abuser.