“Reflections on Poetry as Portraiture: Maryknoll Convent School” by Antony Huen

I was delighted to be invited by Maryknoll Convent School (Secondary Section) to offer three rounds of one-hour poetry writing workshops as part of the Cha Writing Workshop Series. I taught fourth, fifth and sixth form students on 15, 26 October, and 6 November respectively. All students are going to sit the HKDSE Literature in English exam, and quite a few have taken part in the Hong Kong Budding Poets competition.

The theme of the workshop “Poetry as Portraiture” grew out of my current research on contemporary poetry in relation to the visual arts. I have realised that there are many poems written after pictorial and photographic portraits and self-portraits, while many others describe notional ones and the poems could be said to be ‘portraits’ and ‘self-portraits’ in the figurative sense.

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I began the workshop by suggesting that a portrait or self-portrait presents an image of a person and does not show the entirety of the truth. I showed a photograph of the young Bruce Lee looking solemn. Surprisingly, quite a number of students thought it was me. I proved them wrong by then showing them another one of the kung fu master wearing his iconic yellow jumpsuit. I asked the group to keep in mind that a portrait, even when it is a photograph, can never be an exhaustive description of the portrayed person.

The workshop was then divided into three parts: (1) an ice-breaking task, (2) reading examples of what I call ‘portrait-poems’, and (3) writing a ‘portrait-poem’. In the first task, students were asked to write a few sentences or a stanza, where they compared themselves or someone they know to another thing. They could not reveal what the thing is. I told the sixth-form group that this might be useful for a university admission exam: it was reported that All Souls College, Oxford asked prospective students to write an essay on whether they would rather be a vampire or zombie.

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We then played a kind of charades: a student read aloud her piece and we guessed the thing the person was compared to. Most students chose to write about their own transformations, and there were many fascinating choices, including a black hole, double bass, bathtub, photograph, and pet gecko (a student said it’s adorable!). These came in handy as I could then address a student as double-bass-lady, a bathtub-lady, and so on. Naming is, indeed, useful to address a person in a particular way, and vice versa.

This ice-breaking task was to prepare the ladies-turned-things for their ‘portrait-poems’. Before giving them time to start developing a poem, I showed them two examples including Grace Nichols’ “Hidden Source”, written after Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, and Nicholas YB Wong’s “Self-Portrait”, which describes the self as a hangman figure. We discussed how both poems understand the portrayed self as an enigma. I have several portrait-poems up my sleeve and showed the group a few more depending on students’ interests. For example, I showed the group with the photograph-lady a poem from Adam Kirsch’s Emblems of the Passing World, a collection of poems after August Sander’s photographs.

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Students then moved on to writing their own ‘portrait-poems’ (I stressed that the first poem I published took around two years to complete!). It could be a ‘self-portrait’ or ‘portrait’ of a person they know. They were encouraged to develop the pieces they had worked on at the start of the workshop. We had a very short debriefing afterwards, and I was struck by how a student tried to write a ‘portrait’ of a friend as Van Gogh’s Starry Night. This really moved up a notch from my conception of a ‘portrait-poem’ and recalled the photograph-lady from the other group. Of course, I then suggested looking up Anne Sexton’s poem of the same name, written after Van Gogh.

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By introducing uses of poetry as figurative portraiture, I hoped that students would recognise the amazing capacity of both poetry and the visual arts to create images of the portrayed self. It was a pleasure working with Ms Patricia Kwong and Ms Dana Geangalau, and their students. Special thanks to Mr Aaron Chan for handling all the logistics. I am grateful to Patricia and Dana for briefing me on the typical dynamics of the three groups and providing me with the students’ feedback on the workshop. I was pleased to learn that the students have found new ways to read and use poetry, and I was very impressed by those who stayed behind and asked about the creation of my poetry. Indeed, it amused me when the group said ‘Goodbye, The Monkey King’. He is happy to weave his magic over others in future!

///// The Cha Writing Workshop Series: We plan to hold one to two writing workshops every month, for local school children (all levels), as well as economically and socially disadvantaged groups. If you’d like to suggest an idea, please contact the organisers, Tammy Ho (t@asiancha.com) and/or Eddie Tay (eddie@asiancha.com). Click here to see a list of past and future workshops. And click here to read instructors’ reflections on the workshops. /////



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