“Himalayan Holiday! The Poetry, Play, and Persuasion (and Punishment) of Leh Highway Signage” by Jason S Polley

This Cha and WIMLER Foundation Hong Kong Ltd. event was part of the Cha Writing Workshop Series, in partnership with the Hong Kong Poetry Festival Foundation and supported by the English Departments at CUHK and HKBU, and it was conducted on Sunday 11 November 2018 at the Euro Trade center in Central, Hong Kong.

With the example of Indian roadway signs from Srinagar to Leh and from Leh to Manali, the aim of the workshop was to encourage attendees to rethink their relationships to the maps, and signs, and advertisements around them. How do signs encode principles and politics? How might they translate conservative probity as general motto? In the mode of Jorge Luis Borges’ “On Exactitude in Science” (1960), what might maps divert our attention from? Who sponsors particular signs and why? Who decides what goes on them? How do we read all of these?

The presented slide show featured sublime Himalayan-range views, which integrated the rusty carcasses of crashed Goods Carriers, small Hindu temples and large Buddhist stupas, washed-out National Highway roads, plethora of flowers, goats, donkeys, prayer flags, and signage ranging from the gratified (You are passing through / second highest pass of the world/ unbelievable is not it?) to the eschatological (Heaven or hell / Or Mother Earth / The choice is yours) to the alliterative (Always alert / Accident avert) to the environmentalist (Trees don’t grow / On money either) and the haikuesque (Never drive faster / Than your guardian / Angel can fly). Following these photographs, we discussed how we might poetically transform signs such as these—and the ones we encounter in, say, everyday Hong Kong and Luzon. We went through examples of word and pearl transposition, such as collecting the words and phrases from several signs to make a poem that is at once about road safety and applied fear. We also thought of splicing together several signs and then applying erasure to come up with something either original or clichéd. We likewise referenced Basho and thought of ways in which to make thoughtful haikus from signage words.

In the end, attendees combined all of the above to make collective found poems, found poems that included Indian highway signage, Filipino road signage, general Hong Kong signage, and popular idioms. Most compelling was how several groups combined found poetry with erasure poetry, thus evoking Derrida and Barthes. Their poems involved reader and writer alike in exercises of absent-presence and openendedness.

///// 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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