Migrant Poetic Tales: Poetry Festival Singapore 2017

By Pavithra Raja

(750 words, 8-minute read)

Authentic everyday experiences took centre stage in Migrant Poetic Tales – an event held on 20 May to mark the beginning of Poetry Festival Singapore 2017. Booktique, a warm and quiet bookstore in the bustling CityLink Mall, provided an intimate space for the voices of poets to be heard – poets who also happen to be migrant workers from countries such as Bangladesh, India, the Philippines, and Indonesia. Migrant Poetic Tales brought together varied insights of these poets, each shaped by their countries’ unique literary and cultural heritage.

The event was opened by Singapore poet and teacher Wai Kit Ow Yeong, who prefaced his reading by noting that all peoples are migrants in an existential sense. Boat People, in its angry delivery, drew attention to the contentious nature of the term given to Vietnamese refugees who fled their war torn country by boat from the 1970s into the 1990s. Continuing with the theme of migration, this time focusing on culture clash, Wai Kit explored the plight of a fictional character going shopping with “the Buddha”, in a poem that highlighted the anachronism of an ancient spiritual figure in the midst of modern-day Singapore.

Genevieve Wong, also a teacher from Singapore recited one of Singapore’s earliest poems, Trishaw and Bonds, both published in a rare print of an old anthology entitled Singapore Writing. Her own poem, The Stone, is a reference to the “Singapore Stone”, part of a large sandstone slab that lay at the head of the Singapore River only to be destroyed in 1843. A nondescript piece still lies in the National Singapore Museum, the script engraved upon it still left undecipherable.

Bikas Nath
Bikas Nath

Two-time Migrant Poetry Competition winner Amrakajona Zakir from Bangladesh then introduced the migrant poets, beginning with Bikas Nath, winner of the Migrant Poetry Competition in 2016 for the poem Why Migrant! Performing poetry and songs at public events comes naturally to the Bengali writer, who also holds a diploma in engineering. In a resplendent outfit of deep green and red depicting the colours to mark out his Bangladeshi roots, Bikas recited Affection of Connectivity, highlighting the undercurrent of stillness and natural beauty beneath the façade of the city-state. In doing so, he set the tone for a moving journey into the sights, sounds and experiences afforded by the event.

Rolinda Espanola
Rolinda Espanola

Taking the stage next was Rolinda Espanola from the Philippines, in a bright yellow traditional dress, beginning with Foreign Land, a lighthearted poem which found the audience reliving Singapore through new eyes. Singapore’s linguistic plurality, and the public orderliness and discipline of its people, were contrasted with the Philippines, where “everyone speaks one language, but nobody understands each other.” It ends with Rolinda’s joyous proclamation: “Majulah Singapura!” You and me saw her sharing her insights of the ethnic and cultural differences and the unity that can be found despite these differences. Rolinda’s infectious positivity was soon offset by the pensive, thoughtful Monir Ahmod, a published Bangladeshi poet and former journalist.

Monir Ahmad
Monir Ahmod

Monir started off with comments about the Singaporean bus, musing about the respectful way it carries people and the parallels that can be drawn with life experiences. Child of Water and Colour, introspective, whimsical poems drew inspiration from nature while commenting on humanity:

 So I think if the human being could be colorless

As water, only then they might be a perfect being

The poem brought the listener’s attention back to the nature of the poem as an encapsulation of that experience of witnessing the world in motion:

When I come back from those cities

I draw something that I call ‘a poem’

So green, so springy and so lovely that

People think of it as the real heart of the world.

Wiwik Tri, N Rengarajan
Wiwik Tri Winarsih, N Rengarajan

Wiwik Tri Winarsih, from East Java, Indonesia, read out the intriguing poems Caste and What’s Your Collar, the latter being a clever take on the hierarchy of blue and white collar workers. N. Rengarajan then recited his short yet meaningful Tamil poems Today MC and Lifestyle, while “Shy” Lhen Espolo recited Regardless of Race and Brown Skin, both moving meditations on racial differences. Md Mukul Hossine rounded off the session by expressing his deep feelings of nostalgia and missing his hometown; his heartrending poem Time for Farewell spoke volumes of these themes, with Mukul reminiscing about his mother’s love.

“Shy” Lhen Espolo, Mukul Hossine
“Shy” Lhen Espolo, Md Mukul Hossine

Drawing the event to its close was Shivaji Das, organizer of the Migrant Poetry Festival, who remarked on the evolution of the initial goals of giving migrant workers a voice and platform, to the creation of a forum for different cultures to come together and share experiences that were dear to them. With their perceptive observations and deep sensitivity, the poets of the evening did make their mark on Singapore’s literary canon. In a country that was founded by migrants, perhaps the word encapsulates the essence of being truly Singaporean.

Here are a few of the poems shared:


Monir Ahmod, “রং” / “Colour”


যখন শব্দশহরে ডুব দেই

উড়ন্ত পাখি দান করে তার চোখ

দেখি আকাশ, সাদাকালো মেঘ, রংধনু।

দেখি পৃথিবীর নদী, পাহাড়, পথ

সবুজের ভাজে ভাজে রংধনুর মতো রংবেরঙের


বিধ্বস্ত শহর পেরিয়ে বৃক্ষশূন্য জনপদে দেখি

রংধনুর মতো রংবেরঙের অট্টালিকা।

জনপদ ঘুরেফিরে চোখ ফেলি মানবহৃদয়ে

হৃদয়ের ভাজে ভাজে দেখি রংধনুর মতো

অসংখ্য রং

অথচ প্রেমনামক লাল রঙ থেকে ছড়াতে ছড়াতে

এরা রাঙিয়েছে নীল বসন্ত

রক্তাক্ত শহর, সভ্যতায় এখন রঙহীন অশ্রুশ্রাবণ হয়।

শব্দশহরে থেকে ফিরে যাকে অংকন করি

তার নাম কবিতা

চিরসবুজ, চিরবসন্ত, চিরপ্রেমময়ী কবিতা হও মানুষ

দেখবে মানবহৃদয় যেন পৃথিবীর হৃদয়।


When I enter into the cities of words,
Flying birds give their eyes to me,
So I can see the sky, the clouds and the rainbows.

I can see the earth, rivers, mountains, paths that
So green folded like flowers like a colorful rainbow
Across the treeless town, In the devastated cities
The mansions are as colorful as the rainbow.

And then I explore the cities inside the human mind,
Such a colorful rainbow is present there, I can see
The love that is so red, like the spring and the blood.

When I come back from those cities,
I draw something that I call ‘a poem’
So green, so springy and so lovely that
People think of it as the real heart of the world.


Rolinda Espanola, “Ikaw at Ako” / “You and me”

Di dahil maputi ako,maitim ka tayo ay magkaiba
Di dahil nakamaigsi ako nakabalot ka tayo ay magkaiba
Di dahil sa simbahan ako sa templo o masjid ka tayo ay magkaiba
Di dahil diretso salita ko,putol putol ang sayo tayo ay magkaiba

Tayo ay pare pareho kahit kulay magkaiba
Tayo ay pare pareho kahit pananamit magkaiba
Tayo ay pare pareho kahit pananampalataya magkaiba
Tayo ay pare pareho kahit pananalita magkaiba

Pareho may damdamin,pareho ng paghinga
Parehong tao,parehong umiibig
Parehong nangangailangan ng respeto at pagkalinga
Parehong may labi upang ngumiti kahit sa di kilala

Kaya kaibigan wag mag alala
Respetuhin mo ako at talagang rerespetuhin kita
Ngitian mo ako,matatamis na ngiti ibabalik ko
Asal ng totoong tao,tayo ay napabilang di ba?


Not because I’m fair, you are dark we’re different
Not because I wear shorts, you’re covered we’re different
Not because I go church, you go temple/mosque we’re different
Not because I speak fluently, you speak crooked we’re different

We are the same though skin tone is different
We are the same though way of clothing is different
We are the same though religion is different
We are the same though language is different

Same with feelings,same we breathe
Same human,same that feel loved
Same that needs to be respected and cared for
Same that have lips to smile even to strangers

So my friend, worry not
For if you respect me, I will respect you surely
For if you smile at me, I will smile back at you dearly
A true act of human,we belong,don’t we?


N Rengarajan, “வாழ்க்கை தத்துவம்” / “Lifestyle”

வெண்ணிலா என்கிறோம்


உற்றுப் பாருங்கள்

அதற்குள்ளும் கருப்பு

இருக்கத்தான் செய்கிறது!

We call it, white moon
Look deep
It holds black within!


Migrant Poetic Tales was held as part of the Poetry Festival Singapore 2017, at Booktique, on 20 May at 5pm.

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