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World Poetry Day: Verse vs. Virus

by ArtsEquator
(1,520 words, 5-minute read)

It’s World Poetry Day on 21 March. Is there still a place for poetry in the unfamiliar world we find ourselves in? COVID-19 could remake the world in a few short weeks. There is the immense human cost with lives lost and thousands ill. Money can’t shield the privileged against the virus, making public health care suddenly in everyone’s best interests. As the world halts, the environment gets a breather but when consumption goes down, workers’ livelihoods are affected. And so, governments are talking about cash hand-outs that sound very similar to universal income. What was once ultra-radical seems practical in a heartbeat. Whether these changes are fleeting or forever remains to be seen. Arts and culture workers may be rich in symbolic capital, but like many others, are facing a tough future. All over the world, members of the arts community such as stage managers, performers, writers, directors and lighting operators, have seen projects cancelled, and fees disappear.

And yet, arts and creativity are greatly needed right now. Poets articulate deep-seated truths that we feel, but cannot express. Poetry gives comfort, riles us to righteous anger, makes us laugh at ourselves. Dr Gwee Li Sui, a popular Singaporean writer and satirist has been posting haikus on social media since the early days of the Coronavirus/COVID-19 crisis. These are sparse yet loaded.  For healthcare workers, emotional appreciation. For the ignominious warriors of the toilet paper war, some sound advice. The final piece, on social distancing, presents longing, reassurance, and oops, passed you the virus. It is one lover’s reassurance and the other’s dilemma. Such, ahem, infections work.

Gwee Li Sui, image courtesy of the writer.

Haiku to Healthcare Workers

The nightingale sings

in darkness and is much loved.

Stay with us till dawn


Bidet Haiku

Then we socially

distance our cheeks, letting

a river run through


Socially        Responsible        Haiku

Don’t        lose       heart        I       am

only                  a              spittle             away.

Love                 knows        no           distance.

Indonesian poet and essayist Goenawan Mohamad’s Sirkus (Circus), written in 1996, seems apt in the age of social distancing, cancelled shows and perhaps, more soberingly, an existential question about the necessity of art. He writes of a dusty circus, its contents packed up, its state deserted. “Circus is but a dream”, someone is heard saying. Elsewhere, a person descends from a trapeze. But there are glimpses of hope, suggesting that we will not lie fallow for long. Goenawan, today aged 78, has enjoyed an inspiring longevity in his career that can be attributed to his tenacity, progressive ideals and embrace of technology (be one of his 1.3m Twitter followers here). In his poem, the circus moves on to better prospects (“To the southeast, you said.”) and finally ends with “forgetting/ is what will free us.”

Goenawan Mohamad. Photo: TEMPO/ Zulkarnain



Sudah kau duga: tak ada lagi
yang datang ke dalam tenda.
Hanya empat turis setengah buta yang turun
ke pelabuhan, dari sebuah kapal hitam Yokohama,
berbisik, “Ayo cari kenangan,”
dan pada carik kertas merang
mereka tuliskan namamu (barangkali namamu).

Di trapis kau tak menangis.

Hanya akhirnya kuli-kuli akan mengusung
papan reklame,
umbul-umbul lama kita yang oranye,
melepas tenda.
Iring-iringan akan berpindah.
Ke tenggara, katamu. Arah Tasik.
Dan seperti petilasan tua, di sini akan menunggu
rumput yang remuk.
Tak ada panitia tak ada yang berkata,
“Kami tak akan lupa.”
Tapi kau adalah orang yang percaya
bahwa lupa akan membebaskan kita.


English version

Left: Elaine Chiew, Right: Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingde


For the writer Elaine Chiew, whose book The Heartsick Diaspora is getting strong reviews internationally, Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingde’s poetry oeuvre is her current obsession. She says:

“His quasi-memoir The Good Day I Died had the force of an emotional tsunami, and led me to fall under the spell of his poetry. Only a poet who frolics with abstractions like a naked babe in the woods will offer up, “K is for Kafka because love needs the absurd,” (The Wrong/Wrung Side of Love), spins us round with “Tristan Tzara draws 23 moons in an isosceles triangle (The Return of Dada” in Apophenia: Forty-one Dada Dilemmas), then silences us with, “How can death be tempered with such good and such bad, the way gold demands the light and dark in all of us…” (coup d’oeil, in Babel via Negativa). What are the mystical properties of gold? How does Kafka address love? If you fit 23 moons in a triangle, would there still be space unoccupied? Each concept a rhizomatic trail of exploration.

Kon’s Human Nature as Irreal (Apophenia: Forty-One Dada Dilemmas) is absurd, and absurdly wonderful.”

There are no hermeneutic schmucks I’m sorry to say.

What, how can that be true, in the way truisms are true?

It’s sadly ironic, isn’t it, the way aphorisms are pithy?

This is what the Sage asked, as he folded his arms.

The Sage was levitating above the mat like a cloud.

A chopstick in his topknot, dangling charm at the end.

One must learn to love all things great and small.

The Sage said this, feeding Derrida some kueh kosui.

“Schooled in formalism, Kon’s poetry plays with their boundaries (‘haiku’ is transformed, poems dance with different poetic devices – from anaphora to ekphrasis); his words gain us entry into a labyrinthian mind (where Warhol nestles cheek-by-jowl with Diogenes, Aquinas, Derrida, Plath and Yeats). They invite us to dialogue, they shuttle across cultures and centuries, they scale intellectual peaks with a guffaw. They emanate a glow all their own.”

Source: The Wrong/Wrung Side of Love, Babel Via Negativa and Apophenia: Forty-One Dada Dilemmas can be purchased from Kinokuniya and BooksActually.


Left: Dr Wan Zawawi, Right: Usman Awang


Singer-poet Prof Dr Wan Zawawi shares his personal encounter with one of Malaysia’s greatest poets, Datuk Usman Awang (1929-2001):

“Sometime in the mid ’80s I moved to University of Malaya in KL from Universiti Sains Penang. I was a struggling poet-singer songwriter then, trying to put Malay poetry to music, after having spent 14 years in Melbourne studying and flirting with my own alternative music inspired by the likes of Dylan and Leonard Cohen. One of the first things I did in KL was to meet up with Bang Usman Awang who was at that time working in Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka. The first thing he did was to showcase my poetry songs (lagu puisi) to the KL-based budayawan in Hotel Equatorial, with my acoustic guitar and a very bad sound system. From that moment on, I almost became part of his family – always lepak and makan at his house, hosted by him and his lovely wife.

Sometime in 1989, Joe Hasham and Faridah Merican of Actors Studio decided to stage Norm & Ahmad by Alex Buzo at the  Experimental Theatre UM. There was a 30-minute poetry session before the actual play. I was invited to perform two of my poetry songs for the occasion. It was during that performance that I heard a recorded version of Sahabatku (My Friend), recited by Usman Awang himself – it had a great impact on me. Written in the 1960s, very few Malay novels, poetry and films at the time talked about the struggles and predicaments of non-Malays. In this context, Usman Awang as a poet was an exception to the rule: he has often been billed as a ‘people’s poet”, “a humanist” whose writings have consistently been on the marginalised in society regardless of ethnicity and religion.  The poem, Sahabatku,  is an epitome of this consciousness and protest, in forging a new multicultural imagining and resistance to reflect and empathise with the plight of the late Dr Rajkumar, a Malaysian Indian who was his doctor and friend, but under the conditions of a Malay affirmative and authoritarian government, was both othered and detained.”


(Kepada Dr MK Rajakumar)

Menemuimu ketika remaja dulu
Ketika kemarahan rakyat bermula
Di kota raya yang memancarkan suara-suara baru
Aku mengenali sekumpulan generasi mahasiswa
Dalam keghairahan menggengam idealisme
Menolongku memperteguh keyakinan
Persahabatan dan persamaan rakyat
Impian mewujudkan satu dunia baru.

Lama masa berlalu
Pengalaman dan usia mengajar kita
Betapa ideal mimpi alam remaja
Memetik bintang-bintang di cakerawala
Dengan jari dan puisi
Dengan buku dan teori
Tanpa membakar tangan
Tanpa menghaguskan badan.

(Kini pun masih kutemui lagi
Orang-orang muda yang setengah berani
Sesekali datang membisikkan impian
Untuk membakar bintang menjolok bulan:
Aku macam memutar kembali
Pita rakaman silam.)

Suatu bangsa merdeka yang kita impikan
Terasa jauh dari kenyataan
Kemarahanku menjadi kepedihan
Bila kita dipisah-pisahkan
Jarak itu semakin berjauhan
Aku dapat gelaran ‘bumiputera’ dan kau bukan.

Di klinikmu masih kutemui keramahan
Ketika jantungku hampir dilumpuhkan
Engkaulah pertama mendengar degupannya
Menyukat tekanan darah di salur nadi
Melihat paru-paru tuaku kehitaman bersawang
Asap rokok yang sangat kau benci.

Aku dapat pula mendengar detak jantungmu
Detak jantung yang dulu
Kehidupan baru untuk masyarakat baru
Impian satu bangsa merdeka
Kebenaran dan keadilan yang sama
Sebagaimana pesan nenek moyang:
‘Hati kuman sama dicicah
Hati gajah sama dilapah’.

Bilakah kita dapat memadamkan
Perbezaan keturunan yang kian membakar kita
Dan membiarkan curahan minyak yang kian menyala
Oleh mereka yang sering bermuka dua?

Bilakah kita dapat mempertaruhkan nasib
anak-anak kita yang tak berdosa
dan generasi akan datang keturunan kita
oleh mereka yang mementingkan laba dan kuasa?

Bilakah kita dapat menimbusi jurang perbezaaan
kemiskinan dan kelaparan dengan kekayaan berlebihan
Antara dua golongan dan darjat masyarakat
Suatu janji dari erti kemerdekaan rakyat?

Bilakah semua warga negara mendapat hak
layanan dan keadilan yang sama
Dikenal dengan satu rupa nama:
Bangsa Malaysia?

English version

“It was not long after that Usman invited me to join his Malaysia-China Association – which was formalised to mediate cultural relations between the two countries. Bang Usman was always involving me in his cultural activities and family life.  I used to cook for him his favourite fish dish steamed in wrapped banana leaf (ikan pais) and at one time, he requested I bring him to an M Nasir concert. I received news of his passing when I was already back in Sarawak to resume my work as a professor at UNIMAS (University of Malaysia Sarawak). But a few days earlier when I was visiting  KL, I heard that he was taken ill due to food poisoning and hospitalised at Pantai. I tried to visit him but he was under strict observation and no visitors were allowed. His departure was totally unexpected, and the nation grieves the passing of a true Malaysian poet and humanist!”

Left: Dominique La Victoria. Right: Abner Dormiendo


Playwright and dramaturg Dominique La Victoria, who is based in Cagayan de Oro City in the Philippines, deals with her quarantine-induced cabin fever with a contemporary poem by fellow Filipino writer Abner Dormiendo:

“I’ve been contemplating literature about places lately, mostly because this community quarantine has made it impossible to see any place other than home. When I get tired of trekking up the stairs, sauntering to the dirty kitchen, hiking to the garage, and strolling down the attic, I think of wandering outside. I don’t do it, but I wonder what it must feel like to do so. Abner Dormiendo’s Sa Antipolo pa rin ang Antipolo (Antipolo Is Still Antipolo) is a wonderful voyage through a city of sounds, smells, and roads filled with memories and dreams. Reading the poem – the whole suite of Antipolo poems, actually – is like having the freedom to go tread back and forth through time and space.

Do I crave the freedom to seek poetry outside the confines of my own home? Most definitely. For World Poetry Day, I hope to share Dormiendo’s poetry to remind us all that as much as there is to discover by leaving, there’s also much to think about by staying. One day, when we are finally allowed to leave our homes, may Dormiendo’s poetry remind us that the outside won’t be the same.”

Sa Antipolo pa rin ang Antipolo

English version

To help us celebrate World Poetry Day, post your favourite lines of poetry by a Southeast Asian poet and tell us what it means to you in the comments section below.

Compiled by Kathy Rowland and Nabilah Said with thanks to Dr Gwee Li Sui, Elaine Chiew, Prof Wan Zawawi Ibrahim and Dominique La Victoria.

About the author(s)

Kathy Rowland is the Managing Editor of, a registered charity that she co-founded with Jenny Daneels in 2016. The site is dedicated to supporting and promoting arts criticism with a regional perspective in Southeast Asia. Kathy has worked in the arts for over 25 years, working in the areas of critical writing and arts advocacy, with a special interest in media platforms for the arts. She is the Project Lead for ArtsEquator’s Southeast Asian Arts and Culture Censorship Documentation Project, launched in 2021. She has written extensively on censorship of arts and culture in Malaysia. She was a member of the International Programme Advisory Committee of the 8th World Summit on Arts and Culture, 2019.

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