the book

This anthology celebrates the artistic and cultural forces that have flourished in the East, presenting multifarious poets who have rewritten tradition and broadened world literature. We’ve attempted to include a broad selection of established and emerging South Asian, East Asian, Middle Eastern, Central Asian poets as well as poets living in the Diaspora. We’ve brought together over 400 diverse voices, native and transplanted, political and apolitical, monastic and erotic, known and unknown, in the hope of providing insights that transcend any narrowly defined strata of Eastern culture. We hope that gathering these voices raises awareness of the abundance and variety of poetry produced in these regions. These poems share a vision of humanness and a devotion to the transformative power of art, irrespective of ethnic or geographic background.

Read more about the conception, production, and reception of the book at:
http://www.thevolta.org/ewc38-tchang-rshankar-nhandal-p1.html.

Following the events of the September 11th, 2001, two of us, Tina Chang and Ravi Shankar, began asking ourselves with whom did we identify? Though we grew up keenly aware of our Chinese American and Indian American backgrounds respectively, we began to feel an even deeper solidarity between ourselves and others of Eastern descent. How could we respond to the destruction and unjust loss of human lives while protesting the one-sided and flattened view of the East being showcased in the media? What was the vantage point we could arrive at in order to respond on a human level, to generate articulate dialogue, conversations that did not fall into the rhetorical fallacies of us vs. them? As poets and editors, we desperately sought to find a solution, though there was no solution.

There was, however, a distinct path to choose and that was one of further understanding. What we turned to was what was most innate to us: poetry, which provided the impetus for beginning this project. Rather than focusing on our own personal reactions, we felt that looking outwards towards a wide spectrum of poetry would give us the opportunity for discovery and transformative wisdom. Putting together an anthology seemed the necessary path. We sought the expertise of a third editor and found Nathalie Handal who had just published the groundbreaking anthology, The Poetry of Arab Women and was herself of Arab descent. After speaking to her, we knew that we had found the right person because the way in which she spoke about the project was so similar to our own vision. Together, we set out on a journey to gather voices that add to the ongoing dialogue between East and West.

We considered how to define the East, a challenging task since there is no general consensus as to what defines the region. Initially, while reflecting on what countries to include , we sat down with an atlas and realized that if we were to be true to our intention of inclusiveness, we had to deal with a much wider region than we might have presupposed. For instance, Central Asia has generally been neglected and left out of most discussions of the East; therefore, it was important for us to include those poets. Other countries are also considered part of two distinct regions, such as Sudan, which is both Middle Eastern and African. We might not have included some countries that readers or critics believe to be part of the East and we might have included others that some might question, but ultimately our intention was to provide as comprehensive a view as possible.

the Editors

The Sections

Overview

Once the poems were chosen, we deliberated on how to organize the collected material. We contemplated a number of traditional organizational schemes—listing poets alphabetically, by region or country, by chronology, by literary movements—many of the modes that other anthologies use to structure their content. However, these categories seemed to us to replicate in an insidious way the very mentality that separates person from person, nation from nation. Our vision of shared dialogue and community dictated a very different form. We were most interested in how these voices engaged one another.

In the process of reading the poems we found that irrespective of their linguistic, cultural and temporal differences, many of the poems shared certain commonalities with respect to notions of home and family, ruminations on mortality, protestations of war and inequity, and recognition of erotic and divine love. After recognizing these similarities, we found that the poems coalesced very organically into nine major sections listed to the left. This organization allows the poems to speak to each other and to generate a certain productive frission that is ultimately more illuminating.

In the Grasp of Childhood Fields

In the Grasp of Childhood Fields contains poems that focus on childhood and family. Please find an excerpt of the section introduction below.

As a young girl living in Taiwan, I remember distinct images from that time: splitting a starfruit with my young cousin, my aunt brushing my hair while singing a nursery song, the monsoons shaking the miniature windows of my room, the two furious stone lions that sat on either side of a red door, that guarded the front of my grandmother’s home. My life as a child seemed to be broken down in pictures. My memory has always been this way, completely sensory.

The poetry of childhood bridges the gap between the purity of first time discoveries and the reality of a world that is constantly changing, at times filled with brutality. The journey from childhood to adulthood is a ferocious yet tender struggle. The child watches, interprets, engages, and then, ultimately, claims that world with all its blessings, tragedies, acts of humanity. . . We are all looking into the lens, documenting that time as miracle and relic. Looking into the lens as if into the wider world.

- Tina Chang, editor

Parsed Into Colors

Parsed Into Colors contains poems that focus on cultural, racial, social, geographic identity. Please find an excerpt of the section introduction below.

Many of us think we understand what identity means until the day we are forced to consciously confront it. There are multiple layers—from national to religious, ethnic to racial, sexual to professional, spiritual to intellectual—and for some, these can be as agonizing as they can be enriching. Thus the questions: Does cultural multiplicity condemn us to disquieting identities or does it free us from definitions that often impound us? Does it provide possibilities or is its disturbance too fierce? Can we experience a sense of freedom from others’ gaze? These issues have been strangely gripping and indescribably daunting, making this section particularly essential to me.

The search to find one’s identity transforms throughout this section. The poems presented here challenge perceptions and assumptions, introducing new visions of the self and the world. Take Bimal Nibha’s ‘Cycle,’ where the speaker is literarily and metaphorically lost. This poem reveals the process of personal loss and rediscovery; the revelations of inhabiting a new interiority are encoded into the metaphor of finding a lost bicycle: ‘It’s been a few days since/ my bicycle has vanished/ Do you know where I might find it?’

- Nathalie Handal, editor

Slips and Atmospherics

Slips and Atmospherics contains poems that focus on linguistic and aesthetic experimentation. Please find an excerpt of the section introduction below.

These are poems that leap from image to image, passages that contain speculation and fragmentation, shapes that confound the eye, figurations that explore the politics of language and culture, reconstitutions of received wisdom, conflations of eros and criticism, and shiny new idioms and exchanges that frustrate our expectations, even vex and confuse us, like the most difficult and fulfilling works of art often do. It was a genuine revelation in the course of putting this anthology together to discover the sheen of the up-to-the-minute; to find evidence that actual poetic innovation was taking place not just in San Francisco and New York, but in Delhi and Istanbul.

- Ravi Shankar, editor

Earth of Drowned Gods

Earth of Drowned Gods contains poems of a politically charged nature. Please find an excerpt of the section introduction below.

Many of the countries and regions included in this anthology are, in more or less overt forms, places where the application of politics has led directly, and in some cases ineradicably, to censorship, persecution, and even to warfare; where “peace” has been fashioned into a tenuous abstraction that is seemingly untenable; where under the rhetoric of “global freedom” or the “fight against terror,” national and political self-interests are single-mindedly pursued. Is it any wonder that in a moment where the politicians are seemingly more estranged than ever before from the poets, we are living through dangerous escalations of tension and misunderstanding?

The enormous machines whose gears and wheels turn the policies of the politicians are operative on a minute level, playing out on the lives of those who live under prescriptions and laws they might have had no hand in choosing. It is up to the writer, then, to interrogate where human interests can thrive in the suffocating matrix of political ones. It is up to the poet to serve as voice and witness in parts of the world where sometimes just the writing or the reading of a poem is an act of courage and defiance.

- Ravi Shankar, editor

Buffaloes Under Dark Water

Buffaloes Under Dark Water contains poems that are lyrical in nature, mystically born. Please find an excerpt of the section introduction below.

As rapidly as I ran in my weighted boots through the maze-like alleyways, I could not catch up with her. I could only get a glimpse: a wisp of hair, the hem of her dress, or the very back of her umbrella. Everything seemed just a remnant, a hint of her, a piece of a puzzle, daring me to wonder if the vision of her was real at all. I finally snapped a picture, and when I developed it, it was only a photograph of a strip of color that was her obi and some wind rushing past. Though it was this color, this wind, I think it was a lesson that I possessed nothing and perhaps in letting go, I gained something: An image, a feeling, experienced and then released.

How often have we been, in our lifetime, mystified by what has happened to us? In the world of Buffaloes Under Dark Water, universes are off kilter, nothing is rational, and everything is possible. These lyric inspired poems reside between fog and luminescence. They defy any category as they seem to exist in dark caverns, below the surface of the sea, between gasps of air, believing and not believing, teetering between creation and collapse. Like a version of magic, the moments in these poems are stitched with invisible thread; though we are fortunate to have them within our reach, in these pages. We have caught the migratory creature in mid-flight, before it turns itself free, careening toward a shelter we can only imagine.

- Tina Chang, editor

Apostrophe in the Scripture

Apostrophe in the Scripture contains poems that focus on conflict, war, and perseverance.

In war, everyone believes in their own truth. In war, people are often forced to choose sides, but standing on one definite side doesn’t necessarily bring resolution. According to Master Sun, 2nd century Chinese author of The Art of War, “Ultimate excellence lies not in winning every battle but in defeating the enemy without ever fighting them.” I have lived in four different continents and have experienced the effects of political upheavals, war, poverty, and have never been able to ascertain who is right, who wrong. But most importantly, what does violence and war ultimately accomplish? We often don’t know the intimate stories, the names and faces of those who have died, suffered, or have been dislocated after battle. They hang like apostrophes in the scriptures.

War has filled the landscape with negative space, with faces that, even while begging not to sink forgotten into the earth’s cracks, begin to disassemble. These poems are testimonials that persist in spite of ruin, imagining a world without maps, where histories intertwine. Look to the image of even one date palm in the desert, sprouting in sustenance even while the land it’s rooted in is threaded by the tread of tanks. Every day has a shadowy underside and preserved in these poems, like the space between the newsprint columns of obituaries, those who are gone, but not lost, continue to live. They have left stories for us to tell and retell, and in the stark persistence of our retelling, we sap war of its wish to destroy.

- Nathalie Handal, editor

This House, My Bones

This House, My Bones contains poems that speak to homeland and belonging, whether that home is geographically located or in the life of the mind. Please find an excerpt of the section introduction below.

I carry nested within myself many homes, none of which welcome me completely. There’s my childhood home where remnants of a past life, soccer trophies and comic books in acid-free sleeves, are still preserved, but there’s still palpable and painful memories of adolescence haunting the corridors. There are the many places around the world I’ve lived, amnesiac already, containing no trace that I ever walked those streets or ate in its hues and shadows. There’s America, built around principles of freedom and tolerance that I admire, but whose current governmental policies I exceedingly deplore. There’s the admixture of pride and shame that arises when I think about what it means to be American. Then there’s India, archetype and actuality, source of my heritage, which I visit every fourth year, only to be lampooned by my cousins for my accent and envied for my apparel. Nowhere do I fit perfectly or well.

There is one place, however, where I do feel completely at home: on the page. When I read the poems in this section, I’m so fully immersed in a sense of place and in inflections of language other than my own, that for the moment, my cloud of confusion dissipates. These versions of belonging and alienation, memory and reclamation, make my own sense of homelessness seem minute by comparison. Perhaps the root of xenophobia can be traced to those who feel too much at home too much of the time, who have never felt the specter of being an outsider. Presented with these multiple versions of home, therefore, is a kind of necessary salve that forces each reader to deal with the complexity of otherness, which ultimately also points at shared humanity.

- Ravi Shankar, editor

Bowl of Air and Shivers

Bowl of Air and Shivers contains poems that focus on global beliefs of life and death, whether it be reincarnation, resurrection, a sense of finality or circularity. Please find an excerpt of the section introduction below.

Death and life are considered by many ambiguous terms. The end of one’s life is one thing and how that end comes into being is another. Death could be a state, a finishing point, a continuation, a new life. And life, no more than a certain death. Mostly, people find answers or solace in their religion. Hindus go to the Vedas, the main scriptures of Hinduism; Christians go to Jesus of Nazareth and his teachings in the New Testament; Muslims go to the Qu’ran; Jews go to the Old Testament; Buddhist go to Dharma. And then there are those like Gandhi, who said, “I consider myself a Hindu, Christian, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist and Confucian.” Or as Rabindranath Tagore said: “My religion is in the reconciliation of the superpersonal man, the universal human spirit, in my own individual being.” So if religion is a bridge to God, who is God?

- Nathalie Handal, editor

The Quivering World

The Quivering World contains poems that focus on Eros and romantic love. Please find an excerpt of the section introduction below.

Just as powerfully as love had found me, it eventually vanished with equal ferocity. Soon I found myself on my own contemplating this city, its boom and hiss, its swoon, and also its tragedies. In fact, the idea of Eros teaches us the difficult lesson of love and loss. In Greek mythology, Eros sprang from both light and darkness, the union between Love and War. Sappho describes it as the bittersweet; one cannot know the fullness of desire without knowing its lack. Similarly, in the Indonesian and Malaysian tradition, Sayang expresses unconditional love, but also expresses regret in losing something. When I found myself one day separated and on my own, I drew strength from these ancient ideas of opposition.

What I take away from the poems in this section is a sense of the erotic, the romantic, familial love, camaraderie, the eternal and the temporal. Yet these elements cannot exist without friction; there can be no existence of the angel without the devil, no divinity without the beast’s presence. It is this multilayered complexity that I find so regenerative.

- Tina Chang, editor