‘Give’ by Simon Armitage

homelessI’ve reread this poem and am startled by the building-up of suspense and surprise in it.

It’s aptly entitled ‘Give’ not ‘Giving’, the verb insistent and almost pleading. Beginning with ‘of all the public places, dear / To make a scene, I’ve chosen here’, it makes the reader rather uneasy about what will happen next, and sets up a close relationship between the reader and the homeless which will, later on, become the source of tension.

The voice of the homeless comes across as romantic and confident’. He is ‘under the stars’, and for coppers he ‘can dance or sing’. He can do anything to win what he must. The star motif goes back to Wilde’s saying ‘we are all in the gutters, but some of us are looking at the stars’, a position of surrender and also of hope.

I appreciate the power of the words ‘frankincense’ and ‘myrrh’, and the use of the Christian analogy to persuade the reader that charity has still the same value as it did before, but the two words used in this context have a strangely disturbing effect too. They are strong and glaring, and for a moment I have lost sight of the homeless person and his cause. It might be because it happens at exactly the juncture when the ‘I’ have changed from the homeless to the passer-by who hopes to give. The reader is shocked.

The direct, no-nonsense ending couplet reminds the reader of the imminent need of the homeless and his desperation. Now is not the time for tea or further pretensions. A genuine  giver would offer cash. The poem ends with the disgrace – not of the homeless but the giver, who is stingy enough to offer tea instead of practical help.

Some have compared Armitage with Larkin. There is a striking similarity in that both choose to engage in a more down-to-earth, unaffected, accessible language. Armitage is right to point out that some poems require a certain degree of felt empathy before they can be written.

I found a handful of poems on the working class and poverty from the Poetry Archive, and among them, American poet Ted Kooser’s ‘In the Basement of the Goodwill Store’ is a good comparison with Armitage’s ‘Give’, providing a half-comic take on thrift stores and secondhand shops.

These poems remind me of my conversation months ago with a Chinese student, who said that the busking musicians in the Underground are always so cheerful that he never felt they were asking for money. ‘They are  so happy offering music to the passengers,’ he exclaimed. I grew impatient. I said that even if they are passionate performers, certainly any or some form of giving would be most welcome if not needed.

Let us not forget that we all live on bread.


Simon Armitage

Of all the public places, dear
to make a scene, I’ve chosen here.

Of all the doorways in the world
to choose to sleep, I’ve chosen yours.
I’m on the street, under the stars.

For coppers I can dance or sing.
For silver-swallow swords, eat fire.
For gold-escape from locks and chains.

It’s not as if I’m holding out
for frankincense or myrrh, just change.

You give me tea. That’s big of you.
I’m on my knees. I beg of you.

Check out Armitage’s own version of what the poem is about on BBC2 (click here).

where grows creativity, in wilderness?

Food for thought at the upcoming discussion in Hong Kong Literary Festival on 11 October, 7.30pm, Dr Hari Harilela Lecture Theatre (Shaw Campus) Baptist University. Simon Armitage (author of many collections including Seeing Stars by Faber and Faber), Prof Daniel Chua (Head of School of Humanities, HKU), Prof Lo Kwai Cheung (Professor, Department of English Language and Literature, Baptist University Hong Kong), Prof Hans Lagegaard (Professor, Department of English Language and Literature, Baptist University) and I will be in dialogue on creativity and world cultures. Come along with a question.

Creativity wears its deceptive mask. It looks like thought but resembles athletic exercise, requiring consistent discipline and no-nonsense action.


I have never met a good writer or a good artist who is lazy. No matter where they come from, or what past they have left behind.

There’s no rule nor confine for creativity, but is there a condition that promotes it?

For full event details and other happenings in this year’s festival, check out festival.org.hk. Register for this free event at martintcho@hkbu.edu.hk.

Colm Toibin, author of Brooklyn and Empty Family, will talk about Ireland as land of literature on 13th October, 2.30-3.30pm at Kee Club.

Cauldron by Thomas Heatherwick: catching the power of world talent

Heatherwick has once again shown what imagination is capable of.

Credits: Architects Journal

Each athlete, each matchstick of talent, shines in the dark. A meeting of world talent in the stadium. A glimpse of the energy that fuels the progress of civilisation. This is how we build a cauldron of fire. A spectacular moment to share. To conceal and incorporate the creative process of the cauldron within the stadium gives the audience a chance to participate and interact with the cauldron sculpture.

I have mentioned Heatherwick’s designs in my previous post. His works have a sculptural, sometimes ghostly quality to it. His sculptures are visceral and corporeal. Similar to his London Bus design and the Seed Cathedral, it is easy to understand and difficult to forget. If you are interested in creativity, I highly recommend Alan Yentob’s documentary on Heatherwick’s design. I am a big fan of sculptures, and think they are very poetic, meditative presences that echo the unspeakable inside us. For instance, looking at the sculptures by Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore in different settings give me the shivers.

What came to mind also is the simplicity in Ai Wei Wei’s Serpentine Pavilion at Hyde Park – a quiet, half-concealed pavilion made of stone and cork wood, reminiscent of those airy pavilions in China where old men like to gather and play a game of chess – at the stone chessboard or table.

The designs of these two architects share some affinities in their desire to simplify and embody truths. They both emphasise the manipulation of material, although in my opinion Heatherwick exercises a more managed, thoughtful approach towards the crafted shapes of his works.

A clip on Dezeen shows how Heatherwick, as a boy, used to make his own Christmas cards. As a designer, he plays with the idea of using the stamps in a different way to create surprise. Imagination can start in very small places, in our familiar territories.

Heatherwick Studio: Designing the Extraordinary exhibition at the V&A from now until 30 September.

Review: If We Could Speak Like Wolves

Published by Smith/Doorstop by Poetry Business this year, Kim Moore’s newly launched poetry pamphlet draws the reader in with hypnotic power and builds a seamless transition between truth and fable. Watch out for the curious balance between enchantment and danger in ‘The Wolf’: ‘the one who eats chalk to make his words / as white as snow’ and ‘the one who is not / as he appears’. Enchanting one with his language, the wolf, or wolf-poet figure, is so believable that ‘he can take / a house from you’.


Water imageries and wild animals articulate the complexity of one’s mind, the desire for intimacy — intimacy with people and places– and resistance against it. I enjoy the texture and expressiveness in ‘Sometimes You Think of Bowness’ while ‘Hartley Street Spiritualist Church’ reminds me, in a strange way, of Larkin’s poem ‘Aubade’, the pendulum swing between devotion to poetry and faith, blurring the divide between the visible and the invisible world.

The title poem ‘If We Could Speak Like Wolves’ postulates an intimate relationship or connection that will overcome mistakes and conflicts. The vivid imagery of wolf bodies and the estuary where one can hear the wolf howls transform the abstract quality of estrangement and make it so much more palatable. The hypothesis of ‘if we could speak like wolves’ deliberately refrains from story-telling. It is as if the poet says to the reader: ‘you have to learn it the hard way.’

These poems mark the development of a sensitive and bold voice, and hold as much beauty as unrest.

Poem reprint of Queen’s Pier Central (from Summer Cicadas) on Apple Daily

Queens pier

前 AO與諾獎得主同台 港產女詩人 倫敦詠奧運 2012年04月29日 【本報訊】

200位來自世界各地的詩人,包括 95年的諾貝爾文學獎得主、愛爾蘭詩人 Seamus Heaney,將會在 6月下旬及 7月中在泰晤士河畔的倫敦文化地標「南岸中心」以詩會友,向來自英國及世界各國乘奧運之慶,遠赴倫敦的旅客朗誦自己的作品。這 200名詩人是透過公眾提名、投票及專家評分而選出,當中包括香港土生土長,用英文創作的王詠思。

記者:黎穎詩 AO女詩人 倫奧唱好香港 其他要聞港聞影片

AO女詩人 倫奧唱好香港 這個英國文化界盛會是倫敦 2012奧運會的其中一個重要文化活動,為了慶祝奧運會的來臨,及提醒世人奧運提倡的多元文化。 「我會寫一首關於香港嘅詩,可能會包括大牌檔、天星小輪、皇后碼頭,其實呢啲陪住我大嘅嘢,一直都係我創作嘅靈感,家仲同主辦單位商量緊可唔可以加入音樂。我有一個朋友、亦係香港人,家住喺倫敦,佢係作曲家,我想請佢寫一首音樂,到時可以係一個詩同鋼琴嘅表演。」主辦機構會在活動結束後,把 200位詩人為活動而寫的詩編集出版。 對於大部份香港人,王詠思是個陌生的名字,不過她在香港詩壇一直很活躍。她於 06年出版第一本詩集,這詩集得到藝術發展局資助宣傳。詩的內容包括一個人在英國生活的點滴,及香港人熟悉的場景,如小孩在皇后碼頭旁,吃着從雪糕車買回來的軟雪糕。 王詠思擁有令人羨慕的背景,在女拔萃讀中學、拿獎學金到牛津大學主修英文,畢業後成為政務官( AO)。不過,當了五年 AO後,她決定放棄薪高糧準、優越安逸的生活。「喺政府做,大家覺得派去政策局係最好嘅;我反而鍾意喺地區做嘢,我鍾意有機會接觸唔同巿民,同佢哋交流好開心。」 搬到倫敦 專注創作 放大圖片 王詠思詩集。 王曾在私人機構任職,五年前決重返校園,到英國進修寫作,之後大部份時間住在倫敦,以寫作、編輯及繙譯維生。自搬到倫敦後,王有超過 20多首詩作在不同文學期刊刊登。她正在籌備第二本詩集,這本詩集很可能在倫敦發佈。 王在 Tate藝術館的藝術雜誌當義工,她提議藝術館結合藝術品和詩,邀請詩人用藝術品做藍本創作詩。她的提議成為藝術館一個常規節目,她說嘗試不同的工作,是希望豐富自己的經歷,為文學創作製造多些靈感。 這個學期,嶺南大學英文系邀請她成為駐校作家,她亦教授嶺南的學生用英文寫詩。王詠思會在下月返倫敦。對於她,香港和倫敦都是家。 「喺香港,如果你只做兼職、等自己可以專注藝術創作,啲人會覺得你好怪,你會面對好大嘅社會壓力,因為大家都覺得你應該有份正職,做銀行、做律師,然後買樓、買車。喺倫敦,無人會覺得我怪,因為呢度用呢種方式生活嘅群體有幾萬、甚至幾十萬人。我都想生活穩定啲,搵多啲錢,但我想繼續目前嘅生活方式,可以有機會學習西方文化、多啲經歷、機會去嘗試不同嘅創作方法。」 「喺香港買本詩集都難」 放大圖片 倫敦文化地標「南岸中心」。 「除咗社會壓力外,英國真係好重視文化,搞個奧運都有各種文化活動。喺英國啲機會又真係多好多:有超過 300本專門講詩嘅雜誌,南岸中心有一個收集咗所有同詩有關嘅宣傳品、書同雜誌,我唔知香港有咗西九文娛藝術區之後,文學藝術創作嘅環境會唔會好啲,不過家喺書店要買一本詩集都唔易。」王補充,要有良好創作環境,每個人都有責任,父母鼓勵及支持更不可少。 對王詠思而言,獲邀參加為奧運而辦的文學活動,除了是個肯定,及與來自世界各地詩人交流的機會外,最珍貴是可以通過詩向其他人介紹香港:「用人哋嘅語言表達自己嘅文化係種釋放,亦可以令多啲人明白我哋嘅文化。」 這文化包括香港、亦包括中國文化:「雖然我哋覺得自己同大陸好唔同,但其他人睇起上嚟我哋嘅飲食習慣、生活方式同文化分別其實唔大。我覺得做港人好好,可以有兩個文化根源,就係香港嘅根同中國文化嘅根。」

Queen’s Pier Central



Outside Queen’s Pier Central

Floated a merry rhyme.

A little boy stood in front of

The ice-cream parlour van.

His eyes feasted on the range of flavours open to him

As he waited to be served.

There was nothing complicated

About his wants: he loved vanilla

And he would ask The man in the van for it.

Nothing else but vanilla was on his mind.

It just didn’t occur to him that Vanilla might have sold out.

Or that praline with chocolate chips

Might just be as attractive.

Patiently the ice-cream man rolled out the cone

With concentrated precision. It came out perfectly.

Counting what he had, the little boy

Doled out his coins.

It was a significant occasion.

Our first happiness stands unrivalled:

That first fat, round scoop of frozen sweetness

Touching our tongue, the first chill

Melting at our jaws.

Vikram Seth’s Three Chinese Poets

v seth three poets

I’ve been reading Vikram Seth’s Three Chinese Poets (1992) by HarperPerennial, which includes poems by Li Bai, Du Fu and Wang Wei. His translation of these Tang verse is superior to other versions I’ve read: there is more clarity in rendering the imagery, and more attention to the rhythm of lines.

However, as in the poem on Lady Xi, I still cannot connect with the abruptness between the lines:

Lady Xi

by Wang Wei

No present royal favour could efface

the memory of the love that once she knew.

Seeing a flower filled her eyes with tears.

She did not speak a word to the King of Chu.

The last two lines might even make the reader think that the disjointed lines are part of what makes it a Chinese poem!

In another poem, ‘Birdsong Brook’

I do not understand why he translated the second line into ’empty the hill in Spring’. After all, it doesn’t really bear semblance to the syntax in the Chinese poem. Empty is the right image, yet ‘hollow’ might give it a better sound and emotional depth than the more straightforward observation (empty).



What I do like is his translation of what must be one of the most popular Chinese poems of all times, at least for the Chinese community:

In the Quiet Night

by Li Bai

The floor before my bed is bright:

Moonlight – like hoarfrost – in my room.

I lift my head and watch the moon.

I drop my head and think of home.


Hoarfrost’ sounds contrived.

The ending couplet is effective in evoking the original rhythm. Yet ‘drop my head’ is hardly the poetic phrase for bending down his head and remembering home. Perhaps Bending down, I think of home.” But then one loses the symmetry of it that is inherent in the Chinese couplet.

Is something necessarily lost in translation? When you try to share your culture with a foreign audience, is it still the same thing?

The image of the moon in Chinese poetry is very worth thinking about. It is not only in itself a legend (of the jade rabbit and Chang Er), but because it resembles so many things, and for Chinese people in particular, it symbolises family reunion.

There’s a crudeness in Chinese poetry however that I don’t enjoy. That is the lean description of objects (especially flowers and landscapes) and the little attention given to depicting the emotions. Perhaps, they consider that metaphors and similes are far more interesting in language play?

Peppering independent bookshops with arts leaflets

I’ve been helping to put together and distribute poetry contest leaflets for Magma – a nation-wide contest opening this month (16 October). Having dished out a considerable batch to the bookshops in London last month, I am most delighted to come across this gem booklet issued by the Guardian last week – the directory on UK’s independent booksellers – which makes it easy for us to reach out to bookshops of reputation and character. It’s sweet to imagine the nicely illustrated competition leaflets appearing at the till or counter at some of these cool and quirky bookshops.

This Guardian pocket guide is a handy who’s who in the literary world. I’m most fascinated to find out from it which authors are the regulars of those independent bookstores.

There is the story of former Macmillan sales director, Tim O’Kelly, who ventures to open up his own bookshop in Petersfield, Hampshire, back in 1994. One Tree Bookshop has now grown into a two-storey local wonder with a remarkable cafe, a bustling coffee bar and an unrivalled atmosphere. Tim’s work has won much respect. The bookstore has been named the independent bookseller of the year.

I also found out that the boutique-like Lutyens and Rubinstein in Notting Hill – a pretty little bookstore with a comprehensive stock of children’s picture books, jam jars and postcards for sale, and which has a snazzy coffee machine hidden in the basement – is set up by two literary agents. No wonder.

Boasting its own literary lineage, Surrey, Dorset, Sussex, Yorkshire and Somerset are places peppered with beautifully decorated bookshops that ooze character and history, and my dream holiday is to embark on a train journey of my own, stopping by all these little gems, poring through packed bookshelves, whiling away the time, finding and reading something completely obscure and rewarding on a warm sunny afternoon.

Even the Queen is said to frequent G Heywood Hills, an antiquarian treasure in Mayfair. I wonder what she likes to read?

This little country, despite its economic struggles, fares well in literature. Look at what the bookseller stalwarts have done to upkeep the reading tradition.

If you’ve been away last weekend, copies of the directory are still available via Guardian. Don’t forget to go online and add your own favourite bookshop on the map!

Anton Chekov’s short stories in audio

Recently I came across a set of audio CDs on Anton Chekov’s short stories translated by Constance Garnett. It’s a pleasure to listen to these Russian classics in the cosy home environment.

Read by Russian-born Max Bollinger – who pioneered the audio book collection and a former actor and producer – they form part of the Urban Romantics series. You can find books by Turgenev and other language learning series under Interactive Media’s imprint.

I find Chekov’s works are dark, profound and rewarding. His brevity of words reminds one of the stories by Guy de Maupassant. The fallible human condition – such as in ‘The Tragic Actor’ – is so disturbing yet strangely pitiable. The glamour of the stage and the illusion of the young lover.

The other ‘Truth, Freedom and Love’ series is also worth checking out.

power of making at V and A: craftsmanship and imagination

V&A’s latest show The Power of Making is a thoughtful showcase of modern craftsmanship and its relationship with imagination.

While the theme is nothing new, I’m struck by the choice of objects in this collection. From gigantic wool knit, a gorilla made of metallic coat hangers, bio-degradable coffins to spray-on fashion, the objects question the boundaries of conventionality and unconventionality, celebrate the play of imagination and such application in different industries. By putting objects outside of their typical contexts, they acquire an exciting dimension. An oversized piece of chunky wool knit displayed on the wall becomes an artpiece in itself. Layne Rowe‘s glass hand grenade is startling, making a social statement out of it. It is almost impossible to imagine the blood that will be spilt with a hand grenade. Equally, Dominic Wilcox‘s gloves with finger prints on the rubber pose a most threatening question: where lies the limitation of the manmade?

The show pays tribute to the value of traditional craftsmanship – teasing objects out of wood, paper, metal, glass, fabric… – providing the fundamental work platform for contemporary designers. I remember Leung So Kee in Hong Kong, so famous for its handmade umbrellas, and the undying fashion of handmade objects in the western world, how you can hardly place a price to something handmade. At the same time, the exhibition reminds one of the necessity of imagination in elevating and transforming a piece of work.

power of making 1

pin dress

Looking at the pin-dress created by Susie MacMurray, I am impressed by its curious texture and authenticity of skill. From afar, the dress seems to breathe a life of its own, taking on the guise of a half-woman, half-bird sculpture.

Altogether, it is a far better show than other recent exhibitions (such as the shows on the Cult of Beauty and Yohji Yamamoto‘s work) put up in the same venue, with more engaging narrative and clarity in presentation.

At the main entrance of the V&A, Amanda Levete‘s sculpture, Timber Wave, stands, beckoning at the passers-by, a commissioned piece from this year’s London Design Festival. Its contemporary design of wooden loops is somewhat at odds with the ornate architectural style of the V&A. I was expecting something more striking and poignant, something that interacts with the venue, such as Louise Bourgeois’s black spider or the rolling bridge by Thomas Heatherwick.

Exhibition at V&A from now until 2 January 2012.

power of making 2

Thoughts after Michael Marks Poetry Pamphlets Awards

After the Michael Marks Poetry Pamphlets awards and poetry reading event, I am now in possession of three award-winning pamphlets by James McGonigal, Olive Broderick and Sophie Robinson. These very slim and yet thoughtfully made volumes are absolute gems. For one thing, they rarely sit smugly on bookshelves in chain bookstores. You have to make an effort to get them. London Review Book Shop or the Foyles is your best bet. I’m lucky to have bought some at the awards event.

michael marks awards pamphlets

Yesterday evening, I read some of these poems to my boyfriend. He loves the nature-inspired poems by the Scottish poet, James McGonigal. I have to agree that McGonigal’s collection, ‘Cloud Pibroch’ by Mariscat, is very good in capturing the sweeping hand of Nature, and the subtle changes of natural landscapes. In his work, the expansive landscape harbours such zest. I like the precision of his words, ‘ropes of tears’, ‘nectar jazz’ of bees, oilskin book covers…It’s refined, controlled, pensive musings of man’s relationship with nature, and how one gathers strength from it.

I’m intrigued by Sophie Robinson‘s poetry book published by Oystercatcher Press. The first poem, ‘Preshus’, is a stunning, angry poem on love loss: ‘what is love but last year’s hate. What is hate but last / year’s death…’ All that vehemence, plummeting and so much resistance against reality. The imageries are startlingly visual and very forceful, the language innovative and beguiling, yet at times I am unsure about the unsettling line-breaks or uncomfortable pause(s) at the end. Noting the cinematic quality of her poems and the delving in contemporary issues, it is not difficult to understand why Robertson serves as poet in residence at the V&A.

Olive Broderick‘s collection, ‘Dark-haired’, on the other hand, has a more sophisticated pitch. I like the measured pace and diverse range of topics. There is refined grace in the way the poet reveals half-hidden truths. ‘The Oakwood Trilogy’ is delightful to read, using the surreal to highlight the tension in relationships, ending with the spilling of water or tears. I would like the poems to be more emotionally charged though.

Shortlisted poets for the award:

  • Neil Addison, Apocapulco (Salt) – not only is his poetry as exotic as the title for this pamphlet collection, but his personal profile is also worth rereading
  • Simon Armitage, The Motorway Service Station as a Destination in its Own Right (Smith/Doorstop Books) – which Lavinia was slightly embarrassed to have read differently
  • Sean Burn, mo thunder (The Knives Forks and Spoons Press) – first time I have heard of this press
  • Olive Broderick, Darkhaired (Templar)
  • Ralph Hawkins, Happy Whale First Smile (Oystercatcher)
  • James McGonigal, Cloud Pibroch (Mariscat)
  • Sophie Robinson, The Lotion (Oystercatcher)
These mini poetry collections are a very effective channel for showcasing emerging, experimental poetry talent. If you are curious about the origin and history of poetry pamphlets, do read Helena Nelson’s interview with Peter Sansom on Poetry Business.