Taipei Poetry Collective and the Importance of Poetry

Taipei Poetry Collective and the Importance of Poetry
Photo Credit: Temporary Truth
Why you need to know

Four women have helped foster a thriving community for poets in Taipei.

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Our experience, set in our time in the world, may be shared through any art. We are ready for the pictures of our true life, we are ready for the poems of our true life. All the forms wait for their full language. The poems of the next moment are at hand. – Muriel Rukeyser

Thanks to Instagram, many trends have come to global attention, some of which may not have otherwise done so with the same tenacity. One such phenomenon is the dissemination of poetry – or more specifically, Instapoetry.

The rejuvenated interest in the artform has been of note since the inception of Instapoets in 2015, most notably tied to the popularity of Instagramers Rupi Kapur and Atticus; but their popularity has not come free of contention.

A feverish wrangling, which has descended almost as quickly as the Insta-followers have amassed, surrounds the artistic right to call this breed of poets "Poets." It has been investigated and debated in the mainstream since 2015, from Bustle, The NYT, Rolling Stone, and the Guardian, to blogs of those who sit firmly and unapologetically on either side.

Of these lesser known media-outlets, Soraya Roberts wrote an eloquently vehement piece for American left-wing outlet the Baffler, decrying Instapoetry: “This poetry is not poor because it is genuine, it is poor because that is all it is. To do more than that, regardless of talent, requires time, and, by its very definition, Instapoetry has none.”

However, in the era of the #MeToo movement, and alongside the bigotry rampant in most avenues of social media, the fact that the majority of Instapoetry’s audience is young women makes its dismissal particularly hard to swallow, even by the toughest of critics. "Though critical trepidation is a common consequence of the slippery definition of art … part of this reluctance is also to do with the genre appealing predominantly to young women and haven’t young women been policed enough?” Roberts writes. And as she acknowledges, most Instapoet defenders chant an undeniable chorus: “This poetry speaks to us.”

The one thing we can all manage to agree on is the resurgence of interest in poetry; book sales don’t lie.

The Guardian cites the highest recorded sales ever in 2017 for the UK, and while there is no doubt the arrival of the self-published, young poets spilling short verse into their followers’ feeds has something to do with it, there is also a strong correlation between sales and the emergence of BAME poets – black, Asian, and minority ethnic poets. Voices such as these are breaking the mold, and in doing so are drawing in an audience and readership previously uninterested or disengaged.

Coincidentally, in 2017, the beginnings of another poetic concept were birthed here in Taipei. Taipei Poetry Collective, a poetry group focused on workshopping with other writers based in the city, has been together for a year as of May. So to mark our first anniversary I would like to share our story, as well as remind you of the perpetual importance of poetry.

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Photo Credit: Chao Abby
Poetry and popularity: no longer an unlikely pair

For a long time, poetry has not been mainstream cool. Publications such as Flavorwire or Teen Vogue have been pushing modern poetry on their millennial readers over the last five years or so, but only recently has the trend become apparent.

Nevertheless, the age-old aversion to poetry can likely be traced to two things: the way it has been taught and/or audiences engaging with sub-par poetry.

Poetry should not be inaccessible, nor should it make esoteric demands on the reader; however, many people encounter poetry guarded with the notion they cannot understand – half-formed memories of literary terms and classroom scansion clouds their judgment.

The Academy of American Poets warns against three “false assumptions” the majority of readers will make, thereby stifling their poetic understanding and propensity to engage. Firstly, the assumption that understanding will develop on the first read through, and furthermore, that the reader and/or the poem is to blame if this is not the case. Next, the assumption that via cracking a code the point of the poem will emerge; and by extension, the details in the poem correspond to singular aspects of said code, which must be located and understood. And thirdly, the reader can take the poem to mean whatever he or she wants it to mean.

Of course, engaging with (or “talking to”) the text is a basic analytical skill. But their solution is manifold. You must understand that a creative text is always rooted in context. Next, embrace ambiguity. “The most magical and wonderful poems are ever renewing themselves, which is to say they remain ever mysterious.”

Neophytes might experience verse for the first time outside their classroom days via readings on campuses or in cafes, and perhaps this type of engagement with more amateur poets does more harm than good. Many new poets carry the mistaken notion that in order to write good contemporary poetry, there must be a challenge posed to the reader. The uninitiated poetry audience may latch onto any moments of confusion as a further impetus to steer clear of the form, and back to their prose they go.

On the opposite end of this spectrum lies the current debate on whether Instapoets and their ilk should be given the title of poet at all; the seemingly cliché verses do taper into the mundane and obvious, and therefore fail to tick off the stylistic markers of the “literary.” These debates aside, what is most important is that world renowned poets and teachers have been working to dismantle the idea that good poetry must not be indecipherable either.

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Photo Credit: Chao Abby

In an opinion piece for the NYT, award-winning poet American Matthew Zapruder explains, “I don’t know what writers of stories, novels and essays eventually discover for themselves, but I can say that sooner or later poets figure out that there are no new ideas, only the same old ones – and that nobody who loves poetry reads it to be impressed, but to experience and feel and understand in ways only poetry can conjure.”

As another award-winning American poet, Jane Hirshfield has said, “a poem is a set of words that simply have a higher meaning to moment ratio than other words do.” Upon hearing this rather simple sentiment in a BBC podcast, I felt uncannily elated. It is exactly this power and the lasting endurance of the words in verse that propel multifarious meanings, allowing us to connect across and against time and space.

In a similar vein, “The Life of Poetry” by the highly influential and groundbreaking 20th century American poet Muriel Rukeyser, whose quote I open this piece with, puts it rather bluntly: ‘Poetry has often failed us. It has, often, not been good enough [...] It is necessary that the 25th century know that we wrote trash. It is necessary that enough be done by then so that we all be seen resisting things which have for them changed and fallen away – transitional. Our poems will have failed if our readers are not brought by them beyond the poems.’

And so we must accept a poem will never be entirely new nor concrete; yet it is inherently born anew in each instance, and it’s just as capable of transporting its reader in each interaction.

With these intricately balanced (and at times epic) aims in mind – to better our writing, to probe if our ideas are emotive and clear, to engage with other poets’ styles and experiences, and to scrutinize in a constructive manner their endurance – especially as anglophone writers, most of us far away from home and feedback – Taipei Poetry Collective came to fruition.

The fact there has been a poetic renaissance as of late is merely incidental. But hey, it’s nice to know we’re not alone – even if there is a culture war raging on.

Personally, creating any type of art devoid of aspirations to success is paramount; it’s all part of the individualized process of self-expression and creative critical engagement with our surroundings. With that said, most desire their coveted artistic form of expression to be appreciated and valued, and finally here we now sit. Pens ready, 7-11 print-outs in hand.

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Photo Credit: Chao Abby
The collective’s beginnings

Having first met in late 2016, Alexandra Gilliam, Ashley Jade and I began speaking about our poetic passions at the artistic community space Red Room. After tossing some ideas around in passing, we finally sat down together in April of last year. This was the starting point of what would become TPC today, and it’s humbling to see how much has transpired, the progress we’ve made, and how many connections we’ve forged in the past year.

We now have over 150 members, had three readings, and self-published two zines of featured poetry – and that’s aside from our biweekly workshops, alternating weekday and Sunday nights to ensure accessibility.

Alexandra recalls that Ashley had an idea for a workshop and I had experience with running poetry readings. Noting these strengths – and coupling them with her own graduate school experiences, which have helped her “better prepare for the wild, unexpected, crazy, magic understanding that can happen in a workshop environment” – collaboration was obviously the next step.

Experienced in editing literary journals, Alexandra’s previous process of critiquing poetry has been essential to not only our workshop participants, but also our selection process during our event/zine curations. Having received her MFA in Creative Writing from California College of the Arts, it was here she actualized her passion for contemporary poetry. She is the author of chapbook “Femmestuary” (dancing girl press, 2016), in which you can find sparse but highly imagistic form tackling both the political and the personal with an almost paradoxical ephemeral gravity.

During her teacher’s assistantship in her grad program she was also the editor for the school’s undergraduate literary journal. As such, Alexandra has reams of experience in editing and preparing submissions for students, as well as design layout for the online and print journal.

For Ashley, the starting point is traced back to the open mic format, but she notes, they “only go so far in terms of developing us as poets. We all agreed we wanted a domain specifically for poetry here in Taipei.”

In 2013, while studying English Literature in the State University of New York, Ashley started an open mic night and online lit magazine. “It was short-lived, but was a start,” she recounts, as she was set to relocate to Taiwan. Known for her 10-liner poems, literally ripe with heaving imagery, her more recent work has transitioned from her Taiwan experiences into the cosmos, where she tempts feelings of progress and transformation. Her “general love for humans and the desire to be a part of and a driving force in community” have bolstered her abilities to co-run our workshops and events.

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Photo Credit: Chao Abby

Joining our ranks from the start, we were lucky enough to have Leora Joy Jones. She is a published writer and a practicing artist, with a background in Fine Arts. She now serves as a co-founder in TPC after our first Versify event last November. Preferring straightforward language , Leora probes at the intersections between everyday life and popular culture.

Her poetry demands simultaneous emotions from her audience – in magnifying the more mundane portions of communication and interaction with interspersed trauma, she breaks through spheres of privacy, calling into question our own innocence. Not only does she write poetry, Leora also makes analog collages – preferring this medium as it is more mobile, and can be made anywhere.

As for myself, I was a writing consultant for the The City College of New York’s Writing Center, which served as my cornerstone in constructive criticism and editing. While studying for my BA in Literature, my poetry took root as well. I was published in my alma mater’s literary journal, and was subsequently up for the editor position at the journal. I was unable to take it, as my plans to leave for Vietnam were contingent upon a position opening there.

Missing this opportunity was a sore spot, and as such my poetic output was back-burnered after my relocation. It wasn’t until 2015 that I began performing again in Saigon, culminating in my curation of a mixed media literary event just a week before coming to Taipei. With this freshly stoked passion in tow, I arrived seeking a community for my poetry – initially at Red Room, where I was lucky enough to find Ashley and Alex.

Thanks to their guidance, my first chapbook “devise(h)er” is forthcoming with dancing girl press later this year. My poetry has been described by Leora as “dense and lyrical, thickened with reckonings of the past and future imaginings, highly visual and visceral.” For Alex, “[it] contemplates existence, myth, and rebirth using a sweeping poetic narrative that shows us the depth of our identity. It’s alive, breathing, metaphysical as we decipher the real from our perceptions.”

Each of us have extremely different styles. From the way we write or deliver our poetry, to the manner in which we edit, plan, and advise, we couldn’t be more distinct. Yet all of us prioritize poetry in our lives while fostering this importance in others. Moreover, we each aim to stimulate the artistic community at large through our collective’s verse.

The relevance of poetry

When discussing the importance of poetry, as well as what challenges we have faced in being poets in Taipei and to what extent TPC has mollified those changes, all four of us agreed the sense of expression and issues of isolation were pivotal.

Dismissing the idea that poetry’s private and subjective nature should be a hindrance, Leora makes it known that it all can be shared: “It could be raw, but with attention and thoughtful editing, the private can be made public. So it’s special to have a group of people you can get vulnerable with, and workshopping emotions and feelings seems counterintuitive, but it works. I’ve seen so much growth in my own writing from the constant biweekly framework.”

These workshops truly are the heart of TPC.

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Photo Credit: Temporary Truth

For me, back in Saigon I was frequently the only poet performing at events. Without critical engagement, I felt isolated as well as stagnant. Unfortunately, the promise of a larger anglophone demographic here in Taipei also did not fill the void. But what finally has is the community we’ve managed to help foster here. The insights and challenges presented over the past year’s workshopping have been, for me, unmatched.

Alex recounts a similar unfolding. “When I left for Taipei, my mentor warned me to not isolate myself,” but that wasn’t always easy. “I feel a sense of guilt in not being able to speak Mandarin because it keeps me at a distance from the local community and culture. That being said, we really rely on our close knit community for everything. TPC has been my foundation to reconnect and critique my poetry/my art.”

And through the more polished poetic realizations we communally encounter during those hours together, we create art and challenge one another with the hopes of inviting feelings. And with our readings and zines, these feelings can now be shared every few months with you, as well.

On April 21, we had our most recent reading event, Versify II. Coming off this buzz, the four of us are already planning our next moves, discussing collaborative projects and methods to make our passion more accessible. For one, our latest zine is now available at Ivy Palace, URBN Culture, Oomph and Red Room, literally spreading poetry across the city in the hopes that more time spent engaging with the words we’ve curated can help build broader understanding and appreciation. Couple that with the thoughts on reading poetry herein, and engaging with our chosen art form is now even more attainable.

We also discussed ways to mitigate the implicit social and language barriers. To this end, the weekend of June 2-3, we will be at the ACID EFKT arts and crafts festival. But don’t come expecting any poetry from us. Instead we’ll have our first alternative-style workshop; geared towards English language learners as well as anglophones, we will be creating poems communally in the hopes of extending our passion. Our mission is to engage, inspire, and reach out to this magnetic city in order to foster experimentation with English language verse. As Ashley puts it, “while I'm sure there is a world of poetry here in Mandarin, unfortunately there isn't much crossover; TPC is the start of a community, and a chance for us all to continue growing.”

Read Next: The Long Poem of Walking Taipei

Editor: David Green

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