With the semi-finals of the Poetry World Cup getting underway today, we caught up with the four semi-finalists: Ali Znaidi (Tunisia), Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé (Singapore), Mehvash Amin (Pakistan) and Bryan Thao Worra (Laos).
How do you feel about the support you’ve received from the magazine’s readers? Did you expect your poem to get this far?
Ali Znaidi: It’s very encouraging that one feels supported by some readers. At the end, we write to be read and heard. And this contest gives another life to my poem and the other poems. The poem is resurrected after slumbering in the archives. I don’t know about expectations because everything is based on votes. So each result is just relative, given the fact of the quality of all poems in the contest.
Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé: I feel surrounded by so much warmth and encouragement. Poetry isn’t really everybody’s go-to activity – it’s usually viewed at arm’s length, as something rarefied or difficult or alienating—so for people to say they liked reading the poems within each round is just a spectacular thing. From the first round, several people mentioned that the whole literary spin-off from the actual World Cup was an awesome idea. One reader who’s more proficient in Mandarin, entered my poem right from the idiom-for-a-title. Then, he read the poem and said he actually understood it, that he liked what it had to say. Someone shared that experience with me, and it totally made my day.
The literary journal is a very foreign concept for most people. So many people have just been intrigued by the “event”, and being made privy to this small world of literature, and what we do. They really find themselves reading, and immersing themselves in the poems. And I think the poems start doing that beautiful work of resonance. Of relating and saying something particular to each reader. We shouldn’t underestimate the power of one poem, and its poignancy in a moment of reading. As Samuel Beckett said, “Words are all we have.”
Mehvash Amin: Frankly, I didn’t think how well, or otherwise, the poem would do—I try to take each day as it comes. As for the support, in a country that is not supposed to be receptive to English poetry, I was pretty overwhelmed, especially the second time around.
Bryan Thao Worra: I’m honored and gratified at the response from the readers of The Missing Slate. That they’ve been so receptive to it is of course a delight. There was always a bit of uncertainty if the verse of Lao poets in the speculative tradition could resonate with those from so many different nations.
So, to all of my young students and to any emerging writers anywhere in the world, I hope you see this journey so far as a vindication of the power of words and friendship. I hope you all remember to see writing not just as ink upon a page, but souls talking to souls.
Of the poems left in the competition, which do you think will win the World Cup? (And why?)
I think Mehvash Amin’s ‘Karachi’: it’s a really strong poem that is full of fresh imagery.
We’re all winners in this game. All of us who participated and joined in the fun. It’s a game of appreciation. Of appreciating one another’s wordsmithery, and each of our poems. These poems are no less than gifts to the reader.
They’re all such fine poems! We are in fact, quite evenly matched that I don’t think it can be called. The statistics suggest that Pakistan and Laos have particularly enthusiastic fans who will come out to weigh in on the poems. Tunisia’s matches so far have been relatively modest, comparatively speaking, but I’m expecting Ali Znaidi will bring a very energetic final match that could surprise everyone. Singapore was also performing very consistently in their matches. We can only wait and see.
Given a chance to choose between all 32 poems, would you pick a different winner?
Probably New Zealand’s Iain Britton, whose poem is perfect—such polish. What powerful enjambments and stanza-work, each line wrapping around a new image or idea. And of course, Ravi Shankar’s ‘Camp X-Ray’ is right up there too. Totally gripping piece.
Jon Stone’s ‘The Bumblebee Dreams’ is simply gorgeous. I mean look at the “melittologist”, and the lovely opening lines “of nothing more or less / than pulling the balaclava of foxglove or bluebell over her head”—how “all her beliefs are stolen / and since it keeps her joyous as the tears of a sun god, / she has given up fighting her own madness.” Breathtaking.
Have you discovered any poets for the first time through the Poetry World Cup? Whose work have you really enjoyed reading?
Yes, I discovered some poets for the first time through the Poetry World Cup: I really enjoyed their work and I learnt from their experiences. For instance, I can mention Nancy Anne Miller, Kapka Kassabova, Nora Nadjarian, Dušan Gojkov, Mehvash Amin, and Bryan Thao Worra.
I remember absolutely falling in love with Dušan Gojkov’s last lines in ‘Poem No. 4’. The lines —I’m reading this in translation, of course—go like this: “you say your coffee is getting cold / it’s good to write poetry / you always have at hand a little piece of paper on / which you can put the seeds from the cherry / dumplings”.
Shikha Malaviya. Mehvash Amin. Bryan Thao Worra. They’ve all written such elegant poems. Valery Petrovskiy’s poem about counting to five is equally lovely. Reminds me of a poem I read by Daniil Kharms fifteen years ago. Anyone who invokes Ginsberg I adore, so I already love Lebanon’s Wadih Sa’adeh. And I just want to give Payam Feili a big bear hug.
It was a really wonderful opportunity to discover so many new voices. I honestly enjoyed the poems of my two opponents, Kwame Dawes and Ryan Van Winkle, at a different level—I suppose I had more time to drink their poetry in, sitting as it was right next to my own poem.
I took the time to read the work of all of the poets in the Poetry World Cup. I really enjoyed reading all of the poets I was directly matched against: such as Wadih Sa’adeh of Lebanon and Shikha Malaviya of India. Ikhda Ayuning Maharsi of Indonesia was also a great discovery, as is Mehvash Amin. I’ll be looking for everyone’s work in the future.
I do hope my readers take a special note of Payam Feili, however, because he’s making such a remarkable journey at great, great risk to give a poetic voice to a community that is so rarely heard within the world.
How confident are you feeling about your semi-final match?
Oh, I’ll leave it to the readers, who have the ultimate say in who gets to the next round. It’s their gaze, their reading, their interpretation, their likes and dislikes that matter. It’ll be like an eternal waiting for Godot, who might not descend on the day to provide some measure of clarity. Lots of the mundane and absurdist happening at once in my waiting between games. I think I like staying in the moment—liminality is most seductive at the cusp of certainty—never mind the arrival or non-arrival, in a sort of Derridean-Beckettian sense of things. I offer this because I’m in the first stirrings of writing a piece of fiction that works off that absolutely beautiful play that Beckett wrote—to get us all tangled up in knots, no less—no doubt.
Poets and confidence. Such a great question but so rarely the definitive answer. As we approach the semi-final match, I’m content. It’s a poem that’s been popular among both my long-time readers and new ones. Every poet knows fortune and fate have a great sense of humor, so it’s best to remain philosophical about it.
Pakistan’s Mehvash Amin is a marvelous poet and if I should lose this match to her, there’s no shame in that at all. I’m absolutely confident that both of our readers are in for a treat and will find thought-provoking verse that pushes words to the very limit of the worlds they can change. Who can ask for anything more?