CHA: Auditory Cortex Poetry Contest

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First Prize Winner: “Tiempo Muerto” by Rae Rival (Philippines) [Listen and Read]

Lian-Hee Wee’s commentary: Hearing and reading this poem takes one into the rural settings of the Philippines where one is reminded of the idyllic agricultural past that is buffeted by colonising powers of Spain and the United States that bring in the woes of economic struggles and the mix of culture and religion. The poet wove seamlessly translations of key terms that are in themselves a part of the poem so that those not familiar with the Philippines hear and feel the language while not being alienated by it. The poem makes no call for action, but incisively presents through the poet’s experience and observation aspects of Filipino lives that triggers reflections, not only on how one views the Philippines but also so much of the Asian experience might not be different. Whatever you think the sari-sari store is, was there not one in your memory that would hold the same, yet different, stories?

The auditory cortex is the part of the brain that performs the basic and higher functions of hearing such as language switching. In the case of an Asian English poet, a historical collocation of multilingual sounds likely interplays forcefully in the poet’s mind, often subdued somewhat by perceived prestige or inferiority. But poems are sounds that well up from the heart. As a phonologist (Lian-Hee) and as a poet (Tammy), we feel that these purest melodies must be given bandwidth. Auditory Cortex is therefore conceived as an invitation to a small oasis for the Asian English poet to let us hear. Thus, all submissions have to be accompanied by an audio recording of the poet. Celebration of this historical-cultural-linguistic diversity precludes exclusivity, and hence the moral obligation also to ensure that these wonderfully unique gems must share their brilliance with others: the language must be accessible to others in the world of Englishes while being Philippines, India, Singapore, Vietnam, Hong Kong, …

We received more than 230 entries, some from as far as the Americas and Europe, reached by diasporic lives that are a part of so much of Asian, and certainly of all human, history. The varied lives and scopes of the poets presented an amazing landscape that strengthens our convictions for the value of the physical acoustic manifestation of the poet’s inner voice. This is not revelation; anyone who studied James Joyce knows. Does one then not feel a sense of loss when a poet feels shy about reading the work aloud or when a reader is content to see the writing and not hear the sounds?

There is no lack of poems that touched us in one way or another among the submissions. The poems selected as winners or as highly recommended stood out because of their general wholesomeness as poems: the incisiveness of observation; the precision and music of the writing; the resonances of the local culture and languages as the work addresses the universality and individuality of the subject topic; the natural gravitation radiated by the work through the poet’s reading; and in all cases that elusive creativity that speaks at once to humanity while being so supremely idiosyncratic.

Eight pieces are showcased here, and we must bear the blame being unable to reveal the full tapestry of what was shown to us through the entire set of submissions. We call on ALL poets, not just for this contest, to alleviate that culpability by making recordings of your readings, and sharing. We call on publishers and those who can help fund literary projects, to come in aid of anthologies that offer something also to the auditory cortex.

Lian-Hee Wee
Co-judge, “Auditory Cortex”
April 2018

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