The first Asia Pacific Poetry Festival at Vietnam was a sublime affair
Poems engraved on the mountain, deified in a temple, poems tagged on balloons rising into the skies…breathing poetry, thinking poetry, hearing and sharing poems… all this and more, made the first ever Asia Pacific Poetry Festival held in Hanoi last month at Vietnam, a very special and memorable experience. It is difficult to wrench one's self out of that dream-like paradise hosted so imaginatively by the Writers' Association of Vietnam.
The very opening of the festival mesmerized the group of 70 poets from 22 countries. After the official hoisting of the impressive festival-flag, we were led for the incense ceremony in the “auspicious” rain, over a narrow pebbly path around Bai Tho, the mountain of the poem. A procession of poets walked ahead solemnly as though in a pilgrimage towards the altar at the base of the mountain on which lay a poem composed and engraved by King Le Thanh Tong in 1468, by the side of the stunning emerald waters of Ha Long Bay. Many of us too, I believe, carry back many a poem etched in our minds from this beautiful spot. The ceremony concluded with a release of balloons into the skies, tagged with verses of peace. After the dances choreographed to classical Vietnamese poems, clusters of pigeons were flown into the cloudy skies for flights of freedom.
No printed schedules. Nor any brochures. Yet the festival got on with a smooth flow of programmes. No feathers ruffled despite some last minute changes. An amazing co-ordination amongst the organisers led by the wonderful poet Huu Thinh, the president of the Vietnam Writers' Association.A unique experience of celebrating life of joy and suffering through poetry from different cultures. If Yuka Tsukagoshi, the Japanese poet and Sabina Messeg (Israel) read out reflective and short poems, Azam Abidov (Uzbekistan) and Cyril Wong (Singapore) recited deeply lyrical verses. “Rain makes holes in silence…” read Sue Wootton (New Zealand) and Joel Arnstein, an English poet currently living in Manila read the following lines: “ I found a poem/ in the street/…Like all poems it lied/ But helped to explain the truth”. By now everyone was deeply engaged with each other's poetry and a quiet dialogue seemed to be evolving between individuals, cultures and countries…
Every poem was read in the original language as well as in English and its Vietnamese translation. Also, each one of us was given a bound bilingual copy of all the poems to be read here. Thanks to the tireless work by the Vietnamese poet-translators such as Nguyen Phan Que and Luu Doan Duc, not to forget the young facilitator Hung, we neither felt alienated from each other nor from the local Vietnamese poets present in good numbers. The festival, just a right mix of tradition and modernity included ritual, ceremony, readings, performances and even small pauses for reflection as we moved from venue to venue.
At this travelling festival, the first two days of readings at the beautifully located hotel ended with a cruise to Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As the legend goes, the mother dragon along with her children had descended at Ha Long Bay… the rising rocks from the sea are the jewels they had spewed. Magical moments emerged during the four to five hours of poetry, songs and narratives on the boat.
Back in Hanoi, that full moon night, on the eve of Vietnam's Tenth National Poets' Day we had our reading at the Temple of Literature (Van Mieu) founded in 1070 and dedicated to Confucius to honour writers. The celebrations of the Poets' Day combined with a glorious welcome for the poets of the Asia Pacific Poetry Festival. Here, David McKirdy's read his poem ‘Ancestors' and a senior Vietnamese poet read ‘Grandfather'. The readings in the Temple, thronging with people, continued on the following morning, beginning with the commemoration of some dead poets and a recitation of two poems by Ho Chi Minh. I read my poem ‘Arrival: Java House' at this Temple and felt strongly connected with the audience.
The poet from Yakutia (Russia) from a Mongolian tribe played a melodious tune on a unique pipe-like instrument after her poem. After other readings including poems by Holly Thompson (Japan), Marjorie Evasco (Philippines) and Mamta Sagar (India), once again, balloons tagged with poems were released into the skies.
“The poetry lover dies in games of prose,” wrote Huu Thinh, and having suffered a deeply personal loss in war times, he knows: “The land quickly passes through the sea/ It takes much longer for people to pass through suffering.” Huu Thinh, as the President of the Writers' Association planned for us a visit to the Master Pagoda as the grand finale of the festival.
In the mountains, lies snugly couched the famous 11th Century Thay (Master) Pagoda, said to be the dragon's head (the body is spread in the mountains). Its first Superior Buddhist Monk Tu Dao Hanh was a poet. So also is the present day Superior Monk, venerable Thich Truong Xuan, a poet himself. He welcomed us by reciting his own and Tu Dao Hanh's verses from “Being and Non-Being” with soft drums and gentle bells. Tu Dao Hanh's mortal remains are kept secure in a wooden chamber and revealed annually. An accomplished water-puppeteer, an ascetic monk and healer, and a poet, he was a source of inspiration for many generations of monks.
The visit to the Master Pagoda was our final engagement…a befitting location for thoughts and emotions to come together, preparing one for yet another beginning. Why do I think of this old poem of mine, at this point.
“When my shadow
I had crossed the sun”