SINGAPORE: You would think that pop songs and pop stars figure last in things that inspire poets to do some serious writing. But it seems even Singapore’s first Youth Poet Ambassador (YPA) needs her Britney Spears fix.
As we settled down for a late morning chat at a cafe at I12 Katong, Pooja Nansi revealed that the night before, she had been up surfing online until 4am and getting some literary inspiration from the Princess of Pop.
“I wish I could say I was up reading Neruda but I wasn’t,” she quipped. “I was watching a live performance of Britney’s Everytime – it’s my favourite song of hers and the first one she ever wrote herself, which for some reason fascinates me,” she told Channel NewsAsia.
“And then I got sucked into the Internet blackhole.”
"POETRY’S LIKE A SPOTIFY PLAYLIST"
Being plugged – quite literally – into contemporary pop culture is just one of the reasons why the 35-year-old poet, spoken word performer and educator seems tailor-made for her current role as YPA.
Since she was appointed last March by the National Poetry Festival, Nansi has been busy reaching out to young people and promoting poetry.
The Young Artist Award 2016 recipient has held events as well as workshops for school children. She has also been talking to groups like Mendaki and Sinda to see if she could reach out to other young people who have little access to literary education.
“The one thing I do when I encounter young people is try and listen very hard to what it is that they are struggling with. And think about what kinds of poems can be put in their hands that would help, or even introduce the act of writing into their lives – even if it’s writing an Instagram story or a private post only they can see,” she said.
“Everyone deserves some poetry – it can be like having a Spotify playlist you go to when you’re feeling a bit upset.”
‘WE’RE NOT A LITERARY COUNTRY’
Her current YPA stint, which runs until next year, is a natural extension of what Nansi has already been doing in and for the local literary scene.
The author of two poetry books – including the very popular Love Is An Empty Barstool – is also the person behind Speakeasy, a series of monthly poetry readings at Artistry cafe. She’s also co-authored a book on how to teach Singaporean poetry.
“I think it’s cool that we are trying to give a visible platform to poetry in any way possible. And because we’re not generally a literary country, it’s really positive that we have a place for a young poet to kind of spread the message, right?” she said.
Next week, she’s unveiling two text-based poetry installations at Jurong East, done in collaboration with fellow writer Daryl Qilin Yam as part of the National Arts Council’s Arts In Your Neighbourhood programme. Later this month, she’s also debuting her first children’s lyrical play – about the mythical bird Garuda – at the Esplanade.
‘I WAS THE ONLY NORTH INDIAN KID IN SCHOOL’
The eldest of two daughters of Indian immigrants, Nansi moved to Singapore at the age of one. Growing up in the east, she recalled being aware of how different she was from her peers.
“I went to Telok Kurau Primary School, where I might have been the only north Indian kid in the whole school. I didn’t speak any Tamil, and I was very acutely aware that my parents were different from Singaporean parents,” she said.
At home, the arts was very much a part of life. Her father, who worked in the IT sector, used to write community plays for Singapore’s Gujarati community, while her mother was a classically-trained dancer who also held private classes.
“Arts was the norm in my house. There were always weird ad hoc rehearsals going on when I was a child so it never felt like this weird alien thing to me,” she said.
Her parents were also avid readers who nurtured the love of books in their two children. (Nansi’s younger sister would eventually become a school librarian.)
An encounter with a Sylvia Plath poem as an angsty 13-year-old Katong Convent student would set Nansi on the path to becoming a poet.
“I read Daddy (from the book Ariel) in the library and I was like, ‘I don’t know what this poem means but she’s angry and that’s so cool. There’s so many fierce feelings!” she recalled.
“I didn’t know you were allowed to say stuff like that in writing.”
‘SLAM POETRY WAS THE MOST AMAZING THING’
As an NUS student, she would later discover the world of slam and spoken word poetry.
“It was at Zouk and I had never been to a poetry event before. I went all by myself and sat at the back – and it was the most amazing thing,” she recalled.
“For the first time, I saw people reading poems (to an audience) and getting such an immediate reaction. I think I mustered up the strength to do it three or four editions later, and I never looked back.”
Nansi became part of a burgeoning scene led by local spoken word pioneer Chris Mooney-Singh. The group also included people who, like Nansi, would eventually go on to do bigger things, such as poets Marc Nair and Ng Yi-Sheng, and sound artist and musician Bani Haykal.
But her adventures in spoken word weren’t enough. She later formed the music spoken word duo Mango Dollies with her friend, actress-singer Anjana Vasan. Nansi also forged friendships with poets outside the spoken word scene, such as Cyril Wong, Tania de Rozario, and Alvin Pang.
Noting that there were cliques between performance poets and “page poets”, she initiated the Speakeasy events at Artistry in 2013 to help bring the two sides together.
“I thought it would be cool because the scenes were so disparate. Kids who went to slams or open mics sometimes didn’t even know who Alvin Pang or Felix Cheong were. And a lot of the established poets didn’t go to open mics and didn’t know who the new kids were,” she said.
‘I’M A MINORITY AND I’M A WOMAN’
As Nansi’s practice continues to develop, her views on her role as poet and artist have also changed.
“If you had asked me 10 years ago, I just wanted to write what I wanted to write, and didn’t about who I wrote for or why I needed to write. But as I grow older, I realised having the platform to write and publish is a real privilege. You do kind of think about how you’re using it,” she said.
“For me, because I’m a child of immigrants, and because I’m a minority and I’m a woman, why not speak about these if you have the platform?”
It’s this outlook that has spurred Nansi to be vocal about issues, both within the literary scene and outside.
These days, Nansi is known as much for her poetry as for her outspoken views regarding gender and racial stereotypes.
Back in May, when local actor Shrey Bhargava shared his controversial post regarding casting Indian actors for Ah Boys To Men 4, Nansi was among the first to chime in online on the debate regarding casual racism.
And whenever similar issues popped up, such as those regarding Indian blackface, food and accents, chances are she’ll be in the fray voicing out her opinions.
“For me, sometimes it’s just harder not to speak up. It’s really not fun calling these things out but we have to do it right? My husband always tells me, sometimes you just need to take a chill pill – and I hate that!” she laughed.
‘WE’RE LIKE A SLOW-MOVING VIRUS’
Her role as a woman and a minority in the literary scene is also something she now constantly thinks about.
“When I wasn’t writing about Indian-enough things, people were like, ‘Oh, don’t you want to write about your (heritage)? And when I started writing about it, it was, “Do you feel like you have to write about it?” she laughed.
And then there are times when she gets roped in for events for a bit of diversity. “There are times when I’m literally told they need a woman on the panel because everyone else is a Chinese male. I don’t want to be a token but at the same time, I appreciate that they want some diversity – I just wished they didn’t say it to me like that.”
Does she think her tendency to call out some awkwardly un-PC moments has made her seem like literary firebrand?
“Am I the new angry Indian poet? I guess I am. That’s cool, I’ll take it. If that’s my reputation, I’ll live with it,” she said, with a chuckle.
Despite all these, Nansi, who’s got two poetry books and a two-woman show lined up for next year, maintains an optimism about the local literature scene as a whole.
“For a nation this small and this young, we produce a lot of good work. But it’s still inside a bubble and I still don’t think the average Singaporean is aware of how much is happening in our scene. It takes someone like (graphic novelist) Sonny Liew for people to notice, but I do think it’s changing. I think we’re spreading. Like a slow-moving virus.”