Is poetry a potent enough protest to move the political needle? In other cultures—the Middle East comes to mind—poetry is fundamental. In a recent article in the BBC, somewhat controversially entitled “Why I became a jihadist poetry critic”, Elisabeth Kendall is quoted as “Anybody who’s spent time in the Middle East knows how important poetry is. Any tin-pot taxi driver in Cairo can recite poetry.” But in English, or in East Asia?

Beautifully poised and profound, Louder than Hearts, a collection by Lebanese-born poet Zeina Hashem Beck, articulates the reverberations of home, exile and family history in the 21st century from the perspective of an Arabic woman, feeling her otherness and connection with communities locally and abroad, and her empathy towards the homelessness suffered by the refugees.

From the gangplank of a pre-war steamship to the present, via the jazz underground of 1960s London, Hannah Lowe’s rewarding second collection revels in the company of an unlikely crew of voices and personalities. Chan takes its name from the poet’s father (nicknamed, in turn, after the Polish card magician Chan Canasta) but does not shy away from the older resonances of the word, tracing these back into her Hakka heritage and the journeys of a global diaspora. Along the way, the poems investigate lives that intersect with Lowe’s personal history, no matter how brief the acquaintance: from the magnetic jazz saxophonist Joe Harriott, her father’s first cousin, to the travellers and stowaways who join Gilbert Lowe on the SS Ormonde in 1947 as it sails from Kingston to Liverpool.

After the 2011 tsunami, TV commercials were, out of respect, replaced with public service messages. One was the following poem:

 

If I say, “Let’s play?”
you say, “Let’s play!”
If I say, “Stupid!”
you say, “Stupid!”
If I say, “I don’t want to play anymore,”
you say, “I don’t want to play anymore.”
And then, after a while,
becoming lonely
I say, “Sorry.”
You say, “Sorry.”
Are you just an echo?
No, you are everyone.

 

When Fleurs de lettres approached me about interviewing Sarah Howe, winner of the 2015 TS Eliot-prize, I didn’t need to think twice about accepting the invitation. Before Howe won the prestigious award, I had already admired her work in the anthology Eight Hong Kong Poets (Chameleon Press, 2015) and a special issue of Law Text Culture (18:1, 2014). When her debut collection Loop of Jade came out I bought a copy right away and I appreciated all the more the care and thought she put into her work.