Sunil the Brahmin
Just keep following the heart-lines on your hand
– Florence and the Machine
He would read me the truth of words spliced by the lines
on my hand, in fisted heartbeats of callused stories.
His own thumbs will not bend; steeled by a certain
inflexibility to step from the haveli of his fathers
into this pulsing world, sheared by jagged roofs
and backpackers. The valves of his blue-daubed house
open and close their doors with older sight, blood
etched from the lineage on his palm; a history of
Brahmins as soothsayers, the holy lines on their head
clear as the need for a city’s arteries to flow, a sure pump
of wisdom that foiled uprisings. They walked for centuries
in the fault lines of kings, telling of fame and famine,
although Sunil speaks to me in smaller worlds: of my own
love-lines split like Jodhpur’s road winding from the
unconquered fort, as my palm reveals its map of the maker’s
blade, the unfinished road pressed against my heart.
copyright Marc Nair. Posted with permission from the author.
Interview with Marc Nair/ Sept 2
I was so pleased to become acquainted recently with Singaporean poet Marc Nair, who has published three volumes of poetry and has been part of the poetry slam scene in Singapore since 2003. Right now, he’s getting ready to launch his fourth volume of poetry, Animal City.
I decided the best way to dive into some of Marc’s poetry was to first read it and then ask him about it. Here’s a brief interview with the poet, beginning with the poem posted above, and moving to his interest in animals around Singapore and other art projects. Marc’s a multi-tasker, to say the least. Read on to find out more about how he views the world…
Michelle Elvy: Marc, welcome to the Tuesday Poem series. Let’s first talk about the poem you’ve shared. I love the image of ‘fisted heartbeats of callused stories’ in the opening, as if there is something held tightly there that needs protecting, that may not be revealed. Tell us more about this image of the fisted palm, unfolding to a stranger, and the element of trust that is required in such intimacy – and how that image is at the heart of the poem.
Marc Nair: I’ve always found the notion of palm reading to be something both esoteric and intensely personal – this element of something beyond the ken traced out on a palm’s permanent script. I don’t think any one of us ever sets out fully open-hearted. We uncurl our hearts, like our fists, slowly, because we are callused, worn or hardened, and are instinctively wary to trust again. Yet it is that first step to trust that is so critical to beginning to understand the world, and ourselves.
ME: There is a lot of history mapped in this poem (and I admit to being moved greatly by maps; this poem really got me) – of the narrator, of a city, of a Brahmin. Do you often weave together larger and smaller stories into your work? Or was this something that just made sense for this particular poem?
MN: I think I subconsciously enjoy weaving a sense of the universal into the particular, and from my limited experience with India, I’ve found that it’s a country of great density, where geography, history and culture are wound so tightly together, it seems that each person is a knot of story and possibility.
ME:Is Sunil real?
MN: I write a lot of my poetry based on observation and real incidents with people I meet. Sunil happened to own the haveli (mansion, usually privately owned) I stayed in when I was in Jodhpur, Rajasthan. It’s a five hundred year old building and Sunil is a direct descendant, from his forebears, who were advisors to the royal court during the Mughal Empire.
Some people you meet have an aura or a weight to them, a glow that makes them more than what you see at first glance, and Sunil, with his expansive laughter and piercing eyes, was such a man. He very quickly progressed from showing me my room to reading my palm.
ME: You have three poetry books already published, and you have just released your fourth. Let’s talk about your geography. How long have you lived in Singapore, and do you think your location impacts what you write?
MN: I’m a born and bred Singaporean. In fact, I’ve never lived anywhere else, and it has been in Singapore that I’ve felt most at home and most dislocated. The relentless pace of change and growth the country is hell bent has something to do with that. I think I employ satirical elements more in local poems, whereas my travel poetry contains more observed elements, tinged with a tacit exploration of identity. Moreover, there is certainly something impermanent about travelling, yet there is also a yearning for what isn’t, and perhaps it is some unnamed loss that I carry when I travel, and this does translate into my poems about other places and faces.
ME: Your forthcoming volume, Animal City, has very much to do with local life. Tell us more about how you arrived at this idea for a poetry collection – and what your favourite local animals are, of course. And if you can, share a brief excerpt, please (I’m intrigued)?
MN: Fifteen years ago, I wrote a poem about a dog who loved a cat. The idea, not so much the poem, stayed with me through the years, and I’ve always wanted to write a book of poetry that is a) appreciated by kids b) illustrated c) filled with a bunch of silly and poignant animals.
I met Vanessa, a pretty cool freelance illustrator a few years ago, and I thought that she might be the perfect person to bring the book to life. It’s been a two and a half year process, and part of this included choosing the animals. It’s not just about finding ‘local’ but it’s also about finding their story. For example, a typical example of a localised animal is the squid. Known here is ‘sotong’ (in Malay), there is a phrase ‘blur like sotong’ which means, at its most basic, to be little dense. So my poem is called ‘Silly Sotong,’ and is an entirely alliterative poem about a squid who mistakes a piece of styrofoam for his true love.
ME: Besides being a writer, you are also involved in a lot of other creative projects. Tell us more, and about how you became so immersed in the local Singapore arts scene.
MN: Personally, I find it hard to call myself just a writer, although for the sake of time, I do wish that’s all I do! I’m also a photographer/videographer with a film company, a freelance creative writing teacher and am part of The Creative Voice, a creative communications agency, in which I do a number of things, including being an event/festival organiser.
My time is spread in a number of directions, but I think what underpins everything is a need to be challenged, to wake up to something new every day and to see how ideas can be translated into concrete outcomes. Right now, my focus is on Lit Up 2014, an annual multidisciplinary arts festival taking place from 26-28 Sept (http://www.litup.sg).
Thanks, Marc, for taking the time to share your work and your various creative happenings! And for readers, here’s another bonus track from the poet…
Silly Sotong setting sail, seawards.
‘Stop!’ said sea slug. ‘Select spectacles!’
Silly Sotong scorns smartypants slug.
Snobbish, smug? So sadly shortsighted!
Suddenly Sotong spies something
Special; sidling smoothly sideways,
Sotong spouts syrupy sentiments.
Stylishly suave! Supremely sultry!
Silence stretches, simply sovereign…
Starfishes snigger, sealions sigh.
Stubborn Sotong stupidly surprised;
She’s simply soundproof styrofoam!
More about Marc Nair:
Marc Nair is a poet and photographer from Singapore. He has published three volumes of poetry and has been part of the poetry slam scene in Singapore since 2003. Right now, Marc is getting ready to launch his fourth volume of poetry, Animal City, a unique collection of poems from the perspective of local animals, so in addition to typical pigeons, cats and dogs, you can also find luohan ( a type of fish), sotong (squid) and the ubiquitous Merlion.
Marc also works with Word Forward, a non-profit arts organisation, as the artistic director of Lit Up, an annual multidisciplinary arts festival (www.litup.sg). This year’s festival takes place from 26-28 September.
On a lighter note, Marc has been part of the mrbrownshow since 2007 as a writer and voice talent. This is a regular satirical podcast/vodcast that riffs off local issues through skits and songs.
You can find snippets of Marc’s work and his photographs at marcnair.com.
Tuesday Poem is a collective of poets who share poetry on a weekly basis across borders and time zones. At the TP hub this week you’ll find the marvellous “candle” by Hinemoana Baker, posted by TP editor Mary McCallum.
For more Tuesday Poems, go here.