Our experience, set in our time in the world, may be shared through any art. We are ready for the pictures of our true life, we are ready for the poems of our true life. All the forms wait for their full language. The poems of the next moment are at hand. – Muriel Rukeyser
Thanks to Instagram, many trends have come to global attention, some of which may not have otherwise done so with the same tenacity. One such phenomenon is the dissemination of poetry – or more specifically, Instapoetry.
The rejuvenated interest in the artform has been of note since the inception of Instapoets in 2015,most notably tied to the popularity of Instagramers Rupi Kapur and Atticus; but their popularity has not come free of contention.
A feverish wrangling, which has descended almost as quickly as the Insta-followers have amassed, surrounds the artistic right to call this breed of poets "Poets." It has been investigated and debated in the mainstream since 2015, from Bustle, The NYT, Rolling Stone, and the Guardian, to blogs of those who sit firmly and unapologetically on either side.
Of these lesser known media-outlets, Soraya Roberts wrote an eloquently vehement piece for American left-wing outlet the Baffler, decrying Instapoetry: “This poetry is not poor because it is genuine, it is poor because that is all it is. To do more than that, regardless of talent, requires time, and, by its very definition, Instapoetry has none.”
However, in the era of the #MeToo movement, and alongside the bigotry rampant in most avenues of social media, the fact that the majority of Instapoetry’s audience is young women makes its dismissal particularly hard to swallow, even by the toughest of critics. "Though critical trepidation is a common consequence of the slippery definition of art … part of this reluctance is also to do with the genre appealing predominantly to young women and haven’t young women been policed enough?” Roberts writes. And as she acknowledges, most Instapoet defenders chant an undeniable chorus: “This poetry speaks to us.”
The one thing we can all manage to agree on is the resurgence of interest in poetry; book sales don’t lie.
The Guardian cites the highest recorded sales ever in 2017 for the UK, and while there is no doubt the arrival of the self-published, young poets spilling short verse into their followers’ feeds has something to do with it, there is also a strong correlation between sales and the emergence of BAME poets – black, Asian, and minority ethnic poets. Voices such as these are breaking the mold, and in doing so are drawing in an audience and readership previously uninterested or disengaged.
Coincidentally, in 2017, the beginnings of another poetic concept were birthed here in Taipei. Taipei Poetry Collective, a poetry group focused on workshopping with other writers based in the city, has been together for a year as of May. So to mark our first anniversary I would like to share our story, as well as remind you of the perpetual importance of poetry.
Poetry and popularity: no longer an unlikely pair
For a long time, poetry has not been mainstream cool. Publications such as Flavorwire or Teen Vogue have been pushing modern poetry on their millennial readers over the last five years or so, but only recently has the trend become apparent.
Nevertheless, the age-old aversion to poetry can likely be traced to two things: the way it has been taught and/or audiences engaging with sub-par poetry.
Poetry should not be inaccessible, nor should it make esoteric demands on the reader; however, many people encounter poetry guarded with the notion they cannot understand – half-formed memories of literary terms and classroom scansion clouds their judgment.
The Academy of American Poets warns against three “false assumptions” the majority of readers will make, thereby stifling their poetic understanding and propensity to engage. Firstly, the assumption that understanding will develop on the first read through, and furthermore, that the reader and/or the poem is to blame if this is not the case. Next, the assumption that via cracking a code the point of the poem will emerge; and by extension, the details in the poem correspond to singular aspects of said code, which must be located and understood. And thirdly, the reader can take the poem to mean whatever he or she wants it to mean.
Of course, engaging with (or “talking to”) the text is a basic analytical skill. But their solution is manifold. You must understand that a creative text is always rooted in context. Next, embrace ambiguity. “The most magical and wonderful poems are ever renewing themselves, which is to say they remain ever mysterious.”
Neophytes might experience verse for the first time outside their classroom days via readings on campuses or in cafes, and perhaps this type of engagement with more amateur poets does more harm than good. Many new poets carry the mistaken notion that in order to write good contemporary poetry, there must be a challenge posed to the reader. The uninitiated poetry audience may latch onto any moments of confusion as a further impetus to steer clear of the form, and back to their prose they go.
On the opposite end of this spectrum lies the current debate on whether Instapoets and their ilk should be given the title of poet at all; the seemingly cliché verses do taper into the mundane and obvious, and therefore fail to tick off the stylistic markers of the “literary.” These debates aside, what is most important is that world renowned poets and teachers have been working to dismantle the idea that good poetry must not be indecipherable either.
In an opinion piece for the NYT, award-winning poet American Matthew Zapruder explains, “I don’t know what writers of stories, novels and essays eventually discover for themselves, but I can say that sooner or later poets figure out that there are no new ideas, only the same old ones – and that nobody who loves poetry reads it to be impressed, but to experience and feel and understand in ways only poetry can conjure.”
As another award-winning American poet, Jane Hirshfield has said, “a poem is a set of words that simply have a higher meaning to moment ratio than other words do.” Upon hearing this rather simple sentiment in a BBC podcast, I felt uncannily elated. It is exactly this power and the lasting endurance of the words in verse that propel multifarious meanings, allowing us to connect across and against time and space.
In a similar vein, “The Life of Poetry” by the highly influential and groundbreaking 20th century American poet Muriel Rukeyser, whose quote I open this piece with, puts it rather bluntly: "Poetry has often failed us. It has, often, not been good enough [...] It is necessary that the 25th century know that we wrote trash. It is necessary that enough be done by then so that we all be seen resisting things which have for them changed and fallen away – transitional. Our poems will have failed if our readers are not brought by them beyond the poems."
And so we must accept a poem will never be entirely new nor concrete; yet it is inherently born anew in each instance, and it’s just as capable of transporting its reader in each interaction.
With these intricately balanced (and at times epic) aims in mind – to better our writing, to probe if our ideas are emotive and clear, to engage with other poets’ styles and experiences, and to scrutinize in a constructive manner their endurance – especially as anglophone writers, most of us far away from home and feedback – Taipei Poetry Collective came to fruition.
The fact there has been a poetic renaissance as of late is merely incidental. But hey, it’s nice to know we’re not alone – even if there is a culture war raging on.
Personally, creating any type of art devoid of aspirations to success is paramount; it’s all part of the individualized process of self-expression and creative critical engagement with our surroundings. With that said, most desire their coveted artistic form of expression to be appreciated and valued, and finally here we now sit. Pens ready, 7-11 print-outs in hand.
The collective’s beginnings
Having first met in late 2016, Alexandra Gilliam, Ashley Jade and I began speaking about our poetic passions at the artistic community space Red Room. After tossing some ideas around in passing, we finally sat down together in April of last year. This was the starting point of what would become TPC today, and it’s humbling to see how much has transpired, the progress we’ve made, and how many connections we’ve forged in the past year.
We now have over 150 members, had three readings, and self-published two zines of featured poetry – and that’s aside from our biweekly workshops, alternating weekday and Sunday nights to ensure accessibility.
Alexandra recalls that Ashley had an idea for a workshop and I had experience with running poetry readings. Noting these strengths – and coupling them with her own graduate school experiences, which have helped her “better prepare for the wild, unexpected, crazy, magic understanding that can happen in a workshop environment” – collaboration was obviously the next step.
Experienced in editing literary journals, Alexandra’s previous process of critiquing poetry has been essential to not only our workshop participants, but also our selection process during our event/zine curations. Having received her MFA in Creative Writing from California College of the Arts, it was here she actualized her passion for contemporary poetry. She is the author of chapbook “Femmestuary” (dancing girl press, 2016), in which you can find sparse but highly imagistic form tackling both the political and the personal with an almost paradoxical ephemeral gravity.
During her teacher’s assistantship in her grad program she was also the editor for the school’s undergraduate literary journal. As such, Alexandra has reams of experience in editing and preparing submissions for students, as well as design layout for the online and print journal.
For Ashley, the starting point is traced back to the open mic format, but she notes, they “only go so far in terms of developing us as poets. We all agreed we wanted a domain specifically for poetry here in Taipei.”
In 2013, while studying English Literature in the State University of New York, Ashley started an open mic night and online lit magazine. “It was short-lived, but was a start,” she recounts, as she was set to relocate to Taiwan. Known for her 10-liner poems, literally ripe with heaving imagery, her more recent work has transitioned from her Taiwan experiences into the cosmos, where she tempts feelings of progress and transformation. Her “general love for humans and the desire to be a part of and a driving force in community” have bolstered her abilities to co-run our workshops and events.
Joining our ranks from the start, we were lucky enough to have Leora Joy Jones. She is a published writer and a practicing artist, with a background in Fine Arts. She now serves as a co-founder in TPC after our first Versify event last November. Preferring straightforward language, Leora probes at the intersections between everyday life and popular culture.
Her poetry demands simultaneous emotions from her audience – in magnifying the more mundane portions of communication and interaction with interspersed trauma, she breaks through spheres of privacy, calling into question our own innocence. Not only does she write poetry, Leora also makes analog collages – preferring this medium as it is more mobile, and can be made anywhere.
As for myself, I was a writing consultant for the The City College of New York’s Writing Center, which served as my cornerstone in constructive criticism and editing. While studying for my BA in Literature, my poetry took root as well. I was published in my alma mater’s literary journal, and was subsequently up for the editor position at the journal. I was unable to take it, as my plans to leave for Vietnam were contingent upon a position opening there.
Missing this opportunity was a sore spot, and as such my poetic output was back-burnered after my relocation. It wasn’t until 2015 that I began performing again in Saigon, culminating in my curation of a mixed media literary event just a week before coming to Taipei. With this freshly stoked passion in tow, I arrived seeking a community for my poetry – initially at Red Room, where I was lucky enough to find Ashley and Alex.
Thanks to their guidance, my first chapbook “devise(h)er” is forthcoming with dancing girl press later this year. My poetry has been described by Leora as “dense and lyrical, thickened with reckonings of the past and future imaginings, highly visual and visceral.” For Alex, “[it] contemplates existence, myth, and rebirth using a sweeping poetic narrative that shows us the depth of our identity. It’s alive, breathing, metaphysical as we decipher the real from our perceptions.”
Each of us have extremely different styles. From the way we write or deliver our poetry, to the manner in which we edit, plan, and advise, we couldn’t be more distinct. Yet all of us prioritize poetry in our lives while fostering this importance in others. Moreover, we each aim to stimulate the artistic community at large through our collective’s verse.
The relevance of poetry
When discussing the importance of poetry, as well as what challenges we have faced in being poets in Taipei and to what extent TPC has mollified those changes, all four of us agreed the sense of expression and issues of isolation were pivotal.
Dismissing the idea that poetry’s private and subjective nature should be a hindrance, Leora makes it known that it all can be shared: “It could be raw, but with attention and thoughtful editing, the private can be made public. So it’s special to have a group of people you can get vulnerable with, and workshopping emotions and feelings seems counterintuitive, but it works. I’ve seen so much growth in my own writing from the constant biweekly framework.”
These workshops truly are the heart of TPC.
For me, back in Saigon I was frequently the only poet performing at events. Without critical engagement, I felt isolated as well as stagnant. Unfortunately, the promise of a larger anglophone demographic here in Taipei also did not fill the void. But what finally has is the community we’ve managed to help foster here. The insights and challenges presented over the past year’s workshopping have been, for me, unmatched.
Alex recounts a similar unfolding. “When I left for Taipei, my mentor warned me to not isolate myself,” but that wasn’t always easy.“ I feel a sense of guilt in not being able to speak Mandarin because it keeps me at a distance from the local community and culture. That being said, we really rely on our close knit community for everything. TPC has been my foundation to reconnect and critique my poetry/my art.”
And through the more polished poetic realizations we communally encounter during those hours together, we create art and challenge one another with the hopes of inviting feelings. And with our readings and zines, these feelings can now be shared every few months with you, as well.
On April 21, we had our most recent reading event, Versify II. Coming off this buzz, the four of us are already planning our next moves, discussing collaborative projects and methods to make our passion more accessible. For one, our latest zine is now available at Ivy Palace, URBN Culture, Oomph and Red Room, literally spreading poetry across the city in the hopes that more time spent engaging with the words we’ve curated can help build broader understanding and appreciation. Couple that with the thoughts on reading poetry herein, and engaging with our chosen art form is now even more attainable.
We also discussed ways to mitigate the implicit social and language barriers. To this end, the weekend of June 2-3, we will be at the ACID EFKT arts and crafts festival. But don’t come expecting any poetry from us. Instead we’ll have our first alternative-style workshop; geared towards English language learners as well as anglophones, we will be creating poems communally in the hopes of extending our passion. Our mission is to engage, inspire, and reach out to this magnetic city in order to foster experimentation with English language verse. As Ashley puts it, “while I'm sure there is a world of poetry here in Mandarin, unfortunately there isn't much crossover; TPC is the start of a community, and a chance for us all to continue growing.”
TNL Editor: David Green
Living in Taipei, I’ve been very fortunate. Having the mix of opportunities and experiences I’ve had – oscillating between instances of assault, being drugged, violent attempted robberies, sexual abuse and being a privileged, white, middle-class New Yorker – my takeaway has been one of perseverance, life-long learning, and little regret. I aim to be actively outspoken, (mostly) unapologetic, and clearly feminist, while in a constant state of anxiety tinged with empowerment.
Having had a good chunk of the aforementioned negative experiences in Vietnam, I found the online community there to be an invaluable resource. Coming to Taiwan, the lack of that communication and community was soul-drilling. Thankfully, I was eventually invited to the Taipei Ladies Facebook group, and doubly gratefully, I have not had much cause to report robberies, assaults, abuse, or being roofied here in Taipei. This is not to say other women in Taipei – especially local women – are as safe; in 2016 there was a case of domestic abuse reported once every five minutes in Taiwan.
Foreigners also require education and support. From a recent Guardian article reporting a mounting female mental health epidemic to findings that expat men in Taiwan are more than twice as likely as women to feel completely at home in the local culture (33 percent versus 15 percent), expat women are just as in need of safe spaces. This is true regardless of progress glimpsed in our cultural and social expressions, such as the Time Magazine decision to pick “The Silence Breakers” as its "Person of the Year."
Now, as someone who is safer, I want to take that privilege and expand upon it. To spread word of what we as women in Taipei do have, so we can push one another and ourselves further toward equality and freedom – no matter where we are from. For these reasons, I use a voice so many women still struggle to find. And thanks to the female founders interviewed for this piece, reform can continue to mount – in safety.
Seeking safe spaces
The future is female. Here in Taipei women are creating safe spaces – both physically and virtually – to nurture that future.
For those who identify as female, whether from overseas or local, Taipei Ladies provides a heavily protected closed group on Facebook. Equally heavily guarded is the physical space - MOWES - purposed to offer workshops, movement classes, and a community meeting space. Taipei Ladies is by invitation only, while MOWES hosts events with RSVP required.
There is much the founders of both these community spaces agree on: From the uncomfortably importunate remarks made by hecklers and trolls on social media groups to the societal taboos still gripping girls and women by their voicebox; from the outright sexism and degradation present on the streets of this city or in the privacy of bedrooms, to the virtual abuse more accessible and acceptable than advice given to galvanize against it; from women’s inherited naiveties, to males’ manipulated facades of feminism.
Clearly, there is much work to be done, and the nourishing, affirming, communal safety these spaces afford will only help accelerate change. For the record, the women I interviewed prefer to be known by their given names only; a decision which aligns well with their commitment to privacy, safety and protection.
Meeting Maja & MOWES
A strong, tattooed thigh swings off a bicycle, another roots her to earth as Maja Ho calls in response to my inquisitive greeting. It’s the Scandinavian pronunciation, /mah-yah/. Her curious accent, a mix of Taiwanese roots, New York vernacular and an upbringing in Denmark, is warm, clear and striking. Other phonetic aspects of her endeavor include the name of her community space. “MOWES”,pronounced /moovs/, could surely confound English natives and non-speakers alike. Her community is equally geared towards both.
Maja and MOWES aim to provide a safe space and community accessible to all.
Movement classes are held downstairs, where Maja instructs bilingually. All workshops and classes implement suggested donation and the payment process is blind. She admits taking her cue from New York based Yoga to the People, who pride themselves on making wellness (via yoga) and a sense of community accessible to all, regardless of finances, appearance or experience. This level of accessibility is important, but so is the intimacy. “I don’t want it to be a huge convention; just you know sit there, like ‘Yay, feminism’ and not be able to comfortably talk to everyone.”
Movement classes are capped at 10, workshops at 15. When other women lead or teach—from dance, meditations, and Reiki to yoga or aeroboxing – Maja pledges to bring the group “closer together” by having someone else to translate if she is unavailable.
Upstairs, as of the beginning of November, ideas include a no pressure environment for drink and draw, along with inspirational or educational workshops. On the docket were female entrepreneur workshops meant to empower local women, and sex education sessions for those who have and have yet to spend time between the sheets. These cover everything from masturbation to gender identity; topics we agreed have been a long time coming for many local women while being engaging and informative for expats – from students to freelancers and professionals.
MOWES workshops and classes implement suggested donation.
It’s culturally accepted to starve yourself in Taiwan, Maja laments. You’re boxed with derogatory words like “fat” at a young age, yet growing up in Denmark this sort of treatment was unheard of. She was being told she was beautiful in one home, and scolded as the opposite in the other. For her, these differences help to burgeon, rather than break.
Her main impetuses include being treated as a woman versus a man; the near invisibility of so much of social media’s feminist bent (i.e. campaigns like Free the Nipple) and the influence these paradigmatic changes have had. In sum, she focuses on inequality and the safety it demands.
Cultural divergence between women is important to Maja: “The thing that is so interesting is when locals and foreigners interact, because that’s when you see the differences,” she says.
Each class or workshop is conducted in Chinese and English. Whether through language – a loaded weapon – or more symbolically, through spatial or social interaction, drawing attention to extreme difference heightens internalization. This in turn has the power to strengthen reform. For instance, by perceiving distinct qualities in appearance, tone, or manner while hearing variant narratives, women experience a heightened sense of difference. It is through acknowledging this strangeness or newness that understanding is most easily reached. While in a safe environment providing a community base, what may seem strange can make way for understanding one’s own notions of self, in turn leading to confidence and empowerment.
From seeking to address concerns she’s realized through meeting local women, who after half an hour would hit upon “the same questions, and it would always be sex because they can’t talk to their friends about it,” to hosting a workshop with her sister-in-law, a Taiwanese skincare entrepreneur and creator of Vecs Gardenia, whose focus is on “beauty from the inside,” Maja finds inspiration everywhere.
The convergences of language are also interesting. Maja recounts a conversation she had on MOWES’ opening night regarding her logo. The letter ‘W’ from the word MOWES is overlaid with the female or Venus symbol. Maya explained: “That’s the sign for you. That is your woman sign.” The woman registered a progression from confusion to excitement, emboldening Maja. “We need to make it more visual,” she explains to me.
The unfamiliarity or perhaps unavailability of certain empowering concepts serve to strengthen her resolve. But importing foreign ideas wholesale is not the solution.
Free the nipple, Taiwan?
Let’s rewind a second to Free the Nipple, the international movement generated by a 2012 documentary, which in the filmmakers’ own words, “sparked what has become an international movement that seeks the equality, empowerment, and freedom of all human beings [and] is now raising awareness and impacting change in countries across the world.”
Those involved do this by demonstrating topless or with pasties, depending on their comfort level and the local legality. Did this movement resonate in Taiwan? The website womany.net, a key resource for women in Taiwan, provides some indication, mentioning the campaign in 2015. However, there was no call to take to the streets topless, and the couple of dozen #taiwanfreethenipple tags that surfaced in response are hardly proportionate to the 23,000 viewers of the post. In fact, there was media backlashagainst the few brave women who did participate in the fight for equality. Maja uses this as an example of why people like us need to be more vociferous and present in other women’s lives.
As such, MOWES aims to adopt an approach catered to Taiwanese women rather than offering more Westernized importation and replication. “They want to do something, but they’re not allowed by the culture they’re living in. But people like us; we are,” Maja says. “I see that difference, too, but because I am kind of Taiwanese but also kind of foreigner, I’m allowed to do more, and I’m allowed to say more… so all the money I’m inheriting is in this business.”
Founding Fexpats & Taipei Ladies: A virtual safe haven
The issues of privilege, foreignness, and reform are less central to Taipei’s safe cyberspace for women, Taipei Ladies. Still, topics here cover similar terrain, such as abuse, violence, self-care and workshops. The mission statement salutes in recruitment-esque fashion: “We are here to support each other, educate, and share information. Get involved. We want to hear from you. This is your community!”
Without the constraints physical space and intimacy demand, Taipei Ladies – an offshoot of Taichung Ladies, which was founded just over three years ago – is universal. The fact questions may be answered by someone on the other side of the island is one reason for its success. With over 1,000 members, there sure is a lot of outreach, and for good reason. The inability to just google your way to the information as a female expat, or fexpat – the name coined by HCMC, Vietnam’s chapter years before – leaves women especially vulnerable. Aside from the obvious cosmetic, hygienic, or reproductive requirements most women pay heed to, issues such as harassment or more insidious crimes layer on a sense of immediacy and importance.
This is not to say expat men don’t face malignant issues. Kendall, an admin of the Taipei Ladies group, recalls that a man’s post inquiring where to go for STI screenings spurred the creation of the group. “After seeing the post derailed and the poster ridiculed, [Rachel] wanted to create a safe place for the women of the community to share information.” According to Taipei Ladies founder Allyria, the group was initially conceived as a place for " information sharing, support, & new friends."
The Taipei Ladies' experience differs markedly from Maja’s in that Taiwanese women provide much of the support. “We have found local women in our groups to be invaluable to our collective experiences,” reflects Rachel, another of the group's admins.
For Kendall, the fact that “answers are being filtered through and translated from Mandarin by bilingual members … is one of the most uplifting parts.”
When asked which they saw as more potentially damaging to a community of women: the inability to communicate freely, honestly, and openly in virtual spaces or the lack of a physical space to convene for similar purposes, Rachel asserts: “For women in general, especially as expats, [it’s] cyberspace.
“As an expat, when I am asking a question I might be getting an answer from someone an hour and a half away. Also, the internet allows us to find the safe physical places abroad. It has changed living abroad, it has changed the way communities are formed.”
Kendall adds, “The virtual community is difficult to claim as a woman. Anonymity on the internet allows much less civilized dialogue than in person. Claiming female-only virtual spaces lets us share ideas globally and create local women-centric events.”
Allyria suggests the two spaces will likely converge, as the purpose of the localized virtual groups is to spur both gathering online or in person. “Where there is unity and helpful responses, regardless of gender or race, ripple effects occur,” she adds.
Maja’s answer to the same question is more on par with her empowerment intentions: “Oh, it’s hard...most women know this is going on, they see it in the virtual space. Actions! They speak louder.
“Make it fucking more visual, on every corner!” If Maja has her way, we will be out with pasties en masse before spring arrives.
TNL Editor: David Green
originally published: 2017/11/25 - Taipei Poetry Collective Versify zine
of all the skinscapes, yours is the most unavoidable
originally published: 2017/11/25 - Taipei Poetry Collective Versify zine
positioned as first thing i see when i wake up:
Photo Credit: Temporary Truth