The Best Asian Poetry 2021–22 (editor Sudeep Sen)

review by Peter Cowlam

Kitaab International is a Singapore-based publishing house, whose open call through various media outlets across the world, when the anthology was planned, resulted in 1,500 pages of poetry sent in by almost 500 poets. As commissioning editor, Sudeep Sen invited further writers from across ‘AustralAsia’ to send their work to him direct – authors he describes as ‘senior poets who might not have seen the open competitive call’.

The overall outcome is an anthology of highly able poets from a vast geographical region, encompassing India, the Philippines, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Israel, Nepal, Malaysia, Turkey, Sikkim, Pakistan, South Korea, Japan, China, Viêtnam, Syria, Palestine, Cyprus, Indonesia, Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, with writers represented also based in the USA, Canada, Fiji, New Zealand and Australia. With all poems of the anthology presented largely in English, it’s fair to assume its target audience belongs in the wider anglosphere, which reminds us of a remark made by the Argentine writer J. L. Borges, who in a series of lectures, which were gathered together and published in the 1980s, tells us that a major event in the history of the West was its discovery of the East, a discovery no less significant for its continuing consciousness of the East.

Apart from poems originally written in English, there are translations from a range of other languages: Farsi and Japanese, Turkish and Bhasa, Hebrew and Chinese, Urdu and Korean, Hindi and Afghani, among others. Included, as the editor tells us is often the case when talking of literatures from the Asian region, are Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and others, with the geo-cultural locus of ‘Australasia’ an inextricable link. Sudeep Sen adds to that Borges observation above a contemporary perspective. His is a description of the ‘idea of Asia’ as ‘hugely complex and diverse, its languages multifarious, its geographical stretch enormous’, and its ‘boundaries linguistically elastic’. He goes on—

‘Over the year-long process of reading widely and putting this anthology together, I have learnt so much more about the cultural expanse of the Asian continent – its ancient and modern traditions, that coexist and flourish concurrently – discovering hidden gems that were not otherwise apparent in the standard run-of-the-mill academic/trade anthologies. Individual poets shared their personal insights and knowledge with me so that I could explore their regions and literatures more deeply. It was like landing in a foreign country, where you have enough knowledge to navigate intelligently, but would never stumble upon the obscure alleyways if the locals did not point them out to you and lead you there.’ 

What the anthology adds up to is a richness in poetic voices, whose subject matter ranges over the whole of human situatedness. There are poems of testimony based on personal observation, of the visual and sonic effect of the words and structure of the poems themselves (image, rhythm, meter, etc.), there are minimalist poems, figurative poems, poems laid out on the page such that the concrete arrangement of text and white space is part of what the poem expresses, there is serious comment on socio-historical imperatives, there is satire, there are poems of war, of a world in contextual change, of family history, of psychological conflict, of the politics of Empire, there are feminist poems, and there are poems steeped in the intricacies of the linguistic art itself – and much, much more.

All in all, it’s a remarkable offering from the publisher, the editor, and the book’s 130 contributors.

Sudeep Sen’s prize-winning books include: Postmarked India: New & Selected Poems (HarperCollins), Rain, Aria (A. K. Ramanujan Translation Award), Fractals: New & Selected Poems | Translations 19802015 (London Magazine Editions), EroText (Vintage: Penguin Random House), Kaifi Azmi: Poems | Nazms (Bloomsbury) and Anthropocene: Climate Change, Contagion, Consolation (Pippa Rann). He has edited influential anthologies, including: The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry, World English Poetry, Modern English Poetry by Younger Indians (Sahitya Akademi), and Converse: Contemporary English Poetry by Indians (Pippa Rann). Blue Nude: Ekphrasis & New Poems (Jorge Zalamea International Poetry Prize) and The Whispering Anklets are forthcoming. Sen’s works have been translated into over twenty-five languages. His words have appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, Newsweek, Guardian, Observer, Independent, Telegraph, Financial Times, Herald, Poetry Review, Literary Review, Harvard Review, Hindu, Hindustan Times, Times of India, Indian Express, Outlook, India Today, and broadcast on the BBC, PBS, CNN IBN, NDTV, AIR & Doordarshan. Sen’s newer work appears in New Writing 15 (Granta), Language for a New Century (Norton), Leela: An Erotic Play of Verse and Art (Collins), Indian Love Poems (Knopf / Random House / Everyman), Out of Bounds (Bloodaxe), Initiate: Oxford New Writing (Blackwell), and Name me a Word (Yale). He is the editorial director of AARK ARTS, editor of Atlas, and currently the inaugural artist-in-residence at the Museo Camera. Sen is the first Asian honoured to deliver the Derek Walcott Lecture and read at the Nobel Laureate Festival. The government of India awarded him the senior fellowship for ‘outstanding persons in the field of culture / literature’.

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