Becoming poets

The Asian English experience

by Agnes Lam (Author)
©2014 Monographs 337 Pages


Literatures in English have emerged in several Asian communities and have enjoyed a growing readership. Creative writing programmes in Asia and other parts of the world have also attracted many new voices from Asia. However, little is known about how learners from different language backgrounds become published poets in English. This book is a pioneering work on the development of poets and poetry in English in Asia. It offers a five-stage model to understand such phenomena. The life experiences of 50 published poets from five Asian locations: Macao, Hong Kong, Singapore, the Philippines and India, based on interviews conducted by the author, and their poetry are analyzed to appreciate how learners of English in multilingual environments become published poets and how such individual metamorphosis contributes to the growth of literary communities at local, regional and cosmopolitan levels. Researchers on Asian Englishes and literatures in English, teachers and participants in creative writing programmes, policy makers for English in education or the nurturing of the creative arts and any one interested in poetry writing will find the book highly informative and inspiring.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Content
  • List of Tables
  • Acknowledgements
  • Chapter 1 – Introduction
  • Introduction
  • Creative writing in bilingual and multilingual contexts
  • Speech communities, literary communities and embodied creativity
  • A model for the development of poets and their communities
  • The (auto)biographical research method
  • The Contemporary Asian Poetry in English project
  • Outline of the book
  • References
  • Chapter 2 – Defining Asian poetry and poets in English
  • Introduction
  • The complexity of Asia and Asian writers
  • Representations in international anthologies
  • Representations in national/urban anthologies
  • Delimitating corpuses, community and poetic identity
  • Approach adopted in this book
  • Summary
  • References
  • Chapter 3 – Macao: Creating poets
  • Introduction
  • Ten poets in Macao
  • Stage 1 – Emergence of English literacy
  • Stage 2 – Secretive writing or apprenticeship
  • Stage 3 – Publishing as initiation
  • Stage 4 – Poetic identity and voice
  • Stage 5 – Mentoring
  • The community in Macao
  • Themes, language and poetics
  • Summary
  • References
  • Poems Cited in Table 3.2
  • Chapter 4 – Hong Kong: A cosmopolitan mix
  • Introduction
  • Ten poets in Hong Kong
  • Stage 1 – Emergence of English literacy
  • Stage 2 – Secretive writing or apprenticeship
  • Stage 3 – Publishing as initiation
  • Stage 4 – Poetic identity and voice
  • Stage 5 – Mentoring
  • The community in Hong Kong
  • Themes, language and poetics
  • Summary
  • References
  • Poems Cited in Table 4.2
  • Chapter 5 – Singapore: Changing of the guards
  • Introduction
  • Ten poets in Singapore
  • Stage 1 – Emergence of English literacy
  • Stage 2 – Secretive writing or apprenticeship
  • Stage 3 – Publishing as initiation
  • Stage 4 – Poetic identity and voice
  • Stage 5 – Mentoring
  • The community in Singapore
  • Themes, language and poetics
  • Summary
  • References
  • Poems Cited in Table 5.2
  • Chapter 6 – The Philippines: A heritage of mentoring
  • Introduction
  • Ten poets in the Philippines
  • Stage 1 – Emergence of English literacy
  • Stage 2 – Secretive writing or apprenticeship
  • Stage 3 – Publishing as initiation
  • Stage 4 – Poetic identity and voice
  • Stage 5 – Mentoring
  • The community in the Philippines
  • Themes, language and poetics
  • Summary
  • References
  • Poems Cited in Table 6.2
  • Chapter 7 – India: Home and beyond
  • Introduction
  • Ten poets in India
  • Stage 1 – Emergence of English literacy
  • Stage 2 – Secretive writing or apprenticeship
  • Stage 3 – Publishing as initiation
  • Stage 4 – Poetic identity and voice
  • Stage 5 – Mentoring
  • The community in India
  • Themes, language and poetics
  • Summary
  • References
  • Poems Cited in Table 7.2
  • Chapter 8 – Conclusion
  • Introduction
  • The five-stage model revisited
  • The myth of poetic death
  • Nurturing poets and literary communities
  • Cosmopolitan Asian English poetries
  • A final word
  • References
  • Appendix – Interview questions
  • Background
  • Development
  • The writing process and discussion of poems

List of Tables

Table 2.1: Categories of Asian writers in English

Table 3.1: Ten poets in Macao

Table 3.2: Themes in poetry from Macao

Table 3.3: Thematic categorization of poetry from Macao

Table 4.1: Ten poets in Hong Kong

Table 4.2: Themes in poetry from Hong Kong

Table 4.3: Thematic categorization of poetry from Hong Kong

Table 5.1: Ten poets in Singapore

Table 5.2: Themes in poetry from Singapore

Table 5.3: Thematic categorization of poetry from Singapore

Table 6.1: Ten poets in the Philippines

Table 6.2: Themes in poetry from the Philippines

Table 6.3: Thematic categorization of poetry from the Philippines

Table 7.1: Ten poets in India

Table 7.2: Themes in poetry from India

Table 7.3: Thematic categorization of poetry from India

Table 8.1: The end of poetry

Table 8.2: Thematic categorization of poetry

Table 8.3: Poems with postcolonial reference(s)


This project could not have been started or completed without the support of numerous people and organizations.

First of all, I would like to thank all the poets for their generous sharing of their experiences and their works. Every interview gave me inspiration not only for this book but also for my own development as a poet. I am certain that I have not done justice to their biographical stories or to their works in this book.

Several colleagues, organizations and universities in different places also helped me to make contact with the poets: Isabela Banzon, Clarinda Choh, Christopher (Kit) Kelen, Sukrita Paul Kumar, Leong Liew Geok, Mani Rao, Page Richards, Kirpal Singh, Hilda Tam, Jeet Thayil, Lily Rose Tope and Agnes Vong. Their friendship made it possible for me to have fruitful and pleasurable field trips. Other colleagues who provided valuable help in bibliographic sources or supported arrangements for visits to some fieldwork locations include: Martin Anderson, Sundeep Bhutoria, Jose Dalisay, Robbie Goh, Gwee Li Sui, Ho Poh Fun, Cristina Hidalgo, Philip Holden, Koh Tai Ann, Malashri Lal, Lee Tzu Pheng, Shirley Lim, Meera Malik, Julie Mehta, Peter Nazareth, Rajeev Patke, Ibada Sohtun, Sumanyu Satpathy, Kavita Sharma and Lionel Wee. I am also grateful to the India International Centre, the Prabha Khaitan Foundation, the National University of Singapore, the University of Delhi, the University of Hong Kong, the University of Macau and the University of the Philippines for various supportive arrangements for my work.

I owe a special vote of thanks to Edwin Thumboo for inviting me to write about my own development as a poet in a conference he organized in 2005. That was the seed for the model behind the research reported in this book. I would also like to record my heartfelt gratitude to Mohammad A. Quayum for his kind advice and support for this publication.

This work was fully supported by a substantial grant from the Research Grants Council of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, the People’s Republic of China (Project No. HKU 745908H), as well as a merit award from the University of Hong Kong, which were essential for supporting the assistants on the project at different times and ← 11 | 12 → for the purchase of the equipment respectively. Subhadip Biswas offered invaluable help in locating bibliographic sources and places during the field trip in Delhi. Candice Ng accompanied me to Macao, Singapore and the Philippines and Kelly Tse, to India. Candice and Kelly both worked tirelessly on the bibliography, transcription of interviews, communication with the poets and other related work at different times. I consider it my immense good fortune to have worked with such intelligent and dedicated young researchers.

To the publisher, the reviewers and all the staff involved in the publication of the book, I am grateful for their belief in the book, their timely advice, their absolute professionalism and their constant patience.

I would also like to thank my husband, Anthony, for his supportive interest in my work at all times and other family members and friends for their enduring encouragement and blessings.

For all the above and the luxury of writing this book, I give my thanks to God.


Agnes Lam, September 2013

← 12 | 13 →

Chapter 1


As the learning of English becomes more widespread in various countries, it has also been more adopted as a language for literary expression. Literatures in English have emerged in several Asian societies to different degrees and have attracted a certain readership both in Asia and in other parts of the world. However, while the readership for Asian writing in English has been growing, there has been relatively little research on how Asian learners of English become published writers of literature in English. Generally speaking, most studies of how poets or writers develop are presented as interviews from a particular region (for example, De Souza, 1999, on Indian poets; Lindfors, 2002, on African writers; Quayum, 2007, on Singaporean and Malaysian writers; and Klein, 2001 & 2009, on Singaporean writers) with little explicit comparative analysis of such reported experiences across countries. A good number of books on creative writing also tend to provide techniques that work at the practical level (for example, Casterton, 2005) or focus on composition as a micro process (Morley, 2007) rather than try to capture specifically the longitudinal development of learners of English growing into published writers.

The lack of knowledge about the development of learners of English into published writers is unfortunate because the developmental issues faced by these writers may have implications for the cultivation of literary appreciation and expression in the English language classroom in the Asian region as well as more general studies of intercultural concerns in bilingual or multilingual development. Knowing how individual learners of a language become writers in that language can also throw light on how literary communities are created and how literatures are born and encouraged to flourish. Too often, it has been held that creative writing is something that cannot be taught. As Sarrimo (2010) has pointed out, even established writers might ‘question the necessity of courses in creative writing: either you have the knack or you do not’ (p. 180). Granted that not ← 13 | 14 → all students in creative writing classes will go on to win literary awards, to believe that people are born to write or not to write and participation in creative writing programmes is not of particular assistance is as incredible as the suggestion that people cannot be taught to dance or paint. Yet, such a stance persists in some quarters in the absence of more systematic evidence.

In an attempt to address this research gap, I constructed a five-stage model based on my own writing experience as a published Chinese poet writing in English (Lam, 2007b, p. 354–9). But this model needs to be tested against the developmental experiences of more writers in Asia. A preliminary analysis of the experiences of five Asian writers (Lam & Tse, 2012b) has proved fruitful. This book reports more fully on how the model has been applied and adapted to understand and explain the developmental experiences of 50 Asian poets writing in English, ten from each location: Macao, Hong Kong, Singapore, the Philippines, and India. The focus on poets is justifiable in view of the observation that poetry is often the first genre to emerge in a literary community; some writers start off with poetry and then move on to write other genres (Quayum, 2007, p. 15). The main theme in the book is how the literary use of language emerges within the context of learners’ general growth in competence in English in bilingual or multilingual circumstances and how learners move from the reading and writing of poetry as private individual activities onto the public plane of publication and the related social participation in their literary community or communities. Specifically, the question is what stages of development Asian poets writing in English go through and whether there is some commonality in their experiences which allows the postulation of a more universal model that can be readily applied to the understanding of the development of poets in different bilingual or multilingual settings, including even some poets with English as a first language who have transplanted themselves to an Asian literary milieu. A second related issue is the symbiotic relationship between the community and individuals in terms of literary creativity. In addition to the model’s relevance for enhancing our understanding of the development of the creative functions in language and of the nurturing of literary communities, such investigation also has implications for our interpretative framework for writing in English emerging from Asian communities, which has hitherto mostly been studied as ‘postcolonial writing’ (literary writing found in societies with a colonial past) or ‘Commonwealth literature’ (literary writing found ← 14 | 15 → within the British Commonwealth), with the unavoidable delimitations inherent in such inevitably politicized labels. The research findings can also be usefully applied to the teaching of language and literature and of creative writing in English in Asian contexts in the first instance and perhaps also to such work in settings outside Asia as well.

This introductory chapter proceeds as follows: it first reviews briefly creative writing in bilingual or multilingual contexts and the relationship between speech communities and literary communities before presenting Lam’s (2007b) five-stage model; it then summarizes the use of biographical studies as a research method and describes the specific methodology of the Contemporary Asian Poetry in English Project studying 50 Asian poets. The chapter ends with an outline of the main themes addressed in the book and the organization of the chapters.

Creative Writing in Bilingual and Multilingual Contexts

This research is situated in the interdisciplinary area of linguistic studies and literary criticism. It attempts to connect studies of bilingualism or multilingualism with the analysis of the development of Asian writing in English, specifically Asian poetry, within the context of Asian Englishes (Kachru, 2005, p. 9–28; Kachru & Nelson, 2006, p. 137–49). Previous research has tended to treat these areas of study, the linguistic development of learners of English and the critical review of English literary works produced by writers in post-colonial contexts (Patke, 2006, p. 55–79; Ramazani, 2001, p. 72–102) largely separately, even though a number of these writers might have learnt English as an additional language. (Note, however, Lam, 1988, p. 77; Lam, 1999, p. 55; Lam, 2000, p. 393–4.) Such compartmentalization of disciplines is unnecessary and undesirable, particularly in the light of the work of researchers who have found it fruitful to approach literary language as an extension of the use of metaphor in everyday language (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980; Gibbs, 1994, p. 120; Carter, 1999, p. 207). The study of creative writing in the context of Asian Englishes requires the adoption of an approach that recognizes the indivisible relationship between literary language and the general communicative use of language. Hence, the emergence of the creative use of language as in writing poetry in bilingual ← 15 | 16 → or multilingual learners can be appreciated as an integral, though often neglected, aspect of language development.

Bilingualism or multilingualism being such a common phenomenon, it is to be expected that writers who know more than one language may choose one or more of their languages for literary expression (Lam, 2007a, p. 72). John Milton of 17th century England, for example, knew ten languages: ‘English, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac, Italian, French, Spanish, Dutch’ (Hale, 1997, p. 8) and wrote different types of writing at different times in his life in various languages; his poetry was composed in four languages: Latin, Greek, Italian and English, his mother tongue (Hale, 1997 p. 1). According to Hale, why Milton chose one language rather than another for composing a piece of writing is not entirely explicit. Perhaps Milton’s choice arose out of the complex interactions of the several languages in his memory, giving rise to new phrasings and rhythms. ‘Should we speak, not of Milton choosing a language, but rather of a language choosing him?’ (Hale, 1997, p. 66) Another celebrated writer from India, Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941), hated English lessons growing up as a Bengali boy (Chaudhuri, 2003, p. 104) but transcended such dislike of English sufficiently to ‘recapture’ (rather than translate) (Chaudhuri, 2003, p. 106) some of his poems originally written in Bengali into English. Examples of writers producing literary output in a language not native to them abound in world literature, particularly in countries formerly colonized by people of another tongue. Nor is it a phenomenon occurring only in recent times. Elad-Bouskila (1999, p. 33) refers to similar instances in literary writing in the Arab world even in the Middle Ages. Coulmas (1997, p. 32–3) also provides examples of other writers writing in a language not native to them.

Moving on further from the choice of language for literary expression is the issue of what motivates a writer to write at all. Many learners acquire competence in English. Some might even have written poems or stories at a younger age but why do some learners become writers and others do not? What motivates a writer to publish and then be publicly recognized as a writer? What effects the change between writing as a private activity to writing as a socially constructed reality? Studies of motivation in second language acquisition abound. Pivotal among recent studies is the work by Dornyei (2009, p. 10–16) on ‘possible selves’ and ‘future self-guides’. Is it possible that some learners become writers because they choose to become writers? Can a learner, from a young age, have in mind his/her future self as a writer? Yet, some writers have also reported that they have become writers ← 16 | 17 → almost by accident without design or intent – that they start writing because they wish to express themselves and make sense of their life experiences and then, when they publish, they are suddenly referred to as ‘poets’ or ‘writers’ and feel somewhat compelled to take on such an identity. Does publishing really force such an identity on the writer or does publishing actualize the poetic identity which has always been part of the writer’s ‘ideal self’ (Dornyei, 2009, p. 13), covertly if not overtly? Perhaps publishing formalizes writing as a communicative act (Lam, 2000, p. 390; Sarrimo, 2010, p. 179) and as a socially constructed reality with all that it implies. Such a position is quite consistent with recent explorations in sociocultural theory (Lantolf, 2006), which conceptualizes language learning as a socially mediated cognitive phenomenon, or with studies in second language acquisition that prefer ‘a more interdisciplinary and socially informed approach’ (Block, 2003, p. 1).

Speech Communities, Literary Communities and Embodied Creativity

To elucidate how individual creativity relates to communal creativity, it is useful at this juncture to provide some background on the nature of language and of speech communities.

To begin with, a not uncommon approach to language is that thought or inner speech ‘arises through simulated interaction with the social environment’ (Shanahan, 2010, p. 188). In this conception of consciousness, writing, as inner speech expressed, is thus inevitably tied to the community the writer is in. Through writing, writers express their embodied inner selves and yet, through their creative writing practice, the community is itself embodied within the various writers forming it. No writer can write in a social vacuum devoid of communal norms for creativity; this is not to say that writers always abide by these norms. On the contrary, every writer has to determine how much creative risk he or she can take so that he or she can offer something fresh and yet still be understood by and accepted into the community or communities he intends to reach.

Writers using English for creative expression have to contend with the reality that their audiences might be hailing from myriad backgrounds. ← 17 | 18 → Those writing from post-colonial bilingual or multilingual milieus where English plays a significant, if at times controversial, role, may also have to contend with the socio-political baggage the use of English might entail, at least for a transitional period. In communities like Macao and Hong Kong, poets writing in English often have Chinese (Putonghua and/or Cantonese) as their home language; in other communities like Singapore, the Philippines and India, however, it is not unusual for poets writing in English to have acquired English as their first language or one of their first languages. Given the multifarious linguistic settings Asian poets have grown up in, they may develop dual or plural linguistic, cultural identities.

Even in a monolingual society, there may still be variation in language use giving rise to sub-communities with shared norms of interaction. The use of shared norms among a group of speakers has been captured in the concept of the ‘speech community’ defined by Gumperz (1972, p. 219) as:

any human aggregate characterized by regular and frequent interaction by means of a shared body of verbal signs and set off from similar aggregates by significant differences in language usage.

Given the availability of various digital forums in our present age, a ‘human aggregate’ or group may not necessarily be delimited by physical space but may exist in virtual space. Noteworthy in Gumperz’s definition are the characteristics of ‘regular and frequent interaction’ and ‘a shared body of verbal signs’. Applied to the study of Asian writing in English, some immediate questions may be: how regular and frequent must interaction be before one can claim membership in a certain speech or literary community? What about the intention to interact with a target audience or readership when a writer is writing, even if the ultimate interaction with readers in that community is fairly infrequent and limited? How shared must a ‘body of verbal signs’ be before members of a community can interact in any meaningful way? Do writers adjust their use of vocabulary, phrase structure, imagery or cultural references consciously based on their intended audience(s)? These are pertinent questions, not all of which will be sufficiently addressed in this book.

Let us focus for the moment on the construct of the speech community and its relevance for understanding the growth of literary communities. Since Gumperz, other researchers in the last four decades have adapted and redefined this construct. For the purposes of our discussion here, the most relevant work is that of Kachru’s (2005) and those working in that tradition (Kachru & Nelson, 2006; Kirkpatrick, 2007). Attention is drawn ← 18 | 19 → in particular to Kachru’s model of the three circles of English users: the Inner Circle, where English is used as a first language by the majority of the people in the community (for example, Australia and New Zealand); the Outer Circle, where English is ‘institutionalized’ as an additional language (for example, India, Singapore and the Philippines) and the Expanding Circle, where English primarily functions as a foreign language (for example, China and Thailand) (Kachru, 2005, p. 14). This concentric conceptualization of the various communities of English users has also been usefully applied to the study of literatures emerging from such communities (Kachru & Nelson, 2006, p. 18–19). Reference is made to this conceptualization as it provides the necessary backdrop for the postulation of overlapping literary communities in the psyche of Asian writers writing in English. Variation in the different Asian Englishes that have emerged makes multiple identification with more than one speech community, and its related literary community, almost a given for Asian poets writing in English; it is what is shared in the ‘body of verbal signs’ that allows readers from different backgrounds to understand the writers in English from different communities. This is not that surprising a claim if one remembers that, even within the native-speaking English world, there is much idiomatic variation according to region, social class, age or gender among other variables and yet speakers from different backgrounds can still largely understand each other.

To appreciate the process of identification on the part of the Asian writers writing in English, a particularly useful perspective has been provided by Le Page and Tabouret-Keller (1985, p. 4–5) who emphasize that

groups or communities and the linguistic attributes of such groups have no existential locus other than in the minds of individuals, and that groups or communities inhere only in the way individuals behave towards each other.

In other words, all language or literary communities are by nature ‘imagined’ with no material boundaries. The imagined nature of such communities is immediately reminiscent of Anderson’s (1991 revised from 1983) landmark treatise, Imagined communities. While Anderson was primarily writing about national consciousness (1991, p. 37–46), his construct of ‘imagined communities’ has been applied to understand other kinds of communities that are ‘shaped by cognitive and symbolic structures that are not underpinned by ‘lived’ spaces and immediate forms of social intimacy’ (Delanty, 2003, p. 3). This is not to say that communities cannot be geographically located because there are ← 19 | 20 →

multiple forms of community – traditional face-to-face communities, virtual communities, transnational communities, one world community – which often complement each other (Delanty, 2003, p. 166).

But what is crucial to the existence of a community is the sense of psychological identification by members. To argue that communities exist in the mind is not to argue for disembodiment in identification. On the contrary, such a stance only serves to underscore the fact that a group of human bodies in physical proximity is just that; without interaction between them, they do not form a community. Because communities exist in the mind of individuals, they can only exist if there are individuals who value their existence. Communities can be willed into actuality only when there are individuals willing to interact with each other, even if they are not in geographical proximity. The converse is true – when individuals no longer think they belong to a particular community, that community no longer exists for those individuals, even if it may still be in the geographical vicinity of their bodies. Communities are therefore fairly fluid in their ontogenesis and demise. For individual writers from bilingual or multilingual backgrounds, the literary communities they may identify with include as many as the ones they have had occasion to interact with, and as they wish to be part of, and these communities may vary at different times of their writing career.

Of some pertinence to this conceptualization of writing as an activity with reference to a community is the research on embodied knowledge in organizations. It has been argued in product development that much knowledge is tacit knowledge and cannot be made explicit; only when people work together can such knowledge be shared (Madhaven & Grover, 1998, p. 2). In software development, for example, adopting ‘the community-based model of knowledge creation’ (Lee & Cole, 2003, p. 647) has been found to be conducive to creativity. Put simply, some knowledge can only be learnt in direct interaction with those who have such knowledge:

Although ideas are formed in the minds of individuals, interaction between individuals typically plays a critical role in developing these ideas. That is to say, “communities of interaction” contribute to the amplification and development of new knowledge. (Nonaka, 1994, p. 15).

This emphasis on embodiment in the practice of knowledge creation is ‘meant to indicate the developing process of organism-environment interactions that constitute our ever-changing reality’ (Johnson, 1989, p. 367). ← 20 | 21 →


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2014 (April)
development poetry multilingual environments
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 337 pp.

Biographical notes

Agnes Lam (Author)

Agnes S. L. LAM recently retired as Professor from the University of Hong Kong. Noted for her landmark volume, Language education in China (2005), she is also well known as a poet. In 2008, she was made Honorary Fellow in Writing by the University of Iowa and received the Nosside International Poetry Prize. Her latest poetry collection is A pond in the sky: Selected and new poems (2013).


Title: Becoming poets