A lover’s shirt, motorcycle taxi drivers, an extracted tapeworm, the letters ‘SP’, a hangover, the cremation of a friend. Sweaty palms, lubricated throats, mellifluous voices, nervous coughs and laughs.
We’re at the latest instalment of Bangkok Poetry, an initiative started by American Wesley Hsu last September and gathering momentum as word of its existence spreads. Every six weeks or so, the microphone at About Café/About Studio is switched on, the lounges fill with punters keen to read or listen in the glow of the café’s neon green, and Wesley takes the lead, breaking the ice by delivering his own polished reading for the evening.
How did Bangkok come to be blessed with such an event? “Prior to moving here last March I’d been a pretty regular fan of good spoken-word performance and ‘poetry slams’ in Los Angeles, Austin, and Chicago,” he says. After discovering there were no such regular readings happening in Bangkok, he decided to set something up himself.
The first reading was not auspicious. “Myself included, there were four poets. The microphone didn’t work, everyone showed up late, the acoustics were terrible. But it happened, which was something.”
The rules are simple and encouraging. “Any language, any length, any style,” Wesley says. “If people want to read prose that’s okay too, or use props or whatever. The only thing I ask is that people read original material only. I want this to be a celebration of writing as much as performance.”
Tonight the nine readings are all in English. There’s a mixture of men from the English-speaking world, and one Thai writer, Wipas Srithong, who has chosen to read one of his English poems. But there are no female poets, and Wesley despairs that the balance has consistently swung this way since the readings began.
Each reading has its own theme: tonight it’s movement. “It’s not intended to restrict the poets in any way, really – they can interpret it however they choose,” Wesley emphasises. “Mosly it’s to help anyone who can’t think of anything to write about.”
Indeed the poems tonight are loosely based on the word, with the inevitable twist of movement being a bowel-related thing coming with a delightfully detailed account of a tapeworm extraction. As the other poets deliver their words there are moments of pathos, beauty, hilarity and, inevitably perhaps, incomprehension. But what’s most enjoyable is that the entertainment is being provided by the people in the audience – and it’s not karaoke.
There’s a good sized audience sipping herbal teas and guzzling beers while they listen, but it’s been a struggle to get the numbers up. “The performance art scene is quite small here even among local Thai artists, much less farangs,” Wesley says. “Competing with the Bangkok lifestyle is probably the biggest challenge–people don’t typically have the attention span to listen to poetry, much less get off their duffs and write it.”
Once the scheduled readings are completed, Wesley encourages anyone who’s written a poem during the evening to get up and read it. He’s handed out a sheet explaining how to write a passable four-line poem. There are a couple of takers; there are encores. Wesley is so keen to encourage new poets to take to the stand he leaves the mike turned on for an hour just in case someone changes their mind and decides after all to read that sonnet slipped surreptitiouly into their back pocket.
Meanwhile, the dj has hit the turntables and the crowd is mingling. Everyone’s keen on giving their assessment of the evening – in fact, that’s really what the second half of the evening’s about.
“It was definitely interesting,” says one Thai woman. “I’ll come again. I didn’t understand all of it though, some of the more emotional stuff.” Well, even if English is your first language…
Meanwhile, Wesley is looking further down the track. “Sometimes I’ll let myself dream a bit,” says Wesley. “And anticipate the day when we’ll have a backup band, a packed house, full lights and sound board, and turn the whole thing into a rollicking slam like they hold in the Green Mill in Chicago.”
It may not happen in the next few months, but this is an event that could capture the hearts and minds of Bangok’s intelligentsia as they come to understand that “poetry is a way of taking life by the throat” [Robert Frost]. Or at least an excuse for telling someone you like their rhyming couplet, perhaps.
For further information, contact Wesley Hsu at [email protected]