Profile: Pooja Nansi

Published on 16 February 2016

Pooja Nansi explores less-conventional methods of getting people interested in poetry.


Poetry is a passion to many, but for Pooja Nansi, it’s a bare necessity. “Poetry to me has always been essential. It’s how I work through and make sense of things I’m conflicted about: like questions of identity, or how bizarre it is to now live with somebody else 24 hours a day,” she laughs. A poet with several anthologies to her name, teacher of poetry and literature at several schools, including Nanyang Technological University, mentor of the Singapore Chapter of Burn After Reading (a collective of emerging writers) and newly-minted wife, Nansi says, “I feel very privileged to be making a living, and hopefully, a difference, by doing things with words. It’s amazing.”

While many consider poetry simply text on paper, Nansi showcases hers in myriad ways: singing them loud and proud as half of spoken-word-and-music duo Mango Dollies, or even performing them as a theatrical monologue in You Are Here, a collaboration with playwright Joel Tan which premiered at the Singapore Writers Festival 2015, and will return as part of the Esplanade’s The Studios series. Nansi also organises the regular Speakeasy poetry/spoken word slam sessions, featuring competitive performance poetry.

“People tend to create this weird binary between written poetry and performance poetry — page and stage poetry, they’re called — but it’s a binary I’ve never liked. Just as there are multiple ways of writing a poem, there are multiple ways of experiencing one. What spurred my work with Mango Dollies was realising that music is a kind of poem. The lyrics of some songs can be very poetic, and poems have an inherent music. With You Are Here, I was trying to discuss my sense of belonging as a child of immigrants, and Joel felt it could work better as a monologue than in written form. I told him I’m not really an actress, but he said, ‘Maybe we’re just exploring poetry and lyricism in a theatre space.’ You can always define these poetic experiences as something else: music, storytelling, theatre, but these labels can be quite artificial. What matters is that experiencing a poem in different ways can give it new life.”

Speaking of new life, the local poetry scene is looking pretty rosy, thanks to the efforts of Nansi and her fellow literary advocates. “Sometimes at local poetry events, you keep seeing the same faces and people get worried that we’re preaching to the choir. But I’ve been seeing new faces at Speakeasy, which is drawing crowds I never expected,” she shares.

“As a teacher, I’m seeing so much poetic potential. Even if they didn’t study literature in school, many kids have good teachers and parents thrusting books into their hands. There’s also this sense of a canon building, thanks to both older and younger Singapore poets creating and archiving, and just having conversations and discovering each other. These are all good signs for poetry in Singapore.”

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