Romantic vision with a firm grasp on reality.
Reproduced from South China Morning Post, 31 August 2003
Not all poets are dewy-eyed dreamers, as Mani Rao proves. P Ramakrishnan reports
If not a schizophrenic in the psychological sense, Mani Rao must be a social split personality – two separate identities, the poet and the realist, wrapped neatly in her trademark crew cut and label-lacking suit.
"People walking around, advertising brands, she scoffs. When I see labels on my clothes, I sit and peel them off."
During dinner, at Centrals Veda restaurant, an acquaintance drops a fork in her vindaloo on learning that Raos sixth book, echolocation, is out on Wednesday. "We've met so many times, I never knew. A poet … a real one?" Well, yes.
The lounge lizards at the Fringe bar have a few misguided clues to her day job. Shes on TV, Cable, right?" Well, not quite. Rao is senior vice-president of marketing communications for StarTV. But to Hong Kong's literati she is one of the finer "real poets in residence.
But she punctures romantic notions of poetry. "The aura of a published writer is imagined and has more to do with perception than reality," she says. "Because a writer is published is no reason to be impressed. A publisher may be quite capable of embracing mediocrity. A timeless work may not find a publisher, and may have to be self-published.
"The real aura of a good writer is based on vision, depth, intensity, a sustained creativity, an identity and craftsmanship. With this they may attract readers beyond their mum and dad."
Laced with humour, stark minimalism and pithy prose, Rao's collection of 33 poems comes with an un-Mani, flashy, silver jacket.
"It was my designer's idea to express the concept of the title, echolocation, that navigation in sonar is based on reflection," says Rao. I liked it because of the idea, and my publisher liked it because it made the book special, suitable for a gift." A gift that has "the smell of death" on its pages. The untitled poems carry one of her recurrent, sometimes morbid themes: life and death.
"Yes, the theme (of death) runs through all my work. Dying is, in a way, the ultimate expression of life. The transition from composition – poetry – into decomposition. As a subject it is rich – it spans fascination and fear, romance and revulsion. It's unknown and yet so commonplace and certain, and the companion to birth.
In a city where every minute and every dollar is thought to count, is poetry just an unworkable hobby for a small enclave of English grads misquoting Keats? "The barrage of visual expression and impression has substituted the reading habit, ut I don't think that is a bad thing in itself, as long as one is not anaethetised (by electronic media) but able to engage in it.
"Are you sure writers are a small circle? There seem to be so many writers and poets around these days – sometimes more than the audience there is to read them."
(Echolocation will be previewed at the Fringe Club, 2 Lower Albert Road, Central, Sep 3, 8 pm. Inquiries 25217251.)