2007's SEA Write poet Montri Sriyong discusses the world through his eyes
Photo by YINGYONG UN-ANONGRAK
When Montri Sriyong first had his eyes examined over 20 years ago, the results showed that he was suffering from myopia and astigmatism, problems which he had for some time believed to have been the cause of his distorted view of the world.
However, in the foreword to his second collection of poetry, Lok Nai Duangta Kapajao (The World Through My Eyes), he reflects on the thought that his distorted perception of the world has more to do with its abnormality than any problems with his eyes _ an idea that runs through his work, and helped him win the prestigious SEA Write award.
"What I do is convert into words the pictures I have in my head _ the phenomena I've experienced _ in order to discover hidden messages, without saying directly what they are," said Montri.
Montri's approach to his writing validates respected poet Naovarat Pongpaiboonion's description of a poet as "someone who sees what most people cannot see, or tend to overlook, and thus make visible to people again what they could not previously see".
Lok Nai Duangta Kapajao features a collage of real characters revolving around the poet's life. He observes, analyses and portrays them in a series of poems, divided in chapters, without being too obvious about what he himself is thinking, or judging the decisions or actions of these characters.
"The interpretation belongs entirely to the reader," said Montri. "This is the way I believe all books should be. Any meaning should be subject to the background, knowledge and ideas of the reader. It's the same as when you open a door and see a cat sitting there: It could be just a cat, or an omen or even a philosophical message, depending on your beliefs and ideas."
A native of Hat Yai, Montri is the third Songkhla-born writer to win the SEA Write award, although the first to win in the poetry category. Before him were two-time winner Win Lyovarin, for the short story Sing Mee Cheewit Thee Riak Wa Khon (A Living Thing Called Human) and novel Prachathippatai Bon Sen Khanan (Democracy on Parallel Lines), and more recently Binla Sankalakhiri, for his short story Jao Ngin. When it comes to talking about his hometown, the initially reserved poet seems to lower his guard a little and is ready to share his thoughts about the once-popular Southern tourist hub, which is currently on the verge of desolation after being the target of bombings by southern insurgence groups.
"Songkhla, and Hat Yai, in particular, is a place for artists," he said with a glow of pride in his smile. "It's so sad that those in power seem to associate its appeal with beaches and the sex industry, encouraging it to depend on tourists than to stand on its own legs. With the absence of tourists as a result of the bombings, Hat Yai can no longer survive."
Montri's love for his hometown of Hat Yai, the place that provides him with endless inspiration and material for his literary works, is learned rather than innate. Growing up in a Chinese-Thai family that runs a duck noodle soup restaurant, the young Montri despised his work and struggled to leave, drawn to the lights of the ever-appealing City of
"I was doing a degree in Thai language and political science at
"I was trying to get away from home because like all idealistic youths I had so many dreams. I wanted to become a teacher for the tribal children ..."
Back in Hat Yai, Montri gradually relearned his duck noodle soup making skills, not knowing that the routine he once tried to get away from would one day provide him with the source of material for his award-winning book.
"I didn't suffer that much returning home to continue my father's business," he said. "Let's say I'm pretty good at adjusting to new circumstances. I learned that if you keep denying a job, you'll end up losing both the job and yourself. If you really can't get away from it, you have to learn to be a part of it and love it. I believe that happiness is something you have to create by yourself, especially when it comes to work."
A passionate reader who admits that his best-loved time at school was when students were made to recite memorable lines from famous works of literature, including Ramayana and Khun Chang Khun Phaen, Montri began scribbling verses when he was a teenager, some of which were used by his friends to woo girls. However, his serious reading began when his friend Pradit Ruangdit lent him books by respected left-wing writer and National Artist, Seni Saowapong.
"I was in my second year at Ramkhamhaeng and it was the first time I got to read such 'idealistic' literature. I was blown away! Then came the 1992 Black May uprising, and around that time I began submitting political poems to various publications, which was the first time my poems found their way into print," he said.
Since returning home, Montri has been working full time in his duck noodle restaurant, spending his free time writing poems. With an apron tied around him and a soup ladle in his hand, Montri cooks tasty duck noodles and watches the world go by, exchanging the ladle for a pen whenever he needs to jot down some new idea.
It is Lamaisongkroh Road, where his duck noodle restaurant is located, that serves as a stage for his poetic characters in the first chapter of Lok Nai Duangta Kapajao: The hairdresser and her lover, the Malaysian toy vendor, the five owners of khao man kai (Hainanese-style steamed chicken and rice) restaurants and the abandoned ageing Chinese lady enrich the first chapter with a sense of place and time.
The second chapter, however, deals with recollections and dreamlike memories, which pave the way for the third chapter, a touching poetic obituary to the people respected by the poet _ his own father; environmental activist Charoen Wat-aksorn; another Southern SAE Write laureate Kanokpong Songsomphan; and also all those affected by the Southern violence.
The heart-breaking and melancholic tone of the third chapter is balanced by the fourth, which comprises a series of satirical poems about the insanity of today's world where underage schoolgirls undress in front of webcams for lusting cyberspace viewers, private sex clips are spread on the Internet and university students prostitute themselves for, in the poet's own words, "Nseries, notebook, Honda Click."
In the book's final chapter, Montri ponders on the seemingly meaningless nature of life. It's perhaps left to the reader to decide what exactly they want to do in their short lifetime.
"I really have to thank the ingenuity of the editor for arranging and giving titles to each chapter, which helped sharpen the overall picture of this book. The original texts, I have to admit, were scattered and disorganised, because all I wanted to do while I was writing them was to communicate something through poetry. I wasn't at all thinking of putting them in a book," said Montri of Samanchon Publishing House's veteran editor, Wiang-Wachira Buason.
"I really enjoy working with him. It's a collaborative process and we share ideas all the time. His contributions strengthened the concept I wanted to present in each chapter."
Apart from his duck noodle restaurant, Montri also has a web site, created for him by his friend, on which he has both old and new works, and which he uses for communicating with his readers. The latest SEA Write poet also revealed that he has been completing a collection of short stories dealing with the lives of people in the South who are suffering from the violence in the region, despite a daily routine that involves getting up at 5am to shop for fresh ingredients in the market and working in his duck noodle restaurant.
"I write after 8pm, although I can write anytime in the day when I have a new idea. My customers are familiar with the sight of me scribbling things down. Some even ask what course I'm studying," he recalled with a laugh.
Well, with the press coverage that comes with the SEA Write award, maybe there will be no need for the duck noodle poet to answer any more question from his customers.
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