Tok-singsing: danis bilongyumi iet

19 October 2020

Michael Dom

Strangers teach you to sing songs and march to a drum that they own To reject your garamut, your kundu and the stilled speech of wood Their soporific chorus dulls your mind and cheats your Black soul.

Sijo on loss of culture (O Arise, 2015)

It is recognized that most indigenous, non-literate societies maintained a very strong oral tradition as a means of passing on knowledge and information, albeit much of it wreathed in mysticism, of myths and legends, but also as part of a natural creativity and entertainment. These “Hand-made stories” were sufficient for the needs of the time and became part of the foundations of our cultural expression, olsem tumbuna pasin.

Retracing our oral tradition through literature

There is a strong literary tradition of using Tok Pisin in poetry which was represented by

collections in the Papua Pocket Poets publications Wiliwil (1970) and Nansei (1971) edited by Kumulau Tawali. This included indigenous poems, created as songs and chants in various Tok Ples, collected by UPNG students under the tutelage of Ulli Beier circa 1968, and translated into English. These classical PNG works include Alan Natachee’s Aia: Mekeo Songs (1968) and Murray Russell’s Limlibur: Tolai Poems and Kakaile kakaile: Tolai Songs (1969).

Historically the elevation of Tok Pisin into literature was foreseen by Elton Brash in 1975 (Tok Pisin, Meanjin 34(3): 320-327), as Nicholas J.  Goetzfridt summarized in his book Indigenous Literature of Oceania: A Survey of Criticism and Interpretation (1995); “Brash concludes by noting that if the English and pidgin of Papua New Guinea ever converge, a very independent and distinctive Papua New Guinea English will emerge and will hold considerable potential for creativity”. Brash’s words ring true today.

Tok Pisin poems, what I like to refer to as tok-singsing, stand out clearly to demonstrate facets of our cultural identity like shining shells to adorn a dancer. I find such gleaming examples in the intriguing De na nait by Lazarus Hwekmarin in Kovave (Vol.3 No.1, 1971) and the Tok Pisin Ondobondo poster poems Oloman by Regis Stella, O Meri Wantok by Bede Dus Mapun and Kain Kar Ya by Jerry Daniels. There is also the rare gem of a Hiri Motu poem Song of the Winds by Nora Vagi Brash (PNG Writer, 1985).

Alternatively, in his poem Dancing yet to the Dim Dim’s beat (Ondobondo, 1984) Vincent

perceived that “We have been dancing / Yes, but not for our own tune”, and he forewarned of the “dull drumming” signaling “the impending crisis”. It is apparent that the narrator here was displeased with the legacy of colonial rule “the fetters of dominance” over Papua Niugini society which “still insist” / on dominating / Holding us down”.

Similar idioms of drum beats and dancing are used by other writers to reflect their thoughts on the socio-cultural and political agenda of nationhood.

In his early opinion essay The Necessity and Reality of Oral Literature (PNG Writer, 1986, pp37) Steven Winduo emphasized the need for writers to record, preserve and promote our cultural stories, myths and legends, chants and songs for future generations to better understand their own society. Winduo later elaborated, in “Unwriting Oceania” (New Literary History, 2000, 31: 599–613), how “the “leaving out” practice of the authorities on Pacific literature” resulting in indigenous literary interpretations and intellectual pursuits being left behind in the matrices of history like traces of pottery work. He refers to this act as an “epistemic violence”.

Winduo posits, with reference to Samoan writer-scholar Tialetagi Poumau, that; “By working through trace, Pacific writer scholars reinstate what has been crossed out, but is visible even in erasure. It is through the trace that Pacific societies are able to reclaim their cultural memory: “The cultural memory is the collection of wisdom, history and tradition that provides us with the basis of cultural action in our nation”.”

One solution to this, and the objective of my book 26 sonnets (2020) and Tok-singsing, is best expressed by Winduo (2000): “Therefore, the only way to maintain cultural independence is to incorporate and adapt other cultural practices into their own to forge an independent identity”.

A related objective was promoted by the Crocodile Prize (2011-2017) and Pukpuk Publications, that is the writing of our own stories, which was achieved by producing books such as The Flight of the Galkope (2013) by Kelakapkora Sil Bolkin, My Chimbu: a short history of Chimbu in the highlands of PNG (2018) by Mathias Kin and memoirs, poems and short-stories in Brokenville and Bougainville Manifesto (2014) by Leonard Fong Roka.

Rewriting our stories: re-imagining ourselves

The description provided by Steven Winduo of a poet/writer as The Dancer (PNG Writer,

1985) seems very apt, “In solitude with the spirits / A silhouette / Dances against the blaze / Letting words and chants re-echo”. This presents us with culturally relevant imagery and context for understanding the poem in English. The idiom here is associated with “toktok wantaim ol tumbuna”, communicating with ancestral spirits through spiritual possession.

But in the same edition of PNG Writer we can find the cultural and socio-political descriptive poem Wanpisin Painim Welpik by Ambrose Waiyin. This tok-singsing affords a unique story-telling method in the way expressions are crafted, by their connotation (nuance) and intention (meaning).

There is much to be learned, explored and advanced from the PNG literary texts available at Athabasca Online Library. In hindsight, it is instructive for me to compare Waiyin’s prose poem Wanpisin Painim Welpik to my Terza rima poem The Political Economy of a Pig Farmers Life (O Arise!, 2015; pp 47). Although the agenda are similar the two poems were published thirty years apart.

Particular lines such as “Wanpisin i sot tru long hap pik / “Big man ino tilim gud” ol i tok”, which is echoed in the heroic couplet “If you will not share the gris pik with all / One day your house built from our bones will fall”, provide the indigenous idiom associated with “kastom wok” and “bigman pasin”, customary practice and expectation of chiefs to share out pig meat equally. This is symbolic of distributing wealth and resources and where such largesse may also raise issues of “wantokism” and cause malcontent.

In contrast, in my translated poem What now Ongagno (pp 25) I ‘unwittingly’ extended Winduo’s metaphor of the Lomo’ha spirit dancers to suggest that, in the modern context of lost cultural heritage, “Perhaps our singsing, / will not be as sweet as it used to be?” But when read in the original Tok Pisin version, the questioning becomes more pronounced and authentic in its expression, “Ating singsing bilong yumi nau, / em ino inap swit tumas olosem bipo?” so there is a subtle nuance of ‘voice’ in the utterance.

What is also interesting about these two poems is the narrative tone and approach, whereas The Dancer narrates mystically with an air of authority, in What now Ongagno thevoice is conversational with an inquisitive note. These different modes of narration in the oral context may be likened to different forms of writing poetry.

There remains however the challenge of reading a poem crafted in different tok ples which may be complicated when translated to English. Poets must determine in what form their poem speaks and, for the multilingual, in which language do the idoms and expressions emerge fully formed.

In his more recent comments while attending a Poetry Slam at the Port Moresby Arts Theatre; “Dr Winduo saw weakness in Tok Pisin for written work because expression is shared equally by word choice and the demeanour of the person speaking those words and, as such, meaning is lost without the author’s presence. However for live recitals, such as the Poetry Slam, Dr Winduo was a tremendous advocate for Tok Pisin and it was easy to appreciate this view when I heard the entrants recite their pieces” (Ben’s PNG Diary – Day 2: The poetry of Tok Pisin, April 2013).

What’s more, Winduo also wrote in his book Transitions and Transformations: Literature, Politics and Culture in Papua New Guinea (2013) that; “I share the view of Chinua Achebe

that whatever language I use must bear the burden of my experience. English provides the structure of literary experience by which I am able to create a tapestry of my experience”.

This suggests to me that although our cultural expressions are relevant, the framework in the language for communicating needs to be structurally sound. In other words, there must be known borders, a landscape and space in which to craft a poem in a form which displays its artistry; art which explores beyond known territory by using our own poetics.

Reclaiming our indigenous poetics

It is my understanding that the communication of a poem by oration or through written works, destined for oral recitation, should utilize a form relevant for placing the audience in a position to ‘look thru the eyeholes’ of the narrator. This is in fact a challenge taken on by poets in every piece of work they begin, and should be undertaken while bearing in mind that this form may be either in free or fixed verse.

Winduo also remarks in his foreword to 26 sonnets (2020); “Though I am curious how Tokpisin poems can fit into these forms, I think we can learn that the frames of expression are there; all we have to do is give it flesh and life through poetry in our own language.”

Edwin Brumby supports this activity of expressing our poetry in Tok Pisin or Papua Niuginian tok ples. “In sum, then, there are no defensible technical or functional reasons why TP should not be used as a literary medium. Isn’t it also the case that PNG writers have some responsibility to foster an indigenous literary tradition and to create bodies of work which encompass and reflect PNG’s changing society and culture, and which are accessible to their fellow countrymen? (Tok Pisin is well equipped for PNG’s literature, May 2013).

Writers in the Crocodile Prize have provided a large volume of work which may now be assessed for their indigenous literary value. The framework must be understood, and this requires review and criticism of poetry and literature.

In the past a number of international writer-scholars provided literary reviews and criticism of PNG poetry. In his 1987 Library prize essay Dancing yet to the Dim Dim’s beat: Contemporary poetry in Papua New Guinea, Richard Hamasaki noted that “Papua New Guinea’s creative written literature is not confined to poetry. A significant body of indigenous writing exists in the form of plays, radio drama, short stories, novels, contemporary oral histories and songs, film scripts, and essays. These works have been composed in a variety of languages, including tribal languages, English, Motu, and Tok Pisin. Some authors have also utilized a combination of languages in their written work”. A number of the articles have great historical and cultural value.

In his essay Hamasaki provided a startling comparison of PNG literary development post-independence with that in African nations and exposed to us the thoughts of key African writer-scholars of the period. One of those comments regards the facilitation of discussion about literature and dialogue between national writers as suggested by Nigerian scholar Biodun Jefiyo that; “the postcolonial argument which posits Africa-for-the world tends to overlook what he regards as the central issue of African cultural politics, which ‘is the relationship of Africa to itself, the encounter of African nations, societies, and peoples with one another’. Africa’s internal dialogue with itself, and indeed Africa’s self-representation, is important before Africa could unfold her being on a world stage”.

If we substitute Papua Niugini for Africa in the text above it still reads as true and relevant to the present context. In short, there are conversations we must have amongst ourselves to determine who’s drum beat we are following and why. This is also the message from Winduo’s Dancer and what I myself had begun to unconsciously extract through my experiments with the Korean poetry form when I wrote Sijo on the loss of culture (O Arise, 2015). We should encourage the development of indigenous forms of expression in literature. This will broaden and deepen our national conversation. We should dance to the drum beat of our own kundu na garamut.

During my early poem experiments and poetry explorations I wanted to go one step further than my past contemporaries. In my collection 26 sonnets (2020) I intentionally appropriated popular Western and Eastern forms of poetry. The poetics however were indigenous. As Konai Helu Thaman wrote in her review “although this form originate from elsewhere, Michael has used it successfully, contextualized and made it his own, including the Tok Pisin poems”. Tok-singsing, then, is one antidote to the “current, fashionable ideology of globalization” towards which Konai reckons “we need to re-thing and re-claim our own approaches”, danis bilong yumi iet.

The words of the late great Australian poet and author Clive James (Poetry Notebook, 2014) are also emblematic, “a new nation doesn’t project itself to the world by flaunting its characteristics. It projects itself as a creative personality, which finally comes down to a tone of voice”.  Although James was addressing Australia once again the statement applies to PNG because the creation, nurturing and celebration of culture are universal across all communities.

Papua Niugini is emerging as a nation and it is vital, therefore, that we continue nurturing our culture through national literature and arts programmes, by contributing as individual authors or in organized writers groups. We may yet achieve Apisai Enos dream of “national unity through literature” (Kovave, Vol.4, No.1, Nov. 1972, 46-49.).


Papua Niugini has a growing literary tradition with good roots in history and a respectable volume of classic works which provide us with modern day cannon.  However, literary output alone does not afford a basis for understanding ourselves and our literary culture. There is a need for interaction and dialogue about our literature, apart from literary criticism by writer-scholars, in a process which is supported nationally. There rests the importance of using our indigenous poetics, as expressed in all our available languages, but particularly in Tok Pisin and Tok Motu.

By publishing this collection of poems in Tok-singsing I am completing one phase of my exploratory voyages of external discovery and turning back to converse locally. I want my Tok Pisin poems to be lyrical and musical and give back a dance which is our own – Tok-singsing igatim danis bilong yumi iet.

Published by Ples Singsing

Ples Singsing is envisioned to be a new platform for Papua Niuginian expressions of creativity, ingenuity and originality in art and culture. We deliberately highlight these two very broad themes as they can encompass the diverse subjects, from technology, medicine and architecture to linguistics, music, fishing, gardening et cetera. Papua Niuginian ways of thinking, living, believing, communicating, dying and so on can cover the gamut of academic, journalistic or opinionated writing and we believe that unless we give ourselves a platform to talk about and discuss these things in an open, free and non-exclusively academic space that they may remain the fodder for academics, journalists and other types of writers alone. New social media platforms have given every individual a personal space to share their feelings and ideas openly, sometimes without immediate censure. The Ples Singsing writer’s blog would like to provide another more structured platform for Papua Niuginian expressions in written, visual and audio formats while also providing some regulation of the type and content of materials to be shared publicly.

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