THE MAN HONG KONG International Literary Festival starts tonight without its biggest stars - literary heavyweights such as Maxine Hong Kingston, David Mitchell and critic John Carey. Instead, festival organisers chose to open at the Fringe Club with five part-time poets from Hong Kong who have published collections in the past six months. The poets, and the businessman who published four of them, are quick to temper any claims that Hong Kong has a literary scene to match the established English-language poetry traditions of Singapore and Malaysia. But the boldness of the move to kick off with local talent suggests they are willing to fight declining English-language standards and the image of the city as a cultural desert. The Scorchers, as the five call themselves, will offer their poetry as a mock rock music gig - a reference to their mission to make poetry sexy. But only one, Mani Rao, has serious rock'n'roll attitude. The Indian-born television executive writes daring poetry, and performs it powerfully. Rao was one of the founders of the Outloud poetry readings, which began five years ago in a tiny bar called Steps on Aberdeen Street, Central. They have since moved to the Fringe, where, on the first Tuesday of each month, they pull a consistent crowd. Rao's most recent release, echolocation, her sixth collection, was launched last September. With a reflective silver cover and unusual page design, echolocation is a sniper attack of jarring and sometimes violent poetry. Her interview is just as blunt, opening by popping the Scorchers bubble. 'I don't think there's an English-language literary scene in Hong Kong yet ... although there's more noise and more books and events than four years back. It's a small circle, and you get known in that small circle, but so what? In Hong Kong, we have a small scene and feel inflated by that. I think that's bad, but it's an evolution. Maybe it'll take a few years.' Rao took her poems to Peter Gordon, owner of Chameleon, a small Hong Kong publisher whose success stories include Nury Vittachi and Xu Xi. Gordon is an entrepreneur who grew up surrounded by literature. The American switched to publishing three years ago, after becoming bored with running his own holdings company. He developed online bookseller Paddyfield and is a founder and director of the literary festival. But don't try to suggest that he's publishing poetry for the love of it. He sees it as another way to employ his knack for making money out of ventures that make no economic sense. 'Publishing isn't a romantic business,' he says. 'Poetry is always this commercially marginal thing, and I think in order to make it work one has to try very hard to find every single way possible of expanding the market.' One of his innovations came into play when Tim Kaiser appeared in his office with an Arts Development Council grant and the hope of publishing Food Court. On landing in Hong Kong from his native Canada, Kaiser married a Hakka woman, and lived in Sha Tin's Pai Tau Hakka village for four years. His poetry is exhilarating, visually creative and illuminates hidden realities of Hong Kong. Happy Valley Dreams takes a punter's perspective: 'wrong side of the track/struts that fifty-to-one filly/with stiletto hooves/ eight ball/corner pocket eyes.' Gordon printed Food Court locally, but also set up 'print on demand' schemes in the US, Canada and Britain. 'One of the problems for an Asian publisher is that selling overseas is logistically very expensive,' he says. 'You have to ship the books, and shipping small quantities is expensive.' Kaiser's book is stored on a computer in Tennessee. 'When an order comes in, someone presses a button and a book pops out the other side.' When Indian poet Kavita Jindal walked through the door, Gordon was able to branch out into the mass market. Jindal is a full-time wife and mother. The poems in her new collection, Raincheck Renewed, move from a satire of tai tai existence - a lifestyle she observes and sometimes lives - to a moving reflection on the death of her father, also a poet. She says she had found 'a thriving scene' at the Outloud poetry sessions. 'It was very supportive. It was great for me to add that new social side to my life with the work I wanted to do.' But she used the launch of her book last month to step away from the Outloud community. Jindal wooed 75 guests to the Helena May, asking people with little exposure to poetry to read her work on stage. She also convinced Bookazine stores to display hundreds of copies of Raincheck Renewed on sales counters, a tactic that has seen the book become 'a best-seller, by poetry standards', she says. 'I decided I wanted to include poems that everyone could relate to. People who don't normally read poetry are picking up [the book]. I wanted to break those boundaries, to go into a wider public.' Martin Alexander has been one of the SAR's most eccentric English teachers for 17 years, holding court at Island School and organising stunts such as sending students to Star Ferry last year to hand out 10,000 poems in English and Chinese. He sits in his roof-top Soho apartment with his Amazonian parrot, Louis, on his shoulder. Clearing Ground, launched last Wednesday at the Fringe Club, spans free verse, sonnets, stanzas and haiku. Although the poems travel across Southeast Asia and Britain, they focus on Hong Kong. Born to English parents in Libya, and raised in Peru, Colombia, India, Argentina and the Caribbean, Alexander considers Hong Kong his home, although he wouldn't call himself a Hong Kong poet. 'I think all of us, as poets, are very different. I don't think you could say there's a Hong Kong school, or a Hong Kong voice,' he says. Although Hong Kong has recognised indigenous, English-speaking poets such as Agnes Lam and Shirley Lim, we don't have an established scene to match Singapore or Malaysia, he says. 'The Scorchers are a celebration of diversity and it's an illusion that we're in a community because we write together. I don't think we address common concerns. We're all writing from different agendas. We all come from different places and have different experiences of Asia.' Gillian Bickley is an associate professor in the department of English language and literature at Hong Kong Baptist University. She released For the Record last September through Proverse. Accompanying Bickley's book were two audio CDs. Her work is popular in schools. 'My purpose was to reach as broad a public as possible. I was reaching out to schools,' she says. After living in Hong Kong for 30 years, Bickley is the most optimistic about the direction of the city's English literature. 'For the past few years it has been blossoming,' she says. 'It's an interesting development. It's the result of a huge amount of energy from a few people. But it is fragile. It needs a lot of support. I don't think Hong Kong is lacking in creative talent. But, because we are all working so hard, we may not have the time to [write].' Gordon is encouraging his poets to follow Bickley. 'I always figured poets are very good resources for schools,' he says. 'I've got nothing against Byron and Shelley, but they've been dead a long time.' Gordon grew up near Emily Dickinson's house in Massachusetts, and heard Robert Frost read poetry at school. 'For me, poetry was very real, because I met the poets and they were writing about things I could see. I think there are more resources here than many of the teachers in schools realise. I think this is something that hasn't been exploited.' The University of Hong Kong has for years held Moving Poetry events for school children. But Gordon's plan of bringing local poets into schools goes further. As an experiment for the literary festival, he organised Poetry Live, a session for school groups starring the Scorchers at Central Library. It sold out almost immediately. 'An effort needs to be made, and maybe in a couple of years it won't need to be made any more. It's like cranking a car. If you crank it enough times, the engine will turn over and it will run on its own. So that's what we're trying to do - crank up this engine.'