“Spoken word brings life to the poetry scene in Kuala Lumpur.”
The room is buzzing with excitement as people from all walks of life poured into a dimly lit tiny cafe. There is hardly any space to move anymore, and I am beginning to feel a tad bit claustrophobic. I am early. Apparently not early enough, as I just managed to find one empty seat right at the end of the room.
Within minutes I have a couple of people huddled by my feet, their backs pressed against my legs rendering me incapable of much movement. It doesn’t seem to matter that they are uncomfortably propped against me. Their faces register relief having been able to make it into the room, while scores of people are still lined up all the way down the stairs from the entrance of the cafe two floors up, hoping to squeeze in the already bursting at the seams cafe.
It is evident that the art of spoken word poetry has seeped into the consciousness of the Malaysian public almost without much fanfare. I am at the first anniversary celebrations of “If Walls Could Talk”, a bimonthly platform for poetry and spoken word performances at Gaslight Cafe & Music located in Bukit Damansara.
“It is always crowded like this,” says See Tshiung Han half apologetically as he greets me. My go-to person, Han is the appointed mic-adjuster, “putter-outter-of-fires” and firm supporter of tonight’s event. “Like this?” I echo incredulously, looking around at people packed cheek by jowl everywhere, on mats, couches, chairs and generally every nook and corner of the small cafe. Nobody seems to mind the close proximity though. There is chatting, laughter and a general air of expectancy for the show to take off at nine pm, which is another fifteen minutes away.
The presence of spoken word
For many, poetry has been one form of expression that eluded understanding and appreciation primarily because literal understanding as we are accustomed to cannot be applied to verses expressed in a non literal way that is original to the poet. It is exacerbated by the fact that printed poetry tends to sieve away the emotional connection that the author has towards his readers. Poetry demands our patience and time to explore in order to understand the context and the message the poet is trying to convey.
However, to understand poetry we must understand the poet. And the ancient art of spoken word poetry does just that. African-American poet Etheridge Knight said “There were poets before there were printing presses; therefore poetry is primarily oral utterance, and the end of the poem belongs in somebody’s ears rather than their eyes.”
“Spoken word poetry goes beyond the boundaries of a printed page,” explains the ebullient Melizarani T. Selva, poet and accomplished spoken word performer who together with Australian poet William Beale founded If Walls Could Talk (better known as Walls). “It bridges the gap between poetry and the audience, and gives people the access to connect with poetry in a way that written words cannot do. Very few people would choose to read poetry but many more are willing to listen.”
I discover she is absolutely spot on as I look around the crowded cafe. People have squeezed themselves into a tiny space and are waiting to listen for the next few hours, to poetry. And so the show begins.
The power of spoken word
Showcasing an eclectic cast of spoken word performers and poets, the highlight is of course the feature performance by distinguished Malaysian National Laureate Datuk A. Samad Said or fondly known as Pak Samad in a rare performance with his son, guitarist-composer Az Samad. In a poignant introduction before his poems, the renowned novelist and poet gently exhorts the captive audience : “I’m 84. I’m happy to be here – at least I’ve heard what all of you have written. I have great hopes in you. I cannot do much for this country except going on writing poems. I have only one vote. You have more. Use it. That is my hope”
I am mesmerised by the power and passion emanating from the poets featured tonight. Some parts feel almost too personal and emotions projected by the performer seem palpable. Poignant, compelling sometimes funny, the poets take us on an emotional journey using pages of their life experiences to draw you into their sphere.
“My great-great grandmother came to this country in an age where its progress and potential was a promise and not a punchline” recounts Andrea Tee, reading from her latest poem called “Empty Commerce”. “The voices in my head tell me I’m worth fighting for, and also that I’m good for nothing,” a plaintive observation from first time performer, Satpal Kaler. “He calls me beautiful.. He calls me “Autumn”, which is funny because where we come from we’ve never seen autumn, but we definitely felt the fall,” speaks Enba Nilah, in her tribute to her father.
I begin to understand that spoken word poetry comprise of words that simply can’t be left alone on paper. It demands to be shared and performed. However it does feel a little voyeuristic as the audience find themselves privy to the performer’s emotions and state of mind. Perhaps that’s why spoken word is such a powerful medium. Selva tells me that the performers usually derive material from their own personal experiences.
“It takes a lot of courage to stand out there and perform,” she says. “Spoken word gives people a voice to express their ideas, emotions and beliefs, and more importantly it gives them a chance to be understood. We have created a safe space for people to perform and be accepted among their peers and the audience.”
The bond of spoken word
For the next three hours we listen, we snap our fingers at parts of poetry we connect with, we laugh and cheer. The rawness and honesty portrayed in the performer’s readings allow us to viscerally take part in their story and bond with them. It’s strange that in a roomful of strangers, we seem to be united in giving support and cheering every performer on and offstage.
“I’ve never seen this anywhere but here,” admits Selva. “There are moments when the performer gets very vulnerable on stage. They cry or laugh, and sometimes may even want to give up on the poem. At Walls, the crowd pays attention. They don’t just applaud you. They are generous with their encouragement and support. People actually say “It is okay, we’re here for you”. Strangers who don’t know each other come up and start hugging.”
“I suppose we have succeeded in providing a safe haven where everyone is accepted and treated equally. There is really no distinction between famous or experienced performers, and ones who are debuting their poems for the first time. This sphere of acceptance blurs the gap between audience and performer, creating a family atmosphere which is both supportive and close-knit,” surmises Selva thoughtfully.
The future of spoken word
Walls was created as a platform to nurture and grow budding poets and spoken word performers. “We organize workshops called “Poets in Progress” where experienced performers are brought in to share their knowledge and experience in performing as well as composing poetry,” says Selva. “We have created these platforms to help grow our home grown talent here in Malaysia. It is our hope that our poets in turn will spread their wings, and help us in our quest to keep the poetry and spoken word scene thriving and alive in this part of the world.”
Her words are echoed by Beale. Unable to make it for the 1st anniversary of Walls, Beale’s message read out by 10 year old budding spoken word poet, Kieran Goh, sums it up succinctly :
“So Happy Anniversary, Walls.
You’ve turned this space into a home for many.
A home of power for powerful words.
You are the spark that will grow the KL spoken word poetry scene.
So don’t wait for someone else to use their words to tell you: “You can’t.”
Do something about it and help grow our spoken word scene.
Start an open mic night. Start a workshop. Record your words and show the world.
Use yourselves as the foundations for a bigger and truer tomorrow.
And keep on speaking out.”
Published in the New Straits Times, 27th June 2016