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Sunday February 17, 2008

Stoking passion for poetry

In small groups that are growing ever larger, people are coming together to fulfil the fundamental need to express themselves creatively. 

DEAD white men. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Wordsworth – it’s their names people tend to think of when the word “poetry” is mentioned. 

At almost 23, Priya Kulasegaran is neither dead nor white, and is certainly no man, but she is a poet. The final-year law student looks deceptively laidback, but there’s a steely twinkle in her eye that helps explain why she’s one of the rising stars in the local arts scene.  

The audience enjoying George Wielgus’s spirited comic and poetic performance.
Together with the also-almost-23 Patricia Low, Priya organised Project OMG! (Open Mike Gig), one of several events in the Klang Valley’s flourishing spoken word scene where people can “perform” anything they’ve written. 

A lot of the time it turns out to be poetry, though not just any old verse – it’s usually performance poetry. 

Over the past two years, the idea of poets performing their work rather than just writing for themselves or simply reading it aloud has become increasingly popular. 

“It’s a marriage between your own ideas and trying to get other people on your side,” says Priya, describing performance poetry. “You’re also a storyteller, you’re there to express yourself, to entertain, and hopefully people will identify with what you’re writing about. 

“Writing purely for yourself can be very self-indulgent. Performing is more accessible. 

“Most people aren’t into reading, or literature, or poetry, and their whole idea of what poetry is the Shakespearean flowery poetry thing,” she says. “The kind of people who come to our gigs ? they’ve never been to anything like this, so they’re usually very shell-shocked.” 

Maybe impressed is a better word; even after the shock and novelty wear off, people keep coming back. Priya admits that OMG!’s first gig was mostly attended by friends but word of mouth buzz has been drawing bigger audiences.  

“Younger people like us are getting involved,” she explains, when I ask her why it’s becoming so popular. “After being fed the kind of music you’re supposed to listen to, and the kind of movies you’re supposed to watch, there’s a kind of reaction.” 

It’s nice to think that maybe today’s youths are looking for something bigger than the boobs on MTV, and that there’s some smidgen of a cultural backlash beginning against commercialised entertainment. 

“We’ve unearthed quite a few closet writers,” Priya says. “We’ve sort of become biggish, I suppose, because of press support; and then British Council heard of us.”  

The British Council has become an integral pillar of the local arts, having launched many initiatives under their East Asian regional project, Animating Literature, which aims to bring literature to life for school children, reluctant readers, and the public in general. 

Not only does it organise another spoken word event called WayangKata, but it also conducts workshops to help develop the skills of local aspiring poets, usually facilitated by poets from Britain.  

The exchanges have been of enormous benefit; in fact, it was mostly due to being exposed to British performance poets like Francesca Beard (for the first time in 2006) and Charlie Dark (last year) that performance poetry took root here. 

“The poetry scene here is very exciting at the moment. The whole of last year we had performance poets coming from Britain – it really invigorated the scene,” says Bernice Chauly, noting that local poetry before then had usually been read off the page rather than performed. 

At almost 40, she has the slightly harassed look of someone with too many slashes in her job description – she’s an actor/writer/photographer/mother who recently launched her second collection of poems, The Book of Sins.  

Chauly has been involved in the local arts scene since her return from Canada in 1990.  

“When I first came back, there was nothing,” she says frankly, explaining that the performing arts then were limited to only theatre, and that “there was very little support”. 

Despite that, Chauly persisted and began organising spoken-word events, which helped foster a much-needed sense of community among local writers, including poets. 

Even though writing’s a solitary pursuit – and even more so in Malaysia where support can be scant – knowing that other people are doing it, and doing it successfully, can be inspiring.  

Take Tash Aw, for example, the local lad whose novel, The Harmony Silk Factory, won the Whitbread first novel award in 2005. “It was like, ‘Oh wow, Malaysians? Writers? Really? So good, ah? Wow.’ So I think they’ve helped us a lot as well,” says Chauly. 

“But at the end of the day it comes down to funding. 

“We need an organisation like the British Council, or something, to provide support,” she says, and for a moment I’m discomfited by the sad irony that the local arts are dependent for support on foreign organisations like the British Council. 

Chauly’s persistence, Priya’s energy, foreign successes, they’ve all had a role to play in the fact that people are writing, people are coming in ever increasing numbers to spoken word events. 

And the scene can only grow even bigger with plans for the first ever KL Poetry Slam on Feb 23. A slam is an event at which poets don’t just perform but also compete against each other in capturing the audience’s interest.  

The trademark for Poetry Slam in Malaysia and Singapore is owned by Word Forward, a not-for-profit company for the advancement of the literary arts in Singapore. 

It’s run by 51-year-old Chris Mooney-Singh, a poet himself who’s enthusiastic about exporting Poetry Slam across the Causeway.  

“We espouse the view that we’ve lost touch with the oral side of poetry. It started as an oral tradition, not a written one.  

“That’s what Poetry Slam does: it helps create a platform for people to learn those skills again.  

“It’s a good way of getting poetry started anywhere, because it draws attention with the competitive element. 

“It’s not that it’s just a gimmick, that competitive spark is interesting for an audience – unlike your typical poetry reading, for instance, which are really poet-centred: you bring along your sheaf of poems and your three and a half friends and their dog, sit down and support your friend’s reading and when he’s finished you go off for a drink somewhere....” 

Mooney-Singh says they’re working towards building an Asian Poetry Slam League. It’s a startling thought, one that shows how global English has become. 

But it also shows how far Asians have come in making their mark on a language that doesn’t just belong to dead white men anymore through writing and now, hopefully, the spoken word too. 


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