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Sunday March 2, 2008

Slammin’ time with poetry

Malaysia’s first ever Poetry Slam was held in a trendy nightspot, cool people turned up, and fun was had. Who said poetry’s only for tortured souls with no social life?

YOU know, I rather enjoyed telling people what I did last Saturday. When they asked me about my night, I’d say, “Oh, I went to the Poetry Slam.”

Then I’d casually mention that it was held at The Loft at Zouk nightclub and watch their eyes bulge disbelievingly. Ahnaf? Club? Huh? Ahnaf doesn’t have a social life!

A high score from Phoebe Lee Mathius, one of the judges randomly picked from the Slam audience.

So ... on Feb 23, Malaysia had its first ever Poetry Slam, organised by Dram Projects with the support of Singapore-based literary organisation, WordForward. And by the end of the night, I was definitely noticing a pattern in people’s responses.

“So how was the Slam?” I’d ask them.

“Good,” they’d say. “Good ? very good ? good?.” Well, there was also an “excellent” thrown in for variety.

Slamming is not reading. In a Slam, poets compete against each other for up to three rounds. There aren’t any professional judges; instead, audience members are randomly chosen to give scores.

Given our kambing culture, I was expecting Malaysians to shy away from this kind of involvement. Well, I was wrong.

Malaysia’s inaugural Poetry Slam winner, George Wielgus, aka Mighty Jah-J, showing the rest how it’s done. – Photos by IBRAHIM MOHTAR / The Star

Things did start slow – the event was supposed to start at 7pm, but with typical Malaysian savoir-faire the poets waltzed in after 8pm – but by nine-ish the crowd had swelled to almost 200 people. It was a tight squeeze, but judging from all the talking, laughing, and cheering, no one minded.

Nine brave idio– er, individuals joined the first round. The Slam fell on the anniversary of poet John Keats’s death (if you went, “John who?”, shame on you, look him up on Wikipedia ? like I had to), so every poem in the first round had to use a line from Keats.

Strangely enough, the three girls in the group put on rather limp shows: Sheena Baharudin, 25, gave a ho-hum reading; Nurul Hamizah Muhamad, 20, put on some rather half-hearted sass; and an elegantly-dressed 30-something Kathleen Choo failed to impress with a morbidly melodramatic love poem that had the audience impatiently snapping their fingers.

Which left six guys for round two. Joe Hafiz, 28, went from a cute rumination on his New Year weight-loss resolution to a more serious, introspective poem. Unfortunately, his rather muted delivery couldn’t carry him into the next round.

Hugo Yap, 19, followed up his earlier irreverent, whimsical verse with some short, raw angst. I liked its directness, but his nervousness was evident and flattened his delivery, torpedoing his shot at round three.

The four guys who made it to the last round had much stronger stage presences. Nick Green, 19, took fourth place with some brief poems that were more swagger than substance, but entertaining anyway.

Just a shade away from second place was See Tshiung Han, 27, whose long, meditative poems completely escaped me, but whose earnest, intellectual demeanour thoroughly convinced me of their quality.

First runner-up was Reza Rosli, 28, who played the sincere, oh-so-shy underdog. He had some interesting images and topics, like his first poem about crabs (the animal, not the disease).

The undisputed champion, though, was George Wielgus, 24. Wielgus’ poems (Wine, Women, and Weed, Word Porn, and Civil Disobedience) were a bit one-track – too many references to sex and booze and everything else people talk about when they think they’re being rebellious – but he was an outrageously gripping and entertaining performer. The man can certainly hold a crowd!

“I love people having a good time,” he said later. “People were laughing, clapping, cheering – I love being able to do that for people.”

Wielgus also said that he didn’t really care about the marks since it was all quite subjective, though he admitted that getting them was “nerve-wracking”.

For the audience, though, it was a completely enjoyable experience.

“I actually found it really, really fun,” said Phoebe Lee Mathius, one of the randomly selected judges. “You have to pay attention to other things, not just the words, like performance, the way they are, expressions.?”

What did she look for while judging? The “poet’s heart’s voice”, she replied, noting that sometimes you could really feel a poet pouring him or herself into the poem.

The people behind the Slam were certainly happy, with WordForward’s Chris Mooney-Singh calling it a “good opening gambit”, and a Zouk marketing employee saying that the club would definitely host the event again.

“What I was really happy about,” said the organiser, Dram Projects’ Daphne Lee, in a later e-mail, “Was that the audience wasn’t made up of the people I usually see at other local spoken-word events.

“It’s what Chris and I hoped for, that we’d attract a different crowd of people because of the venue and the nature of the event.”

The Point, as the Slam slogan goes, is not the Points; the Point is the Poetry. But really, I felt the point was actually Fun. People weren’t swanning around with lit degrees and dissecting every syllable, they were out to have a good time – and they had it.

So, if you’re looking to join the fun, or if like me, you need the illusion of a social life, look out in April for the next KL Poetry Slam – and invite me along!


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