Why is poetry becoming more popular in urban Malaysia?

The Bakar Purgatory event for an article about Malaysian poetry scene. IZZRAFIQ ALIAS / The Star. July 3, 2018.

It’s a Thursday night at the Gaslight Cafe in Kuala Lumpur, and the place is packed to the rafters. Loud chatter is in the air: drinks are being ordered at the bar, and the usual catching up is taking place. But the place soon turns quiet, as all attention is drawn to the back of the room, where poets are stepping up to speak.

It’s a regular scene at If Walls Could Talk, a monthly spoken word and poetry open mic event that’s been going strong since 2015. (The main image above is of the judging panel at the 2018 Youth Poetry Slam, organised by Poetry Cafe KL. Photo: MIKO ONG)

Looking at the 100-odd crowd, though, it really should be called Wall To Wall. There are 13 poets on the bill, with legendary wordsmith Salleh Ben Joned as the headliner.

The host announces that Salleh cannot perform tonight due to an injury from a fall, though. And while the crowd is slightly disappointed, it is still hungry for poetry. They clap enthusiastically as the first poet steps up to the mic, and take in her heartfelt recitation. When she is done, the applause is loud and warm.

A reception like this, for poetry, would have been hard to imagine five years ago.

“I honestly think this is because there is greater demand for poetry. People are continuously searching for safe spaces to tell their stories and I think now, they are starting to realise that poetry events are not just within reach but also quite simple to start up,” says Melizarani T. Selva, 27, who started If Walls Could Talk with fellow poet Will Beale in 2015.

Humble Beginnings

Poets and poetry in various forms are blooming in the Klang Valley
Poets and musicians performing at Bakar Purgatory, an experimental poetry and music showcase at Gaslight Cafe in July 2018. Photo: The Star/Izzrafiq Alias

In the Klang Valley, there are at least four poetry events running each month that the public can sign up for.

According to poet Jamal Raslan, poetry events might be doing well now, but Malaysia still does not have a “poetry scene”.

A sustainable poetry industry or market is required to move ahead.

“We have a poetry community instead. These communities are driving these events, and the precursor to any kind of industry or sub-economy is always the community. Because you have a group of people coming together, staying together close-by, all passionate about the same thing,” says Jamal, 37.

Jamal is a well-known figure in the local poetry community having won several poetry slams in Kuala Lumpur, and presented at TEDxKL 2011 and 2012. He recently performed at the Popular-The Star’s Reader’s Choice Awards 2018 as part of Flip The Skrip, a group of young Malaysian poets.

Poets and poetry in various forms are blooming in the Klang Valley
According to Jamal, poetry events might be doing well at the moment but Malaysia still does not have what he calls a 'poetry scene'. Photo: Provided by interviewee

Jamal adds that the poetry scene in this country is divided into two: the mainstream and the contemporary.

The mainstream, he explains, tends to be slightly older in age, and this community writes poetry mainly for the page. Their verse tends to use conventional poetic devices and their events are usually in the style of poetry readings.

The contemporary movement, on the other hand, is driven by a younger crowd, who write their poetry with the aim of performing it.

Their events feature poets taking to the stage, with performance style and delivery as important as the words chosen. This includes poetry slams and poetry open mics.

While there have been efforts to bring these two groups together, Jamal feels more has to be done.

“The best way to address this is through cross-cultural integration. We need poets who are able to live and breathe and speak in both spaces, across languages, poets who appeal to both sides,” says Jamal.

A Time To Speak Out

These days, poetry fans in the Klang Valley can take their pick of events: If Walls Could Talk, Jack It, Malam Sayu Berpuisi, Bakar Purgatory, KL Poetry Share and more. Each event has its own style and format, featuring different kinds of performances.

This wasn’t always the case. When Melizarani and Beale first started performing, they often had to share space at a music open mic night. And every time a poet performed, they would first have to explain what “spoken word” was.

Today, fortunately, many people are much more familiar with this art form.

“Poetry is actually the same as any other form of expression like dance, acting and so on. But I guess poetry has become a more personal thing for people. It’s things that are only written in diaries but never shared with friends or family.

“And when the poets share what they wrote, no one judges, they just listen and understand,” says Veshalini Naidu, 20, a poet/actress who helps organise the monthly Malam Sayu Berpuisi at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre.

Poets and poetry in various forms are blooming in the Klang Valley
The audience listens attentively to a poet at the Malam Sayu Berpuisi outdoor poetry event at KLPac last month (June 2018). Photo: KLPac

“The scene has exploded over the last two to three years in terms of events and, subsequently, poets who regularly perform,” says British-Malaysian poet Elaine Foster, 40, the founder of Poetry Cafe Kuala Lumpur (PCKL), which spearheads poetry slams and advocates poetry education.

PCKL organises the annual Youth Poetry Slam, now in its fourth edition. In April, over 45 students from over 10 schools in the Klang Valley took part in the event. Poetry slams are spoken word competitions. Winners are decided by a panel of judges, who are often chosen from the audience.

“I think it has always been the case that you could find a poet reading poetry somewhere in the country. It’s just that poetry events are very popular now, fashionable even, and there are a lot of people who want to read their stuff at these events.

“It’s certainly a great time for an emerging poet to find a captive audience,” shares Foster, who also presented a 12-part monthly radio programme about poetry called Speak Easy on BFM.

She adds that spoken word artiste Sheena Baharudin will take over Speak Easy in its upcoming second season in August.

This year, 2018, will also see the first ever National Poetry Slam, which will take place during the George Town Literary Festival (GTLF) in November. Twelve Malaysian poets will compete to become the National Slam Champion.

“I think it’s time to have a National Poetry Slam because the country is ready for it. The spoken word scene in KL has grown tremendously over the past three years and there is a real need and hunger, for young people especially, to express themselves through this form,” says Bernice Chauly, 50, GTLF director.

“It’s time Malaysia had a slam champion, someone to represent us on the world stage, and I hope that we will find that person in this process. It’s very exciting and I hope Malaysians will rise to this challenge,” she adds.

Poetry On The Page

Poets and poetry in various forms are blooming in the Klang Valley
'Poetry is a solitary activity. so, I don't think there ever was, or is, a community of poets in this country,' reckons Rajendra. Photo: Filepic

Poetry books, on the other hand, are a bit lower in profile than spoken word poetry events. Penang-based author/poet Cecil Rajendra, 77, states that the number of poetry lovers has always been miniscule.

“After publishing some 25 books in over 60 countries, I think I can safely say that there has never been a big market for poetry. Just because a lot more people are writing and publishing their stuff these days, doesn’t mean that there is any sort of market out there,” says Rajendra in an e-mail.

“Poetry is a solitary activity – so I don’t think there ever was, or is, a community of poets in this country.

“For sure, there are a lot more poetry recitals, workshops, seminars, performances than before, but let us not fool ourselves; at best, the practice of poetry is a fringe activity.”

A poet and lawyer, Rajendra’s poetry has earned him the first ever Malaysian Lifetime Humanitarian Award and a nomination for the Nobel Prize in Literature (both in 2005). His latest collection, Extremists And Other Deviants, was published earlier this year (2018).

After 60 years of writing, Rajendra says Malaysia still has yet to produce poets of substance and stature like Datuk Usman Awang (1929-2001), who wrote in the Malay language, or pioneer Malaysia-born writer Ee Tiang Hong (1933-1990), who wrote in English while living in Australia.

“With the advent of the smartphone, almost everyone can have a go at writing a poem. You don’t need pen and paper anymore. Further, with printing costs being minimal these days, anybody who can rhyme ‘bee’ with ‘see’ can be a self-published poet,” he elaborates.

“Consequently there are scores of poetry books in the market giving the impression that poetry is more popular than it has ever been. But I doubt if anyone else other than the budding poet, his mother and his sweetheart read these volumes!”

While Rajendra has a rather dour view of the local poetry scene, some poets have managed to thrive. Some do it through social media, following in the footsteps of international names such as Rupi Kaur, Lang Leav, and Warsan Shire – “Instapoets” who command a huge following on social media platforms such as Instagram.

Charissa Ong, 26, a local author, started by publishing poetry on Instagram. After attracting a following, she decided to publish a book. After being rejected by mainstream publishers, Ong started her own publishing company, Penwings Publishing.

Ong’s first self-published book, Midnight Monologues, was awarded MPH’s Best Book of 2016 and was a fixture on its bestsellers list that year. Her follow-up, Daylight Dialogues, was released earlier this month (July 2018). How did Ong beat the system? She says one must be familiar with the other aspects of publishing, not just the writing.

“If you focus on just writing, it may not be enough. You need market analysis to know who you’re writing for. Whatever you’re putting out, a lot of market research needs to be done. Give your audience what they want. But of course, don’t lose yourself in the process,” she says.

While traditionalists don’t always view social media poetry with approval, Ong argues that it is a matter of perception.

“It’s all very subjective. The world’s changing so fast – it depends on people’s mindsets, what you consider ‘legit’. People will always have stuff to say, but you have to do what you feel is right, and be a master of it,” she maintains.

The Way Forward

Poets and poetry in various forms are blooming in the Klang Valley
Tan is part of the Wordsmiths of Kuching, a dedicated grassroots collective that organises poetry events in Kuching. Photo: Lance Vun

While poetry is indeed being read all over Malaysia, most poets agree that it is mostly a major thing in the urban areas, particularly KL.

“Outside the Klang Valley, people have less purchasing power. And this influences their lifestyle,” says Jamal.

“They may not have a lot of disposable income, and whatever they have, is primarily reserved for entertainment. And poetry is not seen as an ‘entertaining’ thing.”

Kuching-based poet Georgette Tan, 40, says that the lack of participation is an issue in her hometown.

“To my understanding, there’s far more budding poets in the Klang Valley, there’s far more shows of varying quality, and there’s far more people who are seriously working within the scene. Klang Valley has slams. Kuching doesn’t, but we’re looking into it,” she says.

Tan is part of Wordsmiths of Kuching (WoK), which organises two regular events. First Reading is a place for poets to read new work and get feedback, while Word of Mouth Kuching is a show where performers read for an audience.

“In Kuching, there’s just WoK. We hold shows once every two months because we don’t have enough people to fill the line-up. On alternate months when we don’t have shows, we hold First Reading. Every now and then, other events will open up a slot or two for poets, but there’s no ‘scene’. Word of Mouth Kuching is still the only spoken word show in town. We are winging it without knowing how it’s ‘supposed’ to work.”

Archiving and documenting the scene is also an issue.

“I can tell you that we have had a total of 350 poets that have performed at Walls but there is hardly any trace of their work online or offline. We need more publishers to publish books and anthologies of poetry,” says Melizarani.

“We need online literary journals, podcasts, YouTube channels dedicated to the documentation of Malaysia’s contemporary poetry scene and the works that are created here.”

While opinions on the state of poetry in Malaysia may differ, everyone can probably agree that poetry should be encouraged. What then for the future?

“For starters, they could reintroduce poetry appreciation in schools. Until literature is accorded the same weight and importance as science and mathematics, poetry will remain a marginal activity,” says Rajendra.

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