'Literature is a coping mechanism, it can change lives,' says Malaysian poet Jack Malik

The story of Jack Malik’s love affair with poetry starts, ironically, with lost love. Eight years ago, he was heartbroken. A relationship of his had just gone south. Weighed down by the emotion, Jack decided to take to words.

“I don’t know how, but suddenly, literature became a coping mechanism. I tried prose first, but I wasn't that good. So I tried poetry instead and I found out I didn’t suck as bad," says Jack, 27, in a recent interview.

“Mostly, I wrote confessional poems. The ones that you might find on Tumblr or Instagram. Those ‘oh woe is me’ kinda poems, ” he adds.

This lovesick beginning, however, made Jack realise he enjoyed poetry, and in 2015, he decided to pursue it more seriously, leaving his hometown Ipoh to try his luck outside.

This “page-and-stage” poet started attending and performing at poetry and indie literature events in the Klang Valley.

His first was the Rantai Art festival, which opened his eyes to the possibilities of a career in literature. Soon, he started making a name for himself in the Malaysian poetry scene. His lively and robust stage persona made an immediate impact.

Over the years, this Negri Sembilan-based maverick, who is a trained chef, has proudly added “poet, spoken word artist and writer” to his resume. His connection to his Ipoh hometown also remains strong with his involvement in the Projek Rabak dan Ipoh: City of Love communities.

Jack’s debut poetry book Wannabe Sasau was published by indie outfit Rabak Lit last year.

In February, his latest poetry collection Sajakjakja(c)k was released by Kata-Pilar Books. He’s also been featured in literary magazines and publications such as Mekong Review, Tunas Cipta, and Eksentrika. Jack’s poetry, both in Bahasa Malaysia and English, has been included in poetry anthologies such as Englishjer’s Hundred/Hundred: Home (2017), Kata-Pilar Books’ Tukang Puisi: 55 Penyair Muda Malaysia (2018), and Skinny Walls’ When I Say Spoken, You Say Word (2018).

Jack Malik takes poetry to greater heights with an appearance at a flea market in downtown Ipoh in 2018. Photo: FilepicJack Malik takes poetry to greater heights with an appearance at a flea market in downtown Ipoh in 2018. Photo: Filepic

When it comes to live performances, he has gone beyond indie events, especially with last year’s appearances at the George Town Literary Festival in Penang and Ilham Gallery in KL.

This year, Jack was chosen, alongside fellow poet Aliff Awan, to be “literary activists” for the Unesco Kuala Lumpur World Book Capital 2020 (KLWBC 2020) celebrations. Jack performed at the event’s online launch on April 23, reading a work from his book Sajakjakja(c)k, and a poem from poet/artist Abdul Ghafar Ibrahim’s book Yang Yang.

“Its a great opportunity to be seen, definitely. I’m thankful to be given the trust to be part of the event, ” says Jack.

“Jack Malik” is a stage name for Muhammad Danial Malik, who was born in Ipoh to Kelantanese parents.

His nickname came from his secondary school days. And how it has stuck.

“When I was in Form 1, I was in the school marching band. My batch had a few ‘Danials’. To make things easy, one of my seniors asked if he could call me Jack. Long story short, I kept that name. I felt I’m more of a Jack than Danial.”

Jack’s debut poetry book 'Wannabe Sasau', published by indie outfit Rabak Lit last year.Jack’s debut poetry book 'Wannabe Sasau', published by indie outfit Rabak Lit last year.

His creative influences, he mentions, remain wide and varied. His earliest poetry memories came from reading the poetry collection Koleksi Terpilih by National Laurette Datuk Seri A. Samad Said. Local cult comic book series Blues Untuk Aku by Aie also had an impact on the young Jack, especially with its unconventional literary style and use of prose.

Jack’s passion for poetry was nurtured further when he discovered Projek Rabak, an Ipoh arts collective founded in 2011 by indie artiste and poet/writer Mohd Jayzuan, better known as Jay, and a group of creative friends.

In 2015, Jack met Jay, and found out they lived in the same neighbourhood. They started hanging out and Jack asked Jay to be his mentor. He recalls that Jay responded by telling him to “just relax”.

“The people at Projek Rabak, especially Jay, helped me realise that ‘sastera is nothing’... to quote a line from one of Jay’s works (Sajak-sajak Gustavo). It just means you shouldn’t take yourself so seriously. In simpler terms, Projek Rabak taught me how to ‘have fun and be fun’ when it comes to poetry, ” says Jack.

Jay recalls Jack, the budding poet, who was eager to make his mark in the scene.

“Back then, I told Jack that if he wanted to learn real poetry-making, he had come to the wrong place. But if he wanted to experiment and shake up the poetry art form, then I could be of some help to him, ” says Jay.

In the Projek Rabak circles, there are no fixed ideas or strict notions about art. With such an open creative environment, Jack found his own approach in making poetry. His lively performances are both entertaining, dramatic and visceral. But he has also learned to calm things down, with more nuanced live readings.

In February, Jack's second poetry collection 'Sajakjakja(c)k' was released by Kata-Pilar Books.In February, Jack's second poetry collection 'Sajakjakja(c)k' was released by Kata-Pilar Books.

It’s always a process of learning, and Jack is steadily growing as a creative person.

“The whole network of poetry slams, the Beat Generation, and concrete poetry have also been great influences, ” says Jack.

He has also enrolled for a masters of arts programme in Malay Studies at Universiti Malaya.

In talking about versatility, Jack mentions his favourite poems such as Sajakjakjak, Bladi Bastat Mixtape, Post-Sasau, Post-Beat, and Unfinished, which combine of multiple elements of poetry culture.

“You find (Projek) Rabak, AGI’s TRI-V, slam, beat, hip hop, jazz, indie rock, Kelantan style, and so much more in my works.

“As for the (creative) process, I’m old school. That means my writing comes from my reading and also hanging out with people. I wouldn’t say I get more by travelling.”

Jack, who got married last year, is now based in Nilai with his wife Farah Aiman Azhar, who is also a writer and performer (now on hiatus).

At present, he is enjoying a lot of downtime because of the pandemic outbreak. Apart from his KL World Book Capital 2020 videos, he also recently joined an online poetry discussion on Arto Movement’s Facebook channel. There is no shortage of webinar content these days, and an opinionated indie poet is always in demand.

For a long-term gig, Jack is also preparing work for Projek Rabak’s 10th anniversary next year. His research for his upcoming third poetry manuscript, revolving around Kelantan history and culture, is also in progress.

Despite the cancellation of a few readings, Jack says, thankfully, his livelihood hasn’t been affected that much. He is also looking ahead to a quiet Hari Raya Aidilfitri celebration, and hopes to see things pick up in the coming months.

“Obviously, there will be changes in terms of health and public safety, but I’m optimistic enough to believe the (poetry) scene will come out stronger and better, especially with the knowledge they have garnered throughout this trying time, ” he says.

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