Wak­ing up to the word

The pop­u­lar­ity of po­etry and spo­ken word is an ex­cit­ing phe­nom­e­non in Malaysia, with the new gen­er­a­tion im­mersed in recitals and read­ings, po­etry slams, lit­er­ary fes­ti­vals and lo­cally pub­lished works.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Front Page - By TERENCE TOH star2@thes­tar.com.my

IT’S a Thurs­day night at the Gaslight Cafe in Kuala Lumpur, and the place is packed to the brim. 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, as a poet steps up to speak.

It’s a reg­u­lar scene at If Walls Could Talk, a monthly spo­ken word and po­etry open mic that’s been go­ing strong since 2015.

Look­ing at the 100-odd crowd, though, it re­ally should be called Wall To Wall. There’s 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. And while the crowd is slightly dis­ap­pointed, it is still hun­gry for po­etry. They clap as the first poet steps up to the mike, and take in her heart­felt recita­tions. 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

In the Klang Val­ley, there are, at least, four po­etry events run­ning each month, which 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 on 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.

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, poet/ac­tress, who helps or­gan­ise the monthly Malam Sayu Ber­puisi at 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 Club 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 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

Po­etry books, on the other hand, are a bit lower in pro­file than spo­ken word po­etry events. Pe­nang­based 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 Ce­cil in an email.

“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, Ce­cil’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 this year.

After 60 years of writ­ing, Ce­cil says Malaysia still has yet to pro­duce po­ets of sub­stance and stature like Datuk Us­man Awang in the Malay lan­guage or pi­o­neer Malaysian-born writer Ee Tiang Hong in English.

“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 Ce­cil 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.

Charissa Ong, 26, a lo­cal au­thor, started by pub­lish­ing po­etry on In­sta­gram. After at­tract­ing a fol­low­ing, she de­cided to pub­lish a book. De­spite be­ing re­jected by tra­di­tional pub­lish­ers, Ong per­se­vered, and 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 the Best Sell­ers list that year. Her fol­low-up

Day­light Di­a­logues was re­leased ear­lier this month. 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, and 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 look highly on so­cial me­dia po­etry, 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

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.

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

While opin­ions on the state of the po­etry com­mu­nity in Malaysia may dif­fer, every­one can prob­a­bly agree, how­ever, 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 Ce­cil.

— Filepic

Spo­ken word artiste Sheena Ba­harudin per­form­ing at a po­etry slam in Kuala Lumpur.


Poet Lim Jih-Ming in his el­e­ment at a re­cent edi­tion of the If Walls Could Talk se­ries at the Gaslight Cafe in Kuala Lumpur.


Is po­etry a com­pet­i­tive sport? Well, yes. Here’s the judg­ing panel at this year’s Youth Po­etry Slam, or­gan­ised by Po­etry Cafe KL.

Ac­cord­ing to Ja­mal, po­etry events might be do­ing well now, but Malaysia still does not have a ‘po­etry scene’.

The au­di­ence lis­tens at­ten­tively to a poet at the Malam Sayu Ber­puisi out­door po­etry event at KLPac last month.


Tan is part of the Word­smiths of Kuching, a ded­i­cated grass­roots col­lec­tive that or­gan­ises po­etry events in Kuching.

— Filepic

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

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