Tuesday, April 03, 2007

At my first Poetry Slam

Through the urging of friends, I found myself at my first Poetry Slam last Saturday organised by one of our puisi-poesy members, and to top it off, I was asked to be one of the five judges (Oh no!).

This is the first Poetry Slam ever in Malaysia, and to help us along to kickstart things were new friends from Singapore, Chris Mooney-Singh, his wife and their team from Word Forward. A poetry slam is a showcase of the competitive art of performance poetry, where equal emphasis is given to the ability to deliver a poem, as much as the poetic content itself.

It turned out to be really fun and I enjoyed myself, surviving the boos from the audience for being a meanie, but I would like to think I was a pretty fair, at least, though maybe a bit critical, given my familiarity and preference for written poetry.

(Personal opinion only, so please don’t take offence from a baby tricycle riding judge)

Among the KL poets, there was Tshiung Han See whose poem was interesting, but too short and not well delivered enough for me to evaluate very well, as much as I wanted to give him more marks. Jasmine Low shared a poem about her father, which was nice, but perhaps more suited as a poem on a page, plus I wanted more from her poem. Dato’ Shan’s political poem fatty fatty bomb bomb was humorous, and reminded me of Cecil Rajendra’s poetic style, but I think it was a little lightweight, considering the difficulty of effectively managing the simplicity of the diction with humour and the seriousness of its critique. Flynn Jamal was wonderfully dramatic, acting out characters with their soliloquys, but I could only give her marks on performance, but not content. Her friend, Nur Sheena Baharudin is really promising and had something going with her two poems. I liked her imagery and her use of words, especially the weaving of Malay words poetically into the second poem. Her blending of a song fragment into her first piece was creative, and not jarring in the context of the poem.

Meanwhile, Sharanya seduced the judges with her sensuous imploring to be made love to in her first poem. Sharanya’s delivery was perfect and the poem was also effective through the repetition of its rhythm. KG’s poem probably suffered, coming after Sharanya. He definitely has a good feel for language, but I felt he could have done a bit more with his piece (KG, hope you’re not angry with this). Peter Brown was the controversial decision for me, because I gave him the lowest mark for his fritter away, It is probably a case of my own personal taste, but I couldn’t quite find anything poetic in his first poem, that’s why I decided to fail him. No doubt, he is a consummate entertainer, and probably the best among the other contestants in that department, especially with his second ‘vigorous’ poem and his simulation of sex, so I gave him better marks for that, and for the fact that he had a good flow going too. His third and last piece was his best, a limerick that had some control of rhythm, rhyme and choice of words, but the repeated phrase “losing nature” …mmm… could probably be replaced with something better, I think..

The Singaporean poets, who were by far more experienced, put on a good show. Pooja Nansi had a very good first poem on how the difference in one’s manner of speaking may give rise to discrimination, and how different speakers of the English language may claim it as their own. Her second poem was equally good, but as with her first, her delivery wasn’t the best when compared to the others, and perhaps a bit of the complexity in the second poem became a stumbling block for two of the other judges, hence her not making it to the final, which was a pity. I found myself liking Bani Haykkal’s Apocalypse, and if I am not mistaken and do remember correctly, there was a very apt and effective imagery and metaphor of stacked cars. Too bad he didn’t go further, as I would have like to hear him perform another poem.

The person who took the first prize was S’porean Marc Nair, and a deserving winner at that. His first poem was on Milo addicts who impressed all the judges including me, though I later decided to deduct some marks for it being overly long and not focused enough. His second on poetry and TV was both a performance and writing feat in itself, going fast and furious along the lines, as his poem wove in and out smoothly from references to one TV show to another. Not only that, I think I sense substance in the poem, though it was too fast to catch. His last poem was also excellent and worked on smoking as a metaphor for reading or writing poetry.- a fresh idea that I enjoyed. Sharanya who was also in the final together with Peter shared a poem about a metaphorical wolf, which for me wasn't well developed throughout and came across a little flat. So, in the end, Marc’s good delivery, as well as the craft of his poems, and the variety of their subject matter help him clinch his win.

Indeed, it was good to see that neither nationalistic pride nor cross-straits rivalry between our two counties weigh in the judging. The other judges did a very good job, considering that some of them didn’t exactly read poetry, but that also goes to show too that poetry is something that is probably universally intuitive in a way, despite people having obvious differences in tastes.

Poetry slam is truly a wonderful way of opening up opportunities to aspiring poets, generating public interest in poetry and popularising it as an art form in an age of IPods, the internet and 3G communications. In this sense, performance poetry in conjunction with poetry slam would be able to engage ordinary people with its immediacy and accessibility. However, I would add that for me at least, performance poetry shouldn't be mistaken as anything-goes-self-expression, because as much as this medium allows for various forms of personal creative freedom in language and presentation, poetry is still an art, a craft that carries and draws upon a certain aesthetic sensibility and soul.

Oh yeah, I forgot about the pictures... which you can find here, under the heading The Python and the Poets

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17 Comments:

Blogger bibliobibuli said...

performance poetry shouldn't be mistaken as anything-goes-self-expression, because as much as this medium allows for various forms of personal creative freedom in language and presentation, poetry is still an art, a craft that carries and draws upon a certain aesthetic sensibility and soul.

amen to that, DI!

what a great account of poetry performed that afternoon

7:26 AM, April 03, 2007  
Blogger kG said...

*Oops, some typos in previous comment.

I thoroughly agree with you, my man. I need to rework that piece. It's kind of in your face right now, and contains very little literary strength. Oh well. Thanks for coming, though. Was fun meeting you!

12:19 PM, April 03, 2007  
Blogger dreamer idiot said...

Hei KG,

It was really nice meeting you too.

Don't worry about your poem being in your face... as you might recall Benjamin Zephaniah's poems were often very direct and hard-hitting too. I think you did have something going. :)

Cheers, man

11:30 PM, April 03, 2007  
Blogger Kenny Mah said...

What a brilliant dissection of the Poetry Slam and the poems/poets! I guess being the thorn among the roses does have its advantages, eh?

Personally I found Sharanya more accessible than Marc Nair (though I'm guessing everyone who heard his Milo poem will disagree with me vehemently) but his last poem was really the clincher. Well-deserved winner, definitely.

10:58 AM, April 08, 2007  
Blogger dreamer idiot said...

Nah, it's just a simple account... A thorn among the roses, hehe. I hope I didn't prick anyone.

Yes, Sharanya's poems were definitely more accessible, and I have her the marks accordingly, but I think you can roughly guess where some of my personal tastes lie. Haha.

6:46 PM, April 08, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree, bani hayykal was promising, I would have loved to see more of him. I asked him again after the slam about a particular metaphor he used in that poem, he said something like a sausage with bitemarks in it. I paraphrased that, but it was good imagery.

I also liked the singaporean poets' trio performance with a poem written in their hotel lobby in KL.

Mmm I completely understand what you mean with Peter Hassan-Brown.


PS; thanks for the email! i'll write you back real soon. :)


- dizzyfirefly, or 'back of an unknown girl'

4:07 PM, April 09, 2007  
Blogger dreamer idiot said...

Hi there, dizzyfirefly! Nice to see you here, I guess Machinist must have told you about this blog. :)

5:43 PM, April 09, 2007  
Blogger gRaCe said...

hey dreamer idiot..it was great meeting u and the rest...i had fun. ;o)

~SpiFFy~

9:40 AM, April 12, 2007  
Blogger Han said...

Dreamer Idiot,

Thanks for wanting to mark me higher, I have to admit it was a weak poem when it's read quickly. I wanted detail to smash into each other, but that wasn't the effect it gave off.

I agree with your opinion on Bani. He has a good grasp of performance poetry. His poetry is full of eyeball kicks.

Pooja's first poem was less benign than you say. The anti-colonial overtone was unmissable. It definitely felt more like a polemic than a poem, more of an argument than an exploration.

I take issue with imposing limits on expression, since I feel it's brought up in relation to Peter Hassan-Brown's poetry. The poet constantly risks absurdity standing in front of us, if we begin to ensure the poet is of a certain level of quality, we remove risk. A bad poet no longer gets heard, his delivery may not get better. For me, it is important the audience has the final decision whether a poem is good. We remove risk inside a poet, we also risk not giving the audience what it wants.

I should also say that "performance poetry shouldn't be mistaken as anything-goes-self-expression" is to advocate self-censorship. It may be unpopular to say this, but self-censorship is invaluable to creating great art.

Goodness, sorry for the long comment.

5:45 PM, April 22, 2007  
Blogger Madcap Machinist said...

It was the second time that I saw Peter Brown perform 'Fritter' and I liked it both times. It sounds terrific. Surely it deserved a better mark. Maybe it would have worked better if Peter was in costume.

I missed most of 'Vigorous' because I was away so I can't comment.

Maybe you think some contestants' delivery was over the top, but I liked Flynn Jamal's soliloquoys too, even if they were not quite poetry. Her delivery was convincing, and her words rang true. I was delighted when at the end of her performance just when I thought I was getting terrified of her, she took a bow and her face assumed complete calmness and she was all smiles--a pro actress. Still, I would have liked Flynn to use more substantial imagery, and see her in other modes of speech.

I feel that at the end of the day the finalists were the one who delivered a consistent mix of 'S&S', style and substance.

In this context, and going slightly beyond the topic,

"self-censorship is invaluable to creating great art"

For me, it is as a technique to be learned and employed, like everything else.

2:42 AM, April 23, 2007  
Blogger Han said...

Machinist,

The quality the audience liked could be called consistency. I should work on that quality if I ever participate in another poetry slam.

If I organise a poetry slam, I would call it Word of Our Fore-Slammers.

I thought of automatic writing when I saw Fynn's ecstatic performance. Perhaps her literary expression need to catch up with her delivery skills.

I suppose, to be crass, you're saying the quality of Fynn's style exceeded her substance. I agree, but with some authors it is difficult to seperate the two. I need to see her perform again to decide for sure.

11:52 AM, April 23, 2007  
Blogger dreamer idiot said...

Hi Han,

Thanks for coming by. I just got back from SG. As I said, my bias would be on substance, but I believe I was pretty fair then and gave marks accordingly to both poetry and performance.

Maybe I could be a bit less critical and more generous, but I am not a believer than anything can be art, because art must be both practised and honed... a refinement of both thought and feeling (rather than self-censorship)... then again, since our Malaysian scene is still so young - in its infancy (well, at least for this generation, since Wong Phui Nam and Cecil Rajendra gave a great start, but before things died down for years), more generous acceptance is surely needed to allow for 'risks, as you said. Otherwise, many real potentials would be put off.

One thing though, I feel that aspiring Malaysians should read more poetry, especially good poetry, if they want to get better (some, I suspect, don't read enough); and that I guess is the reasons why I initiated the idea of this blog, as a reading place and resource for both poetry lovers and aspiring Malaysian poets.

Anyway, I hope I can do my part for our Malaysians poets as a kindly 'critic', since I don't have talent to write myself (tried). I'm working on an idea where Malaysians poets can share and improve their writings with one another.

BTW, Han, now you have met Machinist, whom I feel, not only understands what poetry is, but is an upcoming poet himself. :)

5:40 PM, April 23, 2007  
Blogger Han said...

"Maybe I could be a bit less critical and more generous, but I am not a believer than anything can be art,"

I, of course, agree with you: Not everything can be art. I disagree with the distinction between criticism and generosity though. If you will be more critical, it does not mean you will be less generous. Neither polemic or screed, perhaps a higher quality of generosity?

3:12 AM, April 25, 2007  
Blogger dreamer idiot said...

Hahaha... aka Sharon Bakar? yes, I'm learning from her. She's wonderfully supportive and encouraging even when she critiques.

PS. Browsed through your blog. but haven't had time to sit down and slowly digest yet. Am busy over the next few weeks or so. But, at least, I've got it bookmarked... and soon I will be based KL/PJ, so I will get to listen you read your stuff some day. Too bad I will be missing this Saturday.

11:10 AM, April 25, 2007  
Blogger Madcap Machinist said...

It's not like that at all. I think my use of the word 'substantial' above was misleading.

I'm not saying that Flynn's performance lacked substance. Clearly I enjoyed it, for the reason that it felt natural -- her words were the way people speak. However, to me, it was more of a case of ordinary language delivered with extraordinary intensity.

Personally I like poetry that sets images dancing in my mind. Sharanya's elaborate 'How To Cook A Wolf' was hypnotic, and was easily my favourite of the day.

That said, at the best of times, I was only half-listening. It was my first time to a poetry slam too, and it was all quite overwhelming.

11:14 AM, April 25, 2007  
Blogger Han said...

Hi Machinist,

In paraphrasing you, I didn't say Fynn's performance lacked substance. I said Fynn's style exceeded her substance. Which is to say, she placed greater emphasis on delivery than composition.

Here's a great essay (I must reread) on this distinction from scifi author Samuel Delany:
"Put in opposition to “style,” there is no such thing as “content.”"

I need to hear Sharanya's 'How To Cook A Wolf' again to get an idea of it. The thing I remember about the poem was talking with her after the slam wrapped up and leaving the conversation with this question in my head: How can you cook desire?

I mean, there are extended metaphors and there are telescopes...

11:41 AM, April 26, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Han,

I think you r just playing with semantics in saying style over substance or more style than substance or content in opposition to style...they all boil down to you r not impress with the content. i think the subject matter of Fynn's performance is not as interesting to you because it is not as sensual as Shara...so that shows where your interest lies. Any contents that has no sexual double entendre or sexual imagery to sausage or desire simply as no content...

2:26 AM, May 29, 2007  

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