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Emirates Airline Festival of Literature and the art of slam

1 March 2018

As this month’s Emirates Airline Festival of Literature prepares to celebrate poetry, we examine how the art form is evolving in our digital age

“I cringe thinking about it,” says Afra Atiq of her first ever performance. “There are actually two times I consider to be my first. One was back in school, I think around fifth grade, and I had written a poem that I read dramatically to my classmates. I don’t remember being nervous. I just remember thinking this is a really good idea.

“Fast forward several years and I’m backstage waiting for my name to be called. I was nervous and afraid of judgement. I thought I would end up saying two words, then running off stage. I imagined a thousand different scenarios in which things would go horribly wrong. But the moment I stepped on stage and the second I started to say the first words of the poem I did fall I was head-over-heels in love with the experience, and if I knew that all the fear I felt backstage would bring me as much joy as performing poetry has brought me, then I would do it 1,000 times over.”

Atiq is one of the stars of this year’s Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, and in many ways embodies the resurgence in the popularity of poetry. Young, confident, powerful, she embraces spoken word and all that it encapsulates: poetry, performance, theatre, music (sometimes) and the participation of a crowd.

“Performing poetry, to me, is like baring your soul in front of the audience,” she says. “It is about leaving a part of you on stage to tell the story. In a sense that is also my greatest joy – the fact that I am blessed to be able to share my tale and so many others, no matter how difficult it is to do so, with the audience in front of me.”

Atiq has followed in the footsteps of Hind Shoufani and Zeina Hashem Beck, two pioneers of the UAE’s poetry scene. The former is the founder of Poeticians, the latter of Punch. Both unite every year at the literature festival to bring together some of Dubai’s finest talent. This year is no different.

“Poetry is music for those who cannot sing or play an instrument,”

“Poetry is music for those who cannot sing or play an instrument,” says Shoufani, whose first performance in Beirut at the age of 18 was a near disaster. “It’s personal and political. It comes out like a waterfall, source unknown, and flows to the world unimpeded by editors, PR people, censors, recordists, producers, or digital media. Purely immediate connections can be made with poetry.

“You can break every law in every grammar book in every language. In Arabic we even have a saying: ‘A poet has rights that no other people have.’ It is associated with lunacy, with love, with philosophy, with history, with collective memory, with sensations, music, voice and family, tears and yearning, and solidarity and resistance. A poem in the right moment, sung by a powerful poet, can remain in history as a turning point of an entire revolution. Or maybe I believe that because I am Palestinian.”

Perhaps it is for these reasons that poetry is enjoying a noticeable surge in appreciation. In the UK alone more than a million poetry books were sold in 2016, the highest number ever recorded. Much of this is down to social media stars such as Rupi Kaur and other spoken-word poets, amongst them Hollie McNish, Kate Tempest and Emi Mahmoud, all of whom embrace performance, honesty and accessibility. Their emergence has caused something of a stir.

“The old gatekeepers have been banished,”

“The old gatekeepers have been banished,” says the poet Imtiaz Dharker. “Many kinds of poetry have been let loose, all valid, all with a life of their own. There are different accents and voices, people who might not have been heard 50 years ago. Some of this is caused by adventurous publishers like Bloodaxe Books, that went out on a limb and challenged accepted ideas of poetry and who could be a poet, seeking out new poets from all over the world; or new platforms like slam; or new media like Instagram. Poetry is bursting out of traditional straitjackets.

“All of this – the range of poetry available, the excitement of it – has created audiences who might never have come to poetry before. Now they have begun to feel that poetry belongs to them again. Especially now, in a world that is moving too fast and is too full of pointless chatter, poetry feels like a still centre, and more and more people are turning to it.”

Much of this poetry is deeply personal, almost autobiographical, and is fired by a variety of motivators: catharsis, disillusionment, anger, and disenfranchisement. It is also hugely popular, with Kaur followed by 2.3 million people on Instagram.

“I started writing when I was a teenager..."

“I started writing when I was a teenager and it helped me develop as a human being as much as anything else,” admits Harry Baker, a world poetry slam champion turned full-time poet. “Some of those poems never saw the light of day but it was enough for them to help me process what was going on in my head at the time. I’ve had people message me similar things after reading or seeing my poems, so I think whether it is articulating something that’s going on within you or seeing somebody articulate something similar, poetry can be a fantastic way of taking a step back and figuring out what’s happening in the world, internally or otherwise.”

At its core poetry helps people process their thoughts. It also helps bring change, something that Baker and others believe is possible through verse.

“I don’t think I would do what I do if I didn’t believe that it was possible,” admits Baker. “On a personal level I’ve changed a lot through both reading and writing verse, but I’ve also been lucky enough to see those around me change as well. Whether it’s on a tiny scale of slightly brightening someone’s day or something bigger like reminding someone there is hope out there, sometimes it’s hard to measure, but there’s definitely a possible change.”

Atiq agrees. “I always say that artists have a unique responsibility towards their communities,” she says. “It is our job to tell our stories, to inspire others to tell theirs and create their own art. To help them to believe that they can achieve, and if I have managed to inspire even one person, I am blessed beyond all measure.”

However, there has been a backlash against the popularism epitomised by spoken word and slam. Writing in the poetry journal PN Review earlier this year, poet Rebecca Watts criticised “a cohort of young female poets who are currently being lauded by the poetic establishment for their ‘honesty’ and ‘accessibility’ – buzzwords for the open denigration of intellectual engagement and rejection of craft that characterises their work”.

In the article, Watts asked why the poetry world was pretending poetry is not an art form. Her answer? That “artless poetry sells”. This despite both McNish and Tempest winning the Ted Hughes prize for new work in poetry.

“I tend to avoid the ‘page poetry’ versus ‘spoken word’ dichotomy,” says Hashem Beck.

“I tend to avoid the ‘page poetry’ versus ‘spoken word’ dichotomy,” says Hashem Beck. “I don’t like some possible underlying assumptions in some of these conversations: that page poetry is more boring, or that stage poetry is less well crafted. Sure, some poets are more performance oriented than others, but a good poem should be able to exist well in a book and on a stage.”

“Everything we do is based on what has gone before,” adds Baker. “Slam poetry wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t inspired in some way by trying to do something different to traditional verse. I think the two can exist side-by-side and problems only arise when one tries to define itself by shutting down the other.”

Snobbery and elitism have always been two of poetry’s greatest flaws. Yet it champions words, which is why the American poet Richard Blanco has spoken of poetry’s reclamation of language in the social media age. “A poem takes back language, re-energises it, reinvigorates it in a way that a post doesn’t,” he told Wired.

As with previous years, the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature is celebrating poetry in all its forms, despite recent friction within the global poetry community. Atiq, Shoufani, Beck, Baker and Dharker will all be performing at the festival.

“Poetry in its simplest everyday form, in spoken word, on stage, has the power to break down elitist barriers and make us hear each other,” says Shoufani. “And when a poet is on stage, we don’t scroll away, we don’t talk, we don’t play music, we don’t swipe anything. We listen. Something powerful to do in this day of overwhelming noise.

“Poetry has survived thousands of years of human development, it’s not going anywhere. It morphs and shifts and changes its skin, like a reptilian pre-historic creature wandering the earth, and it may change colours with seasons, and camouflage itself in other forms, but it is going nowhere. Humans love to speak to one another, no matter how obsessed we get with our little screens and solitude. We still love the sound of someone’s spirit spilling into our hands in the form of a few lines of verse.”

All poets featured will be at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, Dubai, March 1 to 10

www.emirateslitfest.com

Words: Iain Akerman

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