Stars on our side

Sanky baby

I was the kind of girl, who—as soon as she got her hands on the new books for a new school year—would immediately dig through the pile to get to the English and Nepali volumes, scanning them for poems and reading every single one.

That habit persisted past school; I’d look for poems anywhere I could—books, papers, magazines, the Internet, you name it. So, I guess I knew that I loved poetry, wrote some myself now and then, but it wasn’t something I thought about much at the time. I figured I liked it the way I liked dancing, or drawing cartoons, or playing gatta.

Until one day, I found myself amid some 60 other kids, gathered for a ‘slam poetry’ workshop. No sooner had the event begun that I was entranced, watching the instructors ‘perform’ their poems—voices loud and strong, hands, faces and bodies echoing their words, their stories—I remember having to hold back tears. In my head, I was practically screaming, “God, I’m so glad I’m here, I’m so glad I’m here, I’m so glad I’m here…” over and over again in a deafening loop.

That was the day I realised how much I really loved poetry.

That first initiation into the art of the spoken word had occurred in December of 2010, at the hands of three amazing visiting poets—Danny Solis, Matt Mason and Karen Finneyfrock. That was the year of the Quixote’s Cove Awards 2010: Voice Your Words, an event that steered my life into a whole new direction, towards people as poetry-struck as myself, a bunch we eventually came to christen the Word Warriors.

Since then, we’ve performed at various artistic and literary gatherings, concerts, awareness campaigns, street demonstrations, and school assemblies; we’ve grown 400-strong, and are still expanding, on Facebook, held workshops and mini-slams on lovely rooftops around the city, had the pleasure of working with spoken word A-listers, and more recently, concluding the second inter-school youth poetry slam, an effort to replicate that very event that had once brought us together.

So it was natural that on the day of the finals for the 2013 edition of the QC Awards: The Poetry Slam, I was asway with nostalgia. And the pansy that I am, there I was, once again, trying to hold back the tears that were threatening to run along with my flu-beset nose.

The participants this year were incredible, way ahead of us, I’d say. The content, confidence, style and delivery of their performances—they owned the stage. Sure, some forgot their lines, but the audience would cheer them on when this happened, and they’d give retakes after retakes of life stories transformed into lines of poetry. This year, I also saw fantasy making inroads into slam in the form of a girl with a buttery voice who talked about invisible lakes and big dippers—thus far not too common in this art form. Needless to say, I’m glad I was a witness to it here, in Kathmandu.

Given that it was a competition, yes, there were finalists and there were winners among them. But like one of them commented on the Facebook page later on, “I’d have all 20 of us in the top 10”; really, if it were up to me, I’d have all 62 who came in for the auditions put through to the top 10 for all the enthusiasm and love they showed for slam.

I also realised, this time, that making it through a slam was a matter of chance. I mean, consider the judging format of dropping the highest and the lowest of the five scores—as one judge pointed out in an email—what is the logic in that? Take some variables and do some math, and you’ll see the probability of a better poet not making the cut. But here’s the crux of it all, what we repeat at every slam, and what we stand by: “The point is not the point, the point is poetry.”

I doubt any of the young poets who didn’t win the prize went home to cry bitter tears of defeat. As far as my observations of the day could reveal, all had relished the experience. What else would explain the big smiles, the rushing over to one another with gushing compliments about how much they enjoyed the other’s poem, that particular line, and the love that had poured out on Facebook in the form of comments under the photos—“My new favourite performer,” “This guy was smooth,” “My favourite poem of the day. Almost made me cry,” “She was on fire,” “Her poem was magic,” and so on?

One of the things I love about this form of expression is getting to watch transformations occur right in front of my eyes. The soft-speaking guy with hunched shoulders and awkward gait, once stuttering and mumbling, suddenly changes as he steps onto the stage, his voice exploding and spreading like fireworks, so that you’re craning for a look. You watch as he bares himself, released from the bounds and burdens of family legacies and societal ties and expectations, the stage now an altar where he lets his wishes fly on the wings of beautiful, powerful utterances—“I am you, stomping down your feet and claiming, ‘I am gonna be a goddamn artist someday!’”

Most times, you don’t even need the stage. At a mock-workshop I did in Birgunj, a girl wrote a wonderful poem about how homes can turn into jungles, and parents into “baghs and baghinis” as they argue away the night. She watches the baghini try to hold her own, but the bagh is much too proud of his baghness to give way. She read out her conclusion with that strange mix of innocence and conviction of a 13-year-old: “Tyesai le malai bagh ra keta manchhe ko jaat mannai pardaina!”

This year, we plan to take slam beyond Kathmandu—Jhapa in a few days, and events in Surkhet and Khotang are in the pipeline. My partner in poetry, who still has no idea just how good her writing really is, keeps debating whether we are “good enough” to call ourselves slam poets and to go around teaching the form to others. I admit, I myself question that sometimes. But even though we’ve just started, we must’ve done something right, and the stars must certainly be on our side. Because who would have thought, when we were just discovering the world of slam poetry through videos on YouTube, watching poets like Sarah Kay, and sharing her work while professing our love for her, that in less than two years, she would actually be in Kathmandu, performing and teaching poetry here—and changing lives in the process—and somewhere on the hills of Namobuddha, tucked into cozy beds, we’d be giggling like teenage girls at summer camp, telling scary stories and talking about boys?

After Sarah’s visit, I feel nothing is impossible for the slam scene in Nepal. So, whether we’re looking at a national-level slam in a few years, or a team from the country headed for the World Youth Poetry Slam; Anis Mojghani shaking the dust here, or Andrea Gibson swinging her Swingset; or even bumping into Shane Koyczan on the streets of Thamel and hearing him say, “I’m sorry”, in that lovely voice of his—anything could happen.

Dreaming too big? Whyever not?

As long as we have the kind of rising number of poetry-enthusiasts—poets and supporters, those who let their pens bleed and breathe again, the rainbow city poets, always-drunk-on-poetry poets, and the very important bespectacled minds who teach us the art of people management, and serve us dreams-turned-realities along with yummy breakfast—we’re on the right track. Like I said, the stars are on our side.

Published in The Kathmandu Post on : 2013-03-09 09:14

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