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Publication Date : 15-03-2013
Spoken word poetry has found a firm footing in Nepal's youth culture of late
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 of English and Nepali volumes, scanning them for poems.
That habit persisted past school; I’d look for poems anywhere I could -books, papers, magazines, the Internet, you name it. 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. Until one day, I found myself amid some 60 other kids, gathered for a ‘slam poetry’ workshop in Kathmandu. 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 - it was incredible.
That first initiation into the art of the spoken word had occurred in December of 2010, at the hands of three amazing poets who were on a visit to Nepal - Danny Solis, Matt Mason and Karen Finneyfrock. That was the year of the Quixote’s Cove Awards 2010: Voice Your Words, a spoken word event held by a local literary group 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 on Facebook, held workshops and mini-slams on rooftops around the city, had the pleasure of working with spoken word A-listers, and more recently, concluded the second inter-school youth poetry slam, an effort to replicate that very event that had once brought us together.
On the day of the finals for the 2013 edition of the QC Awards: The Poetry Slam, I was asway with nostalgia. The participants this year were a great group. 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.
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 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 in central a girl wrote a wonderful poem about how homes can turn into jungles, and parents into tigers and tigresses as they argue away the night. She watches the tigress try to hold her own, but the try is much too proud to give way. She read out her conclusion with that strange mix of innocence and conviction of a 13-year-old.
This year, we plan to take slam beyond Kathmandu, and a few projects are in the pipeline. My partner in poetry 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 somewhere in the hills, 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? Like I said, the stars are on our side.
The writer is a freelance journalist and a slam poet