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It was a hazy and cold Thursday night. As I parked my car, I crossed the street and walked towards the shop lots, heading towards an obscure staircase without a signboard. I climbed three stories up, and just as I was about to lose my breath, I entered a dimly-lit café with wooden chairs arranged to face one side, a red couch by the wall and cushions sprawled on the floor. Some guys chatted at the bar while a few others set up the sound system.

Gaslight Café is a cosy, bohemian-inspired space that has been home to spoken word enthusiasts and performance poetry enthusiasts for the last few months. At one end of the narrow room, there’s a hanging gaslight, which illuminates a microphone. That microphone has amplified the voices of old and young, of all ages and nationalities.

If Walls Could Talk is a bimonthly spoken word show that features professional poets, musical acts and also opens the floor for new-and-emerging poets to perform. I had attended the last few shows, taking in word after word that the brave poets had spilled and performed, but tonight was different. Tonight I was going to get a taste of what it was like to stand in front of a room full of poetry lovers and read out my written work.

 

I walked to the stage with shaky hands and sweaty palms.

 

As my turn came, I walked to the stage with shaky hands and sweaty palms. I read two poems, one which I wrote few years ago and one which I had just stitched together a couple of days prior. The crowd was much friendlier than I had imagined, and their intense gazes during my performance actually helped me – it felt good to realise that they were eager to listen to what I had to say.

Melizarani T Selva
Melizarani performing at Gaslight Cafe. Photo by Lyn Ong.

For spoken word performers, there is an added element to the notion that “the pen is mightier than the sword” – because the pen and the microphone are both equally powerful in their case. Instead of conventionally leaving their craft on the page, these poets take their words and passion to the stage.

Spoken word is, quite simply, oral poetry. Though it is unclear where it first originated, different cultures have had different forms of spoken word practiced for centuries. For example, in ancient Greece, spoken word was used to recount history as well as for entertainment purposes.

The closest influence to mainstream spoken word performances is believed to have been brought upon by The Lost Poets, an American musical group which gained prominence after Martin Luther King’s death to promote equality and civil rights. Until today, spoken word has been widely used as a tool for political and social discourse. Gaslight Café consciously sets out to evoke the atmosphere of the 1960s, where folk music and poetry went hand in hand with counterculture.

“Sarah Kay once said that if theatre and poetry were to get married, spoken word will be the baby,” Melizarani T. Selva chuckles as she quoted the American poet, who was only here for a show last February. Coincidentally, it was also at Sarah Kay and Phil Kaye’s show at TM Convention Centre when I first heard Melizarani perform and met her in person.

Melizarani. Photo by Lyn Ong
Melizarani. Photo by Lyn Ong

Melizarani is the co-founder of If Walls Could Talk. “The aim of spoken word is not only to perform or to get their works out there, but it is to tell a story. It is just another form of storytelling,” she explains.

And when the crowd feels strongly about a line, a statement or a piece? They will snap their fingers. Finger-snapping is the equivalent of clapping in the spoken word scene; it is a way to show appreciation at certain parts of the poem without interrupting the poet. This tradition has been in practice since the 1950s, and it was apparently started by a generation of American youth called Beatniks who used to gather around in a basement to read their poetry.

“I first discovered spoken word on Youtube. I’ve always loved poetry, and how brief it is. And spoken word is exciting – it is vibrant and engaging, much like theatre,” said the 25 year-old spoken word poet, who landed herself in the scene five years ago when she was still studying in Taylor’s University Lakeside Campus.

Melizarani started a poetry reading night called Candles and Coffee, and went on to join a collective called Poet’s Passport after she graduated. Her goal was simple, to create and be part of as many platforms as possible where spoken word poets and enthusiasts can come together and share their art.

After successfully bringing poets together through each collective, the virtual platform Poetry Café KL was born. Melizarani and a few other poets from this collective including William Beale, Illya Sumanto and Elaine Foster have all been involved in conducting workshops, organising festivals and bringing poetry alive in schools – and outside of schools.

Photo by The Star
William Beale during a spoken word performance. Photo by The Star

William Beale, the other founder of If Walls Could Talk, started to delve into spoken word during his time in HELP University, where he had performed at Bohemian Café, an open-mic event that happens every semester. “I read this love poem I wrote about all the women I’ve dated,” William looked back. “It was awful.” It was not until he met other poets in the scene that he started to take it seriously.

Melizarani and William also recently published their debut poetry books called Taboo and They Call Us Loud, respectively. Melizarani hopes that her book will serve as a reminder for other spoken word poets to keep striving in what they do. “If I can do it, they can do it too.”

For fellow Poetry Café KL poet, Illya Sumanto, being involved with spoken word is not all about performing and doing shows, it is also about expanding the scene by encouraging more and more people to join, mainly through education.

“Poetry writing gives a platform for students to connect with themselves and to clearly see their joy, fears and hopes that they experience in their lives,” says Illya, who won first runner-up in the recent UCSI Poetry Slam.

Illya landed herself in the spoken word scene in 2009 after winning a poetry slam by performing a Malay pantun. According to her, there has never been a segregation of languages in the scene, but she could sense a slight resistance for the Malay poets to become more actively involved and join their shows, possibly due to the language barrier. Regardless of that, spoken word shows in Malay such as the ones organised by Projek Rabak can easily have up to 2000 attendees.

Illya Sumanto during her feature performance at Gaslight Cafe. Photo by Dhabitah Zainal
Illya Sumanto during her feature performance at Gaslight Cafe. Photo by Dhabitah Zainal

When it comes to their favourite, most memorable shows, both Illya and Melizarani agreed that it would be Tongue Tied – a spoken word cabaret infused with a circus theme that they had performed during Urbanscapes. Not only did the poets play a certain role for the shows, their performances were also accompanied by mimes, music and dance. “Imagine a live show of freaks hosted by a fortune teller and all performances were accompanied by guitar, double bass, tabla and harmonium,” said Illya. “I still get goosebumps whenever I think about it.”

As for me, I still get goosebumps every time I attend If Walls Could Talk, even when I hear poetry performances which I have heard before. It surely takes a lot of courage to craft an art and take it to the stage, especially in a room full of poetry enthusiasts, leaving their work to be scrutinised and judged. But once the finger snaps come in and the applause greet them at the end of their performances, their faces light up with joy as they leave the stage, knowing that they have been accepted and heard. Perhaps that is what they need, after all.

My five-minute slot that Thursday night at Gaslight came to an end far sooner than I had expected. The sense of liberation I felt from telling my stories and sharing my work made me yearn to come back and perform again. And I will, I definitely will.

Click here to listen to Melizarani’s performance of her poem “Shoes” at Gaslight Cafe:

Taboo and They Call Us Loud are available in Kinokuniya and all MPH outlets. Alternatively, you can send an email to [email protected] to place your order. Taboo will also be sold at every “If Walls Could Talk” show at Gaslight Cafe, Bukit Damansara.  

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