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Poet X: A platform for progress

Poet X is a poetry podcast where poets can digitally publish their works in anonymity. They are the latest entry into the burgeoning spoken word scene in KL, providing a platform to help new young poets get their work out to the public minus the fear of stage fright and literary criticism.

They are tight-knit outfit made up of spoken word poet Azam Rais (director), audio engineer Safwan Siddiq (producer) and graphic designer Farah Hanis (designer).

“Poet X is basically scouting-invite-record-release. Hanis and I go around attending as many gigs as we possibly can, and from there we scout for poets. Whenever we can, we make announcements at the gigs to inform that we’re present so that even those who didn’t perform can approach us and talk about recording. Then they come for the recording session(s), we do a little bit of production before we finally publish it.” Azam summarizes.

Azam and Hanis diligently attends poetry events and open mic gigs around Klang Valley to look for poets. They mainly focus on new writers – young and/or starting (to write). They are the ones that resonate most with Poet X. Majority of these poets range from teenagers to young adults, between 17 to 23 years old. A lot of them are still studying.

MILESTONE - Ruminate, Poet X's first ever live event back in February.
MILESTONE – Ruminate, Poet X’s first ever live event back in February.

Poet X just recently wrapped up their first season, capped by their first ever show Ruminate at Pampas, Old Malaya back in February. For the first season alone, they’ve recorded over 30 different poets and around 80 poems in total. They’ve already started recording for their second season.

“We’re pretty flexible with the seasons and episodes. What we normally do is just let the poets do their thing, and record. It’s their space so we let them decide. Some poets return for follow-up recording sessions while some others record 4 to 5 poems in one go. From there we take a look at our recordings and start to curate episodes based on the poems that we have. For now that seems to be the best way to run our podcasts.”

Despite barely through their first year, Poet X have been a quiet but qualified success.

“Podcasts itself is fairly new, and novel, in this country. So it will take a bit of time. For the time being, we’re happy to be one of the platforms for poets to get out there – find the courage to come out of the closet and start sharing their works. The amount of talent that we’ve seen gives us a lot of motivation and faith.”

This might have something to do with their branding – Poet X.

Poet X is about the security of anonymity. Poetry is sacrosanct. It’s a safe space for many that has become contested by the very people that celebrate it – academia for its literary value, critics for its artistic ideals, artists for its expressive medium and the people for its poetic experience. This takes a huge toll on poets to meet expectations, especially those who are not formally trained in literature and see poetry primarily as a medium of expression. Getting published on print is a financial challenge and an editorial hurdle, and performing live demands an admirable amount of courage.

Poet X circumvents these hurdles, without forcing the poets to compromise their craft. They don’t even have to pay for it; Poet X records them for free and makes it free for the public too. Poet X detaches the poets from public judgement and stigma, while serving as an entry point and bridge to writing and performing. The anonymity is a safe space.

“If they feel brave, they say their names before reading their poems. Otherwise, they can say Poet X instead and then proceed to record.” Azam reaffirms as Hanis nods on intently.

ANONYMOUS - A Poet X recording session.
ANONYMOUS – A Poet X recording session.

So how did Poet X start?

“It came from necessity.” Azam starts. “After I’ve done poetry for a little bit in KL someone came up to me and asked where he can get my body of work. I realized that I had no way of showing him my poems.” Azam couldn’t get the incident out of his mind. He met up with former college roommate Safwan – who had been working in video production at Edunation for some time – and talked about affordable alternative methods of publishing poetry in KL before Safwan suggested doing a podcast.

“Actually I had been wanting to work with Azam for some time, but there didn’t seem to be a right opportunity. I knew he was performing poetry but I haven’t seen him. I don’t know much about poetry readings or spoken word, and I had no way of checking him out online. When he came to me, I thought a podcast might be an interesting idea. So I told him. It’s still fairly new in Malaysia so there isn’t much competition and pressure. It can also double as an archive for poetry.” Safwan explains. So what did Azam say to that? “Oh he loved it.” Safwan exclaims with a huge grin.

“The thing about podcasts is that it is deceptively convenient; you can listen to it at any time. It’s like an on-demand radio programme plus album. As long as you have something to talk about, it can be a podcast.” Safwan enthuses. His passion is evident. “I love podcasts. If poetry is Azam’s thing then podcasts is mine. I’ve done many other podcasts before and now I’ve added poetry into that list. Teh Halia came about around 6 months before Poet X and I was already doing stuff with them here and there. Then Azam came. The timing was just right.”

So what does he think about Poet X? “Doing Poet X has opened my eyes, and changed my perception on poetry. Before this I thought poetry was one of those impressive artsy things that people do. Now I think it’s a really cool important thing to do. We have so much talent.”

PROCESS - Azam recording commentaries for an episode.
PROCESS – Azam recording commentaries for an episode.

Recordings are essential for spoken word. When the poetry is meant for the stage, publication and documentation extends beyond the conventional print and the traditional page. It becomes a production. This production is how the form of the craft is maintained and immortalized. Previously any kind of recordings, even basic audio ones, are costly endeavors – there is a need for a studio or expensive gears and settings to capture studio quality live sounds. With the advent of technology, internet and social media, recording has reduced into a question of how.

Poetry, which have always been about people, are being democratized further.

This, however, have not come without its challenges. Poet X’s position and credibility have been questioned by some – how do they choose (the poets and the poems)? Who are they to choose?

“If we had our way we would choose each and every poet out there; we are already recording every poem that every poet we get decides to read. But we can’t do that yet. We’re just starting out, and we have to establish ourselves first. We have to meet the poets halfway. At the end of the day, it’s all about the them.” Azam answers.

“We’re not here to tell you what poetry is, or should be. We’re just here to say there is poetry. And record it. All this is just a snapshot of Malaysian poetry.”

Efforts to democratize poetry, like the Poet X podcast, is not something new. In 1986 Marc Kelly Smith founded the poetry slam movement in Chicago. He noticed that that no one was actually listening at poetry reading events and the establishment poets were snooty and effete so he came up with the poetry slam to engage the people, especially the youth, more. In 1992 he said, “The very word ‘poetry’ repels people. Why is that? Because of what schools have done to it. The slam gives it back to the people…. We need people to talk poetry to each other.”

When I asked them to give one word to describe Poet X, they gave me the words ‘progress’ and ‘platform’. Fitting words. Poetry requires a huge amount of self-awareness, and Poet X – along with other ongoing efforts such as Poetry Cafe KL, If Walls Could Talk and Jack It to make spoken word relevant in Malaysia – goes a long way to remind us it’s about time we start doing more than just read, or write.

We need to listen.

Poet X will be collaborating with Asterik Anak Seni to help ALSA IIUM organize a fundraiser called ‘Tales of the Untold 2.0’ on Saturday, 5th August. This is a fundraiser for the cause of protecting children from sexual abuse. It consists of a workshop called ‘Pass The Word’ and a showcase called ‘Tales of the Untold’. Both will be held at the Twenty20 Two cafe in PJ. Click the hyperlinks for more details.

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