Two Saturdays ago the 2017 CausewayEXchange Festival concluded; a quiet success. Founded in 2010 with the intent of providing an annual festival for artistic and cultural exchange between Singapore and Malaysia, CausewayEXchange (CEX) is held in Singapore and Malaysia in alternating years. This year Ipoh provided quaint, rustic charm to the festival as a welcoming and generous host.
The festival’s 2017 programme covered literature, film, culture and theatre. Notable content included a public forum discussing Malaysian and Singaporean Englishes in both countries’ poetry, a screening of the finalists for the 2016 Singaporean Heritage short film competition and even mural sessions around Ipoh with an upcoming Singaporean street artist.
An interesting literature content of the festival was the CEX Slam 2017, a poetry slam pitting 5 Singaporean poets against 5 Malaysian poets. A poetry slam is a public poetry competition that was borne out of late eighties America. Leveraging on the performative and gamification, the slam connected with the youth of the generation and reenergized poetry in America, encouraging new writing. Democratizing poetry, it caught on around the world around the early to mid noughties, providing stages to many new, inspiring writers and writings.
The CEX Slam is just one of the many spinoffs of the original poetry slam that we can find across the globe nowadays. Minor differences in format aside (borne out of necessity), the CEX Slam celebrates poetry as much the very first slams that came out of Chicago’s downtown in ’86.
“The point is not the points; the point is poetry.”
Slams recite the above mantra almost religiously. As a refrain, it (re)calibrates the audiences’ expectations. As a statement, it (re)asserts the event’s purpose. As a reminder, it anchors the poets’ craft. The host, Jamal Raslan – a seasoned spoken word poet and a veteran of the contemporary English poetry scene in KL – stresses this to the audience at a few choice moments throughout the slam.
“The slam – the judges, the scores, the competition – isn’t the end game. The biggest poems win slams, but not because they are trying to win the crowd; it’s because they are real stories. They are personal; they mean something to the poets. That’s why these poems are big. And since they are so, everyone at the slam – judges, audience – (will) feel the same. The element of competition just adds a complexion to the occassion. It brings out more from the poets, giving their poetry a bit more focus and purpose.” he elaborates after a(nother) big performance.
It’s hard to not get buoyed by the intensity present in a slam. Especially when rivalry is pronounced. In these cases, the poetry take on a sharper focus – that desire to be louder and bigger than your rival(s) can sometimes result in poetical sensationalism and theatrics that impresses more than it engages. Malaysia going up against Singapore provided a ready and healthy narrative, and also stage.
However, that wasn’t the case in CEX Slam 2017. A large majority of the poems didn’t focus on any Singaporean-Malaysian bilateral issues or concerns. There were no comparisons of the Singaporean-Malaysian experiences. There were no national rivalry apparent in the poems. Instead, they focused on a lot of personal experiences, with identity featuring in a lot of poems. These identity poems come from various angles such as gender, racial and social roles. A lot of them contained sharp and sensitive social commentary as subtext. The winning poem from the solo rounds talked about gender identity using religion as the context, while the poem that won the group round spoke about national identity via the anachronistic expression “Here be dragons.” that are found in the earliest of maps.
“As someone who has never attended any slams before, I really really liked it. I was impressed by all of them and how different each of them were. Emily was my favourite, probably because I can relate to her pieces.” shares Ili Aqilah, an audience member who happened to be covering the event for local community newspaper Ipoh Echo. Emily was one of the youngest poets slamming, at 17 years of age. She went all the way to the final solo round, placing third. Her three poems talked about her being a woman of colour and a woman of weight, her commenting on how women have been prepared to be married off since a young age and about how she leaves Post-It notes on her mind to help her get through the days.
“For a newbie (in poetry slam), it was eye-opening for me – not just how talented the poets were but also a chance to see how poets recite (and perform) because intonation etc play such an important role.” Ili adds.
The theatrics in the performative may be the most eye-catching element in poetry slams, but those who are familiar with it have learned the mistake of reducing poetry slams (and spoken word performances) to mere performing spectacles.
The 2017 CEX Slam is the return leg of the CEX Slam. It made its first bow in the 2016 CEX Festival in Singapore, with Malaysia returning home with all the spoils – solo winner, group winner and overall winner. This year, it was Malaysia’s turn to host. Singapore arrived with a young but resolute team and Malaysia had prepared a similarly young team. Outside a poet in the late-twenties/early thirties, the average age of the remaining 9 competing poets was in the early twenties.
There were 3 solo rounds – all 10 poets slamming in the Round 1 before the poets with the 7 highest scores progressing to Round 2, culminating in a 4-poet Final Round. In between the (solo) Round 2 and Final Round, the Group round takes place with each country performing an ensemble piece that consists of at least 4 of the total 5 poets from each country.
The above means that the slam saw a total of 23 poems performed across all rounds. The whole event lasted 2.5 hours and almost everyone stayed on till the end. As the latter rounds approached, most have forgotten it was a Singapore-Malaysia battle. Apart from a brief group round where the Malaysian team performed a memorable ensemble piece written as a love letter to Malaysia discussing the Rukunegara and the Singapore team returning the compliment with a piece wondering about their diluting national identity using the refrain of an old Malay folk song, the slam was devoid of any intense tussle for bragging rights between the countries.
A few poets had their families travelling all the way from other states to cheer, while many poets had their friends coming down to Ipoh in support for a fulfilling weekend excursion. At the end of the slam, when the scores for the winning poet Dhinesha Karthigesu had been read out as a perfect score, every other poet stood up to give him a standing ovation. The quiet charm of 22 Hale Street transcended into a deafeningly loving applause for a brilliantly written poem that was delivered with courage and justice.
In that moment, the points were forgotten; they were never the point anyway. It was, and had always been, the poetry.