Power of the spoken word

Lit Up Singapore 2014 in September featured Sekaliwags, performing at their spoken word show, Xpowerment!, and Victoria Lim (above) pairing performance poetry with music at the Symphonic Slam. -- PHOTO: LEE YEW MOON
Lit Up Singapore 2014 in September featured Sekaliwags, performing at their spoken word show, Xpowerment!, and Victoria Lim (above) pairing performance poetry with music at the Symphonic Slam. -- PHOTO: LEE YEW MOON
Lit Up Singapore 2014 in September featured Sekaliwags (above), performing at their spoken word show, Xpowerment!, and Victoria Lim pairing performance poetry with music at the Symphonic Slam. -- PHOTO: MARC NAIR
Lit Up Singapore 2014 in September featured Sekaliwags (above), performing at their spoken word show, Xpowerment!, and Victoria Lim pairing performance poetry with music at the Symphonic Slam. -- PHOTO: MARC NAIR

Poetry performance events are flourishing, with five to eight events each month

The first time social media manager Squid Wan attended Speak, a monthly spoken word event at lifestyle venue Canvas Singapore, she stopped herself from going to the toilet so she would not miss the performances.

The 29-year-old says with a laugh: "The atmosphere was pretty intimate yet friendly. It wasn't pretentious. I didn't expect much but the wonderful experience shamed that thought." Canvas Singapore is located in Upper Circular Road.

Spoken word events focus on the performance of original poetry in a public space. These include solo or group performances, poetry contests or "slams" - where poets try to outdo one another in spoken verse and audience response determines the winner - and storytelling slams.

In the last two years, there has been a proliferation of such events, with five to eight events held regularly each month.

Besides Speak, these include destination: Ink at Blu Jaz cafe in Bali Lane, Story Slam Singapore and Speakeasy, both held at Artistry Cafe in Jalan Pinang, and Telling Stories Live at The Fabulous Baker Boy in River Valley Road. Some events are free, while others have a cover charge of between $4 and $12.

Five to 10 poets usually take the stage, either solo or in groups, to perform for five to 10 minutes each. Some notable spoken word groups include Sekaliwags, a feminist group of four female poets, and an eight-member group, Party Action People.

The poems and stories may sometimes follow a theme. For example, travel is the theme for Story Slam Singapore's next session to be held tomorrow. For slams, audience members may be recruited as judges to score the performances, but the mood is generally convivial.

Spoken word artist Nabilah Husna, 24, who is part of Sekaliwags and runs the event destination: Ink under the collective, spacer.gif, attributes the growing appeal of such events to the dual benefit of allowing poets to share their work publicly, and "audiences to immerse themselves in literature in the comfort of a cosy bar with friends".

She adds: "There is something about writing in a dark bedroom in your pyjamas and then letting it burst out on stage, that people find oddly relatable."

Fellow Sekaliwags member and multiple slam champion Stephanie Chan, 27, who has represented both Singapore and Britain in competitions, co-organises Speak and Story Slam Singapore.

Chan, who went to university in the United Kingdom, says story slams are less intimidating than poetry slams "because everyone has stories".

"We hope to provide a platform for people who would not otherwise consider themselves performers to talk about their lives," says Chan, who goes by the moniker Stephanie Dogfoot.

Such events are attracting audiences. Between 25 and 80 people attend each event, a mix of regular and new faces who are keen to experience something new.

Lasalle College of the Arts student Mo Tan, 28, has attended a few of these events for the past two years, including Story Slam Singapore. He says: "I like the very chill environment and how everyone is trying to enjoy the spoken word. Something about hearing these poems makes it more experiential for me."

The spoken word scene did not emerge overnight. It has roots as varied as the 1920s Harlem Renaissance - an African American cultural movement - blues music and the French poetry tradition, while modern-day slams were originated by Chicago poet Marc Smith.

Monthly poetry slams have been held here by non-profit literary arts company Word Forward since 2003 (except for a hiatus from 2008 to 2010), with Velvet Underground at Zouk being its venue in the early years. Word Forward has also held an annual national poetry slam competition for youths since 2006 and conducts slam workshops for schools.

In the 1960s and 1970s, there were regular poetry readings at the National University of Singapore's old Bukit Timah campus co-organised by Singapore literary pioneer and then-lecturer Edwin Thumboo.

In recent years, these performances are increasingly being programmed into arts festivals such as the recently concluded Singapore Writers Festival and Word Forward-initiative, Lit Up Singapore, held in September. Shows like Xpowerment! by Sekaliwags attracted 250 people at Lit Up this year.

Performance poetry seems to lend itself well to experimentation, for example, being paired with music.

Lit Up's artistic director Marc Nair, 33, says: "What's exciting is the openness of the scene. There are myriad possibilities and a chance to do interdisciplinary work."

Nair is part of a spoken word and music band, Neon And Wonder. It has an online album available for download called Animal City Sounds, based on poems about animals in Singapore. The poems are also available in print in Nair and Vanessa Chan's book Animal City (2014, Wheelbarrow Books).

Poet Pooja Nansi curates the monthly Speakeasy at Artistry and performs solo and in a spoken word and music group, The Mango Dollies.

The artists agree that this is still an alternative art form for now, which can do with more support and recognition as a legitimate performing art form.

But going mainstream is not exactly the point. Nabilah says: "To me, there will always be something about the spoken word that is inherently subversive. The platform is known to give rise to voices that you don't hear in the mainstream."

To that effect, the spoken word art form is a great leveller. A beginner could share the stage with an established poet, with both looking to reach out to the audience with their words.

Says Chan: "Spoken word can give you an instant emotional connection with your audience, even if they are complete strangers, because a single three-minute poem or spoken word piece can communicate so much emotion and so many ideas at once."

nabilahs@sph.com.sg