I’m an established spoken word poet in KL. I’ve been going around performing at local and international events for 4 years now. Spoken word is basically poetry that’s written mainly for the stage and not necessarily the page - poetry written with the intention of being read out and performed to an audience.
The most profound thing about spoken word that I’ve learned and come to value is experiencing a poem live – watching it or performing it. You have only 3-4 minutes to get your message across and since your audience is always a mix of different backgrounds, cultures and even social statuses, your poem needs to be specific enough yet general enough for it to be understood and appreciated.
You can’t request the poet to repeat a poem neither can you stop a performance to reflect on a line you’ve just heard. It is one continuous experience that is intense, visceral and extremely stimulating, especially when an experienced adult performer does it.
When a child does it though, it’s inspiring and humbling at the same time. I’m often caught between quitting entirely and getting a writing rush after watching a child perform well.
In my 4 years, I’ve mainly met adult poets. In March 2014 I’ve had the opportunity to teach children – from as young as 8 to as sweet as 16. This opened my eyes to youth writing and teaching youth writing.
I was assigned to a senior group – 13 to 16 year old Girl Guides who were going for their public speaking badges. I had 3 other fellow teachers, two of which were posted to the junior groups which had Girl Guides aged 8-12.
This was a milestone for me as a spoken word poet as the children responded positively to a well thought-out syllabus that got them feeling comfortable to talk and share about things around them, acquainted with basic creative writing, learning the basic poetic devices and then working at performing their poems individually and in groups. Something a self-taught poet like me wished for and never experienced.
It left me humbled and inspired to do more teaching, specifically children. I’ve also adjusted my own approach and mindset towards writing. Since then I’ve taught spoken word poetry in English at an international school and a public vernacular school.
Kids make the best teachers
In my teaching experiences, I’ve come across some kids that have taught me profound lessons about writing, spoken word, education and even life.
When I taught the Girl Guides, my group had a 14/15 year old who – at a glance - was as timid as a mouse. She spoke with a really soft voice that even a couple of repeats might not be enough for you to make out what she had just said. On top of that, she was introverted, which made her seemed aloof. She had a 10-year old younger sister called Natrah who also signed up for the workshop.
Natrah was a carbon copy of her elder sister. She even reads everything her sister reads. During the poetry slam held at the end of the workshop, I saw Natrah took to the stage as one of the junior slammers. What followed made me give her a standing ovation.
I saw someone - seemingly introverted, timid and soft-spoken – battling her stage fright in an admirably inspiring fashion. Natrah – who was shorter than the mic stand – looked up to the mic and spoke as loud as any other slammer before her. Not just that, she performed her own poem that she wrote about herself while clearly fighting the stage fright. She paused for a few seconds many times, looking away from the mic to take deep breaths, composed herself and remembered her lines, before going back to the mic defiantly and eventually finishing her poem to a rapturous audience. She came third.
Insecurity is so often talked in adult terms but many forget it is a natural human psychological state that anyone who is mature enough can experience. Seeing the young Natrah going up against her fear in such a way made me realize that spoken word is able to give a child a conducive platform to address her fears effectively. Now she easily holds conversations with me regarding the young adult books that she reads.
Another kid I had the privilege of teaching is Leong, who is a 14/15-year old student in a public vernacular school who was immediately attentive, receptive and responsive to the casual onlooker. He spoke limited English, which was a common trait in many students coming from his education background. Despite that, he was the first student in the class to warm up to me. In the many group activities we did, he was a proactive and self-aware boy who always knew what was going on, but couldn’t reciprocate due to his weak English.
In one of the group activities called “What Bugs Me” where the kids progressively learn about stereotypes and learning to share their own stories, Leong was a bit subdued despite looking eager. Often he asked a question that many kids couldn’t relate to and struggled to change his questions. In the following exercise where the kids were told to write a poem titled “What Bugs Me”, I saw Leong – in broken English – tried his best to share things that bugged him, implying hidden issues regarding bullying at schools and some hints of domestic issues.
Then in another poetry exercise they were given a list of questions for them to answer and use their answers to write a poem called “All About Me”. When it was Leong’s turn to share, what the volunteers and I saw was pure, honest writing – unedited and unadulterated, fearful but not fearless. He shared how he wished that he would stop getting hit by his friends, how he wished to get a new PC and how he wished his father wouldn’t come home angry every day.
How poetry heals
Our society is often accused of acting too late to social issues and while our attitude is arguably the main contributing factor, our lack of proper discourse and closure plus the lack of a conducive, reassuring and responsive platform for all walks of society is a key factor for the general apathy and attitude towards social issues.
What happened to Leong was refreshing and eye-opening, where you see truth and hope coming out when given the proper safe space. I see many adults with insecurities fail to deal with them effectively, resorting to escapisms. Leong was a great example of how spoken word poetry can make inroads in dealing with social issues at a young stage.
When I started spoken word, I always believed that it was about relevance, resonance and representation - being able to speak up and speak out for yourself and others, bridging cultural gaps in societies and communities. While I felt liberated and gratified after writing and performing a good piece, I never understood why many people thanked me for inspiring them or making them realize some things.
After teaching spoken word to children, I’m starting to see a bit of what they meant, and I am grateful for that. Seeing young kids writing and performing freely and earnestly, and coming up with beautiful lines, stories and lessons is just so invigorating as much as it is grounding.
A great example of how spoken word represents a community very well is the “Louder Than A Bomb” poetry slam, an annual slam that is held in Chicago for everyone in grade school. It is currently the biggest poetry slam of its type in the world and I hope that one day Malaysia will have something similar.
I strongly believe that spoken word has a place in empowering society to deal with its issues and itself, and the fact that it is a hybrid of the written and the performed word makes it a unique and essential tool in helping children learn about respect, courage and honesty, and later on integrate themselves well into society.
Jamal Raslan is an established spoken word poet in KL. Since winning his first poetry slam in 2010, he's been performing regularly in local events. He is a crew member of the student formed poetry collective Poet's Passport, the founder for the Usman Awang writing collective Atmajiwa and is a part of Poetry Cafe KL. He appeared at Impact Forum 2012 as a guest performer and most recently represented Malaysia as a MOCAfest artist at the World Islamic Economic Forum (WIEF) in London.
He also teaches poetry to school kids, mainly 12-16 year olds. He's currently teaching English via poetry to students in a vernacular public school in KL as part of a CSR campaign.