Poetry Slam is making more people sit up and listen.
Started by an American Marc Smith in Get Me High Lounge of Chicago in 1984, slam poetry is a rather unconventional form of poetry. Unlike poetry’s more conventional forms, slam poetry’s focus lies in the performance aspect and a communication between the poet and the audience that is direct and spontaneous. When people ask me about slam poetry, I recite them Bhoopi Sherchan. Imagine Bhoopi under the Peepal Bot in Naya Sadak or a bhatti in Indrachok sipping his local tharra and reciting seamless poetry – poking fun at our national imagination and the flaws therein. To me Bhoopi personifies, quite brilliantly, what poetry slam could – and probably should – mean to Nepal. Singling out Bhoopi alone however would be a great injustice to numerous other poets, some identified, other unknown, who have produced remarkable poetry out of the gutter – be it in the streets during popular political protests or in the village forests where spontaneous dohori often leads to romantic shenanigans and in some cases even marriages.
The US Embassy last December brought three renowned slam poets, Danny Solis, Karen Finnyfrock, and Matt Mason as part of their “Cultural Envoys Program” to Nepal. The Embassy collaborated with Quixote’s Cove Bookshop in Jawalakhel to organize poetry reading, writing, and teaching workshops for students, teachers, librarians and the general public in Kathmandu, Biratnagar and Itahari. As a build up to this, Quixote’s Cove organized Nepal’s first ever slam poetry reading in India-Nepal Library as part of the latter’s monthly Tavern Tales Series where the members of the bilingual independent Hip-Hop group Lyrics Indy (Yanik Shrestha, Aidray, and Gaurav Subba) performed with another poet Aditi Shrestha and I. There was much excitement within the poets and a euphoric audience. By the end of the next two weeks these poets formed “Word Warriors: A Slam Poetry Group” along with few of the standout young poets who won Nepal’s first under-21 poetry slam contest, marking yet another historic milestone in Kathmandu’s vibrant and emerging creative scene. The Word Warriors have since performed in various venues in the capital – from casual pubs and bars to musical concerts, book launches, educational institutions, and commemorative performances to an ever increasing and passionate audience.
It is remarkable yet unsurprising that something like poetry slam would make such a strong ground in Kathmandu in less than a year. This says much about the city’s recent struggle to cope with both, the grave socio-political turmoil of recent decades and an incredible wave of prosperity and material expansion in more recent years. While the national polity continues to remain in a state of eternal flux, a middle-class culture, albeit belatedly, is looking to explore and capitalize avenues beyond mainstream politics. Like some other forms of art, literature and music, poetry slam’s sudden popularity therefore probably comes amid, and because of, the failure of national politics.
This is best reflected in the poems that the members of the Word Warriors have been performing around town. The most telling aspects of these performances have been the powerful socio-political commentary and the insightful perspectives on different fabrics of an ailing nation. The themes in their poems vary from alcoholism and patriarchy to caste hierarchy and the rural-urban divide, and from the torment of war and violence to the aesthetics of geography and the rustic charm. Some resent our broken and incomplete teaching system, while others dwell in the nostalgia of when things were better. Along with anger and frustration, rebellion and sarcasm, melancholy and nostalgia, there is also an incredible message of hope and longing for a better future.
A spoken word can sometime be more effective than an angry brick. Herein lies slam poetry’s biggest potential for Nepal.