As part of the Cha Writing Workshop Series, I held a poetry seminar in the common area of the Justice Centre in Jordan, Kowloon on Saturday 25 August 2018 to speak to a group of asylum seekers currently residing in Hong Kong about the progression from traditional English-language poetry towards performance poetry. We showcased a series of artists from the early 20th century to the present era. Afterwards, we held a workshop on how to write and perform performance poems related to participants’ feelings, experiences and observances. The object of our seminar and workshop was to stress poetry’s cultural and emotive significance. In particular, we wanted to emphasise performance poetry’s importance as a vehicle for expression, and its accessibility for everyone to enjoy and learn from.
I conducted a 90-minute seminar with the participants. The first part of our programme was an overview of English-language poetry, which started with basic definitions of poetry and its forms, and a revision of traditional English-language poets from Shakespeare through the Romantics to Sylvia Plath. I then guided students through the roots of modern spoken word from its origins in American blues music, Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance, The Last Poets and New York’s Nuyorican Café. We then explored the contemporary development of poetry slams, current spoken word artists in the United Kingdom, performances by Hong Kong’s own Peel Street Poetry, and individual performances by locally based and international poets such as Daniel Beatty, Kate Tempest, Harry Baker, Blair Reeve, Rama Kulkarni and myself. This was to understand the passion, varied themes, creative use of language and diversity of voices that poets and their works might represent. The participants themselves hailed from countries including the Gambia, Egypt, India and the Philippines, so it was important to portray performance poetry as fluid, diverse and universal.
The purpose of showcasing so many different performances was for the participants to see poets engaging, emoting, gesticulating, and bringing poems to life off the page. Gone was the solemnity and staidness that many associated with formal traditional styles of poetry. The attention and focus of the participants were complete. English was perhaps the second, third or even fourth language of all the participants, but it seemed they hung on every word the poets uttered. It seemed they could relate to Leadbelly’s existential laments, Langston Hughes’ cultural pride, The Last Poets’ righteous anger, and Miguel Pinero’s sense of one’s home in a hard place. They understood Daniel Beatty’s loss of a parent to prison in Knock Knock. They felt Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan’s alienated anguish in This Is Not A Humanising Poem, were amazed by Blair Reeve’s Linguistic Wave Genetics by Dr. Articulator, and its lyrical gymnastics, and deeply felt Rama Kulkarni’s Curvy Girl Era. While some of the themes were difficult to listen to, as they related to issues of racism, oppression, struggle and loss, the passion of the performances were touching to all.
For the workshop section, I first challenged myself to write a poem in five minutes, and then perform the poem for the audience. One participant who had been a journalist chose the theme “democracy”. I wrote as best as I could, and soon came up with a poem that appeared to please the audience. In turn, I challenged the participants to write a poem in 10 minutes, and one of the Justice Centre volunteers contributed the theme of “home”. One interesting development was that one of the participants could read, but not write, but another volunteer was able to help this participant pen some thoughts down for a performance. Poetry began as an oral tradition, and I was glad that we could show that poetry does not lie strictly in the realm of the written word, but as a form of literary expression that transcends structural boundaries.
The participants surprised themselves the most with sublime, moving pieces that spoke of home as comfort, home as family, of longing for home. One new poet spoke of his country, Gambia, as the Smiling Coast of West Africa, in allusion to the Gambia River that shapes his homeland. Another, inspired by Blair Reeve’s experimental performance with repetitive language, explored the tension between an anguished homeland and a new residence where for the moment he was safe but alienated. A third spoke of a home she was still seeking, away from a far-flung family, grief-stricken yet still seeking. This was a very poignant point in our day, since they were all people who had to flee their homes in difficult circumstances, yet were able to express hopes and fears through verse. At the start of our seminar, while I did say that poetry does have art and craft in meter, rhyme, cadence and the use of figures of speech, the most important aspect I wanted to encourage was its importance as a vehicle for expression, especially as an expression of humanity, and our group did this with courage and conviction.
All our participants said they enjoyed their experience learning about and being able to write and enact performance poetry. I enjoyed this session immensely, not only for the participants’ interest, but their bravery in revealing their thoughts and expressions, something that is at best a dangerous privilege in their native countries. We decided to collect the poems, and I will type them and put them together in a small collection which I have tentative entitled Poetry Live from the Justice Centre. I will ask the participants to use pseudonyms to protect their privacy. I thank each and every one of the participants for joining the seminar, and I urge them to keep writing.