The ‘Pakistan Poetry Slam’ is an initiative that was launched recently by Zainab Syed and Zohab Khan at ‘The Last Word’ bookshop in Lahore. Their first event as a team was both soulful and bombastic, moving their audience to laughter, surprise and contemplation. The two young poets aim to spread slam poetry across schools in Pakistan, encouraging their participants to use the medium of verse as a means of self-knowledge and as a tool to understand the joy and terror of the world they live in today.
Ahead of the launch, The Missing Slate’s Afshan Shafi spoke to both poets, discussing their influences (both spoken word and within a larger literary context), the advantages of the spoken word form, and their long-term vision for the Pakistan Poetry Slam project.
Zainab Syed graduated from Brown University in May 2014 with a degree in Political Science. She is an internationally-touring Spoken Word Artist and Educator, and was a finalist in the Australian National Poetry Slam. Zainab has performed and taught workshops at venues in the US as well as in the UK, Europe, South Asia and Australia. Her poetry focuses on the Middle East and South Asia, with attention paid to issues of inequality, violence and cultural disparity. Zainab was working in Peshawar, with the Ministry of Change, to coordinate the Trauma Counseling, Training, Art Therapy and Media Awareness efforts in the aftermath of the December 2014 Army Public School Shooting. Zainab currently lives between Lahore (Pakistan) and Perth (Australia) and has known home in many other places including Providence, Sana’a, London, Llantwit Major, Bucharest, and Islamabad.
How were you introduced to spoken word poetry? Did you have any mentorship, or was the support of the performing community an invaluable aid in your development?
I have been writing for as long as I can remember. My father jokes about my habit of carrying a notebook and pen with me everywhere as a child. It started as a way to make sure I never forgot the places I traveled to as a kid. At my boarding school in Wales I found fellow lovers of poetry and we used to head down to the ocean at midnight once a month to read out the words of famous poets — never our own. When I got to Brown, my first month there I saw a few poets “perform” poetry, which was new to me but had me completely enthralled. It seemed as though my love of poetry and years of theatre suddenly got married and had a baby. I looked up the group, attended the first meeting, was thoroughly intimidated by the likes of Phil Kaye, Jamila Woods, Laura Brown Lavoie, Franny Choi, Kai Huang, Christopher Johnson, Amina Sheikh, Fatimah Asghar, who were all a part of that space, and never looked back. WORD!, as it was called, became my home, and the poets of colour there became my family. If it weren’t for those weekly meetings in the basement of the Africana Studies Department every Thursday, I would not be here. My words would definitely have never found a stage. I grew there as a writer, a performer, a thinker and a human being. What that space, and those poets, gave me is invaluable and shaped me profoundly.
Do you think any poem, whether written for the page or otherwise, has the potential to be shaped into a vehicle for performance, or do you think there has to be immediacy to the context of poetry for the stage?
I think the vital part of any performance is sincerity and honesty. I am a storyteller, which means sometimes my words come out in prose, other times in poetry. The form has never hindered me in sharing a piece of writing on stage. I was always taught that words have immense weight, and therefore, as writers, we have a responsibility to use them correctly, and wisely. A piece of writing must sit just as well on a page as it does on a stage. For me, the performance always comes after the words have been crafted. However it does not mean every poem needs to be performed, or published — rather, you yourself will know which form allows you to be completely true to your work.
What spoken word poets do you admire for their work? Do you think the nature of this form allows its practitioners to also access the worlds of songwriting, theater, acting…?
Here, my bias comes into play. My favourite spoken word poet of all time is Laura Brown Lavoie. She was a senior when I was a freshman at Brown and I have never met someone who knows how to shape the English language the way she does. For me, humility on stage is also very important. Anis Mojgani is someone who does that beautifully. He is raw, intelligent, funny and refreshingly honest. His poems speak to everyone, but his presence within them, is most admirable to me. Again, I have great love and respect for poets who were mentors to me from my time in WORD!, and others such as Sarah Kay, Ahmad Al Rady, Soreti Kader, Dylan Garrity, Paul Tran, Safia Elhilo, Jess Chen, Kai Huang, Ke’ala Morell, Aziza Barnes to name a few.
I have always believed poetry to be storytelling, and everyone has a story to tell. Not everyone can excel at it because, on some level, poetry depends on inspiration and requires commitment and hard work to refine — but not everyone has to share their story through the written word. Stories lend themselves very easily to other art forms.
You’ve performed your work at an incredible amount of International venues and you also possess a trans-cultural identity as a Pakistani who’s a resident/citizen of differing cultures. How does this figure in your writing? How does this propel your creativity and your sensitivity to issues faced by ordinary Pakistanis?
What writers/poets within a larger literary context do you find yourself reading time and time again? Whose work has had an undeniable impact on your own? Whose work would you suggest to emerging poets?
Emerson, Shakespeare, Hopkins, Yeats, Sylvia Plath, Eliot, Robert Snyderman, Rick Benjamin and others from our own tradition — Rumi, Iqbal, Ghalib, Attar and Parveen Shakir — who have left us with beautiful gems that I am only just beginning to unearth.
You’ve conducted art therapy and writing workshops in the aftermath of the Peshawar tragedy. How was your experience and how do you think the creative instinct can help to heal trauma?
I used to work in prisons in the US as part of the Spaces in Prisons for Arts and Creative Expression (SPACE), teaching writing workshops, which was one of the greatest learning experiences I ever had. The women there taught me more than I could ever teach them. So in the aftermath of the Peshawar shooting, after teaching art therapy and writing workshops in a few schools, I realised there was an enormous need for safe and creative spaces for children to engage with the violence around them in a non-violent and constructive manner. The APS shooting affected every student in Pakistan but no one has paid enough attention to the long-term effects of such immense trauma. I fear the insecurity may cripple us if we do not create safe spaces that channel the negativity into positive expression. Creative spaces give breathing room. They tend to diffuse the negativity, and provide an alternative to violence. Today, in my opinion, it is an absolute necessity to create such spaces. My experiences in Peshawar and then in other cities in Pakistan were the catalyst for Pakistan Poetry Slam, a project under WORD Ink, a social enterprise I am lucky enough to have founded with Zohab Khan.
What are your future aims for your own poetry? Also, please tell us about your vision for Pakistan Poetry Slam and what you hope to accomplish in the long term…
To be honest, I consider myself a student of poetry but I was once told that the best way to learn is to teach. Pakistan Poetry Slam is one of the ways in which I hope that teaching will actually be a form of learning for me. The motivation for Pakistan Poetry Slam was solely to create a safe space for the next generation of Pakistanis to articulate, express and respond to the violence around them in a non-violent manner. The aim is to empower young people with language and revive the tradition of storytelling and poetry that runs through us. We (Zohab and I) wanted to bring our own international experience to Pakistan and share it with young people here. While slam is the competitive form of spoken word poetry, the program is designed to ensure that students participate in 3-4 weeks of workshops that take them from writing to performance, and the top three students from each school (private and public) showcase their work at Pakistan Poetry Slam at the end of February. The slam will feature poetry in Urdu and English as a platform for both communities to interact and learn from each other, and eventually find solutions together. We are launching the pilot in Lahore, and hope to scale up to other urban centres next year.
Recently one of my teachers shared a story from the Masnavi with me, in which Rumi points out that the world is in need of translators. People who can bridge communities, cultures, races in an attempt to celebrate our diversity of thought and expression. I hope that with the right kind of guidance and mentorship, that Pakistan Poetry Slam can create the next generation of translators who will help us navigate, and change course.
Zohab Khan is an educator, spoken word poet, motivational speaker, didgeridoo player, harmonica beat-boxer and hip-hop artist. Since 2006, Zohab has been building a career in spoken word poetry, culminating in taking the title of Australian Poetry Slam Champion in 2014. Zohab has performed on stages across Western Europe, China, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Middle East. As an educator, Zohab runs workshops across schools in Australia and New Zealand, aiming to promote esteem and self-worth in young minds through the medium of spoken word poetry. In 2014, Zohab was a finalist in the International Poetry Slam in Madrid. In 2015, his first collection of poetry, ‘I Write’, sold 1000 copies within 5 months of its launch.
Do you think the spoken word format lends itself more easily to concerns of a more visceral nature such as issues of global violence, war, civil strife? Do you think there is potential for the form to encompass a variety of themes?
I think spoken word is dynamic. I find it to be a great means of shedding light on issues that I believe to be important. Poetry has always been an effective means of creating change and spoken word is no different. I personally use my art form to talk about issues such as war, socioeconomic disparities, racism and gender inequality, but I don’t think that spoken word poetry should exclusively be about social justice issues. Just like any art form it should reflect what is important to the artist, and if you want to write a poem about the brilliance of ice cream and sprinkles I think that’s awesome!
What do you think it takes to be an outstanding performance poet? Do you think that the physicality of the form entails a particular brand of courage?
Honesty. I believe that art is about honesty; it is about being raw, real and allowing the audience to see parts of you and themselves infused in your performance. I am a very physical performer and involve my whole body in my performance. That’s just my style. It’s how I feel comfortable. I tend not to rehearse my actions and let myself become the poem. To be a good performance poet, I think you have to believe what you’re saying. The audience will smell a disingenuous poet a mile away. I think being on stage is a responsibility; you have the responsibility to enrich people’s lives in whatever way possible. Being on stage is not about you the performer. It is not about self-indulgence, it is about your audience, it is about the human condition, it is about how we as people interact with one another. To be a good performance poet I think one needs to break down one’s ego and recreate it in a positive and constructive manner.
What can you tell us about how audience interaction figures in your performance? What are your most positive and negative experiences in this regard?
I had a few negative interactions in my early days as a performer, which I’m really grateful for. If it wasn’t for those early “haters” I may not have worked as hard as I have to get myself to where I am now.
Can you elaborate on your unique style of slam involving elements of hip-hop and rap? Which other artist have you learned from in honing your particular style? Do you think this synthesis of forms is particularly rewarding in terms of how you are challenged as a writer?
As a writer I always try to challenge myself and implement different styles and techniques into my work. I am a huge hip hop fan and that comes out in my writing. Rap music has played a role in my life for as long as I can remember: there is something about the manner in which a hip hop MC can play with words that always resonated with me. This in conjunction with my love of old Urdu Ghazals and classical English poetry makes for an interesting mix.
The American poet Amir Sulaiman was a big influence in my earlier work and really ignited my passion for spoken word poetry, but my writing is influenced by various people. Nowadays my favourite writers would be people like Shane Koyczan, Immortal Technique, Iqbal, Mos Def, Sylvia Plath, Robert Frost, Mohsin Hamid, Ted Hughes, Rumi, Bulleh Shah, Hafiz and Faiz Ahmad Faiz, to name just a few.
I love spoken word poetry because of its dynamic nature and how it allows you to constantly change your style. I love trying new things in my writing book.
You’ve been a highly successful motivational speaker for years. How has this benefited you as an individual? Are there any moments that you particularly cherish?
My favourite motivational workshops are the ones that I run in schools around Australia and New Zealand. There is something very rewarding about giving new a new skill set to young people to gear them towards success.
At the end of last year, I was running a one day program in a school in a remote regional area of Australia. This town had limited resources and the youth had various issues with drugs, alcohol and crime.
I ran through my program and could tell that the kids all felt genuinely enriched by the end of the day. As I was making my way out the door I was approached by a girl who had an awkward smile on her face. She looked at me and said “Thank you, I really needed to hear that. I was planning on killing myself this weekend.” I stood there blankly not knowing what to say, eventually I smiled and we spent the next few minutes talking about the importance of writing and expressing yourself.
I eventually said goodbye to her and the school and headed back to my car. When I got into my car I unashamedly admit that I couldn’t help but sob, not out of sadness but rather for the opportunity that I have been given to be able to have an effect on people’s lives.
I’ve continued to mentor that girl, and she is taking positive steps to improve her life.
What kind of young talent do you hope to find as part of the Pakistan Poetry Slam? What have you learnt from your own experiences, particularly winning the Australian Poetry Slam in 2014?
I’m really not sure how to answer that question: there’s not just one type of talent that I hope to find. The Pakistan Poetry Slam is about providing the platform to showcase the talents which hide in this great nation. In conjunction with workshops, I want to give young people the tools to better articulate themselves and share the stories that live inside them. Endless potential lives in Pakistan and I’m really excited about facilitating that potential.
Winning the Australian Poetry Slam changed my life, there is something really rewarding about achieving something that you’ve chased after for years. Lots of life lessons become evident. Winning the Slam has allowed me to travel the world with my poetry and share my stories, it truly has been a great blessing. This is something that I want to bring to Pakistan as well, we want to make poetry cool again in Pakistan. I think Poetry Slam is a great step towards making writing poetry a viable career option for young Pakistanis.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this interview appeared in Pakistan Today under the headline ‘New Energy’.