This Scene is Lit

04 August 2016

We speak to poets and collectives embracing change and shifting from sajak-sajak Melayu lama to puisi-puisi kontemporari.

Sajak. Puisi. Pantun. Gurindam. Syair. When was the last time we truly dwelled in these forms of art? The Malay language is rich in its literary heritage, and Malay poetry encompasses all of the above. However, besides treasuring the works of established poets, the Malay poetry scene is also all about celebrating new and rising talents who find comfort in expressing themselves through poetry.

Regardless, it is undeniable that the Malay poetry scene was once more unified than it is today. Right now the scene is mainly divided into two: mainstream poetry and the flourishing indie scene. Even though the main difference between the two lies in the methods of which the works are written, published and presented, the segmentation started becoming more apparent in recent years especially with indie/alternative publications on the rise.

The birth and growth of publication houses like Rabak-Lit, Dubook, FIXI, Lejenpress and Sang Freud Press have added variety to the local poetry scene, especially since it used to be mainly dominated by Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP).

DBP was formed in 1956 and it acted as the sole, monolithic publisher for Malay literature, publishing prominent and distinguished names in the industry including A. Samad Said, Baha Zain and Usman Awang. Besides publishing, DBP was also initially responsible for promoting Malay language and literature; they were also involved in the book trade.

On top of that, DBP and Institut Terjemahan Buku Melayu (ITBM) have been collaborating to organise Malam Baca Puisi PENA, a poetry reading that has been taking place every month for the past 18 years.

18 years, and yet, there is almost little to no hype for this ongoing literary event.

According to Fazleena Hishamuddin, a poet who transcends both mainstream and indie poetry scenes, the main problem with the mainstream poetry scene is perhaps their event promotions (or lack thereof). “What I’ve observed is that those who are in charge of the events are mostly people from the older generation. Basically, people who don’t use social media and are not aware of its importance and impact,” she says.

As a result of this, mainstream poetry events are usually frequented by the same audience: those who are directly involved as well as their friends and family. This seems to halt the scene from growing further.

Events and promotions are not the only thing that poetry lovers are concerned about when it comes to the mainstream scene. Many also share the sentiment that not only has DBP not been actively publishing good materials, they have also been less open to accepting contemporary and non-traditional forms of literature. This is amongst the reasons why writers and poets have chosen to either self-publish, or form new independent collectives to discover and publish new, up and coming poets.

“There should not be a divide between the two scenes. Art and literature should be celebrated, and new styles and voices should be welcomed instead of turned away,” Fazleena says, disheartened. According to her, the divide came about mainly due to the fact that the young writers and publishers are braver in their writing, and this tends to challenge the views and beliefs of the previous generation. She adds, “They are not afraid to explore unchartered waters, and perhaps this explains why the mainstream scene often views indie works as indecent and brings bad influence to the nation.”

Since 2011, Fazleena and fellow poet/musician Wani Ardy have organised and ran Pondok Puisi, a workshop that teaches poetry writing and poetry performance to budding poets. Despite the negative criticisms against indie poets and writers, Fazleena believes that these new voices should not be silenced, but rather be given a chance to showcase their talent. And this is also where independent publishers come in.

Rabak-Lit co-founder & writer/poet Seyn Jukey

Rabak-Lit, a subsidiary under art collective Projek Rabak, aims to provide a new platform for these young voices to perform and get published. Projek Rabak hails all the way from Ipoh and has now spread its wings to Kuala Lumpur. When met with its founders, writer/poet Seyn Jukey and writer/musician Mohd Jayzuan, they humbly state that Rabak-Lit was created not to compete with other publishers, but to simply add variety and colours to the art, literature and poetry scene.

When asked about receiving negative criticisms and backlash, they casually answer: “That’s normal. Some people will like our stuff and some people won’t. It’s what happens when you create art. What matters most is that we are doing what we love to do, so we’ll just continue to do that.”

Jayzuan adds, “We have seen how other indie publishers reacted to the negativity, but for us, we would rather not say anything back. At the end of the day, both mainstream and indie scenes have their own following, so we will choose to focus on our work and not cari gaduh (pick a fight).”

Despite receiving a lot of manuscripts, Rabak Lit is still very much focused on publishing non-traditional and more contemporary styles of poetry. According to them, “We don’t like following rules, and we want to emphasise that rules do not need to be implemented when it comes to art. We prefer to shine light on those who are brave enough to try experimental poetry.”

True enough, Seyn brought a whole lot of distinctive and unique elements in his feature performance at Kuala Lumpur’s monthly poetry open mic show, If Walls Could Talk at Gaslight Café and Music last July. He tossed papers as he read (and sometimes screamed) out his bilingual poems, one of which was titled “The Loneliest Husband in Damansara”. Both Seyn and Jayzuan take pride in characterising their styles as “avant garde,” and firmly believe that more poets should be open to experimenting on their poetic forms, expressions and performances.

Jayzuan is also currently touring across seven states to promote his new poetry book, Sajak-Sajak Gustavo. This poetry compilation consists of reflective, experimental poems which he had written while he was exploring Europe throughout 2013 – 2016.

Besides Projek Rabak, there are several other collectives who also do their part to uphold the poetry scene and keep the words alive. This includes GilaKata, a group of young individuals who recently held Katalistiwa, a mini art festival and forum with poetry recitals and vendors selling independent publications. On top of that, there is also Pasar Boco, a book and art market that takes place every 4 months since 2011. Besides the market, Pasar Boco provides a platform for poets to showcase their works and writings onstage.

Regardless of the divide, the continuous growth in poets, collectives, events and publishing spaces is definitely a positive sign that the scene is blooming and growing. And this growth is something that should only be encouraged and praised, as it takes courage and perseverance to keep writing, creating and sharing works of art and poetry. Plus Usman Awang once said, “Tajam keris raja, tajam lagi pena pujangga.” The poet’s pen is mightier than the king’s keris.

By Dhabitah Zainal


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