By Ayswarya Murthy
Ahead of Words & Strings’ second anniversary, we drop in at one of their events and discover the secret to their success.
Started by a group of young poets and musicians, Words & Strings (W&S) will have been around for two years come March. At their regular gatherings, hosted quite consistently, anyone with a verse or a tune to share is invited to do so. Some of their best poetry is also shared on their website and recently the group has started conducting workshops for those who want to get their creative juices flowing. All this I already knew before that weekend when I finally shook off the blanket of lethargy (literally as well) and headed down to what was to be the last W&S event of 2016. But what I didn’t know was how powerful and reaffirming the whole experience was going to be.
Before D-day, someone tweeted that they were going to fly into Doha and head straight to the event from the airport; an indication of the kind of loyalty and excitement Words & Strings inspires, that is difficult to imagine unless you have been there. As I make my way through the winding corridors of the Qatar Foundation (QF) Recreation Centre, I spot a couple practicing their bit almost inaudibly on a guitar; they look frazzled. Or am I projecting? Surely, it’s nerve-wracking to go up in front of about 150 people and submit yourself and your work for judgment. I am nervous for them. But I was equally thrilled. Remember the OCD poem that went viral three years ago? How the audience gasped and applauded at Neil Hilborn’s gut-wrenchingly intense performance of his poem about love and OCD. I always wondered how it would have felt to sit there and get the full force and meaning of the thing live.
Casual yet well-organised, W&S is everything an initiative like this ought to be. I could see right away I was worried for no reason. The energy around everyone there was so positive and welcoming. There was no good or bad, or right or wrong. When someone stumbled, you cheered them on harder. When someone spoke the truth, you snapped your fingers (because clapping is so mainstream!) And when something moved you, you let it. Because how can you stay jaded and sarcastic for long where everyone around you (whose average age is surely not more than 21) is sounding off so passionately about everything from identity to love? It’s difficult to be neutral because poetry itself seldom is.
Out of those who performed, many were regulars who revisited some of their favourites; some were participating for the first time, often solo, sometimes as part of duo. The community is close-knit yet inclusive and soon the lines between the newbies and veterans blur, as does those between visitor and performer.
Between friendly banter, the MC lays down some ground rules, and there are very few of them. Snap your fingers instead of clapping; it allows you to express your appreciation in the middle of the performance without distracting the speaker. And never ever let someone give up in the middle of their bit, whatever the reason may be. This is sound advice because no matter how much you mess up your lines, you’d still feel better if you see it all the way through.
That night there were a dozen performers lined up. They are teenagers and young adults, mostly Arab and full of brash certainty that is endearing among the young. The session breaks for fifteen minutes and the last leg of the evening is reserved for impromptu acts. I didn’t expect there to be too many takers for this but was proved wrong. I reckon there were many like me, who came there not knowing what to expect, but eventually, buoyed by the atmosphere of support, were encouraged to pick up the microphone.
The night kicks off with Dana whose emotional rendition of “Blood Weeps a Song” laid bare the horrors of Aleppo and the culture of ‘clicktivism’. Her voice cracks and she often sounds close to tears. But she speaks every word with conviction. Following her is Kholoud (who, the MC informs us, likes pretending to host a culinary show whenever she is cooking, often putting on an accent to match the cuisine) who speaks about reclaiming the phrase “Allahuakbar” from those who have misappropriated it. Abir performs two of her Arabic poems; “Those of you who can’t understand the words, I hope you can feel them,” she says.
And as the evening wears on, you begin to realise what is so special about events like W&S. Because the people there are not just sharing some words they put down on paper. They are often baring their soul. They are naked in the headlights. And you realise how rare it is to allow yourself to be vulnerable in a public space. This very act creates a special bond between the speaker and the listener. And in that camaraderie you discover just how relatable they are; we are going through many of the same experiences together. It’s a pretty precious feeling.
So ultimately it doesn’t matter if one poem is better than the other or if someone’s words take the form of a freestyle rap or if one person’s journey of settling into his identity is messy and uncomfortable; it is their truth. And it is uniformly celebrated.