By Ayswarya Murthy; Photographs by Oscar T. Rialubin

At this three-day poetry slam workshop, participants were encouraged to expand their safe space and give voice to their words.

Qatar National Library, in collaboration with the German Embassy Doha and the Goethe-Institut Gulf Region, recently hosted a ‘Poetry Slam’ workshop. The workshop took place over three days, and was delivered by German poetry slammers and instructors, Julian Heun and Dominique Macri. On the fourth day, the small class of about ten young people gave a public performance at the Black Box Theater in the HBKU Student Center in Education City.

We decided to sit in on the second-day workshop, but “sitting in” was not an option. It is understandable; over the previous day, the group of strangers – instructors and participants, veterans and novices, English-speakers and Arabic-speakers – came together to create a space. It’s precious and it’s fragile; the sudden introduction of a stranger in their midst who’d only silently observe from a distant could be disruptive, we were told. So, we penned down a few hasty verses and mumbled them into the void. It’s significantly harder than it looks.

It’s no wonder that both Heun and Macri recall having had a huge push their first time around, about ten years ago – friends and teachers had to force them on stage, but once they got started, they never stopped. Marci, whose background is in improve theatre, initially could never quite get her head around the idea of competing. “But I have reconciled with it,” she says. The two perform on stage in Germany frequently, sometimes together and have individually conducted many workshops as well. But they have never quite instructed such a diverse set of pupils before, each of them from different countries and backgrounds.

And it’s not surprising that one of the themes the young people here kept coming back to was that of identity. Heun has been increasingly working with young refugees in recent years and notes that identity is a source of contemplation among them as well, in addition to the war-related trauma. Whenever they conduct such workshop, the first order of business is creating a safe atmosphere where everyone trusts each other enough to express themselves freely.

“In a safe space, people are not afraid to fail. They have fun making mistakes”

“In a safe space, people are not afraid to fail. They have fun making mistakes,” says Marci. “But this safe space is within yourself. It’s what helps you make a decision about how far you want to go, and want you want to show and still feel safe. What we do is help them stretch this space to include more people in it. The result is you have this big variety of people presenting themselves in this individual, personal way and it’s so colourful;it’s a chance for so many different people to come on stage and be heard by a supportive audience,” she says.

And that’s how we found ourselves standing there on the stage, squinting into our notes and belting out a short verse in a strangled voice. “These team performances are important, we try to get them listen to not just us, but each other as well; share their knowledge and work with each other. Many of them are skilled writers and there is something to learn from everyone. We strive to create a situation where this can happen,” Marci says.

Some are naturally strong at writing than performing, or the other way; but it’s a thing of balance, Heun says. “I am a better writer than performer. I still am working on it,” he smiles. And that’s what the workshop is about – to take someone who is good in one aspect and help them in the other. So on Day 2, we are sitting in a circling penning our own poems and Day 3 is dedicated to performance and delivery, so the class in instructed to bring along some of their favourite poems – their own or otherwise – to practise on.

“The cliché is a poet’s worst enemy…There are two ways to avoid this – by being precise or by being absurd.”

The duo share some great pointers about avoiding kitsch and staying away from clichés. “The cliché is a poet’s worst enemy,” Heun tells the group. “There are two ways to avoid this – by being precise or by being absurd.” Later he advises us to find new images and use small words to talk about big emotions. And to drive the point home, he tasks the group to pen a love poems without using words like “heart”, “family”, “eyes”, “passion”, “stars” and a dozen other usual suspects.

It’s a formidable challenge and our group raises to the occasion spectacularly. There were poems that made you gasp, laugh, sigh… they listen, they encouraged and in the end, they critiqued. And it was always positive, nice things like “that poems made me feel like I was sitting in front of a heater on a cold day”. Even for the couple of poems that were in Arabic, Marci says she was able to recognize the rhythm and the repeating patterns that the sound of a phrase would be in her head before the speaker said it. “Even if you don’t understand the poem, you feel it,” she tells us.