Labouring for Sustainable Space in Literary Creativity

“SUSTAINABILITY”, “SOLIDARITY”, “MEANINGFULNESS”. These terms are especially pertinent when it comes to discussing the creative economy. But what does such an economy look like when we try to map the most nebulous of the creative arts?

Dato' A. Samad Said celebrating If Walls Could Talk’s first anniversary.

At its heart, poetry is abstract, involving the manipulation of and experimentation with text. It does not lend itself to a solid idea of commodities, markets and producers the same way a feature film or an album does. Worse, the old question of art versus commercialisation emerges, tied in turn to the myth of the starving artist.

In the wake of the latest MCO, as venues begin to reopen and the question of how to sustain a living remains uncertain, Penang Monthly takes a closer look at the dynamics of the Malaysian independent poetry scene, and explore how poets navigate their way through the crisis.

The Poet Defined

How many poets are comfortable with defining themselves as such? It may be easier to describe oneself as a writer, with one’s work spanning screenplays to corporate content. Poets resist such easy classification. While on one hand, there is the need to broaden the scope of their craft for a general readership, there is still the need to create something for the sake of art itself. Practicality versus necessity. In Malaysia at least, we can broadly say that there are three aspects that need to be balanced if one is to actively devote time to poetry: having a day job to cancel out financial insecurity; having a “product” that one creates; and very importantly, performances.

Dhinesha Karthigesu competing at Malaysia’s National Poetry Slam 2018.

To branch out, one must go beyond the written word and into forms such as spoken word poetry. In the words of Dhinesha Karthigesu, currently on a residency as part of the Emerging Directors Lab 2020/2021 by Theatresauce, “I see myself as a poet, even though my writing has changed drastically to go into [different] platforms… I’m constantly changing, adapting, evolving. Poetry is something I can always come back to at the drop of a hat.”

There is also the need to factor in social media and platforms such as Instagram. Dhinesha, for example, has to balance between reducing his social media presence without diminishing his online footprint. Social media has allowed for the popularisation and commercialisation of a poet’s works. On Instagram, two (non-Malaysian) examples are Christopher Poindexter and Tyler Knott Gregson, who popularised the typewriter poetry trend. For poets like Rupi Kaur and Lang Leav, writing verse is at least as important as projecting a particular persona.

Apart from the digital world, there are other opportunities for grant funding, although they are flawed. Writers, visual artists and musicians are categorised separately, and provided with grants if there is a definite “product” to show at the end, such as a book, a painting or an album. Beyond producing or commissioning a poetry collection in a struggling book market, how does one create a poetic product?

Podcasts are a possible outlet, and Dhinesha has used them as a platform to highlight poets and their craft. He was involved with the Creative Curry Podcast, co-produced with Safwan Siddiq and the Poet X team, although the lack of funding or income remained an issue. It is possible to pair text with visual art and music or express it through the form of the spoken word.1 But this means having to compete fiercely with other creative artists.

The core team of If Walls Could Talk. From left to right: (Top) Afi Noor, Swit Marie, Lily Jamaluddin. (Bottom) Tshiung Han See, Melizarani T. Selva. Not pictured: Angelia Ong.

Crafting an Ecosystem

“When I started Walls, it was mainly because at the time there was no regular poetry open mic night in KL.2 They lacked frequency and consistency, which are very important if poets are to have a place to grow, practice, write and have a sense of community,” says Melizarani T. Selva, a co-founder of If Walls Could Talk, looking back at its legacy from the vantage point of her new role with Sing Lit Station.

Her conception of a self-supporting ecosystem was inspired by what she had seen while touring in Melbourne and London. Walls started modestly with the partnership of the Gaslight Cafe in Bukit Damansara. Even after her co-founder William Beale left, she was able to put together a nucleus team that went on to become KL’s most significant spoken word poetry movement. “We ran on a lot of community spirit and thoughts, it sometimes felt like a lightning-in-a-bottle situation.”

Pre-pandemic, Walls had a running calendar of live shows, managed by a core group of five volunteers who kept up fulltime jobs. Fiercely independent and virtually grant-free, what grew around each Walls night were workshops, showcases, Slamokrasi (Malaysia’s first bilingual slam), and a Malaysian National Poetry Slam at the George Town Literary Festival in 2018, where they launched the If I Say Spoken, You Say Word anthology.

Melizarani T. Selva hosting Slamokrasi 2017 at Makespace, Quill City Mall.

Team Malaysia at the Causeway Exchange Slam 2016, held between Malaysian and Singaporean poets.

Walls was committed to paying the musicians who performed, as well as the expenses of the headline acts who came in, some from abroad. There was also digital publicity and promotion to consider, which required a targeted focus and various strategies in terms of boosting visibility. But to keep all this going, they needed the audience to be willing to pay to support them, and tight planning and transparency within the team. “Even the audience knew exactly where their money was going,” she says. All this while the organisers made it through lean periods, such as Ramadan months, sometimes managing a meal to treat themselves.

While Walls was a self-sustaining ecosystem in spite of the ephemerality of the medium, it was never designed to be a business. “We went into Lit Books and bought a bohemian book on business! I swear to God, we’ve hardly read it!” Melizarani recalls. In the end, even the money that had been saved up was ploughed back into the community in the form of the anthology. Recordings of some sessions can be reconfigured and monetised as videos or podcasts. Most important, however, were not statistics or reams of data, but word-of-mouth to create a growing community that has continued for three and a half years.

Walls’ Tshiung Han See jamming with Umar Azizi (on the seruling) at If Walls Could Talk.

Covid-19 and After

Burnout from overwork, turnover and fragmentation into different groups as well as a general lack of coordination between those in the local poetry scene were compounded by Covid-19 –a shift to an online, and more passive, presence became necessary. The fragile poetry ecosystem seemingly collapsed, and along with it incomes. Even Walls was affected, although the sense of community still existed.3 This was on top of existing forms of exploitation and systemic injustices: predatory self-publishers and companies that insisted on trading gigs for “exposure”, or the hidden costs of performing such as fuel or income foregone.

And there is, as Dhinesha notes, the matter of determining how much one is worth. “We need to have some sort of system or mechanism. With spoken word specifically, it is tricky.” What he suggests is the creation of a point system of sorts, which takes into consideration details like a poet’s years of experience, publications and awards.

The cast of Malaysia Throws Herself A Birthday Party. An immersive spoken word theatre showcase directed by Christopher Ling of theatrethreesixty in collaboration with Speakcity Asia (If Walls Could Talk). From left to right: (Top) Dhinesha Karthigesu, Umar Azizi, Veshalini Naidu. (Bottom) Melissa Kong, Lily Jamaluddin, Gwendoline Esther Hay, Nana, Adriana Nordin Manan.

The value of art as labour must be taken into account. Poetry is not meant to be aloof or separate from “real” concerns. This also raises the possibility of taking a more radical step in poetry: coming together based around a consciousness as a collective class of workers with shared professional interests. Doing this, however, would require concerted action from a fragmented scene.

One challenge with Walls is that although it still exists, it does so outside the mainstream. While it has been able to create a bridge between the English and Malay language scenes, featuring greats such as Muhammad Haji Salleh, the late Salleh Ben Joned, Rahmat Haron, Lim Swee Tin and Jo Kukathas, true sustainability is rooted deeper. Melizarani, drawing lessons from Singapore’s National Arts Council (NAC), sees structural possibilities beyond cash handouts.

Through programmes such as “Book a Writer”, the NAC actively brings local poets into schools to teach programmes. Younger generations become aware of local poets, allowing those poets to enter the national canon. That sort of flexibility is denied to Malaysian poets. The relevant agencies must mobilise their resources to create a dynamic new national canon; this is especially important when two potential supporting pillars, such as the performing arts and publishing scene, face their own challenges.

Yet Melizarani sees room for hope. “If we put on a good show, people will come. It will pay for itself. If five people sit around a table and decide to form their own creative economy, it can happen, regardless of councils, regardless of the system.”

1 CENDANA does cater for spoken word poetry under its PRISMA grant, but it has to cater to stage productions and showcases.
2 There are other poetry groups in Penang, Johor and Sarawak for instance. Wordsmiths of Kuching consistently runs shows, activities and workshops and is a part of What About Kuching festival, and there are a few poetry-centric societies that are based in local universities.
3 In 2020 its online showcase, which effectively doubled as a reunion, raised almost RM8,000, held in collaboration with Refuge for the Refugees and Tenaganita. The money went entirely to help refugee and migrant communities.

William Tham Wai Liang’s first novel, Kings of Petaling Street, was shortlisted for the Penang Book Prize in 2017. His second novel, The Last Days, was published in 2020. He is the editor of Paper & Text, a collection of essays on Malaysian literature and the book trade.
Swit Marie is a Jacqueline of all trades who works with the Abstract Nature events company and indie record label. Four years ago, she started volunteering with If Walls Could Talk and was the festival assistant for Swadaya x George Town Literary Festival 2020.

Related Articles