Annum Salman is a spoken-word poet and the author of Sense Me, a debut collection of poetry. In this exclusive interview, she speaks about the scope for performance poetry in Pakistan and how it can be strengthened
The News on Sunday (TNS): More often than not, performance poetry is viewed as a reaction against “mainstream, print-based poetry”. Do you think performance poetry in Pakistan has similarly emerged as a reaction to certain trends?
Annum Salman (AS): In Pakistan, where poetry is an underappreciated art form, performance poetry is not a reaction to print poetry. It is just another medium to deliver words. It’s for people who dislike reading. For the generation that is addicted to social media and scrolling through Instagram posts, long poems get no attention. Mainstream poetry is now the poetry you find online; it is influenced by poets such as Rupi Kaur.
Poets have got into a habit of posting single lines or two-line poems that can maximise likes and shares. While this is a worldwide trend, this form of poetry is still considered new in Pakistan. It is harder to be a writer that writes and wants to share longer pieces with an audience. Spoken-word shows, therefore, give poets like us a platform to perform where the audience is expecting longer pieces.
TNS: Performance poetry also reinforces the classic role of the poet who recites verses to an audience. Are your poems meant to be performed and not read?
AS: Yes, our poems are written to be performed. As a published spoken-word poet, when you’re flipping through the pages of my book, you’ll be able to differentiate between mainstream poetry and spoken-word poetry. The latter will flow through several pages and will look similar to prose poetry.
Performance poetry, in the end, is storytelling and is not as general. Poetry, which can be about anything, can also have no solid purpose. For instance, a poet could just be talking about the way trees grow. Performance poetry has to have a beginning, a middle and an end, and it’s necessary because it is a story that is being recited to an audience you wish to keep hooked to your piece. Your words need to link with one another and there has to be a purpose to every phrase you’ve written. Flow, rhythm, and tone are also extremely important to keep in mind when writing a spoken-word piece. We do consider breath and high and low tones when a piece is written for performance.
TNS: What are the themes of the poems you performed at the Karachi Literature Festival (KLF)?
AS: I usually like to mix up a few themes when I’m performing so I can showcase my diversity as a writer. At the KLF, the poems I performed revolved around themes of mental health, race, language, and gender. Other poets’ themes were similar and focused on society, family and relationships.
TNS: What can be done to enhance the scope of performance poetry in Pakistan?
AS: People still do not know that there is such a thing as a spoken word. I think the lack of awareness about this medium is troubling. This is because of the influence of pop poetry on Instagram, which has become the go-to poetry for millennials. We need more awareness, platforms, and commitment to mentoring people in the field.
Artists sometimes get stuck in promoting themselves and forget that their duty is also to expand the art itself by bringing new voices in. Poetry video channels (such as Button Poetry), more poetry groups (such as Spoken Stage) and more workshops are essential to enhance the scope of poetry in Pakistan. There should also be opportunities for spoken-word poets who specialise in the field to promote themselves so well that they get their own shows and can go on tours. This is how musicians have concerts and international spoken-word poets, such as Sarah Kay, do shows that are sold out.
TNS: Muneeza Shamsie states in her book Hybrid Tapestries that English poetry has “continued to exist on the margins of Pakistan’s intellectual life and academic circles”. How do you think performance poetry can alter this?
AS: Like I mentioned earlier, performance poetry is storytelling. And like in any storytelling, your audience matters. Performance poetry does not talk about ideologies and philosophies without context that are difficult to comprehend. Performance poetry connects to audience members.
While you’re on stage, a good performance poet should perform in a way that the stage is eliminated and the speaker becomes one of the audience members. Performance poetry, therefore, uses a lot of metaphors and imagery, initiating thoughts about topics that matter to everyone and are relatable. We do that by using cultural references, including Urdu words, performing in Urdu as well (a lot of poets at KLF including myself, performed both English and Urdu poems), and even using translation. We avoid complicated phrases, big words and focus more on tone, articulation, and expression that exceeds communication through language alone.