Poetry slam links modern verse to oral traditions

Abu Dhabi International Book Fair: Amateur lyricists are invited to participate in an open mic and poetry slam competition.

Farah Chamma is one of the amateur lyricists who performs live poetry with Abu Dhabi's Rooftop Rhythms group. Pawan Singh / The National

Every month, amateur lyricists take time from their busy lives to regale each other with their latest poetic compositions at an Abu Dhabi nightspot.

This is Rooftop Rhythms, an evening of poetry recitals at Al Maqta hotel on Airport Road, previously known as the Rocco Forte.

Such is the event's popularity - 80 to 90 devotees regularly attend - that the organisers of the book fair have decided to add a similar event to this year's programme.

The event will involve an open mic section, in which anyone with enough confidence is invited to perform their poetry on stage and a poetry slam, a competition where participants will be judged by the audience.

Although ADIBF is chiefly a trade event, Marianne Kennedy, the event's cultural programme manager, says live poetry is entirely in keeping with the overall literary theme. She had attended Rooftop Rhythms and was so impressed that she vowed to get them on board.

"Live poetry events are slightly fringy - a side dish to the main event, if you like. But it's wordplay, and since the fair is all about words, it is linked to literary creations."

Kennedy also believes that poetry recitals are an intrinsic part of the Middle East's heritage.

"The concept of live poetry competitions is well established [in Arabic culture]."

She points to the Arab poets of the Middle Ages, who would verbally joust as a form of entertainment. Nabati poetry also retains its presence in the contemporary Arabian Gulf with its X-Factor-style, Abu Dhabi-based Million's Poet contest.

The Palestinian poet Farah Chamma, who is a guest performer at the book fair, says there is a marked difference between today's poetry and that of her forebears.

"A lot of Arabic poetry is written in classical Arabic and concerns love and the like. Sometimes young people can see it as being as a bit boring and it puts them off.

"What we do is more of a performance. We tell stories, try to engage the audience and express ourselves in an entertaining way."

Chamma was a member of the Dubai-based poetry troupe The Poeticians. After relocating to the capital to study law at Paris-Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi, the 19-year-old now helps organise Rooftop Rhythms.

But it's not just in the Middle East where live poetry readings are resurgent.

Another guest performer at the poetry slam is Frank Klötgen, one of Germany's best-known poets.

Klötgen, who will also be indulging in a spot of book architecture during ADIBF (see page 7), says the decline of the publishing industry is making live poetry more popular.

"German book stores have no place for poetry any more. They are relegated to one small edge somewhere. Book stores and publishing houses are just not interested. Because of this, poetry is reverting back to being more of an oral tradition.

"There is a real eagerness in Germany to hear poetry presented on the stage. Poetry slams are always sold-out events. You get up to 600 people turning up to some of them. Year on year, it just keeps growing."

And when he arrives in Abu Dhabi, he could well be met with a similar thirst for the art form in this part of the world.

Rooftop Rhythms is from 7.30pm until 9pm on April 25 in the ADIBF Tent.


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