Although unknown to many, Abu Dhabi has a burgeoning poetry scene. Over the past few months, an increasingly popular open-mic poetry night – where amateurs recite their own lyrical compositions on stage – has been taking place at the Rocco Forte Hotel.
The driving force behind these get-togethers is Dorian Paul Rogers, aka Paul D, a teacher who originally hails from Georgia in the US.
In his youth, Rogers was an ardent rap music fan, but while studying at Florida State University in Tallahassee, he became involved in the city’s performance poetry scene.
“In school, I’d been taught traditional poetry and thought it was just this drab, boring art form,” recalls the 30-year-old.
“But when I attended my first poetry slam, I realised that it could be thought-provoking and cool.”
He soon became a member of Black on Black Rhyme, a poetry organisation dedicated to countering misconceptions about African-Americans in the US.
Spreading the word
With live poetry flourishing in his home country, Rogers was surprised to find that the city had a dearth of similar events when he arrived in Abu Dhabi in 2011.
“There was a big expat crowd but few spoken-word events, so I thought this was a good opportunity to start one,” he recalls.
He began his poetry readings in the upstairs room of Cafe Arabia on 15th Street. Soon, the swelling numbers of attendees meant they outgrew the venue.
Now, after a relocation to the spacious Noche bar, the monthly Rooftop Rhythm event attracts a regular crowd of 80 to 90 people.
“It’s really surprising how popular we’ve become. And, best of all, we have people of all nationalities and ethnicities attending. The Arabs have a rich tradition of poetry – so we have a girl from Lebanon and another from Palestine, but there are also Americans, Indians, Irish and others. They all have an eclectic style of speaking their minds.”
Missing the beat
Don’t expect to see old duffers in tweed jackets reading their compositions from a crumpled sheet of A4 at the Rooftop Rhythm events.
“Performance poetry is nothing like the poetry of Robert Frost or other traditional poets,” Rogers says. “It involves more voice inflection, volume control and dramatic pausing. It’s more like a monologue than a poem.”
To the uninitiated, the performances do bear a resemblance to hip-hop lyricists, but he insists there are differences. “What we’re doing isn’t rapping, it’s more of a form of cultural expression that people call poetry. But it’s actually spoken word when you’re performing it.
“There is a difference between rap and performance poetry. It’s an oratory-type situation but it isn’t performed to a beat.”
While he aims to allow the performers freedom of expression, he admits that some topics are off-limits in the Middle East.
“You know, to respect the culture here, we have to stay clear of some subjects, such as religion or the politics of the country,” he concedes.
“But there is still a wide range of topics that we discuss, from universal themes such as love and self-identity, to moving to a new country and culture. Personally, I speak a lot about life lessons and struggles, but I mix it with comedy.”
Elsewhere in the world there is a competitive edge to these events. At these so-called poetry slams, the audience is invited to vote on their favourite recitals. But Rogers is avoiding this critical element.
“I decided we wouldn’t do slams because to reach that level the performers have to be open enough to say: ‘I’m going to detach myself emotionally from what people think of me. I can’t let this upset me.’ I just want to keep it friendly and fun at the moment, with a lighter edge,” he insists.
Aside from this, he’s got plans for a poetry festival in the capital featuring both traditional and modern verse.
“I do think poetry will really help people of all nationalities and cultures get together in Abu Dhabi,” he says. “At our events we get African-Americans, Europeans and Arabs mingling together and sparking friendships. Typically, I think in Abu Dhabi people stay in their social groups. But cultural events such as this one really help people come together.”
Rooftop Rhythms takes place at Noche, Rocco Forte Hotel, Airport Road, Abu Dhabi, on Friday at 9pm. Admission is Dh50 and includes a welcome refreshment. Call 02 617 0000 or visit www.facebook.com/groups/rooftoprhythms for more information