By Iman Tahir
Poetry has long been in the heart of Arab culture, and poetry groups in the UAE have always celebrated poetry and have encouraged expression. Over the years, emerging poetry groups have helped to provide a platform for upcoming poets and local talent to express their stories, whilst bringing people together for the love of poetry.
Poetry evenings used to be a great way for the youth of the UAE to connect and to come together to share their works. These events were often held in cafes or in community spaces, and used to be much anticipated events bustling with energy, laughter and enthusiasm, as the crowds would listen intently to the poets of the evening. The youth would enjoy the ambiance, the heartfelt poems and meeting up with friends.
Due to the global pandemic , however, poetry evenings have been going online to cater to the needs of providing a safe space for the community to come together and unite through spoken word poetry. With social events and community gatherings being limited, poetry evenings are finding a new way to connect with the community through virtual events, hosted via platforms like Zoom.
With virtual events replacing in-person events, I wondered how the experiences of spoken poetry events had changed with the online move, and whether virtual poetry evenings have had a significant impact in offering hope in times of unrest. I spoke with the founders of UAE based poetry groups, Mathani Mohamed from Blank Space, and Dorian Rogers from Rooftop Rhythms, about the importance of spoken poetry events. We discussed the challenges that they have experienced over the last year, as well as the ways their poetry groups have offered a silver lining in a time of great need.
A culture of poetry
Poetry initiatives such as Blank Space and Rooftop Rhythms are both examples of community based groups that celebrate stories, poems and the spoken word. Blank Space first started its poetry evenings in 2015, after the co-founder Mohamed Hakam, was inspired by the poetry groups in Abu Dhabi.
Rooftop Rhythms, formed in Abu Dhabi, was founded by Dorian Rogers in 2012, with a similar intention of bringing people together for the love of poetry and spoken word. “I founded Rooftop Rhythms Poetry Open Mic Night in March 2012 as I felt that there was an opportunity to bring a hip and positive contemporary poetry event to Abu Dhabi,” explained Dorian.
Dorian Rogers is a performance poet and a teacher from the U.S, and when he moved to the UAE, he was looking to find cultural spaces to share his poetry. After realizing that poetry was a part of the UAE’s culture as well, he established his dream of having an open mic poetry event to bring people together to socialize in a positive environment. “I was shocked to turn on the television on the day I moved here to find channels exclusively for Arabic poetry. This encouraged me to see that there was a deep passion for poetry even if many people may not have known much about contemporary performance poetry at the time,” he told me.
With time, his initiative grew more and more. “In 2015, we partnered with the world-renowned Arts Center at New York University Abu Dhabi, which provided us a permanent home, world class production support and so much more. Official support from the US Mission to the UAE, which also began in 2015, has also been critical to our success,” he told me.
Encouraging community support
Poetry groups used to thrive through poetry evenings that encouraged people from all backgrounds to share their talents on stage. But after lockdown, poetry groups have sought a virtual way to bring harmony to the community. “Poetry evenings went virtual after lockdown had made it difficult for people to leave the house,” explained Mathani. “Many felt a sense of emptiness and isolation due to being unable to socialize.”
Mathani explained how virtual poetry events provided solace and a sense of community in times of need, “Lockdown made it difficult for people to leave the house, and so many people felt a sense of being empty, alone and closed off. Virtual poetry evenings made it easier for people to socialize, for when they felt isolated. They could talk to people, let alone share their poetry online.”
The move to hosting online events also brought with it some added bonuses. Some people gained more confidence in their work, Mathani told me, as virtual poetry evenings allowed them to share their work without having to perform in front of people directly. Furthermore, many people liked how virtual poetry evenings brought people together from different backgrounds to celebrate poetry and share their works.
Dorian also had a similar experience. “The virtual events have been received very well. The attendance numbers have stayed consistent with in-person events, which was something we weren’t expecting,” claimed Dorian.
There is definitely a blessing in the virtual means of sharing poetry with others, he added. “As you know, the internet assists with accessibility. People outside of Abu Dhabi now have a chance to be “there” and participate.This helps the poetry community to feel more connected. The virtual events have allowed us to expose our UAE based performers to a worldwide audience and collaborate with international poets and poetry collectives,” explained Dorian. “We’ve even had international media outlets like CNN and Euro News highlight how we’ve remained resilient by adapting our event to the virtual space. So, the wider community benefits by receiving exposure and a sense of connection especially when much of the last year and a half has required social distancing due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
In that regard, Mathani also added that as beautiful as poetry evenings used to be, some people felt that online poetry evenings gave them a sense of accomplishment, where they could share their poems with others. “Many people have also felt inspired by others’ poetry,” she explained. She added how some poets have enjoyed the extra time given to think about their poems, and have considered performing virtually actually more preferable.
Despite the benefits that virtual poetry events have brought with them, there remains some tragedy in thinking about how things have changed. After interviewing the two founders, I realized that they too felt a nostalgia for the past.
Mathani, for example, expressed that a number of poets had felt discouraged by the lack of in-person poetry evenings, which has affected their ability to express themselves.
In addition, without the ambiance of real poetry evenings, where the crowd is far more engaged and encouraging, there is definitely a feeling that something is lacking. Compared to real poetry evenings, many Zoom poets lose their connection and their feeling, without being able to communicate directly to the audience. “I think everyone prefers in-person events to virtual,”said Dorian. “While the production team at The Arts Center at NYU Abu Dhabi has done a superb job of adapting the virtual events to replicate the in-person experience, there’s nothing like having a poetry open mic night in a physical space such as our home, The Marketplace, at NYU Abu Dhabi.”
“Having a tangible crowd and both hearing and seeing reactions to performances provides real-time feedback that is critical for artists as it helps to know which parts of poems or songs resonate with attendees. Also, finger snaps, a popular way of showing support for poetry, and claps really help with the energy and vibe of a poetry event,” he added. “Even as an emcee of the event, I feed off of the smiles and laughs of the crowd as I’m hosting the show. There’s definitely a social element to in-person events as well. It’s an opportunity to take a spouse on a non-traditional date or for parents to take their child to an educational and positive social event. It’s a chance for friends to meet up or even an opportunity for strangers to make new friends.”
Virtual events and the future of poetry
Whilst the nostalgia of in-person poetry evenings remains, virtual poetry evenings such as those organized by Rooftop Rhythms and Blank Space, have no doubt brought people together, and have offered them a safe haven in times of loneliness and isolation.
Virtual poetry evenings are making space to salvage the spirit of spoken word and storytelling, and are offering a much needed outlet for their voices to be heard and appreciated, where hope and support is offered. They are helping to offer a sense of belonging. They encourage new talent and offer a forum of expression for the community. Whilst there are definitely things about the past that we all miss, virtual poetry evenings may be, at least for now, the saviour of poetry evenings.
Iman Tahir is a freelance journalist and an intern at Sekka Magazine. Her interests include art and culture, society and environment in Dubai.
The views of the authors and writers who contribute to Sekka, and the views of the interviewees who are featured in Sekka, do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Sekka, its parent company, its owners, employees and affiliates.