On Thursday the 10th of April, I attended ‘An Eye for an Eye: Poetry Slam Competition at The Basement. Held by both Amnesty International and Word Travels, which is an organization dedicated to performing literature. The event was orchestrated to increase awareness and in turn rally against the death penalty which still exists in many countries around the world, including Australia’s neighbors: Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. Amnesty International and Word Travels believed that hearing poetry about death row would allow a more illustrated image of the punishment and hence give us some momentum in abolishing it once and for all. The poets competed for a $100 cash prize, as well as the honor of continuing to participate in the state poetry slam by reciting an original poem in two minutes or less. For me however, the night opened up so much more.
The night began with the selection of the judges. Each judge had a piece of paper taped to the bottom of their table, so when asked, every person in the audience had to check their tables to discover if they were going to be judging for the evening or not. Once the judges had been selected, they each had to go up on stage and recite the poem on their piece of paper: a poem that had been written by a prisoner on death row. “Judge not until you have been judged” the host for the evening described before we heard these heart wrenching words, most of which written by people who had been executed years ago.
What was truly amazing though was how cathartic the whole affair was. Every person who got up on that stage poured his or her heart out. They all lined up and put their names down. Sat in their seats, chained in nerves as they anticipated their sentence. Held their breaths as the host picked names out of a hat, torn between hoping so dearly that it wasn’t their names, and also hoping to get it over with. They then took their place on the stage, two minutes. That’s all they got. Two minutes to convince the judges they deserved to continue on. That’s when their amnesty finally came. Their catharsis and liberation as the words poured from their lips. Their bodies overtaken by the emotion behind their rhymes, some almost dancing and rapping along like pop artists, some acting along like dramatic stars, all liberated from their mundane lives through their poetry.
After hearing so many incredible poems about how “They play monopoly while we play hangman with the words of war.” and how a “Rich woman’s son will never die.” I realized that the real tragedy here was how underappreciated these artists are. A few centuries ago, being a poet or a laureate was a noble and enriching profession. These days it is extremely difficult for a poet to get much more recognition than winning a poetry slam competition. Many end up having to sell their poems to record labels or collaborate with other writers and form anthologies as these days, poetry in the form of song is more popular than poetry in its pure form. Don’t get me wrong, a song is poetic and artistic in its own right, but the same way that directors and screen play writers have to sacrifice the small intimate moments of a book to fit it into a ninety minute film, the breaths and meter of a poem are often sacrificed when the beat and instruments get added in. Just like the prisoners who lost their right to life when a jury decided their fate, these poets have lost the appreciation they deserve.
Each word, each breath each syllable chosen so meticulously, someone like me wonders how they do it. After hearing that some were written on the bus on the way to the event, and some written in a library the true passion and art that the poems embody becomes clear. Being a writer myself, I understand the passion. Though I do not have the discipline and the patience it takes to write a poem, I understand the way that their poetry frees them from their work and their bills and the other stresses of everyday life. The way that they can take their pain and their frustrations and put it to paper and use their words to make sense of the world is an art.
In a way, we are all like prisoners on death row. Like the ones whose poems were recited by the judges that night, the ones who used their poetry to escape their fears and their guilt and whose worlds will live on, long after they’ve departed. Our lives, our jobs, our studies and our stresses confine us everyday. The ability to find something, anything that allows us a sense of escape from those limitations- whether it be something creative like literature or poetry, or a sport or anything that we’re truly passionate about- that something can free us.
The event was a huge success, there were clicks and votes of appreciation all round. Amnesty International built up great momentum for their cause and the lives that have been lost were commemorated. However the point of the evening wasn’t the competition, or even amnesty international’s campaign against the death penalty. The point was to make us all listen to the words that were spoken and look within ourselves for some answers. That is the point to all literature I think. A good poem or even a good book, takes you on a journey to a whole other world, so that when the last verse or the last page comes along, you can take a piece of that world back with you, and hopefully be better for it. I know I took a lot out of the evening, just like I hope you take from this article.
By Drishti Nanwani