Most of us who write poetry in high school, leave it at just that.
But not Sheena Baharudin. Her words do not hide in pretty notebooks, sitting exiled on dusty shelves. No, her words have leapt off tattered pages onto the stage, where they scream, strut and dance around.
She started off writing song lyrics and prose before dabbling in poetry as a teenager. And then, by a stroke of conscious decision, she entered the world of performance poetry and has since earned a name as a spoken word artist.
Now, almost a decade after her first show in 2007, she has published a book of poems, ” Rhymes for Mending Hearts” and a chapbook “Memori Gajah” as well as have her work translated into Spanish and French.
And when she’s not looking, she finds her words etched on glass windows in a foreign land, as happened with “Cloudy Conversation”, a poem she wrote that was translated into Chinese and commemorated at Ion Sky, Singapore.
You might have seen her in the many recent events she has participated in such as Shakespeare Sonnets in KLPAC, Tongue Tied 2 and Iskarnival 2016 in Johor.
Eksentrika spoke to Sheena to find out about her journey, and she has generously shared her experience, which we believe, can be a guiding beacon for other aspiring poets in Malaysia.
1. How did you find your poet voice? You have been in the scene for over a decade (I found some of your work in 2006) making you a pioneer of the local Spoken Word scene – tell us what inspired you?
You’re right, I’ve been in the scene for at least a decade but I’ve been writing poetry since I was in high school and before poetry, it was prose and before prose it was lyrics for songs. I can’t remember exactly when and how the desire to perform my poems was triggered but I do remember making the conscious decision to share my experience and meeting like minded people. I searched for gigs online and voila, that’s how I found Project OMG (founded by Pat Low and Priya K) and I’ve been doing it ever since.
2. What was the biggest hurdle in getting your voice out back then and how did you overcome it?
It was definitely self doubt. You know, that voice inside your head telling you that you’re not good enough? It didn’t help when my first poetry slam was the causeway slam (Malaysian versus Singaporean poets) and I got actual voices confirming my doubt that I sucked. I didn’t even pass the first round!
I’ve seen people quitting spoken word because of that. You really do need to have a thick skin without allowing your ego to rule you. I overcame that hurdle simply by not listening to the voices and just kept on picking up the pieces every time I fell. I kept on learning.
3. What creative works are you tackling now or have planned for in the near future?
I went quiet for almost a year because I wanted to focus on my PhD but soon realised just how much I missed it. When I came back, there are so many new poets! It’s exciting and I look forward to meeting them in person.
Currently, I am juggling a few things; working on my second book of poems, playing around with this awesome group of musicians and artists called #FTP (Feel Tu Penting).
Future project? I’m thinking of a spoken word album. I’ll probably call it *Numinous. It makes complete sense to go there.
*In 2012, Sheena started Numinous, a multidisciplinary event that is currently on hiatus as she focuses on her academics. She, however intends to get it back in the scene from 2018 onwards, alongwith her spoken word album.
4. Do you still encounter challenges and are they different from when you started? How do you manage this?
When I first started, there were not that many of us so the main challenge was mostly about finding ways to find and/or create the space for spoken word poets to do what they do. Now, the challenges are more about educating people about the art of writing and performing poetry.
There are still social misconceptions and reservations about the art form (kata kita egocentric lah, self absorbed lah, only for the intellectual lah, hipster lah), which is why creating awareness is so bloody important. I’ve been in many situations where I had people coming up to me after my performance and said, “I honestly wasn’t expecting that at all! Thank you.”
5. Share with us your creative process if you have any; do you have certain disciplines/routines that you stick by?
I usually write bits and snippets in my notebook and my phone before leaving them be for a couple of days. I still find poems I wrote a long time ago in my possession, ones I’ve completely forgotten about! Then I will read them again with a fresh set of eyes.
When I am ready to write a full piece (3-5 mins in length), I am usually in front of my laptop because I’ll be spending a lot of time checking the meaning of words and doing research on the subject matter. The real test however is to memorise them and reciting them out loud. By listening to the words, that’s when I’ll know the changes that I need to make.
6. What is your advice to those interested in Spoken Word poetry/theatre.
If you want to check out the scene, Poetry Cafe KL is the first place to start your journey as it posts up all the upcoming poetry events (English and Bahasa) in and out of KL. If you’re ready to start sharing your poems, If Walls Could Talk is a great monthly poetry open mic event to go to.
When you’re in the scene, get to know the other poets as well as the people around you. Don’t be afraid to ask. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.
7. Are there any local/foreign people/poet/blog/website/social media that you look up to for inspiration and tell us why.
I get my inspiration from many sources. I get it from the artists I work and hang out with and whenever I go to gigs at Merdekarya or Gaslight Cafe. I subscribe to Poets.org, which sends me a random poem everyday for me to enjoy. As for social media, I follow @raindropsandpoetry on Instagram. That woman can fit a storm in one squared frame.
8. Who is you favourite poet/poem and why?
I can’t choose so I will give you both my favourite poet and my current favourite poem!
Salleh Ben Joned is definitely my favourite poet and his book “Sajak Sajak Saleh” is almost battered thanks to me flipping through the pages countless times. The old man truly does not give a f**k and I admire that.
I tend to have a few favourites at any one time, depending on what I need to remind myself. Currently, it is Complainers by Rudy Francisco.
Here’s an excerpt: “When you get punched in the esophagus by a fistful of life, remember that every year, two million people die of dehydration so it doesn’t matter if the glass if half full or half empty. There’s water in the cup. Drink it, and stop complaining.”
As for a poem that always seems to be in my top 5 list, it has to be the heartbreaking Funeral Blues by W. H. Auden. I wish I was there when he wrote it so that I could hug him tightly and tell him everything’s going to be alright.
9. What is your vision for yourself and the local art scene?
I’ve no idea what’s going to happen in the next 5 years but I do hope that I’ll continue doing my part to the development of poetry education in this country. As for the local art scene, I look forward to seeing and being part of a much more integrative and collaborative scene. Cliques is so passé if you ask me.
10. Of late there has been a rise in cafes, colleges and universities hosting poetry events. How do you think poetry can change the world?
It has been changing the world for a very very very long time! The rise of poetry events is a natural albeit gradual result of passionate poets and poetry lovers who have been working their asses off to bring poetry into these spaces.
Want to catch Sheena in person? She will be taking the stage tomorrow at If Walls Could Talk, Gaslight Cafe, making an appearance after a year-long hiatus to do a PhD in Malaysian Literature.
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