“Two days later, I reached Medellin” was the most repeated sentence in my narrative of how I’d travelled two whole days to the other side of the world for poetry. Eventually, I grew bored of it, but it was a story that dripped with romance, determination, triumph. Jetlagged, sleep-deprived, on the move for 48 hours, I made it: hard to resist such narrative highs. There were also Odyssean references, not particularly favoured by me (too self-involved, no?), but used by others once I began to throw around the word ‘epic’ to describe the journey that brought me to what many people call the poetry capital of the world.
But why not? Beyond hyperbole and effect, this was a big trip in many ways. It was my first time going the literal distance for my art and it was the first time the World Poetry Movement, born on 7th July 2011 in Medellin, would be having its Congress for which I represented Malaysia. My vision of days pregnant with poetry and conversations were not simply fulfilled—they were converted into reality and then magnified. I’d had glimpses into how poetry proliferates in crowds at Medellin—I’d watched videos from previous years—and a few poet friends who’d attended the festival had promised me fun and magic. They were right, of course. But the immediacy of living it is something that unsurprisingly bypasses language and makes its way into a mythical soup of sounds, feelings that blare out of nowhere and shocks of inspiration: 60 ish poets from all over the world gathered for three weeks in one collective space—divided between Medellin, Colombia and Caracas, Venezuela—promised intensity, growth, music, insight, an education. For those three weeks, life returned to the womb of poetry. It was warm. It was benevolent. It gave, housed, and gave some more as wombs do.
The unfolding began with the Medellin International Poetry Festival, in its 33rd year, and so already seasoned in welcoming and honoring poets and their poetry and ended with the Venezuela International Poetry Festival in Caracas. The opening ceremony at the Teatro Carlos Vieco in Medellin on 8th July was essentially a poetry rock concert. Hundreds of people—families, lovers, friends—cheered for poetry. Several dogs attended. They barked and howled at the end of poems. Like this, the days progressed. Readings were held at an assortment of venues including libraries, public squares, towns outside Medellin, theatres, parks, sometimes to large crowds, at other times in smaller, more intimate contexts, but always in the glow of poetry’s power.
People come out for these events to actually listen and absorb the poetry. A poetry event is open to all and ‘all’ is not a nicety used for the sake of sounding inclusive. The potential of ‘all’ is tapped. I’d always loved the idea of the democratic nature of poetry that Walt Whitman wrote about but I’d never truly experienced it until I witnessed it in South America, both in Colombia and in Venezuela and I could happily confirm that poetry is democratic, and has the capacity to hold multitudes. The essay I wrote for the Medellin festival, before I’d fully sensed poetry’s vastness in action, was actually called “A Poetry of Multitudes”. In it, I wrote: “The poetry of today is especially tasked to hold multitudes—to push the limits of the imagination and to carve a comfortable space for pluralities to coexist, even when they are paradoxical, especially when they are paradoxical because we must finally leave the land of binaries, which is the land of separation, and enter the land of the mingled. This, then, is the new pedagogy for life, where poetry dwells not simply on the page but in life itself, in the air we breathe that has always and will always be shared, where separation is mere myth, and the truth of this lives in our words and in the flesh.”
Ironically or prophetically, the multitudinous quality of poetry was the very thing I felt, tangibly, as though it were a thing I could touch and taste. When I arrived in Medellin, the festival transportation team picked me up from the airport and when we were exiting the car park, they told the ticketing officer I was a Malaysian poet who was here for the festival after which he promptly recited a poem he’d memorized. I found poetry in the most unexpected spaces. During the festival, many of us experienced the love and attraction people from the audience had for our words: there were hugs, magnetic hand-holding, glowing eyes and plenty of giving thanks. There was range, there was depth and there were multitudes—of people, of responses, of the dimensions of poetry’s power and its infinite, nurturing womb.
What makes it so in this part of the world? This was my question, of course. There were several rationalizations, based on conversations with local poets and the people who worked for the festival. The spirit and education of poetry had been inculcated in the culture for decades, even centuries. There’s a long line and history of poetry in the region. But my favourite was a response picked up by another poet who had the same curiosity as I had: poetry is hope. A history of poetry coexists with a history of violence and civil war, and the much needed reconciliation with the past; the promoting of a rejuvenated future happens through the portal of poetry.
Then I remembered the precise thing poetry did to me as a teenager. When I was 16 and undergoing what I didn’t know then was depression, poetry brought light back into my life and showed me how to feel the pulse of the world again. Later—much later—I would recognize this as the work of love itself. Love can take the broken, the half-formed and pierce it with life, which is precisely how poetry moves, which is the nature of its life-force.
Without hesitation, then, I accepted the role as national coordinator of the World Poetry Movement in January 2023. Apart from teaching, sharing and talking about poetry, I think I’d always had an impulse to serve poetry, to do something for it, to love it back, and say thank you. Systematising that impulse through an organization dedicated to poetry appealed. A lot. Essentially, the World Poetry Movement is an organization dedicated to encourage the use of poetry as a vital form of human expression, and as a tool for transformation, socially, culturally. It’s a force of poetry, you could say. When 37 International Poetry Festival directors across four continents got together in Medellin in 2011 as part of the 21st Medellin International Poetry Festival, they formed the World Poetry Movement with the intention of bringing poetry more consciously and with more impact to countries, regions and to the globe at large. Poets from around the world come together to exchange ideas and action plans on how poetry can be better integrated into the fabric of our lives, no matter where we are, who we are.
To concretise this, the first World Poetry Movement Congress was held within the timeframes of the Medellin and Venezuela poetry festivals—13th and 14th July in Medellin and 18th and 19th July in Caracas—and over these four intense, thought-provoking days, poets from all over the world, with our cultural and linguistic specificities, diversities and nuances, discussed ways to move forward with the movement’s intention to bolster human expression and communication and aid social and cultural transformation through poetry. The key in these dialogues, at least from my perspective, is to ensure the words aren’t empty, especially when they sound important. That’s the speciality of politicians. As poets, we’re naturally sensitive to the ways language becomes drained of meaning and so the emphasis during and after these talks is to assess how these visions are going to be translated into actions. Many discussions were had—we talked a lot, I won’t pretend we didn’t (it was Babelian at times), and we reached a point in the Congress at Caracas when we approved the six pillars in our strategic plan: poetic actions, pedagogical projects, publishing projects, organizational and management processes, communication, and the defense of human rights and all forms of life. I won’t explicate each pillar now, but in essence, the action lines are meant to open up pathways to amplify poetry’s power in facilitating meaningful expression, social justice, humanitarian and ecological restitution, the promotion of culturally and ethnically diverse poetic voices, and the respect for human rights. Post-Congress, we’re working in different groups, according to the pillars, and organizing events and actions based on our specific themes. The point now is to take the talks from mental ideation into the realm of physical reality, and the work beginning to take shape.
As part of the pedagogical team, which is tasked to bring poetry into educational spaces and to the public sphere on a global level, I’m looking forward to acting on our plans, some of which entail gathering youth from various parts of the world and engaging them in sharing poetry and exchanging ideas, cultural perspectives and so on. Virtual poetry workshops are also, of course, in the mix. What’s invigorating is the global aspect of these ventures: imagine the comingling of intercontinental poetic traditions and perceptions; I felt the magnitude of this type of coming-together during my trip. The effects are expansive, potentially explosive.
In the meantime, in Malaysia itself, the inclusive, spacious spirit of the movement is working its way into several activities. We’ve begun a translation project where poems from different languages in the country are being translated into English. The literary divisions in Malaysia have remained stuck in linguistic compartments for far too long. Poems from across cultures, languages and backgrounds need to be aired in the open, and all types of voices given the chance to holler and be heard. The loving, democratic essence of poetry needs to be felt as an actual, living thing.
We’ve started to share these voices on our social media pages, Instagram (@wpm_malaysia) and Facebook (World Poetry Movement Malaysia). Some of the translations from the project will be presented at the Georgetown Literary Festival this year. WPM Malaysia has a session at the festival where we’ll introduce our projects and also talk about the writing and translating of poetry.
If there’s one thing that struck me during my recent travels, it’s how powerful and important it is to immerse poetry in public spaces—I’ve stopped believing the myth that people aren’t interested in poetry, or that it’s an elite space for people schooled in verse. Poetry’s roots are oral and populist and going back to it is both crucial and revitalizing. So: poetry in parks, in cafes, malls (of course lah), and free poetry writing jam sessions in public locations. At the end of this year, Malaysia is hosting a global virtual poetry reading where poets from twenty countries will be sharing poems from their respective poetic traditions. Next year, we have plans for organising a small physical festival with an emphasis on providing a poetic platform for diverse and marginalized voices.
During one of my poetry writing classes last year, I asked my students what poetry meant to them. One student replied: “Poetry is movement.” For whatever reason, his answer didn’t resonate with me and I wondered why he’d said it (we didn’t have much time for elaborations; it was more of a ‘rapid round’ exercise). Later, he told me he’d got that sentence from the preface of my poetry collection. I laughed. He laughed. We moved on. When I got home, I grabbed a copy of my book and read the words: “And, ultimately, this birthing orientation is one that brings me back to what poetry is for me, and has always been: a movement, an ongoing translation of awe into words, and of bringing life to things that have been maimed, killed, stashed away, banished, misunderstood, unseen, or seen with old, stale eyes.” I am not sure why the idea of poetry as movement baffled me when my student had said it—maybe it was the fact that it sounded like an abstraction that just hung in the air—but when I revisited the preface and reflected on the mobilising quality and effect of poetry, I remembered everything I’d felt and meant when I wrote those words. Poetry takes you places and changes you, whether literally as in my South American trip, or metaphorically where a poem can cause an inner revolution, whatever the size. The point is that poetry is a dynamic force. In one of my recent conversations with a Venezuelan poet, we spoke of ‘mobile poetry’, which is the poetry that comes out of physical roaming. As the poet wanders, inner and outer objects constellate into poetic universes. That’s one very overt form of poetry as movement and I like the fact his poetry comes out of that purity and loyalty. But there is also the way poetry moves you, takes you forwards and backwards, and projects far ahead of your own limitations: perhaps this is why someone in Colombia said poetry is important because it is hope itself, and hope we know is a thing with feathers.
Essentially, my flight to the other side of the world and my return with a renewed realisation that poetry is democratic, that it is movement, that it is the stuff of love, was the very movement needed to fuel the work that will be done through the poetry movement (I really could not help it! The pun was just there), as well as the concrete forms that will materialise from the womb of poetry, the womb that, since I’ve known it, has never stopped giving and therefore keeps me alert to the ways in which I can serve it and give thanks.