Why poetry matters

Ezra Pound said that poetry is “language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree”. It’s a way of expressing ideas, emotions and yourself that reworks the familiarity of words, their ordinariness, into something extraordinary that can surprise or shock or console or entertain. It’s a democratic art form, one that needs no extra tools (ok, maybe a pen and paper). It’s accessible and available. And in the UAE we have one of the most accessible, most available forums for poetry: Rooftop Rhythms, a classic poetry open mic night now in its eleventh year. It’s the brainchild of Dorian Rogers, who writes here about his own introduction to spoken word and the genesis of Rooftop Rhythms.

What would be your reaction if a friend invited you to attend a poetry show for the first time?

My first poetry open mic experience came as a second-year university student, an extremely impressionable period in my life. I was raised in Southern America in a small town called Albany, Georgia. During my adolescent years, I only knew of poetry from the lens of famous form poets like Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson; these artists were not relatable to me at the time.

My love of words was fostered through hip hop; so I was pessimistic, to say the least, about what type of experience I would have at a poetry show. Nevertheless, I decided to accept my friend’s offer to attend – and that evening changed the trajectory of my life. I had no idea that the decision would be such a formative and life-altering experience.

Just imagine me there. A 19-year-old sophomore at Florida State University, thrown into this new environment: a dimly-lit room, incense burning, soul music playing in the background. Back Talk! Poetry Troupe and Black on Black Rhyme, the organisers of the event, were positive, intellectual, and cool at the same time. With hip hop, so much of what I heard was false machismo and braggadocio. Instead, here my contemporaries were speaking about humanity, love, and self-expression.

It was such a positive, welcoming environment, and I immediately felt at home. I’d found a community, which is a big deal for any teenager.

I soaked up everything I could from those weekly open mic nights. Some poets were comedic, while some were melancholy and spoke of heartbreak. Some had more of a hip hop rhyming style, others used different figurative techniques to craft their poetic stories. I began to participate and used a hybrid poetic style that led to me touring regularly across Florida and Georgia and winning poetry slam competitions in the southern United States.

After university I went on to become a curator of poetry events and festivals. When I moved to the Emirates in 2011, it was only natural to want to provide UAE residents with the same positive platform which had been so transformational to me in the States.

I came to the UAE as an educator, so it was a big surprise to find Arabic poetry channels on TV when I first arrived! What I later learned was Nabati poetry, a traditional art form endemic to the GCC region, was similar to the rhythmic call and response patterns of American spoken word which is rooted in African griot traditions.

Granted, there wasn’t much contemporary poetry in the UAE at the time. But I hoped the same style of poetry open mics in America would transfer here since we have so many American and British teachers in Abu Dhabi. I would have been happy with 30 people coming to an open mic night, but the first show we organised at Café Arabia in March 2012 had 100 attendees. It just grew from there.

Initially, it was more of a Western-style social event, which was fine, but we wanted it to be an inclusive environment for all cultures. When in 2015 The Arts Center at NYU Abu Dhabi offered to host our event, it was a critical moment which prompted the shift to what the show has become – a family friendly event for all backgrounds and identities to enjoy positive self-expression.

Rooftop Rhythms is free entry to the community. It is an inclusive occasion, comprised of original spoken word and music, with people from all cultures speaking about humanity, identity, love, mental health, and self-awareness. The pandemic forced everyone to look inside and reassess our priorities and our relationships, and it’s beautiful to see the local audience being a part of this community, sharing more about their unique culture and humanity.

I can confidently say that the sanctity of poetry open mics saved my life, but what about poetry’s wider relevance to society? I’m happy to say that an increasing number of cultural institutions in the UAE have collaborated with us over the years which has helped our art form to be rightfully viewed as a fine art alongside visual arts, drama, theatre and music.

We see this trend across the world. For example, Lincoln Center recently appointed Mahogany L Browne as its first poet-in-residence. We’ve performed at Louvre Abu Dhabi, featured at the World Conference on Creative Economy (WCCE), and were even the heads of the poetry delegation at the 2021 and 2022 Smithsonian Folklife Festival in which the UAE was the country of focus.

An increasing number of poets are taking positions as creative directors or consultants of corporations and cultural institutions. Jaysus Zain, a regular performer and resident DJ of Rooftop Rhythms, wrote the script that Will.I.am recited in his advertisement for Expo 2020. Most of the Expo commercials were narrated in a similar way, sharing the event’s themes in a poetic cadence. Salem AlAttas, another regular poet with us, has performed poetry on Etihad Airways commercials as well as with other brands.

I think this is the future of marketing, with brands utilising the rhythmic form of popular poetry performance styles that young people use today.

In an emerging world where artificial intelligence can produce adequate written content, the task for any individual, company or institution will be to have people who can think about the world in a different way, with originality and clarity. I see poetry and the compelling crafting of words with emotion becoming even more essential to our lives in future.

Above all, poetry helps to get to the heart of our experiences. It’s a beautiful form of expression – especially when it is performed live, and it becomes a connection between the poet and the audience. This act requires a lot of vulnerability, trust, and a supportive environment. These are things we could all use at one time or another.

So, if I return to the question I asked at the beginning – how would you react to being invited to a poetry event? How would you answer? Would you be willing to think outside of the box and give it a try?

I find The Arts Center motto, “Come curious, leave inspired”, to be relevant. That’s what happened to the 19-year-old me, and I am forever grateful that poetry chose me.

Dorian Rogers in performance

We followed up with Dorian on a couple of the points raised in his article, and asked him when he felt that Rooftop Rhythms had become part of the cultural ecosystem.

DR: The audience changed to a more family friend format when we moved the show to NYU Abu Dhabi. It also became more of a culturally diverse event with the focus being primarily on the poetry.

I knew from early on that Rooftop Rhythms was a part of Abu Dhabi’s cultural ecosystem – one reason was the size of the crowds. Also the regularity of the event as a monthly concept became a part of the city’s performance art DNA. This was very important to me as I’ve always argued for poetry and spoken word to have its rightful place as a form of fine arts. So being respected by the community as well as public and private institutions means a lot

magpie: “The sanctity of poetry open mics saved my life …” What do you mean by that?

DR: I literally believe this: open mics meant a safe space for me to express myself honestly and without fear of judgement. That type of space was critical to me. Without that community, I think that I could easily have fallen in with the wrong crowd, or lacked that support group which pushed on the right path while becoming a man in university.

magpie: What’s so special about spoken word and poetry open mics? Is it the self-confidence that performance can bring? Is it the democratisation of culture? Something else?

DR: Poetry open mics are a symbiotic platform in which the crowd and poets feed off of each other. The poets come to connect, to share, to speak their truths. The crowd comes to feel authenticity, passion, and gain perspective.

Open mics are also unexpected form month to month as there are always new faces in the crowd and on stage. The lineup varies so there is an element of surprise and intrigue

The energy of the performance and emotion and power that comes from the crafting of words add a special ambience to this type of event. Having this safe space while ideas or exchanged is critical to the success of poetry open mics.

Dorian Paul Rogers, Ed.D, is the founder and host of Rooftop Rhythms; the next Rooftop Rhythms Open Mic Night is on Friday 28 April, from 8 to 10pm in the NYUAD Campus Markeplace, and as always admission is free. The event is presented in partnership with The Arts Center at NYUAD with official support of the US Mission to the UAE.

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