Poetry is alive and kicking in scattered pockets, some large, some small, throughout Bangladesh. After all, this is the nation of Lalon Shah and Shah Abdul Karim, of Kazi Nazrul Islam, Rabindranath Tagore, Jibananda Das and Sufia Kamal. Men and women whose verses people know by heart.
Yet, where’s the space and appreciation for critique – not criticism, not jabs, but honest, balanced critique aimed at growth and improvement? Where’s the room for a collective push toward excellence and genuineness and being recognized for that? Note that by critique is meant: “This is what works well in your writing – keep it up – and this is a suggestion for what could be better,” and this critique can be applied to anyone of any age and writing level. One is never too old to learn, or shouldn’t be.
These are the questions that led six young poets to launch the Versemongers. They do not take themselves too seriously, or at least they try not to. However, when it comes to their craft, the Versemongers are focused on quality, authenticity and growth in their individual and collective voices. The objective is to improve their skills through regular workshops and performances, while becoming active, engaged participants of the larger arts and culture movement of the time.
Tamoha Siddiqui, Rifat Islam Esha, Raisul Nayon, Mahmood Sadaat Ruhul, Zarin Rafiuddin and Sayeeda T Ahmad started out as page poets, writing, crafting, growing and publishing their poems in Bangladesh and elsewhere. Each of them has been exposed to the performance aspect through workshops, competitions and other avenues and spoken word groups.
On the evening of April 20, when a storm struck through the city, they shared their verses and experience in their debut performance at Jatra Biroti. Following a short introduction, each poet performed a poem in two rounds, followed by a question and answer session in which audience members were given the opportunity to find out what makes poets tick, how they start, and to offer critique on how to improve their performances. Some members of the audience even shared their own verses in an open mic.
Performance poetry is increasingly grabbing the attention and imagination of the Bangladeshi audience. That’s no surprise in a nation where kobir lorai is still immensely popular in villages. Kobir lorai is a performance in which two poets lock horns in a poetic battle, each defending himself/herself and attacking the opponent with impromptu, rhymed verses. With less lorai (fight) and more passion in their words and voices, the Versemongers shall continue the pursuit of growth and yes, of excellence.
Sayeeda T Ahmad is a poet and nonfiction writer. She is a founding member of The Versemongers. Her debut poetry collection, Across Oceans, was published by Bengal Lights Books.