By Mohani Niza

It is kind of hard to ignore Sheena Baharudin when she performs. If you’re familiar with the spoken word poetry scene in Malaysia, you might already know what I am talking about: this thirty-something young woman, who describes herself as a “poet educator”, grabs her audience’s attention the moment she is on stage.

‘Qul lil mumineena yaghuddoo min absarihim

Sons of Adam,
you have failed me,
you have failed me and your God who
have told you to do since the olden days.
to tunduk [bow], lower your gaze’

That was how Sheena began her spoken word poem ‘Mother’ at a recent event in town, her voice booming throughout the venue.

Sheena’s strong stage presence actually hides her shyness. She told The Culture Review Mag: “I don’t hide the fact that I have stage fright, which means that I am pretty much pumped with adrenaline and anxiety every time I step on the stage to perform. Performers, particularly verbal artists, put ourselves in a very vulnerable position when we share our poems with an audience. Over the years, however, I gradually learned how to use and channel all that excess energy through my performance. Words matter a lot to me, and in order for me to verbalise and embody them, I have to believe in each word that I utter. That helps.”

The theme of the poem itself lends to the charisma of Sheena’s performance. Sheena had written ‘Mother’ for a show called ‘Pontianak’ (Malay for ‘banshee’). The show was an ensemble consisting of a few female poets adopting and adapting local folklore into spoken word pieces. It took Sheena two weeks to compose and memorise the poem, though she said that she had long considered telling the story of ‘hantu tetek’ which is a type of ghost popular in both Malaysian and Balinese folklore (‘hantu tetek’ is Malay for ‘breast ghost’).

“I would describe the performance piece ‘Mother’ as a poetic response to the continuous assault on the feminine,” Sheena said. “It is also an artistic experiment, on my part, to tell a universal story from a local perspective. ‘Mother’ is a call to action for the audience, meaning that it is intended to provoke and invoke a reaction when they watch or hear it. It is not my intention to just perform the poem for their enjoyment but rather to move them so that they can go back, think about it and hopefully, do something about it.”

Yes, Sheena considers herself a feminist. “My works do reflect that. I write about issues that matter to me. They are not necessarily about issues exclusive to women only but I do want my readers and audience to see that my poems, regardless of their subject-matter, are an extension of my identity that is a Malaysian-Malay-Muslim-Woman.”

Sheena establishes a very intimate relationship with each person in the audience whenever she performs, as if she is speaking to him/her directly. “It is something that I learned from all the workshops I attended in my early years learning the art form. I have performed in front of an audience of only five people up to the hundreds and in each situation, I make sure to establish eye contact with random faces. A simple tip would be to spot a person sitting or standing on my right, left, in front and at the back – these are the ones, for the lack of a better word, I would perform for. Of course, this is harder to do when it comes to a larger audience. But generally, I let the eye contact linger a bit before moving on to the next set of eyes. The intention has always been the same that is yes, I am speaking to them and telling my story. It does not work as well if I were to read a poem from a page because it breaks that connection I personally seek.”

Sheena spends a huge amount of time reading before she begins writing her poems. “I am obsessed with the sound and meaning of a word, which basically means that there are not only multiple editing rounds involved but also hours of unearthing the etymology of the words that I use in my poem before I am happy with it. The amount of time that I spend on writing differs from one poem to another. I have had a poem completed in a day, sans the revision of course, and I’ve also had a poem that took several years to finally be what it is. Before smartphones came into our lives, I would have bits and pieces of poetry stored in multiple notebooks or in my wallet. It’s nice to find them again and read them with a fresh pair of eyes.”

Sheena was born and raised in Malaysia and has devoted 12 years of her life to spoken word poetry. She is the author of two collections of poems: ‘Rhymes for Mending Hearts’ (2013) and ‘All the Bodies We’ve Embraced’ (2017).

“My works do reflect that I am a feminist. I write about issues that matter to me. They are not necessarily about issues exclusive to women only but I do want my readers and audience to see that my poems, regardless of their subject-matter, are an extension of my identity that is a Malaysian-Malay-Muslim-Woman.”

Before ‘Mother’ unfurled, Sheena had written a poem called ‘Moles’, dedicated to the very visible moles on her face, finger and body. That poem was a love letter to herself: Sheena grew up in the conservative east coast state of Terengganu, where she was deemed an outsider and bullied for what she said “not looking Malay enough.”

Sheena said: “Having a mole smack on the middle of my forehead didn’t help my younger introverted self at all! As I grew older, I was fascinated by how people generally react to this mark that I have on my face. How its meaning changes from one culture to the other. I guess you can say that the poem is what a conversation with my younger self would sound like if I could travel back in time. I want to show her that one day, she would own her body and proud of it.”

Sheena began performing her poems in 2007. She was fascinated by the episodes of Def Jam Poetry on Youtube, and so she emailed Priya and Pat, the organisers of Project OMG! in Petaling Jaya. “They returned my email a few days later and invited me to perform. I did and I sucked, which then made me want to learn more and improve on my performance skills. 12 years later, here we are.”

Since then, Sheena has been active in the spoken word poetry scene, especially at events by Poetry Cafe KL (PCKL), a group which has since become defunct. This includes open mics and slams. She also facilitated performance workshops with them.

Her good friend and founder of PCKL, Elaine Foster, 41, said: “Over the years and to varying degrees, Sheena has been a judge, host and designer of posters and has played an instrumental role in the planning and designing of the overall direction of PCKL. Sheena has been a longest standing friend, collaborator and supporter of PCKL and its projects. For me, Sheena brought talent, enthusiasm, inspiration and academic credibility to the work of poetry and poetry education.”

When Sheena is not performing, she teaches English literature and creative writing at the University of Nottingham Malaysia. “I am blessed. It’s about having the opportunity to create awareness on the importance of poetry, and of course the arts, amongst the youth.” She is also currently pursuing her PhD there.

So, has Sheena’s mom seen her perform ‘Mother’? “My mother has read the poem before but no, she has never seen it being performed. I do intend to show the video, which I am currently working on, once it is done. I’ll let you know when that day comes!”

To read ‘Mother’ and ‘Moles’ in full, click here.

An audio recording of ‘Mother’ can be found here.

For short poetry videos, poems and regular updates of upcoming performances, check out her Instagram @sheenabaharudin.