Interviewed by The Malay Mail Online

MMOxGTF: Give Liyana three words and she will give you a poem… in an instant!

by Lydia Koh

Liyana opens a booth and busk with her late grandfather’s Olympia typewriter, writing poems for strangers. — Pictures by Choo Choo May
Liyana opens a booth and busk with her late grandfather’s Olympia typewriter, writing poems for strangers. — Pictures by Choo Choo May

KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 24 — You’ve heard it all before: Malaysians don’t like to read. So, what more when it comes to poetry. But Liyana Dizzy has taken on the challenge to change that. One poem at a time. It is so refreshing the way she has gone about changing the way poetry is consumed.

The freelance writer started a project called #GeraiPuisiSegera which was launched at Cooler Lumpur in 2013. “I call the Gerai an offstage poetry performance. I open a booth and busk with my late grandfather’s Olympia typewriter. I write poems on the spot for strangers using three random words from them, and spend anywhere from five to 20 minutes per poem with distractions, before giving it away. They pay for it what they like, or nothing at all,” said Liyana.

“I usually run #GeraiPuisiSegera at Art For Grabs, while I sell zines under Biawak Gemok Distro, another side project I co-run, to make reading more affordable and accessible to the public,” she added.

Liyana started reading at a young age and started wearing glasses at the age of five. She has more books than clothes and from her avid reading, the love for writing was born. She enjoys reading material that gives her more context about what the world she was born into looks like.

“I have been writing as a form of self-expression and documentation for as long as I can remember. If writing is a sport, then I hit the gym every day, but am far from being a pro athlete! I won’t usually call myself a poet either, but since it’s my most visible form of writing I am more comfortable with the label now,” she said.

Liyana spent 10 years writing in the media and she has plans to take up teaching English in September. Her grandfathers were both educators and early advocates for education and she is influenced by her maternal grandfather to teach. One of Liyana’s first and shortest published poem was about him and her grandmother. Taking the step to transition to education is a way to explore a new career path and make space for personal writing. The past 10 years were spent writing for other people.

Before #GeraiPuisiSegera, Liyana was involved in the local poetry scene and has performed in Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Kathmandu and Melbourne.
Before #GeraiPuisiSegera, Liyana was involved in the local poetry scene and has performed in Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Kathmandu and Melbourne.

Some time around 2006 or 2007 she attended a few poetry writing workshops sponsored by the British Council. “It was a great feeling to have my solitary bedroom hobby validated by poets like Jacob Sam-la Rose and Charlie Dark. It was my first time meeting other local poets too!” said Liyana.

According to her, local poets who were performing along the same time frame as her flourished and developed a KL poetry scene of their own which included poetry slams and readings with guitar accompaniments.

Liyana suffered from stage anxiety which was in the way of her becoming truly part of the poetry scene. She turned down many invitations to perform so she decided to find other ways of presenting poetry that didn’t affect her onstage.

In 2009, Liyana and Alia Ali started performed onstage as Dizzy & The, as a music-poetry duo. It was during a sleepover that the both of them decided to pair poetry reading with music where Alia specifically composed a soundtrack for each poem. Everything was timed. The response was so good that Dizzy & The hand made an EP and sold all 200 copies within a year.

“Gig organisers didn’t quite know where to place us, but we had a great time performing at Farish Noor’s book launch and other experimental shows. We were validated with awards and even featured on The Wknd! I think Dizzy & The was something people hadn’t seen yet at the time, so it was interesting to see how people responded to the project. We still get people coming up to us today, years and years after our only EP. They talk about how it felt being in the audience or what they were up to when they played our tracks!” said Liyana.

Currently, Dizzy & The is on a hiatus because both Liyana and Alia are busy with other things.

Liyana called #GeraiPuisiSegera an offstage poetry performance because it is still performing.
Liyana called #GeraiPuisiSegera an offstage poetry performance because it is still performing.

The reason #GeraiPuisiSegera was created? Liyana wanted the practice without being precious about the product, process or price. It was also important to Liyana that it felt like both a performance without triggering her stage fright — and also a collaboration with strangers without being too inaccessible or awkward.

She wanted to explore other ways people could access poetry and assign value to it. Liyana called #GeraiPuisiSegera an offstage poetry performance because it is still performing. “People are free to sit and watch me sweat blood and write something for them in a short amount of time if they want. And by the end of it, they’re free to decide what a poem is worth, even if they’ve never liked or paid for poetry in their life,” she said.

“I approach the project like a no-strings-attached experiment and the results are always a pleasant surprise. The people I meet surprise me, some of them have no relationship with poetry at all. Their three words surprise me, and it’s always fun to subvert what people think they’ll get.

“Their reactions to what I write surprises me — once a mother wept and gave me RM50. Above all, even what I write surprises me — I push the boundaries of my comfort zone with this project every time I do it. To be honest, it’s been more liberating than I ever thought it would be, to focus on quantity instead of quality. It’s freeing to view it as a quirky experiment, not attaching it to expectations or the ‘artsy’ solitary process of writing so often associated with tortured suffering poets. It’s also fun to involve people in the process instead of seeing them as a passive audience,” said Liyana.

Liyana noted that the language of her Gerai poems are very much different from how she used to write poetry where she would mull over words longer. Now she uses at least one clear visual anchor and go with it. She writes free verse, using simple words in English.

“I’m less interested in solitary poetry writing these days, instead I try to think about how it could be a collaboration somehow, and I’m always open to ideas. I’d love to open the booth with other poets who feel like taking on a challenge of three words! Maybe we could make an instant poetry zine stapled together. I’d also like to work with poets in Bahasa, since I’m still building the confidence to call anything I write in Bahasa poetry,” said Liyana.

One of Liyana’s first and shortest published poem was about her grandparents.
One of Liyana’s first and shortest published poem was about her grandparents.

“I hope I’m making some impact, no matter how small, in inspiring people to write as a form of self-expression, to read more poetry, to support the poets and writers Malaysia already has, at the very least to pursue an idea in any field that may sound completely mad at first but rewarding later.

“I’d also like to publish my favourite Gerai poems from the past two years, but I’m not sure how to get around it yet. I’ve avoided publishing my work before because of my own insecurities and expectations— I didn’t feel a collection of whatever I wrote would be thematically strong enough to stand alone.

“But a book of instant five-minute poems could be something to explore down the road in the right hands. Imagine the number of people I have to dedicate in such a book! Each of the 60-plus poems I’ve written in the two years I’ve done #GeraiPuisiSegera would not have been possible without someone first offering me three words.”

Liyana will be participating in the MMO x George Town Festival collaboration on Aug 30. Look for her at Soo Hong Lane from 4pm (across from China House) and get yourself some instant poems. She will also be performing her work on the main stage at 9pm. 

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