It started off with four members awkwardly staring at each other and wondering how long the meeting would last.

And it ended up turning into a journey – that continued for months, to climaxing into the very first show in just six months.

That is how Ampersand, a spoken word group in Dhaka, began. In the space we built for four months, we have been brewing poetry, peace and protests through our spoken word art.

So far, Ampersand has performed in two different shows: At Longitude Latitude 6, and as part of the 100 Thousand Poets For Change (100tpc), which is part of a global event.

What amazed us, in both shows, is the response of the audience. To hold a room full of close to 100 people with their phones on silent for an entire hour seemed impossible to do in Dhaka. But it happened. In both shows, people were quiet, people paid attention, people listened.

And that says something about the space Dhaka is craving. That says something about what the people are willing to sit down for: Words that speak a language they speak. The pieces we performed for our shows did not reek of incomprehensible Shakespearean English, or difficult jargon – they spoke of everyday struggles: Of the body, of the mind, of the self, of the community.

“Slam poetry offers the ability for a performer to connect with his/her audience in a deeper way, and allows the performer to articulate a set of emotions and thoughts, succinctly using the power of voice and words,” Mehroze Baig writes in The Huffington post.

Aptly so. In both our shows, we heard powerful pieces, even during the open-mic sessions that followed. A person came out about their sexual orientation with their piece. Another person shared the story of their sexual abuse. All in front of a room full of strangers.

But this expression in front of so many (known and) unknown faces is testament to the need for a safe space in Dhaka – for the soul, for the expressions. And that is where a space for something like spoken word can be beneficial.

Spoken word: an untraceable beginning

Spoken word has a beginning that is almost untraceable in some ways. It has been common in many parts of the world, especially for the African American community who took to it in order to maintain an “oral history,” given their other modes of expression had been silenced.

“Institutions of slavery and racism attempted to silence generations of African Americans,” reads a post on the Smithsonian website. “Thus oral history became a means of maintaining identity, surviving, and resisting oppression and exploitation, as well as a tool for achieving freedom.”

Today, spoken word has become part of many cultures, such as in Botswana.

“So, people were used to hearing a poet,” she said during last year’s festival in Dhaka. “But not on a stage with other poets; rather at social events such as a wedding. I’ve even heard one or two at funerals ... sometimes people ask poets to come to a funeral and read poetry. It is not surprising or shocking given how often poems deal with death and loss. So the audience were there in that sense.”

“[Slam poetry is] also a platform that goes beyond creative expression,” adds Baig in her article. “Just like any art form, slam poetry and spoken word allow the artist to talk about social issues and social change.”

Since it came about more as a vessel for historic accounts to be taught, rather than a form of literature or language, there is no specific date as to when it began. That is also perhaps why it has the power to hold together an audience of a diverse background – because it speaks the language of all people, not just literature students or those with a knack for poetry.

Spoken word at last year’s festival

In our culture, Kobi Lorai, where two poets take turns to respond to each other through poems in one performance, or Chora/Kobita Abritti (poetry recitation) has been prevalent for generations. These have more to do with dramatic expression and have a theatrical angle to them.

Spoken word, on the other hand, is more straightforward, and is closer to a revolutionary speech than a theatrical performance.

At last year’s Hay Festival, the audience was blown away by Cambodian poet and tattoo artist Kosal Khiev’s performances. Khiev, who found poetry when he was jailed in the US for 14 years, definitely had a story that was appealing – but it is the way he told his story that moved so many.

I remember sitting in the Cosmic Tent, and the audience caught in the spell of his words – or imprisonment, captivity, identity – and how so many could relate to it, sitting there in the open space of Bangla Academy.

And that is how spoken word can hinge itself on the mind of anyone and everyone. It talks of struggles and successes we face daily – and therein it becomes more than just “poetry recitation.”

At this year’s Dhaka Lit Fest, there will be more space for poetry than ever before – with poetry recitations as well as spoken word pieces, along with discussions on poetry and protests.

It will be an interesting setting to view the various kinds of poetry side by side – and to finally be able to compare and contrast them, in our own ways.

Syeda Samira Sadeque is a journalist at Dhaka Tribune. You can follow her on twitter @Samideque

First appeared in Dhaka Tribune: