My father’s references to poetry still revolve around Shakespeare or, sometimes, the typical RTM “kita … bangsa … Merdeka …” reading on Aug 31.

Most people I know are pretty sceptical about the power of poetry and refuse to see it as an essential part of the spiritual and cultural legacy of mankind. But the truth is, poetry has evolved as the most creative, engaging, empowering, and provocative form of art that challenges your mind and tickles your funny bone.

Sustaining a project such as the “Poetry Education Movement” is next to impossible in this part of the world. But my fellow poets and I need to keep growing, which is why it was imperative that my colleague Elaine Foster and I travelled halfway around the globe to take part in the 100 Thousand Poets for Change World Conference in Salerno, Italy, last month. It was as if all these poets were on a pilgrimage of sorts, travelling to the home of the forefathers of the arts in search of muses.

We learnt that the solution to problems faced in our community is for everyone to keep an open mind. Because it is collective capacity rather than individual capacity that has the greatest impact on learning – working alone will not succeed in spreading the arts. This is how you sustain an art movement.

Over 100 poets attended this conference. I met all kinds of insane human beings under the banner of poetry – scientists, politicians, activists, educators, and even grandparents.

Writing on the wall: The city of Salerno, Italy, was festooned with poetry in June when it hosted the 100 Thousand Poets For Change World Poetry Conference in June. Photo: Facebook/100TPC/Nadia Cavalera

Writing on the wall: The city of Salerno, Italy, was festooned with poetry in June when it hosted the 100 Thousand Poets For Change World Poetry Conference in June. Photo: Facebook/100TPC/Nadia Cavalera

The arts scene in Malaysia, especially poetry, is expanding, with spoken word in particular gaining popularity among the youth. Mushrooming poetry readings are cultivating the culture of listening, sharing, and empathising – which is exactly what we need to curb racial disharmony and create a more understanding Malaysia.

However, there is still a feeling of segregation created by the inevitable language barrier, status, and ownership.

In one of the round table discussions, Italian poet Valeriano Forte said that, in order for a community to grow, artists need to ditch their egos. Most people associated with the art world want to protect their ideas, cliques, events, and create allies, hence making it a popularity contest.

But art is not – should not be – about competing. Neither is it the goal of poetry slams, which instead encourages the sharing of stories, experiences and raising awareness. What matters is building a communal spirit that will embrace each individual’s uniqueness and diversity and form a healthy community.

I don’t want to compete to be the best poet. I want to be a part of this family. A family that shares a poem, borrows a song, lends a painting, cares to act, loves to dance, and supports you regardless of the different form of your art. Art is one.

(Left) All together now: The writer (second from left) with other participants at the World Poetry Conference. Photo: ILLYA SUMANTO

The poet and writer Illya Sumanto (second from left) with colleague and poet Elaine Foster (first from right) together with other poets who attended the 100 Thousand Poets For Change World Poetry Conference in Salerno, Italy, in June. Conference. Photo: Illya Sumanto

In Italy, where one is constantly surrounded by beautiful historical buildings, sculptures, and paintings, it is obvious that Roman artists were put on a pedestal and given a platform through which they could express themselves, and this has now given them something to hold on to and be proud of.

This made me wonder: If Malaysians are given more support, opportunities and scholarships, or if the little art that we have is preserved, would we be able to produce a more colourful Malaysia? After all, they say you reap what you sow.

Unfortunately, we seem to need foreigners to tell us what is treasure for us to actually value it. Why else have we allowed the demolition of the eighth-century candi (shrine) in Kedah’s Bujang Valley and historical buildings like Kuala Lumpur’s Pudu Jail, or are contemplating allowing the tearing down of the city’s beautiful Vivekananda Ashram? The only art truly mastered here is the art of filling pockets.

At the end of the day, an artist always has to ask questions, like what are we fighting for? What is our motivation? Does fame trump social change?