Arts & Culture

Sheena Baharudin: Three Languages, One Poet

Weaving multilingual poetry

Words by
b-side staff

Drawing inspiration from influences like the 13th century poet Rumi, Sheena Baharudin’s poetry is often rhythmic and lyrical. She has published collections of her poems like Rhymes for Mending Hearts (2013), Memori Gajah (2015) and All The Bodies We’ve Embraced: Letters And Poems (2016), and some of them have been translated into Bahasa and French.

Collectively, the poems are an exploration of her identity and roles in relation to the world around her. And they are expressed sometimes in English, sometimes in Bahasa, sometimes in Arabic, and sometimes all together in a single poem. Each language bears its own nuances, and sometimes the right expression only surfaces when they overlap.

Sheena shares more on her choice to use multiple languages in her poetry and the reasons behind her language and words.

How would you describe your poetry style?

Constantly evolving. Rhythmic.

Where do you draw the inspiration for your poetry?

From the information that I consume daily. It could be the news, a movie, a song, an experience, a conversation overheard somewhere, or a lost memory that decides to drop by and say hello. I do try to be as current as possible in my writing, a reaction to what’s happening in the country. Keyword is try. Sometimes it works, but at other times, a poem just needs more space to become.

Which is the first poem where you began to mix different languages? What inspired you to make that choice?

Thank god for personal blogs because I honestly do not remember. But apparently, it was in 2004 for a poetry performance back when I was still an undergraduate at IIUM. The title of the poem is Dialogue in 3 Tongues, and I wrote it in Bahasa, English and Arabic because of the audience I had in mind.

I wanted to reach out to as many people as possible, and it was fascinating to watch people’s face lit up when you make an effort to articulate their tongue.

But in hindsight, it was not so much a challenge as a start.

I basically wrote, memorised and recited the same stanza in three different languages.

What are some expressions that you found better captured in Malay or Arabic, rather than English?

For Bahasa, I still can’t find the English equivalent for rindu and sayang, two words that can actually carry the weight of such complex emotions in two syllables. As for Arabic, the Quranic phrase kun fayakun [ کُنْ فَیَکون ] which is not even remotely close to its translated version ‘Be and it is’. And my personal favourite, the exquisite root verb rahima, which links the concept of divine mercy with the womb.

What do you feel are the tonal differences between Malay and English, and how have you used these differences in your performances?

That’s a difficult question to answer because of my writing process, but I’ll try to break it down. The first rough draft is usually a stream of consciousness, where I just let the words flow. I’ll write them down and being bilingual, like many of us, I tend to switch languages as I go. It’s only during the multiple stages of revision that I focus on the choice of words.

I’d like to think that there is a word out there that describes exactly what you want to say or how you feel. It’s all about finding it, and there’s a deep satisfaction when it’s found regardless if it’s in Bahasa, English or Arabic.

Only then do I move on to the arrangement of words i.e. how they sound spoken out loud, and rewrite them to follow a specific rhythm. This rhythm makes it easier for me to memorise the poem for performance. In regard to tonal differences, it’s something that I am aware of when I am editing and revising, rather than when I am performing them.

What is a favourite multilingual work of yours and why?

Mother remains one of my favourites to perform. It is purely a performance piece, meaning that it doesn’t come to life on the page. Did you know that I wrote, memorised and performed it in just two weeks? It was insane and I haven’t changed it much since.

It’s my favorite because I enjoy performing it as much as those who have told me how much they enjoyed watching me perform it. I like it because there is a bit of me in that story, but it is not only about me. Mother gave a voice to a gravely misunderstood and vilified folklore character, and sometimes I wonder if I am but just a vessel when I’m uttering those lines on stage. Entah lah. But every time when I do have the opportunity to perform it, I am reminded why I’ve been doing this for more than 10 years.

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