X Factor for poetry has had incredible success all over the Arabic world, even taking some of the audience from soccer games. According to the famous Egyptian intellectual and literary critic Salah Fadl, one of the three prominent judges of the show, during its ten years of existence the talent show has done what princes do to sleeping princesses in fairy tales: “It gave the kiss of life to contemporary Arabic poetry”.
How was the idea of this program born?
In the Arabic cultural environment, about a decade ago, we thought we were living the novel era. For some poetry had lost its space. Indeed, contemporary artists devote themselves to different literary and artistic forms: tales, novels, photography, television or cinema. However, poetry has always played an essential role in traditional Arabic culture. Today, new generations of artists can have great poetic talent, but they cannot reach an audience of readers or listeners due to the changes in communication strategies, different from the old models: written word no longer circulates and receives the attention that it deserves, and instead television is the one that actively makes artistic and literary expressions circulate. I am referring to TV shows, news services, and much more. From this in the United Arab Emirates the idea of the program was born, precisely in order to respond to a specific need that had already led to the creation of another talent show, “The Million’s Poet” (Shā‘ir al-milyūn), whose protagonist is popular and folk poetry, written in the so-called Nabataean language1, the dialect of those who live in the Gulf countries. This dialect differs from the classical Arab language on many levels, and is used by a large number of poets because it is particularly suited to compositions in verses. The program Shā‘ir al-milyūn presented new talented poets, and during the broadcast it emerged that even some of the princes and emirs of the Gulf write poetry in Nabataean: in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman. It was some of them who thought of a program that would encourage not only Nabatean poets but all those who write in classical Arabic. Thus, Amīr al-shu‘ara’ was born.
How does the selection work?
There are three requirements: participants must not be older than 45 years (although our audience includes several generations); the accepted poetic forms are two: qasīda ‘amūdiyya [traditional monometric and monorhytmic poetry, Ed.] and qasīdat al-taf‘īla [free poetry based on a single foot of ancient meters, with internal and free rhymes, Ed]. Today, the most widespread form among the young poets is qasīdat al-nathr [prose poetry, Ed.], but since it is not a declamatory kind of poetry, it is not suited to be recited in front of an audience and thus it was excluded from the show. The third requirement is for poems to distance themselves from the traditional encomiastic or invective forms of poetry, which are no longer present.
How are competitors evaluated?
Poets must demonstrate to have a correct diction and to be able to engage the audience. Some do have a real charisma, thanks to which they are able to win the support of the audience and the televoters. Judges have two minutes each for their comments, during which they inform the audience about strengths and weaknesses of the metric, of rhetorical figures, of symbols, and of the poems in general, in order to reinforce the audience’s critical awareness.
What effect does your program have on the relationship between young people and poetry?
At the first edition of the program, in 2007, we had thousands of candidates: three thousands young people from all over the Arabic world, all sure to be poets (regardless of whether such belief was grounded or illusory). After having examined the candidates, a commission selected 200 poets. We then met those 200 poets and we chose 20 competitors among them. At the end of the competition, we chose the top five, which received an award according to the position reached. Now we are at the seventh edition and the program has been very successful in promoting poetic talent: it has given “the kiss of life” to contemporary Arabic poetry.
What can be said about female participation?
It has increased: in this edition (the seventh, Ed.), for the first time ten out of twenty competitors are women: this is the highest percentage of female participation ever achieved in a TV program.
What do great contemporary Arabic poets think of the program?
The program received two kinds of criticism: the title of Prince of Poets annoyed the great contemporary poets, who would have preferred such title to be attributed to one of them, rather than to a young amateur. Actually, choosing this title was nothing more than a media expedient. It is an intriguing goal for a young poet to have the opportunity to be awarded such an important title, in the same way that at the beginning of the 20th century Ahmad Shawqi was (a famous Egyptian poet from the early 20th century, who was said to be “prince of poets and poet of princes” by his detractors, Ed.). Such a goal raises curiosity from a communicative and mediatic point of view. It is a competition that wants to give space to young people and not to the rivalry among great poets. Every poet thinks to be not only a prince but a king, a god, and consequently a competition among the great ones could be very dangerous. Important poets would want to sit on the throne of the Lord, not just on the prince’s throne. We managed to overcome this criticism through the cyclic pattern of the show, which nominates a new winner at every edition, thus achieving a sort of circulation of poetic power, as should be the case with political power.
The second criticism has to do with televoting. The rules are very clear about it: only those competitors who receive the critics’ approval can be vote for through televoting, and the jury evaluates the poets with great attention. However, it is also true that television does not reward only the aesthetic aspect or the creativity of poetry, because other aspects play a role, including the nationalist one: when a poet is Egyptian or Algerian or Moroccan or Palestinian, his fellow countrymen will vote for him. This means that televoting is not based only on the artistic value, but is often conditioned by an element of patriotism or, sometimes, confessional belief. However, the experience of the program has shown that talented poets, who win the interest and attention of the audience, are able to overcome these regional boundaries.
Is poetry more popular in the Arabic world than it is in West nowadays?
I believe that we should tone down such a statement In fact, there is a level of poetry that cannot be limited to a private circle or an elite: the poetry of songs. A song, when it melts words with an harmonious melody and is sung by a beautiful voice, is the “daily sweet” for the audience. Bob Dylan writes his poems and sings them, and that is why he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016. An evolution of sensitivity and taste has occurred in the modern era. A song represents the true bridge among millions of people and represents poetry, since it is a portion of poetry. There is no one, man or woman, young or old, who during the day does not hum melodies and words that express his feelings. So songs area window into poetry for millions of people.
Do you have an audience abroad too?
I have noticed a very curious phenomenon during these years while I was a member of the jury: hundreds of thousands of Arab-born people living in Europe find in this program a way to connect with their origin; a way that is not politics, which always raises concern, pain and torment.
So do the poems presented not deal with political themes?
No, there are indeed poems that deal with political problems, but their point of view is emotional, internal , centered on the feelings with which such problems are lived.
1Several different etymologies have been proposed for this term. See https://sheikhmohammed.ae/en-us/nabatipoetry. However, the term does not seem to be related to the Nabatean people who lived in Petra before Islam. Saad Abdullah Sowayan, Nabati Poetry. The Oral Poetry of Arabia, Berkeley, University of California Press 1985.