How To Win a Million Dollars Writing Poetry in Abu Dhabi

As poetry readings go, the setting was unique. The Al Raha Beach Theatre in Abu Dhabi boasted light-up floors, backdrop projections and a light show of a kind that would be familiar to fans of Pop Idol, X Factor or America’s Got Talent.

Since February, global audiences of up to 70 million have tuned in to watch Million’s Poet, in which men (there were no female contestants this year) in traditional dress take turns to deliver self-penned verses of a type of colloquial Arabic poetry called Nabati. A panel of judges delivers feedback, the Emirati royal family puts in an occasional appearance, and the contestants are gradually whittled down.

If this format seems alien to the business of poetry, described by Wordsworth as “emotion recollected in tranquillity”, then the prize money may also give us pause for thought. When 27-year-old Saif al-Mansuri won the sixth season of the show last week, he took home five million UAE Dirhams – that’s $1.3m or £800,000. As literary prizes go, the only thing that comes close is the Nobel Prize for Literature, which stands at eight million Swedish kronor ($1.2m or £700,000).

All this raises questions about poetry and our preconceptions of poets. As Robert Graves put it, “There’s no money in poetry, but then there’s no poetry in money, either.”

William Kremer, writing for the BBC World Service. Kremer’s piece also explores the historical associations between poetry and poverty, and the stereotype of the starving artist, or “poet in the garret.”

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Photo: Stan Dalone & Miran Rijavec, Flickr