A live poetry performance in York, England, hosted by York Spoken Word, which organises themed events throughout the year, featured the work of a delegation from Qatar led by Sam Meekings, assistant professor at Northwestern University in Qatar (NU-Q).

“The group chosen to read their work at this event was made up of local Qatari and expatriate writers, and included one of my students, Lujain Assaf, who performed her creative work that was developed after taking one of my creative writing classes,” Meekings said.

Assaf, whose work falls within the genre of fiction, specifically short stories and flash fiction, said she was nervous but also excited about the idea of meeting others who share her passion.

“It feels strange to be performing in front of strangers in a different continent completely, but it's another good chance to connect with other writers,” she said.

Meekings said the invitation to the Qatar-based delegation came after his local community initiative, Outspoken Qatar, a spoken word event that provides new opportunities for writers in Doha, garnered international attention when it was moved online following the outbreak of the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic.

“The switch to Zoom events scared us; we were worried we would lose that sense of spontaneity and community,” he said, noting that “in fact, the opposite has happened – as well as our regular writers and readers, we've managed to build up an international base, with writers joining us from the US, Europe, and Africa.”

Assaf, who has been a part of Outspoken Qatar since its transition to virtual open mic events, said she was initially “unsure whether people would be interested to listen to my work because everyone there are these amazing poets”, but added that she found the community supportive and easy to connect with, echoing Meekings’ explanation of the initiative’s purpose.

“Outspoken Qatar follows the tradition of poetry evenings in the UK and US, where readers are called spontaneously from the audience on the night, and so it creates a sense of community and camaraderie: a bond between the audience and the performers,” Meekings explained. “Our aim has always been to help local writers develop their voice through being part of a creative and encouraging space here in Qatar.”

The success experienced by the virtual presence of Outspoken Qatar, both within Qatar and at the spoken word event in York, parallels Meekings’ work on the digital medium since the beginning of the Zoom era.

On the research front, he has published two articles about maintaining creativity in writing as a response to the stress of the pandemic.

In the classroom, where he has been using Zoom as a creative tool to foster enthusiasm and collaboration among students, Meekings said that while “it’s so much easier to feel distracted, disconnected or lost during a Zoom class”, one has to avoid monotony and repetition by being diverse in their approach.

“The main lesson for me is a reminder of the importance of building collaboration and community through variety and interaction,” Meekings said. “Creativity has to be nurtured, regardless of the platform, and that takes time and experimentation. Tools like Zoom allow us to rethink our priorities.”

Meekings, an accomplished novelist and poet who lectures on writing and rhetoric in the Liberal Arts Programme at NU-Q, said the inspiration behind these initiatives came from the need to preserve the support network that writers lost due to the pandemic but which is necessary to combat the “solitary and often anti-social” nature of their craft.

“I was inspired by this to try and find ways to recreate that feeling of community while we were all physically isolated, and so to explore new ways of doing this in the virtual realm,” he said. “I think creativity is vital during difficult, uncertain, and worrying times.

“It's an escape route from everyday stresses, but also a way of connecting both with what you might be feeling and with the world around you.”

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