Zack Shah is a Malaysian writer and poet.
Fresh from publishing his first book, More Than Words in 2020, the 28-year-old is back with his second book titled A Strange and Wicked Magic. Both books are published by Penwings Publishing.
We recently spoke to the Johor Bahru-born poet and writer to better understand how he got started with poetry, how he gets inspired to write poems, and what is his ritual like.
Very young, probably 10 or 12 years old. I can’t really remember it was such a long time ago. But I’ve always loved storybooks and I suppose that’s where my love of storytelling came from.
While my first book was a poetry collection and not a novel, I’d like to think poetry itself is a form of storytelling. A micro-story if you will. I do aspire to write a novel one day though since I believe that was the original plan.
Ever since I learned about the Harry Potter books in primary school and how J.K. Rowling made millions from being an author. My dreams have gotten a bit more realistic since then. While I probably won’t be as famous as Ms. Rowling, I would like to graduate beyond poetry and short stories.
My second book A Strange and Wicked Magic does contain some short stories so this is technically my first time publishing something other than poetry and it’s honestly kind of exciting.
Writing has always been a cathartic, liberating activity for me. At least in the beginning when I began experimenting with poetry and storytelling.
My first forays into writing were just pure emotion on paper. Blood and tears and ink. But over time it expanded to a more aesthetic pursuit especially when I enrolled in college and took creative writing as a major. This was when I got serious about my writing, not just for the grades, but as a vocation. It became less about expression and more about creation.
Stringing together word and sound, rhythm and rhyme, emotion and logic. The feelings behind the poems, as raw and unrefined as they were, were given an elevated form with which to contain the experience.
When it comes to my short stories, the process is much less complicated, albeit longer. I’ve always had a knack for storytelling, but poetry takes a more involved approach. Each form has its own appeals and drawbacks. With stories the sky is the limit, you can experiment with world-building, introduce plot twists and control the fates of your characters like a capricious god.
But with poetry, it’s the opposite. Some higher force takes you over as if you’re in a trance, and you just have to follow where the inspiration takes you.
I talked about this before in a different interview, but I’ve always thought of More than Words as being about an idealistic, almost fantastical sort of romance. Child-like, innocent, perhaps a little naïve, and not at all based in reality. Something that we all dream about when we’re young. True love and soulmates and happy ever afters.
But as we all know real life is not like that, and A Strange and Wicked Magic sort of breaks this illusion of the perfect cookie-cutter fairy tale love story they talk about in movies, music, and books.
If More than Words was Taylor Swift’s early years, A Strange and Wicked Magic was Lana Del Rey mixed in with a little bit of Halsey. In my second book, we explore the darker side of love, not just heartbreak but obsession, overindulgence, and co-dependence expressed through metaphors of substance abuse and other taboo and controversial themes like sex, self-harm, and risk-taking behavior.
It’s definitely a bittersweet read and takes on a more adult outlook on the subject of romance. Definitely PG13. But more than that, I really wanted to capture that diehard, old Hollywood, star-crossed, blaze of glory sort of romance.
It can be from a number of sources. Sometimes even other poetry books and poems I’ve seen online.
It usually just used to be from Tumblr (yes, not all Tumblr poetry is bad). But over time it expanded to music, books, films, TV shows, memes, articles, and basically any word or phrase that happens to catch my attention at odds times of the day. But I usually use trigger words to kick start poetry when I feel like writing. These usually come in the form of “collocations” or parts of idioms and proverbs (e.g. glass houses, battle scars, leap of faith, etc).
There was a time when I would join in on “writing prompt” challenges on Facebook and Instagram where I’d post a poem based on a word or picture. This was how I got most of my poems for Magic and Madness (a “prequel” book that unfortunately didn’t quite make it).
I rarely write these days because work takes up a lot of my time but even when I did have free time to write, it wasn’t any special occasion.
As I mentioned, inspiration can come from anywhere at any time. So I’d often find myself furiously typing out a poem on the notepad app on my phone before it slips away. Usually in awkward places and situations like the back of a moving car, while I’m out at shopping malls, and even when I’m busy having lunch.
Poetry has never been a glamorous pursuit. People have this idealistic fantasy (myself included) of poets sitting at vintage coffee shops jotting down intently into a leather-bound notebook whilst giving off a mysterious aura. That’s not me I’m afraid.
I already have terrible discipline and a short attention span, if I waited for the conditions to be just right for me to start writing, I would probably not have been able to publish two books.
Definitely Shahril Nizam, author of If Only. He’s a Malaysian artist who published one book in 2007 and then disappeared from the public eye. Even now I don’t know how to contact him and as far as I know, his books are no longer in print.
I think he still designs cover art for some authors but is otherwise not on any social media platforms. But I respect his privacy and I know that many writers prefer a secluded life even though I know his writing has the potential to be internationally bestselling.
If I could describe his work in one word it would be “surreal”. Not just because each piece is accompanied by mind-bending, often psychedelic artwork, but because the themes of his poetry are also quite random and fantastical that you’ll have a hard time making any heads or tails of it at the first read.
I hope my work finds him one day and inspires him to put out another book. I’d be more than happy to promote it on my platform only because If Only had been so instrumental in helping me refine my own skills in the art of poetry.
But other than Shahril, I also enjoy reading Lang Leav and Michael Faudet, especially their earlier works. These two poets have also been my unofficial mentors during my tumultuous years dabbling in poetry.
Oh yes. If you compare my earlier works from 2006 and 2012, they’d be drastically different from my current style, if you can call it a style. It took a lot of experimentation, failed attempts, and emulating my favorite writers to truly settle on a personal style that was both commercially viable but not totally derivative.
It was when I focused more on what other people would read that I was able to narrow down and simplify my techniques. I was after all planning on publishing a book for the masses. My poetry had to be relatable or at the very least readable to the common laymen in order to garner any form of literary success.
But now, even though I sort of have a go-to blueprint for how I start my rhyming scheme and meters, my stylistic techniques do change to accommodate a certain poem. But I think it’s important for poets to always explore other forms, even if it’s free verse. Because even with rhyming poems, it does get a little repetitive after a while.
I for one didn’t officially settle into a proper writing style until 2015. This was when I started writing the poems that would later be published under More than Words. It’s taken around 10 years to fully “perfect” my poetry style. Even then I still have a lot to learn. And I hope I never stop learning because there are always new techniques, new themes, and new ideas out there to explore.
Zack Shah’s A Strange and Wicked Magic is available at all major bookstores in Malaysia and Singapore. You can also purchase it directly here.
Cover image sourced from Penwings Publishing.