Surprises promised as 2010 Prince of Poets gets going
It attracts millions of viewers with each new season, has turned some of its former participants into national heroes, and has even been the subject of a "Google Doodle". A cultural phenomenon since it began in 2007, Prince of Poets - otherwise known as Ameer al Shu'ara' - is back in search of the latest batch of contemporary Arabic poets.
Similar in format to reality television shows such as American Idol, the premise is simple enough. It starts with a small group of poets drawn from thousands of eager entrants, and each episode sees a selection of them attempt various tasks set by the panel of judges to test their poetry skills. Out of the sub-group taking part in each programme, only a handful will make it to the final stage, the lucky few chosen by both the judges and the public.
The series begins with pre-recorded episodes, the first of which ran on November 24. There will be three more pre-recorded episodes; each showing the process of cutting down the 150 poets in the initial group to just 20 via a series of interviews with the judges. The live shows, of which there will be 15 in total, will follow, with the winner being chosen at the end of the season. As well as the title, he or she will receive a prize of Dh1 million.
The Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (Adach) has promised viewers a season full of big surprises, as well as some adjustments to the format.
But why change a winning formula? "We should make changes every year for every edition," says Professor Sultan Ali al Amimi, the director of the Poetry Academy which, as part of Adach, plays a major role in the organisation of the show. "Change is something very important. Both for us, for the participants, and for the people that watch the competition."
Steps have also been taken to shorten the individual shows. "Before, the shows would go for two hours, sometimes more," says al Amimi. "Now each episode will be around one hour. This is a result of the smaller number of poets taking part in each episode. There were seven before and now there will only be four or five."
There will also be only 20 finalists this year, as opposed to 35 in each of the previous seasons. The number of judges has been reduced from five to three, though the other two will still be present working behind the scenes. As for any other changes, viewers will have to wait to see them as the show unfolds, as the Poetry Academy is determined to keep the tasks given to each poet under wraps. The intrigue is, undoubtedly, one of the selling points of the spectacle.
That doesn't mean the backstage drama has not already begun. One of the would-be participants, a Kuwait-born poet, was sent packing during the interview process after his unwillingness to accept any criticism of his work proved too much for the judges.
For although the show aims - among other things - to improve people's confidence in their work, it seems that in this respect at least, this man needed little help, comparing himself to a classical Arab poet.
"He thought of himself as the best poet in the Arabic world after Al-Mutanabbi," says al Amimi. "He thought of himself as the best and thought the judges should agree with him; to say that everything he said was excellent. He did not accept any opinion or criticism."
Despite its rarefied subject matter, Prince of Poets is still a reality show, albeit one for the thinking viewer. Should poetry, with its rich history and cultural ties, be presented in such a way? Al Amimi says a certain amount of negative feedback is normal "because some people simply refuse change. They don't want you to touch anything. They like things the way they are".
Some people, he says, have argued that the programme focuses too much on new poets, rather than established names. However, this is the whole idea and central to one of the show's chief objectives - to promote a new generation of poets writing in Arabic.
"We have given the world many new poets who have now become very important and very famous in the Arab world. These people have become very well known in their home countries. In the past these people have not had the chance to deliver their sound, their voice, or their poems through the media so we give them the chance."
Looking back at the previous lists of participants and winners, it's hard to disagree. Tamim al Barghouti, a Palestinian poet who took part in the first season, picked up so much support during his time on the show that he was eventually dubbed "the Poet of Al-Aqsa" by Palestinian media. He may have come only fifth overall after losing out to the Emirati poet Abdul Karim Ma'atuq, but his status in Palestine remains unchanged.
Other poets to have created names for themselves after their appearances on the show - which was named after the Egyptian poet Ahmed Shawqi - include Mohammed Wald al Talib and Mohammed Ould Bemba.
As well as finding new talent, however, the Poetry Academy is equally keen to educate the show's viewers. "We want people to be able to distinguish between a good poem and a bad poem," says al Amimi. "How do you make your decision about a poem? If it is good, why is it good? If it is not good, why not?" As for the poets, he says, why shouldn't they have a chance of the same kind of fame as TV stars, actors and singers?
It is a fair question, and the audience figures for Prince of Poets are no surprise.
Al Amimi points out the hugely important historical and cultural role of poetry in the Arab world and its less tangible qualities.
"Poetry," he adds with a smile, "is like magic."