My most exciting find this week was hearing Lynda Barry talk about the “image”. Not just visual images, or imagery in poems, but the image which is ‘contained by a form’ in any kind of artwork. To me, this is exciting because it makes sense of what goes on in the process of trying to make a poem or anything creative: we are trying to find a form, or make a home, for an image.
For Barry, the key question is, “What is an image?” She says an image is the thing that is contained by anything that we call art. An image is something spontaneous, it’s alive, it’s private, and it’s specific; as she explains:
So this kind of explained something weird that keeps happening for me recently. I have trouble sleeping, and just as I’m trying to drift off, I’ll get an idea for a poem. It feels like a really good idea; I can see the poem; I can feel the concept, shimmering in its beautifully balanced and energetic articulation. I have to get up with my notebook and write it down. But there is nothing to write! It’s a poem that doesn’t have any words yet. This sounded so mad in my head that I didn’t tell anyone about it for a long while. I assumed it just meant that I’m a really crap poet.
But listening to Lynda Barry, I started to see it differently. It’s true that my poem-making skills are not up to scratch when it comes to finding poetic forms in which to house my ideas. But that feeling of being struck by something spontaneous, private, and alive, might be a fairly common experience of ‘the image’.
I like the term ‘image’ better than ‘idea’. An idea suggests something that can be articulated or communicated; an image often can’t. It hangs around, waiting for you to find somewhere good enough for it to live, some form that fits. It is specific, and it is picky. Interestingly, I still have images in my mind for poems I’ve already written, and I know the image is not fully realised by the form I’ve given it.
Apparently, this is not an uncommon experience of the creative process. And if we want to make a poem, an artwork, an object, or anything, the gap between image and realisation is an inevitability we just have to live with.
“For me it’s like this: I make up a novel in my head. […] This is the happiest time in the arc of my writing process. The book is my invisible friend, omnipresent, evolving, thrilling… This book I have not yet written one word of is a thing of indescribable beauty, unpredictable in its patterns, piercing in its colour, so wild and loyal in its nature that my love for this book, and my faith in it as I track its lazy flight, is the single perfect joy in my life. It is the greatest novel in the history of literature, and I have thought it up, and all I have to do is put it down on paper and then everyone can see this beauty that I see.
And so I do. When I can’t think of another stall, when putting it off has actually become more painful than doing it, I reach up and pluck the butterfly from the air. I take it from the region of my head and I press it down against my desk, and there, with my own hand, I kill it. It’s not that I want to kill it, but it’s the only way I can get something that is so three-dimensional onto the flat page. Just to make sure the job is done I stick it into place with a pin. Imagine running over a butterfly with an SUV. Everything that was beautiful about this living thing – all the colour, the light and movement – is gone. What I’m left with is the dry husk of my friend, the broken body chipped, dismantled, and poorly reassembled. Dead. That’s my book.”
Hence, we get the sage advice, ‘kill your darlings‘. It’s the only way to get anything done.
For Ben Lerner, however, there is something extra problematic about poetry as opposed to other forms of art. In his excellent essay, “The Hatred of Poetry“, Lerner argues that poetry holds a special place in humankind’s tendency to idealise what we can’t realise, precisely because, as he bluntly reminds us, most people hate poetry. In fact, “many more people agree that they dislike poetry than agree on what poetry is”. The poem is always an attempt to meet that ‘transcendent impulse’ that calls upon us to sing; but the actual song is always compromised, always limited, never fully realised; like a dream upon waking. And because poetry dares to tread this territory, attempting to say the unsayable, it is always haunted by imperfection. We can imagine, behind every imperfect poem, the ‘ideal poem’, which does not exist, and never will.
So the ‘ideal poem’ to me sounds a little like ‘the image’. The ‘image’ seems to be something that artists experience, and audiences can also see when the art is doing its job well. On the other hand, Lerner’s ‘ideal poem’ seems to be something that audiences perceive as overshadowing the actual poem, whether the poem is great or terrible. There is resentment for what we cannot grasp, even while we praise the poet for pointing us in that direction. I wonder if the ‘ideal poem’ is the side we struggle with, while the ‘image’ is the thing that drives us to make a poem in the first place.
I’ve come across a lost of interesting commentary recently about how much of their ‘workday’ a writer actually spends on writing. It’s not much. Most of the writers in my network seem to spend over 50% of their time on admin, emails, promotion and marketing, and preparing work for submission. The business side of writing can be super time-consuming, and that applies whether you’re earning anything from it or not.
Since I’ve established the goal of being published, something I never seemed to get around to in all the excitement of performing live poetry, I decided to make it easier on myself by compiling a month-by-month list of all the submission openings for poetry in Australia. Some of these may be out of reach for a while as I develop my work from spoken-word into print format, but at least once it’s ready, I will know where to send it!
You can access my list of submissions, competitions and opportunities here, or from the writer’s toolbox tab.
In the Slamcraft series, I’m passing on some of what I’ve learned about Slam poetry (or any poetry which is performed live). Today I’m inviting you to consider the form that we’ve chosen to work in, and try to figure out where it is positioned in relation to other literary forms and movements. In straightforward terms: stick your head out of the box; have a look at what’s around you; take in the view.
Since the 1950s, innovative poetic practices have flourished. In his introduction to The Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry, Paul Hoover discusses the various avant-garde movements which have aimed to renew poetry through strategies which are initially shocking, but eventually replace mainstream approaches and become ‘normal’. Apprehending this pattern in the influence of the Beat poets, the New York School, Black Mountain poets and aleatory poetics, Hoover reasons that the recent “performance poetry and language poetry will influence mainstream practice in the coming decades”. 
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, another innovative practice has emerged in the form of spoken-word poetry. Spoken-word is a double agent, which simultaneously presents itself as an avant-garde movement and a nostalgic reclamation of ancient oral traditions. On the one hand, it presents a challenge to the academy: it exists outside the limitations of traditional print media, sidesteps editorial selection and evaluation processes, shoots straight for popularity and sometimes exceeds the reach of its print counterparts through new publishing avenues (Abe Nouk’s performance on The Australian Poetry Slam channel has over 33K views – what publisher wouldn’t be pleased with so many ‘reads’?). On the other hand, the materials of spoken-word poetry are as old as the hills, such that anyone and everyone can ostensibly engage with it. Some poets make explicit this project of reviving orality as a form of self-expression that they think modern society sorely needs, taking on the role of bardic storyteller, epic poet (as in Kate Tempest), or Carribean-influenced ‘toaster‘.
With its demotic culture appealing to mass audiences, spoken-word poetry has either been ignored or heavily criticised by academics. Consequently, we have a developing or partial academic vocabulary at best, with which to discuss it. One of my aims as an honours student in 2006, and as an emerging poet now, is to develop a more complete poetics of spoken-word. I am interested in the conditions, techniques and poetic devices of spoken-word poetry, which I often find to be intriguingly different from the page-oriented approaches which have dominated scholarship. We cannot come to an understanding of the significance of spoken-word poetry, in relation to contemporary movements, without the critical tools to apprehend it.
To return to Hoover, I do not believe that spoken-word, if it is a new and innovative form of poetry, poses any threat of eventually replacing ‘mainstream’ approaches. However, I do think it has the potential to enter and enhance the existing schools of poetics, which are already so varied in Australia. Spoken-word deserves a legitimate place alongside other contemporary movements, if not merely for its popularity, then for its fascinating combination of the ancient with the avant-garde.
Sign up to read more on the poetics of spoken-word and slam poetry techniques.
See more in the SlamCraft series on writing poetry for performance.
 Paul Hoover, introduction to Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1994, pxxv.
To me, the fairytale ‘Rapunzel’ has always seemed like a really sexy story. Think about it: there’s a young girl, growing up alone, an adolescent coming into maturity. She’s trapped in a tower without window or door, and the only way to reach her is to climb up on a luscious rope of her beautiful, long hair. Her only companion is the evil fairy or sorceress who keeps her imprisoned; until the day a Prince learns the way in, and spends many nights alone with Rapunzel in her tower room. Whenever I pictured Rapunzel, I saw her as a creature full of many desires: desire for freedom, desire for love, desire for sex, desire for experience of the world she never knew.
So when I was given the opportunity to perform in The Vagina Conversations in Byron Bay, I knew this was the story I wanted to tell. I knew it had something to do with Rapunzel’s journey toward freedom, even though it is extreme and non-realistic as fairytales always are. I knew that sex and desire were at the core of it, although vaginas are – not surprisingly – never mentioned in ‘Rapunzel’. And I knew that I somehow needed to convince hundreds of strong, alternative, liberated, Byron women, that fairytales still have an important role to play in our collective narrative of the feminine.
I spent the next week or so journaling my thought process, which was basically variations on a theme of “Oh my god, what have I done!? Talk about vaginas? Me? No way! I’m not bold enough, radical enough, sexy enough, feminist enough, empowered enough, to do that… I will end up making a fool of myself, or filling my poetry with cheap tricks which aren’t authentic to my inner world.” The truth is, I had already been writing the ‘Rapunzel’ story for a very long time – I had started about 7 years prior, and it had been resting (presumed dead) for at least 5 of those. But despite, or because of, its early failure, I must have carried that idea around with me until the time was right to revive it (as it turns out, this is good advice on what to do with an idea.)
It’s fascinating the way ideas emerge where they are needed. Through writing for what I knew would be an almost-exclusively female audience, I found that the ‘Rapunzel’ story started to reveal the little secrets that I felt it had always been hiding from me, indeed from the world, in its many incarnations as a children’s classic. And yes, one of those secrets genuinely was to do with vaginas!
‘Rapunzel’ goes back many centuries, and like all the fairytales we know today, was kept alive by people re-telling it orally to the next generation (mostly women, according to Marina Warner). Four versions are immortalised in my well-used copy of The Great Fairytale Tradition. In all of them, the story is initiated by a pregnant woman’s craving for a type of bitter herb or lettuce called ‘rapunzel’, which was so overwhelming that her husband was forced to steal some from an evil fairy’s garden. This reflected popular superstitions of the time, which held that one must grant a pregnant woman anything she desires, for fear of being punished with ‘a reddening and swelling of the eyelids’ (1); what a delightfully specific curse! Rapunzel was named after the herb, suggesting that the cycle of desire and punishment was in motion before she was even born. The fairy claimed the new-born child as retribution for the theft, took her, and vanished.
But you can’t fit much into a slam poem, and unfortunately I had to leave out this evocative prologue to get to the story’s core: the girl in the tower. What had originally resonated for me was the feeling of being trapped, and knowing how that would be really, really boring. Sure it’s also horrifying, but with no great urgency – you would have a sense of all the things you could be if you were out there – but meanwhile you are in here. I first became obsessed with this fairytale when I was, so to speak, trapped in a relationship, and couldn’t see any way out – it felt like being in a tower with no windows or doors. I went through all the creative ways I could keep myself entertained from within the confines of the relationship, but in the end, it had to give way. Later, I was able to see that this is part of the power of fairytales – they have the capacity to reflect universal experiences, partly because they are told with such broad strokes that we easily see ourselves within their structures. The tower reflects all kinds of traps that endanger the autonomy of young women in our society: poverty, discrimination, abusive relationships, glass ceilings, gender stereotypes. We are all familiar with it, as I point out in the poem:
Girls locked in towers.
Girls locked out of reach of their own powers.
While around the edges of their minds run stone-cold rings of doubt, like,
‘If only I were normal, they would surely let me out’.
The doubt I felt in the mind of Rapunzel was in part about sexuality. With her burgeoning womanhood, there must be a strong desire for intimacy and companionship; although this element is conspicuously absent from the picture of a patient, blonde innocent which so commonly appears in storybooks today.
And indeed, earlier versions of the tale do acknowledge the girl’s very natural sexual curiosity when it comes to the surprise entry of a young man into her tower, albeit couched within the necessary behaviour expected of a lady: “And the negotiations went so well that the prince received many nods in exchange for his kisses, smiles for his bows, thankful glances for his kind offers… and after they became more familiar with one another, they decided to meet at night when the moon plays hide and seek with the stars”(2). The consequence is that Rapunzel (Petrosinella in this version) becomes pregnant, and soon her swelling belly reveals to the evil fairy that she has been deceived: her adopted daughter is not the obedient child she had wanted, and must be punished.
Clearly, the Italian storytellers of the 1600s had no problem with the idea of a heroine enjoying consensual sex with a male partner. (Incidentally, this version comes from a collection called Lo Cunto de li Cunti; which isn’t actually a pun on a certain word for female anatomy, although it sounds like it). But by the time the Brothers Grimm got hold of the story in the 1800s, they believed that pre-marital sex was far too raunchy for their audience, and got rid of it. With no pregnancy, they instead had Rapunzel give away the secret of her relationship in a weirdly contrived dumb blonde moment: “…one day Rapunzel blurted out, ‘Mother Gothel, how is it that you are so much heavier than the prince?'”(3). In one swoop, the young woman’s desire and the natural functions of her body have been erased from the tale; replaced with this humiliating slur on her mental competence.
So with all her sexuality and sensual power removed from her story, Rapunzel becomes the patient victim, demurely awaiting her fate. She is thrown out of the tower after the fairy has cut off her long hair, the tool of her transgression, and left to fend for herself. The most severe punishment is reserved for her lover, who on his next visit, finds no sweetheart but a very angry Mother Gothel awaiting him, and jumps off the tower in his grief. He is blinded by the thorns at the base of the tower, and wanders the wilderness in misery searching for his lost love.
What does a tale like this mean for women, I asked myself, after writing and re-writing these scenes many times? What lesson can we take from it? There is no vagina in the story, but if there is, it leads to Rapunzel’s downfall and much suffering. This is a self-loathing story for a woman to tell. Or is it? Returning to the girl in the tower, I began to see an alternative narrative, one barely peeking through the patriarchal strands. Without wooing the Prince, Rapunzel may never have escaped from her endless imprisonment, or seen the outside world at all. If she weren’t such a ‘bad girl’, with such a curious vagina, she would still be trapped, without a story to tell.
Rapunzel’s hair stands in for her sexual power. It is a metaphor which seems to have lost most of its potent meaning in the tale. Historically, hair has always signified sensuality, intimacy, and the body, as indicated by monastic practices of shaving the hair, or not allowing women to enter a church bare-headed. For Rapunzel, I wanted the hair to have an added dimension of fate: it is because she was trapped that the hair grew so excessively long. The unused energy, untapped potential, and wasted days of her stopped-off life literally overflow into the strands of hair, that won’t stop growing. Eventually, after re-writing the story inside-out and upside-down, I realised the key element that made this a powerfully feminist tale: Rapunzel’s hair has been growing into the outside world since she was born, literally providing a way to escape.
the hair grew so long it reached from the tower and all the way down to the ground
because her body was intelligent enough to find a way out.
In fairytales, all tyrants come equipped with the seeds of their own undoing, and impossible escapes are manifested by something that was there all along. Rapunzel’s hair attracted the Prince, who then climbed up, declared his love, and bound himself to her. The supposed disgrace she then found herself in released her from the confinement of the expectations of her pseudo-mother, the evil fairy, and through suffering she began to forge her autonomous identity. The tale ends, in most versions, with the lovers re-uniting by chance in the wilderness, where Rapunzel’s tears of joy magically heal the prince’s blindness. The twin children she has given birth to in the meantime, rejoice at meeting their father, and after a few more magical obstacles are overcome, the family finally reach safety. If the story implies that Rapunzel’s power was forged by her incarceration, it explicitly states that happiness is forged in suffering: “[The prince] was now extremely happy because he had been so unhappy, and he loved Rapunzel more than ever before and she him because they had lost one another.” (4)
In the process of uncovering or creating new layers of meaning in the Rapunzel story, I arrived at an understanding of why fairytales can be powerful tools of identity and political action. A story which has survived for centuries, through blatant patriarchal agendas and constant revisions, has a power which new stories don’t have: it bears the traces of thousands of women’s voices, if we know where to look. Even though the power of women’s bodies, their ingenuity and desire, may have been hidden beneath metaphors and good manners, it still exists in an enduring form:
that power echoes across centuries
that power has been shrouded in mystery
that power has been hidden beneath obscure symbols
that power has been smuggled into childhood through dainty illustrations and archaic phrasing…
So finally, ‘Rapunzel’ was for me a chance to revive a vital part of our cultural heritage, while reminding women everywhere that the most important action we can take with the fairytale is to re-tell them in our own way. It has never been a sacred artefact. Instead it always reflects the values of the storyteller her/himself, and it only endures through the centuries because of its capacity to evolve. I wanted to bring back the feminine power and sensuality which I saw was missing in the story; other tellers will revise it in more radical ways. There is so much to be done; after all, this remains a hetero-normative vision where older women are evil and a young woman’s greatest reward is to have a husband and children. I can easily see that this ending is just another type of imprisonment, one that will be revised by the many strong, ingenious women I am meeting every day.
It has been the greatest privilege for me to be able to share this poem with hundreds of women, live at the Byron Theatre and online. Slam poetry really does bring me closer to others. When women approached me to share their thoughts on it, their own experience of identifying with fairytales and their ideas for the stories we should be sharing with our children, that was the most rewarding part of the whole experience. If you were one of those women, I thank you. You have inspired me to create a new women’s writing workshop about re-telling our children’s stories, which I hope to run this year. Please sign up for information on these and other workshops in the Northern Rivers. And if you haven’t yet, please get in touch and share your thoughts on the Rapunzel poem or the story you want to tell. The more we share our stories, the stronger we are.
Zipes, Jack, ed. (2001). The Great Fairytale Tradition: from Straparola and Basile to the Brothers Grimm. Norton, New York and London. p475.
Basile, Giambattista (1634). “Petrosinella”. Published ib id. p475.
Grimm, Wilhelm and Jacob (1857). “Rapunzel”. Published ib id. p.491
Schulz, Freidrich (1790). “Rapunzel”. Published ib id. p.489
It’s a word that’s always controversial. It’s a word that appears briefly in my latest poem, except I’m really not sure it can stay there. It’s a word that I would only use around adults. It’s powerful. It’s uncomfortable. It’s a taboo, an expletive, a badge of feminist pride, a verbal assault, an honorific, an accurate anatomical term. It is some or all of these things to me at the same time.
This word is hotly contested territory.
At one time I would never have considered using this word as part of a poetic lexicon, not least because it has never really been part of my everyday vocab. Like most people, I’m comfortable with casual swearing in close circles of friends, but this particular word always seemed a step too far. So ugly. So insulting. So bad.
But it’s recently gained a place in my heart, and in my language, and its aura of nastiness (though never truly expelled) has been replaced by a dawning respect, even a sense of wanting to treasure and nurture this word.
You see, I love words. I love words that are powerful, words that are precise, words that allow us to comprehend and convey our human experience.
For example, the experience of one’s biology, of gender identity, of being woman in a slowly evolving society, of containing sexual and sensual currents within one’s being. Experiences of menstruation, attraction, childbirth, sex, coming of age. Experiences of abuse, dehumanisation, pain, and laughter. This word just carries so much weight. It allows us to converse about so many things.
I’m currently involved in a performance called The Vagina Conversations, held on V-Day each year, a wonderful local re-invention of the work that started with Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues. In it, women perform honest stories (or poems, songs, theatre pieces, comedy, whatever) about anything vagina-related. And it inevitably brings into question the very language we use when referring to that particular part of the female body.
I was inspired by Laura-Doe’s reclamation of the word ‘cunt’ at this event two years ago. I often found myself recalling her advice: Think, ‘Queen’ while you say, ‘Cunt’.
Do poets have a certain responsibility to language? Is it our job to tend it, nurturing new words, eradicating unhelpful ones? I believe we should, as much as possible, be truthful, which is not exactly the same as being accurate. But if there is inaccuracy inherent in our common lexicon, and it serves to silence other kinds of truth, then we should seek to replace it with something better.
The words society has used to name – or to suggest, to avoid, to erase – certain parts of a woman, reveal a deeply damaging kind of inaccuracy.
Many argue that the word ‘vagina’ is itself a misnomer: it simply means ‘sheath’. It does not include the clitoris or labia, and thus ignores the visual and pleasure-giving parts of a woman’s anatomy, focusing instead on male pleasure and penetration. We find many vagina-owners are uncomfortable with the word ‘vagina’ for all sorts of reasons; it doesn’t seem to fit, it sounds icky, it’s too sterile. Ensler has it spot on in my reckoning:
“It’s a totally ridiculous, completely unsexy word. If you use it during sex, trying to be politically correct– “Darling, could you stroke my vagina?”– you kill the act right there. I’m worried about vaginas, what we call them and don’t call them.”
― Eve Ensler, The Vagina Monologues
So if you can’t call it a vagina, what can you call it? Anatomical terms break it down into component parts: ‘vulva’, ‘clitoris ‘ (internal and external), ‘pudenda’ – none of which encompass the totality. Colloquialisms and slang terms are usually tainted by prior usage as insults, such as ‘pussy’, ‘twat’, or ‘hole’. Not to mention the downright horrifying: ‘axe-wound’, ‘meat-flaps’ etc. Words which make our anatomy into expletives transform the body parts themselves into areas which are unspeakable, shameful, abhorrent, and censored.
In the face of such alternatives, “cunt” begins to reveal some advantages. It encompasses holistically all the various parts we are talking about. It isn’t sterile or medical, and might be used in a sexy context without ruining the mood. Most of all, though, it comes complete with the unusual power of referring to female anatomy accurately, explicitly, and without shame.
In fact, I think the aura of taboo and offensiveness surrounding this word only serves to give it more power in the hands of women. When we use it to reclaim our bodies, we turn all of that power that has been used against us to our advantage. What we wield cannot be used to bring us down.
But this is all a bit simplistic, isn’t it? Even if I decide to use “cunt” in a poem, for all these reasons, I still run a huge risk that listeners will not understand or appreciate the intention behind it. Language is never a one-way transaction. And I will constantly need to adapt and censor the work for my audience: sensitivity to younger listeners and different values are entirely appropriate; and I’m a performance poet, so there is always a social context to consider.
This raises another question:
Is it the poet’s job to push the barriers of language, whether audiences are ready or not?
Allen Ginsberg was known to a generation of mainstream America as someone who ‘shocked’ society and overturned normal rules of propriety. I believe that his intent was never merely to shock, but to speak the truth in an honest, uncompromising way. He summed up the question in a coherent and compelling manner on national television after being asked by the producer not to say any ‘dirty words’:
“the language we use should reflect our inner worlds. When you censor me (on TV) there is a problem with our language… this is censorship of the spontaneity and delight of poetic language… If you are creating art from a genuine, not constructed consciousness, (the sensory field or “mind-images”), the language of consciousness enters into that. Those are the building blocks of art… Right now, you are being denied my actual words.”
Ginsberg has simplified the question of which words we should use to describe our bodies. To him, the language we use in public should be true to our inner worlds. So here’s a question that actually floored me for a bit:
When you think of your ‘ladyparts’, your actual spontaneous experience of your body, which word does your inner voice use?
Honestly, my first answer was, “nothing.” Now that is a little weird, when I consider that my inner voice has no trouble labelling my elbow, nose, or thumb. But that place which draws my inner attention frequently, which hums and sings and desires and brings pleasure, that place is a confused linguistic blank. Where is the ‘spontaneity and delight of poetic language’ in that?
This makes me feel that it is even more important, then, to consciously choose the words we wish to know ourselves by. If I choose a word of power, even with its negative associations, I feel like it serves us better than something which only hints at and diminishes the thing it points to. Although sometimes a blank can move the conversation forward just as powerfully, as Lisa Williams did in this poem.
What every poem is implicitly saying is this:
This is the best word to name that experience, the most important word; this is the word that deserves a place in our language.
When you’re learning a new craft, it’s usual for the teacher to lead you through an exploration of your materials. Getting to know your materials, becoming familiar with them, learning to wield them.
If you’re learning to draw, you will experiment with charcoal, pastels, pencils, pen and ink. You will shade and rub and outline. You’ll find what feels right. If you’re learning to play an instrument, you will first learn the notes, where to place your fingers, perhaps play scales and arpeggios and chords. These are your materials.
But in learning to make poetry, we don’t have the habit of considering materials first. Perhaps it’s because our materials (words and language) are so commonplace, and used so frequently, we assume we already know what to do with them. But how many of us then end up sitting in front of a blank page? Getting to know your materials means you love spending time with them, playing with them, using them.
Annie Dillard reminds us that we should feel something for the materials:
A well-known writer got collared by a university student who asked, “Do you think I could be a writer?”
“Well,” the writer said, “I don’t know. . . . Do you like sentences?”
So we’re setting out to fall in love with words. In this series, I’m sharing what I know about slam poetry (or performance poetry or spoken word or whatever you want to call it).
Let’s consider: What are our materials?
What kind of words?
Words that are spoken, words that are heard.
Are they different to words read on a page?
Yes, I believe so. Spoken words are:
Temporal – they are happening in time. As listeners, we surrender to the flow.
Ephemeral – they can’t be held or captured for later. Unless you’re recording as you go, everything you say instantly ‘disappears.’
Evanescent – they only exist as they are going out of existence.
Immersive – they fill our sense of hearing like water; you can’t stand back or choose what to see as you can when looking at a picture.
Tonal – it’s impossible to say anything without tone. Even a flat, unemotional tone conveys something.
Communal – spoken words are often the way we communicate most comfortably in social groups. They have a much longer history than the written word. Oral forms allowed knowledge to be passed down through generations in pre-literate society.
So what does all this mean? As a material, spoken words have certain qualities we should take notice of, because we can use them. We can use the flow, the way listeners want to get caught up in it. The infinite tones available to you. The fact that you are bound with the audience in a moment in time, but not after. The materials allow you to make this poetry more personal in all sorts of ways, because it will be your voice, no one else’s, that enacts it. The moments you share in a live performance become unique, unrepeatable acts.
The materials also impose certain limitations, in the same way that using ink limits your ability to erase. You probably aren’t going to subject your audience to something the length of a novel – your materials aren’t effective on that kind of timescale. (Actually, I kind of hope there’s some radical experimenter out there thinking, ‘spoken-word novel…now there’s an idea!’). Play with the limits as well as the possibilities. A confession: it has taken me 10 years to realise that extended metaphors usually don’t work in spoken–word: it’s better to say what you mean! I’m still getting to know my materials, I guess.
Now, time to play with your materials.
Here are a few exercises to get you started:
Make a list of words you love the sound of. Say them. Say them slowly, quickly, loudly, softly, delicately, aggressively, lovingly.
Make a list of words of words you hate. What puts you off about them? Where did they come from? What sort of person uses them?
Find a poem you love and read it aloud to someone you trust. Have them tell you what happened in your voice, breath, face, and body, as you read.
Here’s a poem I wrote back in my early twenties, in homage to one of my favourite people, and poets, Π.O. Born in Greece, he migrated to Australia in the 1950s and was raised in Fitzroy, Melbourne.
Π.O. is a remarkably prolific and innovative poet, a unique Australian voice, incorporating ocker and migrant languages into his work, effortlessly spanning poetry concrete, number poems, and spoken word. The fattest book on my poetry shelf by far, surpassing even the Norton Anthology, is Π.O’s remarkable 740 page tribute to Fitzroy, 24 hours. He’s gone and done it again with Fitzroy: The Biography.
I was lucky enough to meet Π.O. as a student around the time I wrote this poem, but unfortunately he shouted me a lot of scotch so I remember nothing of the sage advice this mentor bestowed. However, what has stuck with me is the permission to be bold, experiment, play, love language in its most ordinary forms. As a performer, I love the attention he pays to all the stuff apart from words – pauses, glitches, accents, tone, expression.
I’m excited to start a blog project that’s been swimming around in my mind for a long time now: SLAMCRAFT.
Over a couple of months, I’ll be sharing with you a whole series on how to create a Slam Poem. But not just for slam poets – this is for anyone who writes and wants to know how to read in front of an audience. It’s for performance poets, spoken-word artists, songwriters who want to go a-capella, students, whatever. This is about making your art out of words for a live audience. It’s pretty damn exciting.
In my own little art world on the Northern Rivers, a lot of surprising opportunities have got my attention. One of the most exciting is a slam poetry workshop; the chance to share fifteen years of spoken-word experience with anyone who wants to give it a try. Maybe you’ll catch a workshop with me soon and we can play with these ideas together.
We’ll start by exploring materials, move to exercises, writing techniques, performance tricks, and go right through to polishing your piece ready for performance.
Some ideas take longer than others. The idea for my next performance poem has been 5 years in the making… that’s a long wait. So I wanted to share some thoughts on the process before I enter FREAK OUT stage – which is due any day!
According to my highly scientific calculations, I am now at peak re-write time (4 weeks prior to performance, right on schedule). The poem is 95% written, my voice likes it, my unfailingly committed poetry focus group (i.e. husband) likes it, tickets to the show are selling, and everything seems to be coming together.
The idea is in the right place at the right time.
But when it first came to me 5 years ago – no wait, more like 7 years ago – the idea was in the right place at the wrong time. I had an intense feeling of being trapped, with no creative outlets, and the feeling resonated deeply with traditional fairytales I was studying at the time – particularly Rapunzel, the tale of the girl locked away in a tower. I set out to re-tell the Rapunzel story from my own experience. It didn’t work. Maybe because I was still in that experience, without enough distance to see it clearly, the story became tangled and shuddered to a halt. My first attempt to perform it for a live audience was an epic fail: blank faces everywhere.
We need to put some distance, or some time, between ourselves and the experience in order to write about it clearly. In the time between my first attempt at the Rapunzel story and re-writing it now for my upcoming performance, the idea has had a good 5 years to rest, recover, and find its true shape. Even ignoring an idea can sometimes be the best way to deal with it, as long as you’re ready to pay attention when it speaks up again.
Poetry is emotion recollected in tranquility.
In his Preface to the 1800 edition of Lyrical Ballads, William Wordsworth articulated the habits of mind he felt were most conducive to writing about our inner lives. I’m going to share the full quote because he describes so beautifully the whole process of what to do with an idea:
I have said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity: the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind. In this mood successful composition generally begins, and in a mood similar to this it is carried on; but the emotion, of whatever kind, and in whatever degree, from various causes, is qualified by various pleasures, so that in describing any passions whatsoever, which are voluntarily described, the mind will, upon the whole, be in a state of enjoyment. (p26, Wordsworth, Preface to Lyrical Ballads, online source accessed 17 Jan 2018.)
For all its highs and lows, writing a new piece is certainly a process of enjoyment. Not only do we get to live through the emotion twice, appreciating the fullness of our experience and how it makes us greater human beings, we also have the pleasure of letting the mind do its work in peace. In my case, coming back to the idea years later has meant that I can see clearly where its significance lies in many other contexts beyond my own life, and that conversation with the world is one of the greatest pleasures of all.
So wish me luck at the show on February 14-15 at Byron Theatre, and grab a ticket if you’re in the Northern Rivers. Sign up to this blog below to hear more about how I re-wrote the Rapunzel story as a slam poem; writing tips, creative life, and more.
Welcome to the new year! Here in the Northern Rivers, we’re getting pummeled by fat, drenching, subtropical rain, and then by riotous, skin-searing sun – in fairly equal proportions. Plant life is springing forth like nobody’s business; lettuces pop up in the lawn from stray seed and then burst into seed themselves just a short time later. It all feels like a recipe for renewal to me.
So, since new beginnings are a good time to make new stuff, I thought I’d share with you my pick of the best writing exercises to start the year. Whether using them myself or with students, the only measure of a good exercise for me is that it makes new things happen: new images, new voices, even new memories you didn’t know you had. Everything we need in order to write is right here. Use it!
You don’t need any writing experience to have fun with these. They are designed to bypass what you think you know, and dig into the fertile soil of imagination and association. I’ll be honest with you, when I go to the page to try and write some new stuff, often I never get past doing exercises. Why? I’m kind of fickle when it comes to ideas, I don’t like to commit to them. But when exercising, there’s no role, in fact no room, for commitment. You just open up to what’s endlessly possible.
“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”
– Suzuki Roshi, Zen Mind, Beginner’s mind
So get your pen ready…
Memory is always a rich source of inspiration, but sometimes we need a nudge to make the most of it. In one of the simplest and most effective exercises I know, we take the words ‘I remember’ as our starting point. Go to the exercise.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a large fortune, must be in want of a wife”… and a blocked writer must be in want of a prompt! Try using the best first lines in literature to create something new. Go to the exercise.
In this exercise, new material is generated by re-purposing a piece of found text into an unusual writing prompt. Like all the best exercises, Re-sentencing is both challenging and liberating, and you might be surprised by what comes out. Go to the exercise.
If you have tried any of these exercises and created something new, congratulations! If nothing emerges, keep trying. Whatever happens, don’t throw away your first attempts, even if you see nothing of value in them yet. Just put them aside for later. As with gardening, in creative life we sometimes need to rest our garden beds in order to let the nutrients back in. If we turn over the soil too often we might disturb the seeds that begin to sprout, unnoticed. So do your exercises, close your notebook, and look forward to the next step – figuring out what to do with the raw material. But that’s another post for another day.
Happy New Writing to you in 2018. And if you liked this post, don’t forget to share!