SLAMCRAFT: Timing part 1

Here in the northern rivers, we’re in the middle of slam season – when a bunch of big competitions roll through town, and many poets try their luck for the chance to win big prizes.

One of the challenges for anyone who’s new to slam poetry is timing. Most slams will have a strict time limit of 2 or 3 minutes per piece, with contestants losing points for any time surpassing that limit. But some competitions make it harder still: the Nimbin Performance Poetry World Cup gives poets 8 minutes but deducts points for going over OR under time. In the finals, where poets sometimes gain equally high scores for craft and performance, a few seconds timing could make all the difference.

Some writers may wonder what all the fuss is about – why worry about a time limit at all? Doesn’t it restrict creative expression?

In this post I’ll explain why timing matters, and how it can enhance, rather than detract from, your creative process. In part 2, I’ll look at how to hone your timing.

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stopwatch by Moonez CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Firstly, why time your poetry performance? Well, if you’re entering a slam, that’s simple: good timing wins the prize. It’s very hard to come out on top if you’re losing points. In any competition there needs to be some constants so that the work can be judged on an equal basis. It’s no use pitting a 10 minute poem against a 10 second one. Instead you have the same frame of opportunity to show what you can do.

But it’s not just about competition, it’s also about generosity. New readers who don’t have a sense of how long their poem takes to read aloud have also missed a chance to truly gift the audience their words, because listening requires focus and attention that most people can’t sustain over long periods of time. Instead of demanding or expecting that people listen to page after page, why not select the best words, the most precious poem, and give it to them with all your energy? Keeping your performance under 2-3 minutes, even at an open mic, usually ensures your listeners won’t wander off.

Timing is also an aspect of craft, and like any craft, it can be mastered and used to great effect. Sure, it’s by no means the most important thing, and the scoring in slams reflects that: timing only counts for a small part of your final score.   The craft of timing is not just apparent in the total time of your poem however, it is also at work in your delivery. Pacing, pauses and flow are all part of perfect timing. When you craft your poem to an exact time limit, and unintended benefit may be that you perfect your delivery in the process.

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Sarah Temporal at Nimbin Performance Poetry World Cup 2018. Photo credit Marie Cameron.

But the fact remains that some people feel indignant about the very idea of timing a poem. Surely a poem is as long as it needs to be – why impose limits on someone’s creativity? I believe one of the reasons behind this reaction is that it shatters a long-held illusion about poets: that we are romantic misunderstood geniuses, and that our words spill forth unbidden from some kind of divine inspiration. Okay, that might seem to hold up the first time you hear a great poem – but if the poet comes back and does the same thing the next night, in exactly the same way, with exactly the same timing? Then you realise you’re watching a carefully crafted, rehearsed performance, and a little bit of the magic slips away. Being able to replicate a reading means it cannot have been spontaneous or ‘natural’. But crafting something that seems effortless is part of the hard work for any artist, in any creative medium. Good timing for poets, just like musicians, actors and comedians, does not mean we become robots who recite without feeling. It’s about having the sensitivity and control to respond to our audiences and create a genuine connection in that moment.

And let’s face it, slam poetry is not the first form of poetry to impose an apparently arbitrary restriction on the way we shape our words. Print journals have traditionally limited poems to a length that fits conveniently on a page: usually 40 to 50 lines. You still find this restriction in place even in online publishing, where there is theoretically no limit on space; is it just there because people are used to reading works of a certain length? (By the way, this is one of the publishing barriers that slam poets face, since a 2 minute poem will be longer than 40 lines). The 2-minute limit is just another way of saying you can ‘publish’ your work on stage if it fits this one criteria – making it much more inclusive than almost any other avenue to get your work heard.

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Kobayashi Issa, from ‘The Soul in Words’

Apart from length, poets have often chosen to work within the limitations of various forms because it improves their craft. Following the strict parameters of rhyme, number of lines or syllables in sonnets or haikus may feel restrictive at first, but after a while you become aware of how every tiny decision impacts your piece. For this reason, even arbitrary limits can improve your writing process. I recently wrote a piece where almost every word had to start with the same letter, and it led me to create word combinations and descriptions I would never have come to otherwise.

I’ll soon have the chance to explore and challenge my own feelings about time limits, when I sit on the panel of judges at this year’s Nimbin Performance Poetry World Cup (as is tradition for the winner of the previous year). With poets working to its famous (or infamous) 8 minute limit, I will be interested to see how timing impacts on the performances of some of the country’s finest spoken-word artists. No doubt there will be some difficult decisions!

Next week, I’ll share the secrets of perfect poetry timing, using the poetry of Kate Tempest as an example. In the meantime, I’d love any performance poets out there to weigh in!

Click here to read Timing: Part 2

What do you think about timing? Share your comments below. You can also read more in the SlamCraft series here or buy the book.

31-Gail M Clarke with Peoples Choice Award winner Zac Simmons and 2018 cup winner Sarah Temporal
Left to right: People’s Choice winner Zac Simmons, Organiser Gail M. Clarke, and winner Sarah Temporal at 2018 Nimbin Performance Poetry World Cup. Photo credit Marie T Cameron.

Celebrating Storyfest: a 3-day festival of spoken-word

You have to celebrate the victories, right? Well, I spent a couple of months earlier this year sending out various applications to poetry events and publications. Of course this meant getting very cosy and familiar with the “thanks for your interest, but…” emails which then flooded back. I’ve always been told this is just part of the writer’s life, so, no biggie.

BUT…

Today I opened another response expecting it to be the same old story, and found these unexpected and exciting words… “We would be very happy to include your event in our program this year…”  Woohoo!

So I’m thrilled to announce that I will be presenting at Storyfest in Sydney this year.

On their website, Storyfest is described as:

“… a 3 day spoken word festival packed full of live literary mayhem

in the form of spoken-word, poetry, stories, lyrics and monologues.”

This is a massively exciting opportunity for me. Storyfest represents the ever-growing and strengthening community of spoken-word artists and audiences in Australia, and embodies the same goals I am passionate about. It provides a platform for people to come together in order to perform, share and learn about spoken word. It includes workshops, panel discussions, performances, and culminates in the unforgettable Australian Poetry Slam.

When I began performing in Sydney some 16 years ago, the spoken-word community was a small and largely ‘underground’ scene, very much sitting on the sidelines of other arts and cultural events. Now that I live, teach and perform in regional NSW, it’s an honour to be able to return to this same city,  and contribute to the thriving spoken-word industry that we dreamed of then.

Keep an eye out for details if you’re in Sydney, October 12th-14th, for some kickass spoken-word magic coming your way. Follow Storyfest on Facebook for details, and while you’re at it, why not follow me for more on slam poetry, performance, and workshops.

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Sarah Temporal at Stories in the Club, Mullumbimby, 2018. Photo credit Mala.

 

*Featured image NSW Poetry Slam Final at the State Library – Miles Merrill by Soon

 

 

The Image

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.”

Ann Patchett, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage

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.

 

*Image ‘eyes in an abstract……2017-06-19‘ by wintersoul1 licensed CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

 

 

 

SLAMCRAFT: Take in the view

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.

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Little boxes‘ by Roland Skof-Peschetz licensed CC BY-NC 2.0

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”. [1]

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. 

 

[1] Paul Hoover, introduction to Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1994, pxxv.

Title image: “microphone” by TOM81115 is licensed under (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0). Text added.

On using the word “C***” in a poem

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.

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woman‘ by asia doro licensed CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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’:

Allen Ginsberg reading “Howl” in Washington Square in 1966. Credit Associated Press .jpg
Allen Ginsberg reading “Howl” in Washington Square in 1966. Credit Associated Press

“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.

For now, I’m standing by my word.

 

 

SLAMCRAFT: Love your materials

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microphone” by TOM81115 is licensed under (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0). Text added.

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.

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Shakespeare’s words” by Meg license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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?

Words.

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.

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RAW : BOLD Sydney Showcase” by rawartistsmedia licensed (CC BY-ND 2.0)

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.
  • Try reading aloud this sound poem by Cliff Crego. How do you enact an italic? Or a quotation mark? Or wide spacing?
  • Try performing this poem for a friend, or with a friend. What did you do to bring it to life?

How do you feel about your materials? Do you like spoken words? As always, I’d love you to let me know how this worked for you, and don’t forget to share using the button below.

Like it? Read more in the SlamCraft series or buy the book

drive-by

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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.

Thanks Π.O., you wonderful troublemaker.

 

*Image by MaxPixel licensed CC0

What to do with an idea

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.

 

What comes first: rhythm or words?

I had a great question from a punter after my performance at M-Arts last weekend. (You can watch the live performance here).

“When you’re creating a poem, do you start with the words or the rhythm? Do you write something and then make it flow, or does the flow dictate what you write?”

The answer, of course, is not straightforward, and that’s what makes it an excellent question. I have had so much fun investigating this very problem that I wanted to share it with you.

Many of the great slam poets around today, such as Luka Lesson, Omar Musa, and Kate Tempest, came from a hip-hop background. These extraordinary wordsmiths can tell you loads more about ‘flow’ than I can; they have spent countless hours, weeks and years honing their skills rhyming, freestyling, laying words over beats or vice-versa. When they deliver a poem with only their unaccompanied voice, they bring an expert sensibility of rhythm and flow, which makes their work so much more complex and compelling to listen to.

It’s like the difference between plain handwriting and calligraphy:

there’s an extra layer of expressiveness which is just beautiful to immerse your senses in.

I didn’t come into poetry from hip-hop, but I grew up learning music from a young age. I’m sure that has had a big impact on the way I use language to compose poetry. As a kid I spent equal amounts of time every day practising guitar, which my mother taught me to play, and burying my nose in books. So by the time I discovered slam poetry at the age of nineteen, the fusion of spoken language with the qualities of music just made sense to my music-trained brain.

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Like many writers, I keep copious notebooks, which no one else reads (see Natalie Goldberg for the value of letting yourself write junk, and lots of it). I’ll comb through these when I’m looking for ideas, and often what jumps out is something that has an interesting sound, as well as an interesting sentiment.

There’s sometimes a weird moment when I realise that some little line I’ve written has lodged itself in my brain like a catchy guitar riff, pestering me to make a whole poem so that it will have somewhere to live!

So when I’m composing (and ‘composing’ may be a more apt term than ‘writing’), I’m focusing as much on the sound and rhythm as I am on the meaning of words. When I speak a line of poetry out loud, I’m trying to become aware of the physical sound of the words: the cadence, the tone, whether it seems to burst forth with explosive energy or coil slowly around the tongue; whether the line wants me to take my time or get carried away. It’s not always simple. Sometimes the meaning is clear but the rhythm isn’t working. Sometimes too much rhythm diminishes the meaning. And sometimes the particular mood or energy of the piece just takes a really long time to reveal itself.

The challenge for any poet who performs is to strike the right balance of sound and sense.

There’s no point having lots of verbal tricks if you’re not saying anything meaningful; and likewise, no point in performing a great poem if there’s nothing for the ear to enjoy. It’s a fine balance, challenging, occasionally maddening, but ultimately so rewarding when you share it with a live audience.

If you’re interested in trying slam poetry yourself, please sign up to follow my SlamCraft series. If you’re nearby, watch out for my workshops in the Northern Rivers. Subscribe below or follow me to hear about it first.