A couple of weeks ago, I met up with Omar Musa outside a cafe beside Readings on Lygon St in Carlton. He had the Melbourne launch of his book Here Come the Dogs there the night before – which I had, sadly, been unable to attend. So having the opportunity to interview him was cause for excitement.
When I rocked up to interview him, I was doubly excited to see that he and Rob (a.k.a. hip-hop Artist, Mantra) were just chilling and chatting over pots of tea. I sat with them for a little bit and felt a little bit lucky to be a fly on the wall during their conversation; so passionate and articulate.
Once Rob said his goodbyes, I began the interview with Omar over a cup of Earl Grey.
So, Omar, whose hands would you like to see this book end up in?
That’s always a really hard question. When people ask me that I always just think “Why did I write this book?” And I wrote it because I, personally, find writing pleasurable, I wanted to get my head around certain things, and I was writing the type of book that I would like to read. Something that was about dreams, and madness, and chaos. So I wrote it for myself, principally.
But then, after that, I would really like it if it stirred up a little bit of debate about race and class in Australia. I’d like young people to read it, but I’d like old people to read it, too! It’s such a hard question. I wrote it for everyone, you know? It’s about a specific social milieu and it’s about the hip-hop generation. But I tried to put structural things in there that are, hopefully, timeless; largely concerns about change, generation, love, redemption, and violence.Whether I’ve been successful at that, I don’t know, because I was looking through that small key hole at the world.
I also hope that people from other countries could find something interesting in this book. Something to wrap their heads around.
Maybe a little bit of solace?
Maybe a little bit. I lean towards the darkness, in general. I think it’s really easy for me to fall into the abyss, the chaos.
I think there’s something really powerful about exploring darkness, though.
Yeah, me, too. I think you have to deal with it in art. I’m not intersted in art that doesn’t really deal with life, and death, and madness. But I always try to find redemption and light within that, somehow. In unlikely places. One of my heros,Werner Herzog – the film director…I heard Errol Morris quote Werner Herzog to Werner Herzog. Supposedly, once upon a time, he said that “Part of art is extending sympathy where it has not been extended before. And looking for stories where they haven’t been looked for before.” And that’s what I’m trying to do.
Beautiful. So how long did it take you to write the book?
Two and a half years. But I was putting a lot of my life’s questions and life’s thoughts into it.
So this is you fleshing out your existential stuff?
I guess so. But in a very intuitive way. I’m not one of these people who will be able to define for you every – ism under the sun. I’m interested in politics, but I don’t approach it from that theoretical point of view. I’m a storyteller…and I feel my way through these things.
Wow. So how long have you been writing for? When did you start considering yourself a writer?
I’m sort of interested in how you choose to define yourself, you know? Are you an artist? Or are you just a person who chooses to make art from time to time?…But I’ve been into poetry from a really young age. My dad was a poet in Malaysia. I come from an artistic family. My mum was a theatre critic and historian. So I went to a lot of theatre growing up. And my dad introduced me to a very famous Indonesian poet when I was about 8…And my dad said, “See this guy? Remember this guy. When he performs poetry, he doesn’t use the paper. He lives it with every fibre of his being; his voice, his body. He does it to stadiums full of people, at political rallies, and it can change the world.” And I didn’t know anything about poetry or politics. I was 8 years old! But I kept what my dad said in my mind because I was really impressed by it.
Then I began looking for a form of poetry that was like that, but it just didn’t seem to exist in Australia. Well, at least when I was growing up and in school. Then, at about exactly the same time, I came across hip-hop. And it was the poetry of hip-hop that lured me into it. But also I was really into the Black Muslims. Like Malcolm X and Farrakhan because they were, of course, brilliant orators. I was intrigued by people who would go on stage and perform their words and captivate people.
Then I came across Spoken Word poetry, probably when I was about 19, when I was in Santa Cruz, California. I saw this guy do a really sexual poem, but had everyone cracking up. And I was like, “This is really cool!” But it didn’t click in my mind, at the time, that this is something I wanted to do. I was too preoccupied with hip hop. But then I got a call from a guy who was running the ACT Poetry Slam and he was desperate for people to enter because a few people had dropped out. And he said, “Look, I’ve heard that you rap. Can you come around and spit some raps without the music?” And I felt like it was a good opportunity to try something a bit different.
I did this poem about The Cronulla Riots, well it was a rap, really. And I ended up winning that one. I went to nationals and came second. And that’s when a new world opened up for me.
Cool. That’s exciting! So do you see yourself getting back into Spoken Word in the future? I mean, as heavily as you were before?
Yeah, it’s all a matter of time, at the moment. Obviously the book promo is really crazy, I’ve got a play to finish by the end of the year; a commission by the street theatre in Canberra…I wish I had more time to dedicate to creating some new Spoken Word stuff, but that will happen naturally. At the moment, I have to say, I am enjoying having these bigger projects that I can sink my teeth into.
But, yeah, I think I’ve got a long way to go as a Spoken Word performer; to learn, and different ways that I could push my poetry.
It’s so interesting because, many of the people who will end up reading this interview will be like, “Are you kidding?” Because you’re someone who is looked up to quite a bit by people in the Melbourne poetry community. Especially people like me who, sort of, came on to the scene years after people like you, Luka, Joel, Alia. You guys are, sort of, the people who made me go, “Hmm, I kind of like this spoken word thing and I think I want to give it a bash!”
I remember those very first pieces that inspired me. Like your piece “My Generation” and Luka’s “A-Z” piece.
Luka and I were touring in China together and I saw him do that with a bunch of kids and it was great. he good thing about Luka is that he keeps his mind really open. And he’s willing to push himself, stylistically, to try different things. And, also, thematically; to try and delve deeply. He does have his stuff that, well, you know he’s Luka Lesson: so some of the early stuff is didactic. But he’s brave enough to look at the dark parts of himself. And I value that in anyone.
[Regarding Luka Lesson's new album EXIT]… he didn’t have to make an album like that; weird and slanted. I just love Luka, man! He’s like a brother and he’s a hell of a performer. You can’t deny that sort of talent…I remember seeing him perform in Melbourne once and I was like, “That guy’s going to become Australian Slam Champion one day.” And he did it…
Some people disagree with me about this, but I think the good thing about Spoken Word, in Australia, is that it’s not homogeneous. It’s still pretty diverse. I mean, every now and then, I’ll go out there and I’ll see…like a bush poet at a slam, and then a Marxist poet, and then some hip-hop guy. I think that’s really cool.
That’s beautiful. So, speaking of poetry and hip hop, how have they influenced this new work here? Here Come the Dogs.
The book is drenched in hip-hop references. Maybe almost to the point where some people find it a big confronting. But I feel like every piece of literature is coded in its own way. When we have to read Shakespeare in high school, we have to decode it. I read Coetzee’s Disgrace, recently, and it refers to a lot of classical music and that’s something I don’t know much about! Just in the same way that someone might pick this up and be like “Oh, what’s a cypher? What’s all this stuff about a hip-hop show?” So then they’ll have to go find out and decode it!
But I’d like to think that the best type of art, in general (but hip-hop, especially), is fearless. It’s unafraid to be unruly, and dangerous, and wild. And I like to hope that this book is a little bit fearless; that I kind of went for it. But then, of course, a third of it is in First Person poetry format. I mean, I don’t know if Penguin have put out a verse novel in a long time, but two thirds of it is prose, a third of it is influenced by, you know, Dorothy Porter; that verse style. So yeah! Poetry and hip-hop have really influenced this book.
Omar’s debut novel Here Come the Dogs can be bought online or at most bookstores near you.
You also have a chance to win a copy of Here Come the Dogs! Just like the post on our Facebook page or Favourite/Retweet the tweet on our twitter account.
It’s your chance again to represent Victoria at the Australian Poetry Slam finals and bring the trophy back to Melbourne. The prestigious Australian Poetry Slam have announced the details of the Victorian Heats and the Victorian State Final and they’re coming up soon!
Be sure to lock those dates in your diary and get along for your chance to get to the State Final at the State Library. As usual, the top two from each heat go through to final.
Thursday 28 August
Bass Coast Principal Library
Watt Street Wonthaggi
Friday 29 August
178 Doveton St North
Tuesday 2 September
Toorak/South Yarra Library
340 Toorak Road
Wednesday 3 September
Cnr Heaths and Derrimut Roads
***please allow extra time for parking as the Plaza is undergoing renovations***
***PLEASE NOTE NEW LOCATION***
Thursday 4 September
379 Whitehorse Road
Friday 5 September
Cnr Sydney Road and Dawson Street
The Melbourne Writers Festival officially started yesterday and without spoken word, the festival would lack a very special element to this city’s literary culture.
Lisa Dempster, Director of the Melbourne Writers Festival told Melbourne Spoken Word, “We’re very proud to present a number of events this year which feature spoken word, with guests including Maxine Beneba Clarke, Emilie Zoey Baker, Alia Gabres and Mark Seymour.
“We’ll also see students from secondary schools across Victoria fight it out for the right to be called the best young performance poets – it’s great to see young people embrace spoken word.”
Starting Sunday, there’s a bunch of events at MWF featuring spoken word or poetry:
Writers Across Borders featuring Maxine Beneba Clarke, Francesca Rendle-Short, Robin Hemley , David Carlin, Alvin Pang, Eddin Khoo, Laurel Fantauzzo Sunday, August 24 @ 2.30pm / Performance Space, The Wheeler Centre, 176 Little Lonsdale St, Melbourne
Writers Maxine Beneba Clarke, Alvin Pang and Eddin Khoo share their experiences of wrICE, a program of reciprocal cultural exchange and cultural immersion focused on writers and writing. This lively and performative session includes readings from the participants’ diverse bodies of work.
Out Loud! Tuesday, August 26 @ 1.45pm / Deakin Edge, Fed Square, cnr of Swanston and Flinders Streets, Melbourne
Students representing Victorian secondary schools fight it out for the right to be called the best young performance poets. It’s poetry, it’s live, it’s loud and it’s not to be missed.
Poetry Live & Direct featuring Adam Ford, Emilie Zoey Baker, Alia Gabres Tuesday, August 26 @ 10am / ACMI The Cube, Fed Square, cnr of Swanston and Flinders Streets, Melbourne
Catch the beat with two of Melbourne’s freshest, feistiest poets. Emilie Zoey Baker, the Ma’am of Slam and Alia Gabres, a a rising star of the Melbourne poetry scene, offer up powerful rhymes and stories from the world today.
Poetic License featuring Komninos Zervos, Ebony MonCrief, Natalia Mann, Koraly Dimitriadis, Irine Vella, OUP Emerging Artists Kevin Nugara, Mahmoud Samoun, Ileini Kabalan, Dante Sofra, and special guests Wednesday, August 27 @ 12pm, Thursday, August 28 @ 6pm & 8pm, Friday, August 29 @ 6pm & 8pm / Footscray Community Arts Centre, 45 Moreland St, Footscray
Once upon a time a god called Dionysus believed that he could save an ancient city from ruin by bringing a dead poet back to live. And now the need has again arisen. Our world, our city, our neighbourhood is in need of poetry and a great poet to save it. Poetic License is a cross-generational performance work about the power and limitations of words. Presented by Outer Urban Projects in association with FCAC and Melbourne Writers Festival
Poetry of World War One featuring Robert Newton, Tony Thompson, Alia Gabres Wednesday, August 27 @ 11:15am / ACMI Cinema 1, Fed Square, cnr of Swanston and Flinders Streets, Melbourne
The poetry of World War One written by soldiers and those at home helps us to understand the terrible sorrow of war. Robert Newton and Alia Gabres introduce and read of the poetry of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and other witnesses to war.
Local Libraries: Caroline Springs Wednesday, August 27 @ 7pm / Caroline Springs Civic Centre Library, 193-201 Caroline Springs Blvd, Caroline Springs
A poetry slam for local poets, with Maxine Beneba Clarke as the MC, performing a couple of her own pieces and acting as one of a panel of three judges.
Passing Bells: The Poetry of World War One featuring Richard Stubbs, Simon Armitage, Alison Croggon, Mark Seymour, Jeff Sparrow, Sian Prior, Maxine Beneba Clarke, Andrew Marlton Sunday, August 31 @ 2pm / St Michael’s Uniting Church On Collins, 120 Collins St, Melbourne
About: The terrible grief of World War One gave rise to poetry of intense emotion and poignancy. Remembering the Great War poets, writer and performers read and reflect, curated by Overland editor Jeff Sparrow. With Simon Armitage, Maxine Beneba Clark, Alison Croggon, First Dog on the Moon, Sian Prior, Mark Seymour, Sigrid Thornton and Richard Stubbs. Supported by Overland
Head to Hare Hole for the first in a series of themed slams. Melbourne Spoken Word is proud to present a night of gender bending poetry fun with MC Sue Pository (Fury) guiding you through Drag poetry shenanigans. There will be wine, song, and enough glittery makeup to drown a small elephant.
Invitational slam. Line-up of your favourite poets in drag to be announced shortly.
Melbourne Spoken Word presents a brand new open mic concept, The Poetic Lab.
Happening every month or two, MSW will host an open mic for people who want feedback and a chance to improve and test their work. Open to poets from beginner to seasoned performers.
A feature poet will present their work alongside talking with The Poetic Lab about the process of writing and performing their poetry.
The Open Mic section will include a space for the feature, host and people from the audience to offer constructive feedback to the poet.
The first Poetic Lab will also be the launch of MSW signature microphone to be used at all future MSW events.
Doors open 7.30. We aim to start at 8pm so please be on time.
Limit 10 spots and 5 mins per poet. It’s recommended that poets only present one poet to maximise the usefulness of feedback.
Please email firstname.lastname@example.org to book a spot in the open mic. If 10 spots are full-up, we’ll add you to a waiting list in case someone pulls out, doesn’t turn up, or we have enough time.
This is going to be the most exciting event of the year. Footscray Community Arts Centre, alongside Word Travels and Going Down Swinging, presents the return of One Night Stanza. After a sell-out show last year in connection with the Emerging Writers Festival, this year Anis Mojgani returns with Buddy Wakefield and Amal Kassir to headline the ‘Poetic (Days) Weekend’ which will include a performance, plus workshops and a film screening.
With other performers set to be announced, the line-up also includes the founder of Word Travels, Miles Merrill plus Amharic poet Helen Kassa, and Melbourne’s very own Jessie Giles. Tickets sold out fast last time so we’d suggest booking early to avoid being bitterly disappointed.
But we thought we’d let the three poets speak for themselves, and check out the program below, plus the upcoming events page for other events featuring the three of them.
Workshop: Footscray Community Arts Centre presents Private Creative Development Masterclass with Anis Mojgani
Friday, August 22 @ 10am / FCAC Basement Theatre, 45 Moreland St, Footscray / $200
Workshop: Footscray Community Arts Centre presents Private Creative Development Masterclass with Anis Mojgani
Friday, August 22 @ 2pm / FCAC Basement Theatre, 45 Moreland St, Footscray / $200
Footscray Community Arts Centre presrnts Preview Screening: Zajal – The Art of the Poetic Duel
Friday, August 22 @ 6.30pm / FCAC Basement Theatre, 45 Moreland St, Footscray / $10
Footscray Community Arts Centre presents Anis Mojgani Workshop
Saturday, August 23 @ 11am / FCAC Basement Theatre, 45 Moreland St, Footscray / $30
Footscray Community Arts Centre presents One Night Stanza II featuring Anis Mojgani (USA), Buddy Wakefield (USA), Amal Kassir (USA), Miles Merril (Sydney), Helen Kassa (Melbourne), Jessie Giles (Melbourne) and more
Saturday, August 23 @ 6.30pm / FCAC Performance Space, 45 Moreland St, Footscray / $15
When I received Australia Council ArtStart funding, and set out to create short films of my poem, I had no idea how they would turn out. The only videos I had ever made of my poetry was putting a camera in front of myself and performing how I would on stage.
It was a struggle finding a co-director to work with. I have pretty strong views about my art but in reality (contrary to my art!) I can be really shy and hesitant to express my opinions in a group setting. I had a few directors I tried to work with, but each time I didn’t feel they understood my direction and I didn’t feel confident enough to speak my mind. Directors like to control and I am also a controller when it comes to my art.
I had been acquaintances with Nathan Little before it was suggested to me that he could possibly be ‘the one’. Nathan and I clicked instantly and my ideas, which were only seeds, began to flourish and evolve. For the first time I could see my films as cinematic, taking on lives of their own. Performing a poem in front of a camera is one thing, creating a story out of a poem is another. Sometimes I was stuck, and I didn’t know where the next scene should go, and Nathan put forward ideas which expressed exactly what I was feeling but i didn’t know how to articulate. Nathan and I were essentially a creative team, and there is no way the films would have turned out how they did without his creative input. Finding the right people to work with is a key element in creating your art to the standard you want it to be.
During the production stage, I sent some rough cuts to Profile talent management who were instantly interested in signing me. Their clients consist mainly of high profile celebrities, your Neighbours and Home and Away people as well as radio personalities. When I got signed with Profile I realised that if a mainstream management company was interested in me – in poetry – as something which could possibly be taken to the mainstream, I was onto something.
What interested me the most about creating the films was not only creating a story-line with the visuals but also the ‘acting’ of a poem. I see this as different to ‘performing’ the poem. This is where the poet actually acts like they would in a film. The visuals can be acting out the words of the poem, or in other cases they can be showing deeper meanings to the poem which a poet cannot possibly show when they are performing a poem on stage. This ‘embodiment’ of the poem, which a poet would do on stage, is taken to the next level. Essentially the poem is packaged in a way where it can be delivered to the audience from the comfort of their home via YouTube or via a Cinema Screen or Television. These films can also be embedded within an ebook, or, as I did in my 2013 La Mama Explorations show, Good Greek Girl (which will have a premier season is 2015), can be incorporated into a performance of show, where the poet is interacting with their poem. As poets, we all know that when we write a poem, we grow out of it and move on. I was interested in the dialogue between the old poet (in the film) and the new poet (performing). I took the films one step further creating a film trailer for my current book, Love and F**k Poems, using footage from two of the poems from the book, ‘Best Friend’ and ‘How to get a f**k’
I was also interested in the idea of working with other poets and writers but not just because I wanted to work with them, but creatively I liked the idea of putting well known poets and writers ‘inside my poems’. Performance poets can be very distinct characters so I liked the idea of playing around with this and seeing what they could bring to the films because I believe all performance poets can also act because it comes with being a performance poet. By doing this I was able to bring in the unique character traits of these poets into the films. I also invited some of the poets in the films to respond to the films on the launch night, as well as a few other poets. I want to create a dialogue of poetry between the films and other poets. I will also be responding to the films on the night with newer poetry I have written recently, addressing the poems of the films which were written a few years ago. Most of the poets are from a Greek-Australian backgrounds as I am interested in the cultural dialogue we can create with the films and the poems as a creative whole.
Everyone thinks poetry can’t sell, but I beg to differ, and I have always held the view that it can. In this digital age where less people are reading and more people want things fast and accessible, could poetry be the medium that pushes through?
Koraly Dimitriadis will launch her Good Greek Girl Film Project at Loop Bar on August 10th. She has also invited poets in the films and other poets to respond to the films.
Scott Wings’ one person (yes person, not man) show ‘Icarus Falling’ is a magnificently crafted, abstract exploration of both the ancient Grecian myth and the field of mental illness. Right from the beginning it was made clear that this was going to be a generous performance as Scott quite literally launched himself into the story. With a pretty demanding pose as well. The stage was virtually naked and the props, which consisted of a hip flask and chair, were rarely used. And despite the minimalism of the set or its contributing tools – the visual sparsity was all compensated for by the physicality and willingness of the performer embracing his characters and painting his world into existence. Icarus, Daedalus, the tower, the labyrinth, the sky, the ocean – it was all there. All easily imaginable through Scott’s description, his fantastic exploration of space and unabashed use of his body and voice.
There is a certain liberating whimsy that a viewer gets to experience when seeing Scott spin a yarn. It is not all highly polished, perfected elocution and traditional stage methods. It’s more like watching a kid at play, building a universe in their bedroom with such conviction that it’s really hard to not just buy into it. Their enthusiasm is infectious and you follow without question. However, with the added touch of seriousness this performance involves, Scott has managed to strike a pretty solid equilibrium between that fancy-free playfulness and the often self-destructive introspection of those who’ve outgrown LEGO and Play-Doh.
Side Note: For those of you over 20 that still play with LEGO and Play-Doh! You rock my world, but I’m sure you get my point.
Those who haven’t seen him on stage before may find the switches between character and narration a little jarring at times. There are also some relatively confronting lines and themes some may find offensive. Be it because they were insensitive or maybe a little too close to home – some cringes were definitely present in the room. When a performance poet delivers something this personal that is structured in a format of real life meets myth (and has no costumes, make up, backdrops or other cast members) it can be difficult to segregate what portions of the content belong to which character. Or whether it is a perspective of the poet themselves. Or if an emphatic and obscene gesture/comment was an absolute belief of the narrator or simply used to draw a reaction and provide the characters with more personality.
For the most part, and I would say about 95% of the show, these things were pretty evident. But I’ve got the upper hand of being theatrically trained and having gone to quite a number of these kinds of shows over the years. I’m just saying there may be a few odd punters, having just wandered in or been brought by a friend, which might take stuff personally because the seams between narrator, characters, folklore and personal observation/experience may blur now and again. And by “now and again” I mean very rarely. These blurs however, can make observers feel Scott is an asshole and some of his views are callous, misogynistic, homophobic, selfish and remorseless. Just know that if you take it that way and leave feeling pissed off with Scott, than you’ve forgotten the theme of this performance. Which is a young man at odds with his world, in a mode of self-discovery and haunted by his past mistakes. Could Scott do a little more to make that clearer? Possibly. But then the art becomes obvious and formulaic and we would no longer be entitled to a wider scope of interpretation and possibly, more individual response.
Leaving the transitions aside, I felt that the selection of his pieces and how they were interwoven into the set, along with the clear juxtaposition of the narrator’s opposing attitudes, managed to pull us through so many altitudes of the complexities of human emotions. A wonderful intersection of both harrowing yet hopeful was found where Scott set himself a seemingly impossible task and soared through a series of intimate and gripping moments.
As a sufferer of mental illness, this is an area that constantly sparks my interest. I have witnessed a number of performers take on this subject and provide something either vague or somewhat narcissistic and just a bit alienating. Speaking to them afterwards, a lot of them initially set out to make the audience feel included but did feel that the focus failed to communicate links between the two worlds. Scott Wings’ particular production was one I found incredibly raw, unapologetically honest and deathly accurate as to what it is to carry the burden and wear the stigma of manic depression.
To see ‘Icarus Falling’ is to witness a man that removed all defences and invited perfect strangers to have the potential to trudge through a highly personal landscape of shadows and reality, conflict, doubt, mistakes, self-loathing, anguish, love – and be left to judge. Such things take immense courage to not only create, but to share. And Scott has blessed us (and soon the Edinburgh Fringe Festival) with a gift of truth and beauty that is so otherworldly yet often unknown, unexplored and within us all. I will be seeing it again when he returns from Scotland. And I urge you all to do the same. If not for the mind-bending alternate take on the story, then at least to observe the possibilities of performance theatre and poetry delivery when limitations have been dismissed.
The author of this review would like to acknowledge; Hares & Hyenas (venue), Ebony MonCrief (MC Duties), Kudos (talent), Jacky T (talent) and Jamie Kendall (talent). All of who played an integral role for the event and are most definitely worth checking out.
Interview by Benjamin Solah. Transcribed by Tim Train
To celebrate reaching $3,000 in our campaign for a new website, we’ve found, in the depths of the Melbourne Spoken Word archives this exclusive interview with Steve Smart following the launch of his double album, Voices Inside My Head.
So now we’re at the Dan O’Connell Hotel and I’m interviewing Steve Smart and we’re going to do a profile on Steve Smart and ask him some questions about his involvement in the Melbourne poetry scene. So how long have you been in the Melbourne poetry scene, we’ll start with?
Steve: Oh God. Long time. I think I was doing readings in Ballarat in the late 90s for like a year or two and then about 99, I think, I started doing readings down here. So it’s been a while. I’ve been doing the performance poetry thing for about 15 years, I’ve probably been in Melbourne for 13, 14 years doing it, like I’ve always lived here but I used to travel to Ballarat because my sister had a venue up there, so I used to go to gigs up there and then I thought, “ah ha” in my brain, after about a year and a half, I went, “you know, if there’s readings in Ballarat, dot dot dot. I live in Melbourne, so yep. Down the Builders Arms, Dan O’Connell, The Arthouse” and here I am.
So you started doing poetry in Ballarat. So did doing the readings in Ballarat – I’m predicting a smaller demographic – did that kind of set you up for poetry in Melbourne, because I guess poetry gigs are a lot smaller than music gigs or other things?
Steve: Yes, well I mean I did, like there was a regular reading in Ballarat that we would do kind of once a month upstairs from the main band pub, and we moved around different venues but we would also do festivals. My sister had a big space called Grainery Lane which was a theatre/gallery/cafe/bar/band venue/whatever. You know, so we would do – like if they had arts festivals we would do that, if they had band gigs like I would do support for band gigs. So I kind of got used to that, like, whatever anybody asked you to do, if it’s a gig, fuck it, I’ll do it, because otherwise you were really only doing kind of one gig, maybe two gigs a month. So when I came to Melbourne I kind of embraced that idea of, like, I would just turn up to every open mic and if somebody wants me to do another gig that has no particular connection to the scene, you know, I’ll try anything. I don’t give a fuck.
Ballarat taught you to be tough, because it was a small scene and, you know, we had to work hard to get any kind of a crowd. But you know, we built a crowd up there and people that wanted to come and see what we were doing and be involved and we had good open mics and yeah, it was a good training ground I think for… and then I came here and it was fucking chaos.
So you’re not really like depressed or down on that you’re not like a superstar? Do you think Melbourne poetry is about, just you do it for yourself. Like, why are you a poet and why do you do gigs and stuff?
Steve: I was writing poetry anyway when I was a kid, you know, I was just writing poetry because I wanted to impress girls or because I was just really stoned and, you know, that whole 14 year old Jim Morrison trip bullshit – by the way, that book, The Lords and the New Creatures, or whatever it is, is fucking terrible, I thought it was great when I was 13, I read it like 10 years later, somebody borrowed it and didn’t bring it back and then like 10 years later I found a copy of it and went, “Oh my God. The 13 year old poems I was writing in response to this may have actually been better, that’s fucking awful”.
But I think, you know, I feel like I’ve been embraced by the poetry community in Melbourne and in other places so you know, sometimes it’s frustrating because you have gigs where you think a lot of people will turn up and they aren’t necessarily part of the problem, and I’ve talked to other people about this in the hip hop scene and different things, you know in the arts in general. If people think you’re going to get a big crowd then they get kind of lazy and they don’t bother to turn up because they just assume that it will be fine, everybody else will show and so that can be kind of… you know and sometimes, you know, I get better crowds in other cities around Australia, I’ve toured a lot, so you know, sometimes you go to Perth and you get a really good crowd and then you come back to Melbourne and you get fucking 15 people. But I still stand by the principle that if there’s three people, if there’s 10 people, if there’s 100 people in the room and they have a good time and it makes them want to keep going to poetry gigs then, you know, financially sometimes it’s a fucking disaster. But intrinsically, like, you have to be respectful of whatever crowd you have and whatever response they have and if three people have a really rocking fucking night then I can’t be mad about that because that takes away from their experience, if I’m on stage going “this sucks, this is fucking bullshit, there’s no-one here”, it’s like “well no, there’s three people here and they’re having a really fucking good time” so, fuck it, so am I.
So there are like the times when people have a good time. What are some of the – like, last you night you said that “last night’s gig was the second weirdest thing” – was it “the second weirdest thing that had happened”? What was the first?
Steve: No, I’ve had way weirder things than that. It was the second weirdest CD launch I’ve ever done. My first CD launch, I was running a festival – it was the first year that we ran Overload. And I made the very large mistake of deciding to launch my first CD during the first festival ever, and it seemed like a good idea at the time. But, you know, we got a good crowd. But we were doing gigs at a bar in the city and for some reason we couldn’t do the launch in the bar but they said we could have, there was an upstairs gallery that had a kind of separate entrance, it didn’t have a bar, as it turned out it didn’t have any furniture, it had a concrete floor and it was very cold sitting on the floor, but friends had agreed to do the sound and that was great, we were allowed to bring our own booze, that was good, we had to go and buy ice; my partner and one of my best friends, they were at home; when the launch started, people were actually, like my partner and one of my friends were actually still at home burning copies of the CD and printing the covers. So the launch started, there were no CDs, there was no booze, we had to go and buy beer, there was no furniture and – but we got it going, and it was cool, really good people booked for that gig, everybody was happy, we had Peter Davis, I think it was, doing sound and he was recording, so we were going to have a recording of the whole thing. “Wow, my first launch, and it’s going to be recorded”. A minute before I went on stage – apparently the wiring wasn’t too good, it was an old building – about a minute before I went on stage the power cut out, so…. and I had a band, like I had a duo to do, like, backing music and so one of the musicians had a torch and likes to make weird noises and the keyboard player for some reason had drumsticks in his bag, so he played his keyboard as a percussion instrument and Ashiq’s (not sure if I have this name right, Steve might know 17.01.12) chased me around the stage with a torch so I could see my poems while he made weird squawking noises and pretended like was going to stab me. And Pete apologised afterwards for the power thing, he’s like, “oh, because I recorded everybody else and not you”, I’m like “dude, it’s not your fault, fuck”. And so it was kind of a wonderful night but it was like everything that could go wrong, just – and then, yeah.
So last night was a bit the same. It was kind of like – you just get through it. And you have those moments of kind of going, “this is bullshit, what am I doing, fuck, like, you know, people keep telling me I’m a fucking rock star and whatever, like, why don’t I fucking wah”. But in the end like I said people walked out of last night smiling, going, “wow”, like against all odds that was a really fucking good night. And as long as I keep believing them then I figure, you know, I’ve had other CD launches that have been much easier than…. I think the moral of the story is, don’t organise your own launch, get somebody else to do it who has some kind of objectivity and can, you know, help you to kind of coordinate things I guess is important. You know, it’s important to be good at doing one, and to be good at – it’s important to do everything, it’s important to be able to know that you can do your own flyers and run your own sound and do your own bookings and do all that shit, but it’s much easier to have somebody else do it. You can wear too many hats and things kind of go wrong if you’re trying to do everything at once, you know, and doing all the other things that you have to do in your life and, you know, trying to do the work that you need to do. It’s really easier to kind of forget that you need to check particular things and, blah blah blah. That said it was just a fuck up with the venue last night really.
So do you think there’s that expectation in the poetry scene that, like, everyone needs to do everything themselves, organise their own gigs, like the poetry scene is run by poets. Do you think that’s a good or a bad thing and what are the difficulties or what are the upshots, even, of trying to organise stuff yourself?
Steve: I guess, like I said, it’s important to be able to do things yourself so if you can’t find anyone else to do it – or within our community, at least, we have a skill base where we can all kind of do enough different things that we can look after ourselves, but man, it’s nice to have other people do – you know, working in venues where somebody will do the sound for you and you don’t have to worry about it, or somebody will cover the door, or whatever. I think it’s important to be able to do all that stuff and yeah, there’s totally always been that kind of idea within the scene that you know, if we don’t do it then it’s not going to get done. And 90 per cent of the time that’s true. Occasionally you get gigs where you don’t have to do all that stuff and somebody has funding and there’s people to do things or the bar is willing to kind of help out and that’s great, I love that.
I just came off a tour of Queensland where, you know, we had a tour manager and they paid for our meals and hotels were booked and, you know, Talina would make sure we got to the train station to get to wherever we were meant to go or to the airport or whatever. Yeah, it’s good. But you kind of learn to not get too used to it because then it bums you out when you have to go back to kind of doing your own shit. You know, but that’s not just poetry, you know, a lot of artists have to do their own PR and you know we all have to write our own fucking bios and get used to referring to ourselves in public in the third person on paper, or on the internet or whatever, Steve Smart is, dot dot dot. You know, and if you do it properly, people don’t know that it’s me writing my own fucking bios. My friends know, people in the scene know because we all have to do it but hopefully if somebody reads that in a festival program or in, you know, a newspaper, they don’t know I wrote that, you know, they assume I have people to do that, you know, I have pretend people that do things. They write the bios, no no, it’s not me, no. Although in Beat the other day I sent the guy a press text for the launch and I just figured if he’d put it in at all – you know, because it’s fringe and they have lots of other stuff, competing – but I figured if he ran it, he would just run the text I gave him, but he decided to do a rewrite, and he included all the relevant information but he also made, like, little puns on my name. And it’s, you know, I was kind of like, oh, it’s a really bad pun. But I like that he took the trouble to actually kind of do the work on it, he didn’t just, you know, cut half of my press text out, stick it in and copy and paste.
You know, I like that he actually – the puns were pretty awful, but it’s always nice when somebody actually takes the trouble not only to put you in a magazine, but actually takes the trouble to read what you’ve put in and come up with their own copy, I think that’s cool.
So you said that thing about, like, “poets have a skill base”. Like in the past, before I got involved, do you think we were better at sharing the skill base? Or like is there, Janet Jackson was talking before about a wiki, setting up a wiki of gigs and venues and sharing knowledge and skills, I guess. Do you think we could get better at that kind of thing?
Steve: I think we could always get better at that. But you know, like, here, I mean we have our own photographers – Michael Reynolds and Di Cousens and Raf and different people, you know, and again Michael, when he started doing readings, he couldn’t take a photo worth a bunch of crap and he’s really good now. But he also couldn’t do sound; somebody had to do sound here so he learnt how to do that. Somebody needed to do it so he did it and you know, he got pretty good at it. It’s the kind of “mother of necessity”, you know, with the website, with the web stuff as well. Like 15 years ago we didn’t know anything about the internet. Most poets didn’t have email addresses and we learned the same way as everybody else learned. Nobody’s going to, until you give them a reason to, nobody’s going to set up a website for you if you don’t have any fucking money. So you kind of learn how to do things.
And I think – you know, like poets are generally pretty happy to kind of help each other out. Like if I know how to do something that you don’t know how to do and vice versa – I think we’re generally pretty good with that. On the whole, people will pitch in. But I guess the way that the world is turning, you know, there’s always new things to learn. I mean we’ve always had to publicise ourselves but there’s all these new ways of kind of doing it and we have had to have become more savvy, I guess, with taking on these sort of marketing ideas and some people hate it, some people don’t want anything to do with it, but on the whole it’s kind of – I guess it depends what you want to get out of it. You know, you can just turn up to the open mics and read poems and there is nothing wrong with that at all. But you have, I guess, the idea of, you know, this is what you want to do then you kind of gravitate on some level to the other people that are pushing to do more, to find a wider audience to do that stuff. And between you, you know, you use the skill sets that you have. I mean even just using phrases like “skill sets”, you know, 15 years ago, 10 years ago, that wasn’t in my vocabulary. But yeah, this is kind of my job, so I’ve learned to embrace some nasty terms like “skill sets” and “networking” and all that crap management fucking yeah. And mostly I’m okay with that.
Okay, so the other thing I wanted to ask you about is, I guess, the product that poets publish, I guess. You know, book versus CD. You’ve kind of done both haven’t you, and some people only do CDs, some people do books, what do you think is better. Or do you think it just matters on, like, it just depends on the type of poet it is. And do you think in terms of, like, what people listen to and what people read, do you think people read poetry more, do they prefer the live product most of the time?
Steve: I think people read more poetry than they listen to. I think people buy CDs, I don’t know how much people actually listen to the CDs that they’ve bought. I know some people do a lot, people seem to like to watch poetry, you know, people will come to live readings, you know, and especially with the kind of younger generation, I mean, the poetry on YouTube is massive. I think sometimes there’s something lost in the audio recording thing. Like on the page you can kind of imagine things for yourself. I really – like, I like audio poetry, I like being able to put music and soundscapes and put vocal filters and fuck around with things. In Australia, at this point, I would have to say that I think the actual live poetry, like people turning up, is probably the way that more people access poetry, followed by books, followed by audio recordings with the kind of YouTube stuff somewhere in the middle. Yeah. I think there’s room for everything. I like being able to do all of it. I don’t think it’s necessary to kind of make a line in the sand of kind of going “I’m going to do that or I’m going to do that”, I think I’ll do anything that gets it out, whatever people respond to, you know, as long as I don’t feel like I’m cutting off my own nuts and eating them then yeah, in general, I kind of like being able to do all of those different things.
I mean with the new CD I’m certainly looking at putting together a book of – I mean, I’ve got all the poems there sitting on the file going, “Okay, well I’ve done the recording now. Yeah, fuck it, let’s do a book”.
What about DVDs? I suppose people might be more susceptible to watching YouTube clips than putting in a DVD and watching it on their TV, whatever, and like multi – kind of like a book, a CD, and DVD in one. Or do you think putting these things into packages makes it we’re thinking too much about like outside recognition rather than what people are accessing?
Steve: Well I think people will – like with these, what are they, the little, the Kindle things and then be able to – like I hate the idea of reading a book off a screen, I just, I hate it. It’s practical for travelling, I think it’s a bullshit way of, you know, I’m a bit traditional in that respect. But I really like the idea of being able to use that technology to have everything in kind of one thing. So you can have your little personal device thing, and you can have the text, but you can hit on, you know, like the link, like hyperlink things, and suddenly a video will pop up or the audio or whatever so that you have it all together. Like I think – I don’t think we’ve really cracked the DVD idea yet. And DVD’s kind of dead technology anyway. But as far as e-books, I like the idea that they can be, they could be all three things. I think that’s going to happen. And I think that’s really going to engage people because whichever way you want it, you can have it in one package. You know, and it makes it a lot cheaper too, like, buy the book, the CD, the DVD, you just buy one thing and it has everything. Maybe you pay a little bit more for it but you get that whole experience, with, you know, live stuff and film clips and audio. And you know, every poem doesn’t necessarily have to have all of that. Maybe one poem has, like, the audio, with a backing track, with the music, another one will pop up a video and, I you know, I think it will be cool. It’s happening.
So what do you think about projects like Going Down Swingingand the audio Overland edition in terms of more respectable outlets publishing spoken word. Do you think that’s a good direction people are going in, or do you think we could be doing more of that, or do you think it’s not really necessary?
Steve: I mean, GDS, you know, and Overland are quality products, quality projects, I respect the people that are doing that and I think it’s a good thing. I think that’s what it comes down to, if it’s quality work and somebody’s taking care and putting good stuff out then however it comes out I don’t mind. I’ve been in journals, I’ve been on CDs, I was in Going Down Swinging once or twice, I should probably get off my arse and submit to that next time. No, I think it’s all good, however we get it out and however people respond. We have, Australia has a troubled relationship as a culture with poetry, you know, we’re always at the bottom of the barrel, below everything, you know, people would rather go see a bad comedian than a good poet and so we’re constantly kind of kicking against that. So anything that engages people, anything where people go, “Oh, that’s not bullshit, I get something out of that, I understand that, that moves me and means something to me”, then yeah, I’m happy.
You know, and GDS and Overland are awesome. But by the same token they’ve really had to work – I think the CD of GDS particularly, I mean, I think GDS has always been relevant as a magazine, as a book, as a journal, but I think the CD and the web stuff has really opened them out to a whole new audience and that’s great. You know, and if that embraces at some point, you know, more kind of visual technology as well then yeah, shit, it’s good.
Okay, I think the final question was about what do you think about slams and that competitive…
Steve: Oh yeah.
And you know the difference between the slam scene and the poetry scene, do you think there’s a division, overlap, like what are your thoughts on that?
Steve: Mmm. And everyone has an opinion on this. Some people love it, some people hate it. Generally – I’ve been involved in the slam scene as much as – I don’t know whether there’s a slam scene. I think in the last couple of years maybe there is a slam scene in Melbourne. I think it’s a good training ground. You know, you have to get up, you have your minute, two minutes, three minutes, whatever, and you have to be able to engage an audience. I think that’s very important. For me, personally, I like the challenge of it. I also find it very limiting. I’m kind of greedy, I would rather have – like, I kind of feel like I’ve built up to the point where, you know, I can work a crowd over 20 minutes, an hour, whatever, and so you know, I like the punch of slam, but it’s also sometimes kind of – personally it can be a kind of a let down, like, even if you win, you kind of – you know, and especially for a big competition, you know, like the heats for the Australian national slam, you know, you can put as much work into preparing for a two minute performance as you would for a 30, 40 minute performance. Personally, I get a lot more out of being able to construct a set and have time to work with an audience, and even if it doesn’t start off that great you can feel your way through it, whereas with the slam, you fuck something up and that’s, you know, two, three weeks of hardcore fucking training and rehearsing. It can be quite shattering, like, you know, you work really hard and something goes wrong on the night and that’s your whole fucking month.
You know, and especially where you get into the comps where there’s big prizes. I mean there’s not a one of us who couldn’t use $2000 for – you know, and people go, oh, yeah, it’s two minutes work, if you win you win. It’s like, oh, I saw the preparation that goes into that, like work really hard for that, you know, two minute period, but by the same token, I think it’s good training, I think it brings in the audience. What you hope is that the people that come to that as audience members go out – “this is great, you know, we’ll come to other stuff”. And you can use that to promote the other gigs that are going on and the poets that are involved and for the performance for the poets, you know, you learn to be tough. You have to be tough to keep doing slam.
It’s always been important to me that the competition is kept on stage, that you don’t end up with people kind of bitching each other out and bitching behind each other’s backs, “Oh, they got better scores than me and they must have known the judges and they shouldn’t have won and the scoring’s fucked and blah blah blah”. It’s like whoever wins, wins, and you have to let the person have their moment, and so as long as we work as a community, and whoever’s on that stage is supported by the other people on that stage and it doesn’t become that kind of viciously competitive thing, then the audience will respond to that and the people in that room will respond to that and you can build a really good energy.
And I think generally that’s the way that it works, I think that it’s very rare that it goes the other way, but I have seen it and it’s fucking ugly and that’s not something that I really want anything to do with. By the same token, again, like for big competitions it’s $1000, $2000 prize or a trip to China or whatever, you know, it’s kind of hard to put your ego away and be part of a performance and not – you know, you want to win, you want to, fucking – because you need the money because you’re all fucking broke. And you know, how the fuck else are we getting paid for poetry. So it’s very difficult to do that, to be able to separate yourself kind of out of that and not let your own ego get carried away. Especially some nights where you think you won, people are telling you you should have won and the judges didn’t happen to go with you, that could be quite – but it’s good. You know, I think if you do it properly it’s a good way of keeping your own ego under control because sometimes even the nights where 90 per cent of the people in the room are telling you that you won, but the three judges, or five judges, or whatever are telling you that you didn’t then you’ve just got to suck it up.
Every year I say “I’m not going to do it anymore, I’m going to fucking retire from slam completely” and every year I do it again because at the end of the day when it works it’s just fun. I’ve got no hate for the slam thing. And I think it has, I think the CPJ stuff and the slam workshops and all that stuff, I think it has filtered through to the rest of the scene and people use that as a starting point. Maybe they’ve never performed before, they do a slam, you know and then they get involved in the community and realise that then, from there, you know, you can get up and do a whole set of… you know, and that’s cool, that’s what slam was designed for, to bring people in. You don’t have to be a slam poet. It’s an entry point. And I think that’s the best way that it works.
So you don’t think, like some people say that slam cultivates a certain style of poetry, you don’t think that’s true, or do you think that can be a problem?
Steve: I think it’s a definite problem, but I also think that part of the problem is that once there’s a perception of a slam style that people who don’t feel like they have that style don’t enter. Hey, Toby!
There’s a perception where people who don’t think they have that style won’t enter a slam because they’re not going to win because they don’t have that style, which means that nobody who’s not doing the slam style and whatever that happens to be at the time, whether it’s a more hip hop based thing or whether it’s a more comedic thing, or whatever that happens to be at that particular time, then there becomes a style because the people who aren’t doing that won’t do slam and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and everyone gets to nod sagely and go “Yeah, the whole thing’s bullshit”. And it’s like “Well if you want to change that then enter and do something different. The judges will appreciate it, you will stand out because you’re not doing whatever anyone else is doing. You know maybe you won’t win automatically but eventually it will change that perception”. By the same token it’s very easy to – and I’ve certainly chickened out on that, like, sometimes you get there and you’re going to do something real different and then you kind of lame out and go, “Oh but they might not like that, I might not win, I’ll get – you know, fuck if I win but I want to get a good score, I don’t want to get my arse handed to me, I don’t want to get fours, so I’ll just do my fucking slam poem”. And for me I think it’s a lot more rewarding to not do that, like, to do a poem that you know well, that you feel strongly about and that conveys something to an audience that, you know, at that time, you know, at least if you don’t get a good score you have personal satisfaction. And generally I find people respond to that, people respond to that honesty and that level of just doing what you do.
Yeah, I think you know, it’s all experimental, you never know with slam what’s going to work with any – you know, a poem that works with those judges this week doesn’t work with the same judges. You know, maybe they really like the performance but maybe the next lot of judges are like “Oh, we want something more poetic and we kind of – you know, that’s a bit slammy”. You can never predict it because you never know who the judges are going to be and that’s the beauty of slam, you can’t ever predict what five random people are going to think. And that’s kind of why I keep doing it because, fuck it, you know, there’s no way of predicting, you just have to do the best thing that you can do and, you know, and not take it too seriously, I guess. Yeah.
Tim volunteered to transcribe this interview for us, he actually does this for a living, so if you have an interview/spoken thing you want transcribed, why not shoot him an email at email@example.com
A new bi-monthly spoken word gig is set to hit Melbourne curated by none other than Sean M Whelan. A House Safe for Tigers was announced on his Facebook page with a stunning poster which describes the event as “an evening of spoken word fused with music…” with the premise that it will only feature writers collaborating with musicians, and not just poets either, but other writers including those writing non-fiction.
The first line-up, set to take place on Wednesday, August 20, 7.30pm, includes Sean M Whelan himself with his band Isnod, as well as Brooke Russell and Ben John Smith. With no open mic section, there’s plenty of room for the features to strut their stuff in a pretty polished event. Put this one in your diary.
Sean M Whelan is a name familiar to most people interested in spoken word in Melbourne, and with the old Babble slam added as one of the presenters, we hope this one will regularly pull a crowd. Some Velvet Morning, previously Dexter’s, is an intimate venue in Clifton Hill that is dying for more spoken word.
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