The elegant Alan Pentland meets me at the Melbourne Bar, “Workshop”, to talk about the MSW poetry prize, comedy and the meaning of spoken word. Right after this interview, he retreated to his country estate to fix up a problem with a water tank.
Hi Alan. Congratulations on winning the 2017 MSW Poetry Prize! That was a great performance. Funny story about that. I was surprised to have walked away with the prize, there were so many amazing performances! I felt terrific for about a week, then I got the feeling, “What do I do now?” This felt like a watershed moment, a huge step. I thought the next step must be much bigger and I had no idea what it would be. There was an occasion I needed to rise to, but the writing actually became hard and I was quite depressed for a month. It’s funny because it’s ironic.
But I’ve started writing and performing again, I’ve got targets to aim for. I know what I’m going to do: use the prize as a leverage to contribute to the community, to others but also to myself. I think there are new ways to do things and I’d like to explore that.
I’ve been part of the poetry scene for about two years. Much as I appreciate the support mechanisms, I want to reach the people who don’t go to the poetry gigs. Ultimately you want to reach out to an audience that isn’t poets. There seems to be no prototype to achieve this, right now I’m going to non-poetry gigs and open mics — like music gigs. And I’ve been getting an encouraging response.
How did you get your start in poetry? I won an award for poetry from school. My friend and I used to self-publish a poetry newsletter in the days when you had to “roneo” them, you had to type the poems up on a stencil then run it through a machine to make copies. All sorts of people would contribute, people you wouldn’t imagine writing poetry. But then I studied architecture at uni and got into comedy, which is the kind of thing that seduces you away fr
Yoram sometimes has the air of a man possessed when he’s performing. I was interested to find out what drives this dynamic performer. I wasn’t surprised he suggested we meet at the underground bar, E55. When I arrived, he was already comfortably ensconced in a background of drumbeats.
Where did you start with spoken word? I’ve been involved with public speaking all of my life. From an early age I was trained to deliver long speeches without notes and without learning content off-by-heart, but rather, to take a theme or topic and improvise on it, sort of like a jazz of public speaking. Throughout my twenties and early thirties, I practiced this kind of speaking extensively, but exclusively within the Jewish community, and almost always within the context of a religious setting. Basically, I was a preacher.
Regarding the Spoken Word form specifically, it began for me in about 2014. I had returned to Australia from Israel where I had been deeply involved in the Arab Spring movement in that country. I had been engaged in everything from street protests to electioneering and when I returned I felt compelled to write about my thoughts and experiences.
I found, however, that when I actually put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) I was writing in a totally new way for me, using loads of rhymes and masses of adjectives and weird assonances and alliterations. It seemed entirely gratuitous for prose. So I sat there looking at my screen and wondered; “Is this was what people call spoken word?” Shortly thereafter I came across Slamalamadingdong and so it began.
Why spoken word? You aren’t explicitly in it for the self-exploration… That’s definitely true, I am not in spoken word for the self exploration per se. I am really in it for the revolution. I see the spoken word stage as a place to talk about political ideas and use the voice to inform and effect political transformation.
Spoken Word serves
Meet Charlotte, short-statured, pocket rocket, dancer, poet, goat enthusiast, adventurer, exhibitionist, theatrical can-can dancer and perpetually hungry makeup enthusiast. We met on the balcony of the equally fiery and petite Cabinet Bar and Gallery where Charlotte firmly declared that “Gin is Food.”
So who are you? I’m Charlotte Laurasia Raymond. I like to say I’m a goat enthusiast. I guess I could also say social worker, Filipino Sri Lankan, queer, all those things are true, but fall short of really telling you who I am. I identify strongly with being short (I’m 5 foot high). And I’m passionate, I think passionate is just a good word to describe me.
Why short? Cause it’s endearing! Also, because connects me with my mum who is also short. Much of my identity comes from my mum’s connection with the Philippines, with her status as an outsider. Growing up, at extended family gatherings, my mother used to sit with the children and it wasn’t till I grew older that I understood it was because she felt like an outsider. I think one of the common themes of my identity is being mixed race, being queer but not overtly queer and having a physically small structure. I think by always focusing on my height I get to identify with these parts of me without having to be explicit.
Some of your most compelling pieces are about your mother. Has she ever seen your poetry? She’s seen it on YouTube, my brother showed her a video and said she liked it, but she’s never spoken to me about it. Writing poetry about my mother has felt like a healing process in rebuilding for what was a long time a very estranged relationship.
Never invited her to a live show? I do a lot of poetry about being queer and my parents don’t know that about me.
But so much of your poetry on the internet references your queerness. We just don’t talk about these things. I’ve always been the initiator of change and the one bringing conflict
Do you have a fitness coach? Well good on you. I don’t. Probably why a flight of stairs leaves me huffing and puffing.
But if I did, I imagine it would function for my health the way critique workshops function in my writing life.
A critique workshop is where a group of artists meet regularly to share their work with each other and give feedback. This group can consist of peers or might be facilitated by a teacher/leader. Groups can be as broad as a meeting of mixed artists, to something as specific as a group of speculative flash fiction writers wishing to publish in journals. I’ve experienced the full range and gotten benefit from every meeting. Melbourne Spoken Word’s free Sunday workshop, We Work This Shop, is a poetry/spoken word specific one to try.
Generally, a critique workshop has the following structure:Warmup: the purpose is to pull people out of their daily lives and get them in the mood for their art. In some groups, this is social, for example updating each other on recent progress. In others, this might be a free-write or specific writing exercise. Sharing & Critique: participants take turns to share their work, other group members take turns to provide feedback.
Now I don’t want to lecture you to join a critique workshop anymore than I want you to evangelise to me on fitness. But if you are interested in giving it a go here are some tips (not rules!) to getting the best out of a critique workshop.RECEIVING CRITIQUE Don’t apologise for your work: Your co-participants are about to invest their time and consideration into helping improve and progress your work. Show this investment due respect. If you have to, provide information about what stage you’re at, “This is a first draft/ I haven’t written the ending” etc. But disparaging your work skews people’s evaluation before you’ve even started – you won’t get the objective feedback you’re seeking. I
I know Brendan Bonsack first as a photographer. He is a familiar sight at spoken word events in his black on black uniform, camera poised, a reticent presence but his slight smile always at the ready. His black and white specials are beloved profile photos by performing poets. I knew from seeing him perform “A Rough Guide,” at the 2015 Melbourne Spoken Word prize that he could also be a wry and entertaining story teller. I knew from the multiple books and albums featured on his website that he was prodigious and multi-talented. But he doesn’t perform so often on the open mic “circuit,” so I was excited when I discovered that he would be featuring at the Eltham Courthouse in August.
The high ceilings and historical feel of the courthouse turned out to be a lovely backdrop for the performance. Mr Bonsack stepped up to the witness stand with his guitar and quietly introduced his performance by suggesting we needn’t clap between pieces. This was followed by roughly half an hour of sung and spoken poetry. It was like being given a brief tour of a weathered, much-loved and deeply storied house. Each room or setting was beautiful on its own, but it was the house as a whole that revealed the heart and artistry of the set.
I also got the accompanying chapbook that was offered on the night, “Tiny Drum” which turned out to be like liner notes to a favoured album. This article is a joint to Brendan’s performance at the Eltham Courthouse and his chapbook “Tiny Drum” that started off as a memory aid but is slowly beginning to supplant my memory of the night.
Moving effortlessly between song and poetry, Brendan ushered us into the house. With his first short piece,
“I once knew a doctor a doctor of the mind
it was my first time” — from “A Doctor”
we were humorously welcomed into the parlour, given a hint of so much more, then deftly moved on.
Some doors opened onto intense memories:
One of the lovely things about the scene is how every event holds such a different feeling, philosophy, and intention. It’s my favourite thing to attend an event for the first time and soak in the vibe.
When Sharifa Tartoussi approached me about featuring at a new event with a focus on diversity and acceptance, I felt honoured and lucky. She had blown me away with her performance at the Melbourne Spoken Word prize. But in preparing, I obviously couldn’t attend one before the inaugural event. So I decided to interview Sharifa and her partner in crime, the inimitable Joumana Soueid about Griffinspeak.
Their official blurb on the event website states:
A special spoken-word event showcasing all that is diverse and wonderful in the Melbourne spoken word scene. Based on the idea of the Griffin: a mythological creature made up of power and majesty of the kings of both land and sky, GriffinSpeak is a celebration of artists of diverse backgrounds and styles with a focus on creating space for their stories as they would have them told.
Here is the backstory.
1. How did Griffinspeak come about?
Griffinspeak was born of a need – after joining the Melbourne poetry scene, we realised that the amount of venues that were truly diverse and open for all was not as many as we wanted. Rather than wait for somebody else to do it, we decided that we would create a space that was safe, open and deeply diverse and beautiful.
Joumana had wanted an event that showcased diversity and Sharifa wanted something that nurtured up and coming poets.
The event was born during an internet conversation, where we discussed starting an event that showcases both new and well-seasoned poets from diverse backgrounds who might not get enough space on the scene. One that is accessible to as many people as possible. Sharifa jumped the gun and contacted our features, Joumana used her mad tech skills to get sponsors and create poster