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
“That’s a *page* poem, not a stage poem.”
Go to enough spoken word workshops and open mics, you’ll eventually hear someone make a comment similar to the one above. They may be referring to their own work or someone else’s. Either way, it’s a puzzling, maybe even infuriating statement. Especially if, like me, you came to performance poetry after years as a secret scribbler. Or even if you’re an accomplished submitter and publisher of your work in the print or electronic media. What does it actually mean? How does a page poem differ from a spoken word poem? Are there a new set of rules? Will you be able to learn them? Have you wasted your time with iambic pentameters?
Here are some myths I’ve encountered that have since been busted for me by more experienced page and stage poets.
Myth 1. A spoken word poem should be three minutes long
When writing page poetry, we rarely focus on how long it takes to read the poem. Once we enter the spoken word arena, we eventually hear someone bemoan that their poem is shorter/longer than three minutes. After a while, it becomes an implied objective – the haiku lovers among us start stretching for those extra stanzas whilst the epic poets hack away at their rhymes. This is not necessarily necessary. This myth probably originates from competitive poetry slam rules that state competitors get three minutes to deliver a poem before starting to lose points. However, there are many forms and venues of performance poetry other than slam, where much shorter or longer pieces would be welcome, as long as they are entertaining, meaningful and cohesive. Where audience engagement counts more than scores and points. If you intend on competing in slams, you might want to use your allotted three minutes to best effect. However even in a slam competition, I would argue that an effective and well-shaped two-minute piece would score points over a poem straining
If Dan Poets and Passionate Tongues, as the longest running poetry open mics, are the eccentric and venerable fathers of the Melbourne spoken word scene: then Slamalamadingdong, the longest running spoken word slam competition, is “Mother.” ‘Slama’ has been running since 2011, first at Bella Union Trades Hall and now in the dark, warm, cavernous womb of 24 Moons Bar. Founder and artistic director Michelle Dabrowski and her crew have given birth to an event that is eclectic and embracive; even as the “slam” format imposes a current of competition.
This month, Three Ring Circus Poetry Collective (Arielle Cottingham, Sam Ferrante and Will Beale) inherits the creative producer role from Michelle. The Circus have brought with them a brand new slam format – instead of a single round where a slammer lives and dies on the strength of a single piece, poets potentially have three bites of the coveted cherry. This means lots of good things for aspiring competitive slammers. But as it turns out, the new format also meant a rocking good time for the audience-punter (or indeed, for the hapless slammer who got slammed out in the first round…)
I lined up with a small crowd of aspiring slammers, waiting for our names to be drawn. Some of us slouched about – confident and relaxed, some shuffled nervously, some of us MAY have stared blankly into space with our faces frozen into a rictus of fear. Sign-up closed promptly at 6.45pm. Twelve names were randomly picked from a bag to slam that night. The remainder were automatically entered into next month’s slam. A separate draw was held to determine our sequence of appearance. Then the show got promptly on the road.
The warm inclusiveness of past Slamas remained, with a delightful mix of familiars from the regular open mic rounds, and some fresh new faces. “Clap for the poets not the scores,” they say, but it still cut a little to be cut out early. Mere minute
The first time I encountered “I am a Dancer”, the first poem in Arielle Cottingham’s “The Tarantist’s Soapbox”, it was at an event that combined dance and spoken word. In an intimate performance space, her body exploded into “C4 and fireworks”, her “untamed Dominican curls” an extension of her dancer’s body, her voice folding passion into strength, anger into tenderness. I’ve never forgotten this visceral poetry-in-motion, and feel uniquely privileged to witness her unshackled from the microphone.
As a spoken word performer, Arielle’s artistry lies in fearlessly offering herself up to the audience. Watching her can almost feel like a ritual. Partly because she offers so much of her identity and heritage for scrutiny, partly because she is unabashed in presenting outrage, vulnerability and pain to the audience as both goad and catharsis. Her voice, views and physicality are larger than life and laid out for the audience’s full engagement.
On the page, this poet is every bit as intense. From the start, she reminds me again that she is a dancer, evokes her ancestors and the ghost of Amy Winehouse:
The resulting explosions rip my body down pathways paved with sweat, and drums, and rhythm. from “I am a Dancer”
In the very next poem, as she often does during spoken word performance, Ms Cottingham rips my political consciousness a new one:
When you turn on a TV, you don’t have to look for a token to feel represented. You have 9 Disney princesses. Yo tengo cero. from “For White People Who Think They Don’t Have White Privilege”
The intimacy of words on the page is most potent when Arielle is trying to wake us up to the horror of history. “Columbus Day” for example, unlike most poetry doesn’t hide graphic history behind metaphor. There’s a shock to realising that the atrocities com