US Slam Poet “Good Ghost” Bill Moran visits Melbourne next week to perform for Melbourne Spoken Word and host a workshop, as part of a tour around Australia. Melbourne Spoken Word Director Benjamin Solah asked Bill a few questions about visiting Melbourne again, and a few things about poetry.
So Bill, you’re coming back to Australia and Melbourne after visiting just over a year ago. What’s made you want to come back so soon? You must like us a lot.
The short answer: cabin fever. The long answer: I recently started working towards a graduate degree in creative writing and I’ve been pretty heavily steeped in reading, writing, and teaching. So it’s important to me to keep one foot in the world of performance poetry, to keep myself situated in front of an audience, and let my work be informed by its real-life intervention. Some of the biggest strides I’ve made as a writer came from holding my work up to the light of an audience and seeing how it immediately bears on its readership. The best way for me to do that is to put myself behind any and every microphone I can– both overseas and at home. And now that I have a few months free for summer break, I can do that!
More importantly, I’d like to help further carve out the poetic community that incorporates Australia and US in the same circle. We each have a lot to say and I think a lot to learn from each other, and I’m aware of a few poets who’ve already done amazing work in traveling and putting the two groups in conversation with one another. I hope I can likewise contribute to the conversation by carving out something of a presence in both circles, at least beyond being simply a tourist with a lot to say.
And of course: I like y’all a whole lot! I was received with such hospitality last year, and had such a great time– which is the ultimate selling point and a huge gift. If my experience is half as great as last year, there’s no way I’d rather spend my summer break.
What ‘new shit’ are you bringing over on the plane for us? Can you tell us about your new work?
Ah! Yes indeed, I’ve been busy in the laboratory and I’m happy to say I’ve come out with some wild new work lately. Some of it is fairly experimental, but I feel like I’m doing something right because I’m finally being surprised by what’s coming out on the page– it’s the same surprise that I so thoroughly enjoyed when I first started writing. I feel half-writer half-audience member when I’m in the thick of it– like what I’m reading is honestly me, but also something I haven’t seen before. There have been times over the past couple years in which I’ve felt a bit ventriloquized by the pressures I put on myself, to write a certain way, or to have my work received well by absolutely every pair of eyes that lands on it. But now that I’ve settled into a new town and new community, I feel like I’ve carved out a place for myself in which I can be most authentic. And I think that authenticity has translated onto the page, and in my music (I’ll have a new poetry album out by the time this hits the web, or shortly thereafter!)
As to what the material actually looks like, I’d say it’s more of the ideas I already engaged tangentially or by accident, but given the spotlight: mouth as a liminal space, compulsion toward hyper-embodiment, text as a body and performing the bodily work of the poem, etcetera. I mean, I’ve dubbed this year’s excursion the “Eat Your Way Out” tour, so in a word: food. Lots and lots of food happening in these poems.
One of the pieces that we loved last time was ‘Handshakes’ written in response the shooting of Trayvon Martin. We’ve seen similar things happen since and revolts sparked all over the US. Can you tell us about the spoken word inspired by it, particularly from African-American poets?
I’ve had to adjust to a new, rigorous works schedule lately and haven’t had a a chance to frequent spoken word events as much as I’d like to. So, admittedly, my sampling pool is a bit small– but I haven’t necessarily noticed a particular rise in poems regarding police brutality, white supremacy, and the like. As to why that is, I can only speculate as a white poet on the outside looking in. I will say, though, that it’s been difficult time for many and one in which many have been busy grieving, taking stock of the world around them, and keeping loved ones safe.
I have, however, seen a huge rise in dialogue on social media and in my local community. While the Baton Rouge poetry scene has been consistently engaged in the translation of art into real-life, social efficacy– especially in the thriving youth spoken word movement here– our poets have lately shown an especially amazing effort. Shortly after the Michael Brown tragedy, our local slam had a night dedicated to discussing the intersection of race and police violence, in which poets performed work on the subject and led discussion groups composed of writers and audience members alike to facilitate dialogue. There was another recent event in which teenage poets had a town hall-style discussion with Baton Rouge police officers to air their concerns, with no input allowed from mediating adults.
Again, these are merely third-party observations from someone who is perfectly able to leave his front door without fear of being arbitrarily assaulted or murdered by police. I can say for certain, however, that while the level and visibility of the riots has been greatly heightened as of late, the institutional injustice that these outbursts express is nothing new. American police didn’t only recently become racist, and the spoken word poems that need to be written right now have already been written, time and time again. I absolutely could be wrong here, but I sense among African-American poets and other poets of color a general impulse to construct a new language with which to make sense of a senseless problem, to rightfully protect themselves, and to be heard by a justice system that just hasn’t been listening. As is, the violence inflicted on black communities goes beyond strict poetic reportage, and I think we’re seeing a turn towards poems that are doing more and more work.
If we can ask you a slightly controversial question, what’s your opinion on the development of the slam scene? Is it inspiring a ‘genre’ of sorts or are poets still using the form to produce their own unique and experimental work?
Buy me a few beers and enough time, and I could write you a dissertation on this one. But I’ll do my best to keep it short. You’ll find plenty of poets who argue that ‘slam’ is genre, and just as many argue that it’s strictly a medium. Some say that it is necessarily performative, some say it’s performance is incidental to the text. Some say it’s a space for experimental content, others have molded it into a vehicle of social rhetoric. It’s been likened to a silly bar game, or an art form that has given audience to marginalized voices. However you slice it (and I’ve seen it sliced a thousand different ways), I think an important question that is all too often overlooked is: does it work?
Since reentering the academic world and enjoying a bit of breathing room from slam as of late, I’ve had a chance to see just how much slam has informed and cultivated my own work. And from this distance, I’m happy to say that for me, it works wonders. And I’m happy to see slam-oriented poets coming up with astounding work that is being celebrated both in and out of the slam community– Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, Fatimah Asghar, Danez Smith, Hieu Ngyuen, and Sam Sax first come to mind. I wouldn’t pretend to know their personal opinions on slam, but I think their example testifies to the efficacy of slam as a resource…. so long as it remains a resource. I’ve seen too many writers engage competitive performance poetry in a severely limiting way, one which stresses “competitive” over “performance” or “poetry.” My M.O. has always been– and it’s worked out ok thus far– to rigorously and honestly ask myself “does it work”? However you choose to conceive of slam, it’s a writer’s responsibility to make sure that it works for them in the cultivation of their craft– be it poetry, youth empowerment, social justice, etcetera. If you stagnate in your chosen medium, which is almost sure to happen, it’s up to you to change your conception of and approach to that medium. Again, I say “slam” and it means something different to everyone. And I’m not too keen on pinning it down anyways. But I will say– so long as slam (and what it means to you) describes, and not prescribes, your work– you’re free to use it as a hammer to beat your writing into surprising and important shapes.
Bill Moran will performing for us on May 15 at The Provincial Hotel alongside local poets, hosting a workshop on May 16 at Under the Hammer, as well as featuring at Passionate Tongues on May 18.