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.

Photo by Michael Reynolds

Photo by Michael Reynolds

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.

Photo by Michael Reynolds

Photo by Michael Reynolds

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.

Photo by Michael Reynolds

Photo by Michael Reynolds

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 Swinging and 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 timhtrain@yahoo.com.au

Benjamin Solah

Benjamin Solah

Benjamin Solah is a writer, poet, spoken word artist, activist and the Director of Melbourne Spoken Word. He grew up in Western Sydney before calling Melbourne home in 2008, where he's performed since 2010 around Melbourne's regular spoken word and poetry nights including Passionate Tongues, The Dan Poets, Voices in the Attic and House of Bricks as well as the NGV and White Night. He's released a chapbook, broken bodies, and two spoken word albums, Duel Power with Santo Cazzati and The World Doesn't Make Sense EP.
Benjamin Solah

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