Nice To Know We Are Alive: Interview with Alan Pentland

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 from all the activities you should be doing in your life. It was something I also really enjoyed.

I was aware of the poetry scene in Melbourne in the 70s. Chris Mann was a friend of mine, and he was in the scene with Pio and the likes. But it seemed intimidating to me compared to comedy, so the poetry went into abeyance.

When I finally retired, I realised that in the intervening years, I was always a writer: comedy writer, technical writer, film, communications expert, copy writing and editor. It got to a stage where I wouldn’t pick up a pen unless someone was paying me. But when I was forced to retire, I said, “Damn this money thing, I’m going to write what I want to write.” At first it was cathartic, then more of the funny and entertaining pieces emerged because I couldn’t help myself, it’s what I know. My involvement has evolved from there.

You’ve had a pretty amazing career in comedy, featuring in Fast Forward and other iconic comedy shows in Australia. I’m really curious about your comedy career, how did that happen?
I ran the first stand-up comedy venue in Melbourne in the 70s. But stand up requires a cast iron soul, so I took a job in television soon after.

When I started in comedy in the 70s in Melbourne, the scene was non-existent — the opposite of a career choice. A group of us started performing, we all wanted to do something that was good, that had quality, that fostered equality. We did not like things like swearing, we felt that was getting cheap laughs. When stand up arrived from America, it started to take off because it was much cheaper to put on than the large ensemble pieces in vogue back then. We started supporting rock and roll bands, like AC/DC and Little River Band before they got big. They called us the ‘crappers’, as in “put some crap on while they are doing the sound check.” Sometimes we would hear them calling out, “Check One Two!” from behind the curtains while we were performing. The combination worked really well and also we learnt to deal with tough crowds.

But there was always the desire to get a bigger audience, and the only career paths we had was into television.

My time working for Darryl Somers on his “Tonight Show”, it was a hot-house of experience. It was the most high-pressure job I have ever experienced. You start the week with no material and by Thursday, there’s a show. After one rehearsal, they turn on a switch and everyone on the Eastern seaboard can see you. There’s no way out. It sorts people out: the pressure is so intense there is no allowance for weakness. Whether you liked it or not, you needed people you could depend on. Not many people get such an opportunity. I was working with some great people, Ernie Carroll (Ozzie ostrich) was such a great guy and mentor, Daryl was such a nice guy too.

When I joined the Fast Forward team it was very professional, a lot of very clever people trying out different things. We worked really hard and greatly respected each other, but everyone on the show was your competitor — because everyone wanted to get their sketches on air. You always had to produce innovative work that caught attention and offered something to everyone. Working with all these diverse people was terrific training as well.

I also learnt a lot about performance and writing from business doing copywriting. One of my most useful experiences was writing radio ads, it requires great discipline, and you learn to tell a story in 24 seconds. You don’t write in words, you write in syllables. I developed great respect for brevity. For many years, I also communicated technology ideas to people who in many cases didn’t even want to hear my ideas. You had to make it interesting.

I see that as my differentiator — having this huge range of unique experiences. I don’t bring a poetic or literary background – I’ve decided not to fight it but to work with it.

How do you think spoken word differs from comedy as an art Form?
Spoken word is an opportunity to have a discussion of ideas. It doesn’t have to have a joke every ten seconds, in fact it doesn’t have to contain jokes at all, which appeals to me immensely right now.

With your experience in expanding the reach of stand-up comedy, how do you think we do the same thing in spoken word and poetry?
People are actually enormously interested in spoken word. When I’ve performed on non-spoken word open mics, I find people pay attention when they hear someone doing something clever with words. The festival is a great beginning, it gives the artform a stamp of approval and credibility. It would also help to get the backing of an officially recognised institution, like the Wheeler’s Centre. But you have to make yourself a commodity people want, “Hey why don’t you have a spoken word event?” By running a festival, you get these entertainment and art venues to recognise you as a community. “Hey, these poets are organised enough to run a festival!”

What’s your first love, page or performance poetry?
For someone who’s done a lot of poetry, I don’t find the act of reading poetry on the page to be to be a fruitful experience. I like listening, I really like the live event. I like being in a room when there’s something going on. I experience it like being on the beach and having the wave of poetry wash over me, but once the waves are gone, I don’t know where they were. Only once in this whole time have I ever had someone read a line that just moved my guts in a real and visceral way. It was Steve Smart, but now I don’t remember the line or the poem. But I remember the feeling.

So that’s your approach as a writer? For performance?
I write to perform. Right from the beginning, I hear it in my head. I start with making notes on paper, but from the very first edit, I read it out (sometimes on a dictation app) and I will rewrite it as I am reciting it. I only decide to learn something by heart after doing it in front of an audience a few times and deciding it is good enough. At that point, I’m refining intonation and emphasis. To me performance is part of the writing process.

It took me a long time to connect what was coming out of my mouth with what I was hearing in my head, but I’ve gotten better as I’ve gone along.

So how have you closed the gap?
Just keep performing. Perform a lot and all the time. The level you can improve your performance is infinite, you can never stop getting better. One word can tip the entire piece, one emphasis can add a whole new level of inflection to it.

A lot of what I see on the scene is driven by vulnerability and emotionality. The power comes from expressing authenticity and emotion. I feel like your performances are powered by a conscious selection of intonation and words.
Yes, a lot of what you’ve described is actor’s training — projecting inner emotion, breathing and posture, all the things that helps you to connect with the inner something… but for me it’s always been about the words. In my personal experience, it’s like riding a tiger. I believe that words are powerful, if you have the right words expressed the right way, you can communicate anything.

The challenge is generating spontaneity when you’re performing something that has been written and rehearsed. You gotta be prepared to go off script sometimes. It’s exciting when a performer takes an audience down a path, then suddenly changes direction. That sense of surprise is like quantum mechanics, when a moment shifts somehow to include something from the past, future or something unexpected — a journey through a psychological landscape.

“Race Call,” the piece I did at the MSW Prize is very exciting to perform because it’s technically difficult, a rollercoaster ride for both me and the audience, or a juggling act.

When it works, what you get is an affirmation of consciousness — a sense of “holy shit”, something has come alive beyond the page. Well, we all need that, nice to know that we are alive.

So after all that wonderful experience, you’ve returned to poetry and spoken word. What drives you now?
I find the world confounding. I write to work out the contradictions I see in the world and in myself. I look at our politics, media and economy. I wonder if this is what we really wanted? There is so much to be disappointed about, yet I’m aware it has never been a better time to be a human being. On one hand, I think we are so lucky, on the other hand I get depressed about all the contradictions of our situation.

In my humble opinion, there is no theory which has more ramifications for mankind than the theory of evolution. We’ve got a layer of civilisation that is a thin veneer over our basic brutality. Just look at the first and second world war. I would like to be part of the wisdom that leads it in the good rather than bad direction. Still, I feel like there are forces that we will never be in control of. We create institutions that provide governance and moderating influence over our basic nature — but you can never stop being vigilant.

So I write to think about these things, and I write to try and appeal to our basic decency and wisdom.

Thank you Alan.

Alan Pentland features next Tuesday at Passionate Tongues Poetry, and as part of the Melbourne Spoken Word & Poetry Festival, featuring at The MSWPF Closing Night with US poet Moody Black, on June 3.

Waffle Irongirl