Rania, I remember seeing you and your fellow artists in the very first performance of Bukjeh at the Immigration Museum. I understand that the show has been developed since and performed at various venues and festivals. A ‘bukjeh’ is a bag or sack that a refugee carries throughout their journey, containing all of their belongings that can be carried. What was in your bukjeh?
My memories mostly. I was an 11-year-old at the time that I arrived in Australia. I couldn’t bring my cabbage patch doll, but I would have loved to. I brought as many of the objects and treasured possessions that inhabited my 11-year-old world as I could.
What was it like for you at that age, arriving in a new place?
It was a shock! I was astonished at how quiet it was here. Back then, all the stores closed at 5pm and on weekends. In Egypt, everything was open until midnight, so you would hear cars beeping late into the night and constant human activity. Most people lived in flats and you could hear the sounds and conversations of your neighbours. If you opened the window, you could hear a couple’s argument. I would open the window the next day to hear the sequel to the argument from the day before.
Like watching a soap opera or a radio play?
I used to call it Streets FM – you learn a lot!
What did you see and hear and learn?
I often heard women manipulating their men, actually! Egyptian women are very smart about getting what they want. I used to say that I was never going to get married.
What were your first impression of the new language and the landscape you found yourself in?
It was greener. The shapes of the leaves were different. Here the leaves were long, not wide. In Egypt we had a lot of palm trees, mulberry and fruit trees. It really was desert and the trees were largely not native. Many of the tree trunks in Australia were smooth and grey, not brown with thick bark. I had never see
You are part of the team that Slamalamadingdong is sending to US to compete in the National Poetry Slam. What excites you the most about competing in Chicago?
I’m immensely proud of Slama and of the whole Melbourne poetry scene, so I’m excited to go and represent everyone at such a huge event. I’d like to be a kind of ambassador for the amazing art being created in Melbourne and Australia. I’m keen to watch, connect with, and learn from lots of other amazing artists. I think we might also be able to push the boundaries of what American audiences think of as ‘Slam Poetry’ by bringing our own styles, experiences, and contexts into our work and our performances.
Your accent is decidedly English. What part of the UK are you from, and what brought you to Australia and Melbourne in particular?
I was born in Newcastle Upon Tyne, but grew up down south in Surrey. The rest of my family are from in and around Manchester, so that was an influence too. I’ve also lived in Leeds, South London and North London. So, maybe I’ve got more of an ‘undecidedly’ English accent. I wonder whether those varied influences were part of what got me interested in accents, dialects, and language generally.
My partner and I met in the UK but her mum is Australian and her family emigrated to live in Geelong some years ago. That gave us the chance to try living in another country and we fell in love with Melbourne. We said we’d give it two years and see how we settled in. That was five and a half years ago. So, it looks like it’s going okay.
Yes, I did hear that you would travel from Geelong to attend poetry events. What made getting up in front of that mic worth the small journey each time?
The poetry and spoken word scene is my community, so it was well worth the journey just to be among those people and hear their art and their stories. I think it was important for my mental health to keep performing regularly too. There is some
Your most recent collection, ‘The Courage Season,’ opens with ‘Portrait of a teenage boy wandering the CBD, Melbourne.’ In it, you are observing a young man navigating the city and all of the possibilities. There is a sense that this may also the younger Peter. What were you like as a young person and how did your journey in poetry begin?
The main character portrayed in ‘Portrait of a teenage boy wandering the CBD, Melbourne’ is partly autobiographical, as I worked and wandered (during lunchbreaks) around the Parliament end of Bourke Street for 30 years. I remain a habitué of Pellegrini’s, The Paperback, and the Hill of Content bookshop. The poem is about restlessness, choices and searching for nourishment, stimuli and connections within and also beyond one’s stomping ground/hometown.
I was an extremely unhappy teenager who loved books, the map of the world and the idea of going on the road as soon as I could manage. I wrote my first poem on the road at the age of 28, still an unhappy young, questing man.
You have written many ‘portrait’ poems. ‘Portrait of Frida Kahlo’ is written in first-person, while ‘Portrait of David Bowie’ is in third. How do you approach inhabiting the world or character of someone else, and is a certain level of commonality between yourself and the subject needed in order to take on that first-person voice?
My portrait poems come out of empathy and research. Given my own medical history, major surgery and health crises, I can relate to the sense of body violation and salvation Frida Kahlo faced. In regard to David Bowie, his investigation into the multiplicity of identities one could adopt and discard is an ongoing investigation of mine, as I feel I am multiple selves within any 24-hour period. I’m always imagining other lives – the lives of total strangers and passers-by.
Your short poem ‘Self Doubt’ is very much about procrastination. How do you avoid the rut o
Amanda Anastasi speaks to Sapologie curator, Green Room Award winner, and Slamalamadingdong Grand Slam Champion, wāni.
How and where did you first discover spoken word?
Through a collective I found when I first arrived in Melbourne. It was the first space I’d ever felt truly free to be able to explore forms that weren’t always so readily available to me.
One of the most interesting and moving spoken word pieces I have heard recently is your poem ‘Silence’. In it, you demonstrate the gaps in our speech if we removed the lies and half truths from our daily narrative. Why do you think it is so hard for us to speak plainly and truthfully?
I think perhaps it’s because of the way we’ve been socialised and conditioned to exist. It seems as if we have to be and exist in a particular way that perhaps is different to who we feel we actually are, and vulnerability as well as honesty is exposing and that’s risky, so we tend to hide behind masks we create. Perhaps.
I have often considered spoken word and poetry to be the most direct form of artistic expression. Is this part of its appeal for you?
Yes, most definitely. It tends to cut through the b.s, I feel. It allows both the giver and the listener to penetrate parts of each other that aren’t often received in the same way through other forms – not even conversations – because of the assumptions that it often carries with it at times.
Your performances are paced and phrased very deliberately through your clever use of pauses, silences, and acceleration. What are the things you have learned so far about performing poetry that you would like to share?
That there are no rules to it except the ones you make for yourself. For me, it allows me to enter a space where I can better understand myself and the world around me, in a way that opens me up to share it with those willing to hear me. It also allows me to explore new ways in which to deliver things t
I recently saw your show ‘Don’t Worry, I’ve Got it Covered’, which was a cabaret tour de force! Your presence and authenticity onstage in something many performers aspire to. How important is it for you to be completely yourself onstage, and why is this important?
I had so much fun on stage that night! It was a real joy. Hmmm…being myself…what does that mean? Ok, I won’t go down that rabbit hole! I know what you mean – I am pretty relaxed onstage – these days, after years of performing and experientially working out what not to do!
I’d have to say it’s pretty important for me to feel relaxed and allow myself to be seen in all my flawed and fabulous glory onstage. I aim to be as uninhibited as possible so that I can ‘get out of my own way’ enough to honour the wild and wacky and messy and juicy human experience. Hopefully then people can connect and feel more ok with their humanness. I feel like if I’m ‘pretending’ people won’t trust me and will be less likely to let their hair down and come on the journey. Obviously, I don’t always manage to be 100 percent authentic, but it feels like every year I shed another layer of giving a shit, and that’s’ great! I’ve always loved authentic performers who are really uninhibited and eccentric and vulnerable. If someone is loving what they do, and allowing themselves to be seen, you feel super comfortable looking at them and it can be so engaging.
I remember when I used to life model, the art teacher would always tell the students not to try to draw a face the way they think it looks – not to make it up. If you actually look at it, the eyes are wonky and the mouth is not as you imagine, and the skin colour has greys and purples and blues and oranges. But if you try to paint what you think the skin colour is, it won’t be nearly as nuanced and beautiful.
Maybe this is a good analogy for how I feel about performers being authentic. I don’t want a perform
You wrote a poem about last year’s tragic Bourke Street incident, which was read at the Bourke Street Memorial Service in January by the Deputy Lord Mayor Arron Wood. What were you feeling, hearing your poem read by a public official at a major event?
I didn’t watch the poem read live at the venue or on TV. Let me explain why. One of the survivors of the Bourke Street attack is a friend of mine. As the first anniversary of the attack approached I found myself dwelling on those days. It was a difficult month. My father had died a few weeks before, in terrible circumstances. One day I was talking to my friend about what happened to my father, trying to make sense of it all. Then, a week later, I was visiting that friend in the Alfred Hospital, trying to make sense of such a senseless act.
So, a year on, I was thinking about January 2017 when the organisers of the Memorial emailed to ask whether I knew any poems that might be appropriate to read out. That email triggered me. I spent the next three days trying to write a poem about the events of January 2017. Before I sent the poem to the organisers, I told my friend what I’d done. I guess I was seeking his permission. He told me to send it, so I did. On the day of the Memorial I watched a bit on the TV, then turned it off. Once I heard from my friend that he liked the poem, I went back and watched the video. I thought Arron Wood did a great job with the reading. As for me, I was just relieved my friend thought it was OK.
Most of your poems are rather economical and look as though they are suspended and solitary on the blank page. Others are longer, less spaced out, and laid out in neat lines. What dictates the way a poem looks on the page?
I don’t know the answer to that question. The truth is that, for me, writing poetry is all about the process. I only write a poem when I feel something I don’t understand. Once I start writing, the poem shows me its form