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
Eleanor Jackson and her infant daughter graciously hosted me for this interview. Over tea and cake, we had a wide-ranging conversation about spoken word and its revolutionary potential.
One of the things I love about poetry is that it is deeply transgressive, precisely because of its anti-capitalist tilt. We live in a system that assigns a utility to every person and their time. To do something that is a ‘waste of time’ and makes no money — it is a revolutionary act.
I was listening to your performance of “Shave and a Haircut” at Slamalamadingdong. I was struck by the musicality, how it evoked the sounds and rhythms of jazz. I wanted to ask about musical influences. Is that a conscious thing for you?
Yes, spoken word and poetry is about musical language. There is so much resonance between the way that musicians and poets use language: for its rhythm, tonality and song. My earliest musical loves were discovered scrounging through my dad’s vinyl collection of 70s classics, including all of Joni Mitchell’s work. She is an incredible lyricist, a beautiful painter and writer, a phenomenally talented musician. Her sense of story and lyric form is just exquisite. I loved the standard folk troubadours like Bob Dylan or Elton John. The 70’s rock-folk classics almost seem daggy in their sincerity, but I think they are still really beautiful. They continue to influence me at some level, although I don’t use end rhymes the way that musicians seek to use them in their songs.
The other striking feature of your work is pacing, your modulation of both pace and emotion.
If there’s one thing I miss in Australian spoken word, it is space and silence. Pace is about finding the beauty that happens in the pause. The pause allows for contemplation and absorption, allows for the time and space to sit with a thought, to then decide if the words truly resonate. Poet and spoken word artist Anthony O’Sullivan said he thought m
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
It’s a grizzly Melbourne morning. You know the sort – neither convincingly rainy nor dry… the kind of weather that merely dampens concrete and irritates pigeons. I’m sitting at a café preparing to interview Magan Magan, a poet who is currently working on a collection of poems centered around grief and this meteorologically meepy morning feels fitting… I’m wrong. There is no meepiness in the man who greets and sits before me. Magan exudes calm and strength and I am bathed in a sense of warmth as we settle in to talk…
There’s a quote from Shakespeare’s Macbeth that reads:
“Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o-er wrought heart and bids it break.”
Is that a fair statement in relation to how you came to write a collection around grief? What was the genesis?
I came to Australia when I was four and before Australia, I was living with my family in Malta. I’m originally from Somalia but born in Yemen. After Yemen we went to Malta as there was a civil war back in Somalia and my parents were travelling when the war broke out and couldn’t go back. So, they left their families; had no contact with their families or anything like that. I remember from the age of three carrying a heavy load of life; a sadness. A feeling of being unsettled. Once we were granted permission to come to Australia, I remember mum telling me that we’d made it. That we were going to a different country that was settled. That it’s going to be peaceful and we are going to build our lives – and everything’s going to change. But we came to Australia and that feeling didn’t leave me. I still didn’t feel settled.
That’s a great weight for a four-year-old and this sense of grief; of loss and displacement sounds to be absolutely part of the fabric of your identity.
Yeah. So, since then I’ve been looking for a place to belong and I’ve started realising that belonging isn’t specifi
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
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 fr