If the atmosphere was right: Interview with Santo Cazzati

I first spoke properly to Santo Cazzati on the Upfield Line train, maybe five years ago, where he told me he was on the way to Passionate Tongues, and invited me along the fortnight after, bringing me into this world of spoken word, where I can most certainly say he stands out on stage, both for his dress sense and what comes out of his mouth.

Santo Cazzati is a unique performer, his satirical and musical style of poetry almost seems like his voice is the orchestra and he is the conductor as he recites his words off a music stand, gesturing with his hands and facial expressions, often tackling issues of social justice, sexuality and music. After almost a decade performing on Melbourne’s spoken word scene, he’s featured at many regular gigs, as well as interstate, whilst also running his own, most notably House of Bricks Spoken Word which ran for four years, and as one of the presenters on 3CR Spoken Word, and most recently, co-running the new Owl & Cat Readings.

I was lucky enough to sit down with him last week, to ask him about his own poetry, colourful clothes, radio and being the PJ, the Poetry Jockey, all ahead of the launch of The Collected Smirks of Santo Cazzati.

It’s fascinating when he tells me what he was like when he first started performing. His first public performance was at the launch of Offset after he was published there. “I turned up deliberately late because I was so fucking nervous.” They called his name to the stage as the only person selected to read a poem. “As soon as I did, I pissed off, out I went because I was so frightened to talk to people.”

The next time he turned up at the launch of Offset to read again, a stranger approached him and said, “it’s really good to have a performance poet.” Santo left thinking, “so that’s what I am, I am doing performance poetry. That made me feel good but I still didn’t know what to do.” It wasn’t until he met Brigitte Lewis at a Midsumma slam that he found out through her about Passionate Tongues and open mic.

He turned up to Passionate Tongues a fortnight later, sat at the back, didn’t drink and waited his turn. “I just sorted of thought someone would call out,” he said. “The gig finally finishes at half past 11 and I’m waiting to be called.”

The next fortnight, he finally got up, Santo recalls, following then Australian Poetry Slam Champion, Marc Testart. After Marc performed what Santo described as one of his weird pieces, MC Michael Reynolds commented “what a strange man,” but then after Santo got up and did what I know as the Dr. Seuss poem about Rupert Murdoch, Michael got up and said, “Until five minutes ago, I thought Marc Testart was the strangest man I had ever seen but now Santo Cazzati is much stranger.”

IMG_8232From strange beginnings, he went from Passionate Tongues, to the Spinning Room after Anthony O’Sullivan introduced him to the gig, and then The Dan and so on. Back then, all the gigs were mostly advertised spoken at the gigs, plugged by the MCs. Most people can’t imagine shy Santo now when you meet him, but he says, “bit by bit you know I stopped being the person that sat at the back being too scared to talk to people because people gradually started to come up and talk to me and I will always hold this place in my heart for those five or six people who spoke to me for the first time.”

Santo Cazzati came to spoken word later in life. Born in Canberra to Italian immigrants, as Robert Zocchi, who named him after Robert Menzies, who thought Australia was great and was full of economic opportunity. He said, “I thought I would walk into employment.” His expected university lectureship never materialised and whilst working as a casual piano teacher, which he still does to this day, he was quite a successful classical concert pianist for 17 years of his adult life, where he performed at places like the Sydney Opera House. “It paid more than poetry, I can tell you that.” He sold his piano and ceased to perform in 1995, when he focussed more on creating underground dance music.

That’s how he came to spoken word. “When I was composing this stuff I had this idea, wouldn’t it be really cool if there words over the top of it, and in 2001, I realised that I wasn’t going to go anywhere with the music but I had all these words, I thought right, let’s try being a poet, whatever the hell that is, I really had no clue but there were all these words.”

Whilst he sent out these poems to journals like Overland and Meajin, he used to perform them for partners and friends. “People would say, ‘It’s a real shame that no one is hearing this stuff, because you’ve got such a colourful voice, why can’t you perform this stuff?'”

“It finally dawned upon me that what I was doing was not really for the page, what I was doing was creating basically sound structures that had a structure because of the way they progressed through time and through sound, through pitch, through rhythm, through timbre, through expression.”

Before he began performing though, when he was sending out poems to journals, Santo Cazzati was really born. “I could not send [poems] to journals under my real name, I just could not, I was so embarrassed of being a poet because I was musician and there will also be somebody who remembers the concert pianist.” The name means ‘Saint Fucked.’ Cazzati comes from the name of an obscure Italian composer, Maurizio Cazzati, which he took to write stories under which he was sending to a partner in the 1990s. It also happens to be a southern-Italian swear word. “I came up with a short list of three stereotypical wog names, Mario, Santino and Santo, and I settled on Santo because it means Saint.”

Early on the name was exposed though, he tells me. “When I did it at the Dan, Mick Mezza yells out, ‘Oh that’s not your fucking name, that means fucked,’ coz he knew, coz he’s a southern Italian.”

One thing you notice about Santo’s unique style, especially when he does a longer set, is the musicality in the way he performs, and also the lack of banter, no titles and how his pieces begin to bleed into each other, where you don’t know where one poem ends and another begins. The idea was born after seeing Marc Testart feature at The Spinning Room, he says, “he said it would be best if you don’t clap between the poems, if you just remain silent until the end.” He said the performance and the reaction from the audience moved him to decide that that’s how he wanted to do his features from now on.

“You’ve got this extraordinary tension from the listeners that they were liking what they were hearing and emotionally responding to what they were hearing, whether I was loud, whether I was very quiet, I got this tension, and people want to clap, or they want talk or they want to yell out, or they want to move, they want to do something, but they see this focus and this intensity that you have created through very simple means by just simply not shutting up and then at the end of it, if it’s twenty minutes or whatever, if the atmosphere is right, there is this extraordinary outpouring of people just wanting to let it go, if you got enough people, if there’s sixty or seventy, in a confined space, it can be a very beautiful thing to experience for everyone concerned.”

IMG_2440-2This kind of feature set led Santo to win the Shelton Lea Award for Best Solo Performance at the 2012 Overload Poetry Festival, featuring at Passionate Tongues during the festival, one of the first times I’d seen him feature, as he shouted “move, move, move!” in a piece about the police attacking a protest under Kennett.

Santo’s poetry often plays with the language of conversation, the imitation of voice and the non-linear, often musical way in which he uses words, like playing notes with his voice. “I love playing with speech rhythms but the real influence in my life is music, over and over and over again, I will sketch out some poem that I want to write often in music notation, bar lines, time signatures, pitch things.”

He reads his pieces off the page, usually on a music stand, like reading sheet music, moving his hand around like a conductor. He will often sketch out the pieces with grid paper or music paper, sketching out the structure where different parts are meant to go for a certain time or at certain beats per minute, but none of that appears on the page he reads off. “It’s not part of the finished artistic thing,” he says, “they’re just an aid to my memory. If something is fast I’ll usually double space them because if it’s too close together I might lose my spot.”

On that note, he’s never worried about memorising pieces, and still is quite visual and performative whilst reading off the page. “It’s odd because I dress up with these weird clothes so I guess that’s visual, I can’t keep my hands still even when I’m holding paper so that’s visual, I occasionally have silly facial expressions which I just can’t help, I don’t practice them or anything, they just happen. The only thing that I practice is what you hear.”

“I’ve worked very hard to have a very particular word order and you know, I want that to come out, just for my own personal satisfaction and to get that out, I want it to be seen in front of me. I don’t have to prove that I can prove that I can memorise. What I have to prove is that I can get through tongue twisters without making a single mistake, now that makes me feel good.”

Alongside performing regularly around Melbourne, he’s been one of the hosts of 3CR Spoken Word since the first year he came onto the poetry scene, falling into it after being asked by the founder of the program, the late Ronda Jankovic. After doing it for a while, he began to see the importance. “This is for posterity. When we’re all dead and gone, people who research into these things will look back at Melbourne in the early 2000s and say, all these incredibly talented people were around, and they had ordinary lives like everyone else…but we had extraordinary poetry. And that was the thing that was going to survive us.” Over the years, he’s had a wide range of people on the program and alongside a whole lot of presenters has created this archive of the Melbourne poetry scene that continues on.

The other thing Santo is known for, other than his radio work, is his time as the PJ or Poetry Jockey of House of Bricks. For four years, between 2012 and 2016, Santo had over a hundred feature acts including legends of Australian poetry come through the roller door out onto the street. Again, he kind of fell into doing it after being asked and as it went on, he began to see its importance. “I created this theory of the DJ, except I used it not for my features but I used to create this flow of poetry using open mic people, features, Nick the barman, hecklers off the street because we had a few of those and gradually I think I developed not so much a style but an atmosphere.”

Now, following the closure of the gallery, Santo’s teamed up with Anthony O’Sullivan to host The Owl & Cat Readings, a different style of gig, in a proper theatre. “You’ve got this intense focus on the stage,” he says about the space, and about the gig, he says him and Anthony pick rather different people. “We don’t want to suggest people to each because we might embarrass each other.” But in a short time, The Owl & Cat Readings has again generated enormous enthusiasm, and that ingredient of a certain colourful gentleman can’t be a coincidence.

Speaking of colourful, he tells me that the reason he wears what he wears is because it reminds him of the 60s and 70s, and because a partner at the time wouldn’t be seen at clubs with him if he wore the trendy all black outfits he used to wear in the 90s. “I want to be appalling,” he says. “I want to be ridiculed as somebody from the era because I know I don’t fit in, so if people want to have a laugh at me for that reason, or because I’m an Italian or because I have dubious sexuality…” and he shrugs his shoulders.

It’s hard to find people who like to ridicule him though. Over the years I’ve known him and seen him perform, he’s always been spoken about with affection. He’s had a major influence on me and many others during that time. That’s a kind of sappy way to end the interview, but when I ask him about his influences mid-way through our conversation last week, he tells me, “the thing that does influence me is that these people exist and they get up and put themselves on the open mic and feature and perform in a way that makes me want to listen and they’re doing that with the sound of their voices. The real influence is ‘Hey I met all these people that I really like,’ fifty, sixty, seventy, eighty people in Melbourne who I believe have genuinely individual cutting edge artistic styles that cannot really be understood by the artistic mainstream.”

Santo Cazzati will launch The Collected Smirks of Santo Cazzati at Under the Hammer this Friday, from 7pm at ‘Santo on Trial’

Photos by Michael Reynolds

Annie Solah