Yoram sometimes has the air of a man possessed when he’s performing. I was interested to find out what drives this dynamic performer. I wasn’t surprised he suggested we meet at the underground bar, E55. When I arrived, he was already comfortably ensconced in a background of drumbeats.
Where did you start with spoken word?
I’ve been involved with public speaking all of my life. From an early age I was trained to deliver long speeches without notes and without learning content off-by-heart, but rather, to take a theme or topic and improvise on it, sort of like a jazz of public speaking. Throughout my twenties and early thirties, I practiced this kind of speaking extensively, but exclusively within the Jewish community, and almost always within the context of a religious setting. Basically, I was a preacher.
Regarding the Spoken Word form specifically, it began for me in about 2014. I had returned to Australia from Israel where I had been deeply involved in the Arab Spring movement in that country. I had been engaged in everything from street protests to electioneering and when I returned I felt compelled to write about my thoughts and experiences.
I found, however, that when I actually put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) I was writing in a totally new way for me, using loads of rhymes and masses of adjectives and weird assonances and alliterations. It seemed entirely gratuitous for prose. So I sat there looking at my screen and wondered; “Is this was what people call spoken word?” Shortly thereafter I came across Slamalamadingdong and so it began.
Why spoken word? You aren’t explicitly in it for the self-exploration…
That’s definitely true, I am not in spoken word for the self exploration per se. I am really in it for the revolution. I see the spoken word stage as a place to talk about political ideas and use the voice to inform and effect political transformation.
Spoken Word serves two really incredible functions in that regard.
The first is that it’s a free stage. Anyone can get up and speak. You do not need a PhD or a publishing deal or anything like that. It is a universal permission slip to simply get up and express.
The second function is that embedded within the spoken word community are an incredible range of public speaking and performance skills. I feel that the more I am immersed in this environment and exposed to the many strong, powerful and articulated voices therein, the more I am absorbing and learning their techniques, styles and methods of communication.
Where do you see revolution going?
I feel that the entire human species is standing at a fork in the road. One path leads to revolution; a total transformation of all of our social, political and economic systems from models of exploitation to models of inclusion. The other option, quite simply, is death. Not merely death for the individual, but death for our entire species.
Where did the drive for revolution come from?
Revolution has been the one theme that has been constant throughout my life. In many ways I don’t see myself as an individual as such, but as a cypher, or avatar, of my people’s traditions. All my life I have been so steeped in Judaism that I no longer know where I begin and where my Judaism ends, so I see my entire self as a living expression of the Jewish culture manifested inside a male growing up in Australia in the last quarter of the twentieth century.
So how does revolution figure into that? Well, the concept of Judaism that has been most influential upon me can be expressed as Ti-koon Olam, roughly translated as “healing the world”. Ti-koon Olam is not really about ancient traditions and preserving cultural identity, but rather, is focused on real political activity in the actual world, to transform human society from its current state of injustice to an imagined future state of true justice and enlightenment. This idea expressed in terms of contemporary politics is revolution – the total transformation of all social systems.
You speak a lot about yourself as an ‘avatar’, a late 20th-century expression of an ancient idea and tradition of bettering the world – what about the idea of identity-based work existing in opposition to the normative?
I don’t see my identity as being oppositional. For me, my identity is a positive value that exists in its own right without having to define it in relation to dominant culture or a norm. I never felt I had to claim my identity in the face of adverse judgement. I see myself as coming from a deep and ancient culture that gave the world the Bible, Jesus, Marx, Einstein, and many others. I never even wanted to be part of the so-called normative culture.
Having said that, I am a seventh generation Australian on my mother’s side. While basically ignoring my “Australian-ness” throughout childhood, in my twenties this identity started to play a bigger role for me.
This culminated at the Olympic Games in Sydney, where I was exposed for the first time to the idea of Invasion Day. In the Olympic compound was an exhibition of First Nations art and hanging on the wall was a gigantic canvas of the First Fleet arriving with massive skulls superimposed over the sails of the ships and in an instant the penny dropped – of course this is how the First Nations understood and experienced the landings. As invasion. As holocaust. As death.
My Australian identity had suddenly become a lot more complex than football and beer. This led to a journey into the Australian interior, Uluru, the central desert and other places. So now I do see my Australian component as being a part of myself, and I identify strongly with both the struggle of the First Nations as well as with their culture. Coming out of a spiritual tradition like Judaism, encountering what I call “dreamtime spirituality” was a significant revelation.
So your approach to spoken word and poetry is about refining your message.
Like all poets, I want to communicate what is inside me. The spoken word community is a custodian of a set of deep and ancient performance skills. When I encountered this community I knew I needed to learn and refine my own toolkit to communicate my message. Spoken word is the best way I’ve come across to do this – the most real and honest way to speak – unlike more technical disciplines where you are required to force your ideas into conventions.
I agree spoken word is honest and direct, but poetry as a form can be ridden with conventions.
There is always an interplay between the message and the medium. My approach to the various poetic conventions, rhyme, rhythm, metre, repetition and so on, is to assess them based on how effectively they function to deliver messages to a listener. I want my message to get inside the brain and heart of another person, and techniques have been developed over thousands of years to facilitate and accelerate this.
Take rhyming for example. Rhyming is virtually absent from prose, but we have learnt that listening to a good flow of rhyme releases endorphins and causes information to stick better in the mind of the listener. Awareness of conventions and techniques makes me more effective as a communicator and increases my chances of getting people to listen.
Yes, poetry taps into something under consciousness. What about music?
Agreed. Probably the most direct way into another person’s subconscious is via music. Which is precisely why this is the direction I’m taking my own poetry, to fuse it to music. Music provides an even quicker and deeper route to a person’s prime emotional state – and it provides a bed of sound upon which words, a different kind of sound, can be layered. My fascination with fusing words and music goes back to my Jewish preaching days, where I discovered that the more musical a presentation, the deeper it would stick.
How do you use music in your spoken word?
At the launch of The Whale (Yoram’s first book), I was accompanied by music. I have been working with a musician, Hanna Silver, to combine my words with music. Hanna composed an entire score for The Whale, which in my opinion really transformed and elevated the work.
The Whale felt like quite a psychological work to me. The metaphor of the whale has that feeling of being surprising, yet perfectly fitting.
The whale metaphor, the idea that animals bear the evidence of their evolution within their bodies, is one I’ve been carrying around for years. The original form of the poem was called “Shomer Negiah” – the name of the Jewish law forbidding physical contact between the sexes. As I was writing the poem this long-borne image of the whale and its vestigial limbs came to me and I knew it would fit perfectly.
Is this your first formal publication? I am intrigued with your political commitment, your first book is so personal.
Yes The Whale most certainly is my first formal publication. The irony isn’t lost on me that my first book is not directly about what I say I am about. As in, there isn’t much revolution in there. But in the way it felt like a highly personal piece was the best thing to put out first.
What held me back in my thirties was the idea that I had to say it all in one go, put out a book that covered everything. But poetry has taught me that it’s OK to just say one thing that takes three minutes. It doesn’t have to be the grand theory of culture, history and everything. It can be particular, idiosyncratic, one little slice of reality.
The Whale is fully illustrated and the text is laid out in a very interesting way. What was your intention with that?
I wanted a poetry book that captured the essence of a poetry performance. I find that poetry comes alive on the stage, that static words on a page are animated and given life and substance. I wanted the book of The Whale to give the reader a similar experience to a performance. Key to this are the images created by Lital Weizman. As the book is so much about using images and typography to bring the poem to life on the page, I consider it as a separate work to the poem itself and feel Lital is a full and equal collaborator.
How has spoken word changed you?
When I first jumped into the scene, I was annoyed by what I perceived as “self-indulgence” in spoken word. There were so many highly personal poems. I was all geared up to talk about history and politics and things out there in the world, but everyone else seemed to be absorbed by what was happening inside of themselves.
I have since learnt that the process of self-discovery and communicating through personal stories is fundamental to the whole enterprise. As much as I want to communicate my ideas to people, people don’t really relate to ideas. People relate to other people.
So I’ve learnt that political messaging has to be wrapped up in telling personal stories and the expression of idiosyncratic personality. Listening to the personal pieces of others and forcing myself to write my own, has really brought this home for me.
The Whale is partly about teenage angst, an exercise in capturing the way I felt at a particular time in my life and using the creative imagination to go back into childhood to do that. Going through that process forced me to perform the internal alchemy on myself – to work on myself, confront my past and deal with those demons, making myself a better person in the process.
The experience of spoken word has made me realise that the internal work is an intrinsic and necessary part of the greater work of making the world a better place.
The Whale by Yoram Symons, illustrated by Lital Weizman, is on sale on the Melbourne Spoken Word online shop.