Interview: Sharifa and Joumana on GriffinSpeak

One of the lovely things about the scene is how every event holds such a different feeling, philosophy, and intention. It’s my favourite thing to attend an event for the first time and soak in the vibe.

When Sharifa Tartoussi approached me about featuring at a new event with a focus on diversity and acceptance, I felt honoured and lucky. She had blown me away with her performance at the Melbourne Spoken Word prize. But in preparing, I obviously couldn’t attend one before the inaugural event. So I decided to interview Sharifa and her partner in crime, the inimitable Joumana Soueid about Griffinspeak.

Their official blurb on the event website states:

A special spoken-word event showcasing all that is diverse and wonderful in the Melbourne spoken word scene. Based on the idea of the Griffin: a mythological creature made up of power and majesty of the kings of both land and sky, GriffinSpeak is a celebration of artists of diverse backgrounds and styles with a focus on creating space for their stories as they would have them told.

Here is the backstory.

1. How did Griffinspeak come about?

Griffinspeak was born of a need – after joining the Melbourne poetry scene, we realised that the amount of venues that were truly diverse and open for all was not as many as we wanted. Rather than wait for somebody else to do it, we decided that we would create a space that was safe, open and deeply diverse and beautiful.

Joumana had wanted an event that showcased diversity and Sharifa wanted something that nurtured up and coming poets.

The event was born during an internet conversation, where we discussed starting an event that showcases both new and well-seasoned poets from diverse backgrounds who might not get enough space on the scene. One that is accessible to as many people as possible. Sharifa jumped the gun and contacted our features, Joumana used her mad tech skills to get sponsors and create posters and Griffinspeak was born.

We have been blessed to have the support of some amazing people in doing so.

2. What would you like Griffinspeak to achieve? What are your dreams for this event?

Primarily, we want griffinSpeak to break down barriers between different communities and societies in Melbourne. Although we often say we live in a cultural melting pot, it feels more like a few pots on the same stove that end up in the plate of someone who doesn’t like their food to touch; we occupy the same space but we don’t mix at all and more often than not, some of us have privilege that means we occupy more space than others, and due to that lack of mixing, don’t even know it. GriffinSpeak is our little way of starting to change that through poetry. Poetry is a really great medium, spoken word specifically is a performance art, so you don’t really need to be a poetic expert to sit back and enjoy it but it is also a great way to engage with your audience and get your message across.

We want Griffinspeak to be a safe space, an open, diverse gathering of powerful poets that make up this beautiful fabric of community we call Melbourne – a space to support established features and up and coming poets who are still finding themselves and their place as well as providing a space for those moved to join on the night via open mic.

Most importantly, we want people of all walks of life to gather in a space that makes them all feel equally welcome – which may seem a hard feat but we will give it our best shot.

3. Do you have a guiding philosophy for the event? Something that guides how you chose the speakers, how the event is run etc?

Our policy is one defining rule, safety, and diversity. We want it to be a space whereby people of all backgrounds feel safe enough to share who they are and what their art is without judgement or censorship.

The execution is what we have given the impromptu name “the three-tier system of performance poetry” where we have three tiers (like in a cake stand because everybody loves cake).

The base tier is that of our feature performers. These will be largely people of marginalised minorities who have either already made it big or are on their way up in the poetry world. They are poets who hold a position or representation in the poetry community that is aspirational or inspirational for performers from the other tiers. Sometimes, our base tier will contain somebody who isn’t from a marginalised background per se, but that is the nature of having an event that is all inclusive and is safe for everybody. If you have a story then you have the right to have it heard.

Our middle tier consists of sub-features — depending on the event will consists of between 5 and 8 performers that are either selected because we saw them at an open mic and thought “my god, the world needs to hear this” or have made it through our application process (that is, have emailed or messaged our page and applied with a sample of their work). These performers who are new on the scene (often first time or second-time features), are of diverse backgrounds and in our opinion, do not get enough space on the mic …yet.

Our top tier is the open mic. Depending on the number of sub-features, there will be 5-10 spots of 5 minutes each. This is arguably the most fun part of the night because open mics are inherently random and we never know what the performers will bring.

4. Will you have to change the event name if you ever change venues

We are a powerful beast of diversity, the Griffin follows us wherever we go!

GriffinSpeak did originally get its name from the venue, the Gryphon gallery. But really ended up being spelt differently because the griffin is a creature that is a fusion of the king of land and the king of the sky; a metaphor for the way we aim to present powerful voices regardless form a range of backgrounds to establish a level “stage field” between speakers no matter how they identify. The griffin stays wherever we go.

5. What are each of your personal relationships with poetry / spoken word – how you got started in it, what does it mean to you now

Joumana: Poetry has been my means of escape and communication since 9 years old, I still have a lot of my dorky little poems saved in a folder. Words have always been my life-source, my obsession and my passion. I write because it is who I am and without it I am not my complete self.

Sharifa: The first poem I ever wrote was a series of rhyming couplets i posted on my then tumblr profile. It got some attention from a few people and after looking at other poetry blogs and trying to bring my writing up to the level they were at, I realised that it could be more than just a way to make a simple point. Poetry is used to connect people through stories and emotions, it’s a medium allows you to get the gist quickly, and allows you to be as vague or as frank as you want when telling your story while giving you full control over your autonomy.

I stumbled upon the poem “What’s Genocide?” by Carlos Andres Gomez, and was very surprised by the differences between the written version I’d seen earlier, and the way it was performed. I connected with it the moment he began speaking. The way he brought it to life, and how it now had its own personality really got me thinking. It showed me that spoken word is a powerful way to deliver poetry in which you interact with your audience in the here and now while giving context to your pieces.

From that point I was sold on spoken word. I did a few performances at uni on activity nights with friends, but the real turning point was the Melbourne spoken world prize in 2015. The response I got on that night was overwhelming and I’ve been addicted to that feeling and it keeps me coming back for more. Griffinspeak is a way to allow as many people as possible that feeling, no matter how un-mainstream they are, we all deserve to be heard and we all deserve to feel like we are making a difference.

The inaugural GriffinSpeak takes place on Saturday, September 17

Waffle Irongirl