Interview: The 2016 Australian Poetry Slam Champion, Arielle Cottingham

We’d like to congratulate MSW committee member, Slamalamadingdong co-producer and all round awesome adopted Melbourne poet, Arielle Cottingham, for taking out the Australian Poetry Slam Championship last week. MSW Director, Benjamin Solah, had a chat to Arielle following the win.

Tell us a bit about how you got introduced to spoken word?

Hoo, it’s a bit of an involved story. I stumbled across spoken word more or less by accident. I always kept my old high school English textbooks, and I was cleaning out my closet in my parents’ home over the summer when one of them fell open to a page in a chapter we hadn’t covered in class that year. In the sidebar, there was a photo with a caption along the lines of “Staceyann Chin is a world-renowned spoken word poet.” I hadn’t heard of spoken word at that point (I think I was about 17), and thought I’d look it up. I promptly forgot about the book, and then, a few months, maybe a year later, I happened to open the book to the same page, and thought, “Okay, I’m actually going to look this up now.” The first poem I clicked on was her piece “If Only Out of Vanity,” and I was completely floored. I clicked on more of her work, and then found Phil Kaye, Sarah Kay, Andrea Gibson, and Anis Mojgani within the next few hours. I was so starstruck with them I didn’t even think to write for performance for another several years; I would just binge on YouTube videos of poets every once in awhile and try to show my friends. I eventually wrote a couple of poems for performance, but didn’t have the resources to find or get to poetry readings in my hometown; Houston doesn’t really have a central portal for finding poetry events like MSW, so I didn’t have an entry point.

Fast-forward several years. I studied abroad at University of Melbourne, and during my stay a friend in the theatre community mentioned that Anis Mojgani was giving a workshop and a performance at Footscray Community Arts Centre. I bought my ticket that night; the odds of one of the first poets I had ever seen, and one of my favorites, being in Melbourne at the same time that I was was just too big a coincidence to pass up. After the workshop and the performance, people were handing out flyers for other spoken word events around Melbourne. I was so excited and inspired that I went to my first open mic ever the following Monday, at Passionate Tongues, and Voices in the Attic the very next day. I’ve been hooked ever since.

Your work touches on a lot of social and political themes, what do you think a poem does for social change that other forms of writing can’t?

I think it boils down to the live performance, and the human connection with people that live performance can foster. On one hand, people who may not necessarily know much about the topics a poem covers, or have a differing viewpoint from that of the poet, are much more likely to think about a piece of art that touches them deeply than, say, a rhetorical argument. In arguments, people aren’t trying to learn; they’re trying to win. With a piece of performance, that layer of competitiveness isn’t present, so they’re more open to really listening. On the other hand, a performance that people can relate to can be an ecstatically healing experience – seeing your own views and struggles expressed in a public medium like performance poetry touches that deep part of our psyches that fears being alone and misunderstood. Finally, speaking about the issues I do is a public act of defiance against the status quo, and we live in a world that needs to be shaken up – now more than ever.

You run a slam as well as having won the APS in 2016. What do you think about the state of slam in Australia compared to the states? What do you think we do better or differently?

I was participating in slams in the States for less than a year, and never at the national level, so I’m definitely no expert! I have heard that many participants in NPS go a little crazy with the competitive aspect, which, with hundreds of poets competing every year, is fair enough. Backstage at APS, though, was beautiful: people were excited, encouraging every single person who went up, and literally lining up to hug everyone as they came off stage. The level of support among strangers and competitors was overwhelming. I can see it happening at Slama, as well; the community is so supportive and welcoming, even in the midst of pretty fierce competition. People here don’t seem to have gotten to the cutthroat point that a lot of American slams have, where they research other competitors and write poems specifically to beat them. I hope they never get to that point; people should be writing the best poetry they can without writing with other people’s tastes in mind.

Tell us a bit about the experience of the final at the Opera House.

Like I said before, the level of support and love from the other competitors was overwhelmingly beautiful to experience. People were actively listening to the other poems and clicking and geeking out over the good lines other poets dropped, and some of us were dancing to all of the intro and outro music in between poets to shake off the nerves. The support from the crew of Melbourne poets who road tripped out to Sydney for the final was also completely insane; I could clearly see (and hear) all of them from the stage, and those lights were bright; I couldn’t see much! There are few feelings out there better than knowing that people you love have made such a huge effort just to see you on a stage like that. And, for me at least, performing on the Opera House stage itself was surreal. It’s literally one of the first things you learn about when you first hear the word “Australia” as a kid in the States. It’s instantly recognizable all over the world, and to perform there? Unbelievable.

Annie Solah