On the evolution of Melbourne Spoken Word as an arts organisation

One of Santo Cazzati’s favourite phrases when he used to MC House of Bricks was to proclaim loudly that “it’s grassroots” when describing the nature of this amazing ecosystem that we’ve found ourselves in called spoken word.

The amazing thing about the spoken word scene is that for decades there’s been this network of readings, open mics, slams, launches each run by poets themselves, off essentially our own steam, often because of their own love of poetry, each one with a subtle or sometimes radical difference in mood, audience, some vague thing called ‘vibe.’ Some gigs fade away and new ones spring up started by fresh faces on the scene.

It’s with this in mind, and supporting the rainforest of spoken word gigs, that should inform us when we’re thinking about Melbourne Spoken Word officially becoming an arts organisation that supports and unites the spoken word scene. I imagine MSW is like a big bat signal. We can each kind of shine our own lights around trying to attract people to our various gigs, but if we put the power of our lights all together, we have enough light to somehow light the sky up and attract people to the whole thing. Once you go to one gig, you end up finding about others. Chances are the person sitting beside you will mention they’re going to such and such reading in two nights time.

Our goal this year is to become an incorporated not-for-profit arts organisation. Some of the motivations for this are boring but necessary; separating the organisation from myself legally so that MSW has its own tax file number, ABN, bank account and legal status. But it’s also about creating a funding base that can make it more powerful, powerful enough to light a big bat signal for instance and do things for promoting gigs, and poets and raising the profile of spoken word that a grassroots scene so far hasn’t been able to do.

It’s also about becoming a membership based organisation that’s role and projects are influenced by the feedback of members, be that gig conveners, poets or audiences. We’ve started that by creating an organising crew of people to help with the work and the ideas that fuel where MSW is going this year and setting up the organisation.

But my hope in that it will become something that the grassroots scene can take ownership of, that it’s not necessarily seen as the pet project of one poet but the community’s organisation. Arts organisations can often seem like rigid, impersonal things but one like ours that shines out of the grassroots can surely defy that illusion.

What does that organisation look like in reality? What does being a member mean? What things will make MSW reflect its grassroots base? Well, we’d like to hear what you think about that.

Photo by Brendan Bonsack

Annie Solah