Review by Amanda Anastasi
“[Poetry] doesn’t create, it infests…
It is the dark heart
The niggling damp
The rising doubt”
I’ve just finished listening to two discs worth (that’s seventy-nine tracks in all!) of Steve Smart’s poetry. My head is spinning and I need sleep, but I cannot bring myself to stop listening. So brace yourself folks… Three-hundred and thirty-six features and sixty-eight festivals later, Steve Smart delivers this; his great achievement, his magnum opus. So where to begin? How about here: Steve Smart is the real deal. This is a raw, seething, hardcore poet who makes the rest of us look spineless.
When I took my first tentative steps in the Melbourne poetry scene a couple of years ago, I learned some things. This thing called ‘the Melbourne poetry scene’ covered everything from thinly veiled rants, rhymes, comedy, philosophical reflection, musical/rhythmically-based spoken word performance and all forms of word play. There seemed to be an endless discussion about the merits of page poetry versus stage poetry. I quickly discovered that the aim was not so much writing well in the traditional sense and conforming to a particular style, but composing something honest, original and true and to see where it led. As you listen to Voices In My Head – a retrospective of Steve Smart’s various shows and character pieces – it is increasingly evident that Steve rises above all these categories.
Of course when venturing on to the scene, I also noticed a delicate long-coated creature with unruly hair spouting novel things into a microphone. It was obvious to me that this guy lived and breathed poetry – it emanated from his pores and flashed from behind his glasses. Poets seemed to be drawn to him as though he were the poetry mothership. Michael Reynolds stated at a recent feature that “Steve Smart is the poetry scene”. I often wonder if in fact, after being on the scene for some fifteen years, Steve has actually become poetry. For like poetry, he is sometimes accessible, other times elusive, compelling in an understated way and always a little intoxicated.
Okay, back to the CD….but this is the thing! One cannot separate the man from the work, because the work is so candid and intensely personal. Most of Steve’s poems are about being a poet, after all. The front cover features almost a ghost-like figure at the microphone. Fitting, as this is a journey taking you through the ups and downs of a man who has given every part of himself to his art. In the first set of poems Wild Optimist (Tracks 2-32) Smart doesn’t hold back in expressing his ambitiousness at the outset of his poetic career, and covers everything from his first gig, to fist fights to getting laid, to his travels to Berlin and New York and back to Melbourne again. Ever wondered what life would have been like if you blew all caution into the wind and followed your dream to the letter – every ambition, every desire? Well, here is someone who has, with all the charm, naivety, rage and despair laid bare for all to witness. This set includes many of the poems we know and love like Born Blind and The Turning. I rather enjoyed Revolution I where Steve spouts poetry to the sound of typewriter keys splatting blood.
Versificator Regis (Tracks 33-50) is for me the finest set revealing a wordsmith of great skill, making use of a variety of poetic forms. Laureate Time Limit and Prelude are my tracks of choice, with lines like
“Take a broken thing
Switch it around, make it sing
Then torture it ‘til it stops
The poem begins thus…”
There is not a trace of cliché, pretention, self-censorship or any attempt to appeal to the masses. What I find most admirable though, is how he can be both deep and light, philosophical yet humorous. It is Steve Smart’s ability to be all these things simultaneously that makes him a Melbourne poetic treasure.
Disc 2 features eight poems from Speak Me Deadly, a poetry tribute to film noir, which some may remember from the 2011 Overload Poetry Festival. Things of Beauty and What Life Is Not are true gems. This is followed by A Streetcar Named Nancy (Tracks 10-17), a character piece where Steve plays a preacher, complete with southern drawl. This series of poems is not only testament to Steve’s impressive acting skills, but his ability to go into the mind of a persona so contrary to his own. Then there is The Sickness (Tracks 18-26, strong language and content warning). This set begins with a sweet-sounding music box playing, soon taken over by static and one kicking beat. Fetishist features music ripped off a 70s porno film and No Mere Voyeur a barely recognizable gutteral remix of the Titanic theme. This Sickness is my other track of choice – it rocks big time. The last few tracks of the album, including Poetry Didn’t Make Coldplay Suck are laugh out loud funny. Other striking tracks are Burning Man (with vocals and guitar by Brad Armstrong) and A House In Ruined Repose (inspired by a photo by Sachja Haas). Each disc ends with a secret track, so keep listening…
Condensing the listening experience of seventy-nine tracks in one review is a grand task and there is so much more to be said, but it’s now time to wrap this thing up! Smart is self-deprecatingly honest and the only thing that he admits to being sure of is that he is a poet. If you are looking for something pleasant or formulaic, don’t look here – there are plenty of other spoken word CDs around that will deliver you just that. Steve Smart is too steeped in truth for it. What more can I say? Voices In My Head cuts to the core. It is a thrilling, bumpy ride, simultaneously disturbing and exquisite. Buy it, for poetry’s sake! This is how it’s done.
Steve Smart’s double CD album Voices In My Head will be launched this Friday, 28th September 8.00pm at the British Crown Hotel, 14 Smith Street, Collingwood.
Amanda Anastasi is a Melbourne page and performance poet with a Bachelor of Professional Writing and Literature from Deakin University. She is a two-time winner of the Williamstown Literary Festival’s Seagull Poetry Prize and a recipient of the 2011 Laura Literary Award’s C.J. Dennis Poetry Award. This year she is a judge in the Ada Cambridge Poetry Prize and has released her first poetry collection 2012 and other poems.