Through the magic of technology and electronic communication, I was honoured to delve into the thoughts of Natalie Jeffreys.
Natalie is a singer-songwriter, composer, and spoken word poet based in Melbourne. Her music and poetry explores the intersection of faith, beauty, mental health, playful storytelling, and comedy. She is the creative mind behind Puddledog Productions, a business where she creates customized songs as personalized gifts
There are poets and then there are people that are a poem in human form and Natalie is one of the latter.
Firstly I just need to say when I heard you had won the 2018 MSW prize, my heart was full of such warmth and joy. How did winning that esteemed accolade make you feel?
Thank you so much! I felt overwhelmed by imposters syndrome. When you are asked to compete against 29 other poets, let alone 29 of the best poets in Melbourne, winning feels like an incredible honour, but also arbitrary. I kept thinking, and actually explaining to those who congratulated me, that if it was any other night, it could have gone any other way. My beautiful friend, and one of my favourite poets, Farah Beaini was extremely ill that night, and performed regardless. I still think that if she didn’t have to focus on staying vertical as she performed, she could have put me to shame. However, I did win, and it forced me to acknowledge that there may be worth to my words (she says through clenched teeth).
The piece that won you that prize – The Purity of Sadness – is a such a beautifully raw and genuine piece. Did you write it specifically for the prize?
It had been brewing for a while. I had been struggling with the connection between my anxiety disorder and PMS for a while and it felt like I couldn’t catch a break in terms of actually validating my emotions. If I was sad, my first thought is “where am I in my cycle”, and then “it’s just my anxiety acting up.” I rarely ever said to myself “I am just sad, and that is normal and okay.” The poem being finished in time for the prize was just a nice coincidence.
How did you get into poetry?
It came in two phases; When I was 9, I loved performing comical poetry and wrote my own pieces to perform for my year level. When I was 13, Poet IQ visited our school and I wrote a poem for him about TV watching consumption. It was not good. He pretended it was okay.
The latter phase came through my boyfriend at the time, now husband, Meena Shamaly. My first poetry event was Sacred Word in June 2014 (which also happened to be our first date as boyfriend/girlfriend). The highlight for me on that night was seeing John Englezos perform “The Tree Speaks” for the first time.
As the years passed, I realised that poetry writing was therapeutic. Strange mental images driven by anxiety were suddenly engaging to others. I could also pretend for three minutes that my teenage dream of becoming a professional actress were fulfilled.
Are you a disciplined writer? Do you schedule times to write or do you just wait until the idea comes?
Songwriting, yes; poetry, no. Once I started using poetry as a form of therapy, I decided to ride waves as they came. However, that method has its downfalls; I usually get my strongest ‘waves’ when I’m either on my way to or during a poetry event. I end up being the jerk typing on their phone during someone else’s performance. I promise it’s because you’re inspiring, not boring.
You’re a poet married to a poet but your styles are so different, do you bounce off of each other for ideas?
Yes we do, but we don’t often offer feedback. We perform our new works to each other to gauge overall impact, and only offer specific feedback if asked. Meena is a very hopeful person/poet and uses his work to encourage and inspire; I use poetry to process my poor mental health. Our work is very unique to our own priorities, so it’s hard to influence each other.
Do you have a poet crush? Someone you aspire to be like or a poet you hear a lot of and just feel every time?
Obviously, my husband. I even catcalled him during one of his performances (which I believe is the only excusable catcalling situation: When you are partnered to them and they’re showing off an inappropriate amount of talent).
Non-marital crushes: The writing of Amanda Anastasi, the grace of Farah Beaini, the performance/wit of Scotty Wings, the charm of Sarah Kay and the sincerity and warmth of Waffle Irongirl.
If Tina Fey wrote poetry, this answer would be much shorter because intelligent, humourous writing makes me exceptionally happy.
If your poetry was an online dating profile, how would you write its “about me”?
Please don’t swipe right, I’m a lot less confident in person.
Is there a chapbook on the horizon? Are your “stage pieces” and your “page pieces” one and the same?
I have just started compiling my poetry. Once the baby is alive, it will be called “Purity: Unsuccessful attempts to simplify life”; A lot of my poetry is my attempt to untangle my mess of emotions into something simple. I’d love to synthesise the quality of my “stage pieces” and “page pieces” but they currently aren’t exactly the same. I try to format my page poetry in a way that reads the same way in which I’d perform it. Page poetry is very new to me, but I admire the format so much.
Connection with the audience is so important for many spoken word artists. How is your relationship with the audience? Do you balance getting out what you need to say with audience comfort?
I am aiming to push audience comfort a bit in my upcoming pieces. My current focus is depicting difficult concepts using abstract imagery, so it will hopefully give a bit of breathing room as the audience processes the content. As someone who struggles with several triggers, I’m always cautious about how I present difficult content in my poetry.
I’m always interested in the connection between one’s favourite music and their own words. Particularly someone like you who incorporates music into their poetry. Do you have a favourite band or artist? And do they influence you?
I tend to favour musicians who are excellent lyricists. Jason Robert Brown writes mostly for musical theatre, but is my favourite composer/songwriter in or outside of the genre (I recommend “Music of Heaven” from his solo album). Colin Hay is also one of my favourite songwriters (I recommend “Waiting for my Real Life to Begin”). Both present metaphor in extremely accessible ways.
You are performing alongside a lot of talented and diverse poets in the Opening Night of the Melbourne Spoken Word & Poetry Festival. How do you prepare for an event like this? Any pre-performance rituals?
YES I AM. It’s very easy to be intimidated by the line up, but I’ll just try and stick to what I think I need to say, then run off stage and eat popcorn as I watch the other poets in awe. For events like this, I put a lot of effort into memorising physical cues. Ideally, I like to have my poetry memorised so I can concentrate on physicality a bit more. The only “ritual” that I have is to centre myself on stage; I close my eyes, deep breath, a very quick prayer, and off I go.
Natalie Jeffreys is performing at The Opening Night of The 2019 Melbourne Spoken Word & Poetry Festival on July 12. Tickets available on Moshtix.