Perhaps it’s slight self-interest or perhaps it’s obvious but the opportunity for anyone to sign up and get up on a stage around Melbourne and perform poetry through our city’s network of open mic poetry gigs is at the heart of our poetry scene, and the heart of our Melbourne Spoken Word & Poetry Festival.

After all, it was turning up to Passionate Tongues one wintery Monday night in 2010 that I finally felt I found a home for my words, after feeling discouraged by the submission and rejection game of literary journals, which isn’t to say that that side is worth giving up on, but that sometimes you just want to take part or be heard or start somewhere. But poetry and spoken word is unique not just in the special way it plays with language but the ways in which it brings people together and allows anyone to be heard.

It means it attracts not just people who want to be the audience but want to participate. Whether they have a particular story to tell regardless of who hears it, or if they’re trying out new work in order to refine it. The open mic features the new poets and the established, those doing it for fun or those trying to make a career out of it. You don’t need to be invited or accepted, you just need to show up.

Nowadays at Bar Oussou on Monday nights, sometimes half of the people that stick their hand up to read on stage are doing so for the first time, with host Hamish Danks Brown encouraging them by boasting of their “100% survival rate’ for first time readers. At The P Word Sessions of a Sunday afternoon, you can get established poets like Kevin Pearson coming from around the corner to share some new work and to support the featured poets on show.

You never quite know who’s going to show up, and what new work people have up their sleeve. Often poets shoot up out of nowhere, with an arsenal of poems you’ve never heard before, appearing at open mic after open mic fully formed as if they’d been reading for years. For the events that feature poets and invite people to do longer sets, it provides an exciting and eclectic range of Fresh Voices to showcase.

It makes our scene more than just an art form but a community of people, and I know for myself that I’ve shared things on stage about myself in front of relative strangers that I’d probably not reveal to my family. The spoken word scene has provided some spaces where people can be their most vulnerable and open.

That’s what feels unique about spoken word and the Melbourne Spoken Word & Poetry Festival. At a rough count, I’d say about half of the events in our program anyone can sign up to participate in. Whether it be signing up for an open mic, competing in a slam, or participating in a workshop. Many of the featured poets in the program will also be found at other gigs throughout signing up like any other.

There’s an interaction that results as part of it, poets introduce themselves to the new readers that wow them, there are conversations sparked from the theme of someone’s poem, the international guests are just as impressed by what they hear from those that came to see them. There’s a conversation in the open mic too, sometimes one poem sparking poets to decide to read a poem that had that accompanies or responds to the previous poet, creating a thread or theme unintentionally created throughout the night.

I’ve been to a lot of writer’s festivals and for me, and I may be biased, but this one feels different. The open mic is an essential ingredient to MSWPF, not just an added on extra. I certainly won’t be just hiding in the background organising things during July. I’ll put my name down to read like everyone else.

The Melbourne Spoken Word & Poetry Festival runs from July 12 to 28. You can check out the program at mswpf.com.au

Photo by Brendan Bonsack

Benjamin Solah

Benjamin Solah is a writer, poet, spoken word artist, activist and the Director of Melbourne Spoken Word. He grew up in Western Sydney before calling Melbourne home in 2008, where he's performed since 2010 around Melbourne's regular spoken word and poetry nights including Passionate Tongues, The Dan Poets, Voices in the Attic and House of Bricks as well as the NGV and White Night. He's released a chapbook, broken bodies, and two spoken word albums, Duel Power with Santo Cazzati and The World Doesn't Make Sense EP.
Benjamin Solah