Sunday, July 31, 2011

Comic Poet

As a special treat, here is a short set by Jamie Kilstein titled Anti-War Rant. Jamie is an American stand-up who started off as a slam poet. I was led to this video by Indiefeed Performance Poetry.


Saturday, July 30, 2011

the squat II

my chest is an abandoned church
the dusty, cobwebbed altar is my heart

my ribs are the ceiling beams bowed outwards
by the dust-star filled still pressure trapped within
the air is full of echos of the incense scent of organ moans
and the choruses of innocents
(you know, alone, I sing like ice cracking
but a river of voices makes a hymn ring
like rapids and gentle rain

I liked feeling part of a stream)

my chest is an abandoned church
in the highest corner there is a bird’s nest empty
around its precision and symmetry you can imagine
the small proud bird tending the twigs with twitching energy

his job now done, the bird is gone

my chest is an abandoned church
beneath this dense emptiness
you can just make out the parallel bruises
where the pews once knelt
the right-angled hardwood has left
but I can still see the shadows of pretty girls Sunday dressed
and feel the wooden backs worn smooth by
sweaty palms like candle wax

(now, there are no pews
but I still genuflect at the base of the nave
and always walk along rigid perpendicular lanes)

my chest is an abandoned church
there is a dandelion growing through a crack
in the knee-polished floor in the stained light of the sun
through the dirty glass see disheveled youths
lounge pensive on the stones of tombs
grave flowers in their locks
among empty gin bottles and dead cigarette butts

back inside, there is an
old school exercise book on the floor
on its cover, a crude penis in purple pen
and beneath that, in cursive red
is going to cleanse the doors?’

my chest is an abandoned church
look: the steeple rises like a hesitant fist
my totem; my family crest

Thursday, July 28, 2011

A little of Amy

Oh God of soul and RnB,

Grant me some of Amy Winehouse’s intensity

She wrote always autobiographically

The creative process not as therapy

More like deconstruction or dismantling

Lyrics like bricks removed from her foundations

Lyrics like organ donations

An itch, a scratch, peeling skin

All-night jam sessions leaving gashes and bruises

And we hungrily took it all in

Oh God of soul and RnB

Give me just a little taste of Amy Winehouse’s intensity

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

I Am Comic

On a recent flight I watched a documentary titled I Am Comic, directed by Jordan Brady. Through interviews with comedians such as Sarah Silverman, Tim Allen, Jeanne Garofolo and Lewis Black, the movie explores the what, how and why of stand-up.

I found a lot of parallels in the movie between stand-up and slam poetry. Similar techniques are used to develop, practice and refine material. The performers have similar motivations and similar hang-ups.

Jeff Foxworthy says that everyone has the ideas that comics use to build their material. For most people, these ideas just pass through their heads and are then lost. Comics catch these ideas, polish them and then show them to an audience. The best laughs come when the audience clicks with the idea, saying 'yeah, I thought that'.

The best performance poems are built similarly around familiar ideas in unfamiliar settings. Poets know when they have 'clicked' with an audience, although in this case it is not always humourous.

Roseanne Barr talks of the greatest jokes being a mix of the profane and the funny. Sarah Silverman finds she gets the best laughs when something is 'funnier than it is heartbreaking, and it is heartbreaking'. When we, as an audience, develop a strong emotional response to something it tends to cross emotions: we are just as likely to weep as we are to laugh. Some of the best performances straddle these lines, mixing humour with sadness and shock. This applies to poetry just as it does to comedy.

The narrator of the movie is Rich Shydner. A successful stand-up from the 80s and 90s, he is made out to be past his prime. Part of the movie shows Rich getting the itch to perform again, as he sees other comedians on stage. He eventually tries some new material at an open mic, to mixed responses.

The movie finishes with the news that Rich has gone back to performing. As a result, he is now off the anti-depressants he had to take when he first gave up stand-up.

Performance as an addiction is something I can relate to.

If you get a chance, see this movie. I really enjoyed it and I think it tells us about more than just comedy performance.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Emilie Zoey Baker's Masterpoet

Last month, the fantastic Melbourne poet, Emilie Zoey Baker, was interviewed in the Fairfax press by Michael Short. Michael said:
POETRY can be one of the simplest, most malleable forms of writing. It is accessible art, for composer and consumer alike.
Following this theme, Emilie is quoted:
I would love [poetry] to be on prime-time television. It is such a fantastic way to get it into people's lounge rooms. Imagine having your soul unravelled like a ribbon at 7.30 on Thursday night, rather than learning the contents of Matt Preston's stomach. Imagine young people's voices, having that explode into people's lounge rooms. That would be magnificent
So you think you can rhyme or Masterpoet.

I am not so sure about this. I love how poetry reaches into people's minds and twists their emotions and thoughts into little knots, beautiful bows and sturdy plaits. But I am not sure the same people who watch Dating in the Dark are ready for prime time live slam.

Regardless, my doubts were bland compared to the reaction by Christopher Bantick in The Australian. His opinion rambles a little, but he starts by saying:
...poetry will not regain its place in the national conscience by our reducing it to a public mosh pit
Those who know what great poetry is covet its place in the culture. Pop poems may pull the punters to pubs, but that's all.
What needs to be grasped is that not all poetry has the capacity to move us. Great poetry does.
I think that is crap. Firstly, who decides what 'great' poetry is? Secondly, while I agree there is a wide range in the quality of poetry, there is also a place for accessible poetry that has an immediate impact. Poetry that doesn't require a PhD in classics and fourteen hours of reading and rereading in a leather-bound chair before we are 'moved'.

Bantick goes on to bemoan the fact most young Australians cannot quote Australian poems. But he doesn't identify how to fix this. Surely the work of performance poets such as Emilie Zoey Baker, who are reintroducing poetry in a hip and accessible way to people, can only be a good thing.

What is not a good thing is Bantick's boomer superiority:

Gens X and Y are impoverished and have no storehouse of verse to call on.
Finally, Bantick lists Aussie poets such as James McAuley, A.D. Hope, Judith Wright and Les Murray. These are great poets, who reward careful reading and rereading. They write great poems and should be celebrated for this. But he also mentions Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson, poets who were more story tellers, who wrote ballads that would immediately capture people's imaginations in pubs and would give instant gratification to the listener.

A bit like today's slam poets.

Here is Emilie from TedxMelbourne. Enjoy.

TEDxMelbourne - Emilie Zoey Baker - Slam Poet by tedxmelbourne

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Sound of a Fish Jumping

I really like this poem. It is based on a true recollection, although I cannot vouch for the accuracy of all of the events it contains. I performed this poem recently at the Ghost of the Gorman House Man Hatin' Matron open mic and also on ABC local radio. A gentleman in the Gorman House audience told me it sounded like a short story. I took this as a compliment, as I try to make each of my poems a complete tale. But he then went on to explain: 'Yeah, when I think of poetry I think of rhythm and rhyme. Your story didn't rhyme.'

Improv Slam

Last week, in Adelaide, I took part in an Improv Slam at the Squatter's Arms. It was my first improvisation poetry gig. It was not easy.

The concept is similar to a regular poetry slam, but you have to perform an impromptu poem/story/spoken word piece in response to a word thrown at you by a member of the audience. The rules were:
1. Maximum of 10 seconds to think before speaking.
2. Can reject 1 word only.
3. Must talk for a minimum of 40 seconds
4. Maximum talk time 2 minutes
Several different approaches were on display. One is to hop a ferry down the stream of consciousness, just saying the next sentence that pops into your head. This can be fun, but not always coherent for the listener. A related path is to base your poem on whatever rhymes with the word you are given. At its best, this approach is like the most successful hip hop freestyle. At its worst, you end up sounding like George Logan from Scary Movie 3 (here).

Several people, including the winner, told a story. I didn't ask if they already had these stories in their heads, but the performances worked well.

I chose the repetition technique, repeating the line that first came into my head and then forming imaginary stanzas beneath each repeat. It worked. Kinda. I found the whole experience very stressful and challenging. I rejected my first word - elephant - and had to accept the next - scratch. I blurted out something I had thought about while walking through the city earlier that day.

I'm in two minds about improv slam. I think there is more potential for a disappointing night for the audience with improv, given how difficult it is. If it is done well, though, the results can be exhilarating. Whose Line is it Anyway shows how rewarding improv can be to the audience, but then again, not everyone is Greg Proops.

Perhaps I didn't like just because I sucked at it.

Here is a good example of improv slam.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Speakeasy at Will's Pub Orlando

Later this week, I will be back in Orlando for work. While I am there I am going to perform something at Speakeasy at Will's Pub, run by talented writer and performer Tod Caviness.

Speakeasy is an open mike that runs monthly on a loose theme. This month, it is the Karaoke Edition. The idea is to write a poem or story based on a song.

As Tod says:
Pick a song. Write a little something about what it means to you, where you were when you first heard it. Re-arrange/riff on/fuck up the lyrics.
So, what song should I choose? I thought first of all the songs that have inspired me lately. There is This is Why we Fight by The Decemberists, Bloodbuzz Ohio by The National, 7 Days Later by The Ellis Collective, anything by Jonsi or Sigur Ros, even Yonkers by Tyler the Creator. But these songs inspire me because they are close to perfection. I am not sure I can add words to what these songs do (and I don't speak Icelandic).

No, I think I need to chose a song that, well, leaves some space to work within. Something like Bon Jovi's Dead or Alive or LMFAO's Party Rock Anthem. That gives me something to work with.

Alternatively, I can take Tod's advice and write about where I was when I first heard a certain song. That would work. I could explain why the first Violent Femmes album affects me everytime I hear it. Or why the Nine Inch Nails' Head Like a Hole reminds me of Princess Diana's death.

Yes, that's it! Thank you, blog. I think I have my theme.
Bow down before the one you serve 
You're going to get what you deserve
Now, to write...

Monday, July 11, 2011

I'm Too Boring to Make Good Art

This is one of the first poems I wrote when I started performing at poetry slams. I meant it to be a lament, of sorts. Woe is me, I am too wealthy, healthy and happy to write good poetry. Since then, others have interpreted it as a comment on other performers and the generic devices they use. That is not how it was meant, but it is always rewarding when people find things in my poetry I didn't know were there.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Most Beautiful Music Video

I came across NME's list of the 100 Greatest Music Videos on Stereogum the other day. Number 1 was Johnny's Cash's version of Hurt, a moving but simple video directed by Mark Romanek. Cash's song, like Jeff Buckley's Hallelujah, is one of the few examples of a cover being more powerful than the original.

Anyway, this post is not about that video. It is about Sigur Rós's video for Viðrar Vel Til Loftárása. This is the most beautiful thing I have seen in a long time.

It made me realise how much songs and the music videos that accompany them are like the best poems. I want to write poems like this music video. It told a simple story that had me captured. It made me want to cry, first sad tears, then happy tears, then sad tears again. It had a change of direction that made me laugh out loud.

Anyway, enjoy:

Monday, July 4, 2011

My First Paid Gig

This Saturday. Gorman House Markets. My first paid gig.

Well, I have had a rider of sorts before (one free drink), but this time it is cash money. Not that I need it, unlike most poets, but it is nice to be wanted.

I will be a feature poet at The Ghost of the Gorman House Man Hatin' Matron Poetry Open Mic With-out a Microphone but with a Milk Crate on Saturday 9 July, starting at 12pm. This monthly event has been run by Andrew Galan for the past two months and has been a great success. I will be performing a poem to get things started and doing a 15-20 min set somewhere in the middle.

I am really looking forward to hearing other people's works. As an open mic, there is a lot of opportunity for creative readings and there is no competition involved.

Now I need to work out a set list....

Saturday, July 2, 2011


Grace said ‘Mum, it’s time to let me go’, and
Scratched the plastic mask aside
So I could kiss her one last time
Before her eyelids hid the light in her eyes.

In the 426 days since diagnosis,
My Grace treated life as an unexpected guest
And death as an invisible friend.
Time was Santa’s sack packed with moments
Gift-wrapped with smiles and hugs you’d wish would never end.

Entering her room was like walking out to a Spring morning.
Her face was the sun, her voice birdsong,
Filtering the air so every sound you heard there,
Both good news and bad, had dawn’s clarity.

Grace had gravity. People circled her like moons,
Like buttercups, their chins held up,
Their faces raised to her beams.

Paperchain folk danced a ring around her room,
Each silhouette representing someone Grace had met,
Each marked in her hand with a blue felt pen:

Daniel, good dancer;
Dr Wong, big smile, crooked tie;
Mr Mason, call me Steve, always jeans with thongs,
Delta Goodrem, exclamation mark, beautiful,
And in brackets, soppy songs.

Grace’s brother Samuel, had a special cut:
Arms a little wider, edged in highlighter, and, on the back:
Don’t tell him, but I love him this much.

Grace was young enough to want to be read to sleep,
But old enough to reject fairy tales.

As she lost her curls, she did not set her sails
With the pirate bandana crew – Grace was a ninja girl.
A ninja can’t be seen or heard, but you know she’s always there,
Watching over you from afar, and with a well-thrown star,
Will destroy that shadow creeping up on you.

Grace said she could tell I was afraid of the dark,
So she let me lie in her bed,
Where she’d show me the stars in the shape of a ninja
Through the window before she lay down her head.

While Grace’s graying marrow was narrowing inside,
Her eyes stayed as clear as telescope glass
No sign of the ashes smoking behind,
Her pale skin as smooth as the still sea’s face
Open wide to the moon’s cool light.

14 days after she turned eleven,
Grace said ‘Mum, it’s time to let me go’, and
Scratched the plastic mask aside
So I could kiss her one last time
Before her eyelids hid that light in her eyes.

Now I spend my nights staring at the ninja constellation,
Catching falling stars in the corner of my eyes,
My heart as empty
And as full
As the night sky.