Monday, April 29, 2013

Laziest poetry performance ever

Here is a performance I did recently at a new variety night in my hometown of Canberra. I cannot thank enough the young woman who accepted my invitation to the stage. She made the whole thing work.

The Silent Poem, or
I love you more than anything, but not enough to hurt you

I am sorry. 

I know when we made love this morning, 

You were thinking of someone else. 

Our hands woke before the birds; 

Sought warmth in each other’s feathered folds; 

Found holds they have always known; 

Fingers tracing familiar lines, 

Homing back with scribbled notes. 

But I know when we made love this morning, 

You were thinking of someone else. 

Morning light snuck peeks past curtains, 

Smoothed creases across uncovered curves; 

The golden flush of each day’s nearing, 

Fresh as that first morning’s glow, 

Reflected in nostalgic lips 

With memories longer than our minds’, 

As we washed over each other’s body, 

Anointing foreheads with kisses 

And were born again 

In grasping hands and arched backs. 

But I know while we made love this morning, 

You were thinking of someone else. 

We kissed with eyes closed: 

Mine shut on the present tense, 

Yours clenched around a memory. 

The worst thing I have ever done 

Is let you make love to the person I was 

Instead of leaving the person 

I’ve become.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Poetry in Motion slam - Wellington, NZ

In a stroke of astrological alignment, I happened to be in Wellington, New Zealand, for work the night of the April Poetry in Motion slam. It turns out Wellington has a strong poetry scene with some dedicated organisers and a bunch of great writers and performers.

Ali Jacs, the current NZ slam champ, is a Wellington local and naturally won the slam on the night. Here is an example of her politically-inspired, image-rich work:

In another hit of coincidence, the feature poet of the night was Laurie May from the Northern Territory. I met Laurie at the Australian Poetry Slam finals last year and was looking forward to a full set of her work. I was not disappointed. Funny, engaging and socially-minded, Laurie's pieces were fantastic.

Here is a taste:

Friday, April 19, 2013


Photo: Adam Thomas

To breathe
To be here
To breathe
To not fuck it up
To forget everything you ever stood for
To climb down into the well and burn the ladder for light to write by
To pin regrets to your collar
To write backwards so you can read the words on your forehead in the mirror
To throw away the first draft
To throw away every draft that follows
To melt the grains of childhood pain into flawed stained glass windows
To laugh at saints – Ha!
To have nothing you can’t live without
To have nothing
To make jewellery from broken promises
To loose the thread from around your wrist and string your bow with it for remembering
To be the gum tree the cockatoos shake from with a startle, wings beating like thigh slaps, hurrumphing at the wind
To give away small pieces of yourself to strangers, verse by verse until, hopefully, one day there is nothing of you left to give
To make wings from confessions
To refuse to fly
To stand beneath lookouts and swallow the shouts
To sing like an echo
To turn to the person next to you and say ‘tell me a story’. How about after the show, we get a kebab and a chocolate milk and sit on the swings in the park near the Polish Club in the mercurial light of the moon? You will tell me how the whole world once fit in the arc of tanbark around a park. On the merry-go-round you chased storms. Descending the slide was a dive to the bottom of the sea. Because only in the eye of a tornado or the cushioned stillness of ocean depths could you block out the other voices and hear yourself sing. And I will swing and tell you I don’t really like chocolate milk. But I’ll be crying when I do. And I’ll say ‘this has been the most marvelous night of my life. So far.’
To swing
To let go the earth
To feel falling when you know that, somehow, you will be caught
To open like a flower two hours before the sun rises, because you just know today is going to be the brightest of days, a great day for growing
To live up to this
To incandesce with intent
To not let yourself down again
To read poetry like church bells before service and after a wedding
To not let these just be words
To stand for everything you forgot
To fuck it up, better than you ever fucked it up before
To breathe
To be here
To breathe

Monday, April 15, 2013

China, Part 2

I think the best part of being at a writer's festival is the chance to meet other creative people. I was lucky enough to meet some fantastic authors and festival organisers while at the Bookworm International Literary Festival, some very well known and others less so. Being at karaoke with a group of these people was a surreal experience.

Here are some of the great writers I met in Beijing.

Justin Torres

Justin is a novelist and short story writer from upstate New York. He is one of the most entertaining interviewees I have seen, simultaneously humble and revelling in the attention. His debut novel, We The Animals, is a gripping story of growing up.

When I saw Justin being interviewed in Beijing, he was asked a question about poetry. He claimed to be terrible at writing poetry and recommended Natalie Diaz, a recommendation I followed up and encourage you to do also.

Despite his denial, I think Justin's work is full of poetry. Take the opening lines from We The Animals:
We wanted more. We knocked the butt ends of our forks against the table, tapped our spoons against our empty bowls; we were hungry. We wanted more volume, more riots. We turned up the knob on the TV until our ears ached with the shouts of angry men. We wanted more music on the radio; we wanted beats, we wanted rock. We wanted muscles on our skinny arms. We had bird bones, hollow and light, and we wanted more density, more weight. We were six snatching hands, six stomping feet; we were brothers, boys, three little kings locked in a feud for more.
 I wish I could write more poetry like that piece of prose.

You can find links to We Are Animals and other work by Justin on his website.

Karin Tidbeck

Karin (here and here) is a Swedish short story writer and poet. She is a distinctive writer for two reasons: she works with speculative fiction and writes in both English and Swedish. She has work published in fantasy/sci-fi journals such as Weird Tales and Weird Fiction Review.

I didn't get to meet Karin, but heard her speak at a panel on short stories. I immediately read her collection of stories titled Jagannath, an eclectic mix of tales that deal with common human themes in uncommon environments. There are steampunk airships, fairies and personified plants. I was particularly delighted and inspired by the mixture of the familiar with the fantastic.

You can read an excerpt from Jagannath here.

Andrej Blatnik

Andrej is a Slovenian writer and critic. He specialises in very short stories - nano fiction, although I didn't hear him use that term. He writes in Slovenian but has had his work translated into many languages.

His latest collection of stories is titled You Do Understand It is packed with compact hits, each tale as tight and complete as possible. I found it very inspiring, each story containing a whole picture but only enough narrative to make you think. Like a good poem.

Friday, April 12, 2013

China, Part 1

Between 15 and 24 March, I was lucky enough to participate in the Bookworm International Literary Festival in China. This was my first big writer's festival experience and I still have not absorbed it all. Being continually referred to as 'one of the writers' was very unnerving, but something I believe I could become used to.

'When I first saw you, I thought "who is
this plonker?" Then I realised it was
part of an act.'
Photo from Bookworm Festival
I performed my show, 'Meta', at the Bookworm bookshops in Beijing and Chengdu, at an LGBT community centre in Beijing and at the University of Nottingham Ningbo. I also delivered a performance poetry workshop and made a visit to an international school. Each event was distinct and taught me something new about myself, my act and creativity in general.

For those who haven't seen it, 'Meta' is a 45 minute performance piece that ties together 12 poems, most old but a few new. I incorporate the story of Narcissus into the mythology of the poet and question what motivates me to write poetry. Free from the slam format, I use costume and props to add to the theatre of the show. The show bounces up and down emotionally and I find it quite draining, in a good way, like a spiritual workout.

Some of the things I learnt:

Poetry still has the power to engage

Before I went to China, I appeared on Ross Solly's show on 666 ABC Canberra. After chatting about my upcoming trip, I read 'We Are the Poem'. It was an Outside Broadcast and there were a few people waiting to join Ross, a diverse group ranging from a Canberra Raiders rugby star to a finance guy to cover the markets. They were talking quietly during my chat, but as soon as I started the poem they all stopped and listened. There is something about rhythmic words that attracts attention.

Why I am a performance poet #1: Engaging with the audience

I get great satisfaction, that warm heart feeling, from having people watching me as I perform: seeing their emotions follow the pitch of my performance, hearing their laughs and, if I am lucky, seeing their tears. This is why writing poetry on a page is never quite enough for me. (Which is quite fortunate, as my poetry, sitting alone on a page, is never quite interesting enough for people to read. It gets lonely. I need to take it out to cheer it up.)

More than this, some of the best times were after performances, when I would answer audience questions (once they had got over the 'what was that?' moment). These questions ranged from 'does poetry matter' to 'do you have Narcissistic Personality Disorder in your family'. (Answer: other than in me personally, no).

Why I am a performance poet #2: It's all about the music

I love music. It plays an important role in my life and is with me almost constantly. But, here's the catch: I am tone deaf. I can only sing the notes that fall between the keys and I can't play an instrument beyond the 'Smoke on the Water' riff on guitar.

I realised, though, my love of music is one of the major motivators for me to perform my poems. I try to capture rhythms, rhymes and sounds to create musicality in my poetry. I didn't fully understand this until it leapt from my mouth in response to an audience question.

Surprise can be powerful

As far as I could tell, my show surprised most of the people who came to see it. They might have been expecting a poetry reading or a typical collection of slam poems. They didn't expect a performance with characters and a theme.

I was satisfied with how well this worked. It appeared to engage the audience and elicited a lot of emotional responses. My favourite moment was when one of the audience members said quite loudly: 'Is he alright? Is this part of the act?'

Gotta give it your all

One challenging aspect was the variation in visible audience responses. My first gig in Beijing was attended by 100 people, mostly English-speaking ex-pats, who laughed at all the right times and some of the wrong ones. My university gig, however, was mostly Chinese-speaking students who were learning English for business. Furrowed brows were more common than laughs.

I found it difficult to give a consistent effort to each show. At one point, I even considered cutting out a poem and skipping to the end when I, quite wrongly it turns out, thought I was losing the audience.

I don't know how actors on Broadway or bands on tour are able to give it their all every night. But I have resolved to do this for my performances. Even if I happen to lose most of the audience I owe it to the people I am reaching, and to myself, to put everything into each gig.

Next post

Enough about my next post I will talk about some of the other authors I met in China and provide links to their amazing works.