I recently had the privilege of reviewing Miriam Wei Wei Lo’s award-winning poetry book “Against Certain Capture” for Mascara Literary Review.
The following article was published in June 2013 in Australian Poetry’s now-defunct online magazine Sotto.
Recently I saw a podiatrist. As she felt my feet she said, ‘Any plans for the weekend?’
‘I’m teaching poetry workshops,’ I said. ‘Hanging out with friends, too, but mainly I’ll be working.’
I didn’t explain that ‘hanging out with friends’ meant going to Perth’s weekly poetry event Perth Poetry Club, which I instigated in 2009, and probably drinking afterwards with a mob of poets.
Without looking at the website (perthpoetryclub.com) I can’t tell you who’s featuring at Perth Poetry Club this weekend. I don’t go to hear the featured poets. I never have, even though sometimes they’re amazing. I go to hear all the poets — open mikers and features — and enjoy the company of poetry fans.
In 2008 Perth had a small number of monthly readings.
Voicebox (still going strong today) was held on a Thursday night in a hippy cafe. Even though the sound system was lacklustre and so were some of the readers, by 9:30pm I was really starting to relax and get into it. But 9:30pm — maybe 10 on a busy night — was time to go home. For the month.
Walking on Water was held on a Monday night, halfway down a deserted laneway in a tiny upstairs theatre with broken plumbing, a peculiar smell, and questionable photography happening downstairs. During the break those who had managed to find the place and drag their disintegrating bodies up the stairs would stand nibbling an Arnotts and chatting awkwardly over instant coffee. The show would be over at 10:30 and it would be time to go home. For the month.
There was also Poets Corner, held on a Saturday afternoon in the cafe at the State Library, which didn’t allow swear words or anything else that might drown out the noise of the coffee machine. One time the staff had to be reassured because a poet had turned up with a violin.
Attendances at the monthly events were pretty low most of the time: a good turnout meant 20, of which five or eight might be the guest reader’s family.
I remember Glen Phillips telling me that being a poet in Perth was like having sex once a year. Pretty arid the rest of the time, he said. But in Melbourne, particularly at the weekly Dan Poets, I’d seen the way frequent readings in congenial venues brought poets together — poets of different ages, from different backgrounds. The poets cared about each other, hugged one another, gossiped and bitched about one other. It was a community. It felt like home.
For family reasons, I couldn’t move there. Instead I decided to start a weekly reading in Perth, and get it right. ‘Right’ meant the following:
- Accessible to everyone: held in a central, ground-floor venue to which people — including me! — could bring their kids.
- Held in a venue selling food and drink, to encourage people to relax, socialise and stick around afterwards.
- A fast-paced format with lots of brief open-mike slots and two short features. It would have some of the energy of a slam, but without the judging.
- A good long break for socialising.
- At the weekend! Not on a school night!
- Guest poets of all kinds, from slam-style ranters to gently-spoken university professors. I wanted these people to get to know each other, and each other’s writing.
- A hip image and as much publicity as I could manage. I wanted people — not just poets, Muggles1 too 😉 — to come and listen. Think about it: you don’t have to be in a band to go to a concert.
- It would be called ‘Perth Poetry Club’ so that people would know what it was supposed to be. The ‘club’ thing hasn’t really come across: I was thinking jazz club, night club, Bowery Poetry Club… not birdwatching club, not bridge club. Ah well. But ‘Perth’ and ‘Poetry’ are an accidental stroke of genius. I didn’t think about it at the time, but guess what keywords people use when they Google for poetry things in Perth?
I had two kids and a part-time dayjob as well as a literary career, and I was living an hour from the city centre, but I didn’t see why I couldn’t run a reading if I had a helper to share the MCing and being-there. I asked loudly on the poetry grapevine, comic poet Helen Child offered to help, and we proceeded to look for a venue.
Most people said it wouldn’t work, that too few people would want to come weekly… but Allan Boyd, the Antipoet, a veteran of poetry shows and slams, said, ‘Good on ya, mate. I’ll make a website for ya, mate.’ (That’s how he talks.)
‘Why do I need a website?’ I said. ‘I just want to run a reading. Shouldn’t I just put up posters? Maybe run an ad in the street press?’
‘No, ya gotta be online,’ he said. ‘If ya want publicity, if ya want it to be cool.’
‘Oh, all right,’ I said.
‘I’ll do it over the weekend,’ he said.
‘Thanks! Can you design a poster too? Black and white for my laserprinter? Scalable?’
‘No worries,’ he said. And two days later we had a sexy visual brand, a contact form, a blog, everything.
On 28 March 2009 we had our first gig, at the Court Hotel, with Andrew Burke as our feature. At least 30 people turned up for a wildly entertaining afternoon. The venue wouldn’t let us use amplification, so we brought in a cucumber to use as a mike. It’s remarkable how much better people project their voices while holding a cucumber. Seriously.
My approach to publicity for the first year or so was, to be honest, aggressive.
I created a Facebook group — a novelty to most poets in early 2009. I spent hours researching journalists, literary organisations and Cultural Studies professors. I wrote down all the avenues of publicity I could think of. I wrote grabby headlines and constructed blurbs to make the featured poets sound quirky and interesting — not that hard, most of the time. Every week I wrote a blog, shared on Facebook, and emailed about 300 people.
I ran off flyers on my laserprinter and distributed them at every literary event I could get to. I would tape them to walls, leave them on chairs, and walk around handing them out with a cheeky smile.
I carried posters wherever I went to put up in cafes, bookshops, libraries, record shops, and the dressing rooms of vintage clothing shops.
And people came. 20 or 30 people turned up most Saturdays. On 23 May 2009, when our guest poet was Steve Smart from Melbourne, the crowd overflowed into the adjoining room. After that the venue, a gay bar, moved us into an internal room with weird disco lighting. But still no amplification. This room was less comfortable, and as winter came on, attendances dropped. One unfortunate guest poet had an audience of 6.
But we bloody-mindedly kept at it, and sure enough, more people started to appear. New people, people who hadn’t even known Perth had a poetry scene. People who gladly offered when I asked for help. Elio Novello became the treasurer. Neil J Pattinson and Coral Carter offered to help with the MCing. (Coral now runs a small press and publishes Perth Poetry Club’s annual zine Recoil.)
In October 2009 we moved to The Moon, a scruffy, arty cafe. Apart from being rather hot in summer, The Moon is the perfect poetry venue. Its owners are part of the local community of artists and musicians. It has its own PA, and house sound engineer Ben Hoare (aka beat producer Sibalance) turns up faithfully every week to do the mixing for ‘mates rates’. (We think he secretly loves it.)
After the move things really took off. The Moon, which makes most of its money from wine-drinking late-night diners, had to get more coffee cups. Now, four years later, 30 or 40 poetry folks gather most Saturdays to read, recite and listen. They’re elderly, middle-aged and young. Gay and straight. Slammers and sonneteers. Male, female and indeterminate. Pink, brown and yellow. (More brown and yellow people would be welcome, though).
The publicity is not so aggressive now, but word has spread. A few weeks ago I went to a country town to do some workshops. Looking for dinner on the desolate main street, I got talking to a young artist. We exchanged names and genres. ‘You’re a poet?’ she said. ‘Do you know the readings at The Moon? When I was in Perth my sister took me.’ She had no idea that I had anything to do with it.
I smiled to myself. Contrary to what some have suggested, I didn’t start Perth Poetry Club to get attention! I really just wanted a weekly reading I could go to.
I couldn’t resist telling her about it, though. It’s a good story.
Speaking of stories, for a while during 2010 some of the mainstream media decided poetry was flavour of the month. A glossy magazine doing a feature on Perth cultural events rang me from Sydney at 7am, forgetting about the time difference. On another day I was interviewed (and recited a poem!) on commercial talk radio. I talked to them by phone during a lunchbreak, sitting on a milk crate next to a garbage skip.
But I can’t tell you who’s featuring this Saturday. A year ago that would have been unthinkable, but now I’m no longer involved. In dreams begin responsibilities, as Yeats said, but I’m the kind of person who, once things are going well, gets restless for new adventures. So, having gradually handed over the work, last September I stepped out of the organising crew completely.
Having no voluntary community role is a rare thing for me. I’ve always been an Act-Belong-Commit poster child. After all, as Luna Lovegood says, the meetings are like having friends.2
Seriously, though, I get ideas. And quite often I end up being the one who implements them. After saying for years that Western Australia should have another online poetry magazine to complement WA Poets Inc’s Creatrix, in February I started publishing Uneven Floor (watch your step) at unevenfloorpoetry.blogspot.com. Eventually I hope to involve a co-editor — to share the work, and so the magazine doesn’t die when I get the urge to move on — but for now it’s just me. There’s a monthly featured poet and, when I have time, a couple of individual poems each week. Readers can comment on the poems and share and tweet them.
Having few community responsibilities has given me more time to focus on my own work. People have often said I should do a spoken word album, so I recorded one. If the production process goes smoothly I expect to release The right metaphor later this year. I’ve been writing more non-fiction and have been pleasantly surprised by the reception of my blog Raw Text. For me, though, the most exciting project has been my second full-length poetry book lemon oil (Mulla Mulla Press, May 2013).
I’ve found more time and energy for teaching, too, and not just at weekends. On Wednesdays I run a critiquing and writing workshop, Poetry Kitchen. This is held in… my kitchen, and involves homemade snacks. Instant coffee and Arnotts are not featured.
Last night I performed in the Japanese Gardens, Perth Zoo’s sweet little outdoor amphitheatre, as part of Poetry d’Amour, WA Poets Inc‘s second annual Valentine’s Day poetry extravaganza, which this year was part of Fringe World.
When you organise a show, publicity is the hardest thing to get right, and it seems WA Poets Inc and Fringe World got it right for this event, because it was sold out. About 150 denizens of the planet’s most isolated city, often derided as a philistine mining outpost, paid to see a poetry show. And not just an apologetic $5 cover charge. They paid the kind of money you would expect to pay for an arty theatre show: standard tickets were $35.
What this says to me is that Perth has plenty of people who like poetry enough to pay to watch it. Perth could have poetry shows throughout the year, if its poets muster the energy, confidence and persistence to find venues, book people who can present poems in a way that engages the audience, and promote the shows effectively.
WA Poets Inc are currently blessed with a volunteer, Tineke Van der Eecken, who is not only a full-time jewellery artist and writer, but has a marketing degree.
Poets, rather than looking at someone like Tineke and thinking, ‘if only I could be like that’, or, ‘if only I had the money to hire someone like that’, or, worst of all, ‘Tineke can do that, so I don’t need to bother’, I suggest we think like this: ‘I’m a smart person, so what can I learn from the way Tineke has handled this?’
Here’s something I’ve learned. We need to figure out who our potential audience are, and put ourselves in their shoes. Where do they go, what do they read? Where can we put our message so they’ll see it? What kind of image would appeal to them? How can we make our show look like something they’ll enjoy? As a writer I feel slightly ill having to think this way, but a short catchy name and a strong visual image are probably worth more than any amount of descriptive text.
We could all go get marketing degrees, I guess…nah. I can’t imagine doing that! But I can imagine reading some books on marketing (from the public library, of course!). Maybe I can ignore the cold-blooded money-making win-at-all-costs aspect of it and focus on the skills and how they might apply to my own work.
‘But I’m an ahrtist’, you say. ‘I shouldn’t have to dirty my hands with marketing.’ Well, okay, if you’re content being read only by poets and professors of literature. And I totally agree that your writing and editing should be your priorities. But do you want the public to read and hear your poems, or not? Do you want poetry to have an audience? Tugging at the overlocked hem of the mainstream isn’t going to do it. If we want to make something alternative happen, we have to ignore the establishment gatekeepers and put in some energy of our own. Especially in this town.
Poetry d’Amour was a major effort for the volunteers, five months of work — getting sponsors, organising two support events, and even publishing a book — but putting on poetry shows wouldn’t have to be that much effort every time. It’s worth considering what works for other alternative artforms. For example, the thriving local acoustic music scene may have a huge annual festival at Fairbridge, but they also have house concerts, sellout shows in cafe courtyards… and mailing lists of fans, hint hint. Anyone who buys a ticket can be asked if they want to be kept informed of future events. There are software platforms that make this unbelievably easy.
So how was Poetry d’Amour? Did we give the punters what they paid for?
I’m not about to review my own performance, although it felt like I pretty much nailed it. Performing outdoors to non-poets is my favourite thing. But remember what I said about putting ourselves in the audience’s shoes? Let me think. Yes. Definitely. The lighting was inadequate and the seats were hard, but judging by the clapping and cheering, and all the people who came up to say thankyou to myself, Annamaria Weldon, headliner Candy Royalle (poeming again at Perth Poetry Club tomorrow afternoon), and the many other poets who contributed… I’d say it totally went off.
Well done and thank you to all the poets, artists and musicians, to the stage and venue personnel, to Fringe World, and most of all to Tineke, Gary De Piazzi, Chris Arnold, Neil J Pattinson, Helen Janis, and all the other volunteers, including Jamie Macqueen who livestreamed the show.
Now then. I wonder whether there’ll be any reviews? And whether they’ll be published where our audience will read them?
Last night I took the number 22 bus up Beaufort Street to FringeWorld venue Noodle Palace for the opening night of Anthropoetry, written and performed by UK poet Ben Mellor and his musical sideman Dan Steele.
Anthropoetry is billed as ‘a humorous, musical, spoken word journey around the human anatomy, attempting to get the measure of modern life.’ Let me be honest here: after reading that I was expecting to cringe. I was expecting lots of groan-worthy anatomical puns. I was expecting words spoken too fast to take in, competing unsuccessfully with too-loud music. I was expecting an overdramatised performance of forgettable poetry whose impact depended on the performer’s charisma more than the words. I was also expecting a boringly long show in an uncomfortable venue with terrible sound.
Mellor performed for an hour. He recited ten poems, all set to music of the hip-hop or jazzy/funky variety, with a touch of metal guitar thrown in, some inventive beatboxing, and…well… rather than risking a spoiler, let’s just say these guys have thought up some truly weird juxtapositions of a microphone and a body.
The music was enjoyable in itself. Steele is an excellent musician, and his sounds and beats always complemented and supported the poetry rather than competing with it. And Mellor’s a pretty good beatboxer and wrangler of the loop-pedal.
In one or two of the poems I thought the music was a little too loud, but most of the time the words were clear. This is really important with poetry: poetry is art made of words, so if you can’t make out the words it’s kind of like looking at a painting through a smokescreen. As well as a smooth, well-practised flow, Mellor has good diction and a relaxed, focussed stage presence. He doesn’t feel the need to shout and emote — he lets the words and pauses and his excellent sense of theatrical timing do the work. His material is good enough to let him do that.
People always want to know what poems are about, for some reason. I reckon that’s like asking what the Mona Lisa is about. Huh? It’s art. You figure it out. But to give you a hint, Mellor’s poems aren’t about the body, at least not in the straightforward way I expected. The body motif is used as a framing device to segue between the poems, which are quirky, original sociopolitical comment. The poems are funny alright — plenty of cheap and not-so-cheap laughs — but underneath the humour are deep layers of emotion and intellect. It’s deft, left and definitely def.
One of the surprises for me was the way Mellor introduced each poem with an explanatory preamble: part lecture, part self-deprecating anecdote, part humour. The first one was very long and full of the expected body-part puns — others in the audience were laughing, but I was thinking ‘This isn’t a poem, and it’s not even that funny. When’s he going to give us a poem?’ — but the rest of the intros were shorter and more in accord with my surrealist-intellectual sense of humour. The guy’s a lot of fun to listen to. He’d make a great teacher.
And his poems are really good. That’s the thing that surprised and impressed me most about Mellor — how good his poems are. And that he is unapologetically a poet. He doesn’t feel the need to bill himself as a musician or a comedian or a cabaret act. He’s a poet. He even references other poets, such as Seamus Heaney, in his preambles. It’s inspiring! And after the show you can buy his poems on a CD and in a book, a real book, nicely produced, with a spine and everything. The preamble speeches are there too. (Weird.)
My favourite poems of the show were the deep, clever, deliriously-rhymed ‘Head State’ (‘when a guy’s life’s so desperate he’d die in flames escaping / Makes me wonder what state are the heads of our heads of state in?’) and ‘Peak Love’, a darkly funny dystopian vision of a future (or present?) in which love is a commodity in short supply.
The only poem that fell flat was ‘Naming of Parts’, written after the Henry Reed poem. (Look it up!) The applause for this one was lukewarm. The audience were hesitant. If you know the original, this poem works well on the page, sending up the language of violent masculinity… but maybe you just can’t reach people’s intellectual sensibilities with a rapid-fire performance of peculiar English penis-words.
All the other poems went down well, and at the end of the show the audience applauded long and loud. If Mellor and Steele hadn’t already been packing up their gear, I think people would have been yelled for more. You don’t often get that at poetry shows.
Before everyone wandered off, I asked a few people what they thought.
‘Masculine,’ said Andrea. I’m not sure whether she meant that as a plus or a minus, but I thought the show was intelligently masculine: masculine without being sexist.
‘Lovely… charismatic, enjoyable,’ said Leon.
‘I want to marry him!’ said Majda.
I can see her point.