Deft, left and definitely def: Ben Mellor’s ‘Anthropoetry’ at FringeWorld

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.

It wasn’t like that at all.The sound was excellent. Local artist management company JumpClimb have done a great job of setting up an intimate theatre in a back room of an old house. The stage is a tiny black-draped box with just enough room for Mellor to stand to one side of the card-table holding Steele’s keyboard and electronica. The producers have gone to some effort to get the room to sound good, with exotic umbrellas softening the ceiling.

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.

Catch Anthropoetry from 7:45pm on 1-3 and 6-10 February 2013 at JumpClimb and Tomás Ford‘s venue Noodle Palace, at 451 (not 555!) Beaufort Street, Highgate. Standard tickets are $20.

Outsourcing my accommodation: my attitude to renting

I live in a rented house, and the lease ends next month.

A couple of months before this happens, the real-estate agent ask me to sign a form saying whether or not I want to renew, and for how long. The form includes a warning that there may be a rent increase, but it doesn’t say how much. If I say I want to renew, they send back the lease papers for me to sign.

I send the form back saying yes, I want to renew for six months, and I add the words, subject to the rent remaining affordable.

Last time, to my surprise, the rent did not go up.

This time, what happened was interesting. The agent emailed me saying they wanted to increase the rent by $20 per week — twice what I’d budgeted for — and asking me whether that would be affordable. She also said that it was still cheap compared to other rentals.

I did some research online to see whether this was true, and concluded that the suggested price was in the same ballpark as similar rentals nearby, but certainly not ‘cheap’, especially considering the house is kind of like an apartment stuck on a large piece of land: it’s very small, and unlike much of the competition has no patio, shed or carport, all of which I could use.

I replied pointing that out and politely reminding the agent of some of the other deficiencies of the house. And I told the truth, saying I had budgeted for a $10 per week increase. And I asked, politely, whether she thought the proprietor would be prepared to come down a little? (From being a proprietor myself in the past I know perfectly well that it is the agents who suggest the rent increases to the proprietors, not the other way round!)

It took me at least an hour to compose that short email, last Friday. I’ve lost count of the number of times one of my emails has unintentionally offended someone who has misinterpreted my tone. However, eventually, heart in mouth, I pressed Send. The agent replied saying she would pass on my request to the proprietor. I sent a quick thankyou and tried to forget about it for the weekend. I expected the reply would either be ‘no’ or ‘let’s split the difference and make it $15’.

The government and banks are putting out a lot of propaganda trying to get renters to borrow money and buy houses. ‘Escape the rental trap.’ ‘Live the dream.’ People here say things like, ‘I’m just renting’, ‘I’m only renting’. It’s as if you’re not really an adult unless you ‘own’ a four-bedroom detached suburban house (an apartment being no good for the ‘Australian lifestyle’, which apparently involves a lot of barbequing and lazing about on outdoor furniture). And for most people owning a house means that for their best years they are tied by a gigantic debt to the ultimate feudal lord — a national or global banking corporation.

When I was married I was the joint owner of a house, and for a while we had a second house that we rented out. Now I’m divorced and renting. It’s not ideal, and I may not want to do it forever, and I might write something later about alternative ways to access shelter and land. However, if I’m honest with myself, despite the propaganda, I’m happier renting than owning.

What I dislike about renting:

  • I can’t get a cat.
  • When the toilet blocks up I have to talk to a property manager instead of calling a plumber.
  • I can’t paint or alter the house.
  • Once every three months the agent comes in to check things are clean and tidy, and writes an inspection report.
  • I might have to move in six months or a year, if the proprietors decide to move in or put the rent up more than I can afford.
  • Sometimes I get scared that I could end up homeless because of economic rationalism, which doesn’t value wisdom and stories, which believes that the old, sick or disabled have nothing to offer in exchange for accommodation and support.

What I like about renting:

  • I don’t have to look after a cat.
  • When the toilet blocks up I can just call the property manager and leave it to her to find a plumber and send the proprietor the bill.
  • I don’t get tempted to paint or alter the house. I don’t waste my precious creative energy worrying about renovations — I can leave all that to folks who actually care about it.
  • Once every three months I have to make the place spic ‘n’ span, so it never has a chance to become squalid. (And when things don’t belong to me I tend to take better care of them. When I was married with little kids, the oven, which I owned, didn’t get cleaned for nine years.)
  • I might get to move in six months or a year. Once everything’s organised, moving is fun. I enjoy setting up house in a new place and exploring a new neighbourhood. And I tend not to accumulate junk because there’s a good chance I’ll eventually move.
  • And… well… the less I own, the lighter and freer I feel. Having no debts feels good, too.

So anyway, what happened about my rent?

On Monday the reply came back. The rent’s going up by my budgeted amount, $10 a week. This is a surprisingly good result, considering the state of the rental market around here, and the way people talk about proprietors and agents as if all of them are predators from the depths of Hell, when in fact they may well be human beings with mothers, fathers and cultural baggage, just like any of the seven billion. (Seven billion? WTF? No wonder rents are so high.)

My particular agent and proprietor are pretty good about unblocking the toilet, too. So, am I just lucky? Or, apart from being assertive, have I done anything unusual?

Well… I hesitate to make such a claim, but maybe I have.

During my two years in this house I’ve deliberately set out to establish and maintain a good relationship with the agent and proprietor. Where ‘good’ means friendly and businesslike. To put it another way, I’ve consciously done my best to make them like and respect me.

You’ll notice I’m not using the word ‘landlord’. The agent uses the word ‘owner’, but I prefer ‘proprietor’. ‘Landlord’, and to some extent ‘owner’, have connotations of status left over from the feudal system and the industrial-revolution class system where the ‘common’ (ie, working) people were told that the ‘noble’ (ie, monied) people were their ‘betters’ — were somehow more deserving in the eyes of the big Daddy in the sky.

But I don’t believe in status. To my mind, the proprietor and myself are equals, and the lease is a business agreement. The lease and the local tenancy laws contain a fair bit of detail, but, basically, I’ve agreed to pay the rent regularly and keep the place clean and tidy, and they’ve agreed to maintain it in a habitable condition and respect my privacy.

I think of renting not as some second-best way to live, but as outsourcing my accommodation. Like all outsourcing, it’s pretty expensive, and a little precarious, but it saves me a lot of bother and and allows me to focus on my real work.

Don’t get me wrong — if I had enough money to buy a house outright, I would. Actually I wouldn’t — I’d buy the smallest flat I could fit into, and do something useful with the leftover cash.

But I don’t have that much money. What I do have are a few suggestions you might find useful if you’re renting in the private market. (Disclaimer: I live in Australia, and the legal situation of private tenants is probably better here than in many parts of the world.)

  • Remember that renting can feel insecure for the proprietor, too. If you’re a good tenant (who pays the rent reliably and looks after the place well) you are by no means powerless. It’s no fun to lose a good tenant and have to worry about finding another one. There are a lot of bad tenants around. A good tenant is worth hanging onto. Put yourself in the proprietor’s shoes and look after their place like you’d want someone to do if it were yours.
  • The proprietor and agent are not bosses, parents, or authority figures. Both you and the proprietor are the agent’s clients. It’s a business arrangement. If the agent or proprietor are condescending, remember it’s just that they don’t know any better (yet!), and don’t let them intimidate you. Remember, you have something they want, too. Remain friendly and businesslike.
  • Know your legal rights and insist on them. Read the websites that explain the tenancy laws.
  • Never sign anything without reading and understanding it. If you don’t understand something, ask for clarification.
  • At the beginning of your tenancy, go over the place in detail and make sure the property condition report accurately describes the condition of the property.
  • If something breaks, say so. (And if it’s your fault, admit it, even if that means you have to pay for it.) Presume that the proprietor wants to maintain their investment.
  • Be patient if necessary, and don’t whinge and whine, but if something isn’t being done, speak up.
  • Once the toilet has been unblocked, email the agent to say thank-you. If they have been prompt and friendly, say thank you for that.
  • Don’t do stuff that isn’t your job. If the proprietor has agreed to mow the lawn, don’t do it!
  • Wear a smile when you’re on the phone so that you sound friendly. Say ‘how are you’ and ‘thank you’ and ‘have a nice day’.
  • Be friendly in emails, too — wish the agent a nice weekend, for example.
  • Keep the place fairly tidy and clean all the time so that the rental inspection cleanups aren’t such a burden. This is easier said than done, but it’s much easier if you don’t have much stuff!
  • Pay the rent on time. (Set up an automatic direct deposit.) This can be easier said than done, too — but if you don’t pay the rent, nothing else you do is likely to count. The downside of it being a business arrangement is that the proprietor is unlikely to listen to your pleas for leniency. Anyway, pleading for leniency gives them power over you.

 And, last but not least, luxuriate in the good aspects of renting. Such as relaxing in your kerb-shopped deckchair while you watch the neighbours sweat over their renovations.

Poems written for Creative Connections 2011

I was asked to write a poem of up to ten lines in response to each of four visual works by artists with disabilities. I was given a brief biography of each artist.

These works may not be reproduced by any process, including printing, without permission. First published in Creative Connections 2011 anthology. Images are reproduced here by kind permission of Creative Connections and the artists.

Painting by Adrian Chadwick (visually impaired)

painting by Adrian Chadwick

This isn’t for looking at
but someone is watching. Someone is always
watching. This is my sound / my dance / my joy / breathing
pine needles and old rain / with old bass rain my blood / dark
electric berry stains and bright lemony squirts / this is my pink
tint of spiders singing / my nightwings
ruffling in the violin wind / I spiral
and slide and curl and sway and nod / alone
in my difficult deep dance bliss

Mixed media by Robyn Edwards

Mixed media by Robyn Edwards

We be three confident chicks
with midnight feathers ’n’ legs like sticks
On cobbled land we strut ’n’ frisk,
pose for the cameras, take a risk
We relish ’n’ polish our personal flaws
in this stony zone where nothin’ grows
but we, dancin’ under radical skies
with tails a-wag ’n’ comin’-at-ya eyes

Collage by Karen Forbes Smith

Collage by Karen Forbes Smith

From our central curl
we send across the floor our various breaths,
our bits, our strips and feathers. Deployed
on the clean orange space
they cluster in yellow and blue
with a green flag, a pink wink and a purple teardrop.

Their tendrils extend, quietly,
over the hard white walls
into the blankness that frames us

and make shadows there.

Painted with the feet by Lisa Bernic

Painting by Lisa Bernic

at my feet,
a sunlit sea-garden of warm wet translucence
tight and branched corals and long shifting fronds
dark eel places and cray places
happy anemones and quick fish

this is a snapshot of my habitat,
a corner of my complexity,
a mirror of my mystery

if there are any sharks,
they are a long way from here

Facebook is like Sydney, Google+ is like Canberra. For now.

Google are really trying hard to promote Google+, have you noticed? The trouble is that compared to Facebook, Google+ is kind of like Canberra as compared to Sydney.

For those not in Australia, Canberra is a planned city, the capital, where most people work for the government. It’s neat and tidy and well-behaved. It’s excellent for cycling but hopeless for bussing. There’s not enough to do for most visitors, unless you’re like me and can quite happily spend the entire day in an art gallery. You don’t go there to relax: you go for a conference.

Sydney, on the other hand, is (by Australian standards) old and filthy and loud and tangled. The public transport system is comprehensive, but heterogeneous and difficult to navigate. Last time I was there you needed different tickets for the bus, train and ferry. The people can be unfriendly (unless you look rich, which is something I just can’t fake any more). But there’s a buzz to it. It’s a lot of fun. It had the 2000 Olympics, which were pretty amazing. It has a world-famous gay mardigras. And when people think of an Australian city they think of Sydney with its opera house and harbour bridge. People go there to see the sights.

Facebook has third-party apps. I reckon that’s the magic thing, the thing that’s missing from Google+. Any developer can add functionality. The social plugins, all third-party, are fantastic. I’ve got it set up so that my Facebook timeline automatically displays all my Tweets, my activity on Tumblr, Soundcloud and Youtube, links to my MailChimp newsletters, and, using the Networked Blogs app, a fair selection of postings from this blog and my main site Proximity ( It’s the go-to place!

But a lot of the apps on Facebook are just ways to play. Games, quizzes, various kinds of virtual gifting. Going on Facebook feels like a stroll down the street in a neighbourhood where all your friends live and everything’s open 24/7. OK, there’s a lot of garbage lying about, but it’s fairly easy to avoid stepping in it. (That is becoming more difficult – more on that in a moment.) Like any new environment, when you first join Facebook it can be pretty uncomfortable until you figure out how you fit into it. Sydney is like that, and I imagine that when I finally manage to visit New York, I’m going to feel much the same.

But Facebook was like Canberra at first — plain and simple and fast. (It’s still fast, actually, most of the time.) The simplicity was one of the main reasons people moved there from Myspace, which had become painfully bloated with over-the-top…

advertising. And, guess what? Facebook’s monetising strategies have become much more annoying of late. There is now a lot of thinly-disguised advertising content in the main stream of posts, instead of in a sidebar. Groups and pages are cluttered with posts from people who have been seduced by the temptation to get paid to share ‘news’ about some mob selling shoes or investments or the secret to a better sex life. It sucks.

I don’t mind sidebar advertising: sometimes I even click on it. Usually I’m disappointed by what I find, but that’s another story. If it weren’t for the advertising Facebook wouldn’t be free, and neither would Google. But there’s a limit to what is acceptable in a site where you spend long periods of time. The people at Google have known this from the beginning, and I hope they don’t become corrupted by greed to the extent that they start doing what Facebook is doing.

I hesitate to recommend that everyone moves to Google+ (as if that would make a difference anyway, LOL) because, even though it’s convenient to have all the integration, even though I love Gmail and am pretty attached to Google Calendar, the thought of having everything on Google gives me the creeps. Eggs all in one basket… we are all far too dependent on Google as it is. (BTW, if you’d like to try an alternative search engine, check out I like it and I don’t.)

However, as pointed out in an excellent book, ‘What You Really Need to Know About the Internet: From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg’ by John Naughton (Quercus 2012), the Internet is an ecology, not an economy. There are niches for all kinds of ‘species’, symbiotic relationships arise between large and small organisms, it’s complex, chaotic, unpredictable… and all based on a system that, like DNA and RNA, is simple, elegant, computational, egalitarian, and acronymic (I’m thinking of the TCP/IP protocols, the DNS, and all that).

When I wonder about the future of the Net, I look at my two smart Montessori-educated teenagers as an example. (Interestingly, the boys who founded Google were Montessori students.) The way my kids use the Internet evolves over time as they, and the Internet, develop. The Net is only a little older than they are.

My young man has set up a Minecraft server for himself and his friends. He’s finding out how difficult it is to be a benevolent dictator. They talk on Skype while they build imaginary worlds out of virtual Lego, and there seem to be a lot of arguments. My young woman is into photography and dance. She relaxes on Tumblr, where she has two blogs that I am forbidden to look at. Both my kids also communicate using Facebook, Gmail and Youtube (making videos as well as watching) and listen to music online instead of buying it. They use whatever works best for them, and that changes over time as they, and the Internet, slowly grow up.

No-one can predict what will happen next. Some people will always prefer the costume-jewelled alleyways of Sydney, some will prefer the suits and cyclepaths of Canberra, and some will just want to walk away and live in a cave someplace. But if you listen carefully — late nights and early mornings are the best times — you’ll be able to discern the small twitterings of peculiar poets as they flutter here and there, exploring the trackless forest of Facebook, the eerily-lifelike rock-gardens of Google, and whatever grows up to supplement or replace them.