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QPF Spotlight #8 – Bremen Town Musician

My QPF 2009 program is already suitably inked, with many sessions marked that I just cannot miss. One of those sessions features the blistering soundscape rock of Bremen Town Musician. Their 2008 album, No one is holding a gun to your head (Songs to Run to), is still stealing my breath and I am busting at the seams with excitement to see them stretch their sonic wings at the Judith Wright Centre when they take centre stage on Saturday August 22 in the session, A Canary In Our Throats alongside Brianna Carpenter. To help build the excitement, here’s a recent interview with founding member of Bremen Town Musician, Marisa Allen.


Bremen Town Musician


How does a song begin for you – an idea, an image, a phrase, a chord?

All of the above really. It seems to be a combination of these things backed up by a strong feeling. When there is a feeling associated with these then there is a kind of momentum that kicks in harnessing all the elements of bringing a song together. They may not all happen at the same time, it may a period of minutes or even years to piece it all together. I’m finding that there is strong visual element to my songs, that the music and the words combined (on a song that is really working) tend to stimulate a visual side when listened to and from this a story is begun.


What role does poetry play in your songwriting process?

It’s actually very important. I started out writing poetry independently of songwriting. Being an instrumentalist first, words and hence vocals took a back seat in the process for a very long time and were a separate thing to any music that I was making. Then after coming out of a period of illness and journaling a lot I decided I wanted to write songs with words and indirectly that meant adding vocals. So I just wrote.  And because I had always written poetry first, it was familiar to me, that’s what I started writing. I gave myself 3 years to work on the craft and then another period of time to get co-ordinated enough to sing and play at the same time. Every time I had a strong feeling I would write it, that was the only guide I really gave myself. It was a very gentle process and I just allowed myself to write without critiquing anything. It was also a very disciplined process because I kept aiming for something, so there was a focus, I didn’t know what I was aiming for but when I hit it I knew, if that makes any sense at all… Through this process I like to think that I’m now able to discern quite well between what is certainly a poem and what is a song, at least in my own work. Sometimes though the line between what I would consider should remain a poem and what should become a song isn’t so clear but when that happens it can become a really unusual song.


Who are your artistic beacons and how have they shaped your work?

Oh dear! Everyone and no one??? Such a hard thing to pin point. I’ll stick to contemporary artists. If I said one it would be Polly Jean Harvey. I’ve been listening to her work since I was 15 when I first heard Sheela Na Gig coming down through a crackly radio reception on 4ZZZ (how we even picked up 4ZZZ  2hours north of Brisbane I’ll never know!) and I was like who! the! fuck! is that, it was 7 in the morning and I was going to school but that weekend I was down at the only independent record shop in town facing up to the independent record store guy saying have you heard of this person..?? can you order it in..?? I don’t think he really knew what to make of me and could’ve easily just said no, but anyway he ordered it in and I got the album and that was that. Whoosh! .and I cannot explain what it is that resonates with me but it just does. Certainly Dirty Three also. But then there are also such obscure and strange things that are like a light for me such as landscapes and experimental musical instrument makers that shape the entire way I do things musically.


 Nick Cave once said that inspiration is a word used by people who aren’t really doing anything. What’s your take on this?

Hey I answered this question in Pascalle’s spoken word workshop in 2007! Inspiration is like an elusive mist that you can never actually capture, some people spend their time chasing the mist, but they are misguided. Inspiration actually comes out of working and is like a muscle or a cog that starts turning once you actually start doing something.


What are the words you live by?

“Say it in as few words as possible”


About Bremen Town Musician:

Bremen Town Musician are a three piece with Marisa Allen on violin/vocals, Arron Bool on guitar/bass and Dave Bell on drums/percussion playing a blend of experimental/blues/folk at times accompanied only by a single violin to create mesmerizing performances.

Formed in 2005 Marisa Allen emerged as a soloist with the name Bremen Town Musician releasing her first independent solo EP ‘Silent Arrows’ a lo fi exploration of the violin.  Performing as a street musician since 1995 in Australia the U.K and Iceland she was mentored by Geoff Adeney (ex Bullamakanka ‘79 -’81) and Cleis Pearce (DHA, Michael Luenig).

She has toured the United States with Icelandic/American country rock act The Foghorns and performed at Bad Taste Records (Iceland), the Adelaide Fringe Festival, Queensland Poetry Festival and Yeppoon Village Festival and was invited to collaborate with Icelandic improv/jazz/noise collective Spuni/Graupan for the Governor of Reykjavik, at Reykjavik City Hall, Iceland.

Bremen Town Musician offer audiences a unique show. In a live setting the band take one step further bringing an album of songs to life with instrumental improvisations and delivering the raw energy the band harnesses.

Watch Bremen Town Musician perform a solo set at SpeedPoets here.

Find out more: www.myspace.com/brementownmusic


Catch Bremen Town Musician at QPF 2009:

Saturday August 22 – 6:00pm – 7:00pm

A Canary In Our Throat: feat. Bremen Town Musician & Brianna Carpenter

All sessions are held at the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts, Brunswick St. Fortitude Valley.

For full program details head to www.queenslandpoetryfestival.com

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QPF Spotlight #7 – Noelle Janaczewska

Today the spotlight is shining on Noëlle Janaczewska. Noëlle is an accomplished writer in a number of styles including poetry, plays, performance texts and radio scripts. I had the pleasure of talking to her about her influences, the role of spontaneity the importance of performance and the writing process. Here’s what she had to say: 




What is the role of spontaneity in your creative process?

It’s there, but to what degree, I’m not sure. What I can say is that all my work comes from some combination of interior activity and exterior influences, but the balance varies from one work to another, and from one day to another.


Eliot said, “Poets learn to write by being other writers for a while, and then moving onto another one.” Who are the people who have influenced you and who are you reading now?

I spent my early teens wanting to be Joseph Conrad, and my bookcase still has a ‘Conrad’ shelf—or 2. There’s also my battered Penguin copies of Children of Albion, Donne’s The Complete English Poems and Cautionary Tales by Hilaire Belloc—horrible politics, funny verse. I’ve always relished inconsistency and contradiction. More recent influences are Czesław Miłosz, Caryl Churchill, Ira Gershwin, Laurie Anderson and Izumi Shikibu. Right now I’m reading Isaac Newton’s 1659 Notebook (research for a new work) and listening to Lester Young (probably my favourite tenor saxophonist) and Don Byron.

Why perform/read your poetry?

More and more of my writing is on the borderlines of performance and poetry. I have a theatre background with a strong interest in music and musical forms, so things like rhythm and refrain, timbre and tone have always been important. And spoken words pieces are obviously composed with voice in mind.

I am always interested in the thought processes and practices of writers. Would it be possible for you to share with us your process, in other words, what does Noëlle Janaczewska do in preparation for writing?

A lot of thinking. A lot of walking—not only along the harbour foreshore, but also up and down supermarket aisles. A lot of what may seem like aimless wandering, both mental and physical, but it all helps create what I like to call a dreaming space for the work. I recently read Doris Lessing’s 2007 Nobel lecture, and posted this excerpt on my blog (http://outlier-nj.blogspot.com): ‘Writers are often asked, How do you write? With a wordprocessor? an electric typewriter? a quill? longhand? But the essential question is, “Have you found a space, that empty space, which should surround you when you write?” Into that space, which is like a form of listening, of attention, will come the words, the words your characters will speak, ideas—inspiration.’

Finally, where are you looking when you write?

Literally: a computer screen. Figuratively: the world in all its shambolic glory.


About Noëlle :

Noëlle Janaczewska’s performance texts, plays, libretti, lyrics, spoken word, poetry, essays, gallery and on-line explorations, and radio scripts across drama and non-fiction, have been performed, published and broadcast throughout Australia and overseas. 

Recurring themes in her work are the history and philosophy of science, colonialism and its legacies, narratives of migration, and the exploration of language. The recipient of 4 AWGIE Awards, her stage plays have won the 2002 Griffin Playwriting Award, the 2001 Playbox-Asialink Playwriting Competition (Songket), and the 2006 Queensland Premier’s Literary Award (Mrs Petrov’s Shoe). Recent productions include: Eyewitness Blues for the BBC, The Hannah First Collection, 1919-1949 for the Zendai Museum of Modern Art in Shanghai and There’s Something About Eels … for ABC Radio National. 

Alongside performance, Noëlle has published in anthologies, arts journals and on-line magazines. The poems she wrote for Kathryn Millard’s film Travelling Light feature on the soundtrack CD, and in 2006 The Wayzgoose Press published her long poem Dorothy Lamour’s Life as a Phrasebook. Find out more about Noëlle’s work at www.outlier-nj.blogspot.com and www.noellejanaczewska.com






Don’t be rushed to buy something when you see a sale,
Here there is always being a sale of some sort.
When you are standing in line keep your good distance
Or the person in front of you will be offended.
It’s quite normal to say ‘see you later’, even if you won’t.

Pink colour is here associated with girls, blue colour with boys,
Green, yellow, orange and grey colours are unisex.
Many people here are keeping animals inside their household;
You will cause upset if you don’t treat them like members of the family.

For your dishwasher use detergent specially designated for that,
Ordinary dish-cleaning soap makes too much foaming.
Pizzas are very popular for people of all ages and lifestyles;
You can get cheese pizza, vegetarian pizza or pizza with meats.
Additional servings are called ‘seconds’ and are offered once.

Keep in mind you can’t walk anywhere you like to,
If you walk at inappropriate place the police may give you a ticket.
In front of Australians you should avoid talk in your native language,
They don’t like it and are thinking you might be hiding something. 


Catch Noëlle at QPF 2009:


Saturday August 22 – 1:30pm – 2:30pm

Spine of Lost Voices: feat. Noëlle Janaczewska, Elizabeth Bachinsky & Jessika Tong 


Saturday August 22 – 8:00pm

A Million Bright Things: featuring a short set from every bright thing on the 2009 program plus a feature set from the awesome Neil Murray


Sunday August 23 – 12:15pm – 1:15pm

Venus Walked In: feat. Jane Williams, Zenobia Frost & Noëlle Janaczewska


All sessions are held at the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts, Brunswick St. Fortitude Valley.

For full program details head to www.queenslandpoetryfestival.com


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QPF Spotlight #6 – Fiona Privitera

Spotlight #6 takes a look at local shining light, Fiona Privitera. Recently, I have had the pleasure of working with Fiona as part of my residency at Cosmopolitan Cafe and am mighty happy to announce that I will be publishing a chapbook of her work (alongside another local poet Jonathon Hadwen), so keep your eyes out for details about its release. For now, over to Fiona …


fe privitera


What is the role of spontaneity in your creative process?

Spontaneity is the result of many hours of reading, researching, talking, thinking, dreaming and writing. Also as important is the role of mistake in a work-  an example of this is a line which began as “the slipping sunlight…” in my notebook, but I typed it as “the slipping sun slight…” which worked better within the poem.


Eliot said, “Poets learn to write by being other writers for a while, and then moving onto another one.” Who are the people who have influenced you and who are you reading now?
Yesterday I finished reading Story of O by Pauline Réage. It might take a few more days to sink in. It is about a woman whose lover takes her to a house where she is whipped and made use of by all of the men there, and then she is given to another man by her lover and that other man becomes her ‘master’. The book refrains from becoming vulgar however, and has some really interesting things to say about desire and control, desire and possession, about submission, about how much one will do for the pleasure they receive in letting another take pleasure from them in whatever way they see fit.

O must be open all the time. She is to wear no underwear, never close her legs, always have her mouth slightly open. O’s body may be a possession of her master to use and lend as he sees fit, however, her free will is never compromised, as at any stage O is free to leave. I really see it as an extreme version of all erotic relationships; although in most relationships the ‘master/servant’ roles vary from moment to moment, day to day, and you could say the real master is always desire itself. I would recommend reading it.

I would say that I have been more influenced by particular books and poems than by whole bodies of work by any particular author. Novels would be Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino and Silk by Allessandro Barrico, for their poetic, simple, concise use of language. I have just re-read My Lover’s Back by mtc cronin- what a great collection. The first poem, Lovers, I must have read 30 times over and each time it is just as brilliant. And I really like the stanza you wrote in On One Hand

Why do they do that?
Shut mad men in a dark place
where they will ripen

I have been influenced and inspired by poets I have met and ones I have seen perform- Rowan Donovan, Mel Dixon, Sean M Whelan -the list could go on and on.


Why perform/read your poetry?

I like the sound of it. Hopefully some other people do as well.


I am always interested in the thought processes and practices of writers. Would it be possible for you to share with us your process, in other words, what does Fiona Privitera do in preparation for writing?

I find the actual physical act of writing somewhat contrary to my nature. I prefer to be active and social, while writing is sedentary and solitary. It also requires a certain degree of discipline which I lack. I read poems, stories, non-fiction, news articles, spend way too long on Wikipedia, visit my grandmother, do the dishes, walk to the shops, listen to music, sleep, take notes from books and conversations, steal quotes from friends, do the laundry, think, think some more and then finally I write some awful page of rubbish, which, if I am lucky has one line I use as stimulus for a piece or pieces. Exercise seems to stimulate my ‘writing brain’ so I always walk with a notebook. I usually end up writing decent poems about things which I have been thinking of and taking notes about for at least six months. I went through a big writing stage about a year ago, so lately I’ve really become more of an editor as opposed to a writer. 


Finally, where are you looking when you write?

Graham, I am looking at the notebook or the computer screen. ( is this a trick question?)





The red dye carmine, which is used
to colour many cosmetics and confectionaries
is processed by crushing dried female
cochineal insects.

She sucks on a watermelon flavoured
chili-coated lollipop and harvests
those insects from the cacti.



Her dress is fine threads of saffron fairy floss.
We lie on the white ground.
The morning is strangely warm and the snow
melts around our bodies.
Her dress melts beneath my hands and in my mouth.
I am full of sugar and we are lying in wet dirt.

Her dark eyes are accentuated by grey eyeliner
the cosmetic company titled Gunshot.
Her cupids bow mouth is sweet, Harlot red.
Her flushed cheeks, Peaches.

Her open palm holds the broken thread of her
beetle necklace; the soft bugs scattered in the earth
and the fire-ant trail of her hair.

She tells me:
Iam a pinata. You have cracked me open
found me full of candy.


Catch Fiona at QPF 2009:


Saturday August 22 – 8:00pm

A Million Bright Things: featuring a short set from every bright thing on the 2009 program plus a feature set from the awesome Neil Murray


Sunday August 23 – 12:15pm – 1:15pm

Basement of Grins: feat. Fiona Privitera, Janet Jackson & Jayne Fenton Keane


All sessions are held at the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts, Brunswick St. Fortitude Valley.

For full program details head to www.queenslandpoetryfestival.com

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A quick chat with Jeffrey Harpeng

Jeffrey Harpeng is one of Australia’s leading writers of haiku, haibun, tanka and tanka prose. He will read a selection of his work at the final Poetry on the Deck event at Riverbend Books on Tuesday June 23. I took the time to fire a few questions his way. Here’s what he had to say …


Jeffrey Harpeng


1. What intially drew you to poetry?

 The shallowness of the world, just didn’t feel credible. Poetry was found on a pilgrimage to metaphysics.

The things you hear when you start to listen with the third ear. Even when I found heaven vacant the wraith like words wouldn’t quit their spooky groaning.

These hallucinations could be little more than the steam rising off a fever, the result of some secondary infection.


 2. When is a poem ready to be published/performed?

Alfonso Reyes wrote “We only publish to stop revising.

Sometimes that is so, sometimes a poem arrives through the séance of reverie, and meaning and sound are already left and right hand vines tersely intertwined. These poems unravel when picked at with an editorial pen. That doesn’t mean that they are suitable for public exposure, only that the author is under their spell and is willing to bleat their praise like a bold little lamb. I must be talking about somebody else here.

Then there are poetic-sculptures that are chiseled from a marble lump of words, poems found like Michelangelo found his David. They might, could perhaps, would possibly take a further chisel clack or two. Performance can embarrass their faults into magnified obviousness, and publishing can be more frightening. How did no one notice that wart on its lip? Is that really meant to be there?

Or I might say, “Poems are part of an ongoing conversation, and you can stand there blank and dumb for only so long.”


3. Has publication changed the way you approach your writing?

Editors confirm both good and bad writing habits according to the private dementias of their tastes. Some of us, at times, need to be punctuated into good sense. A poem or three may thus become ghostlike, lifeless in the shackles of punctuation. So why not just omit those little tyrannies (& that can sometimes be a sin) to let the words catch their own breath, to weep, and laugh and cry unfettered by demanding scrawls. Oh, you could read your way into and out of these and other fetishes. Ultimately and intimately it is the silk yarn of themes that lead me on, and I live always with the hope that these may tangle and un-tidy the thinking of readers and listeners.


4. Why perform/read your poetry?

‘Language is a virus’, sang Laurie Anderson, infected with that idea by William S. Burroughs.

We are all Typhoid Mary’s of the word, or in my case an Bad Cold Jeffrey.

A poem may not be as sexually communicable as a song, but it’s a damn smart virus that can latch on to a laugh or a sigh, sink its velvety barbs into the lips of a smile. Oh I think I feel some purple verse coming on.

Sing, “Purple is the colour of my true love.”


5. What is the greatest challenge faced by poets/poetry today?

To get up and go to work five days a week. Oh is that just me? Does poetry have words for what it’s like to to swim, butterfly stroke, through a leech infested swamp? Oh, I’m still talking about work. Poetry’s biggest challenge is to be believed when it tries to find or convey truths by telling lies. I could excuse myself by saying that is just the way language works. It’s pictures have to look bigger than the real world to be seen.

But look, I see a little haiku weeping in the corner. Is that a frog it has got in its hand. Oh it’s a messenger toad with a coded message stuck on its back, a lick and stick metaphor. Phew it’s hard enough not to put my dictionary-seven-league-boots in my mouth. 

I should really talk about social responsibility, and of poetry’s ability to reconcile us with or at least help us recognize how much of us there is in the other. I should really talk about that but I gave up using delusions-of-grandeur aftershave years ago. 

Each of us has a unique life mission, though where that fits into the evolutionary idea I haven’t got the foggiest. I guess I’ll just tell you about my beard and the barnacle in my ear.


Join Jeffrey Harpeng on the Riverbend deck alongside Angel Kosch (Standing on the Road); winner of The Dream Ain’t Broken chapbook competition Nicola Scholes (Dear Rose); poetic adventurer and protector of apostrophes, Zenobia Frost (The Voyage) and experimental writer and musician, Marisa Allen (Fire in the Head).

Date: Tuesday 23 June
Location: Riverbend Books, 193 Oxford St. Bulimba
Time: Doors open for the event at 6pm for a 6:30pm start
Tickets: $10 available through Riverbend Books and include sushi and complimentary wine. To purchase tickets, call Riverbend Books on (07) 3899 8555 or book online at http://www.riverbendbooks.com.au/Events/EventDetails.aspx?ID=2205


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A quick chat with Marisa Allen (Bremen Town Musician)

Marisa Allen (Bremen Town Musician) is feature musician and poet and the next SpeedPoets event (2pm Sunday, June 7 @ The Alibi Room, 720 Brunswick St. New Farm) as well as one of the features at the final Riverbend Books, Poetry on the Deck event on Tuesday June 23 (click here for details).


marisa allen


We caught up recently and hade a quick chat…


What initially drew you to poetry?

I read constantly and writing was something that I had always done and I think the first thing I wrote was a poem when I was in year six and it just followed on from that. Later on I really started writing poetry as a means to explore song writing. I began writing poems as a stepping stone to that and just filtered out which ones were better as poems and which ones were better as songs. Poetry allows me to make sense of the world around me and to express myself.


When is a poem ready to be published/performed?

I don’t have a strict sense of readiness for a piece of writing, instinctively I know when a poem works or not. It’s ready when it’s ready and I don’t labour too much on it. Usually there is a strong voice or atmosphere to the words that let me know if a piece is suitable to be published or performed, but it’s such an unknown based on how I feel subjectively about a piece. I always say I have no ugly children, meaning I love them all equally and most I would like to put out into the public sphere. Obviously there are better poems than others, but I just write them, I don’t judge them!  Although I do like to let them sit for a while and go back to them after maybe a year and make small changes to phrases and really make sure what I’m wanting to express is clear.


Has publication changed the way you approach your writing?

Yes. In a way it makes me a little more self conscious but it also emboldens me to push a little harder. Poems that are published are usually chosen because they are ready to be published but once that happens you let them go, they no longer are yours and sometimes I find going back to them to be tiresome, as it’s like yes this was good then when it was written but how can I better it now, how can I move from it to something that is relevant to the experiences I am having now.


Why perform/read your poetry?

I have no idea! I think this is a complex question… I am acutely aware of poetry that works out loud or as a spoken performance piece and poetry that is meant to be read in silence in your mind. I’m really interested in this contrast. At this point I read my poetry because there is a voice in it that I can hear; it brings it to life and adds dimension to the words. But there are certainly poems that I don’t feel have the immediacy to be read out loud, that maybe are very complex in imagery and need a different approach, such as the quiet of reading alone, reading a phrase over and over to grasp the meaning.


What is the greatest challenge faced by poets/poetry today?

Well I think there is always a food shortage just round the corner in any poets life! I think it is the same for any artist, getting their work heard, published, viewed, getting feedback, support in the process which is the most murky area because usually a poet or artist is constantly in a  creative process. Also creating opportunities for poets to have some value in society outside the creative and subjective world of their own writing. I think this is immensely important, that an artist should be able to connect with the world that doesn’t always support their own vision but still values the poet anyway by creating opportunities to use their skills outside of purely creative pursuits. I think the competitiveness and nepotism of any creative area can be very off putting and it’s a challenge that is unnecessary for a creative person to have to face. I think we need a completely new approach to how selection and standardization across the arts is decided, judged on artistic sensibility and merit as opposed to bureaucratic or financial standards, unfortunately it does take time for people to take your work seriously and that in itself is a challenge on a day to day basis.



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Chains of Flashing Images – an interview with Max Ryan (part II)

Like all good things part II of this interview has been a long time coming, but is well worth the wait…

I have been fortunate enough to see you perform live with Cleis now on several occasions, most recently at Queensland Poetry Festival 2008. That show is still resonating with me four months later. The performance transceded both genres (music and poetry) and drew the audience into the vortex of the moment. Just how much of a show is rehearsed and how much is intuition, interplay, instinct? And how does the live performance differ to the process of recording? 

Thank you for your full-hearted response. The angels were with us up in Brisbane: a finely attuned audience and a great sound engineer didn’t hurt either. There’s sometimes that sense I’m sure any artist gets that it’s all just coming through you and if there’s any reward for your labours, it’s probably this. I’m touched that you had that experience at QPF, I guess that’s what I’m reaching for with Cleis: something that’s more than the two parts. In some uncanny way, I feel that when we’re ‘on’ my voice becomes some sort of musical instrument weaving through Cleis’ strings. So the words transcend their semantic meaning and become more incantatory, mantric. Similarly, Cleis’ music is much more than an accompaniment; in a very dynamic way, she’s listening at a subliminal level, she’s making poetry too. The poet Rob Riel said when he launched our CD at the Australian Poetry Festival that Cleis must also be a poet.


Max Ryan and Cleis Pearce live at QPF 2008

Max Ryan and Cleis Pearce live at QPF 2008


We tend not to rehearse overmuch but there’s a definite musical structure and Cleis will know the poems fairly intimately. Both of us like to leave a lot of space for improvising and not be overly confined to any set pattern. It’s a bit of a game I play with myself; I don’t mull over the poems so that when we perform, I feel like I’m entering the poem for the first time. It’s a somewhat risky exercise but mostly it works I think. In Brisbane I lost my way for a moment in The Blind Singer but made a leap and came back into the poem through the back door.

Another example of how it works: I suddenly got the idea driving to the festival to make four years old more cyclical so instead of trailing off into the grown-up child driving the car round the corner, it comes back to the second stanza: 

The carousel goes up and down
to the strains of a wheezy waltz.           
I’ve learned every song the man plays –       
each second Sunday they’re part of the world    
I’ve made with chocolate ice creams and rides.        
This time around you catch my eye               
and I’m waving, right on time.

It was enough to just mention this to Cleis: I knew she’d turn it all around. In The Blind Singer that night there was a fair bit of improvisation between us, especially when the poem builds into the singer’s deep trance. I tended to repeat phrases or run them together in a different way. The Hexham Flood was more measured with us holding the edge of the child’s fear of an inner drowning.


Max Ryan live at QPF 2008

Max Ryan live at QPF 2008


There are certain patterns we tend to fall into: we’ve somehow made Gypsies our closing piece and by then I know we’re coming home, there’s lots of space with the music surging and drawing back towards the final unravelling. Here, images from the poem swirl together as the child’s imagination is set on a kind of internal combustion with his vision of the gypsies. It tends to go off at this point and I’ll tend to fall into some kind of declamatory mode and then just let Cleis rip. It always feels like everything just opens up and the audience can just go with the sparks climbing into the air from the gypsy fire.

Overall I’d say there’s a strong intuitive interplay within the defined structure of the words and music. Each performance can vary quite radically. I suspect this has a lot to do with the nature of the audience and how in touch it is. In Sanskrit there’s a term called ‘rasa’ which loosely means juice or sap, it’s the very essence of a work of art. The ‘rasakant’ is one who can taste that essence and importantly it is he/she who brings the art to life. Without the ‘taster’ there’s no juice. The QPF audience, I’d say, was a big part of the magic that night.

In recording of course, that’s just the part that’s missing and there can be something quite cold about a recording studio. We made White Cow not that long after we’d started working together; there are things I’d do differently next time but we tried to keep it fairly open and there’s quite a bit of spontaneity on the record. First track we recorded, Eagle, was us on one mike, just one take. The others were mostly recorded in two or three takes at the most, both of us with our own mike standing facing each other so we could bounce off each other as much as possible. For a fairly obsessive person, I’m pretty happy with the result. Overall though I’d say we’re a lot better now. Next time I’d like to capture us live.

I’m inspired by working with musicians but at the heart of it all I guess I’m still searching for the finished poem on the page. In Melbourne I’ve performed with the band Kid Sam; one piece we’ve done consists of loose phrases we weave together and build on but since then I’ve shaped it into a much more formal structure, a villanelle in fact. The performing and the writing run into each other and sometimes, in a musical context, I’m able to hear my own words in a much more charged way, hear just where they  work and where they don’t.

I hope to be able to keep working with musicians. One thing’s for sure: it’s lovely to have someone up there with you, writing poems is lonesome business enough.



Max Ryan live QPF 2008

Max Ryan live QPF 2008

Searching for the finished poem on the page is a life’s journey, so where are the footsteps of Max Ryan currently heading?

Ha! I could try talking about poetry…
Perhaps above all, I love reading poetry and I can envisage myself doing that till I drop. In a fairly direct way, the poems I write are nourished by the poetry I’m touched by. Not that there’s any stylistic resemblance necessarily but there’s some kind of direct energetic force that inspires my own attempts. There are some poems I read over and again, never tire of: Coleridge’s Frost At Midnight, Dejection: An Ode, Yeats’ Adam’s Curse, An Irish Airman Foresees His Death, When You Are Old, Whitman’s Song Of Myself, Out Of The Cradle Endlessly Rocking, many of Emily Dickinson’s, Marina Tsvetaeva’s. In a great poem there’s always that sense of magic, some narrative leap or unforgettable turn of phrase that makes the heart beat a little stronger…

Harold Bloom called Coleridge the great poet of night. I still delight in those first few clear notes of Frost At Midnight as the poet summons us to his midnight vision:

The Frost performs its secret ministry,
Unhelped by any wind. The owlet’s cry
Came loud— and hark, again! loud as before.

Coleridge then draws us into a mystical vision of the ‘stranger’, the still beating embers of the fire that presaged the arrival of some absent friend, which becomes a metaphor for the poet’s ‘abstruser musings’. The poem finishes with this wishful prophecy for his son Hartley, the infant sleeping by his side:

Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,
Whether the summer clothe the general earth
With greenness, or the redbreast sit and sing
Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch
Of mossy apple-tree, while the nigh thatch
Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eave-drops
Heard only in the trances of the blast,
Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.

Definitely poetry from another age (the  capitalizing of Frost and Moon and the ornate diction for example) but there’s such a sustained lyrical vision of the harmony between man and nature. I love the way ‘fall’ just falls onto the line. The last lines have the power of great haiku.

There was a period where I felt quite deflated after Rainswayed came out… what now? I realised I’d pretty well written some sort of story-of-my-life, at least my life so far, and I didn’t want to go on just writing more of the same. What I’ve been discovering are poetic forms such as the pantoum, the villanelle etc which have allowed me to enter the poem in a less linear way, such styles seem to fit with the way I feel right now…

Of course these forms can have a highly defined structure and a deep inherent logic and perhaps by this token they provide a great vehicle for bringing what can seem fairly random images into a whole new dynamic. At a certain point, they start to work for you and certain phrases will be reiterated in sometimes surprising new ways. The pantoum form, for example, fits nicely into the fairly imagist style I tend to write in:

half-way home, the drifter turns around
still, even in the rain, we look for signs
before the storm, swallows skim the river
an ocean roar , a face in the crowd

Reading poetry has always been a huge source in my life. I’ve spent a fair bit of time travelling, often alone, and also spent periods of my life fairly laid-up with physical problems. So poetry, a book of poems, has never been far from my side. I left Australia for India in the late 70s with a hard copy of Yeats’ The Collected Poems in my haversack. Yeats has been a real companion to me, sometimes I feel I know him better than I do many of my friends.

Just now I’m enjoying Bronwyn Lea’s The Other Way Out; there’s such a fine sensibility (the only word I can conjure) in these poems and I’ve been delighting in many readings. This one, Ars Poetica, says it nicely:

I used to want
to say one thing

& have it turn

out to be another.
Now I only want

to say one thing.
As if the pleasure

now is in the voicing
not the trickery

but the soul making
itself heard

above the traffic.

As for plans: tanka and haiku, especially the latter, provide a real grounding and keep me rooted in the senses and the everyday occurrences around me and I trust they still will. Working with musicians is always there and I’d like to record with different players on separate pieces.

So I have no major ambitions for my poetry, just to keep on keeping on I guess and above all to enjoy it. I’ll take it wherever it leads me: I feel greatly privileged to be able to practice such an art and hopefully to share it with an audience. We’re all walking in the footsteps of many great bards. Dorothy Porter once said she’d be happy to leave a half dozen of Coleridge’s poems behind her. Well, it was a lovely way of honouring the masters. Mind you, as for the Coleridge poems, I’d be happy with one!


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Poem or Song? – the words of Leonard Cohen

After being blown away by the power of Neil Young this week, I am now hotly anticipating the arrival of fellow Canadian, Leonard Cohen. He has not toured these shores since 1985 when this Lost Shark was just a pup and he has made no secret that this is the final international tour, so to put it bluntly, I am crawling out of my skin to see him.  


With so much talk on the site recently about poetry and song lyrics I thought it was a great time to post this interview with Cohen from 2006. With eight collections of poetry and eleven albums to his name, there is arguably no one better to talk about lyrics and poetry. Interestingly, Cohen has never really accepted the title of poet or singer:

“I had the title poet, and maybe I was one for a while. Also, the title singer was kindly accorded me, even though I could barely carry a tune.”

What cannot be doubted, is that his words have mesmerised more than four generations of fans and often defy genre. Here Cohen talks about the different tempo of poetry and song, the inescapable lousiness of growing old, autobiographical writing and claims himself to be ‘one of the fakes.’ As always he illumiates.

Read the interview here.

Then check out this ‘spoken word’ performance of A Thousand Kisses Deep from the recent tour.

Oh yes… I am crawling out of my skin!


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Chains of Flashing Images – an interview with Max Ryan (part 1)

Max Ryan is a poet whose ‘words sift deep into life, and are full of power and insight.’ (Judith Beveridge) Max is also renowed for his work with musician Cleis Pearce, their CD ‘White Cow’, winning several music industry awards. This Lost Shark caught up with Max recently to discuss the good things in life… poetry & music. Here is part #1 of the interview: 

Max Ryan

The importance of landscape and place is something that is evident in your work. In your first collection, Rainswayed Night, you conjure feverish images of India (The Dancer, Burning Ghat, Varanasi); the sensuality of the ocean (all night the sea) and the rain that seeps into so many of these poems. You currently split your time between the ocean and the desert. How do each of these vastly different landscapes impact on your writing?


Firstly the Indian poems: well, anyone who’s ventured to the sub-continent will testify that India confounds any ideas of order and predictability so maybe my India poems are an attempt at some sort of disentropy. Interestingly, ‘The Dancer’ came from something I saw on a very early trip to India: a man dancing on the ghats (steps) at Manikarnika Ghat, Varanasi, in an almost drunken, totally self-absorbed way; his eyes were bloodshot and his mouth smeared with betel juice and he looked like he’d been up all night. I wasn’t even aware of what the actual situation was but the overall effect was an energetic jolt to my being, very strong, and I knew it would turn to a poem one day. Of course there are other benign, deeply peaceful poems about India in Rainswayed (‘A White Cow’, ‘Shepherd’s Hut, Triund’ for example).

A friend, the poet Judy Johnson, pointed out to me the strong presence in the original manuscript of water generally and it was she who suggested I call the book Rainswayed Night. The water element certainly runs through the poems but not in any defined way. In ‘The Hexham Flood’, water, in terms of the river and the dampness or pneumonia that settles on the child’s chest, is a highly malevolent, totemic force that acts as a nemesis in the child’s imagination. In the actual Rainswayed Night sequence, ‘the rain’s soft sheath’ is a source of elemental comfort and solace amidst the horror of the car accident and nightmare of the hospital. In ‘Evening Storm’, the tropical storm and rhythm of the sea-tide flows into the commingling of the two lovers. The rain in ‘rainy day paper boy’ erases all sense of time and space and merges into the boy’s early morning dream. ‘all night the sea’, which is a series of tanka, is probably the closest poem I’ve written so far in describing the place where I lay my head at night. The sound of the sea is the trigger here, a constant presence at my beach house. I’ve tried (unsuccessfully) in another poem to describe just what that sound is. So the sea features in many of my poems even the new ones; sometimes, I feel, overly so. Which is where the desert comes in I guess. Yes, it is very different out there (the centre, the country around Alice Springs) and I’ve come to love the vastness and wildness of the place. Very different, dry and hard, endless, a roaring silence; it’s quite confronting in a way, humbling too somehow. So far though, beside some haiku, I’ve written very little about it (‘A White Cow’ was totally about a sort of epiphany in the desert albeit the Rajasthan one). Last time I was in Alice I was sitting in a car in the car park outside Woolies while my friend was picking up a few groceries and there was something on the radio about some sort of scientific probe on Mars, checking for water, signs of life etc. Meanwhile a group of old Aborigine women, dressed in the most colourful array of raggedy clothes, were taking in the winter sun and then an old uncle wheeled up in a chair wanting a cigarette…I was just struck by the contrast between the radio show and the scene outside, there’s probably a poem there…

But the words for the poems may not come in a direct and immediate way; the India poems, for example, were formed after a very long gestation. As it is for most poets, I suspect, the actual poem can come from many sources. Ultimately, I think, poetry is about words and some weird alchemy of sound as much as any specific experience.


You mention that ‘all night the sea’ is a series of tanka. You also write in the shorter, haiku form. What initially attracted you to these disciplined forms of writing?


Hard to say but right from when I was in my late teens, I’ve been reading books on Zen and writers like Alan Watts who had a deep understanding of the old Chinese poets and the Japanese art of haiku. There’s a favourite ku of mine by Ryokan, I’ve seen various translations, but this is it essentially:

the thief left it behind:
the moon
at the window

The first time I read this, I was blown away and I still marvel at how much Ryokan manages to say here: the overall picture is of a burglary but right at the centre is the moon, inviolate and beyond any human conniving. There’s a marvellous sense of freedom in this haiku: ‘the window’ (I’ve seen it described as ‘the open window’) turned into a portal to the unlimited and there’s an implied sympathy for the thief who misses out on the most precious thing there. So yes, I’m very drawn to the essential nature of haiku and the sense of the poet’s disappearing into the poem. I still feel very much a novice though. My friend, the poet John Bird, and I have sat together out the back of a country pub we go to near here and written haiku about the things around us…while I’m still struggling to describe a crow perched on the rickety paling fence, John will have a half dozen fully formed haiku, it just seems to come naturally.

Tanka are different again; the five lines allow for a more expansive description and generally more subjective and personal voice. (It’s a great vehicle for the theme of lost love or recalling times past). I write quite a few tanka and submit fairly regularly to Eucalypt, the Australian tanka journal edited by Bev George. I’m also part of the Cloud Catchers, a local ginko group. We get together every season (the Oz ones) and have a haiku walk, usually about three quarters of an hour before we regroup and share our haiku.

I’d say the influence of these forms definitely affects my writing in free verse.  In an important way, the hard clear image, unlike polemic or high blown linguistics, doesn’t lie. I’ve made it almost some kind of credo to avoid the use of abstractions and airy figures of speech. Probably I’ve been too dogmatic about this but overall there’s something undeniable about a good image. Bob Dylan’s method of ‘chains of flashing images’ is a compelling one.


‘Chains of flashing images’ was a phrase coined by Allen Ginsberg to describe Dylan’s writing style. Throughout the last five decades, Dylan has been a touchstone for many poets and I know he is someone that has influenced your life and work. What is it about Dylan’s work that continues to mesmerise? 


Well I’ve written one poem, outlaws, largely influenced by Dylan’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. It’s his least verbal album but I’ve tried to capture the atmosphere of that work, the overall sense of inevitable tragedy in the outlaw story echoes the fate of the lovers. Even the music becomes part of that:

harmonica swirls as we sink to the floor, wound
in guitars’ quicksilver chords. maracas
swish to the silk of your dress
as i follow you up the stairs.

Saw Dylan the first time he came here in 1966… Rushcutters Bay Stadium in Sydney, still a functioning boxing ring (fortunately we didn’t have to put up with the revolving stage they’d used for the Beatles less than two years before: you’d get one song full-frontal then they’d crank the stage another 30 degrees round til three songs later it all came your way again), the audience for Bob wasn’t so big. I’ve never really forgotten it: Dylan and what was (minus the drummer) The Band; snarling, surreal, wildly eclectic grooves, lots of it from Blonde On Blonde which I don’t think had even come out yet. I’d never heard anything like it… I’d never seen human beings that looked like that! Cuban heels and strange Confederate style suits from some Civil War of their own…Dylan with his floaty, Little Richard bouffant, pale and on fire. Just made me aware of the power of words and music as incantation…something prophetic and uncanny the way he brought it all together. From there I discovered Rimbaud, Verlaine…the declamatory quality of Walt Whitman and the lyricism of Tennyson you could hear it all in Dylan.

I’ve never had any problem with seeing singer-songwriters as bards in their own right. When I went to study English literature at Newcastle Uni I felt lucky to find a department where the Romantics were given great respect with the implied acknowlegement of the importance of the lyrical in poetry. One of our lecturers was the late Norm Talbot who was described by Gwen Harwood as Australia’s greatest living poet. He wrote an article in poetry australia called ‘The Stranger Songs’ (I dug it up) where he declared that something was indeed happening Mr Jones:

The lyrics of many pop songs…are considerably better, more craftsmanslike and more interesting than the work of the Established, the Serious, the Bright Young, and the Promising poets. This is uncommon.

I remember Norm asserting at some discussion of popular song that the Tambourine Man was none other than the Muse. Not to say Norm was some Dylan sychophant or anything (he was probably more interested in Keats and Blake and Emily Dickinson) but he could hear the poetry when it was there. All sounds a bit post-modern now but it was inspiring at the time to see the important place of song in poetry, like putting the lyre back into lyrical.

But yes, Dylan’s been a big influence, even as a medium to the work of other poets. I’m also a huge admirer of Ray Davies (the Kinks), love his vision of the lives of ordinary people:

Terry meets Julie, Waterloo station
Every Friday night
But I am so lazy, don’t want to wander
I stay at home at night

Going back to Dylan, I’m inspired by the narrative leaps of some of his songs such as Tangled Up In Blue and Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts. Poetry and song are a brilliant medium for telling a story, shifting through time and space in a way that nothing else can and Dylan’s a master of this. Also Dylan’s way (mentioned in Chronicles) of leaning into the song on the odd beats is something I’m probably unconsciously influenced by in my work with such musicians as Cleis Pearce. Without the formal structure and rhythmic cycles of a conventional song, you’re thrown into a highly spontaneous interplay of the voice and the musical surge. I feel blessed to be able to collaborate with such a deeply intuitive, sensitive player as Cleis.


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Jumping the Poetic Hurdle (part 6) – an interview with Tiggy Johnson

To continue the discussion about the publication and distribution of poetry in Australia, I thought it would be interesting to speak with publishers of literary journals both in print and online. First up I spoke with Tiggy Johnson from literary annual, page seventeen.


As a small, independent publisher, what do you see are the major challenges for the publication and distribution of poetry in the 21st century?

This is a tough one and probably something I don’t tend to think about a lot. Maybe I should, and, after engaging in discussions about this with other small, independent publishers, I often come away feeling like there’s heaps more for me to do. But, if I am honest with myself, I think it might be more suitable that I stay perhaps somewhat naïve as, if I spend too much time and energy worrying about publication and particularly distribution of poetry, it would all seem too hard and I’d possibly give it all away.

This is possibly a luxury I can afford given I am such a small publisher, producing only one literary journal per year. At times, I have considered producing additional titles, but other than the time commitment (that I don’t currently have), I guess the idea of marketing and distribution turns me off a little. For now, I am happy with the success of page seventeen and doing the distribution myself.

I feel it’s unlikely that there will be a solution to distribution in the near future.


Why is it that poetry, an art that arguably best reflects the speed at which we absorb ideas, information and imagery, is being neglected by corporate publishing houses and distributors throughout Australia?

Perhaps if Jamie Durie were to write a collection this might change? And really, we probably don’t want that. It’s all about the money. Everyone knows there’s no money in publishing poetry. Independent publishers publish poetry for other reasons, such as its cultural value, and accept that they may sell enough copies only to ensure they may continue to publish more.


Do you see a light at the end of the tunnel? What is the future of poetry publishing and distribution?

I don’t see a light as far as distribution of actual books goes, but there are more poetry journals appearing online. This will help ensure poetry remains available to readers as well as potentially helping the (non-poetry-reading) public to become more aware of its existence. Advances in printing technology also help ensure books are still being produced. Printing costs wouldn’t be viable for page seventeen if it weren’t for digital technology.


What is on the horizon for page seventeen?

Mostly more of the same. Issue 7 in 2009. I’m not currently looking to produce anything additional to the annual issue of page seventeen.

However things are changing from the inside with procedures and so on. With the current issue (Issue 6), I stepped aside from reading submissions, and adopted an editorial committee. This proved to be successful for everyone involved, and so it will continue to happen. I guess we are moving from a journal that not only promotes the published work of new writers (along those who are more established, of course) to a publisher that provides additional opportunities to those ‘new’ to the field in other ways too.

In 2009 we will be running our short story and poetry competition again and will also be accepting general submissions. We are changing the general submission guidelines too, so look out for those, along with a new cover sheet.


About Tiggy:

Tiggy Johnson is the editor/publisher of the annual literary journal page seventeen. She also writes fiction and poetry, some of which can be found in Cordite, paper wasp, kipple, The Mozzie and on Melbourne (Connex) trains as part of the Moving Galleries exhibition. She was awarded 2nd prize in the Herald-Sun Short Story Competition 2004, and her short story collection Svetlana or otherwise was published in 2007 (Mockingbird/Ginninderra Press).

Find out more:


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Speak Out: Poetry and the Spoken Word an interview with Hinemoana Baker (part 1)

This Lost Shark has been thinking alot about poetry and the Spoken Word lately.

Spoken Word boomed in popularity during the 1950s and 60s. Poets such as Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Lawrence Ferlinghetti took their words to the street and found favour with mass audiences, breaking down the barriers of inaccessibility usually associated with poetry. The crowds were there because the poetry was part of a culture. Spoken Word peaked again in the 90’s with artists such as John S. Hall, Maggie Estep, Bob Holman and rocker Henry Rollins all reaching large audiences and achieving critical acclaim. Spoken Word was making a splash on the airwaves, gaining the attention of major record label execs and breaking into the world of MTV. This success has continued into the 00’s with shows such as Def Poetry becoming a programming favourite with USA heavyweights HBO and Poetry Slams reaching ever increasing audiences worldwide.

So why is it that few poems published in literary journals would find an audience in the world of, performance-driven spoken word? In turn, why is it that the majority of pieces performed on open-mic/Slam stages would be ignored by established literary journals?

Is there a line that separates spoken word from poetry?

Over the next few weeks, this Lost Shark will speak to several artists to get their view.

First up I chat with Hinemoana Baker



Kia ora Another Lost Shark. Thanks for the invite to contribute to this discussion. Yessssss. Page vs Stage. Very good questions.

I know poets whose readings and public performances get raved about, the audience literally gasping, laughing, crying…and yet time after time: the rejection slips. From literary magazines, from anthologies, from websites. I also know poets whose work sings and dances in books, then falls dreadfully and disappointingly flat when they read it in public. It can seem like there’s some kind of quantum crease in reality.

Without getting too much into a definition of poetry or performance, which is territory I’d rather not traverse no matter how much I love you, I reckon we’re actually dealing here with two very different acts, products, artforms if you like. Furthermore, I think the two have something to learn from each other. I’ve had mild-mannered success with both, and I don’t feel too much of a tension between them in my everyday life as a writer or performer. But I know that’s not the case for everyone. So if it’s ok, I’ll just gab on a bit about my own experience, rather than write any kind of academic treatise on the whole thing.

I believe once a poem gets type-set (or just typed, I guess, if you’re publishing on the net) it has to do all its performing on the page, as Bill Manhire would say. No bells and whistles, just the ink and the paper. It can’t call on any of its friends in the back row to join in the refrain. It can’t win over the unhappy punter in the leather trousers with its mellifluous voice and impressive microphone technique. It can’t start its set with that joke about Dylan Thomas / the Pope / the duck who turns out to be a fully-qualified plasterer. The page can, indeed, be a mofo of a venue to crack.

The only ‘voice’ on the page is the one the poet has managed to shoehorn into the words themselves, the black and white, bare-assed text. There can be silence in a poem – but only visually, if you know what I mean. With the use of line-breaks, stanzas, punctuation, that sort of thing. There’s (hopefully) musicality in the poem – the rhythms and sonic resonances of the words, their lines and cadences, the echoing choices the poet’s made with techniques like repetition, assonance, alliteration, all those lovely old chestnuts.

But there’s no actual, audible music. And there’s no volume knob.  Yes, we can use different fonts, italics, bold, capital letters and suchlike if we want to, but none of that can really approximate the experience of being in front of the bona fide, carbon-based life form who wrote the damn thing and having them tell the poem with their own mouth, body, props, whatever. And if you ask me, that kind of formatting stuff can easily start to feel a bit forced on the page, a bit like ‘Can you just let the poem speak for itself, already?!’

And that’s where it gets interesting – at least for someone like me. I’ve published a book and I get published fairly regularly in literary locations here in New Zealand and occasionally in Australia (go GDS!) and further afield.  I’m very grateful – may this continue forever and ever. I also perform my poems – as part of a stage show that makes room for lots of stuff, including sound effects from a scuba-tank and digital samplings of my traditional Māori instruments.

For some reason, I’ve never really considered myself a proper performance poet. This is possibly because I am comparing myself to others who I admire greatly and figure I can never hope to emulate, like Marc Kelly Smith aka Slam Papi, Emily XYZ and Tusiata Avia. It’s probably also because my show is a fairly ad hoc combo of songs, poems, stories about songs and poems, stories about stories, thigh-slappingly funny jokes and, as I say, the scuba tank stuff. So I’m not sure it ‘qualifies’, officially, as any one thing. Any moment now I will be able to describe what I do in fifty words or less.

Most of the poets I know who perform don’t change their text for the stage – the way it’s written (sometimes even published) is the way it’s delivered. It’s like a script that doesn’t change just because the poet is in front of an audience creating a show, an entertainment, rather than a reading or recital. This may be because, at least for those poets I know, their writing voice is pretty much the same as their performance voice.

That’s also the case for me. I don’t do too much to a poem from the page to the stage. In fact, sometimes I don’t ‘perform’ them at all – ie, I don’t memorise them, I don’t use any theatrical devices like doing different voices for the different characters, or using my body to act stuff out. What I definitely do, however, is that I make a very conscious decision about which poems, out of the ones I’ve written for the page, I will definitely not perform. Some, I reckon, are just meant to be read on the page – and they reward re-reading, of the kind it’s not possible to do when you hear a poem once from a stage. The ones that seem to work best for me on stage are the ones with a traceable narrative, the ones with some good strong quotable lines, the ones with a bit of humour, and/or the ones with a meaningful and entertaining backstory.

The ones which are fairly dense with imagery, elliptical language and wordplay, and the ones which are fairly long and experimental, are the ones that I may choose not to share with the public. That said, I sometimes surprise myself (and my audiences) by breaking out some kind of Language Poem dripping with made-up words and sonic art type stuff. And most of the time when I do this it goes down well – but I usually preface it with some kind of comment about how I love the many things words can do, not just providing us with meanings etc. I ask them to indulge me – and they do. People can be real nice like that. 

I feel a lot of empathy for my audience. I am always incredibly grateful to have anyone in front of me at all when I perform. So I want to invite them in. I want them to be moved, and entertained, and also to be intellectually stimulated. But I don’t want them to feel comfortable the whole time, and I don’t want them to be able to predict what might happen next in the poem or in the performance. And I don’t want to end up telling them what to think or believe or even conclude from my poems. I want to come from a space of asking questions rather than one of knowing all the answers.

I’m not saying I’m always successful, but those are my goals.

And actually, those are the same goals I have when I’m writing (if I were ever to articulate them to myself).

So when I find myself saying something like ‘Can you just let the poem speak for itself?’ when I think about poems with lots of formatting on the page, I have to ask myself, am I applying two different sets of rules here? Do I want different things from the different ‘deliveries’ – a damn good show from the stage, but unencumbered dignity from the page?

Well, no. I think I want exactly the same thing from the stage and page, and that thing could easily be summarised as Less is More. I’m not saying performance poetry should be all Minimalist and Unsaid, but I think it could learn, sometimes, that what’s not said is just as important as what is. I think we, as writers and performers, can trust that our audiences will fill in the gaps, on the page and on the stage.

For me, poetry on the page, whether it’s telling me a straightforward story or inviting me into a slightly more mysterious engagement, is about economy of expression, making sure that each word and gesture punches above its weight. And any performance I enjoy is likely to follow the same rules – it’ll leave room for my own imagination to take flight. It’ll say just enough and then shut up.

There’s a limit, though. Sometimes a poem isn’t given enough help when it comes to a reading or a recital. The poet who gets up and reads their poems with few pauses (sometimes not even the ones that they themselves wrote in there), in a monotone and/or consistently quietly or consistently loudly will usually lose me. It doesn’t take much to create even just a gentle dynamic. It doesn’t have to involve acting with a capital A, and it doesn’t have to be about pretending. Even if it doesn’t come naturally, it’s not so difficult to discover a slightly more amplified version of yourself as a poet and writer. I probably just have a short attention span. But I feel people owe it to their work to try and master the basics of public speaking and/or stagecraft when they read their work in public.

I teach my students about this in my Creative Writing classes. It’s something that’s a bit neglected, I reckon, in writing courses, at least here in NZ. We cover all sorts of things that I feel are useful for page poets who simply want to make a good fist of public readings when the time comes, as well as students who are more focussed on Slams, open mics, performance poetry etc. We talk about things like the right to perform; owning the space; post-performance depression; the way time changes on stage; the enormous value of breathing well; and most importantly, being prepared – rehearsing, timing yourself, taking all the props you might need etc. Nothing worse than getting up to read and having to scramble back down to your handbag for your glasses.

(stay tuned for part 2 of the interview tomorrow)


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