a poem that can’t be read aloud isn’t poetry

13Koraly Dimitriadis crept into the Northcote Social Club on Wednesday night to review Overload Allstars as part of the Overload Poetry Festival. the Melbourne writer found herself chuckling, enraged, serenaded and turned on. In the end though, she realised that one must ultimately wear their words, in order for them to be appreciated.

When asked to review a session at the Overload Poetry Festival I was excited not only at the thought of writing the review, but also at attending a performance poetry event. I’ve always read poetry on the page and it was only in the last year or so that I noticed an increased interest in spoken word. I started to tune into Triple R, surrendered to the art.

On Wednesday night, the Overload Allstars audience was treated with four unique poets: Ali Cobby Eckermann, Geoff Lemon, Maxine Clarke and Lewis Scott. The venue, Northcote Social Club, was dimly lit and the audience sat sprawled on the carpet, mellowed out. I stared intently at the stage in anticipation, open to new images and the bubbling up of emotions.

Ali Cobby Eckermann is an indigenous poet who I knew nothing of prior to hearing her read. Through her poetry, I learnt she is part of Australia’s Stolen Generations: taken from her birth ali-cobby-eckermann-picmother and placed with a white family. Her intense anger spun off her tongue and into my mind. Her poetry made me angry at myself: that I didn’t know more about her pain, and the pain of Aboriginal people; that I was one of the people she spoke about with disappointment – one that knows little about Aboriginal culture. Each of her poems took me deeper into her culture, and by the end I was hungry for more. One image still with me is a part of her poem addressed to her adoptive mother: Mum, when you die, will you let me grieve like we do out in the bush? At the end of her performance, I was ashamed of myself and my lack of knowledge in this area. I wanted to write a letter to the government: shove your intervention.

Next, the audience was catapulted into the humorous rhythms of the theatrical Geoff Lemon. Geoff and his words were inseparable, and his poetry had a sort of rap beat to it. Though he geofflemon-picstarted out with comical verses, soon the laughter of the audience turned into serious whistles. Geoff had turned serious: he was hurt, fucked up by friends and the world. Lemon succeeded in commanding the attention of the room, and his poems were infectious. An image still with me: write the Ten Commandments on a tablet, but not on the one that thorns can grow on, the type you take when you’re ill, so they are easier to swallow.

Maxine Clarke was up next. I’ve read a few of Maxine’s poems on the page but never seen her perform. Maxine brings her poems to life – her voice is smooth, sleek, her body moving through the verse. She delivered three distinct types of poetry: a few were sprinkled in cheekiness; maxinewgun-picothers written in Jamaican Patois; and others with a hip-hop feel to them. What they all had in common was that they stemmed from the struggles of African descendants and always ended with a punch. Some words that spring to mind from the evening are about an elderly black woman: Y’all don’t know her name, so let’s call her Black History. When Maxine recited her poem about President Obama and her body moved in waves while she repeated the letter “O” over and over again, I actually got turned on. I think it had something to do with the thought of seducing the most powerful man in the world.

Last but not least on the stage was Lewis Scott. Alec Patric has reviewed Scott’s performance in some detail, so I’ll keep it brief. After Lewis’s performance I felt as if I had just woken up from lewisscott-pichypnosis, and someone had been tampering with the insides of my mind. I wasn’t sure how many poems he performed because they merged with each other, swelling and evolving as he moved through his set. The world is darker than the womb, he said. It was as if he was reading from the Bible. Images of birth and conception floated around in my mind while Lewis acted out a swimming sperm fertilising an egg. Lewis used various techniques to “perform” his poem: moving away from the microphone, which had me straining to pick up his words; raising and lowering the tone of his voice; and sometimes he even sang – Jehovah, Jehovah. He ended with more singing – There must be a God.

After the show I was chatting with Lewis Scott and he said something interesting: a poem that can’t be read aloud isn’t poetry. Maybe this is true. It’s like a dress hanging in your wardrobe – it has to be worn to be appreciated.

Photographs by Michael Reynolds.

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  1. Great stuff Koraly. Especially the Maxine review, which despite the pay-off, is dead on. It also has to be said that these photos by Michael Reynolds are remarkable. I saw him sitting on the sticky carpet, snapping away, but in each of these there is a choice made by an angel.

  2. So true Alec. Santo said to me some time ago that there are so many amazing things happening on the Spoken Word scene and when we are all dead and gone, there will be no record of things. Michael’s photographs tell the story and I hope that projects like Overland Overloaded will go some little way towards documenting a tiny slice of the madness that is spoken-word Melbourne.

  3. Nice review, Koraly.
    The last para does raise some interesting issues. Is it really true that all poetry must be suited to reading aloud? Dunno but it seems to me that the forms are actually quite distinct and the techniques that work in one context might not be appropriate in other. High modernism, for instance, with its dense textual references seems much more suited to the page than the stage, just as there are poems that work well in performance and not so much as text. In the latter category, I reckon you can put many song lyrics. As a kid, I can remember actually being quite disappointed with albums that came with a lyric sheet, since songs that worked so well as music often seemed quite flat (if you pardon the pun) on paper.

  4. Maxine, Going Down Swinging is in record, all through the Overload Poetry Festival, so yes, it’s being recorded. And we recorded this night so some great words were bottled.
    Personally I’ve recorded thousands of hours of poetry and spoken word in Melbourne and right across Australia, broadcast them on Triple R, ABC, community radio since the early ’90s. GDS is doing IndieFeed podcasts now too taking Oz words to the world.
    It’d be fantastic if more people got into the business of releasing the audio of this country’s spoken word scene, Geoff podcasts his Wordplay gigs – I hope someone picks up that baton when he leaves town!

  5. Hey Lisa, I know, Going Down Swinging is a fantastic audio record – and I’m amazed at the way you guys have managed to cover almost every event. Didn’t mean to diss you 🙁 You must be absolutely exhausted! Maybe we can do a Q and A with GDS when this is all over about how it went?

    I guess what I mean is more the atmosphere of these gigs, the way the poets related to each other and support each other, the manner in which gigs are MC-ed all that kind of stuff that gives a context to the poetry that’s rising from the craziness.

    Jeff. TT.O would be outraged at your comment. He feels the distinction between ‘performance poetry’ and ‘page poetry’ is an artificial construct imposed by those out to prove that those who perform their work are not ‘poets’ in the true sense. (I hope I articulated that properly on his behalf). And in a sense he’s right: it’s a very divisive and polarising statement to make. Perhaps it’s more that some poets are performers and some are not: that is, that performance poets are poets with an added bonus, rather than being poets whose work is somehow deficient on the page.

  6. Thanks for everyone’s comments on my review. When I write a poem, and I want to show it to someone, I have to read it aloud because I feel that I am not getting my message across if they just read it in their minds. I don’t feel that way about my short stories or my novel. I don’t necessarily think a poem has to be performed theatrically, but a poem seems dead on a page. Reading it aloud brings it to life and communicates the true intentions of the writer.

  7. Oh, no, not feeling at all dissed! Just taking the opportunity to crow a little : )
    Melbourne’s pretty good at documenting itself, is what I meant – Overload is a good example of that? May not be so good at remembering its own history (that’s an Australian trait in general, yes)

    Interested by what you say about TTO, the wonderful poet/broadcaster Kerry Watson and I kinda hotted up that debate with TT years ago when we started to use the term spoken word, very consciously and deliberately for gigs and radio shows we were doing and for our own work – because we wanted to distinguish ourselves from page poets. Because the work is meant to be heard not read – we didn’t want it published on the page – and often we were more in the realms of storytelling than ‘poetry’.
    Will probably continute to debate that [joyfully] with TT to the end of my days (can only hope!)
    Lewis’ performance is the perfect example of this for me – it’s as much about his voice, his movement, his light and shade onstage as about his words – you could read it but would you be transformed by it the way we were? (even in recording it I feel like something’s lost)
    You too Maxine, I love the way you move and smile on stage it’s a big part of how I get your message.

  8. If you happen to be blessed TT.O’s performance abilities, I’m sure you could make any “page poem” stage-ready. The man could do aural justice to a concrete poem, I’m sure. Poetry is an aural tradition, but modern poetry is often as concerned with the visual appearance of the verse on the page as it is with the traditional sound techniques implemented to deliver meaning. I’m sure the visual poem can usually translate to the stage pretty well, but it’s a translation nonetheless.

  9. Lovely review, Koraly.
    The title is very interesting. I can’t help but ask the question. What is poetry?
    I once thought poems had to rhyme (I’ve come a long way!) 🙂 I now know that some poems need a voice to bring them to life, some need to be read over and over, analysed in one’s head to give meaning, and other poems need the page. Sometimes the shape of a poem, the blank spaces between the lines say more than words.

  10. Hey Koraly
    There’s a refreshing spontaneous honesty about this review – not like you’ve agonised over every word and every phrase. I was especially moved by your review of Ali Cobby Eckermannn – I wasn’t there but I felt what you felt. Too few of us are brave enough to say, ‘Up the intervention.’ Made me think of that great Kev Carmody album Pillars of Society (check out ‘Comrade Jesus Christ’). Last week, students from RMIT braved the mic and spotlight at The Empress to read their stuff aloud – so much was great, but unforgettable, was the poetry. But so many Australian poets are silenced by lack of opportunity. So, what can we do about it?

  11. Maxine, you’re right in that there are lots of opportunities for poets to read their work but how much opportunity is there for poets to be published and how much interest in Australia is there in poets and poetry.

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