But…is it poetry?

13Overland Overloaded reviewer Alec Patric visited Glitch Bar and Cinema in Fitzroy last night to check out the Voiceprints “But…is it poetry?” event, featuring poets Steve Smart, Santo Cazzati, Jo Truman, Carmen Main and Eddy Burger. Patric emerges from the experience not quite convinced that the question has been answered.

I talked to a poet last night who told me she’d written three thousand poems over the last few years but she never reads anyone else’s poetry; ever. I nodded non-judgmentally. Blinked politely. It reminded me of a German woman I worked with many years ago who said, ‘I like to have the massage, but not to give the massage.’ I did some polite nodding and blinking then also. There are these astounding admissions of solipsism that take my breath away. And there were a few of those last night at Glitch Bar. But… is it Poetry? 1: Voiceprints. It wasn’t a rhetorical question.

As a poet I sometimes wish I could answer why poetry has so little appeal to the general population. santoThose few that attend a poetry event or read poetry oblige themselves with a sense of refinement that the masses simply lack. Out of the thirty or so people at Glitch last night I suspect that if you weren’t a poet about to perform, a friend or loved one of a poet about to perform, you were a reviewer for Overland.

The ideas going into the event are great. I was looking forward to ‘Atmospheric meditations’ and ‘Erratic, operatic exhalations.’ But interesting ideas can often translate into idiocy and madness. Function as an excuse for a childhood phantasmagoria of disintegrating daydreams and persistent unformed cognitive connection or development. If that sounds psychological it’s because I often wondered whether this is what insanity sounded like. Then there is the sounds of the natural world transformed into the threat of its pointless impact on a concrete existence. Brief moments of insight into the human experience, lovely revelations of inner bird song, blown away by existential shrieking. The art of laboratory experiments and the handicraft of animal testing.

carmen-main-steve-smartDuring intermission people offer each other the expression ‘something different,’ to describe the night. Others simulate the sound of small dogs barking at each other. When introducing themselves to each other they intone their names with ironic irony. And everyone seems to be wearing the Emperor’s new clothes. One man’s genius here is another man’s poodle. A snow machine is a valid expression of the weather. That’s an abstract answer to the vague question of the night.

The highlights of But… is it Poetry? were Carmen Main, who has that natural theatrical gift of being able to do almost nothing, and still draw your attention. Yet she speaks clearly, and her words open up worlds you want to know about. And then there’s Santo Cazzati. Dressed like an insane funky pimp from the seventies who has the delivery of a prestigious five star Las Vegas stripper. I mean that in a nice way. The man is a heavy-weight delivering punches you want to feel hit right through you. Especially after a night like yesterday evening at Glitch Bar.

 Pictured above, poet Santo Cazzati, and Steve Smart with Carmen Main on the ‘Glitch’ reading stage.

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  1. Man Alec, you are one harsh poetry reviewer! I’m terrified now, about performing on Wednesday night. I’d be interested to know what you thought of Steve Smart’s work. He’s usually sharp as razor blade and funny to boot.

  2. All Arts have the same problem. I trained as a pianist and knew the ‘canon’ but I remember meeting a girl who was finishing a Master’s in performance who had never played any Liszt – this is probably like omitting Shakespeare in literary terms.
    The greatest thing about reading other people’s work is learning, both from their wisdom and errors. As for what constitutes an art-form, one can venture into circular arguments ad infinitum, but the ontology of now doesn’t dismiss past poetics.
    Thanks for a great blog piece – it’s good criticism in that it evaluates the flaws of self-reference and myopia and not the person. I’ll get off my hobby horse.

  3. ‘I talked to a poet last night who told me she’d written three thousand poems over the last few years but she never reads anyone else’s poetry; ever.’
    This is, of course, the curse of the entire small press industry. It’s not just that it makes the maintenance of any infrastructure very difficult, it’s also that it signals a view of poetry (or, more generally, writing) as about self-expression rather than communication, something that seems fundamentally problematic.

  4. ‘Expressive’ writers are usually impervious to criticism.
    On small press, it was confronting opening OL 196 to see ‘Why not consider OL in your will?’ – maybe verso rather than recto. It was like one of those… have I left the gas on moments…

  5. “As a poet I sometimes wish I could answer why poetry has so little appeal to the general population…” A particularly Australian question, really. We’re apparently avid readers in this country but we don’t really have the kind of respect for poets that you’d think we would have, especially for a country with a powerful indigenous oral tradition. In Europe and in the States poetry has a much wider/varied/active reader/listenership – with slam and hip hop even increasingly so. And yes, even in this country, you will find poetry gigs with hundreds in the audience (very few of them family/friends/colleagues).
    Experimental edges of any genre will have smaller audiences, that’s sort of a given, what confuses and constantly surprises me is that fact that people in this country lump all poetry into one big mass – even poets do it.
    It’s like going to a noisecore gig and asking why people don’t listen to music.
    As to the lady who writes and doesn’t read, poor thing, how horrible to have only your own voice in your head. I think she’s in the minority also.

  6. It’s true that the typical attendees at poetry gigs are other poets – analogous to the typical readers of blogs being other bloggers.

    But the presence of those readers/attendees, and the awareness that the bloggers or poets have of this audience, is often quite positive.

    For instance, bloggers are typically quite argumentative, and can be extraordinarily critical about very small things. Spelling and grammar are frequent points of contention.

    In the same way, one good effect of performance poetry/poetry in a public medium is that it exposes poets to an audience that is sometimes supportive, sometimes outrageously critical. (As this post demonstrates).

  7. Re: the OL in your will thing, it’s something the Left used to do all the time. One keen supporter mentions you in their will and yr financial problems are solved.

  8. Where were these lovers of the ‘high’ poetic ground during Overload’s bilingual Arabic event? Not one blogger follks! What you missed: bilingual haiku as light and strong as a suicide bomb. One member of the public from Iran (not a poet) came up to me afterwards so incredibly moved by Ahmed Hashim and his pieces on the Iran-Iraq war. Where were the bloggers of Overland? Like moths to the proverbial flame they were drawn to what they openly seem to loathe! Magnetised by the Emperors new clothes! Fascinated in spite of yourselves!!

  9. Sorry we missed it James. We had two of the three events on last night covered. Unfortunately the other event was mis-programmed and it was too late to re-dispatch the (very annoyed) blogger to universal tongue. Be patient though. As you comment, we are planning an open post celebration for that event.

  10. James, we Persians love poetry. It’s probably the most important artistic aspect of the Persian culture. There are regular poetry nights held by Persian communities in Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra that I know of. Every month, the turnouts are impressive – up to 100 poetry lovers show up, maybe 3 of whom are poets themselves. Not bad, eh?

  11. Ironic that one of the complaints I received after the gig on Sunday night was that I didn’t take more of my (emperor’s new) clothes off. Darn it I’ll never be a Las Vegas stripper.

    I faintly resent the allusion to idiots and madmen, on Ed and Jo’s behalves. Myself, I don’t mind so much, just glad people are reviewing festival gigs this year. It’s a rare and wonderful thing to read reviews of live poetry events. And honest opinions are always appreciated.

  12. Love your attitude Steve. You’re an inspiration for all of us with an inner Las Vegas stripper. But just to clarify, I didn’t call anyone an idiot or madman. I’m just as foolish and mad with poetry as anyone that went on stage Sunday. There were moments of inspiration in every poem I heard, but I really am concerned with why poetry has so little appeal generally. I’m suggesting in this post that we need to remain focused on what people are hearing, not just what we want to say. And you already get that, so I think now it’s just about us getting our Las Vegas groove on.

  13. A little bit more about what happened in the performances, and a little less about what was supposedly said at intermission might be helpful. This bill mixed spoken word with the more-out-there strange. I don’t think it was in any way solipsistic. All the performers have done the hard rooms. Specifically: Eddy Burger, on first, does absurdist/surrealist humorous/pathetic pieces that I have seen win over children/old folks. Great rhythm and technical ability. This night a bit lukewarm – he depends on energy back to fire. Jo Truman and Warren Burt belong more to the end of experimental music, not everyone’s cup of tea, but her vocal abilities strange, astonishing. High level ‘art’. Carmen Main and Steve Smart were a bit fumbly, perhaps under-rehearsed, and didn’t exactly take us all the way to the dark side, but two good performers mixing up their poems to music tracks, a good idea, and not just cliched rapping. Santo Cazzati has tremendous rhythm, musicality, and passion. People went along because they wanted to hear different stuff and that’s what they got. They didn’t necessarily expect it to be perfect. It certainly wasn’t just dull posing as the review above suggests.

  14. good to see so much discussion/debate coming out of this review. i was there, soaking it all in, and from all that has been said here, it seems the gig hit its mark… wish i could have been in two places at once though… the unviversal tongue reading sounded amazing.

  15. Alec in finely lucid form. How does poetry stand up in Australian culture? Maybe if poets all bailed into a Big Brother style house, what about pitching a show such as “So You Think You Can Slam”, maybe a group of 11 or 12 poets could stand around a field kicking an inflated bag of leather, then go off on some drunken bender attacking anything in their path, then we might get some attention.

  16. I seem to remember Big Brother having a rule about no books or writing implements. Watch 12 poets tear each other limb from limb after being told they can’t read or write for 2 months! Whichever poet learns to freestyle best wins.

    I always found the ‘no books’ rule offensive. They say it makes bad TV, but I saw a bunch of people bored out of their skulls, staring at the walls or tapping themselves in the head incessantly, having inane conversations and whinging a great deal about things of no consequence. Apparently letting them read books would have spoiled all that fun.

    Not that I watched Big Brother of course.

  17. yeh, right on… my performances are a symptom of infantile neural paralyses, arrested development, brain fossilisation (or at least spaghetied wiring) through traumatic impact(s) of one kind or another…the clipped wing of a birds crippled song smashing against a windowed pain…yes, it’s all there

  18. PS: my ‘unformed cognitive connections and development” have somewhat still miraculously enabled me to gain a BA (Communications), MMus and now i am receiving an APA scholarship for my PhD at UTS. Too bad this doesn’t translate into my work, but one person’s mad (wo)man is another’s…..! Well, you know, I’m glad that we are in such enlightened times when it comes to our attitudes toward the disabled…the government has been so kind to me, obviously!

  19. Jo Truman you are obviously very cool. I like someone who fires from the hip and then comes back and has a look. It’s important not to take anything too seriously and in my opinion you obviously rock in a way that few people can appreciate but some people are gonna love.

  20. The reason the intellectuals sneer at performance poetry, Maxine is because it is linear and quick. The poem goes through the ears can’t be studied at leisure in the libraries and drawing rooms with a glass of brandy and pipe.

  21. Hi Paul, I’m confused! ‘Performance poetry’ is not always linear at all. I’d agree that something that can’t be taken away and studied is more likely to be feared, though. I don’t like the term ‘performance poetry’: it is actually inaccurate, because many spoken word pieces work well on the page as well.

  22. It is experienced linearly when it is performed, is what I meant. The first word comes into my ear first and so on. When I read a poem from the page, my brain experiences the sound of my own voice, the visual aspect (which is why I am not a fan of these /), and I can see how one bit here connects to this bit down here and so on. The experience of reading a poem from the page is significantly less linear than hearing it read. This isn’t a criticism, it’s just an observation and I’m sure there are a lot of poems that work equally well read and performed, but they remain two separate disciplines and two completely different experiences for the reader/listener. The necessity of being so careful not to be misunderstood makes for long winded comments. The terminology, performance poetry, spoken word etc is irrelevant I think, we all know what we are taking about. Personally the word ‘slam’ has connotations of violence and competition that I find particularly offputting, but there you go.

  23. thanks for your supportive comments, Paul. did oyu see the performance? i’m curious how you got the notion that “few’ people would appreciate the way i “rock”. There’s no point in getting pedantically obsessed with criticism, it’s just that you want to learn from it! No point in just continuing doing stuff that rubs people up the wrong way…though I have ahd positive reviews in the past-both internationally and locally (ie; jazz critic john shand’s 4* review in the SMH). perhaps it’s an age and gender thing-over the hill and past it!

  24. We don’t get to see many of you big name artists up here in Brisbane. I must admit I am attracted more to people who get bad reviews than those who get good ones. So I googled you and saw what you were up to and then I saw Paul Baker in wordsalad saying he was doing a series on sound poetry. Paul is very cool. So I thought, hello Jo Truman. You don’t seem at all crazy to me. Do you have a bloggedy blog?

  25. thanks Paul-I dont think I’m any more crazy than the next Jo Blogs (speaking of which I don’t have a blog but am in the process of getting one) though like everyone else I have my idiosyncracies and maybe that’s what identifies artists from “normals”-they may choose to reveal their psycholgical blips. But you know how stereotypes (and gossip) works. The thing about vocal techniques which are performed in an extreme or highly unusual way is that, especially when they don’t use words, they are seen/felt as “irrational”, they have these connotations of “madness” but when we ask ourselves what is this ‘madness” and if we are honest, the fear and stigma which comes along with these prejudices and judgments usually relate to a fear of the pre-lingual state ie: the “other” state which is the inverse to the patriarchal paradigms which signify language as th dominant symbolic order, the one which connotes “control” over the so-called irrational -that is the state before we learn that language is the signifier of control and rationality- the state of the voice linked to pure emotion that pours out of the body, as a baby cries, for instance. that scary state of the womb and dependance on the all powerful mother-surely to be reminded of that reminds us of our vulnerability? what better way to knock the memory of that primal emotion on the head than resorting to the use of language that attempts to control this wild beast of embodied emotion , by containing, belittling and stigmatising it with the label “madness” or ‘insanity’? ( & shouldn’t we leave the naming of mental states and conditions to the people who really know what they’re talking about?)

  26. ps; Paul I have a facebook page tho, “jo truman (Australia) facebook) and on this you’ll also find evidence of my illustration and art work and some links

  27. I don’t do facebook, I’m afraid. But I will certainly look out for your blog. I have no performance experience and find the thought of it terrifying, which is one of the reasons I like to tilt the balance back to the formalities of typing. I find that word, ‘patriarchal’ frightening, but I have no argument with it as long as it isn’t dependent on the shape of one’s rude bits. (And if there is to be only one god it would certainly be silly not to think of her as a woman.) I am off to study a little Stephen Fry. Have a gorgeous Sunday, Jo Truman.

  28. the public who heard Beethoven’s 3rd & 5th symphonies for the first time declared him “insane”. The same went for Shostakovich and Webern. in other words their works did not fit into a paradigm that fitted into some people’s everyday notion of “normality” – in time though some enlightened ones began to appreciate them!

  29. Why can’t poetry be about self expression and communication?! It is a form of communicating important meaning through a form of expression. The medium is the vehicle. Let poetry bring people to their knees. Look at the old Masters of oil painting and sculpture. Look at music and theater and how it draws an audience in. As in many forms of art Poetry too can bring the world to its knees.

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