Type
Review
Category
Reading

Poetry: Notes from a slam-poetry phobic

Please Resist Me
Luka Lesson

I first came across Luka Lesson’s work at last year’s Brisbane Writers Festival. The young Melbourne-based poet – also known as Luka Haralampou – was sharing the stage with a number of spoken-word artists or stage poets, there to compete for the audience’s approval against a group of page poets. I must admit that such competitive divisions make me cringe; and events such as the above run the risk of appearing, at least to the likes of this reviewer, as rather unnecessary spectacles aimed at disavowing the general marginalisation of poetry in contemporary late-capitalist cultures. Thankfully, however, I found nothing fraught or unnecessary in Lesson’s confident and politically acute performance. The quality of his writing as well as his delivery easily outshone the obnoxiously loud and ostentatious work of the (apparently celebrity-like) US and Canadian performers at this event, and it is with pleasure that I review Lesson’s second album, Please Resist Me.

What makes so much spoken word poetry appear problematic to someone like me is not only the genre’s current domination by consumer-oriented, mass-marketable, US-style theatrics (thanks, partly, to the influence of the HBO TV serious Def Poetry), but also the medium’s opposition to the chimera of page poetry. It is this defensive stance which often results in a poetry that can be aesthetically insecure and, therefore, overtly ego-driven or preoccupied with pop culture minutiae, and only slightly removed from stand-up comedy. But, having listened to Lesson’s album and also to some of the recordings of his highly talented colleagues from The Centre for Poetics and Justice, I am brought to see that my – admittedly jaundiced and, yes, condescending – misgivings apply only to the less committed practitioners of the artform, and that Australian poetry and Australian literature are greatly enriched and energised by the work of skilled writer-performers such as Lesson.

Prior to listening to Please Resist Me, I found the fact of Lesson’s being the current winner of the Australian Slam Poetry Championship rather alarming. Like many a YouTube tragic, I have spent far too much time watching poorly recorded clips of overtrained actors and rock-star wannabes shouting melodramatically into dysfunctional microphones; and I’ve come to see slam poetry as a rather unfortunate commodification of poetry – under the ideological aegis of nice-sounding terms like inclusiveness and community, of course – by ruling-class culture industries that compel artists to publically humiliate themselves for a morsel of attention and publicity.

So I was relieved to find that the first track on Lesson’s album is anything but foolish and comical. Rather, it is a gentle yet serious delivery of a piece about the spiritual value of poetry, against the backdrop of a forlorn yet upbeat piano rhythm, ending with ‘And may writing our rhymes be the way we pray.’ The next track is an infectious and more or less sung – as opposed to spoken – piece called ‘Desire’, which, for an identifiably hop hip piece of music, is refreshingly devoid of macho bravado and aggressive posturing despite references to fists, fire and pistols.

The title track is perhaps the most straightforward spoken-word piece on the album. Its text oscillates, perhaps too precariously, between social satire and an outright condemnation of racism – but Lesson’s voice (both as recorded on the album and also as it emerges from his words as published on his website) is sufficiently flexible to prevent this juxtaposition from becoming jarring or inconsistent:

Sorry – you also taught me to speak French
I learnt it when you kept keeping me at arms-length
And then I learnt Italian just to expand my head
And Greek to learn from where my ancestors had fled
And then I learnt some Yanyuwa to show the people of THIS land respect

Politics is a major concern of Lesson’s work, and this is something that I personally find rather comforting. With so much contemporary Australian poetry comprising bourgeois, predictably apolitical variations on aestheticism (of either the lyrical or the experimental kind), it is very refreshing to listen to and read a poet who is not afraid of being branded preachy or didactic. In ‘The New Crusades’, for example, he speaks rapidly and engagingly:

New government the judge and jury love it
they put the truth in the cupboard so the public won’t discover it
you think you’ll uncover but you’ll never really touch it
and it’s proof that you’re a puppet in this ‘Punch and Judy’ covenant

An unapologetic engagement with political themes is one of the key contributions of the new generation of spoken-word artists to contemporary poetry. It seems to me that while the society as a whole is growing more and more politically aware – of economic, environmental and socio-cultural issues, resulting in, for example, the revival of Marxist theory across Europe or the proliferation of Green politics here in Australia – some artforms, or at least the existing structures within these artforms, remain obstinately attached to the Cold War-era, postmodern mockery of the political. So Lesson’s openly political poems and tracks such as ‘The People’, ‘History Books’ or ‘Freedom’ are, far from ephemeral expressions of a phase in the career of an angry young poet, quite possibly the harbingers of a poetics to come.

 

 

This is not to say that Lesson’s work is entirely radical or confrontational. His album includes love poems – such as ‘The Confluence’ – as well as the moving piece ‘Athena’, which draws on the poet’s Greek cultural heritage in performing a compelling self-portrait of the artist as a rather complex young man. Including the Greek Easter Hymn as well as references to Ancient Greek history and mythology, the poem – recorded with an accompaniment of the oud – is a powerful fusion of the personal, the familial and the ancestral:

Athena
The goddess my ancestors once worshipped still sits perched upon the columns of the Acropolis make no mistake
The circling bird that would sit on Socrate’s shoulder
whisper into the ear of Pythagoras
and who wiped the tears from my great great great great great great great great great great great great
Grandmother’s face
came to me right after my Trojan War
as I layed upon the ocean floor
covered by the weight of my own tears

A more faultfinding reader of this poem could take issue with the image of, for example, ‘the weight of … tears’ ‘covering’ the speaker. I wonder if it wouldn’t have been more effective if the tears had instead ‘crushed’, ‘drowned’ or, perhaps more abstractly and more suggestively, ‘encased’, ‘trapped’ or even ‘tricked’ the speaker, to complement the motif of the Wooden Horse of Troy, as evoked earlier by the reference to the speaker’s personal ‘Trojan War’. But concerns such as these are easily suspended by the courage and exuberance of Lesson’s piece both as printed writing and as audio recording.

Although Please Resist Me has not quite convinced me to overcome my phobia of slam poetry, it has provided me with a clear demonstration of why there exists some legitimate grievance apropos of the perceived sidelining of stage poets by page poets. As much as I for one would love to see unnecessarily acrimonious phrases like these eliminated or at least deconstructed, I must admit that the frankly snobbish attitude of some – such as in this Christopher Bantick piece – towards spoken word is, at the very least, an indication of ignorance. Albums like Please Resist Me could go some way in challenging such perspectives.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Ali Alizadeh’s latest book, Transactions, has been longlisted for the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award. His previous books have been shortlisted for the Australian Prime Minister’s Literary Award and NSW Premier’s Literary Award. He lectures at Monash University.

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Comments

  1. I didn’t realise people were trying to make poetry popular – God help us – that will never do! Getting it out to the people – putting on an entertaining performance – what are these people thinking of! Some are even making some money out of their poetry – oh shit! Don’t they know poetry is to be only read by poets who understand what it’s all about! The world is going to hell in a handbasket ;)

    • Indeed! What’s even more outrageous is that the likes of this reviewer have the temerity to question whether one should make all-encompassing statements like ‘spoken word [or whatever else] is in its entirety a great thing’. Seriously, I don’t have a problem with anyone making money (from anything, really) but I do have a problem with the belief that making poetry popular is in itself a worthy cause. I’d rather see poets not worry making poetry popular, commercial, etc, and just make the best poetry (spoken, written, mimed, telepathically communicated, etc) that they can, which is ultimately what the best slam poets have been doing and will keep on doing, irrespective of misanthropes like me. Anyhow, thanks for the comment, Gabrielle.

      • I would think that if you want to be ‘writing to change the world’ than making the poetry popular (or liked by lots of people) would be almost essential – if hardly anyone reads the poetry, the message will not be going too far. I don’t see the problem with getting the general public to value poetry and in fact they do to a certain degree – who doesn’t wheel out a poem at a funeral or read nursery rhymes to children – but generally most people don’t have any time for poetry and will roll their eyes if the word is mentioned. If more people read or listen to poetry because they are entertained by it (something they don’t usually associate with poetry – entertainment) then more people will then go on to read the stuff that might change the world. You say that ‘I do have a problem with the belief that making poetry popular is in itself a worthy cause’ but teachers,, for example, try to make poetry popular – that can’t be a bad thing? I agree that poets shouldn’t be investing too heavily in making a buck out of poetry as that ain’t gonna happen (except for a very few exceptions). No-one in their right mind writes poetry for the money and if they did they need to start counting those flying pigs.

  2. It’s great to read a review of Luka’s work – he’s amazing! But these generalisations about ‘the medium’s opposition to page poetry’. What are they based on? Comments like these perpetuate the myth. Yes, there are a few spoken word purists, but they are few and far between. The most successful spoken word poets in the world…Linton Kwesi Johnson, Nikki Giovanni, Stacey Ann Chin, Shane Koyczan (and in Australian Sean Whelan, TT.O, Josephine Rowe & Co) are as well published on page as they are stunning on stage. Sometimes I think the crux of this issue is that uncharismatic poets who are crap at reading their work cover this up by calling themselves ‘page poets’ and sniffing at those that can also read well out loud.

    • Thanks, Maxine. I’m not quite sure if you’re agreeing or disagreeing with me — the tenor of your comment indicates the latter, but as I’ve suggested in the review, I’m also opposed to people calling themselves things like ‘page poets’. In fact, I can’t think of anyone who would be particularly happy to be called a ‘page poet’ — although I could be mistaken — as the term does have a certain derogatory intent. As for uncharismatic poets who are, as you’ve put it, crap at reading out their work, i must say that at least in my case the blame rests with one’s genes, and not with an elitist snobbish dismissal of spoken word. And I do hope that being an introvert is not a crime.

      • Not really disagreeing – I guess the point I’m trying to make is that the ability to speak or perform poetry well is an extension of a poet.

        But then, no, I am disageeing, because I feel like you’re not claiming what you say in this review. You claim an opposition to the ‘page vs stage’ dichotomy and yet you support that dichotomy by talking about how a lot of spoken word appears ‘problematic to someone like you’ and in the title of your review, you say you are a slam-poetry-a-phobic found Luka’s being the current Aussie slam winner ‘alarming’. Clearly if you’d found he’d won a poetry prize such as the Josephine Ulrich, you’d not find it ‘alarming’. You go on call the work of the international poets at the event you attended (without exclusion)’obnoxiously loud and ostentatious’.

        I think reviews like this can damage discussion around this issue in general when what is veiled as an even-handed review, when disected, is actually a little backhanded: “Wow, Luka’s poetry is good, DESPITE the fact that he is a slam champion. All that other spoken word stuff is still cringeworthy though”…

  3. A good (positive) review – I will look up Lesson’s poetry on the strength of this recommendation.

    On the more general point of the post – slam versus page poetry: I’m thinking out loud here and happy to be challenged – I have been to some ponderous page-poet readings in the past, and to some hyper slam-poet events of late, and found the differences less a matter of preference and more a question of what’s going on with culture in general.

    Slam I took to be another instance of social media – phatic communication – and like theatre sports, which is more competition driven than theatre-drama driven, as slam poetry (at least those events I attended), is more competition driven and less about the poetry as such- I left with the idea that although both slam poetry and theatre sports can be fun, both are caught up more with gaming culture than the art forms which support them and which they purport to support, each being a performance culture built upon an ethos of individualism, ones that exploit traditional arts forms for their own ends (which is in contradiction to what I took to be the phatic nature of their form of communication), and that fail to develop or extend their art bases in new and interesting ways.

    And if this sounds confusing, that has been my state of mind after leaving the staging of both theatre-sports and slam poetry. Perhaps I need to see Luka Lesson and his ilk performing live to revise my ideas on slam?

    • You are plagiarising the comment by anony… oh.

      Anyway, it’s not as if slam is the first spoken poetry competition or even the first live poetry competition. You could if you like trace its history as a concept back to the time of Robert Burns… and before that to Chaucer.

      Don’t believe me? I give you James Hogg’s The Queen’s Wake, a poetry book written around the concept of a competition of bards before Mary, Queen of Scots. And, before that, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is organised around a similar concept – pilgrims to Canterbury agreeing to a storytelling competition to while their time away during the walk.

      I am ambivalent about slam – have been to some that I like, others that I disliked, and don’t feel at all confident that it’s going to last for another few decades – but one thing I do like about it is the competitive aspect. It’s a wonderful way of getting poets to write better, be critical of their own writing, and to attempt to communicate directly with an audience who may not have read a word of poetry in their lives.

      • Interesting point, Tim. But I must say that writing competitively has never worked for me — which could be one reason I may not be writing as well as I should be, if my critics are right — but I suspect other ideas (say, writing to change the world, delusional and megalomaniacal as it may sound to some) may prove more artistically inspiring and productive. Or perhaps I just don’t like losing.

    • Thanks, Dennis. I pretty much agree with everything you’ve said. But — for the sake of being the Devil’s advocate — I think more traditional, print-based poetry has also assumed a competitive, game culture ehtos under late capitalism. Poets, as far as I’ve observed, can compete, rather gracelessly at times, over getting published in journals, by prestigious presses, getting grants, winning literary awards, etc. Perhaps slam poetry reveals the Real of the contemporary poetry culture.

      • A point well made re print poetry – which eluded me – and without wishing to sound righteous – the whole palm, oak, bays thing is something I’ve mostly avoided.

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