Please Resist Me
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:
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
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.