The recent revival of poetry’s popularity in Australia has been a joy to observe and has a lot to do with grassroots support and independently organised events. For a long time, I have envisioned an Australian culture that normalises and fosters creativity and intelligence, where a love of words and poetry is part of daily life. Small but important steps are being made in that direction and with continued support, this shift in the cultural landscape is possible.
As we combat what Chimamanda Adichie would label ‘the danger of the single story’ and wade through a quagmire of mass media, jingoism, pop culture and apathy, encouraging young people to value their thoughts and take charge of their voices is more essential than ever.
I grew up in Queanbeyan, New South Wales, a town whose most famous products are rugby players. When I was a child, my father introduced me to a famous Indonesian poet, WS Rendra, and said something to the effect of: ‘See this man? When he performs poetry, he lives it, he uses his whole body, he performs it in football stadiums. Poetry doesn’t have to be dusty or boring. It can be exciting and important.’ When he told me that, a lightbulb went off. I was impressed by the idea of living, breathing poetry capable of moving large numbers of people, and equally frustrated that I saw no equivalent in Australia. Tackles and tries were valued, but words and creativity were not.
I believe this has been changing, as poetry slams and spoken word poetry provide an access point for people who might otherwise not partake in poetry. Young people are now getting more opportunities to tell their stories, through shows, self-publishing, blogs, zines etc. One of the perks of my job is being able to work with young people. When I go into youth centres or schools to run workshops, I have seen up close how joyful and liberating it can be for people who feel marginalised by white Australia, struggling with their sexuality or simply too scared to speak up to realise that they too have a voice and that their voice is valuable.
In recent years I have observed the slam poetry and spoken word scene go from strength to strength. Events such as Slamalamadingdong! and shows run by the Centre for Poetics and Justice in Melbourne are crucial in nurturing talent, as well as providing a support network and stage for people to express themselves. The growth of the scene has also allowed certain people such as myself, Luka Lesson, Candy Royalle, Ghostboy and Emilie Zoey Baker (to name a few) to make a living from poetry.
Of course, not everyone aspires to be a touring, professional poet, so the issue here is twofold: how to foster a culture where poetry is more valued and how to facilitate a scene where people can make a living from poetry. This is where you come in – the readers, teachers, audience members, volunteers, friends, listeners. Keep attending poetry slams/readings, keep subscribing to blogs and independent magazines like Overland, keep buying books and zines and CDs, keep connecting with fellow word lovers online or at shows. All of these platforms provide an outlet for people, voices and stories that might otherwise go unheard, and the sum total is a vibrant, expressive scene.
And to the scribblers – keep writing. We need you now more than ever.